HMAS Melbourne (R21)
The Australian aircraft carrier HMAS "Melbourne" (R21) was the
lead shipof the Royal Navy's "Majestic" class of light aircraft carriers. Operating from 1955 until 1982, she was the third and final conventional aircraft carrierref|def| [I] to serve in the Royal Australian Navy(RAN). "Melbourne" also served as the RAN flagship, and was the only British Commonwealthnaval vessel to sink (by collision) two friendly warships in peacetime.
Her keel was laid down in April 1943, and she was launched as HMS "Majestic" (R77) in February 1945. At the end of
World War II, work on the ship was suspended until she was purchased by the Royal Australian Navy in 1947. At the time of purchase, it was decided to incorporate new aircraft carrier technologies into the design, making "Melbourne" the third ship to be constructed with an angled flight deck. Delays in construction and integrating the enhancements meant that the carrier was not commissioned until 1955.
"Melbourne" never fired a shot in anger during her career, having only peripheral, non-combat roles in the Indonesia–Malaysia confrontation and the
Vietnam War. However, she was involved in two major collisions with allied vessels. On the evening of 10 February 1964, "Melbourne" collided with and sank HMAS "Voyager" when the "Daring" class destroyer altered course across her bow. Eighty-two of "Voyager"’s crew were killed, and two Royal Commissions were held to investigate the incident. The second collision occurred in the early morning of 3 June 1969, when "Melbourne" collided with and sank the "Allen M. Sumner" class destroyer USS "Frank E. Evans" in similar circumstances. Seventy-four United States Navy (USN) personnel died, and a joint USN–RAN Board of Inquiry was held. These incidents, along with several minor collisions, shipboard accidents, and aircraft losses, led to the reputation that "Melbourne" was jinxed.
"Melbourne" was paid off from RAN service in 1982. A proposal to convert her for use as a floating casino failed, and a 1984 sale was cancelled, before she was sold in 1985 and towed to China for scrapping. The scrapping was delayed as "Melbourne" was studied by the
People's Liberation Army Navy(PLAN) as part of a secret project to develop a Chinese aircraft carrier and used to train PLAN aviators in carrier flight operations.
Construction and acquisition
"Melbourne" was constructed by
Vickers-Armstrongsat their Naval Construction Yard in Barrow-in-Furness, England.Hobbs, p. 5.] The ship was laid down as HMS "Majestic" on 15 April 1943, and was launched on 28 February 1945 by Lady Anderson, the wife of the British Chancellor of the Exchequer, Sir John Anderson. Following the end of nowrap| World War II, the Admiraltyordered the suspension of many British shipbuilding projects, including the fitting out of "Majestic" and her five sister ships. Construction resumed in 1946, and major modifications to the design were incorporated.
A review by the Australian Government's Defence Committee held after nowrap|World War II recommended that the post-war forces of the RAN be structured around a Task Force incorporating multiple aircraft carriers. [Donohue, p. 33.] Initial plans were for three carriers, with two active and a third in reserve, although funding cuts led to the purchase of only two carriers in June 1947: "Majestic" and sister ship HMS "Terrible", for the combined cost of AU£2.75 million, plus stores, fuel, and ammunition. [Donohue, pp. 38, 45–47.] As "Terrible" was the closer of the two ships to completion, construction was finished without modification, and she was commissioned into the RAN on 16 December 1948 as HMAS "Sydney". Work progressed on "Majestic" at a slower rate, as she was upgraded with the latest technology and equipment. The "Colossus" class carrier HMS "Vengeance" was loaned to the RAN from 13 November 1952 until 12 August 1955 to cover "Majestic"’s absence.Donohue, p. 94.]
Labour difficulties, late delivery of equipment, additional requirements for Australian operations, and the prioritisation of merchant shipping over naval construction delayed the completion of "Majestic". [Donohue, p. 149.] Stevens et al., p. 165.] Incorporation of the new systems and enhancements caused the cost of the RAN carrier acquisition program to increase to AU£8.3 million (an amount equivalent to approximately AU$113.6 million in 2007 termsref|CPI| [II] ). Construction and fitting out did not finish until October 1955. As the carrier neared completion, a commissioning crew was formed in Australia and first used to return "Vengeance" to the United Kingdom. ["HMAS (ex-HMS) Vengeance", Sea Power Centre.]
The completed carrier was commissioned into the RAN as HMAS "Majestic" on 26 October 1955.Cassells, p. 84.] Two days later, on 28 October, the ship was renamed "Melbourne" by Lady White, the wife of Sir Thomas White, the Australian High Commissioner to the United Kingdom, and recommissioned.Hall, pp. 72–73.]
