HMAS Melbourne (R21) was the last aircraft carrier to serve with the Royal Australian Navy (RAN). She joined HMAS Sydney and HMAS Vengeance in the title role and appeared as the third of the group - the Sydney retired in 1958 and the Vengeance in 1955. HMAS Melbourne was originally laid down as a British Royal Navy light carrier on April 15th, 1943 during World War 2 and launched in February of 1945 as HMS Majestic (R77). As she was no longer needed in the large military drawdown that followed the war (the war ended in September of 1945) she was sold to the Australian government (carrying the name of HMAS Majestic) and recommissioned as HMAS Melbourne on October 28th, 1955. She was assigned pennant number R21 and sailed under the motto of "Vires Acquint Eundo" - meaning "She Gathers Strength as She Goes". She formed a part of the "new-look", post-war Royal Australian Navy during the Cold War decades.
The Australian Navy purchased the vessel in 1947 and, before she was to be delivered, it was decided to upgrade various facilities about her design. This included incorporation of an angled flight deck set to port and improved living conditions. The island superstructure remained to starboard while the bow and stern sections of the deck were unobstructed. A pair of hangar elevators - one ahead of midships and the other ahead of the stern - provided the needed access to the hangar deck below. Her flight deck allowed launching of two aircraft simultaneously from the bow and her hold carried up to twenty-seven aircraft of fixed-wing and rotary-wing configuration - though originally just twenty-four aircraft were carried. HMAS Melbourne eventually fielded Australian flight squadron Nos. 805, 808, 816, and 817 from the period of 1958 through 1982 - a mix of aircraft beginning with de Havilland Sea Venoms and McDonnell Douglas A-4 Skyhawks to Fairey Gannets, Grumman S-2 Trackers, Westland Wessex helicopters, and Westland Sea King helicopters.
Her propulsion system was conventional in nature and wholly British in their design. It was made up of 4 x Admiralty three-drum boilers with 2 x Parsons single-reduction geared turbines outputting 40,000 shaft horsepower to two shafts. Top speed was 24 knots with a range of 12,000 nautical miles. The crew numbered 1,350 of which 350 made up the air arm element. She was also fitted with modern radar, communication, and navigational aids throughout her ocean-going career.
Her armament, as built, was made up of 25 x 40mm Bofors Anti-Aircraft (AA) guns in six twin-gunned mountings and a further thirteen single-gunned mountings - all intended for local defense as the ship expected broader defense to be accomplished from supporting RAN vessels while at sea. This armament was eventually reduced to 21 guns from 1959 to 1968 and to 12 by 1980. From 1980 to 1982, she fielded just four of these weapons.
The work proved lengthy and the vessel was not made available to the RAN for operational service until commissioned 1955. She never saw direct combat action but supported some actions related to the Malaysian-Indonesia War of 1963-1966. She was also available during the Vietnam War (1955-1975) but was not deployed to the theater. Her career was stained by the collisions with two friendly vessels - HMAS Voyager in February 1964 and USS Frank E. Evans in June of 1969 - resulting in the deaths of 82 and 74 respectively.
Decommissioned on May 30th, 1982, several attempts to save her hull for other roles failed. She was then sold for scrapping to China though a willing China used this exposure as hands-on experience for her engineers for a possible future Chinese Navy aircraft carrier. The endeavor was finally realized in 2012 as the Liaoning (16) based on the hull of the acquired Soviet-era Admiral Kuznetsov-class "Riga" (then renamed later as the "Varyag"). HMAS Melbourne was ultimately scrapped by the Chinese - though some sources believe not until 2002.
The Australian Navy planned to purchase HMS Invincible from the British Royal Navy as a direct successor for Melbourne though this deal was derailed by events including the Falklands War of 1982 between Britain and Argentina. To that end, HMAS Melbourne was not replaced and ended Australia's use of aircraft carriers.
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