HMS Hermes: The Royal Navy Aircraft Carrier Hero of the Falklands War

HMS Hermes Royal Navy
March 2, 2024 Topic: Security Region: Europe Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: Falklands WarHMS HermesRoyal NavyAircraft CarrierIndia

HMS Hermes: The Royal Navy Aircraft Carrier Hero of the Falklands War

The HMS Hermes, a Centaur-class aircraft carrier, served the Royal Navy from its completion in 1959 until it was decommissioned and sold to India, where it served as INS Viraat until 2017.

Summary: The HMS Hermes, a Centaur-class aircraft carrier, served the Royal Navy from its completion in 1959 until it was decommissioned and sold to India, where it served as INS Viraat until 2017. Renowned for its role as the flagship in the 1982 Falklands War, Hermes led the British fleet to victory. Initially designed during World War II and later modified for modern warfare, Hermes was equipped for Short Take-Off, Barrier Arrested Recovery operations, enabling it to deploy Sea Harrier fighters. It remained unscathed despite Argentina's claims of damaging Hermes during the Falklands War. After serving India, Viraat was dismantled in 2021.

The Transformation of HMS Hermes: A Centaur-Class Carrier's Tale

The HMS Hermes aircraft carrier served Britain’s Royal Navy for more than half a century. In fact, from its keel laying in 1944 to scrapping in 2021, the massive vessel stalked the seas for nearly eighty years. While the last ship of the Centaur-class deployed on numerous missions during her service life, she is best remembered for her role in the 1982 Falklands War.

The history of the Centaur ships:

As the Second World War was brewing, the UK desired additional carriers to supplement its Malta-class ships. Initially, eight Centaur-class carriers were planned. As the war progressed, however, only three were constructed. Hermes was originally designated as HMS Elephant but was renamed after one of her canceled sister-ships. As wartime carriers, each ship in this class was produced with expediency in order to fulfill the Royal Navy’s imminent needs. From the start, these light carriers were tailored for future larger aircraft and designed as more useful bases for modernization.

Following the war, the Centaur ships underwent an overhaul process in order to retain an edge over competitor vessels. A second catapult was incorporated, and the island was reinforced to receive new derrick masts and heavier radars for each ship. The originally intended radar suite was made up of an air warning Type 980 radar, two pairs of air control Type 277Q fire control radar, and a gunnery air search Type 293 radar.

Introducing HMS Hermes:

HMS Hermes was the final vessel completed in the class in 1959. She was laid down by Vickers-Armstrong at Barrow-in-Furness during the Second World War. When Hermes entered service, she was more heavily modified than her predecessors. Some analysts even suggest Hermes should be considered her own class. Some of these modifications include the incorporation of a massive Type 984 3D radar, a fully angled deck, and steam catapults. Up until the early 1970s, Hermes operated Blackburn Buccaneers and Sea Vixens. In the early 1980s, the carrier was again converted in order to counter the threat from Soviet submarines better.  She was modified as a Short Take-Off, Barrier Arrested Recovery carrier so she could operate the Sea Harrier fighters.

The flagship of the Falklands War:

During the 1982 Falklands War, Hermes represented the flagship of the British armada, where she led more than 100 vessels to the South Atlantic to reclaim the islands. Notably, Hermes was due to be decommissioned right before the war broke out. Hermes first sailed for the Falklands alongside an airgroup of twelve Sea Harrier FRS1 attack aircraft and eighteen Sea King helicopters. Over the next few weeks, this air group would expand to include sixteen Sea Harriers, ten Sea Kings, and ten Hawker Siddeley Harrier GR3s.

Recognizing the significance of the British aircraft carriers during the conflict, the Argentines prioritized trying to sink the massive ships. On May 31, 1982, Argentina claimed to have “put out of commission a British aircraft carrier” by striking it with bombs and an Exocet missile. According to a New York Times report published the same day, “The military command said in a communique that the aircraft carrier was attacked today by Argentine Super Etendard and Skyhawk fighters 90 miles east of the Falkland Islands. The communique said columns of smoke were rising from the crippled carrier. The British task force has two carriers, the Hermes and the Invincible. The communique did not say which of the two had been hit, but a spokesman for the military command said pilots suspected that it was the Invincible.” In reality, the Argentines could sink several escort ships but never actually damaged the Royal Navy’s HMS Invincible carrier.

Following her important stint in the Falklands War, Hermes returned home for a four-month-long overhaul. Once back in the sea, she participated in North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) exercises in the North Atlantic and the Mediterranean Sea. In 1983, the UK proposed selling Hermes to the Royal Australian Navy, which denied the proposal. The British carrier was ultimately reactivated and sold to India, renamed INS Viraat in 1987. Under its new name, Viraat became the flagship of the Indian Navy and participated in the blockade of Pakistani ports during the 1999 Kargil War, in addition to peacekeeping missions in Sri Lanka.

 In 2017, Viraat was decommissioned from the Indian Navy and is being dismantled in a ship breakers yard in Alang, India.  

About the Author: Maya Carlin

Maya Carlin, National Security Writer with The National Interest, is an analyst with the Center for Security Policy and a former Anna Sobol Levy Fellow at IDC Herzliya in Israel. She has by-lines in many publications, including The National Interest, Jerusalem Post, and Times of Israel. You can follow her on Twitter: @MayaCarlin