As the lead ship of the "Majestic" class of light aircraft carriers, "Melbourne" was conceived as a modified version of the "Colossus" class carrier, incorporating improvements in flight deck design and habitability. "Majestic" and "Colossus" carriers were almost identical in hull design and both were considered subclasses of the '1942 design' light aircraft carrier program. [Hobbs, in Stevens & Reeve, p. 211.] These carriers were intended as 'disposable warships', to operate during World War II and be scrapped at the end of hostilities or within three years of entering service. [Hobbs, in Stevens & Reeve, p. 217.]
Modifications during construction
Following the recommencement of construction, a series of modifications were made to the ship, based on wartime experience and Britain's post-war carrier warfare technology and innovations.Hobbs, pp. 5–6.] These modifications included an angled flight deck,
steam catapult, and a mirror landing aid, making "Melbourne" the third aircraft carrier (following HMS "Ark Royal" and USS "Forrestal") to be constructed with these features, instead of having them added later.Hobbs, p. 6.]
The main modifications centred around the need to operate jet aircraft; larger and heavier than the carrier was designed for.Gillett, "HMAS Melbourne - 25 Years", pp. 13–15.] The flight deck was angled 5.5 degrees left of the carrier's centreline, to allow for the simultaneous launch and recovery of aircraft.Hall, p. 72.] Despite an increase to approximately one
acre(4,000 square metres, 4,800 square yards) in area, the deck was still significantly smaller than other Cold Warera carriers; S-2 Trackers, with their 22.12 metre (72 ft 7 in) wingspan, had less than a metre's clearance for their starboard wingtip when landing, and pilots from other navies would often refuse to land on it. [Hall, pp. 16, 72, 83.] Water rationing was required in the early years of the carrier's operation, as the ship's fresh water supply was insufficient to freely provide for the steam catapult, propulsion turbines, and crew. The flight deck, hangar deck, and aircraft lifts were strengthened, and reinforced arrestor cables were installed. [Donohue, p. 33.] Flight direction radar was included, making "Melbourne" the only military airfield in the Australasianregion at the time capable of operating aircraft at night and in poor weather. [Hall, pp. 72–73.]
Early in her career, "Melbourne" underwent a series of short annual refits, commencing in September and ending in January or February of the next year. [Gillett, "HMAS Melbourne - 25 Years", pp. 26, 28, 30, 33, 37, 39, 44, 48, 53, 84.] As time passed, the refits were either extended in length or replaced by major upgrades or overhauls.
"Melbourne"’s first major refit started in December 1967 and continued until February 1969, during which she was upgraded to operate
S-2 Trackerand A-4 Skyhawkaircraft. The modifications cost AU$8.5 million (approximately AU$79.6 million in 2007 terms), and included an overhaul of the hull and machinery, strengthening of the flight deck, improvements to the catapult and arrestor cables, modification of the aviation fuel systems and flight control arrangements, and upgrades of the navigational aids and radar.Hall, p. 174.] Coulthard-Clark, p. 61.] Air conditioning systems and a liquid oxygengeneration plant were also installed. "Melbourne" re-entered service at the conclusion of the refits on 14 February, and performed sea trials in Jervis Bay from 17 February until 5 May. This was the largest project undertaken by Garden Island Dockyard to that date.
The next major refit was required in 1971 for the scheduled rebuilding of the catapult, which was only possible after spare parts were scrounged from HMCS "Bonaventure" and USS "Coral Sea".Hall, p. 213.] The flight deck was again reinforced and strengthened, and attempts were made to increase the effectiveness of the air conditioning system installed in 1969. "Melbourne" had been designed to operate in North Atlantic and Arctic climates, and the original ventilation systems were inappropriate for her primary operating climate, the tropics.Hall, p. 16.] The 1969 and 1971 refits did improve conditions, although there was little scope for upgrade, and the system was still inadequate. Temperatures inside the ship continued to reach over 65 °C (149 °F), and on one occasion a hold reached 78 °C (172.4 °F). The refit took seven months to complete, and cost AU$2 million (approximately AU$17 million in 2007 terms).
More large-scale refits occurred throughout the rest of the 1970s. "Melbourne" was back in dock from November 1972 until August 1973, with further work done to her catapult. [Gillett, "HMAS Melbourne - 25 Years", p. 77.] The next major refit ran from April 1975 to June 1976, and was intended to increase the operational lifespan of the carrier to at least 1985. [ANAM, p. 235.] The refit was lengthened by
industrial actionat the dockyard. "Melbourne" underwent another refit from late 1978 until August 1979.Gillett, "HMAS Melbourne - 25 Years", pp. 89, 91.]
