The Centaur-class aircraft carrier, laid down in 1944, but not commissioned until 1959, had a distinguished 25 years of service with the British Royal Navy, culminating in action during the Falklands War of 1982. Following decommissioning, it was then sold to the Indian Navy, renamed the INS Viraat, and served as the cornerstone of the fleet for the next twenty-five years.
Today it sits on a sandbank 1,000m off the coast of Bhavnagar and the Alang ship-breaking yard tethered by steel ropes to diesel powered winches where its fate currently hangs in the balance.
A British Government defence review in 1981 earmarked the HMS Hermes for decommissioning the following year, but after the Argentine military invasion on the 2nd April 1982 the aicraft carrier was designated the flagship of the British response, and set sail for the South Atlantic on the 5th April.
The Hermes took 12 Sea Harrier FRS aircraft from the Fleet Air Arm with eighteen Sea King Helicopters. The air group grew over the course of the conflict to include 16 Sea Harriers, 10 Hawker Harriers and ten more Sea Kings, operating at a distance to protect the carrier from Argentine air aggression. Also on board was an SAS troop and a troop of Royal Marines.
At the end of the conflict the HMS Hermes returned to port for a refit and systems upgrade. She participated in NATO exercises and eventually returned to harbour on the 12th April 1984 when she was decommissioned and offered for sale to the Australian Government.
Two years later the HMS Hermes was towed out of Portsmouth Dockyard for a refit at Devonport before reactivation and sale to the Indian Navy. Thereafter it sailed as the INS Viraat from 1987 to the present day.
The Viraat was the replacement for the INS Vikrant, which had been in use by the Indian Navy since 1961. In 2015 the Viraat was itself replaced by the Russian built aircraft carrier INS Vikramaditya.
Since its retirement from the Indian Navy there have been a number of groups interested in preserving the ship. The Vikrant had been used as a hotel since 1997 but was declared unsafe after poor hull maintenance rendered the ship unsafe.
Campaigns to raise funds for the Viraat to be conserved ran in both India and the UK, however, it proved impossible to raise enough funds to stop the inevitable passage of the ship to the scrap yards at Alang. A crowdfunding campaign launched in 2017 aimed to raise £100,000 but did not reach the £10,000 mark before being declared a failure.
In 2018 the Maharashtra cabinet approved a proposal to refit the Viraat as a moored maritime museum and adventure centre located at Nivati in the Sindburgh district, however, there was no backing for any self-sustaining business plan and in July of 2019 the Minister of Defence confirmed that the decision had been taken to scrap the carrier.
At the last minute, the regional government in Goa has contacted the ship-breaking firm in an effort to save the veteran aircraft carrier. There are rumours that negotiations for the sale of the ship have begun; however, it is thought that the hull is in poor condition and that the deliberate beaching of the vessel on the sand-bar may have caused more damage.
Mukush Patel of the Shree Ram Group has said of the negotiations that, ‘because I bought this in scrap, you will have to produce an NOC (No-objection-certificate) from the Government of India. I do not want anyone to allege in future that I was involved in a scam,’
Also commenting on the negotiations Vishnu Kant Sharma confirmed that he had met with Patel and they had received a letter of intent from the government in Goa confirming their willingness to allow the vessel to be berthed in the state.
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Despite the likely positive outcome for maritime history enthusiasts the Ministry of Defence confirmed to the Modi government that the ship would be unlikely to survive another ten to fifteen years, if converted into a museum, given its current condition.