HMAS Melbourne, 1943 to 1968
A Brief History of R21, 1943 to 1968
The British light fleet aircraft carrier, original pennant number R21 was built as HMS Majestic by Vickers Armstrong, Barrow-in-Furness, UK, laid down 15th. April 1943, and launched 28th. February 1945 by Lady Anderson, wife of the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Construction was suspended in 1945 and her pennant number changed to R77 under the NATO designation system. Australia agreed to purchase R77 in 1949 and building recommenced at Harland & Wolff Ltd., Govan, Glasgow to a modernized design including a 5.5 degree angled flight deck. Lady White, wife of the Australian High Commissioner in the United Kingdom commissioned and renamed her as HMAS Melbourne on 28th. October, 1955 with the pennant number changed back to R21 as she would not be operating within NATO.
Royal Australian Fleet Air Arm crews commenced training at Eglington in Northern England and then at the Royal Naval Air Station Culdrose, Cornwall. Melbourne commenced sea trials from Glasgow in December, 1955 and flying trials later in January, 1956 off Plymouth in the English Channel. Following acceptance and workup trials she returned to Glasgow berthing in King George V dock where her new aircraft were loaded by crane from 8th. to 10th. March 1956. Melbourne sailed from Glasgow for Australia on 11th. March 1956, proceeding via Gibraltar, Naples, Malta, the Suez Canal, Colombo, Fremantle and Melbourne, arriving in Sydney on 10th. May 1956 with 808 Squadron (8 De Havilland Sea Venoms) and 816 & 817 Squadrons (11 Fairy Gannets) embarked. She also carried 3 Bristol Sycamore helicopters. The flight deck pennant was a "Y" and all aircraft had a "Y" painted on the tail.
HMAS Sydney, then carrying the Flag, escorted Melbourne up the NSW Coast to Sydney Harbour. The Flag transfered to Melbourne and she became the flagship of the Australian Navy and remained so until she paid off when the flag transferred to HMAS Stalwart. In September 1956 Melbourne commenced the first of what were to be many deployments to the Far East. The Australian Government committed naval forces to the British Commonwealth Far East Strategic Reserve (Known as "Up Top" by sailors) in 1955, which provided for an annual visit from an aircraft carrier for a minimum period of 3 months. She maintained that commitment with the BCFESR (Later the FESR) and then ANZUK, and participated in many exercises conducted under the auspices of the South East Asia Treaty Organisation (SEATO). The flight deck pennant was changed to "M" and all her aircraft had the M painted on the tail.
Prior to the "official" period of the Indonesian Confrontation, Melbourne was allocated to the FESR for 17 days from 28th February 1962 to 16th March 1962 and in company with the Daring class destroyer, Voyager & the "Q" class anti submarine frigate, Queenborough, challenged the right of sea passage through the Indonesian Archipelago. This was one of the few times in the history of the ship that she was prepared for and placed in a position to engage with an enemy if challenged. The same proceedure occured in 1963.
During a long career spanning 27 years, Melbourne never fired a shot in anger nor engaged an enemy.
In 1963 Melbourne was in Hobart for the royal visit and reviewed by HRH Queen Elizabeth 11 on board HM Royal Yacht Britannia. The flight deck was lined with the ships company who gave HRH three hearty cheers (Officers will say "Hurrah", Sailors will shout "Hooray!" ) as Britannia sailed along the ships port side.
Subsequently, 808 Squadron was disbanded, followed by 805 Squadron which was replaced by the re-formed 817 Squadron in 1963, flying Westland Wessex helicopters. 816 was equipped with Sea Venoms in 1964, in addition to its Fairy Gannets.
On 10th. February 1964, Melbourne was involved in a tragic collision with the Daring class destroyer HMAS Voyager off Jervis Bay, New South Wales. Out of a crew of 317, 82 lives were lost as Voyager was cut in half and sank during the night.
From 1959 through to the late 1960s, Melbourne served in the Far East Strategic Reserve. She took part in exercises (JET & SEATO) and escorted HMAS Sydney (then used to ferry troops and vehicles) to Vietnam.
After returning from the Far East in 1967, 816 and 817 Squadrons were disembarked and 816 was disbanded. That September, Melbourne sailed to the United States, taking on board 100 Mk44 electric homing torpedoes in Seal Beach plus new Douglas Skyhawk and Grumman Tracker aircraft in San Diego for the reformed 805 and 816 Squadrons respectively, before returning to Australia for a major refit which kept her in dock for all of 1968 and into 1969.
Preparing for Half Life Conversion
On arrival back in Australia Melbourne anchored in Jervis Bay and the Skyhawks (secretly) were off loaded onto barges and towed ashore to HMAS Creswell then trucked to Naval Air Station, Nowra. On completion the ship proceeded to Garden Island Dock and berthed on the FOW (Fitting out wharf) where the Trackers were off loaded onto low loaders and trucked through the middle of Sydney to Mascot Aerodrome, for preflight checks before being flown to Naval Air Station, Nowra. This operation was a huge media event. The two semi trailers on the deck are aircraft simulators.
On the 22nd. November 1967, HMAS Melbourne berthed in Sydney and after unloading the Tracker aircraft, deammunitioned and destored before commencing an extended refit to prepare her for operating the new aircraft. Refit commenced on 1st. January 1968 and continued until 17th. January, 1969.