An epic journey, bureaucratic red-tape and engine problems couldn’t stop Mark Powell revealing in the chance to dive the world’s first purpose-built aircraft carrier.
There are not many diveable aircraft carriers in the world, so diving any aircraft carrier is a special experience, but diving HMS Hermes – the first purpose-built aircraft carrier – is a truly unique experience. There had previously been a number of merchant ships that had been converted for use as an aircraft carrier, but HMS Hermes was the first to be commissioned specifically as a carrier.
World War One had shown the advantage of aircraft in warfare and, despite the fact that it was only 20 years since the pioneering flight of the Wright Brothers, the use of aircraft had started to change the face of warfare.
Previously, naval power has been based on the ideal of Capital ships. Large battleships had ruled the waves and the introduction of the Dreadnaught Class of ships had ratcheted up the arms race between the Great Powers and had been a significant factor in the complex political situation that had led to World War One. The use of aircraft for aerial reconnaissance and then for bombing had started to change the balance of power.
The Royal Navy, despite a very-traditional approach in many areas, was at the leading edge by ordering the first purpose-built aircraft carrier in July 1917. She was laid down in January 1918 and launched in September 1919 and so was too late to be of any use in World War One. She was finally commissioned in July 1923 and so didn’t see active service until World War Two.
Despite a refit in 1933, she was decommissioned in 1937 and reduced to Reserve Fleet, where she was used as a training vessel. Within a year, the growing political crisis in Europe resulted in Hermes being recommissioned for active service. Hermes saw action in the Western Approaches, East Coast of Africa, the Red Sea and the Arabian Gulf before returning to the Indian Ocean, where she patrolled between Sri Lanka and the Seychelles.
In March 1942, the Japanese Navy was ordered to carry out an aggressive raid on Sri Lanka and any British shipping in the area. Vice Admiral Nagumo, who was also responsible for the attack on Pearl Harbour, had a large fleet of aircraft carriers, battleships, cruisers and destroyers. In mid-March, HMS Hermes and HMAS Vampire were ordered to leave Trincomalee on the east coast of Sri Lanka and head towards Freemantle, but were recalled to Trincomalee.
On 9 April, the Japanese launched their attack with more than 80 Japanese Zero fighter bombers attacking Hermes. Due to a lack of fighter cover, Hermes had to defend herself, but despite opening fire with every gun it was clear that she was almost helpless against such an onslaught. Numerous bombs struck the ship and she sank in less than an hour with the loss of the Captain, 19 officers and 288 ratings on board.
Despite being an incredibly important historical wreck, HMS Hermes has lain almost unknown until recently. This was because between 1983 and 2009, Sri Lanka was ravaged by a vicious civil war which had meant that the Hermes was inaccessible to divers due to the political situation. Since the end of the civil war, it has finally become possible to dive her.
The aim of this project was to carry out a series of dives on the wreck to determine if it was feasible to dive it using a liveaboard, as all previous dives have been done from the shore using local boats. We also wanted to determine the state and layout of the wreck.
A secondary objective was to search for some of the other wrecks that were sunk at the same time as HMS Hermes. These were two support vessels, HMAS Vampire and HMS Hollyhock, as well as the RFA tankers SS British Sergeant and SS Athelstane, and merchant cargo ship Norviken.
Despite the end of the civil war, it was still a major effort to get to the wreck. Sri Lanka is a ten-hour flight, which is followed by a seven-hour bus journey to get from the capital Colombo to Trincomalee, where the boat departs. During the drive, I was struck by how lush and green it was. I was also struck – luckily, not literally – by how scary the driving was. After about ten minutes someone asked: “Anyone worked out what side of the road they drive on yet?”
The drive seemed to take forever, and once we got there we thought the journey was over, but we had underestimated Sri Lankan bureaucracy. First of all we had to go to the police control and have all our passports checked, then to the port where the military had to check our passports as well. The security was very tight, partly due to the fact that Trincomalee was right in the middle of the war zone during the civil war, and also there had been the hotel attacks on the other coastline.
As this was the first time that the wreck had been dived from a liveaboard, we had arranged to ship out all of the diving equipment required. This included rebreather cylinders, a Haskel pump and a mixing panel. Despite shipping it a month in advance, it had only cleared customs the previous day and was being transported across the country on the day we arrived.
The crate arrived at the harbour gates at 7am and we were still waiting for it to receive permission to enter the harbour at 1pm. Once the kit had arrived we could put it all together, build the mixing panel and get ready for the diving.
The plan was to do a couple of warm-up dives on the way to the wreck. The first was a check dive on a reef just to make sure that all of the kit was working. The next dive was MV Cordiallity, a cargo ship that was a casualty of the civil war and was sunk in 1997 by the rebels. Eight Chinese sailors were killed when the vessel was attacked and sunk. The ship is in 18m of water and made a great check-out dive.
