After World War 2, the Royal Australian Navy embarked on a strategy of blue water operations centered around aircraft carriers. They acquired two light fleet carriers, HMAS Sydney and HMAS Melbourne, from the Royal Navy. The Royal Navy loaned a Colossus-class light aircraft carrier, the Vengeance, to the Royal Australian Navy from 1952 to 1955 as a temporary replacement for the delayed H-M-A-S Melbourne, which finally entered service in 1955.

But the aircraft strategy for the Royal Australian Navy wasn’t to last with the HMAS Melbourne being decommissioned in 1982 and sold for scrap to the Chinese in 1985.  Could Australia have continued to operate a carrier battle group for its defence and projection of power?


During world war 2, the aircraft carrier emerged as a game changer. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour, and the subsequent American response proved that the aircraft could change the course of a naval battle. By integrating aircraft into a naval force, the range, effectiveness, and defensive capability of a force is massively increased. In World War 2, navies without this projection of power would suffer the consequences. Even the Royal Navy – once the greatest seafaring force – was confronted with this reality following a series of successful Japanese naval attacks in Asia and the Indian Ocean.

As such, it was decided that the Royal Australian Navy should be equipped to compete with carrier forces, or at least demonstrate good defence from them. However, the war would be over before such aircraft carriers would be delivered to Australia. Nevertheless, the aircraft carrier remained an important long-term purchase.

The order was placed for two aircraft carriers of the Royal Navy ‘Majestic Class’. The first was the HMS Terrible, launched by the Royal Navy in 1944. She was purchased by the Royal Australian Navy in 1947, following its completion, was commissioned in 1948 and renamed HMAS Sydney.

The second carrier was the HMS Majestic, launched in 1945 by the Royal Navy, and purchased by the Royal Australian Navy in 1947. Renamed HMAS Melbourne, the ship was finally commissioned for Australian use in 1955. At the time, the HMAS Melbourne was the third aircraft carrier produce to feature an angled flight deck – a development considered truly cutting edge for its time.

However, due to the prolonged wait for the HMAS Melbourne to be completed, a third aircraft carrier would also serve the Royal Australian Navy. That carrier was the HMS Vengeance, a Colossus class carrier which would retain its namesake during RAN service. The Vengeance – although never seeing active service – had been completed before the wars end for use in the British Pacific Fleet as part of the 11th Aircraft Carrier Squadron.

The Vengeance was loaned to the RAN in 1952, compensating for the delay of the HMAS Melbourne, and would remain in service until she was returned to the Royal Navy in 1955. While in service, a number of aircraft would operate off of the Vengeance, including RAN Hawker Sea Furies and Fairey Fireflies.

HMS Vengeance


Like the Vengeance, the HMAS Sydney also carried a variety of Sea Furies and Fireflies, usually 12 each. This was complemented initially by two Supermarine Sea Otter rescue aircraft, which were not attached to any squadron. The Sea Otters were later dropped from carrier service during the Korean War.

The HMAS Sydney was deployed to the Korean War in August 1951, to keep a Commonwealth carrier presence in the region, as the Royal Navy’s HMS Glory was undergoing refitting in Australia. Setting sail on August 31st, she would travel to Korea alongside the HMAS Tobruk, first stopping in Rabaul and performing several aerial demonstrations. Once near Korea, she came under the command of the US Navy’s Seventh Fleet, where RAN aircraft were used for strikes against North Korean supply lines. During this period she set a record for a light carrier; with 89 aircraft sorties in one day, with 31 aircraft in the air at one point.

HMAS Sydney off Auckland, March 1950.

