- Category: Fleet and Weapons
- Published: Sunday, 08 October 2006 08:00
- Written by Aircraft Carrier
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Vessel Type: Light Fleet Aircraft Carrier. (Majestic Class)
Name & Pennant Number: Vikrant (R11).
Laid Down: 12 October 1943.
Launched: 22 September 1945.
Commission Date: 04 March 1961. Laid up till purchased by India in January 1957.
Decommission Date: 31 January 1997.
Displacement: 16,000 tons standard.
...................19,500 tons full load.
Dimensions: Length - 700 feet.
................Beam - 128 feet.
................Draught - 24 feet.
Main Machinery: Parsons geared turbines providing 40,000 shp, 4 Admiralty 3-drum boilers and 2 shafts.
Maximum Speed: 25 knots.
Maximum Range: 12,000 miles at 14 knots.
.......................6200 miles at 23 knots.
Complement: 1110 (including air group).
Radar: Not Known.
Weapons: Not Known.
Comments: Hercules was the fifth ship in a series of six Majestic Class aircraft carriers (Majestic, Terrible, Magnificent, Powerful, Hercules and Leviathan) built for the Royal Navy during the World War II. A class of quick-build carriers, they were intended to challenge German and Japanese navies around the world. Ironically none of them ever served in the Royal Navy. The war ended and work on all six vessels were stopped. Two each were bought by the Canadian and the Australian navies. The fifth, the Hercules, was bought by the Indian Navy and renamed the Vikrant. The sixth, named the Leviathan, was scrapped. Built by Vickers Armstrong in Newcastle, she was laid down on 12 October 1943 and launched on 22 September 1945.
Work on the vessel was suspended in May 1946 when almost 75% of the vessel was fitted out. The Hercules was laid up for 10 years - kept in a state of preservation by the British Admiralty - before being purchased by the Indian Navy in January 1957. The Hercules underwent a four year refit at the Harland & Wolff Yard in Belfast, Ireland. She was completed along similar lines to the HMCS Bonaventure (the ex-Powerful), another Majestic Class light aircraft carrier, with an angled deck, steam catapult and landing mirrors which were all Post-WWII developments for operating jet aircraft. The carrier was formally commissioned into the Indian Navy as INS Vikrant on 04 March 1961 at Belfast by the then Indian High Commissioner to the UK, Vijayalakshmi Pandit.
Captain Pritam Singh was the first commanding officer of the Vikrant. The carrier had her initial trials in the waters around the UK. The trials were followed by a six-week work-up programme which was carried out in the Mediterranean Sea. The main aim of the work-up which, concluded in early October 1961, was to test the carrier's all-round efficiency as a fully operational unit. On 18 May 1961, the landing and arresting of the first jet aircraft on board took place. The honour of performing this feat went to Lieutenant (later Admiral and Chief of Naval Staff) R H Tahiliani. The carrier formally joined the Indian Naval fleet at Bombay on 03 November 1961, where it was received at Ballard Pier by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and other high-ranking dignitaries.
Till the 1971 Indo-Pak War, the Vikrant had rarely fired a gun in anger. During the Indo-China conflict in 1962, there was talk of sending the Vikrant-based Seahawk jet aircraft to the north to operate from airfields in Assam. A squadron was in fact developed for a few weeks, however political decisions deemed otherwise. During 1965, the Vikrant found itself under refit in the dry dock, though the Pakistanis, in the heat of battle, claimed that they had sunk it. The Sea Hawks were sent to Jamnagar and just as they were being primed for a night raid on Karachi, they were recalled for the defence of Bombay. However, the Vikrant's finest hour came in December 1971 when it played a pivotal role in the Liberation of Bangladesh in spite of a crack in its boiler.
Taking into account the threats and the strategic requirements, the Vikrant was assigned to the eastern theatre in the Bay of Bengal in 1971. She joined the newly created Eastern Fleet with Rear Admiral S H Sharma flying his flag on the ship. The Indian Navy did its part to fool the enemy, transmitting confusing radio signals. Though Vikrant was anchored in the Andamans, an Indian destroyer off Visakhaptnam sent signals that there was a ship in the area carrying 200 tonnes of meat, which only an aircraft carrier could store. She was considered such a prized catch by the Pakistan Navy that they sent their submarine, the Ghazi, all the way to the Bay of Bengal to drop mines outside Visakhapatnam harbour and sink the aircraft carrier off the harbour. The Pakistani submarine Ghazi blew up on 04 December 1971, after a depth charge attack by INS Rajput off the harbour entrance.
After the sinking of the Ghazi, the Vikrant then cordoned off and every port in the erstwhile East Pakistan -- Cox's Bazar, Chittagong, and Khulna -- was pounded by the Sea Hawks based on the Vikrant. Such was the impact of the air attack from Sea Hawks, that the Pakistani Naval commander in the then East Pakistan remarked, "Indian naval aircraft were hitting us day and night. We could not run." On one occasion, with aircraft airborne and no wind conditions, the ship had to take a chance with her cracked boilers to land the returning flights. This was easily the carrier's best of the finest hour. Such was the performance of the ship in the liberation of Bangladesh that it earned two Maha Vir Chakras and 12 Vir Chakras.
Everyone loves a hero. The Vikrant received a tumultuous welcome when she returned to Madras. The civil administration led by then Chief Minister M G Ramachandran, organised a special meal for the entire crew of 1100, served on banana leaves, on the jetty. That the ship was the darling of Madras and was adopted by the city goes without saying. When it came to showing the flag, there has been no ship like the Vikrant. Once, when the carrier was berthed at Bandar Abbas, the Shah of Iran flew the officers to Teheran for a special concert. In West Asia, where the only aircraft carrier people had seen were from the United States, they were surprised to see that an Asian navy could also fight a three-dimensional war.
About four decades is long time for a carrier and the last years were not trouble free for the Vikrant. The carrier was troubled by structural and mechanical problems. Yet the ship had one more achievement, when she received the Navy's first Sea Harrier VSTOL jump jet on board. She underwent a refit from 1979-82 to handle Sea Harriers off her flight deck. This however meant the end of carrier flying for the Alizes. The Vikrant was decommissioned on 31 January 1997 after 36 glorious years of service in the Indian Navy. She steamed 499,066 nautical miles, the equivalent of 15 times around the world. The carrier is currently subject to a campaign to preserve her for posterity - the only wartime constructed British aircraft carrier to be under possible preservation.