HMAS Melbourne R21 was a Majestic-class light aircraft carrier of the Royal Australian Navy. Operating from 1955 until 1982, she was the third conventional aircraft carrier to serve in the RAN.
The ship was laid down for the Royal Navy as the lead ship of the Majestic class in April 1943, and was launched as HMS Majestic (R77) in February 1945.
Melbourne was conceived as a modified version of the Colossus-class carrier, incorporating improvements in flight deck design and habitability.
She had a standard displacement of 15,740 long tons (17,630 short tons), which increased to 20,000 long tons (22,000 short tons) at full load.
At launch, the carrier was 213.97 meters (702.0 ft) long overall, but this was increased by 2.43 meters (8.0 ft) during a refit in 1969. She had a beam of 80.0 ft, and a draught of 25.0 ft.
Melbourne's two propellers were driven by two Parsons single-reduction geared turbine sets providing 40,000 shp, which were powered by four Admiralty 3-drum boilers.
Members Who Served:
Members of the Nepean Blue Mountains Sub-Section who served on the Melbourne.
Clarence (Clarrie) Shaw Robert (Monty) Montgomery Des.Harper AM Colin (Irish) O'Flynn
George Griffiths John (Ned) Kelly Frank Syaranamual Colin Kelson
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.
Flight direction radar was included, making Melbourne the only military airfield in the Australasian region at the time capable of operating aircraft at night and in poor weather.
The carrier could achieve a top speed of 24 knots (44 km/h; 28 mph), and a range of 12,000 nautical miles (22,000 km; 14,000 mi) at 14 knots (26 km/h; 16 mph) or 6,200 nautical miles (11,500 km; 7,100 mi) at 23 knots (43 km/h; 26 mph).
The size of the ship's company averaged 1,350 officers and sailors, including 350 personnel from the embarked Fleet Air Arm squadrons.
Majestic and Colossus class carriers were almost identical in hull design and both subclasses of the '1942 design' light aircraft carrier program. These carriers were intended as 'disposable warships': to be disposed of at the end of World War II or within three years of entering service.
At the end of World War II, work on the ship was suspended until the RAN purchased her in 1947. At the time of purchase, it was decided to incorporate new aircraft carrier technologies into the design, including 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. The main modifications centered on the need to operate jet aircraft, which were larger and heavier than those that the carrier was originally designed for. Delays in construction and integrating these enhancements meant that the carrier was not commissioned until 1955.
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. As time passed, the refits increased in duration or replaced by major upgrades or overhauls. Her first major refit started in December 1967 and continued until February 1969, during which she was upgraded to operate S-2 Tracker and A-4 Sky hawk aircraft. Air conditioning systems and a liquid oxygen generation plant were also installed.
Melbourne re-entered service 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 components were sourced from HMCS Bonaventure and USS Coral Sea. 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. 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 °F). The refit took seven months to complete, and cost A$2 million. More large-scale refits occurred throughout the rest of the 1970's.
Melbourne carried a defensive armament of anti-aircraft guns and an air group comprising both attack and anti-submarine aircraft. Her initial armament included 25 40 mm Bofors anti-aircraft guns: six twin and thirteen single mountings. The radar suite consisted of three Type 277Q height-finding sets, a Type 293Q surface search set, and a Type 978 navigational set. Between entering service and 1959, four of the single Bofors were removed.
During the 1967–1969 refit, thirteen Bofors were removed, leaving 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 TACAN aerial and electronic countermeasures pods 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 22 planes and 2 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 FAW.53 fighter aircraft were flown by 805 Squadron RAN and 808 Squadron RAN, while Fairey Gannet anti-submarine strike aircraft were operated by 816 Squadron RAN and 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 eight Gannets, with two Bristol Sycamore search-and-rescue helicopters added shortly after the carrier entered service.
These aircraft were due to become obsolete in the late 1950's, so the Australian government announced in 1959 that Melbourne would be reconfigured during her 1963 refit to operate as a helicopter carrier. The fixed-wing aircraft of the Fleet Air Arm were marked for replacement by 27 Westland Wessex anti-submarine helicopters.
A reduction of embarked plane numbers to four Sea Venoms and six Gannets, along with regular rotation and careful use of the aircraft, extended their service life until the mid-1960's, while the size of the air group was maintained by carrying up to ten Wessex helicopters.