During her time near Korea, the Sydney would operate a US Navy Sikorsky Dragonfly. Not only was this the first US Navy equipment to be used by the RAN, but it was also the first helicopter to operate from an Australian ship. During an interesting incident on October 26 1951, a RAN Firefly from the Sydney was shot down deep within North Korean territory following a strike on a railway tunnel. Roughly 120km inland, the crew of the Sydney feared that a rescue would be impossible as the evening set in; as it would be at the limit of a helicopters range, and flying in the dark would be difficult. Nevertheless, the US Navy Sikorsky crew volunteered to head in, and at 4:22 they took off. According to reports, the aerial observer was quickly taught how to operate an Owen submachine gun before taking off. Meanwhile, RAN Fireflies had been providing cover for the downed crew, but as evening set in they were ordered to return to the carrier. However, two of the aircraft would turn around on their way back after noticing the Sikorsky heading in. At half past 5, the Sikorsky arrived, picking up the crew as the aerial observer opened fire with his submachine gun, supported by two Fireflies also opening fire. Flying back, all three of the aircraft were dangerously low on fuel, but all returned safely, with the fireflies landing on the Sydney, and the Sikorsky landing near Seoul with the help of truck headlights to locate the airbase. This was the longest helicopter rescue recorded during the entire Korean War.

This incident provided additional motivation for Australia to purchase its first helicopters; the Bristol Sycamore. HMAS Sydney would continue serving in Korea until January 25th 1952, when she was relieved by HMS Glory.

The Sydney would later operate during the Vietnam War, supporting the 1st Australian Task Force, earning it the nickname “the Vung Tau ferry”. From 1965, the Sydney would transport troops, vehicles, and supplies to Vietnam. This would continue through untill November 1972. Due to the Sydneys reallocation as a troop transport, this would leave the Melbourne as the only properly operational Australian aircraft carrier.

Not long after – on November 12th 1973 – the Sydney was decommissioned from service. There would be no replacement for her, leaving the Melbourne as the only carrier in Australian service.



During her service life, the HMAS Melbourne carried upwards of 20 fixed wing aircraft at a time, peaking at 27 fixed wing aircraft during the early 1970s. In its early years, the carrier was home to the de Havilland Venom – operating as fighter by RAN 808 and 805 Squadron – and the Fairey Gannet – operating in an anti-submarine role by the RAN 816 and 817 Squadron.

By the late 1960s, the Melbourne would be operating two new types of aircraft; the Douglas A-4G Skyhawk, and the Grumman S-2E Tracker. The Skyhawk was operated by RAN 724 and 805 Squadrons as a multirole aircraft modified for better air defence for the Royal Australian Navy, while the Tracker was operated by 816 and 851 Squadrons in its standard anti-submarine role. Alongside these aircraft were the Westland Wessex anti-submarine helicopter, later replaced in 1972 by the Westland Sea King. The air group was usually made up of ten helicopters, four Skyhawks, and six Trackers.

As it was for HMAS Sydney, the Melbourne would also be sent to the Vietnam War, however her roll would be limited. Although there were plans to utilise Melbourne more fully in the Vietnam War, her primary operations were escorting the HMAS Sydney in its role as ferry. Being the only operational aircraft carrier in Australian service, the Navy had decided to limit its actions around South East Asia.

During its life, the Melbourne was involved in two deadly incidents; the first took place on February 10th 1964, when the carrier collided with the Australian destroyer HMAS Voyager, killing 82 of the Voyagers crew. Then on June 3rd 1969, the Melbourne collided with a US Navy destroyer – the USS Frank E Evans, resulting in 74 fatalities for the Americans. Both incidents were the byproducts of strange circumstances, which lead to superstition around the HMAS Melbourne.

The Melbourne would live on, serving with the RAN until the decision was made to decommission her in 1982. Since the Melbourne was first commissioned, there had been discussion surrounding her replacement should she need one. Proposals included purchasing a larger carrier. Both the Americans and British responded favourably, with the Americans offering an Essex class carrier, and the British offering the HMS Hermes. Australia would not have needed to purchase either, with the only price being the refitting required to make the carriers compatible with Australian aircraft. However, it was decided that the operational cost and manpower would be too high, and both offers were turned down.

HMAS Melbourne decommissioning.

