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 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 an aircraft carrier. 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 the First World War. She was finally commissioned in July 1923 and so didn’t see active service until the Second World War where she was based for much of her time in Ceylon, now known as Sri Lanka.
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 Harbor, had a large fleet of aircraft carriers, battleships, cruisers and destroyers. On 9th April the Japanese launched their attack with more than 80 Japanese Zero fighter bombers attacking HMS 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 sunk 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 come possible to dive her.
The aim of this project was 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.
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. First impressions of the island are that despite being obviously very poor it is very clean and colourful with lots of small businesses. There are lots of fruit stands, hardware shops, and mechanics for the scooters and motor bikes that seem to be everywhere. I am struck by how lush and green it is. There are cows wandering the street, Buddhist shrines along the roadside, in fact all the developing world stereotypes. Later we even see three elephants wandering the road.
Diving HMS Hermes for the first time was an unforgettable experience. As we drop down the line we can see that the visibility is excellent, it drops a little after 30m but is still impressive. The shot is right on the wreck, near the flight control tower and almost on top of one of the guns. After we tie in the shot it’s time to explore the wreck. She lies on her port side in 52m/170 feet and I head along the deck towards the stern. The shot is at the forward end of the flight control tower so I can see the main part of the hull on my left and the tower on my right. As I get to the end of the tower I come across the second of the main guns. From this point onwards I am swimming along the side of the hull where the flight deck should be exposed but in this area the wreck is almost inverted so it is difficult to see the scale of the flight deck. I pass another main gun before getting to the stern. The starboard prop is standing clear and makes a very impressive sight. The portside prop is partly buried in the sand and is only partly visible. I make my way slowly back along the wreck until I get back to the shot and have a look around this area before reaching my planned bottom time of 45mins. We all have similar plans and so the whole team ascends together with smiling faces all round.
Over the next few days we further explore the wreck and document its current state. Despite obvious damage and the collapse of the flight deck there are areas that are undamaged and look almost as they would have when the wreck sank. The control tower is almost intact and gauges, complete with glass, are still present as well as a range of other fittings. Emergency lights are still in place with the light bulbs still preserved.
At the bow the anchor chains as well as the anchor are clearly visible. The decking has come away from the bow and it’s possible to see right into the fo’c’sle of the ship. A row of toilets are clearly visible together with an intact lamp fitting in the ceiling. Beyond this it is possible to see down through several decks and light penetrating through the hull shows that there is a hole in the hull a couple of decks down. Looking in through these holes gives a clear indication of the layout of the forward part of the ship. I can’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 wreck is home to a large variety of marine life. Large tuna, grouper and jacks flock around the wreck as well as a huge number of other fish. Some of these are of impressive size with one grouper being considerably larger than me. Some of the tuna are also a very impressive sight. As well as the fish, a huge variety of coral and other marine life means that there is significantly more life on this wreck than on the vast majority of reefs.
During the expedition and subsequent dives I have kept the HMS Hermes Association informed of all our plans. I wanted to make sure that we only ever acted in accordance with the wishes of the survivors and the families of those who perished. As I type this there is now only one survivor. Leading Seaman Stan Curtis was fascinated to see the photographs and video we brought back and was very grateful that we had paid tribute to his comrades who did not survive the attack. I also received a very humbling letter from the daughter of one of the survivors. “ I was moved to tears because my lovely Dad P.O. Henry Walker was a wonderful swimmer and loved the sea, living as we did on the coast of the Irish Sea, I long remember times spent on the beach being taught to run into the icy cold waves and dip down quickly then shown how to swim and float. He would then leave my brother and I to swim out to the Whitehaven Harbours, only to be pointed out by my Mam of a small head appearing in the distance which was that of my dad. The point I’m making is that I always thought of how cruel the sea was to take him from us, but on reading of the world class wreck – the fish and beauty of the coral, and the statement of the writer to it having More Life On This Wreck than on the majority of reefs, fills my heart with JOY and found myself thinking. What a lovely and suitable resting Place for my Father… Just what he would have wished himself. Hopefully others having lost loved ones on the Hermes 9 will be consoled by this.”
I think that expeditions like this can help to keep the memory of events such as this alive. I have also come to realise that, when carried out sensitively, they can provide comfort for those left behind.
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