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 increase in defense spending included the purchase of new aircraft.
The RAN planned to acquire 14 Grumman S-2E Tracker anti-submarine aircraft, and modernize Melbourne to operate the aircraft. The acquisition 10 A-4G Skyhawks, a variant of the Skyhawk designed specifically for the RAN and optimized for air defence, was approved in 1965. Both aircraft types entered RAN service in 1968, with the Trackers operated by 816 Squadron RAN and 851 Squadron RAN, and the Skyhawks by 805 Squadron RAN and 724 Squadron RAN. These aircraft did not fly from Melbourne until the conclusion of her refit in 1969. In 1969, the RAN purchased another ten 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 King anti-submarine warfare helicopters and the number of Skyhawks doubled. Although replaced by the Sea King, up to three Wessex helicopters could be carried 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.
Over the course of her career, over thirty aircraft were either lost or heavily damaged while operating from Melbourne. 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.
Following the first decommissioning of sister ship HMAS Sydney in 1958, Melbourne became the only aircraft carrier in Australian service. Melbourne was unavailable to provide air cover for the RAN for up to four months in every year; as this time was required for refits, refueling, personnel leave, and non-carrier duties, such as the transportation of troops or aircraft. 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.
As well as an operational aircraft carrier, Melbourne was Flagship of the RAN, a role she received almost immediately following her 1956 arrival in Australia, and fulfilled until her decommissioning in 1982.
During her service, the carrier was deployed overseas on 35 occasions, visited over 22 countries, and was seen as the physical and psychological centerpiece of the RAN fleet.
The carrier was also called on to perform underway replenishments and command and control functions.
As Melbourne was the only ship of her size (both in dimensions and ship's company) in the RAN, the carrier underwent a regular rotation of commanding officers to give them experience. They were changed on average every fifteen months, with few remaining on board for more than two years. The majority of Melbourne's commanders later reached flag rank.
Melbourne never fired a shot in anger during her career, having only peripheral, non-combat roles in relation to the Indonesia-Malaysia confrontation and the Vietnam War. She was, however, involved in two major collisions with allied vessels.
The first occurred on the evening of 10 February 1964, in which Melbourne rammed and sank the RAN destroyer HMAS Voyager when the latter altered course across her bow. 82 of Voyager's personnel were killed, and two Royal Commissions were held to investigate the incident.
The second occurred in the early morning of 3 June 1969, when Melbourne rammed and sank the United States Navy destroyer USS Frank E. Evans in similar circumstances. 74 American 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.
We will tell these stories, and report how she was attacked by everything from Manly ferries to cruise liners in the next posting that will cover her operational history and rather interesting disposal.
I will then follow this with a series of pages looking at the various aircraft that flew from her deck.
Following a working-up period in British waters, Melbourne departed Glasgow on 11 March 1956 on her maiden voyage to 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 and diarist), which was a gift to the RAN Sailing Association from the Royal Navy.
The ship visited Gibraltar, Naples, Malta, Port Said, Aden, and Colombo, before arriving in Fremantle on 24 April 1956. Melbourne sailed east via the Great Australian Bight, meeting sister ship HMAS Sydney near Kangaroo Island a week later. After visiting Melbourne and 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.
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. Melbourne spent from September to November in Southeast Asian waters, during which she participated in Exercise Albatross. On return to Australia in mid-November, the carrier visited Melbourne for the 1956 Olympics, where 200 of Melbourne's complement were provided to work as signalers, event marshals, carpenters, and medical workers.
From February until July 1958, Melbourne was deployed on a 25,000-nautical-mile (46,000 km; 29,000 mi) flag-showing cruise. During this cruise, the carrier participated in four inter-fleet exercises and visited Singapore, Hong Kong, the Philippines, Japan, Pearl Harbor and Fiji. 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 she was displayed to Australian Army and Royal Australian Air Force officer cadets before returning 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 Nevil Shute's post-apocalyptic novel of the same name. After filming concluded, the carrier participated in a demonstration exercise off the coast of Sydney before embarking on a Far East Strategic Reserve deployment from March until May. 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 separate incidents. All four Sea Venom incidents occurred in March, with three attributed to aircrew error and one to brake failure.
In the lead up to Melbourne's 1961 deployment to the Strategic Reserve, the carrier visited Bombay, Karachi, and Trincomalee. This 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. After these duties were completed, the carrier visited Japan, Guam, and Manus Island before 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. 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. 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.
