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Queen Elizabeth Class
(Cancelled 1966)


Re: CVA-01 Page

I'm gathering information for a possible book on CVA-01, probably with a final chapter on CVF.  I would be delighted to hear from anyone who was involved with CVA-01 project in the 1960's and would like to pass on descriptions of their experiences at the time, and their thoughts about the project in hindsight.  

Richard Beedall


Type Designation: Aircraft Carrier, Attack (CVA)

This page is about the fleet aircraft carrier - commonly referred to as CVA-01 - which was planned for by Royal Navy in the mid-1960's, but which was cancelled in February 1966 before any construction work had started.  It is of interest because it is the last large (in RN terms anyway) strike carrier designed for the RN and thus provides a useful comparison to the currently planned CVF, which if history had been slightly different would be its replacement.  The similarity in size and displacement of the two designs is perhaps no coincidence given the somewhat overlapping design requirements combined with nearly identical dockyard and basing restrictions.


(Source: Imperial War Museum)


(Above) This very stylistic artists impression of CVA-01featured in the Addendum of the 1963/4 Janes Fighting Ships.  It must date from about 1961/2, when two CF 299 (Sea Dart) launchers were still planned (influenced by US supercarriers), these can can just be seen port and starboard right aft, while the flight deck extends all the way to the stern and is still angled rather than parallel.  The unusual "tunnel" through the island, and the "Alaskan Taxiway" outboard of it, are clearly visible.  There are no environmental domes protecting the 909 radars on the island roof.  The strange looking strike-fighter aircraft are probably supposed to be the Vickers Type 581, this design had variable geometry wings and no horizontal tail fin.


(Source: Brown & Moore)

(Above) This diagram shows the alternative 7 degree angled deck and 4 degree parallel deck layouts considered in late 1962.   Parallel was chosen. 
[Note: the diagram is from the excellent book Rebuilding the Royal Navy by D K Brown and George Moore, Chatham Publishing, 2003.  This is probably the best published source for information on CVA-01, and indeed all post-war RN warship designs]


(Source: Brown & Moore)

(Above) The CVA-01 design as at March 1963.  The basic configuration had been set by this date.


cva01-1.jpg (55872 bytes)

(Source: Ministry of Defence (Navy))

(Above) Two official artists impressions from mid-1965.  The large "Broomstick" masthead radar dome was for the planned Anglo-Dutch 3D Type 988 long-range air search radar, which would not have been actually fitted as the UK later withdrew from the project.  Note the position of the island to permit aircraft to taxi both sides, the inboard elevator forward of the island, the deck edge lift aft, and the slight angle (now just 3 1/2 degrees) of the landing lane.  The flight deck terminates about 50 feet before the stern and there is now just one Sea Dart launcher, located on the centre line of the fantail.  Although not clearly visible in these reproductions, the rear of a Buccaneer aircraft is shown testing or "warming-up" at the end of the hanger in the upper picture.  This also shows a Buccaneer strike aircraft about to be launched from the bow catapult and a Whirlwind helicopter is acting as SAR plane guard.  A Sea King HAS.1 ASW helicopter can be seen on deck aft.  An American-made F-4 Phantom fighter aircraft (ordered instead of the cancelled P.1154) is about to land on. The tunnel through the island is much reduced in size, and is now large enough only for flight deck equipment, not aircraft.

In the lower picture, bridle catchers can be seen added at the end of the two catapults, several Phantom's (one about to be catapulted) a Buccaneer and a Sea King are on deck, and again a Whirlwind helicopter is acting as plane guard.


(Above) This restored Admiralty model of CVA-01 was used for wind tunnel testing and is now on display at the FAA Museum, Yeovilton.  The only other surviving contemporary model of CVA-01 has been loaned to Lockheed Martin's Ship Suitability Center, Fort Worth, Texas, and forms part of a display there.

(Below) A modern illustration of how HMS Queen Elizabeth might have looked in service, from the UK magazine International Fleet Review.  The significant loss of flight deck area due to the open fantail and large island is shown well.


(Above) An official schematic of CVA-01, showing the hanger deck and the flight deck outlines.   The catapults appear to be excessively long (about 300ft rather than the official 250ft), but that is because they have been extended excessively towards the Jet Blast Deflectors located 50ft aft of the start of the catapult throw.

(Below) An unofficial outline drawing of the final (November 1965) design for CVA-01.  Notice the much shorter cats and reduced width Alaskan taxiway compared with the plan above. The bridle catchers at the end of the catapults are prominent.


(Below) Photos of the two aircraft that would have formed the bulk of a CVA airgroup.

buc-s2.jpg (13945 bytes)
Buccaneer S.2 of 800 NAS on HMS Eagle
phantom.jpg (18490 bytes)
Phantom FG.1 of 892 NAS on HMS Ark Royal

Ship Pennant Number Commissioned Builder Notes
QUEEN ELIZABETH R? [1973] Probably J. Brown, Clydebank Cancelled 2/66 before ordering

Note: Many reports refer to a second carrier, designated CVA-02, which would probably have been named HMS Duke of Edinburgh.  However although planned for by the Royal Navy, this ship was never approved by either the Treasury or the Government.



There is considerable disagreement regarding the "final" specifications of the CVA design. The specifications stated below are based upon those dated 11-12/1965 and scheduled for issue to shipbuilders in January 1966; their issue was delayed just prior to project cancellation in February 1966.  They are therefore probably the most accurate specifications for the proposed ships available.

  CVA (December 1965 specification)
Displacement: 53,000 long tons [53,850 tonnes]  "average action condition";
54,500 tons deep (55,400 tonnes)   [Some sources suggest that this is standard displacement, and estimate 63,000 tons (64,000 tonnes) deep load]
Dimensions: 890 x 122 x 33.5 feet (271.3 x 37.2 x 10.2 meters) waterline; 963 (including bridle catcher, 928 flight deck level) x 234 x 33.5 feet (293.5 x 71.3 x 10.2 meters) overall
Speed: Max. 30 knots trials
28 knots max. sustained in tropical waters
At least 25kts  while operating catapults
Engines: 6 x Admiralty boilers, 3 x Parsons steam turbines; 135,000shp; 3 shafts
Armament: SAM: 1 x 2 Sea Dart GWS.30 Mod 0 (40 missiles)
Sensors: Air search/surveillance - 1 x Type 988 (later cancelled) with CDS or Type 984 with CDS or Type 965; Search - 1 x Type 992(?); Fighter control - 1 x Type 982; Height-finding/air direction - 1 x Type 983; Sea Dart fire control - 2 x Type 909; Navigation - 1 x Type 974.
Air Group: Up to 50 aircraft.  Initial planned airgroup: 36 x Phantom FG.1 and Buccaneer S.2 (at least 12 of each); 4 x AEW Replacement (possibly Gannet AEW.3 initially); 4 x Sea King HAS.1; 2 x Wessex HAS.1 (SAR); 1 x COD  [possibly 1 x Gannet COD.4 initially].
Aircraft Facilities: Single 650 x 80 ft  hanger; 884 x 191 ft slightly angled flight deck; 4 x 35,000 lb arrestor wires; 2 x BS-6 250ft 70,000 lb steam catapults with bridle catchers, 1 stbd bow and 1 waist; 2 x 40,000 lb 72 x 30 ft lifts, 1 centre line and 1 deck edge.
Armour: Belt: 1.5 in; flight deck: 1.25 in; Sea Dart magazine: 2 in; other magazines: 1.5-2.5 in; hanger and machinery spaces: 1 in;  Underwater protection.
Complement: 3,250 crew and airgroup



