HMAS
Melbourne
(II) - Part 2

Class
Modified Majestic Class
Type
Light Fleet Aircraft Carrier
Pennant
R21
Builder
Vickers Armstrong Ltd, Barrow-in-Furness, England
Laid Down
15 April 1943
Launched
28 February 1945
Launched by
Lady Anderson, wife of the Chancellor of the Exchequer
Commissioned
28 October 1955
Decommissioned
30 June 1982
Fate
Sold for scrap
Dimensions & Displacement
Displacement
  • 15,740 tons (standard)
  • 20,000 tons (full load)
Length 701 feet 5 inches (overall)
Beam 80 feet 2 inches
Draught 25 feet 5 inches
Flight Deck 690 feet 8 inches
Performance
Speed 24 knots
Range 12,000 at 14 knots
Complement
Crew 1,355 (includes 347 Carrier Air Group personnel)
Propulsion
Machinery Parsons single reduction geared turbines, 2 shafts
Horsepower 42,000
Armament
Guns 25 x 40mm Bofors anti-aircraft guns
Helicopters
  • 1 or 2 Bristol Sycamore helicopters
  • Westland Wessex anti-submarine helicopters (later)
  • Sea King anti-submarine helicopters (later)
Other Aircraft
  • 8 Sea Venom Fighters
  • 16 Gannet anti-submarine aircraft
  • 8 A4G Skyhawk fighter bombers (later)
  • 6 Grumman S2E/G Trackers (later)
Awards
Inherited Battle Honours
Battle Honours MALAYSIA 1965–66
HMAS Melbourne (II) Badge

From January to July 1973 Melbourne underwent a minor refit at Garden Island. She returned to sea on 19 July to commence shakedown exercises and post-refit trials. She departed Sydney on 24 August to participate in her third consecutive RIMPAC exercise, conducting exercises with HMA Ships Brisbane and Stuart, and, later, HMNZS Taranaki en route. She arrived in Pearl Harbour, via Suva, on 8 September. RIMPAC commenced just three days later and continued for most of the month. Unfortunately for Melbourne, a defect in her catapult forced her to cancel all fixed-wing flying on 15 September for the remainder of the exercise.

She returned to Sydney, via Suva, on 12 October where she provided deck and re-fuelling facilities for aircraft involved in the festivities for the opening of the Sydney Opera House. The ship spent just ten days in her home port before deploying to South East Asia, via Fremantle, to take part in the ANZUK exercise LEADLINE. LEADLINE was conducted from 8 to 14 November off Singapore. The exercises got off to a bad start for Melbourne when one of her Skyhawks was lost overboard upon launching near Pulau Aur. The pilot, Sub-lieutenant Barry Evans, RAN, remained in the aircraft while the ship passed overhead and freed himself underwater. He was later rescued by helicopter. The ship returned to Sydney, via Fremantle and Melbourne, on 7 December.

The flagship again visited Pearl Harbour in February 1974 with 120 Army personnel having joined the ship for the passage in order to participate in Exercise PACIFIC BOND TWO. Upon her departure from Hawaii on 23 February, Melbourne embarked a US Coast Guard Sikorsky HH 52 Seaguard helicopter to affect a medivac from a US Coast Guard cutter some 1100 kms north-east of Hawaii. The cutter, USCGC Mellon, had embarked the survivors of the Italian supertanker Giovanna Lolli-Ghetti which had suffered an explosion two days earlier with the loss of seven lives. One survivor required urgent medical attention and was evacuated by the Seaguard once they were within operational range of Hawaii.

Melbourne continued on to Los Angeles, California, where relics of the Pacific War were delivered on behalf of the Australian Government for presentation to the Admiral Nimitz War Museum at Fredericksburg, Texas. She then steamed northwards to San Francisco where she embarked a consignment of Boeing CH-47 Chinook helicopters for delivery to Brisbane on her return voyage. She arrived back in Sydney, via Pearl Harbour where she re-embarked Army personnel for return to Australia, and Brisbane where the Chinooks were disembarked, on 3 April. She participated in the inaugural Exercise KANGAROO ONE in the Coral Sea in June which involved sea, land and air forces from Australia, the UK, the USA and New Zealand.