"Melbourne"’s next major refit was scheduled to begin in late 1981.ANAM, p. 251.] It was postponed in September until a decision was reached regarding the new carrier. The refit was cancelled in January 1982, after the announcement that the RAN would be acquiring HMS "Invincible".Wright, p. 168.]
"Melbourne" carried a defensive armament of anti-aircraft guns and an air group comprising both attack and anti-submarine aircraft. As the ship was never directly involved in a conflict, her weapons and embarked aircraft did not fire a shot in anger.Hall, p. 9.]
Weapons and systems
"Melbourne"’s initial armament included 25 40 mm Bofors anti-aircraft guns: six twin and thirteen single mountings.Gillett, "Australian and New Zealand Warships since 1946", p. 22.] The radar suite consisted of three Type 277Q height-finding sets, a Type 293Q surface search set, and a Type 978 navigational set.Bishop & Chant, p. 62.] Between entering service and 1959, four of the single Bofors were removed.
During the 1967–1969 refit, the number of Bofors was reduced to 12: four twin and four single mountings. The three 277Q radars were replaced with updated American and Dutch designs: a LW-02 air search set and a SPN-35 landing aid radar. A
TACANaerial and electronic countermeasurespods were also installed during this refit. The four Bofors twin mountings were removed in 1980.
"Melbourne" carried three Fleet Air Arm squadrons. Initially, she had up to twenty planes and two helicopters embarked at any time. The number of aircraft gradually increased until 1972, when the air group peaked at 27 aircraft. Approximately 350 Fleet Air Arm personnel were stationed aboard the carrier.
Initially, two types of fixed-wing aircraft were operated from "Melbourne". de Havilland Sea Venom fighter-bombers were flown by
805 Squadron RANand 808 Squadron RAN, while Fairey Gannetanti-submarine strike aircraft were operated by 816 Squadron RANand 817 Squadron RAN. At the time of their arrival, the Sea Venoms were the only radar equipped and all-weather combat aircraft in the Southern Hemisphere. At "Melbourne"’s commissioning, the standard air group consisted of eight Sea Venoms and two squadrons of six Gannets, with two Bristol Sycamoresearch-and-rescue helicopters added shortly after the carrier entered service.
These aircraft were due to become obsolete in the late 1950s, and the RAN considered purchasing modern aircraft of French or Italian design, which were smaller than British developments and better suited to light carrier operations. A second consideration was to replace "Melbourne" with a larger carrier. Instead of pursuing these alternatives, the Australian government announced in 1959 that "Melbourne" would be reconfigured to operate as a helicopter carrier after her planned 1963 refit.Stevens et al., p. 187.] The fixed-wing aircraft of the Fleet Air Arm were marked for replacement by 27
Westland Wessexanti-submarine helicopters.Stevens et al., p. 193.] A reduction of embarked numbers to four Sea Venoms and six Gannets, coupled with regular rotation and careful use of the aircraft, extended their service life until the mid-1960s. To maintain the size of the air group, up to ten Wessex helicopters were embarked at any given time. The decision to retire the fixed-wing component of the Fleet Air Arm was rescinded in 1963, and on 10 November 1964, a AU£212 million (approximately AU$2.4 billion in 2007 terms) increase in defence spending included the purchase of new aircraft for "Melbourne".Hobbs, p. 7.] Frame, "The Cruel Legacy", p. 88.]
The RAN planned to acquire 14 Grumman S-2E Tracker anti-submarine aircraft, and modernise "Melbourne" to operate the aircraft. The acquisition of 18 Douglas A-4 Skyhawk fighter-bombers was also suggested, but these were dropped from the initial plan. A separate proposal to order 10 A-4G Skyhawks, a variant of the Skyhawk designed specifically for the RAN and optimised for air defense, was approved in 1965.Stevens et al., pp. 193–194.] [Wynn, "Douglas A-4 Skyhawk Production History"] Both aircraft types entered RAN service in 1968, with the Trackers operated by
816 Squadron RANand 851 Squadron RAN, and the Skyhawks by 805 Squadron RANand 724 Squadron RAN.Stevens et al., p. 194.] The aircraft did not fly from "Melbourne" until the conclusion of her refit in 1969. In 1969, the RAN purchased another 10 A-4G Skyhawks, instead of the proposed seventh and eighth "Oberon" class submarines. "Melbourne" operated a standard air group of four Skyhawks, six Trackers, and ten Wessex helicopters until 1972, when the Wessexes were replaced with ten Westland Sea KingASW helicopters and the number of Skyhawks doubled. Although replaced by the Sea King, two or three Wessex helicopters remained onboard as search-and-rescue aircraft.
