RogerBW's Blog

HMAS Melbourne 20 June 2014

HMAS Melbourne was the Royal Australian Navy's last aircraft carrier (to date).

She was built during the Second World War as HMS Majestic, lead ship of her class, but not completed before the war's end. Although she had already been launched, fitting-out work was stopped, until the Australians decided to buy two carriers in 1947; the other, HMS Terrible, was completed without modification and sent out to Australia immediately as HMAS Sydney, while Majestic was given a variety of technical improvements (a strengthened and angled flight deck, mirror landing aid, steam catapult, stronger aircraft lifts and arrestor cables, and flight direction radar). This, late delivery of equipment, labour difficulties, and new requirements by the Australians meant she was not delivered until 1955.

The basic 1942 Design Light Fleet Carrier was built round four Admiralty three-drum boilers driving two Parsons single-reduction geared turbine sets and two screws (perversely, three-blade to port and four-blade to starboard). The class was also designed with a service life of three years or so, not unreasonable during wartime, and many corners were cut to get them up and running quickly.

The air group was initially 22 planes and two helicopters, gradually adding more when space could be found. Initially she operated Sea Venoms and Fairey Gannets, later Skyhawks and S-2 Trackers.

Melbourne was typically unable to provide air cover for about four months in a year during refits, refuelling, crew leave and transport duties. While she was the largest ship ever operated by the RAN, she was also one of the smallest carriers of the Cold War.

As essentially a late Second World War design, Melbourne had some difficulty operating the new fast jets. An S-2 Tracker, available after the 1967 refit, would only have a metre's clearance off the starboard wingtip when landing; foreign pilots often refused to attempt it. The fresh water supply was insufficient for turbines, catapults and crew, and water rationing was often needed in the early years. More than thirty aircraft were lost during her career, most of them ditched or over the side, but some were because of catapult or arrestor cable failures.

Showing another design feature inherited from the war years, Melbourne began her career with heavy defensive armament, twenty-five 40mm Bofors cannon in single and twin mounts. Four of the thirteen single mounts were removed even before commissioning. The 1967 refit removed nine more guns, leaving four twins and four singles, and the four twins were removed in 1980. Missiles were never fitted.

Melbourne never saw action, though she was involved in show-of-force operations off the coast of Malaysia during the Indonesia-Malaysia confrontation in the mid 1960s; she also escorted HMAS Sydney, by then recommissioned as a troop transport, for short periods during the latter's voyages to Vietnam. Her air wing was specialised for anti-submarine warfare, and there was some thought of sending her to Yankee Station to relieve the carriers of the US Seventh Fleet off Vietnam, but since she could only deploy for ten or so days at a time, nothing came of it.

Melbourne is unfortunately known for two significant collisions in which she was involved. In 1964, during trials in Jervis Bay, she ran down the Daring-class destroyer HMAS Voyager, which was acting as plane guard, after Voyager made manœuvreing errors while resuming station; Voyager was cut in half and sunk, with 82 killed. Blame was initially split between the two captains, but an unprecedented second Royal Commission in 1967 found Voyager's captain had been medically unfit for command. Melbourne's captain had already resigned rather than take a demotion to a shore post.

In 1969, during the SEATO Sea Spirit exercise, the USN Allen M. Sumner-class destroyer Frank E. Evans was acting as plane guard, and apparently turned the wrong way while taking up station, in a remarkably similar situation to the Voyager collision. Again, the destroyer was cut in two, the bow section sinking immediately; this time the stern stayed afloat until it was eventually salvaged, stripped, and used for target practice. 74 sailors died. A joint RAN-USN Board of Inquiry did its best to assign blame to Melbourne for following the rules of the sea and (as the larger ship) maintaining course and speed during the period when collision could still have been avoided, but it turned out that Evans' commanding officer was asleep at the time, with the watch being stood by one Lieutenant who'd recently failed the watchstander's exam and another who was at sea for the first time. Melbourne's captain, as in 1964, was transferred to a minor shore post, and resigned rather than take the effective demotion. It's not entirely surprising that rumours of a jinx got started.

Melbourne was always an expensive ship to run, particularly as many of the makers of her equipment went out of business meaning that parts had to be fabricated from scratch, and replacement was being considered as early as 1956; however, any new ship would have to be substantially larger, and while the USA offered an Essex-class carrier and the British offered HMS Hermes effectively free of charge, it was felt that the increased manpower demands and running costs of a larger ship would still be excessive. Her final replacement was to be HMS Invincible, but the Falklands War delayed matters and eventually the Australians decided to discontinue carrier aviation.

Melbourne was sold for scrap in 1985, but before being cut up was studied by Chinese naval architects and engineers; the flight deck was removed and may even have been used for Chinese naval flight training.

  1. Posted by Owen Smith at 08:20am on 20 June 2014

    Is there any reason known for the three and four bladed props?

  2. Posted by RogerBW at 08:24am on 20 June 2014

    I'm no sort of naval architect. I know they were part of the design, and I can guess at considerations of torque and uneven load, but I really don't know.

  3. Posted by John Dallman at 07:08pm on 21 June 2014

    That was an interesting little research exercise. I think I know why they had the mismatched propellers, but I can't prove it.

    The original design concept, according to Friedman's British Carrier Aviation, was for a hull built to merchant ship standards with half the engines of a Bellerophon-class cruiser. While the design was tinkered with a lot on the aircraft side, the engines seem to have ben left alone.

    Bellerophon was a four-shaft ship. It was common practice in those for the inboard and outboard turbines on a side to be parts of a single system: one high-pressure, one low-pressure. That meant that the shafts didn't have to deliver the same power, and the power on a shaft is fairly directly related to propeller blade area. Quite a few four-shaft battleships and cruisers had different propellers on their inner and outer shafts.

    So it's plausible that Melbourne had differently powered shafts, and thus needed different propellers on them. The shafts aren't normally parallel, but toed out to thrust through the CoG of the ship, so that it remains controllable with a shaft out of action, so this would work.

    It gives the engineering officers something to complain about, but keeping a ship built for a three-year life, and thus without corrosion protection, running tends to involve a lot of complaining anyway.

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