RN carrier power at the start of the 1960's, HMS Victorious, Ark Royal and Hermes in the Mediterranean during Exercise Swordthrust, December 1960.

At the start of the 1960's the Royal Navy's carrier force was at its post-WW2 zenith, with five fixed-wing fleet carriers operating a formidable range of jet aircraft, however the Admiralty was uncomfortably aware of accumulating problems.  Because of growth in aircraft size and weight the two smallest (CVL's) and also slowest of the existing "fleet" carriers - the partially modernized HMS Centaur (27,000 tons full load) and the brand new HMS Hermes (27,800 tons) - were unable to carry a balanced and reasonably sized airgroup, indeed the former was unable to operate the new Buccaneer strike aircraft then just entering service, while the later could with difficulty operate only seven of these.  Of the three larger fleet carriers (CV's), HMS Victorious (35,500 tons) had just been very expensively (£30 million in 1959!) reconstructed but still had an ageing twenty year old hull and was actually only slightly larger and more capable than Hermes, HMS Ark Royal (49,950 tons) was unmodernised (although she had been completed in 1955 at a cost of £21.5 million to an interim configuration that included a partial angled deck, mirror landing sight, and an early model of steam catapults) and generally rather unsatisfactory, only HMS Eagle (50,500 tons) which was currently undergoing a major and again very expensive modernisation (£31 million by completion in early 1964) was considered really up to scratch as a modern fleet carrier - although still of World War 2 origin. 

Whether or not the huge sums required during the 1950's and early 1960's to modernise existing aircraft carriers  - which often represented a high proportion of the cost of a new carrier - would be better allocated towards building new carriers was a source of considerable debate within the Royal Navy at the time.  From 1953 the Board of Admiralty generally favoured building new carriers over expensive rebuilds of existing ships during what was a period of enormous change for naval aviation, but in practice it was also essential to make the best possible use of some of the ships in hand.  The almost inevitable compromise was some major economies in the modernisation programme, for example the planned rebuild of HMS Formidable to the same standard as Victorious was cancelled; the modernization of HMS Centaur (and incidentally also that of HMS Bulwark, which instead was converted to a Commando Carrier (LPH) in 1959) to a full "Hermes" standard never occurred and despite having become totally inadequate for the role she remained operating as a strike carrier throughout the early 1960's; while Ark Royal was never brought up to the same standard as Eagle after her 1959-64 rebuild.  But despite these big economies, the hoped for new carriers never actually appeared, which in hindsight arguably made worthwhile - even essential - the actual rebuild's of Eagle and Victorious and the redesign of the small and slow Hermes.

Several times during the 1950's the Royal Navy pressed for new carriers.  On 8 July 1953 a new carrier (often referred to as the "1952 carrier design") of 53,000 [long] tons full load, with a length of 870 over all (815 feet, waterline), beam 150ft,  speed of 30 knots and an air group of about 55 aircraft was cancelled due to lack of the necessary £26 million of  funds after design work had reached an advanced stage, indeed the main engines had already been ordered. The design included a 'skew' landing lane (angled deck) and two islands.

The Naval Staff then considered very small carriers in the 20,000-24,000 tons bracket, some of a radical design.  It was expected that these would be useful as convoy escort fighter carriers, carrying 24-28 aircraft, probably including vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) aircraft - referred to as "jet reaction" aircraft at the time.  The paper "The Future of Navy" (ADM205/102), dated 2 March 1954, forecast two of these new escort carriers to be in service by 1965, with another two under construction.  However in reaction to the pressure of continuous defence reviews (e.g. the Swinton Committee), the RN now counter-attacked against the move towards small carriers with aircraft of limited capabilities, and the First Lord James Thomas emphasised that "fleet carriers with their full complement of the right types of aircraft are essential".  Thus by November 1954 the thinking of naval planners had turned towards a "proper" light fleet carrier similar to the new HMS Hermes design, and consideration was given to a 28,000 ton design able to operate up to 38 aircraft - initially to be 12 Scimitar's, 12 Sea Vixen's, 9 Buccaneer's, 4 AEW aircraft, and 2 SAR helicopters.   However  this design was considered unbalanced ("too small for a big carrier and too big for a small carrier") and inadequate unless a viable VTOL aircraft quickly appeared, having only a minimal capability to operate the conventional high performance aircraft expected to enter service in the 1970's and 1980's,  Simultaneously in 1954 proposals were also made for a larger and more expensive 35,000 tons "medium fleet aircraft carrier" able to operate 47 aircraft  - initially to be 12 Scimitar's, 12 Sea Vixen's, 8 Buccaneer's, 8 ASW Gannet's, 4 AEW aircraft and 2 SAR helicopters.   This larger design was considered to be the smallest ship able to operate modern aircraft in reasonable numbers, and it was suggested that the first ship could be completed by 1962 at a cost of  £18 million.  Although the medium fleet carrier was to remain in the new-construction building programme for several years, nothing ever came of it. 

In the late 1950's a navalised variant of the SR.177 rocket fighter was favoured as the RN's next generation fighter after the Sea Vixen, although it may not have been able to operate from the smaller fleet carriers.  An initial batch of 18 were briefly on order against the NA.47 requirement, but were personally cancelled by Minister of Defence Duncan Sandy's in August 1957 - a few months after his devastating April 1957 Defence White Paper had ruled out new manned fighters for the RAF.

By the late 1950's it was becoming painfully obvious that the existing fixed-wing carriers were becoming tired, and that the CVL's and even HMS Victorious were struggling to operate ever the larger, heavier and faster modern aircraft entering service.  Three new 45,000 tons carriers for completion between 1970 and 1973 were optimistically included by planners in 1959-60 Long Term Costings, but there was no momentum or backing behind the project.  With the last of the old war-time hulls (HMS Hermes) now finally completing and the entire current fleet carrier and Commando carrier force due for disposal by 1980, it had become time for the Royal Navy to get very serious about building new aircraft carriers or risk losing its naval aviation capability by default.  Therefore in early 1959 the Fleet Requirements Committee was asked by the Admiralty to consider the carrier replacement problem, it recommended that all five existing five existing strike carriers (the Ark Royal, Centaur, Eagle, Victorious, and the just completing Hermes) be replaced by five large new fleet carriers of 45-50,000 tons, HMS Victorious by 1970-2, Ark Royal by 1976 and the rest by about 1980, the last to go being HMS Hermes.