On 5 December 1976, a fire at the Naval Air Station HMAS "Albatross" destroyed or heavily damaged 12 of the Fleet Air Arm's 13 S-2E Trackers. The carrier was sent to the United States in 1977 to transport back 16 S-2G Tracker aircraft as replacements. [Gillett, "HMAS Melbourne - 25 Years", p. 83.]
Over the course of her career, over thirty aircraft were either lost or heavily damaged while operating from "Melbourne".Hall, pp. 218–219.] The majority of the aircraft ditched or crashed over the side, but some losses were due to catapult or arrestor cable failures. After "Melbourne" was decommissioned the Fleet Air Arm ceased fixed-wing combat aircraft operation in 1984, with the final Tracker flight saluting the decommissioned carrier.Lind, p. 302.]
"Melbourne" was the third and final conventional aircraft carrier to operate with the RAN. Following the first decommissioning of sister ship HMAS "Sydney" in 1958, "Melbourne" became the only aircraft carrier in Australian service.Lind, p. 247.] "Melbourne" was unavailable to provide air cover for the RAN for up to four months in every year; this time was required for refits, refuelling, crew leave, and non-carrier duties, such as the transportation of troops or aircraft. [ANAM, p. 221.] Although one of the largest ships to serve in the RAN, "Melbourne" was one of the smallest carriers to operate in the post-World War II period. [Frame, "No Pleasure Cruise", p. 261.] A decision was made in 1959 to restrict "Melbourne"’s role to helicopter operations only, but was reversed shortly before its planned 1963 implementation.
As well as an operational aircraft carrier, "Melbourne" was Flagship of the RAN. She received this role almost immediately following her 1956 arrival in Australia, and fulfilled it until she was decommissioned in 1982. [Hall, pp. 74–75.] During her service, the carrier was deployed overseas on 35 occasions, and visited over 22 countries. [Hobbs, p. 8.] "Melbourne" was the physical and psychological centrepiece of the RAN fleet, and after her decommissioning and lack of replacement, the RAN fell from its position as the most powerful Navy in the Pacific area to sixth most powerful. [Lind, p. 274.] Stevens et al., p. 250.]
As "Melbourne" was the only ship of her size (both in dimensions and crew complement) in the RAN, the carrier underwent a regular rotation of commanding officers in order to give them experience.Hall, p. 20.] Commanding officers were changed on a regular basis—on average every fifteen months, with few remaining on board for over two years. The majority of "Melbourne"’s commanders later reached
flag rank. The carrier was also called on to perform underway replenishments and command and control functions.
Following a working-up period in British waters, "Melbourne" departed Glasgow on 11 March 1956 on her
maiden voyageto Australia via the Suez Canal. Aboard were the 64 aircraft of RAN squadrons 808, 816 and 817, as well as the racing yacht "Samuel Pepys" (named after the English naval administrator), which was a gift to the RAN Sailing Association from the Royal Navy."HMAS Melbourne (II)", Sea Power Centre.] The ship visited Gibraltar, Naples, Malta, Port Said, Aden, and Colombo, before arriving in Fremantle on 24 April 1956.Gillett, "HMAS Melbourne - 25 Years", pp. 21–22.] "Melbourne" sailed east via the Great Australian Bight, meeting sister ship HMAS "Sydney" near Kangaroo Islanda week later.Hall, p. 73.] After visiting Melbourneand Jervis Bay, where the aircraft were offloaded and sent to Naval Air Station HMAS "Albatross", the carrier concluded her maiden voyage in Sydney on 10 May.Hall, p. 74.] The role of flagship was transferred from "Sydney" to "Melbourne" three days later. The carrier immediately underwent a two and a half month refit, allowing for the inspection of machinery and repair of defects detected during the maiden voyage. [ANAM, p. 128.] "Melbourne" spent from September to November in Southeast Asian waters, during which she participated in Exercise Albatross and received an official visit by Philippines president Ramon Magsaysay.Gillett, "HMAS Melbourne - 25 Years", p. 22.] On return to Australia in mid-November, the carrier visited Melbourne for the 1956 Olympics, where 200 of "Melbourne"’s crew were provided to work as signallers, event marshals, carpenters, and medical workers.Lind, p. 234.]