On 10 February 1964, Melbourne was performing trials in Jervis Bay under the command of Captain John Robertson, following the annual refit. 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 guard escort.
This required Voyager to maintain a position 20° off Melbourne's port quarter at a distance from the carrier of 1,500 to 2,000 yards (1,400 to 1,800 m).
Early in 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.
The procedure to accomplish this required Voyager to turn away from Melbourne in a large circle, cross behind the carrier, 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 to lose speed before swinging behind Melbourne, but Voyager did not alter course again.
At 8:55 pm, with Voyager approaching, 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 become aware of the situation, 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.
Melbourne struck Voyager just aft of the destroyer's bridge, rolling the destroyer to starboard before cutting her in half. 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, under the weight of the two 4.5-inch (110 mm) gun turrets. The aft section did not begin sinking until half an hour after the collision, completely submerging just after midnight.
Messages were immediately sent to the Fleet Headquarters in Sydney, although staff in Sydney initially underestimated the extent of the damage to Voyager. Melbourne launched her boats to recover survivors, and the carrier's wardroom and C Hangar were prepared for casualties. At 9:58 pm, Melbourne was informed that search-and-rescue boats from HMAS Creswell, helicopters from HMAS Albatross, and five Ton-class minesweepers had been dispatched to assist in the search.
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 two of the bridge team.
A Royal Commission into 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. Robertson was posted to the training base HMAS Watson—a move that he and the Australian media saw as tantamount to a demotion—but resigned instead.
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. This is the only time in Australian history two Royal Commissions have been held for a single incident.
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. Robertson and the other officers of Melbourne were absolved of blame for the incident.
Melbourne arrived in Sydney with the survivors on 14 February, and after spending time alongside at Garden Island, was moved to Cockatoo Island Dockyard on 25 March, where repairs were undertaken; the damaged section of the bow was cut away and repairs to the ship's internal structure were undertaken in drydock, while a 40 ton prefabricated bow was constructed and fitted. The work was eventually completed on 27 April, with the shipyard receiving a commendation.
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 performed flight deck trials with S-2 Tracker anti-submarine aircraft and A-4 Skyhawk attack fighters. The success of the trials, along with the discovery that Melbourne was able to operate both aircraft with relatively minor modification, led the Australian Government to approve the purchase of these 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-Pacific region. Several of the Southeast Asian deployments were related to the Indonesia–Malaysia confrontation, and involved participation in show of force exercises off the coast of Malaysia. During 1965 and 1966, Melbourne escorted sister ship HMAS Sydney, which had been recommissioned as a troop transport, for short periods during the latter's first, third, and fourth transport voyages to Vietnam.
Despite the carrier being the centerpiece of several plans to involve Australian forces in the Vietnam War, the escort runs were the extent of Melbourne's participation in the conflict, and the carrier remained outside the Operation Market Time area (Operation Market Time was the United States Navy’s effort to stop troops and supplies from flowing by sea from North Vietnam to South Vietnam during the Vietnam War.) while Sydney and her other escorts proceeded to Vũng Tàu.
Seventh Fleet staff suggested in April 1967 that Melbourne deploy in the anti-submarine role, but nothing came of these talks. As the carrier was optimized for anti-submarine warfare, there was little need for her at the start of the war. Utilizing the carrier was suggested again by RAN officials in March 1966, when the United States Seventh Fleet was having difficulties maintaining anti-submarine patrols around Yankee Station, but Melbourne could only remain on station for a single, ten-day period, a third of the time that US carriers were operational for on rotating deployments.
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, 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, emphasized the need for caution when operating near the carrier, and provided written instructions on how to avoid such a situation developing again. 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 Larson turned towards the carrier after being ordered to the plane guard station. 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 2,000 to 3,000 yards (1,800 to 2,700 m).
On the night of 2–3 June, Melbourne and her escorts were involved in anti-submarine training exercises in the South China Sea. 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. Evans had performed the manoeuvres four times over the course of the night. Evans was positioned on Melbourne's port bow, but began the manoeuvres 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. Seeing the destroyer take no action and on a course to place herself under Melbourne's bow, Stevenson ordered the carrier hard to port, signaling the turn by both radio and siren blasts.
At approximately the same time, Evans turned hard to starboard to avoid the approaching carrier. It is uncertain which ship began to manoeuvres 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.