HMS Hermes, the RN's last completed fleet carrier, makes an impressive sight moored with all of her 25 strong airgroup ranged on deck - from the bow a Gannet AS.4(COD) and 3 Gannet AEW.3's, 5 Wessex HAS.1's, 10 Sea Vixen FAW.2's , and finally 6 Buccaneer S.2's.  However the latest American aircraft carriers carried about 90 aircraft, including the supersonic McDonnell F-4B Phantom II.

The Board of Admiralty discussed and approved the Committee's recommendations in January 1960, although the First Sea Lord sagely considered that a plan for five large new carriers was too ambitious to get government approval given the estimated price tag of £50 million a ship, and he proposed that they reduce the target number to four, which was accepted in principle.  Nevertheless, for several years studies and planning documents still often indicated that larger numbers of carriers were required.  For example ADM 205/192 "Presentation of Alternative Long Term Naval Building Programme(s)" dated 17th May, 1961, suggested that five or even six new strike carriers were needed by 1980 in the two "East of Suez" scenarios considered, while soon afterwards the Joint Service Directors of Plans (which included Army, RN and RAF representatives) unanimously approved a paper, JP(61)91, entitled "Limitations of the Future Cost of Defence" which recommended that the future RN should include six large carriers, able to maintain three or four carrier battles groups always in service.  The later paper was rejected by the Chiefs of Staff (it was vetoed by the Chief of the Air Staff) as being too "dark-blue", and was re-written in a more "balanced" form before finally being adopted in January 1962 as the strategic paper COS(621)1, "British Strategy in the Sixties".

After Board approval was given, studies immediately commenced on six designs ranging from 42,000 to 68,000 [long] tons full load, and tentatively ranging in cost from about £45 to 60 million each.  The advantages of size were immediately obvious, the 42,000 tons study could accommodate only 27 Buccaneer and Sea Vixen size aircraft, the 48,000 tons carrier 38 such aircraft, and the 55,000 tons study no less than 49 - an amazing 80% more than the smallest vessel for only a 30% increase in displacement.  The largest, 68,000 tons deep displacement, study was roughly based upon the USN's new Forrestal aircraft carrier design - its size was largely determined by the minimum flight deck area needed to accommodate four of the latest steam catapults and the necessary arrestor gear and crash barriers with their pull-out distances.  While it had many potential advantages, it was accepted that this design was too costly and also that a considerable additional investment in dockyard upgrades would have been necessary to support ship of this size.

In January 1961 the Board of Admiralty concluded from a presentation of the sketch designs that the new carrier should displace at least 48,000 tons, and defined two of its primary roles as being to act as a strike carrier (including attacking enemy airfields) and to provide air defence of the fleet.  In a perceptive moment, it was anticipated that by the time the new carriers completed in the 1970's, Russian airfields in the Kola peninsula would be as likely a target as East of Suez countries facing UK 'Police Actions' . 

The Naval Staff Divisions accordingly based their planning upon a new carrier of about 50,000 tons (equivalent to about the deep load displacement of the existing HMS Ark Royal and HMS Eagle, which was increasingly considered to be the maximum size that the Treasury would approve) able to carry an advanced new Mach 2.5 dual fighter/strike aircraft designated OR.346 (see below) - although this sounds simple, ultimately some forty design studies were considered, as well as an assessment of foreign designs such as the new French Foch Class.  

Concerns were already appearing about the likely cost of the new aircraft carrier programme, for the moment the Admiralty got its way, but an alliance against carriers - and in particular large carriers - between the Treasury and the Air Ministry (which was now strongly pushing its new idea of long-range strike aircraft operating from a string of island bases located around the world) was already becoming very evident.  In what was to become a notorious incident, a suspicious Naval Staff allegedly discovered that a RAF map demonstrating its air base idea had moved Australia by 600nm in order to close an embarrassing gap in land-based air coverage East of Suez by TSR.2 strike aircraft!

In March 1962 it was publicly announced in the "1962 Statement on the Navy Estimates" that although there was no need to order a new carrier yet, the necessary design work had been put in hand.  At this stage it was intended to pay-off HMS Centaur without replacement, and the new carrier would replace HMS Victorious, thus leaving the Royal Navy with four fleet carriers. 

In April 1962 the Board of Admiralty was presented with Sketch Design A1/1D for what was termed the "1960 aircraft carrier", this was for a 50,000 tons ship of 890 feet length overall.   It had taken a year to evolve the design, but the Minister asked why exactly the displacement was 50,000 tons given that the design was too small to fully meet the staff requirement, but still large enough to require the expensive upgrading of docks.  It was agreed that the tonnage had been set during discussions by the Chiefs of Staff, and in presentation to the Minister of Defence, with a desire to approximate the full load tonnage of HMS Eagle and Ark Royal.  It was  recognised that the displacement figure was thus rather arbitrary, and the Board asked for a comparison with the modernised Eagle, and for a quick investigation in to the improvements that increasing the tonnage to 60,000 tons would enable.

In May 1962 five more detailed carrier studies (for the first time the title CVA-01 was used for the project) ranging from 50,000 to 58,000 tons deep displacement  were presented to the Board, which selected Sketch 53  - a design displacing 53,000 tons, of 920ft length overall, able to carry 35 aircraft and 5 helicopters.  An alternative proposal for a cheaper 40,000 tons carrier carrying 24 aircraft [plus presumably five helicopters] and costing perhaps £43 million was popular and strongly promoted at this time by the government's First Lord of the Admiralty, Lord Carrington, but it was discounted by the Board because when compared with the 50,000 tons design on a like-for-like basis, the larger ship carried 50% more [jet?] aircraft for only a 10% increase in cost, would have fewer aircraft accidents, and could conduct flying operations in conditions when the smaller ship couldn't.  Unfortunately, Lord Carrington may not have forgotten this incident when he became Secretary of State for Defence eight years later.

By early 1963 the whole project was coming under enormous pressure from the RAF, with considerable debate about the cost of the new aircraft carriers, and even whether the navy still actually needed aircraft carriers.  The result was series of studies concerning the future aircraft carrier programme and considering alternative solutions.  The Director of Plans (Navy), Captain Edward Ashmore, and some of the Naval Staff favoured moving to a much smaller and cheaper 20,000 tons V/STOL carrier design called the "Offshore Support Ship" that would minimise Treasury objections and which could be affordable in the numbers required.  Other options briefly considered and dismissed included guided missile cruisers and very small 15,000 tons aircraft carriers.