In February 1957, "Melbourne" was sent to the
Royal Hobart Regatta.Bastock, p. 309.] Following this, she travelled to New Zealand, where she participated in exercises with HMNZS "Royalist" and visited several New Zealand ports. The first of several annual three-month deployments to Southeast Asiaas part of the Far East Strategic Reservebegan in April, with "Melbourne" returning to Darwin at the end of June.Gillett, "HMAS Melbourne - 25 Years", p. 25.] [Frame, "No Pleasure Cruise", p. 215.] The carrier spent the rest of the year visiting Australian ports for open inspections by the public.Gillett, "HMAS Melbourne - 25 Years", p. 26.] During the visit to Port Adelaide, on 28 October 1957, "Melbourne" was slightly damaged when she was struck by MV "Straat Lanka"—the first of several minor collisions the carrier would experience throughout her career.Hall, p. 217.] Operations for the year concluded with participation in Exercise Astrolabe off Lord Howe Island, with ships from the RAN, Royal Navy, and Royal New Zealand Navy, before returning to Sydney on 13 December.
From February until July 1958, "Melbourne" was deployed on a convert|25000|nmi|km flag-showing cruise. During this cruise the carrier participated in four inter-fleet exercises and visited
Singapore, Hong Kong, the Philippines, Japan, Pearl Harborand Fiji.Gillett, "HMAS Melbourne - 25 Years", p. 27.] On return to Sydney, "Melbourne" entered a short refit, which concluded on 13 October and was immediately followed by a visit to Port Phillip, where the carrier was displayed to Australian Armyand Royal Australian Air Forceofficer cadets before the carrier returned to Sydney.
At the start of 1959, "Melbourne" spent four days in her namesake city, where she was used for the filming of "On The Beach", based on
Neville Shute's post-apocalyptic novel of the same name.Lind, p. 237.] After filming concluded, the carrier participated in a demonstration exercise off the coast of Sydney before embarking on a Far East Strategic Reservedeployment from March until May.Gillett, "HMAS Melbourne - 25 Years", p. 29.] The rest of the year was spent visiting Australian and New Zealand ports.
The following year, 1960, was a bad year for the carrier's air group, with four Sea Venoms and two Gannets damaged in incidents aboard "Melbourne" over the course of the year. [Lind, p. 239.] All four Sea Venom incidents occurred in March, with three attributed to aircrew error and one to brake failure.Gillett, "HMAS Melbourne - 25 Years", p. 35.] The year began with exercises en-route to Adelaide, followed by a visit to the Royal Hobart Regatta.Gillett, "HMAS Melbourne - 25 Years", p. 33.] The carrier's Strategic Reserve deployment ran from April to June, and was followed by manoeuvres along the east coast of Australia until September.
In the lead up to "Melbourne"’s 1961 deployment to the Strategic Reserve, the carrier visited
Bombay, Karachi, and Trincomalee.Bastock, p. 310.] Gillett, "HMAS Melbourne - 25 Years", p. 37.] It was the first time a flagship of the RAN had entered Indian waters. "Melbourne" returned to Australia in June, and on 15 June led several ships in a ceremonial entry to Sydney Harbour to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the RAN. In August, "Melbourne" was called upon to lead Exercise Tuckerbox, in the Coral Sea. Following the conclusion of Tuckerbox, the carrier visited several New Zealand ports before returning to Sydney for demonstration exercises and public relations activities.
In 1962, "Melbourne" began the year's activities at the Royal Hobart Regatta, before sailing to her Strategic Reserve deployment, by way of Adelaide and Fremantle.Gillett, "HMAS Melbourne - 25 Years", p. 39.] After Strategic Reserve duties were completed, the carrier visited
Japan, Guam, and Manus Islandbefore returning to Sydney in late July. In September, "Melbourne" reprised her role as the leader of Exercise Tuckerbox II. The 10,000th catapult launch from "Melbourne" occurred in late 1962. The carrier's annual refit began in Sydney on 1 October.
At the beginning of 1963, "Melbourne" again visited to the Royal Hobart Regatta, which was immediately followed by a deployment to the Strategic Reserve, including involvement in SEATO Exercise Sea Serpent. [Gillett, "HMAS Melbourne - 25 Years", p. 43.] The 20,000th landing on "Melbourne" was performed in April by a Gannet, and in September, "Melbourne" participated in Exercise Carbine near
Hervey Bay, Queensland. [Hall, p. 76.]
On 10 February 1964, "Melbourne" was performing trials in
Jervis Bayunder the command of Captain John Robertson, following the annual refit.Frame, "The Cruel Legacy", p. 8.] The "Daring" class destroyer HMAS "Voyager" was also present, undergoing her own trials following refit, under the command of Captain Duncan Stevens. The trials involved interactions between both ships, and when "Melbourne" performed night flying exercises that evening, "Voyager" acted as the carrier's plane guardescort. This required "Voyager" to maintain a position 20° off "Melbourne"’s port quarter at a distance from the carrier of nowrap|1,500 to 2,000 yards nowrap|(1,400 to 1,800 m).Frame, "The Cruel Legacy", p. 11.]
