Some time in 2018, the People's Republic of China is expected to launch an indigenously-built conventionally-powered aircraft carrier. She likely owes much of her pedigree to a most unlikely source, the World War II Royal Navy. How so? The story is but a part of the interesting, sad, and some might say jinxed career of the last of Australia's aircraft carriers, HMAS Melbourne.
HMAS Melbourne was originally laid down in April of 1943 as HMS Majestic, the namesake of a six-ship class of British light fleet carriers, which was a modified design of the 16-ship Colossus class. Slightly larger and heavier initially than the Colossus design, HMS Majestic was still incomplete when the Second World War ended in August of 1945. A prostrate and bankrupt Great Britain obviously could not afford to continue building capital ships for which there was suddenly little or no need, so Majestic and her sisters (along with hundreds of other warships in various stages of construction) were laid up incomplete.
At 690 feet in length and around 18,000 tons loaded, HMS Majestic's original design put her somewhere between the US Essex-class fleet carriers (880-feet, 27,000 tons), and the Independence-class light carriers (622 feet, 12,800 tons) for both size and capability. The aircraft complement was about fifty. Speed, however, was just 25 knots, significantly slower than the US "fast carriers".
Late in the war, and in the immediate post-war period, the size and weight of carrier aircraft grew significantly. As a result, the design for Majestic and her sisters underwent many revisions. A reinforced flight deck, angled to allow for simultaneous launch and recovery operations, a steam catapult, and updated radar and electronics all made their way into completion plans. As with many Royal Navy ships considered surplus, the Majestics (and Colossus class) were offered up for sale (along with dozens of pre-war and wartime cruisers, destroyers, corvettes, and auxiliaries). Construction would be accelerated once sale was likely, and Majestic herself, bought by Australia as HMAS Melbourne , was finally completed in 1955. She followed her near-sister HMAS Sydney into service, the latter commissioned in 1948. By this time, weight had crept up to almost 22,000 tons, and increased draft decreased Melbourne's top speed to 24 knots.
HMAS Melbourne would serve the Australian Navy until 1982, when she was decommissioned and laid up. During that service, Melbourne was sometimes thought to be a jinxed ship. That reputation grew from two tragic incidents. Incredibly, the two incidents were eerily similar.
The first occurred on 10 February 1964, as Melbourne was shaking down near Jervis Bay after a long refit. Accompanying her was the destroyer HMAS Voyager, a modern post-war ship also coming out of refit. While positioned as plane guard for Melbourne, Voyager and the rest of the formation reversed course, a maneuver which put the smaller ship forward and to starboard of Melbourne. The details of the incident are better chronicled elsewhere, but Voyager, in maneuvering to return to plane guard station (astern and to starboard of the carrier), inexplicably turned not to starboard but to port, taking her across Melbourne's bow. The bigger ship sliced through Voyager, and 82 sailors were killed or drowned.
Almost unbelievably, five years later, while operating with the US Navy in the South China Sea, Melbourne would again collide with a plane-guard destroyer, with similar results. On the night of 3 June 1969, USS Frank E. Evans (DD-754), a Sumner-class destroyer, was on plane guard station, maneuvering with ordered course and speed changes which her captain believed were being mirrored by the rest of the formation. Again, the details have been well-chronicled. But a mix-up in code books, hence a mix-up in signaled course and speed, eventually put Evans in a position to cross Melbourne's bow. Once again, the stem of the Australian carrier sliced through a destroyer, cutting Evans in half, killing 74 US sailors. The stern of the destroyer somehow stayed afloat, and was towed into port.
Melbourne, despite her reputation as a jinxed ship, continued to serve, and was modernized extensively in 1971, which gave her the capability to handle A-4 Skyhawk and other modern carrier aircraft. She underwent refit again in the late 1970s, and was due for another in 1981, which was subsequently canceled as Melbourne was targeted for replacement.
She participated in a number of SEATO and NATO and joint exercises until, in 1982, the elderly ship was finally decommissioned. Parts availability was very problematic, and cost of maintenance was becoming prohibitive. Laid up in a 180-day status for reactivation as a helicopter carrier, Melbourne was eventually struck in 1984. She was sold for scrapping, finally (after a failed deal with a company to turn her into a casino), to a Chinese company in 1985, and subsequently towed to Guangzhou.
The Chinese, however, did not put ex-Melbourne to the cutting torch for many years. Instead, naval engineers and other PLA Navy officials closely examined everything about the hulk. Her design, construction, welding, catapult, metallurgy, and engineering layout were all extensively studied. Never had the Chinese had an aircraft carrier in their possession, not even a 43-year old one. They did not waste the opportunity. The intelligence community believes they compared their notes on ex-Melbourne with their thorough examination and refit of Liaoning, the former Soviet carrier they commissioned in 2012 after extensive renovation and modernization. Much, it is assumed, of what they learned from the two ships has guided their efforts in constructing their first Chinese-built aircraft carrier. There is even speculation that the flight deck of ex-Melbourne was removed and installed ashore to train Chinese naval aviators. (I wonder if pissing and moaning about crew rest sounds the same in Mandarin?)
Interestingly, one of Melbourne's sisters served even longer than she. HMS Hercules was completed and sold to India, where she was commissioned as INS Vikrant. She lasted in service until 1997, before being a museum ship until 2012. Sadly, she was scrapped in 2014. URR here, by the way.