Commander Ken Douglas and Lieutenant Commander Graham Rohrsheim in Flight Control (FLYCO) watch a Skyhawk landing.

The ship maintained a normal program of exercises, training and maintenance until the Christmas leave period. Melbourne was alongside in Sydney with her CAG disembarked at NAS Nowra when Cyclone Tracy hit Darwin on Christmas Eve 1974. Ship and squadron personnel were re-called, leaving their homes and loved ones at Christmas time, to begin relief efforts in the northern capital. Melbourne arrived in Darwin on 1 January 1975 and her aircraft made an immediate impact on Operation NAVY HELP: DARWIN. 817 Squadron helicopters were able to conduct search and rescue sorties in areas that had previously been inaccessible enabling evacuations to be carried out quickly and over great distances. Melbourne remained in the Darwin area until 18 January 1975 with disaster relief teams being landed daily to perform a large variety of tasks. Over the course of the operation, from 1 to 18 January, Melbourne’s aircraft made 2,493 landings amounting to 304 flying hours, lifted 7,824 people, and delivered 236,968 lbs (107,486 kgs) of freight. Darwin's mayor, Harry 'Tiger' Brennan, later said "We owe the Navy the greatest debt of all."

The ship commenced workup for her upcoming deployment to the Pacific for RIMPAC 75 in February. In the early hours of 10 February a Tracker was lost when it missed a wire on attempting to land and failed to regain enough height to come around again for another landing. The four crew members were quickly recovered uninjured by the rescue destroyer, HMAS Parramatta (III). She departed for Pearl Harbour, via Suva, on the 18th and spent the majority of March participating in RIMPAC exercises. The deployment was marred by the tragic death of a crew member who fell from a hotel balcony ashore in Waikiki on 23 March. The ship returned to Sydney, via Suva where she was forced to put to sea to avoid Hurricane Betty, on 11 April and commenced preparations for a major refit which had been postponed due to Operation NAVY HELP: DARWIN.

Left: Building materials being craned from Melbourne's flight deck to a lighter for use ashore in Darwin following Cyclone Tracy. Right: Shipwrights from Melbourne pose in front of the trawler NR Liverpool which they salvaged in the aftermath of Cyclone Tracy.

Note: This video is hosted on YouTube. Department of Defence users will not be able to view this video on the Defence Restricted Network (DRN).

In spite of being alongside in Sydney undergoing refit, which was being extended daily due to a dockside industrial dispute, limited flying operations recommenced in March 1976, and on 27 April a Westland Seaking helicopter landed on board for the time. Melbourne returned to sea on 18 June 1976 after 424 days in refit and commenced post-refit trials, and shakedown and workup exercises.

R&R aboard HMAS Melbourne; crew members playing deck hockey.

Melbourne led a fleet entry into Sydney Harbour on 6 August with HMA Ships Derwent, Vampire (II), Stuart (II), Torrens (II) and Supply in column astern; Derwent, Vampire, Stuart and Supply having returned home from overseas deployments. Melbourne participated in Exercise KANGAROO II in October, her only major fleet exercise for the year. Upon the conclusion of the exercise on 25 October she proceeded southwards towards Melbourne, embarking the Governor-General, the Honourable Sir John Kerr AK GCMG KStJ QC and Lady Kerr from NAS Nowra en route. An informal 21st Birthday celebration was held on board on 28 October before the ship arrived in her namesake city the following day. On 31 October on of Melbourne’s Seakings assisted in the rescue of an injured hang-glider pilot at Hall's Gap, north of Melbourne. On 1 and 2 November, 13,500 citizens of Melbourne visited the flagship before she proceeded for Sydney on the 3rd.

