Centaur Class

Overview

The Centaur class was last of the light fleet carrier designs built for the Royal Navy in the closing years of the Second World War. There were orginally going to be eight ships in this class but with the end of the war work on all the ships was halted and four of them were cancelled outright.

The four remaining vessels remained uncompleted for the best part of ten years. With the very long time to completion there were large differences between the four ships in the class.

The first to be completed was HMS Centaur which was was commissioned in 1954. This ship had a traditional axial flight deck and was unsuitable for operating jets. This meant the ship almost immediately had to be rebuilt with an angled flight deck. She remained in service as a conventional carrier until 1964. Plans to convert her into a Commando Carrier were cancelled a year later.

HMS Albion and HMS Bulwark were the next to completed. They both took part in the Suez operations in 1956. They were converted into Commando Carriers and operated in this role during the 1960s and into the 1970s. Both vessels spent time in the Far East but with United Kingdom Defence Reviews determining the country’s withdrawal from that area their days were numbered. Albion was withdrawn in 1973 and Bulwark three years later. Bulwark was planned to undergo a refit and re-role to anti-submarine carrier but an engine room fire saw the ship finally withdrawn in 1980.

The final vessel in this class was HMS Hermes and it lasted longer than any of the others. She was not finished until 1959 and appeared with a fully angled flight deck. HMS Hermes was the last conventional aircraft carrier built for the Royal Navy. As time went on her size began to tell against her. Although she operated Buccaneers there was no possibility Phantoms would be able to operate from her deck. After a number of years as a light attack carrier she was converted to a Commando Carrier configuration to replace HMS Albion.

However the development of the revolutionary V/STOL Sea Harrier saw HMS Hermes return to the operation of conventional fixed wing aircraft. Fitted with a ski-jump at the end of the 1970s she was earmarked for withdrawal and sale in the early 1980s but this did not happen before she saw combat service in the 1982 Falklands Conflict. In 1984 she was sold to the Indian Navy.

This class of aircraft carrier was perhaps most successful in roles other than those for which it was intended. The Royal Navy found the helicopter commando carrier very useful and it was not replaced when Albion and Bulwark were retired until well after the end of the Cold War. In the late 1940s and 1950s no one could have imagined the revolution in aircraft design represented by the Harrier and it was in their operation that HMS Hermes made its most vital contribution.

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