Seventy-four of the 273 personnel 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, life rafts, and lifebuoys, before carefully maneuvering alongside the stern section of Evans, where both ships' crews used mooring lines to lash the ships together. Sailors from Melbourne dived from the flight deck into the water to rescue overboard survivors close to the carrier, while the carrier's boats and helicopters collected those farther out. 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. After Evans' stern was evacuated, it was cast off, while the carrier moved away to avoid damage. The stern did not sink, and was later recovered, stripped of parts, and sunk for target practice.
Following the collision, Melbourne travelled to Singapore for temporary repairs to her bow, arriving on 6 June. She departed Singapore on 27 June and arrived in Sydney on 9 July, where the carrier underwent almost identical repairs at Cockatoo Island Dockyard as in 1964 (primarily the installation of a new bow section).
A Joint RAN-USN Board of Inquiry was 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 lead up to a collision, the larger ship was required to maintain course and speed.
It was learned during the inquiry that Evans' commanding officer was asleep in his quarters at the time of the incident, and charge 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.
Subsequent to the inquiry, the three USN officers and Stevenson were court-martialled by their respective navies on charges of negligence, with the three USN officers found guilty and Stevenson 'Honourably Acquitted'. 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.
In December 2012, Stevenson announced that he had received a letter from the Minister for Defence, apologizing for his treatment by the RAN and the government of the day.
During the 1970's and early 1980's, replacing parts became an increasing problem. 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.
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.
Melbourne was out of service for most of 1971 while she underwent refits, which concluded in early August. In mid-1971, the Australian military's Joint Planning Committee considered using Melbourne as a transport to help complete the withdrawal of the Australian Task Force from Vietnam before the end of 1971. While the Army supported this proposal, the Navy successfully argued against its implementation, claiming that transporting troops and cargo would be misusing Australia's only active aircraft carrier, and would prevent Melbourne from participating in several major multi-national exercises. The refit concluded in late 1971, with the carrier participating in the first RIMPAC exercise, RIMPAC 71, before the end of the year.
Operations in 1972 commenced with a three-month deployment to Southeast Asia. During this deployment, Melbourne led a fleet of 17 ships from the RAN, Royal Navy, Royal New Zealand Navy, US Navy, Philippine Navy, and Royal Thai Navy in Exercise Sea Hawk. This was followed by goodwill visits to numerous Southeast Asian ports, including Hong Kong, Jakarta, Manila, Singapore, and Surabaya, before Melbourne returned to Sydney at the end of April.
The carrier spent May performing exercises off the New South Wales coast, during which she was called on to rescue three fishermen who had been stranded at sea for the previous two days.
In August, Melbourne sailed for Hawaii to participate in RIMPAC 72. At the conclusion of this exercise, she proceeded to Japan on a diplomatic visit, and then sailed to the Philippines to exercise with SEATO ships.
During this deployment, a fire ignited inside the ship's main switchboard.
The carrier returned to Australia on 27 November after 101 days at sea, and underwent a seven-month refit.
On 24 August 1973, she returned to Hawaii to participate in RIMPAC 73, and returned to Australia on 12 October, before sailing out ten days later to participate in Exercise Leadline, off Malaysia.
Melbourne began 1974 by transporting 120 Australian soldiers to a temporary assignment with an American infantry battalion based in Hawaii. She then sailed to San Francisco to collect 12 new Chinook and five UH-1 Iroquois helicopters for the Royal Australian Air Force, arriving in Australia with her cargo in April.
In June, the carrier took part in Exercise Kangaroo in the Coral Sea, before returning to Sydney in July.
On 11 July, the passenger liner SS Australia hit and damaged Melbourne in Sydney Harbour.
In November, the carrier took part in disaster relief exercises. These were prophetic, as on the night of 24–25 December 1974, Cyclone Tracy destroyed the city of Darwin. Melbourne's ship's company was immediately recalled from leave, the ship was loaded with supplies, and the carrier departed Sydney on 26 December in the company of HMAS Brisbane. Melbourne, Brisbane, and eleven other ships were deployed as part of the largest peace-time rescue effort ever organized by the RAN: Operation Navy Help Darwin.
Melbourne remained off Darwin until 18 January 1975, acting as operational headquarters and a helicopter base. During this operation, the seven Wessex helicopters embarked on Melbourne performed 2,493 flights, carrying 7,824 passengers and 107 tons of cargo.