At around midnight on 4 December, all but three of the RAN’s Tracker fleet was destroyed in a hangar fire at HMAS Albatross. The fire had crippled the FAA's fixed-wing anti-submarine warfare capabilities. However, the following months displayed the excellent relationship that the RAN had developed with the USN as the Tracker fleet was not only replenished but increased in astonishingly quick time. Six, more modern, second-hand Trackers had already been ordered in October 1976 and delivery was being organised at the time of the fire. This order was expanded to sixteen and an RAN team travelled to the US to hand-pick the aircraft from USN stores. The RAN received them at a massive discount, as much as 97 percent.

Melbourne once again participated in RIMPAC exercises in Pearl Harbour in February and March 1977. On completion of the exercises she sailed to San Diego where she embarked the 16 Grumman S2G Tracker aircraft replacing those that were destroyed in the hangar fire at HMAS Albatross the previous December. She arrived back in Sydney on 5 April where 11 of the new Trackers where disembarked to the Hawker de Havilland facilities at Bankstown airport. The remaining five were disembarked in Jervis Bay to NAS Nowra the following day.

Trackers on take-off and landing while a Wessex acts as plane guard.

The ensuing three weeks involved the considerable task of preparing for a five-month deployment to Europe for the Royal Silver Jubilee and Naval Review. The flagship embarked a considerable amount of free freight in Sydney including large machinery bound for HMAS Stirling in Western Australia, two Army bofors guns for a museum in Crete, and the three Australian yachts that were to compete in the Admiral’s Cup regatta later that year; Ragamuffin, Runaway and Superstar. Melbourne departed Sydney on 28 April in company with HMAS Brisbane (II) and HMNZS Canterbury.

They stopped at Fremantle for a two day visit, departing on 7 May. Just two days later near the Cocos Islands one of Melbourne’s Seakings ditched into the sea about 500 metres astern of the ship while on approach for a night landing. Both crew members where rescued uninjured by Brisbane but all that could be recovered of the aircraft was a wheel sponson.

The ships went on to visit Colombo before passing through the Suez Canal on 31 May. Melbourne, along with Brisbane and Canterbury, crossed the Mediterranean in early June. The flagship visited Crete and Gibraltar, and conducted numerous exercises with RN and USN units before arriving in Portsmouth on 13 June. Three Skyhawks, a Tracker and a Seaking took part in the International Air Tattoo on the 25th and 26th, while the Silver Jubilee Review was conducted on the 28th. Some 175 ships from 18 nations with around 30,000 sailors embarked assembled at the Spithead anchorage. Most of the major units fired a combined Royal Salute that morning shortly before HMY Britannia anchored at the head of the review columns. Some 200 guests were ferried to Melbourne after Britannia took up her position. The royal yacht weighed anchor that afternoon and proceeded down the lines, conducting the review over the course of two hours. Ten members of Melbourne’s ship’s company attended a reception aboard Britannia that evening. Unfortunately, part of the planned flypast was cancelled due to inclement weather precluding the involvement of any RAN aircraft. The review ships began to disperse the following morning after firing a second Royal Salute upon Britannia’s departure and Melbourne, along with Brisbane, commenced passage to Plymouth.

HMAS Melbourne celebrates the silver jubilee of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, 1977.

Melbourne participated in the international exercise HIGHWOOD in July which saw participants progress northwards up the west coast of Britain and Ireland as far as the Faeroe Islands. On 13 July the carrier lost its second aircraft of the deployment when a Wessex helicopter ditched into the sea off the ship’s port quarter due to a mechanical failure shortly after becoming airborne as plane guard. The three-person crew was recovered uninjured by Brisbane and the aircraft, which was kept afloat by floatation bags, was recovered by Melbourne but did not return to service. Three days later the force came under real-world surveillance off the Norwegian coast firstly by a Soviet ocean-going tug and, later, the Onkean class small intelligence ship, Ekholot. The Soviet vessel made occasional close passes of ships in the formation over the course of the 16th and 17th, and broke only after the force dispersed on the 17th.