During the early part of the evening, "Voyager" had no difficulties maintaining her position during the manoeuvres both ships performed. Following a series of turns intended to reverse the courses of both ships beginning at 8:40 pm, "Voyager" ended up to starboard of "Melbourne". At 8:52 pm, "Voyager" was ordered to resume the plane guard station.Frame, "The Cruel Legacy", p. 12.] The procedure to accomplish this required "Voyager" to turn away from "Melbourne" in a large circle, cross the carrier's stern, then take position off "Melbourne"’s port side. Instead, "Voyager" first turned to starboard, away from "Melbourne", then turned to port without warning. It was initially assumed by "Melbourne"’s bridge crew that "Voyager" was conducting a series of tight turns in order to lose speed before swinging behind "Melbourne", but "Voyager" did not alter course again.Frame, "The Cruel Legacy", p. 13.]
At 8:55 pm, with "Voyager" still turning to port, "Melbourne"’s navigator ordered the carrier's engines to half astern speed, with Robertson ordering an increase to full astern a few seconds later. At the same time, Stevens, having just arrived on "Voyager"’s bridge, gave the order "Full ahead both engines. Hard-a starboard.", before instructing the destroyer's Quartermaster to announce that a collision was imminent. Both ships' measures were too late to avoid a collision; "Melbourne" hit "Voyager" at 8:56 pm. [Frame, "The Cruel Legacy", pp. 14–15.]
"Melbourne" impacted just aft of "Voyager"’s bridge structure, rolling the destroyer to starboard before cutting her in half.Frame, "The Cruel Legacy", p. 1.] "Voyager"’s forward boiler exploded, briefly setting fire to the bow of the carrier before it was extinguished by seawater. The destroyer's forward section sank quickly, due to the weight of the two 4.5 in (114.3 mm) gun turrets. [Frame, "The Cruel Legacy", p. 2.] The aft section did not begin sinking until half an hour after the collision, and did not completely submerge until just after midnight. [Frame, "The Cruel Legacy", pp. 3, 7.] Messages were sent to the Fleet Headquarters in Sydney immediately after the collision, although staff in Sydney initially underestimated the extent of the damage to "Voyager".Frame, "The Cruel Legacy", p. 5.] "Melbourne" launched her boats almost immediately after the collision to recover survivors, and the carrier's wardroom and C Hangar were prepared for casualties. [Frame, "The Cruel Legacy", p. 4.] At 9:58 pm, "Melbourne" was informed that search-and-rescue boats from HMAS "Creswell", helicopters from HMAS "Albatross" (Naval Air Station Nowra), and five "Ton" class minesweepers had been despatched to assist in the search. [Frame, "The Cruel Legacy", pp. 5–6.] All of the survivors were recovered within fifteen minutes of the collision, although the search continued until the next day. [Hall, p. 131.]
Of the 314 personnel aboard "Voyager" at the time of the collision, 14 officers, 67 sailors, and 1 civilian dockyard worker were killed, including Stevens and all but one of the bridge crew. "Melbourne" arrived in Sydney with the survivors on 14 February, and after spending time alongside at Garden Island, was moved to
Cockatoo Island Dockyardon 25 March, where a 40 ton prefabricated bow was fitted.Bastock, p. 311.]
Royal Commissioninto the events of the collision was held in 1964, and found that while "Voyager" was primarily at fault for neglecting to maintain an effective lookout and awareness of the larger ship's location, "Melbourne"’s bridge crew was also at fault, for failing to alert "Voyager" and not taking measures to avoid the collision. [Frame, "The Cruel Legacy", pp. 27, 67–69.] Robertson was posted to HMAS "Watson", a move that he and the Australian media saw as tantamount to a demotion; Robertson resigned rather than accept the posting. [Frame, "The Cruel Legacy", pp. 78–79, 82.] The Royal Commission and its aftermath were poorly handled, and following pressure from the public, media, and politicians, combined with revelations by "Voyager"’s former executive officer that Stevens may have been unfit for command, a second Royal Commission was opened in 1967. [Frame, "The Cruel Legacy", pp. 88, 114–115.; Stevens et al., p 202.] This is the only time in Australian history two Royal Commissions have been held for a single incident. [Frame, "The Cruel Legacy", p. 117.] The second commission found that Stevens was medically unfit for command and that some of the findings of the first Royal Commission were therefore based on incorrect assumptions. [Frame, "The Cruel Legacy", pp. 159–160.] Robertson and the other officers of "Melbourne" were absolved of blame for the incident. [Frame, "The Cruel Legacy", p. 160.]