Following Navy Help Darwin, Melbourne participated in RIMPAC 75 and then returned to Sydney for a fourteen-month refit.
While moored in Sydney Harbour, on 24 July, Melbourne was struck by Japanese cargo ship Blue Andromeda.
While working up following the refit, Melbourne and HMAS Torrens provided assistance to MV Miss Chief off the coast of Bundaberg, Queensland on 16 August 1976. In October, she participated in Exercise Kangaroo II, before sailing to her namesake city for the carrier's 21st birthday celebrations, then returning to Sydney on 5 November.
On 5 December 1976, a fire deliberately lit by a member of the Fleet Air Arm at HMAS Albatross damaged or destroyed all but one of Australia's S-2 Trackers. Following participation in RIMPAC 77, Melbourne was sent to San Diego to collect replacement aircraft.
Arriving back in Sydney on 5 April, the carrier was then sent on a five-month deployment to the United Kingdom, accompanied by HMAS Brisbane and HMNZS Canterbury. En route, Melbourne lost a Sea King in the Indian Ocean, but happily, with the aircrew recovered by Brisbane.
A Tracker from Melbourne located the disabled Dutch vessel Impala Princess in the Gulf of Aden on 25 May and directed a French destroyer to assist.
Two Bofors naval guns were deposited by Melbourne at Souda Bay, Crete on 2 June, marking the first visit of an Australian warship to Crete since June 1941. These weapons were donated to the Australian War Memorial at Stavromenos, in Crete's Rethymno regional unit.
The highlight of the deployment saw the three ships represent Australia and New Zealand at the Silver Jubilee Naval Review on 28 June 1977.
A two-seat Harrier jump jet demonstrator undertook a series of trial take-offs and landings aboard Melbourne on 30 June: a trial organized as part of the project overseeing the ship's potential replacement. Following the Jubilee Review and her participation in Exercise Highwood in July, Melbourne and her escorts returned to Australia, arriving in Fremantle on 19 September and Sydney on 4 October.
Melbourne was docked in Garden Island's drydock on arrival, where she remained until January 1978.
At the end of March 1978, Melbourne left Sydney for RIMPAC 78. During this exercise, she acquired the nickname 'Little M' after working with 'Big E' USS Enterprise — the smallest and largest aircraft carriers in operation at the time.
On return in July, the carrier entered a major refit, which continued until 3 August 1979. During this refit, on 3 March, a boiler explosion caused minor damage. The remainder of the year involved participation in three exercises, Tasmanex off Wellington, New Zealand, Sea Eagle I in the Tasman Sea, and Kangaroo III in the Coral Sea. During Tasmanex, Melbourne lost her LW-02 radar aerial and a Skyhawk, both of which fell overboard during heavy seas.
During February and March 1980, Melbourne participated in RIMPAC 80, as the flagship of Battle Group Two. This was immediately followed by a visit to the Solomon Islands in early April. The carrier was in Sydney from mid-April until mid-August, during which the 25th anniversary of Melbourne's service in the RAN was celebrated on 15 August with a cocktail party aboard the carrier, popularly referred to as 'The Night of the Admirals'.
On 18 August, Melbourne sailed for Fremantle to participate in Exercise Sandgroper 80. On 8 September, she, accompanied by Perth, Derwent, Stalwart, Supply, and Otama deployed to the Indian Ocean as the Australian Squadron for a flag-showing cruise. During this cruise two Skyhawks were lost.
On 24 October, a Tracker from Melbourne observed Soviet warships Storozhevoy and Ivan Rogov shadowing the Squadron. The Squadron's return in November 1980 concluded the largest and longest RAN deployment since World War II.
Following her return, the carrier spent six months in Australian waters, before a two-month deployment to Southeast Asia. During this deployment, on 21 June 1981, Melbourne rescued 99 Vietnamese refugees from a disabled fishing vessel in the South China Sea. The carrier's deployments for the second half of the year consisted of two exercises, Sea Hawk and Kangaroo 81.
A major refit scheduled to begin in late 1981 was postponed pending the decision on a replacement carrier.
After docking at Garden Island in December, the carrier was accidentally flooded by an officer who was impatient to commence leave. In his haste to shut down the carrier, he failed to deactivate the water pumps, and over 180 tons of fresh water were pumped in before a maintenance party discovered the flooding the next day. Melbourne remained in dock at the start of 1982, and did not leave before the decision regarding her replacement was made.