Following decommission, the Melbourne was to be converted into a floating casino. However, this plan fell through, and it was decided to sell the carrier to a Chinese wrecking company in 1985. In an interesting turn of events, the carrier – after being towed to China – was studied by the Peoples Liberation Army Navy. The research was part of a plan to develop effective aircraft carriers for the Chinese Navy, while providing a platform to train aviators of the People’s Liberation Army Naval Air Force in carrier flight operations. Few anticipated this use of the carrier, as China at the time was not seen as capable of developing aircraft carriers for themselves.

Reports of these events vary, with some claiming the Chinese government made the purchase through the China United Shipbuilding Company. However, Rear Admiral Zhang Zhaozhong remembers the carrier as a surprise arrival – the Navy had not realised that such a purchase had been made until the giant ship arrived at port. Upon arrival, Navy personnel were sent to look over the ship, with many saying that it was the largest war ship they had ever seen. Despite being stripped of important electronic components, several other pieces of intact equipment remained, including the steam catapult and landing system. It has been said that the research of the Melbourne helped convince the Chinese government to invest into a carrier development program, which had been spearheaded by PLAN Admiral Liu Huaqing, but had failed to receive the necessary funding until these events transpired.

The Melbourne remains the most iconic of three aircraft carriers Australia operated, and is commemorated in various ways at Sydneys RAN base at Garden Island.


The decommissioning of the Melbourne marked a change in the way the Royal Australian Navy operated. While smaller ships would still allow for the movement of men, equipment, and even helicopters, the aircraft carrier was truly unique in its ability to project air power. There would have to be alternate strategies for the Navy and Air Force. But would they result in the same level of effectiveness in the defence of Australia?

Japan’s decision to deploy the F-35B variant of the joint strike fighter from its Izumo-class warships is said by some to be a game-changer, as these ships will essentially become small aircraft carriers. Could Australia do the same with its Canberra-class amphibious assault ships – the H-M-A-S Canberra and the H-M-A-S Adelaide?

The idea of flying F-35Bs from the Canberra-class vessels has been around for almost a decade. With Japan’s recent decision sparking further debate about Australia’s need to project power and support expeditionary forces beyond the range of land-based air cover.

The Canberra and Adelaide are larger than Australia’s previous aircraft carrier H-M-A-S Melbourne, and have the necessary infrastructure, including a ski jump, to operate Short Take-Off and Vertical Landing aircraft. The acquisition of conventional F-35A jets opens up the possibility of acquiring  F-35Bs for operation off the current landing helicopter docks from these ships. Both in theory and practice the U.S. Marine Corps have already optimized the effectiveness of the F-35B on its own large amphibious assault ships.

Diagram showing the relative class sizes with the Canberra class overshadowing all others. (Image: RAN)

The F-35B offers clear operational advantages. Even a small force of these jets could provide air support for joint task forces, perform fleet air defense, offer close air support for ground forces, and carry out intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance missions. The F-35 is at the pinnacle of aerial dominance for Australia and is well suited for under-prepared airfields across Southeast Asia. As a carrier-based aircraft, it offers a projection of power in the regions that is currently unavailable. This capability would also enhance support for allied F-35B operators when coordinating in the region.

However, the Canberra-class amphibious warships are designed to conduct amphibious warfare. Converting the Canberra and Adelaide to operate as an aircraft carrier for jets would be costly and impact their amphibious capabilities. There would be limitations operationally from the ship compared to a dedicated aircraft carrier, and the F-35B variant has limitations in terms of speed, range, and weapons payload compared to other F-35 variants, especially when operating in full stealth mode. Additionally, the carrier would require a task force of surface ships to provide protection, as with any carrier group, and in the case where there is no coalition force providing that protection.

Today, the aircraft carrier is all but a distant memory for Australia. Given increased geopolitical tension, dialogue regarding the necessity of Australia possessing aircraft carriers has once again emerged. Despite its costly nature, there is a strong case to be made for the aircraft carrier battle group. However, the debate continues – as to how Australia’s air and sea power can best serve her in defence.