But by this stage most of the Naval Staff and in particular it's Head, the First Sea Lord, Admiral of the Fleet Sir Caspar John (a naval aviator), were strongly wedded to the large fleet carrier, arguing that only a large carrier could operate very high-performance aircraft and maintain a true force projection role for the Royal Navy - although even Sir Caspar openly wondered whether the CVA-01 staff requirement was becoming unnecessarily sophisticated and costly.  The extremely vigorous defence of the CVA-01 project by Sir Caspar John, strongly supported by the Chief of the Defence Staff, Admiral of the Fleet Earl Mountbatten of Burma, managed to preserve CVA-01 and keep the programme moving forward. 

In Spring 1963 the proposed number of new carriers was reduced from four to just two by the Ministry of Defence, and finally just one was actually approved by the Treasury which believed (perhaps correctly) that the Admiralty's latest cost estimate of £55-60 million per unit (barely double the cost of the refit which HMS Eagle was then undergoing) was more likely to turn out to be £100 million.  The new carrier would now effectively replace both HMS Victorious and the unmodernised HMS Ark Royal by 1972, while HMS Hermes and HMS Eagle would be refitted to enable them to run on through the 1970's before hopefully being eventually replaced by a further two new carriers - the Admiralty Board was determined that three carriers were needed.  Plans for HMS Ark Royal to start an expensive modernisation in 1966 to bring her up to the same standard as HMS Eagle were thus abandoned, probably without much regret as her  material condition had become a serious concern and it was now considered that the modernisation would only extend her potential service life a few years beyond 1972 anyway.  Although nominally only eight years old, Ark Royal in fact contained a considerable amount of fabricated steel and equipment which dated back more than 20 years, and her builder (Cammell Laird) and suppliers had perhaps not been able to maintain the highest standards of quality in the depths of WW2 when quantity often mattered more.

HMS Hermes operating Sea Vixen's and Buccaneer's.
The small airgroup, cramped flight deck conditions,
short catapults, low speed, and limited safety margins
of the smaller fleet carriers made the RN determined
that CVA-01 must be much larger in order to effectively
and safely operate a reasonable number of the largest
and heaviest modern carrier aircraft.

On 17 July 1963 the Board of Admiralty formally approved the Sketch Design and Staff Requirement for CVA-01, with an estimated cost of £58 million.  On 30 July 1963, Parliament was informed by the Defence Secretary, Peter Thorneycroft, of the Conservative Government's decision to build one new aircraft carrier at an estimated cost of £56 million [sic], and work now started in earnest.  Indeed, design work was already quite well advanced, although affected by a shortage of experienced design staff as barely half the required number were available.  But unfortunately the Defence Secretary had also stated to Parliament that the new carrier would operate the same new fighter as the RAF.  The new carriers design was thus initially bedevilled by the need to utilise the P.1154 (see below) vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) aircraft for fleet defence, a concept which proved somewhat incompatible with the other conventional take-off and landing aircraft (CTOL) expected to be operated from CVA-01, such as the Buccaneer and the Gannet.

By now the designers were facing huge problems, almost inevitably the design had grown by about 20ft in length and 10ft on the beam compared with "Sketch 53", with an inevitable knock-on effect in terms of  displacement, obtaining Treasury approval for expenditure to fund development work was difficult, the design team was under strength, and concerns about the ability of UK shipyards to actually build the ship were mounting.  Even worse, in October 1964 a new Labour Government which was committed to limiting defence spending took power, and plans for a new aircraft carrier for the RN again came under massive attack by an RAF determined to safe guard its own programmes - particularly for TSR.2 and subsequently the F-111. 

The Treasury and the new government also deemed that a higher tonnage figure was unacceptable, and thus strict instructions were given that the displacement must not exceed the originally promised 53,000 tons.  Attempting to maximise equipment and aircraft operations in the face of this fixed displacement limit, and unwilling to significantly reduce hull size or aircraft capacity, the RN and the design team struggled to keep its weight within the permitted limits - even though this often meant increasing complexity, cost and risk!  However, with hindsight, it does seem that tonnage problems were somewhat exaggerated, and CVA-01 was simply suffering a problem common to almost every new ship design.

In other changes, one of the two Type 988 radars was deleted because it proved to be technically impossible to install two less than 3.5 miles apart without mutual interference; the deck park was further reduced; armour protection was modified ; the maximum sustainable speed was now 27- 28 knots; a "novel form" of underwater protection was adopted; a compromising of construction standards was allowed in order to reduce weight; and new "scissors" type lifts were adopted.

Despite all the attempts to squeeze the design into the allowable displacement, the target tonnage figure still proved impossible to achieve without some miss-representation - the design was always referred to as 53,000 tons, but the final deep displacement was estimated at 54,500 tons and it's even been speculated (probably incorrectly)  that this was really CVA-01's standard displacement and that her actual in-service deep displacement would have been over 60,000 tons.  However the importance of this should not be exaggerated, the many carrier design studies undertaken were often referred to by their displacement (48,000 tons, 50,000 tons, etc) and it was essential to stick with the nomenclature as a design evolved in order to avoid serious confusion.

In the aftermath of the cancellation it was often reported that the final revised CVA-01 design had so many potential problems - and had been so badly affected by political pressures, constraints and the arbitrary displacement limit - that many people involved in the project felt that too many risks were being taken and that the final design was probably unworkable.  It was also reported that upon the Project's cancellation the ships Chief Designer from 1962, L. J. Lydell, commented that it was the happiest day of his life!   However an examination of original project documents shows that while there were many debates and issues, there was no suggestion of a feeling of doom and gloom about the actual design itself prior to cancellation.  A degree of political convenience (for both sides of the House of Commons) may well have crept in to the story, and been repeated ever since.


HMS Eagle was the RN's most capable fleet carrier for most of the 1960's - and formed the baseline against which CVA-01 was compared


Early Carrier 1960 designs included the new American manufacture Tartar missile system.  This was replaced with the British GWS.30 Sea Dart (CF299 as it was known the time) and systems were originally due to be mounted either side of the stern as shown in the 1963 drawing top, but this was soon modified to just one launcher in the centre of the stern.  Although there was much discussion of whether the missile system was necessary it survived, perhaps because the contemporary American carriers USS Kennedy and America were being built with the Terrier/Tartar SAM system.

An Ikara ASW missile launcher and its magazine was due to be mounted on the platform just forward of the aft side aircraft lift, but after much debate approval to delete this was given in 1964.  When the launcher was removed, the magazine was turned into offices!