On day three we were finally in a position to dive HMS Hermes. As we dropped down the line we could see that the visibility was excellent. It reduced a little after 30m, but was still impressive. The shot was right on the wreck, near the flight control tower and almost on top of one of the guns. After we tied in the shot, it was time to explore the wreck.
She lies on her port side and I headed along the deck towards the stern. The shot was at the forward end of the flight control tower so I could see the main part of the hull on my left and the tower on my right. As I got to the end of the tower I came across the second of the main guns. From this point onwards I was swimming along the side of the hull where the flight deck should have been exposed, but in this area the wreck was almost inverted, so it was difficult to see the scale of the flight deck.
I passed another main gun before getting to the stern. The starboard prop was standing clear and made a very impressive sight. The portside prop was partly buried in the sand and was only partly visible. I made my way slowly back along the wreck until I got back to the shot and had a look around this area before reaching my planned bottom time of 45 minutes. We all had similar plans and so the whole team ascended together with smiling faces all round.
The next day we were up early in order to dive and then have sufficient surface interval for a second dive. The plan for this dive was to explore the flight control tower and then swim forward to the bows. With the shot midships, it made it easy to go off in either direction. We swam along the control tower that lay along the sand, looking into the intact bridge area where gauges, complete with glass, are still present, as well as a range of other fittings. Above the bridge area was a large circular structure that looked like a mini helipad.
I assumed this must have been a mounting point for some sort of instruments, but interestingly this looked different to the structure shown in the pictures I have of Hermes. Either the structure shown in the pictures was mounted on this circular platform and had fallen off, or possibly it was changed when the ship was retorted. A review of pictures before and after her refit should help to solve this mystery.
We swam back over the control tower towards the bow. The anchor chains as well as the anchor were clearly visible. At the bow the recount had come away from the bow and it was possible to see right into the fo’c’sle of the ship. A row of toilets were clearly visible together with an intact lamp fitting in the ceiling.
Beyond this it was possible to see down through several decks, and light penetrating through the hull showed that there was a hole in the hull a couple of decks down. Looking in through these holes gave a clear indication of the layout of the forward part of the ship. I couldn’t help but think of the men who served, and in many cases died, on this wreck.
The wreck serves as a museum to this unique piece of history, as well as a monument to the men who perished on her. I hope that anyone who dives this wreck takes the opportunity to remember these men and treats the wreck with the respect it deserves. The visibility on the ascent was spectacular and I could see divers spread out along the length of the shotline.
By now I had started to get a good feel for the wreck and decided to start trying to do a sketch map on the second dive. I had filled in the details of the bows and control tower from the first dive, and now wanted to fill in the details of the rear of the ship. We dropped onto the middle section of the ship and I took the opportunity to correct a few details of the control tower part of my sketch. I then started to swim back from the control tower towards the stern.
It was clear that there was a gap between the main deck and the control tower, as if it had broken away and was just lying next to the main deck. Behind the control deck I could start to see what had happened to the rest of the ship. The hull has almost inverted and the flight deck, which rather than being an integral part of the hull in the rear section was effectively just a platform mounted over the main deck, has flattened under the rest of the wreck. Further back, where the hull was more on its side than inverted, the flight deck was more exposed.
At the very stern the main deck was very open, with no hull between the main deck and the flight deck. In this area the flight deck had come away from the wreck and formed a debris field next to the stern. From here we followed the hull up to the starboard prop, which stands up above the hull. The propshaft leading forwards and disappearing into the hull was also visible. From here I swam back along the hull, trying to get a clear picture of the state of the hull before arriving back at the shotline amidships.
On every dive we had seen an amazing variety of fish. Large tuna, grouper and jacks flocked around the wreck, as well as a huge number of other fish. Some of these were an impressive size, with one grouper being considerably larger then me. Some of the tuna were also a very-impressive sight. As well as the fish, a huge variety of coral and other marine life means that there was significantly more life on this wreck than on the vast majority of reefs.
As we steamed back to Trincomalee, I reflected that we had dived a truly world-class wreck. The historical background behind HMS Hermes, the fantastic state of the wreck and the abundance of marine life set this wreck apart. In true expedition-fashion, there had been numerous challenges along the way – delays with bureaucracy, delays finding wrecks, engine problems and other minor issues – but that’s an inherent part of expedition diving as opposed to holiday diving.
The Royal Navy, despite a very-traditional approach in many areas, was at the leading edge by ordering the first purpose-built aircraft carrier in July 1917
The shot was right on the wreck, near the flight control tower and almost on top of one of the guns
Photographs by Mark Powell and Charles Hood