Decommissioning and Fate
Following the decision to replace Melbourne with HMS Invincible, the postponed refit was cancelled outright. The Australian carrier was prepared for disposal, and was decommissioned and placed in reserve on 30 June 1982. She was towed to the mooring dolphins near Bradley's Head, where she remained until 1985. Melbourne was capable of being reactivated as a helicopter-equipped anti-submarine warfare carrier within 26 weeks, but was never required to do so.
Melbourne's air wing was disbanded at HMAS Albatross on 2 July 1982, with the transfer of 805 Squadron's Skyhawks to 724 Squadron and 816 Squadron being absorbed into 851 Squadron. The Skyhawks remained in service as fleet support aircraft until 30 June 1984, while the Trackers were withdrawn from service on 31 August 1984 after being used as land-based maritime patrol aircraft.
A Sydney-based group proposed in 1984 to purchase Melbourne and operate her as a floating casino moored in international waters off Eden, New South Wales, but nothing came of this.
The carrier was initially sold for breaking up as scrap metal for A$1.7 million, although the sale fell through in June 1984.
She was sold again in February 1985 to the China United Shipbuilding Company for A$1.4 million, with the intention that she be towed to China and broken up for scrap. Prior to the ship's departure for China, the RAN stripped Melbourne of all electronic equipment and weapons, and welded her rudders into a fixed position so that she could not be reactivated. However, her steam catapult, arresting equipment and mirror landing system were not removed. At this time, few western experts expected that the Chinese Government would attempt to develop aircraft carriers in the future.
The carrier departed Sydney on 27 April 1985, heading for Guangzhou, China, under the tow of tug De Ping. The journey was delayed when the towing line began to part, requiring the carrier and tug to shelter in Moreton Bay, Queensland, on 30 April. The towing gear broke a day later, requiring a second tug to secure the carrier while repairs were made. Three days later, Melbourne ran aground while still in Moreton Bay. Melbourne finally arrived in China on 13 June. The Australian government received a Telex on this day, reading:
Please be advised that HMAS Melbourne arrived at Port Huangpu, intact and safely afloat, proud and majestic. She has been innocent, never once bowed to the natural or human force, in spite of the heavy storm and the talked about jinx. — Telex communication to the Australian Government, 13 June 1985
The ship was not scrapped immediately; instead she was studied by Chinese naval architects and engineers as part of the nation's top-secret carrier development program. However, it is unclear whether the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) orchestrated the acquisition of Melbourne or simply took advantage of the situation; Rear Admiral Zhang Zhaozhong, who is both the son of PLAN founder Zhang Aiping and a staff member at the National Defence College, has stated that the Navy was unaware of the purchase until Melbourne first arrived at Guangzhou.
Melbourne was the largest warship any of the Chinese experts had seen, and they were surprised by the amount of equipment which was still in place. The PLAN subsequently arranged for the ship's flight deck and all the equipment associated with flying operations to be removed so that they could be studied in depth.
Reports have circulated that either a replica of the flight deck, or the deck itself, was used for clandestine training of People's Liberation Army Navy pilots in carrier flight operations. It has also been claimed that the Royal Australian Navy received and "politely rejected" a request from the PLAN for blueprints of the ship's steam catapult.
The carrier was not dismantled for many years; according to some rumours she was not completely broken up until 2002. A 2012 article in Jane's Navy International stated that the large quantity of equipment recovered from Melbourne "undoubtedly helped" Admiral Liu Huaqing secure the Chinese Government's support for his proposal to initiate a program to develop aircraft carriers for the Navy.
Melbourne's service is commemorated with a stained-glass window at the Garden Island Naval Chapel. One of the ship's anchors is incorporated into a memorial to naval aviation at Nowra, New South Wales. Another anchor and the starboard side ship's bell are on display at the RAN Heritage Centre at Garden Island. Memorabilia from Melbourne's voyages with the Fleet Air Arm embarked, and examples of all the types of aircraft deployed on Melbourne, are on permanent static display in the Fleet Air Arm Museum at HMAS Albatross.
Following an overhaul of the RAN battle honours system completed in 2010, Melbourne was retroactively awarded the honour "Malaysia 1965–66" for her service during the Indonesia-Malaysia Confrontation.