In early 1964 it was proposed to add the Sea Cat system (1 x GWS.22 and 3 x GWS.20) to the ship, but this was never approved and added to the staff requirement - and no provision is shown in any official plans, diagrams or artists impressions.


Aviation Facilities

The provisional design incorporated a great deal of new or unusual technology, especially in terms of armament (e.g. a Sea Dart SAM system), electronics outfit (e.g. the new Anglo-Dutch 3D Type 988 radar with Comprehensive Display System) and revolutionary flight deck arrangements, the later conceived by a "think tank" in the Directorate of Naval Air Warfare (DNAW) headed by its then Deputy Director, Captain Eric Brown.  Early studies included a 7 degrees angled deck for landing aircraft, but in early 1963 this was changed to be less heavily angled (4.0 degrees and eventually just 3.5 degrees off the fore-and-aft axis) than was becoming the norm, instead it was considerably off-set to port on a massive hull over-hang and almost parallel to the main ships axis - effectively creating a landing and take-off area to port, and a separate parking area to starboard.  Two major benefits were anticipated:-

  • Flight deck operations in bad weather means that when landing, the pilot will only see the deck very late in the approach, and with a high speed aircraft has very little time in which to make any corrections for lining up.  Further - under very poor conditions or at night - the pilots first indication of the presence of the carrier is its wake, leaving only seconds in which to align to a deck angle of 8+ degrees from the ship axis.  With the parallel deck, very little realignment would be required for a safe landing
  • An angle deck provides good free parking forward on the starboard side, but leaves a free space aft on the port side which can not be used during flight operations and is thus wasted.  With the parallel deck there is no such wasted space 

A slight disadvantage was that in heavy seas a landing aircraft would be faced with more vertical deck movement because of ship roll than with a 'normally' angled arrangement where the landing zone was often situated directly above the ship's longitudinal axis

The finalised parallel flight deck arrangement of CVA-01 allowed a two-way, circulatory, marshalling/taxiing area off to starboard.  The large island (200ft x 18ft at the base), with athwartship access tunnels, was placed 34ft inboard to allow a track way outboard (this type of arrangement had already been nicknamed the "Alaskan Highway" in other modernised RN carriers, but was referred to as the "Alaskan Taxiway" in connection with CVA-01 because of its ability to take aircraft rather than just flight deck vehicles) for vehicle and aircraft movements, avoiding interference to flight deck operations.  The artists impressions (top of page) clearly show outboard-movements to the bow catapult and inboard movements to refuelling and rearming points, or the aft starboard deck edge No. 2 lift.  This lift could be freely used without any interruption to aircraft landing operations and there was to be an open fantail for testing and warming up aircraft engines, again avoiding interference with flying operations.  These unique arrangements were all intended to safely allow independent and concurrent aircraft launching and landing operations.  There was another inboard (No.1) lift measuring 72ft x 32ft forward of the island and slightly to starboard of the centre line, unlike the deck edge lift this would be useable even in heavy seas.  

Diagram of the direct action water-spray arresting gear.

Landing aircraft would engage the wires of a new type of direct action water-spray arresting gear built by MacTaggart Scott, these could engage aircraft at higher speed than possible with contemporary equipment.  A unique feature of the device was its ability to halt all aircraft in the same run-out distance - regardless of weight and landing speed - thus simplifying flight deck operations.  The new arresting gear was about one-third the weight and half the cost of the currently standard Mk.13 arrester gear.  A single DAX II (sometimes referred to as DA-2) wire was experimentally fitted to HMS Eagle during 1966, and a full set of four to HMS Ark Royal during her 1967-70 major refit (a refit instigated after the cancellation of CVA-01).

A generic diagram of a Brown Brothers steam catapult,
a F-4 Phantom is shown being launched.

For launching aircraft, there were two 250ft BS-6 steam catapults with water-cooled jet-blast deflectors (JBD's) and Van Zelm bridle arresting gear, one on the forward flight deck and one in the "waist" on the landing lane.  With a maximum capacity of 70,000lb to 100kts, the catapult could accelerate a 60,000lb aircraft such as a fully loaded Buccaneer or Phantom to 120kts and lighter aircraft to speeds of up to 180kts, to this could typically be added at least 30kts of wind over deck thanks to the forward speed of the carrier and natural wind, giving more than sufficient air speed for launching even the heaviest future carrier aircraft that could be envisaged.  With a catapult cycle time of under one minute, CVA-01 would have been able to launch an aircraft roughly every 30 seconds.  Finally, the flight deck was to be fitted with a new design of deck night lighting.  [Historical notes: (1) Brown Brothers & Co. actually began work on the catapults for CVA-01, and parts of them were later used in the new, "long-stroke", 199ft length BS-5A catapult (50,000lb aircraft to 105kts) which was fitted to the waist of HMS Ark Royal IV during her 1967-70 refit.  Ark Royal was also fitted with JBD's developed for CVA-01 and some parts of the arresting gear system. (2) There is considerable confusion in sources between the BS-4, BS-5 and BS-6 model catapults, with designations even changing from one to another within a document]

For weight saving and economy reasons, initially a two shaft propulsion and engineering layout was considered instead of the four shafts more traditional  for a warship of this size.  Doubts were expressed about the wisdom of accepting the physical and engineering limitation of not more than 135,000 shp through two shafts, which limited the maximum speed for the ship to 28kts, and so a compromise three shaft layout was finally adopted.  The three shaft layout presented some worrying problems as regards the centre shaft and propeller which had to be studied in detail, but it had the advantage of allowing one shaft to be closed down for maintenance (or due to damage) while still retaining sufficient speed to operate aircraft.  To help minimise the size and weight of the boilers, a technically advanced (and perhaps rather risky) high-pressure superheated design operating at the extreme parameters of 1000 PSI pressure and 1000ļF temperature was devised.  Although a maximum speed of "more than 30 knots" was officially claimed at the time, it was never expected by the designers that the ship would be able to sustain more than 28 knots given the very high demands of the steam catapults - indeed boiler size eventually had to be increased in the light of new data about the later.

The ships Operations Room (then known as the Action Information Organisation, or AIO) was hidden deep in the depths of the ship, connected by a lift to the bridge decks.  As the amount of armour was progressively reduced in order to save weight, it became one of the few remaining armour protected compartments at one stage.

A superb model of CVA-01 made by SeaVee Models. The benefits of the parallel landing lane are clearly shown, as is the significant loss of flight deck area aft.