Wessex 23 lost during the course of Exercise HIGHROAD. Left: The helicopter remains on the surface with the help of floatation bags. Middle: The aircrew being recovered by HMAS Brisbane. Right: The aircraft being craned back aboard HMAS Melbourne.

Following the conclusion of Exercise HIGHWOOD on 18 July Melbourne once again briefly came under surveillance by an Okean class intelligence ship but proved to fast for Soviet vessel to keep up. She went on visit Rotterdam, Portsmouth and Naples before transiting the Suez Canal on 18 August. Along with Brisbane and Canterbury, she once again conducted exercises with RN and USN units in the Mediterranean and, while at Naples, a large contingent of the ship’s company attended an audience given by Pope Paul VI at Castel Gandolfo. On the morning of 16 August Melbourne fortuitously came across a French sailor who had fallen overboard from his vessel, MV Leon R.E., and had spent some eight hours in the water. The sailor was brought on board and returned to his ship later in the day. After clearing the Red Sea, Melbourne went on visit Bombay, Singapore, Fremantle and Melbourne, and conducted exercises with British, French, US and Indian naval units, before arriving back in Sydney on 4 October.

Leading Seaman Stores Naval Steve Page shakes hands with an Indian Navy Sailor c. September 1977.

Melbourne participated in Exercises JUC 98 along with other naval units from Australia, Canada and New Zealand in February and March 1978 before once again deploying to Pearl Harbor at the end of March for RIMPAC 78. On her return to Australia in May, the ageing aircraft carrier commenced a lengthy refit that completed in April 1979. On 3 April, as the ship neared a return to sea, she was being moved by tugs from the Fitting Out Wharf at Garden Island to a bout to embark ammunition when a tug line parted and rebounded inboard striking seven sailors and an officer. All suffered various injuries including several broken legs, lacerations and bruising. Seven of the injured were transferred to HMAS Penguin for further medical attention. She returned to sea on 5 April, the refit having been blown out by some five months once again due to dockside industrial action, and commenced post-refit trials, and shakedown and workup exercises.

HMAS Melbourne and USS Enterprise during RIMPAC 1978.

23 May turned out be a very bad day for the carrier. That morning, a Skyhawk was lost overboard when an arrestor wire parted following a normal landing and arrest. The pilot, Lieutenant Commander Kevin Finan, USN, ejected from the aircraft and was quickly recovered by the search and rescue aircraft and the ship’s Gemini dinghy.

Lieutenant Commander Kevin Finan's spectacular ejection from Skyhawk 888 following an arrestor wire failure.

The day only got worse, however, as, while discussions were being conducted on board regarding the re-scheduling of the exercise program and an investigation into the crash and the arrestor system, a Sea King helicopter ditched into the sea, striking the ship’s side and turning upside down as it fell. The forward part of the aircraft quickly submerged leaving only the tail wheel and a small section of the aft fuselage visible on the surface. Of the four-person crew, the observer and aircrewman were able to evacuate the aircraft quickly through the port cabin window and were rescued by the ship’s Gemini dinghy. The pilots, however, experienced difficulties in evacuating the cockpit. They eventually escaped through the starboard side cockpit window and were rescued by another Sea King. All four crew members suffered only minor injuries, however, anxious minutes passed as the two pilots were attempting to free themselves from the cockpit and grave fears were held for their safety. Subsequent investigation found that a fracture in the tail rotor drive system led to a complete failure of the tail rotor and the consequent loss of directional control. All flying operations were cancelled until investigations into the two accidents could be completed.

Shark 01 on its descent following mechanical failure.

The remainder of the year proved to be a busy period for Melbourne as she participated in Exercises TASMANEX in New Zealand in August, SEA EAGLE I in September and KANGAROO III in October before visiting Melbourne and Hobart in November. On 24 September, during the final stages of Exercise SEA EAGLE, a Skyhawk was lost overboard when it rolled off the flight deck as the deck handling crew were attempting to move the aircraft aft in inclement weather. Able Seaman E.R. Krenn was in the cockpit as brakeman when the aircraft went overboard and had what was later described in the incident’s Board of Inquiry report as a ‘miraculous escape.’ He was rescued by a swimmer from HMAS Hobart (II), which was aft of Melbourne in the rescue destroyer position, having suffered two gashes on his forehead.

