It is not often in the world of warships that a ship completes close to six decades in commission. The de-commissioning of INS Viraat on March 6 will bring to an end the saga of one of the most celebrated warships of our times.
The keel of the ship was laid in 1944, as World War II raged towards its bloody climax. However, the end of the war led to a halt in her construction, and it was only on February 16, 1953 that the Hermes was launched by Lady Clementine, wife of then British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. After completing trials, she was commissioned into the Royal Navy on November 18, 1959.
On commissioning, she had many firsts to her credit. She was the first ship with remote controls for the main machinery, the first ship where bunks were provided to each crew member, as against hammocks on earlier ships and among the first ships which was fully air-conditioned.
On commissioning, Hermes displaced 27,800 tonnes with a capacity to carry 20 fighter aircraft and eight helicopters, and a complement of 2,100 men. The versatility of the ship’s design is evident from the fact that she underwent four role changes in her life. Between 1959 and 1970, Hermes served as a strike carrier; in 1970, she was converted into a commando carrier; in 1976, into an anti-submarine warfare carrier; and, in 1980 into a vertical/short take-off and landing carrier.
The last modification involved extensive refurbishment, including the famous “nose job” incorporating a 12 degree ski jump instead of the earlier steam catapult. This role change was propitious, for in 1982 Hermes was pressed action in the Falklands War in the South Atlantic and played a critical role in the war.
On her return, she was placed in operational reserve in 1984 and de-commissioning looked inevitable. However, by then the Indian Navy was searching for a replacement to the ageing carrier Vikrant. With Hermes being available for sale, it seemed a match made in heaven. After numerous rounds of negotiations, assessments and visits, the Indian government announced on April 24, 1986 that it had decided to acquire HMS Hermes, which was to be renamed INS Viraat.
After refurbishment, Viraat was commissioned on May 12, 1987 at Naval Base, Portsmouth, under the command of Captain (later VAdm) Vinod Pasricha. The ship’s transition to the Indian Navy was seamless, one in which, as time would tell, not just equipment, systems and procedures were exchanged but the enduring spirit of “Happy Hermes”, as she was known, was translated into that of a “Vibrant Viraat”.
In the three decades with the Indian Navy, Viraat faithfully discharged her role, taking part in several major operations and exercises such as Operation Pawan and Parakram. Along with her illustrious processor, Viraat served as a cradle for generations of naval aviators. Her contribution in building the maritime military strength of India is evident from the smooth induction of INS Vikramaditya into the Indian Navy.
As she lies alongside quiescent today, much like a beached grey whale, probably remembering the days when she felt the rush of waves beneath her keel and the roar of jets on her flight deck, posterity will remember the grand old lady who could be trusted to meet every commitment, and who inspired respect and loyalty among all those who served on board.
It is said that old warships never die, they are resurrected in another avatar. So maybe it for Viraat.
Vice Admiral AK Chawla was former commanding officer of Viraat
The views expressed are personal