One of the more dubious features of the final design was the fitting of a Sea Dart GWS.30 anti-aircraft missile system, then still under development.  The launcher location under the approach path of landing aircraft was vulnerable to damage [although operational analysis indicated that this was in fact extremely unlikely to occur], and the system encroached on the flight deck area, took up valuable weight and hull volume, and had a significant cost.  While a limited capability but cheap close-in defence system such as the Sea Cat could be easily justified, choosing to fit the new aircraft carrier with an expensive area air defence system rather than rely upon the carriers own fighters and the purpose built (Sea Dart armed) Type 82 escorting destroyers was a rather peculiar decision in the circumstances.  The Sea Dart decision was later repeated with the Invincible Class ASW aircraft carriers, but this time for more justifiable reasons given that these much smaller ships started life as helicopter-carrying [through deck] cruisers, to which a capability to operate a small force of STOVL Sea Harrier's was only added during construction.  The airgroup of an Invincible remains trivial compared with the numbers and quality of aircraft that would have been carried by a CVA.

Although partially a deliberate weight saving measure, a serious weakness of the CVA-01 design was a flight deck some 15% smaller in area than the maximum the hull size permitted - although still 5% more than HMS Eagle.  Considerable potential flight deck space was lost to an open fantail for Sea Dart and [less importantly] to aid the handling of boats and the recovery of ditched aircraft, and also to a massive (a British tradition for aircraft carriers) and somewhat awkwardly placed island - which would surely would have been a major source of air turbulence for landing aircraft.  Recent studies for CVF and the USN's new CVN-21 have shown how important it is to maximise deck area as this has a direct effect on sortie rates and operational efficiency.  With hindsight, for CVA-01 a full length flight deck with a angled landing lane, two or three deck edge lifts, and a small island set well aft and to starboard would have been a better layout.  Some other potential problems with the CVA-01 design were the huge crew required and the use of steam turbines, although bearing in mind the need to power the steam catapults there was probably no viable alternative to steam turbines in the mid-1960's except for nuclear propulsion which was indeed initially favoured but soon judged to be unaffordable (it would have added 70% to the ships cost) would have been un-affordable, and anyway the RN regarded nuclear propulsion as still being in too early a stage of development to risk its adoption for a vitally important new surface capital ship (unlike the USN, which had already bravely gone nuclear for the carrier USS Enterprise which was completed in 1961).  However, all future RN surface ships were destined to be gas turbine propelled and by the 1990's the RN would have had major problems manning and maintaining the engine room of a CVA, and providing the necessary furnace fuel oil for her boilers.

CVA-01 would have been the largest warship ever built for the Royal Navy and her crew also by far the largest - labour-saving crew-reducing automation still being largely a concept for the future.  Indeed, her crew size was partly driven up by the manning and maintenance requirements for all the new and advanced, but often unreliable, technology and equipment that was to be installed onboard.  Her crewing requirements would have been a significant problem at a time when the strength of the RN was shrinking rapidly.   

The fixed-wing aircraft in the airgroup of a mid- to late-1960's RN fleet carrier.  Approximate relative sizes are shown. 


In 1959, when planning for what was to become CVA-01 began, the RN's carrier fighter was the subsonic De Havilland (from 1960 Hawker Siddeley Group) Sea Vixen, while the brand new Blackburn (also from 1960 Hawker Siddeley Group) Buccaneer was set to replace the Supermarine Scimitar as the standard strike aircraft in the early 1960's.  The intention was to eventually replace both of these types with a single multi-role aircraft, possibly with Vertical Take Off and Landing (VTOL) capabilities.  The airborne early warning (AEW) platform was the Fairey (later Westland) Gannet AEW.3, which was just entering service.  For anti-submarine warfare (ASW), the new Westland Whirlwind HAS.5/7 was embarked on carriers, although there were already plans to replace this with the larger and more capable Westland Wessex HAS.1.

With its new fleet carriers the RN was determined to at least slightly reverse the steady post-WW2 downward trend in the size of carrier airgroups.  The final CVA-01 design would have carried a well-balanced airgroup normally consisting of of 36 Phantom fighters and Buccaneer strike aircraft (at least 12 of each), a flight of 4 AEW aircraft (of a never finalised model), a squadron of 5 Sea King ASW helicopters, plus a ship's flight of a COD aircraft and several plane-guard/SAR helicopters.  But the evolution of this CVA-01 airgroup was to prove even more complex and convoluted than that of the carrier platform, and after some five years the finally adopted airgroup composition could have been selected right at beginning - with much saving of effort and money!

A scaled down TSR.2 design was the first option considered for the joint RN/RAF requirement OR.346 and the associated experimental research specification ER.206.  This is a mid-1959 ER.206/1 concept from Vickers-Armstrong.

The naval version of the Vickers Type 581 was a strong early contender for the new carriers.  The 1960 design for ER.206/3 is shown here.  Note the variable geometry wings and the lack of a horizontal tailplane.

Although overshadowed by the Hawker Siddeley P.1154, the Mach 2.5 capable BAC (Vickers) Type 583 was an alternative proposal to meet AW.406.  The shown design dates to June 1963.  It's similar in both role and appearance to the slightly later Grumman F-14 Tomcat design proposed to the US Navy.

Multi-role Aircraft

The starting point for the "CVA-01" airgroup is probably the Joint Naval/Air Staff Target OR.346 which was issued in April 1959.  The naval variant of this called for a carrier based, multi-purpose interceptor/strike aircraft to operate from the new carriers due to enter service in 1970.  In the primary tactical strike role the requirement was to be able to carry 6,000lb of bombs over 1000nm.  The aircraft was to be also useable as a fighter, with conversion to take not more than 8 hours, as an interceptor it was to be able to carry four Red Top AAM's or its replacement (requirement GDA.103) on a 4 hour combat air patrol (CAP).  A maximum speed of over Mach 2.5 was requested, and the weight was not to exceed 50,000 lb.  A wide range of aircraft was studied by aircraft companies to meet this very demanding requirement, including a mini-TSR.2 and the use of VTOL.  It quickly became clear that none of the proposals could fully meet the over ambitious OR.346, but the Vickers Type 581 variable geometry design greatly influenced early sketch designs for the RN's new carriers.

In May of 1961 discussions began as to a replacing both the Sea Vixen fighter and the Buccaneer strike aircraft in the 1970 to 1972 period with a common OR.346 type aircraft, at least 30 of which would eventually be carried by the planned new carriers.  It was also hoped to combine this RN requirement with the RAF's need (OR.354) for an eventual TSR.2 replacement, but it was soon realised that it was too soon to start work on a successor to the TSR.2 (which was still in an early stage of development), and that the Buccaneer (which would not enter service until the next year) would not need replacing before 1974, however there was an increasingly urgent need for a Sea Vixen replacement.  To resolve the conflicting time scales OR.346 was effectively split up in to: 

(1) OR.355 (first draft issued October 1961) which detailed a TSR.2 and Buccaneer replacement to enter service in the mid-1970's; by August 1964 this had in turn been succeeded by AST.355 - all of these studies eventually leading to nothing.