Members of Melbourne's ship's company receiving the award of the National Medal recognising 15 years of diligent service.

In February 1980 Melbourne deployed to Hawaii to participate in what was to be her last RIMPAC exercise. She returned to Australia, via Honiara, on 16 April. She departed Sydney on 18 August for Western Australian waters where she took part in Exercise SANDGROPER 80 which concluded on 2 September. She departed Fremantle just three days later in company with HMA Ships Perth (II), Stalwart (II) and Supply bound for South East Asia and India on an extended ‘flag-showing’ cruise, and were later joined by HMAS Derwent and HMAS Otama. They visited Christmas Island, Jakarta, Singapore, Cochin (Kochi) and Colombo.

Left: Skyhawk 885 on Melbourne's flight deck with a Wessex astern of the ship. Right: 885 on the catapault preparing for take-off. 885 was lost overboard after a catapault failure on 21 October 1980.

Melbourne lost two aircraft in October, both of them Skyhawks. The first was lost on the 2nd when the aircraft lost power shortly after take-off and crashed into the sea off the north coast of Sumatra approximately 300 metres ahead of the ship. The pilot, Lieutenant Commander Colin Blennerhasset, RAN, successfully ejected and was rescued within minutes by the search and rescue helicopter. The cause of the accident was difficult to determine as the aircraft sank rapidly after crashing leaving little physical evidence; however, the subsequent Board of Inquiry found the most likely cause was a fuel system malfunction. The second was lost on the 21st the day after leaving Colombo when the aircraft was launched prematurely from the catapult and, in spite of the best efforts of the pilot, Sub-lieutenant David Baddams, RAN, to arrest the launch, ditched into the sea and rapidly sank. Sub-lieutenant Baddams ejected from the aircraft and was subsequently retrieved by the search and rescue helicopter. All fixed-wing flying operations were suspended following the second Skyhawk accident and, while the Trackers returned to full operational service shortly afterwards, the Skyhawks never did and were limited only to 'touch-and-go' serials on Melbourne's flight deck until the carrier's decommissioning.

An A4G of 805 Squadron is secured to the catapault prior to launching.

Melbourne and the rest of the task group conducted surveillance operations of the main shipping routes in the Southern Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal, known as Operation CHE SERA, in October and November, and celebrated her silver jubilee on 28 October while operating in the Southern Arabian Sea.

Melbourne celebrates a milestone of 25 years service ranging from 1955 to 1980.

The ships encountered several Soviet vessels during the deployment, often spending some time ‘shadowing’ each other under mutual surveillance. She conducted exercises with Malaysian naval units in the Malacca Strait in November and returned to Sydney, via Melbourne, on 12 December.

She participated in Exercises BEACON SOUTH and BEACON COMPASS with RAN and USN units in Western Australian waters in May at the conclusion of which she shaped course northwards for South East Asia and what would prove to be her last overseas deployment. She visited Manila where she conducted exercises with USN units at the end of May, and underwent a maintenance period at Hong Kong in the first half of June. She departed Hong Kong on the 19th to conduct exercises in the South China Sea with HMA Ships Torrens and Supply, and came under observation that afternoon by a Soviet surveillance vessel.

Tracker 854 lashed to Melbourne's flight deck as a Wessex flies overhead.

View flying operations from Melbourne on the following link to the RAN's promotional film Sea Eagles.

Note: This video is hosted on YouTube. Department of Defence users will not be able to view this video on the Defence Restricted Network (DRN).