"Melbourne" spent ten weeks at
Cockatoo Island Dockyard, having her new bow fitted. [Hall, p. 132.] Following the repairs, "Melbourne" was involved in Strategic Reserve deployments and exercises in Southeast Asia from June until September 1964. During this deployment, the carrier visited Subic Bay, where the RAN had the opportunity to perform flight deck trials with S-2 Trackeranti-submarine aircraft and A-4 Skyhawkattack fighters. The success of the trials, coupled with the revelation that "Melbourne" was able to operate both aircraft with only minor modification to the carrier, led the Australian Government to approve the purchase of the aircraft.
From March 1965 until mid-1967, "Melbourne" underwent a regular pattern of deployments to Southeast Asia, exercises, and flag-showing visits to nations in the
Asia-Pacificregion. Several of the Southeast Asian deployments were related to the Indonesia–Malaysia confrontation, and involved participation in show of forceexercises off the coast of Malaysia. [Stevens et al., p. 198.] Twice in 1965 and twice again in 1966, "Melbourne" escorted HMAS "Sydney", which had been recommissioned as a fast troop transport, during parts of the latter's journey to and from South Vietnam. [Gillett, "HMAS Melbourne - 25 Years", pp. 47, 51.]
Despite the carrier being the centrepiece of several plans to involve Australian forces in the
Vietnam War, the four escort runs were the extent of "Melbourne"’s participation in the conflict. [Stevens et al., pp. 204, 208.] In March 1966, Rear Admiral Victor Smith, the Flag Officer Commanding Australian Fleet, proposed deploying the carrier in her anti-submarine role to Yankee Stationoff North Vietnam, as the United States Seventh Fleetwas experiencing difficulty in maintaining ASW patrols of the operating area. This did not go ahead, as "Melbourne" could only be kept on station off North Vietnam for a single 10 day period, which was much shorter than US carriers' standard 31-day deployments and 'filling a gap' in this way had few attractions for the RAN.Grey, p. 86.] In April 1967, the Seventh Fleet expressed some interest in "Melbourne" joining its ASW force at Yankee Station. Preliminary talks were held with the RAN, but nothing came of this.Grey, p. 88.]
In September 1967, "Melbourne" travelled to the United States to collect new aircraft: 14 Trackers and 10 Skyhawks. In order to operate the new aircraft, the carrier received a major refit on her return to Sydney, which began in December 1967. In May 1967, it was proposed that while "Melbourne" was out of service, six A-4 Skyhawk pilots and several maintenance personnel could be attached to a
United States Marine CorpsSkyhawk squadron in South Vietnam. Australian aircraft were not to be provided, as the A-4G Skyhawks used by the RAN were optimised for air defence, not the fighter-bomber role performed by the Marines, and would have suffered heavy losses from North Vietnam's heavy anti-aircraft defences. This deployment did not occur; the Skyhawk pilot training program was experiencing delays, and sending qualified pilots overseas would have caused further holdups with the program, while also disrupting "Melbourne"’s post-refit reactivation.Grey, pp. 88–92.]
"Melbourne" re-entered service at the conclusion of the refit on 14 February 1969. She performed sea trials in Jervis Bay from 17 February until 5 May, then sailed for
Subic Bay, Philippines, to participate in SEATO Exercise Sea Spirit.Gillett, p. 59.] Frame, "Pacific Partners", p. 126.]
"Frank E. Evans" collision
"Melbourne"’s commanding officer during the SEATO exercise was Captain John Phillip Stevenson. Rear Admiral John Crabb, the Flag Officer Commanding Australian Fleet, was also embarked on the carrier. During Sea Spirit, "Melbourne" was assigned five escorts: US Ships "Everett F. Larson", "Frank E. Evans", and "James E. Kyes",ref|keyes| [II] HMNZS "Blackpool", and HMS "Cleopatra". Stevenson held a dinner for the five escort captains at the start of the exercise, during which he recounted the events of the "Melbourne"–"Voyager" collision, emphasised the need for caution when operating near the carrier, and provided written instructions on how to avoid such a situation developing again.Hall, p. 175.] Additionally, during the lead-up to the exercise, Admiral Crabb had strongly warned that all repositioning manoeuvres performed by the escorts had to commence with a turn away from "Melbourne". Despite these warnings, a near-miss occurred in the early hours of 31 May when USS "Larson" turned towards the carrier after being ordered to the
plane guardstation.Hall, p. 176.] Subsequent action narrowly prevented a collision. The escorts were again warned about the dangers of operating near the carrier and informed of Stevenson's expectations, while the minimum distance between carrier and escorts was increased from nowrap|2,000 to 3,000 yards nowrap|(1,800 to 2,700 metres).