(2) AW.406 and OR.356.  The naval requirement (AW.406) was for a combined strike and interceptor aircraft with the emphasis on the fighter role as a successor for Sea Vixen for fleet defence from 1969-70.  Capable of Mach 2.0, as an interceptor it could carry four Red Top AAM's while in the strike role it could carry up to 8,000lb of bombs or nuclear weapons.  Maximum weight was to be 40,000lb without stores, and a two man crew.  To AW.406  was often added the RAF requirement OR.356 (first draft issued January 1962) for a Hunter replacement entering service in 1968.  OR.356 also replaced the GOR.345 requirement for a short-range V/STOL ground attack recon aircraft for close support in a limited war.  The association of OR.356 with AW.406 was another mismatch of requirements.  

Fighter Aircraft

At this point the RN was overtaken by events.  In June 1961 the NATO Basic Military Requirement 3 (NMBR.3) document for an all-weather, supersonic, VTO, strike, reconnaissance and tactical support aircraft was circulated to European industry.  The Hawker Siddeley P.1154 was eventually judged to be the "technical winner" of NBMR.3, but by then the competition had descended in to a mire of politics and was cancelled in October 1962.  However, the abortive NMBR.3 competition was still to have a dramatic impact on the RN.

In December 1961 the Admiralty was directed by the Government's Defence Committee to investigate prospects for a common version of the NMBR.3 aircraft that would cover both RAF and RN requirements.  The Navy rejected this plan in February 1962 because the requirements range and weapon carrying capability were considered inadequate, while the problems associated with low-altitude strike and all-weather interception demanded a crew of two but the NMBR.3 was a single-seater.  Also, giving the NMBR.3 an adequate interceptor capability would make it so similar to the OR.346 fighter mode (i.e. AW.406) that the additional and separate development cost was not justifiable.  Despite this, and even before the P.1154 had "won" NMBR.3, both the RAF and RN were told that they must accept it for their combined AW.406/OR.356 requirements - the 1962 Defence White Paper pointedly mentioning a new RAF V/STOL type "capable of operating from carriers of the day".  The First Sea Lord, Sir Caspar John, responded in writing to say that the Navy was only accepting the P.1154, with its VTOL concept, under protest.  OR.356 was rewritten as the joint RN/RAF NASR(OR).356 with the Hawker Siddeley P.1154 very much in mind, although other proposals were not actually ruled out, and was issued in April 1962.  The initial reaction of the Hawker Siddeley Kingston team - which had developed the P.1154 brochure for NMBR.3 - was that as far as the naval aspects of OR.356 were concerned, anything less like NBMR.3 would be hard to find!  

In November 1962 NASR(OR).356 was superseded by the detailed Specification F.242 which described a two stage development - a single seat V/STOL aircraft for the RAF by 1968 (P.1154A) and a two seat all-weather version for the Navy by 1970 (P.1154B).   As development began it was found that the required level of commonality compromised each Service's aircraft, and this created criticism from both the RAF and RN/FAA.  Accordingly the specification was continuously revised to give more scope to the specialised features needed for each role, but the two versions then drifted apart and increasingly became different aircraft.

An artists impression of the P.1154B (RN) variant.

The Royal Navy soon realised that the hoped for savings in aircraft development costs (money badly needed to pay for its new carriers) that had led it to reluctantly accept the idea of a common design were unlikely to materialise as by May 1963 commonality had dropped to just 20%!  Despite another effort to achieve commonality in mid-1963, by October it was accepted that two variants were necessary and the RAF's single seat, BS.100 powered, Mach 1.6, VTOL strike aircraft variant with its 21cm AI radar had little resemblance to the RN's fully navalised, strengthened undercarriage, big-wing, two seat, catapult launched, arrested landing, BS.100 or Spey powered, Mach 1.75 or 1.8 fighter variant with an Aspinall 30cm CW radar.

By now the RN was very concerned about the likely high cost and protracted development schedule of the P.1154, in addition it was worried about the following findings from joint studies undertaken with RAE Farnborough:

1. A likely performance inferior to both manufacturers specification and the extant American F-4 Phantom II - in particular the poor specific fuel consumption of the Bristol Siddeley BS-100 engine which the RN was being pressurised to select over the Spey in order to help commonality, and a payload/ radius of action capability inferior to that of other contemporary fighters;
2. A very poor payload in the VTO mode.  A military load of 4 Red Top air-to-air missiles on pylons plus a fuselage mounted Aden 30 mm cannon left just enough weight for fuel for a few minutes endurance;
3. Severe difficulties were associated with Hawker Siddeley's proposals to alleviate the payload problem by catapulting instead, thus allowing a endurance for CAP of 2.7 hours.  [Proposals which by implication rendered the RN purchase of a VTO capable fighter rather pointless];
4. The total incompatibility between RN and RAF's requirements.  The former wanted a two seat, twin-engine, high flying fighter stressed for catapulting, with a very powerful radar forming and carrying a large fuel load to give endurance on combat air patrol (CAP) and weapons for at least two interceptions, while the latter wanted a single seat, single-engine, low flying ground attack aircraft without radar and less fuel and lighter structure to give "quick dash" strike capability;
5. A probable high attrition rate due to a single engine layout, and an engine of untried design;
6. Poor aircraft ditching characteristics.

A disillusioned Royal Navy began to seriously consider alternatives to the P.1154 as a replacement for the Sea Vixen, in particular the American made McDonnell F-4C Phantom II.  The RN finally managed to drop out of the unworkable P.1154 project in February 1964 when the government announced that it was intending to only develop the BS.100 powered RAF version.  The British government cancelled the P.1154 project altogether in February 1965 - citing (like the RN a year before!) high costs and a timescale too late for the RAF purposes.  Sir Sydney Camm, Hawker's famed Chief Designer, who ironically was always something of a sceptic about V/STOL and the P.1154, said at the time that V/STOL fighters would not sell well until they approached the capability of the [then contemporary] F-4 Phantom.  Time has probably shown him to be right - it has taken another 40 years of technological advances for the F-35B STOVL fighter aircraft to approach (but still not match) the performance of its more conventional half-sister variants. 

This photo of a CVA battlegroup is a model by Ron Hughes in Mr Ralph Morton's collection.  The models are 1:600 scale and show HMS Queen Elizabeth, escorted by HMS Bristol.  The Type 82 destroyer is depicted according to the 1964 design variant, but with an added Sea Dart launcher forward!  The planes on board QE are OR.346 type, plus two P39 AEW aircraft and two ASW helicopters roughly based on the Westland WG.34 Merlin design.  A Harrier is taking off/landing aft.  In place of the Sea Dart launcher aft, there is a box launcher based on the US Mauler design scrapped in 1963, which was originally intended for the UK as well.