On the morning of 21 June, one of Melbourne’s Trackers sighted a vessel of Indo-Chinese origin with about 30 people on board about 185 kms from the carrier indicating that the vessel was in distress. The Tracker directed the merchant ship MV Karaka to the scene which embarked all those on board the stricken vessel. Later that afternoon, another Tracker sighted a flare and upon investigation found another overcrowded vessel indicating distress. Torrens was dispatched to investigate and found an unseaworthy vessel crowded with Vietnamese refugees with little food and water. Melbourne arrived on the scene after dark and with a combined effort from both ships’ boats, embarked 99 refugees, including 19 children aged under 10, who became known as the MG99 (Melbourne Group 99). The refugees were medically examined, provided with food, clothing and bedding, accommodated on the forecastle. 

 

Melbourne's Supply Officer, Commander John Ingram, RAN, later recalled:

It was a miracle that they were discovered. Just having the Tracker in that position, late in the afternoon in deteriorating light conditions. And to pick up a flare on the horizon, the last flare that they had. They had been ignored by other vessels. And to have an admiral and a captain (on board) who said, 'investigate'… You might be in the Navy for 25 years. But you've got to live with your conscience all of your life ... The MG99 rescue was the highlight of my career.

 


Melbourne's crew bringing the MG99 refugees aboard.

The recovery operation took nearly three hours as many of the refugees were unable to walk.

The refugees were accommodated on the forecastle until they were disembarked in Singapore.

 

http://www.abc.net.au/news/2012-06-20/mg99-the-luckiest-refugees/4073394

 

The refugees remained embarked as Melbourne provided Tracker aircraft in support of Exercise STARFISH. On 23 June Melbourne embarked a South Korean sailor from MV Asia Rose who fallen from the merchant ship’s masthead and suffered a fractured skull among other injuries. His condition was stabilised on board before he was transferred by helicopter to hospital the next day as Melbourne approached Singapore.

Melbourne’s commitment to exercise STARFISH ended on 25 June and that morning the ship berthed at Singapore. The MG99 refugees were disembarked to the refugee camp in Singapore and the vast majority of them later requested re-settlement to Australia.

The ship arrived back in Sydney, via Darwin, on 24 July. She went on to participate in Exercises SEA EAGLE in September and KANGAROO in October. She returned to Sydney for what would prove to be the last time on 12 November 1981.

In February 1982 the Australian government announced that arrangements had been made to purchase the British aircraft carrier HMS Invincible from the Royal Navy to replace the ageing Melbourne while Melbourne herself was to be placed into ‘contingent reserve’.

Melbourne's last Captain. Commander Rothwell presented the first commemorative bell to the ship's first Commanding Officer RADM Gatacre.

Melbourne's last Commanding Officer, Commander Rothwell presenting the first commemorative bell to the ship's first Commanding Officer RADM Gatacre.

HMAS Melbourne was decommissioned on 30 June 1982, having spent 62,036 hours underway and having steamed 868,893 nautical miles.

HMAS Melbourne decommissioned 30 June 1982.

The purchase of the Royal Navy carrier Invincible was subsequently cancelled when the British Government decided it was necessary to retain the aircraft carrier following lessons learned during the Falklands war. In March 1983 the incoming Australian Labor Government announced that it would implement its election commitment not to replace Melbourne and as a result of these two decisions the RAN lost many of the advantages it had hitherto enjoyed in the region.

Melbourne spent her last days moored at Bradley's Head dolphins in Sydney Harbour, awaiting a decision on disposal. The ship was initially sold in June 1984 to an Australian company for A$1.7 million, however the sale fell through. In February 1985 the former Flagship was sold to the China United Shipbuilding Co Ltd for A$1.4 million to be broken up for scrap metal in the port of Dalian, China.

 

Memorial window, Garden Island Chapel

 

 

Further Reading

  1. Operational Deployments of HMAS Melbourne [R21] 1956-1996 Written & published by Tas Browning © 2000
  2. H.M.A.S. Melbourne - 25 years by Ross Gillett. Nautical Press, Sydney 1980.
  3. H.M.A.S. Melbourne by Timothy Hall. Allen & Unwin, Sydney 1982.n  

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