On the night of 2–3 June, "Melbourne" and her escorts were involved in anti-submarine training exercises in the
South China Sea.Hills, "In The Wake".] In preparation for launching a Tracker, Stevenson ordered "Evans" to the plane guard station, reminded the destroyer of "Melbourne"’s course, and instructed the carrier's navigational lights to be brought to full brilliance.Smith & Lancaster, p. 1.] "Evans" had performed the manoeuvre four times over the course of the night. "Evans" was positioned on "Melbourne"’s port bow, but began the manoeuvre by turning starboard, towards the carrier. A radio message was sent from "Melbourne" to "Evans"’ bridge and Combat Information Centre, warning the destroyer that she was on a collision course, which "Evans" acknowledged.Hall, p. 178.] Seeing the destroyer take no action and on a course to place herself under "Melbourne"’s bow, Stevenson ordered the carrier hard to port, signalling the turn by both radio and siren blasts. At approximately the same time, "Evans" turned hard to starboard to avoid the approaching carrier.Sherbo, "Death of a Destroyer".] It is uncertain which ship began to manoeuvre first, but each ship's bridge crew claimed that they were informed of the other ship's turn after they commenced their own. After having narrowly passed in front of "Melbourne", the turns quickly placed "Evans" back in the carrier's path. "Melbourne" hit "Evans" amidships at 3:15 am, cutting the destroyer in two.Frame, "Pacific Partners", p. 127.]
Seventy-four of the 273 crew from "Evans" were killed in the collision, with the majority of these believed to have been asleep or trapped inside the bow section, which sank within minutes. "Melbourne" deployed her boats, liferafts, and lifebuoys, before carefully manoeuvring alongside the stern section of "Evans", where both ships' crews used mooring lines to lash the ships together. [Hall, pp. 178, 184.] Other members of "Melbourne"’s crew dived into the water to rescue overboard survivors close to the carrier, while the carrier's boats and helicopters collected those farther out. [Hall, pp. 183–184.] All of the survivors were located within 12 minutes of the collision and rescued before half an hour had passed, although the search continued for fifteen more hours. [Hall, pp. 182, 184.] After "Evans"’ stern was evacuated, it was cast off while the carrier moved away to avoid damage.Hall, p. 185.] The stern failed to sink, and was recovered, stripped of parts, and later sunk for target practice. Following the collision, "Melbourne" travelled to Singapore for temporary repairs to her bow, arriving on 6 June.Bastock, p. 312.] "Melbourne" departed Singapore on 27 June and arrived in Sydney on 9 July, where the carrier spent until November docked at
Cockatoo Island Dockyardwhile she underwent repairs and installation of the new bow.
A Joint RAN-USN
Board of Inquirywas established to investigate the incident, and was in session over June and July 1969.The Board found "Evans" partially at fault for the collision, but also faulted "Melbourne" for not taking evasive action sooner, even though international sea regulations dictated that in the leadup to a collision, the larger ship was required to maintain course and speed. [Hall, p. 204.] It was learned during the inquiry that "Evans"’ commanding officer was asleep in his quarters at the time of the incident, and command of the vessel was held by Lieutenants Ronald Ramsey and James Hopson; the former had failed the qualification exam to stand watch, while the latter was at sea for the first time.Hall, p. 200.] Subsequent to the inquiry, the three USN officers and Stevenson were court-martialled on charges of negligence, with the three USN officers found guilty and Stevenson 'Honourably Acquitted'.Frame, "Pacific Partners", p. 129.] Despite the findings, Stevenson's next posting was as a minor flag officer's chief of staff, seen by him as a demotion in all but name. In a repeat of the aftermath of the "Voyager" collision, "Melbourne"’s captain resigned amid accusations of scapegoating.Frame, "Pacific Partners", pp. 130–131.]
During the 1970s and early 1980s, replacing parts became an increasing problem.Hall, p. 12.] Components were failing due to wear and age, but the companies responsible for manufacturing the parts had gone out of business during the previous twenty years, sometimes immediately after World War II ended. The carrier's engineers often resorted to making replacements from scratch.
In 1970, "Melbourne" participated in three major inter-navy exercises: Sea Rover with SEATO forces in the South China Sea, Bersatu Padu with British Commonwealth forces off Malaysia, and Swan Lake with the Royal Navy and Royal New Zealand Navy off Western Australia. [Gillett, "HMAS Melbourne - 25 Years", p. 61.] During this year, the carrier also visited Japan to participate in
Expo '70, and was hit by Manly ferry" South Steyne" while alongside at Garden Island, causing minor damage to both vessels.