The cancellation of the P.1154(RN) left the government with little choice as regards the replacement for the Royal Navy's rapidly ageing  and subsonic Sea Vixen's - and on 1 July 1964 the Navy finally got the long desired government go-ahead to fulfil its fighter needs by buying the latest F-4J version of the McDonnell (later McDonnell Douglas) Phantom II - the RN's Rolls Royce Spey powered variant was designated the F-4K by the USA and FG.1 by the UK.  Soon after the Royal Navy placed an order with McDonnell for 2 YF-4K - prototypes (designated the  basically the standard American F-4K fitted with Rolls-Royce Spey engines) and 2 pre-production aircraft.  In July 1965 the RN ordered the first of an expected 140 production standard aircraft, but planned numbers rapidly declined in-line with defence cuts and the reducing carrier force, and eventually a  mere 48 production aircraft were built - just enough for one squadron of 12 aircraft each for HMS Ark Royal and Eagle, plus a training squadron of similar size, and hopefully sufficient attrition reserves to last the force until the end of the 1970's.  However just as McDonnell Douglas began to actually deliver aircraft to the Royal Navy in early 1968,  Eagle's Phantom'isation refit was cancelled and 20 FG.1 aircraft were re-assigned to the RAF - the uninformed FAA getting suspicious when aircraft started to arrive already painted in RAF camouflage!  In the end only 29 Phantom's ever actually flew in Royal Navy markings.  As an interesting footnote, when the P.1154 was cancelled out right in 1965, the RAF also decided to order Phantom's.  The 1965 Defence White Paper announced that the RAF Phantom squadron's would be 'swing-role', operating from both land bases and Royal Navy aircraft carriers, it was felt that such a capability would be very useful, particularly East of Suez.  However the RAF managed to avoid this potential disaster by requiring McDonnell Douglas in return for a substantial cost to develop the RN's Phantom FG.1 variant in to the FGR.2, among the most significant differences being the removal of some essential carrier compatibility features.  This actually turned out to be a rather unnecessary precaution because of the governments "no carriers" decisions made between 1966-8.  The RAF ordered its first Phantom's in July 1965 and eventually received 2 YF-4M prototypes and no less than 116 production F-4M's, designed the FGR.2 by the UK, plus by 1978 all the FAA's remaining FG.1's had also been transferred to the RAF. In 1983 (after the RN had lost the last of its fleet carriers) the RAF rather rubbed salt in to an old wound by buying 15 carrier capable ex-US Navy Phantom F-4J's, off-the shelf and unmodified!


A model of the AFVG dating to March 1966, the RN had lost interest by this time due to the recent cancellation of CVA-01.

A Jaguar M during catapult trials at RAE Bedford, April 1970.   The RN had long withdrawn from the project by this date.

Strike Aircraft

As regards the strike aircraft, the failure of OR.346 and its successors was not an immediate disaster for the Royal Navy and the Fleet Air Arm as in the Blackburn Buccaneer, and particularly the re-engine'd S.2 variant, it had an excellent and modern aircraft that could satisfactorily serve as part of the airgroup of the new CVA's for some years.  Indeed, throughout the late 1950's and early 1960's the RN made repeated, though unsuccessful, attempts to persuade the RAF to also buy the Buccaneer (incidentally reducing RN procurement costs) for its tactical strike requirement, rather than proceed with the development of the far more expensive BAC TSR.2.  Rather undiplomatically, at one point Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten, then Chief of the Defence Staff, suggested that the money saved by cancelling TSR.2 could then be spent on more aircraft carriers!  

As an eventual replacement for the Buccaneer in the strike role, by 1965 the RN was interested in a navalised version of the proposed Anglo-French Variable Geometry (AFVG) aircraft, which was due to enter service about 1975.

There is one other carrier-based strike aircraft that the RN briefly considered in the mid-1960's.  On 17 May 1965 the UK and France signed a protocol covering co-operation on a new advanced trainer and light strike aircraft, which was destined to become the Sepecat Jaguar.  The French Navy  wanted a naval variant (the Jaguar M), and with dark clouds increasingly surrounding CVA-01, the RN was also reluctantly interested in a modern naval aircraft that while less capable than the Phantom and Buccaneer, would be smaller and lighter, and thus be able to operate from much smaller and cheaper carriers than CVA-01.  A joint RN/RAF staff requirement - NASR.363 - was issued, and the RN actively participated in the project in to early 1966.  However by May 1966, with CVA-01 cancelled and all attempts to interest the Defence Secretary in a smaller aircraft carrier (probably optimised to operate the politically favoured Jaguar) as an  alternative having totally failed, the RN had to withdraw from the Jaguar project.


The Fairy Gannet AEW.3 would probably have initially performed the AEW role from CVA.01.  A Wessex HAS.1 helicopter is on plane guard duties

Line drawings of the Hawker Siddeley P.139B.  The AEW version (note the radar domes fore and aft) is shown in most of the views, but the freighter version is shown in the right mid profile. 

The Grumman E-2A Hawkeye.

A carrier capable version of the Hawker Siddeley HS.125 Dominie was considered for Carrier on Board Delivery tasks. 

AEW and COD Aircraft

Airborne Early Warning (AEW) and Carrier On-board Delivery (COD) aircraft for the CVA-01 were another major problem, the existing Fairy Gannet airframes would be badly ageing by the early 1970's and the Gannet AEW.3 variant had limited capabilities anyway.  It was thus planned to replace the Gannet with a "AEW (Replacement)" aircraft.  Considerable work was done, but due to funding constraints no final decision had been taken by the time CVA-01 was cancelled in 1966, and the programme then faded away.  However a favoured candidate was the proposed new Blackburn (later Hawker Siddeley) P.139B.  This aircraft had two wing mounted turbofan engines, giving it a similar appearance to the USNís Lockheed Viking ASW aircraft.  The P139B wings folded just outboard of the engines to allow stowage in the carriers hanger and had the tailplane mounted atop the fin.  The aircraft was to carry a new radar which had scanners mounted fore and aft (the radar later formed the basis of the system intended for the Nimrod AEW.3 - somewhat worryingly given the troubled story of that project). 

For the COD requirement a variant of the P.139B was again the favoured option, but Hawker Siddeley was still offering a carrier capable version of its new HS.125 business jet even after it had been rejected as a platform for the AEW requirement on the grounds of inadequate performance.  However it does seem likely that developing a new aircraft would have been too expensive for the UK in the gloomy defence climate of the late 1960's - particularly given the small number of airframes required.  Ultimately, the RN may well have ended up buying the Grumman E-2A Hawkeye (for AEW) from America, and perhaps also the C-2A Greyhound (for COD, - although Hawker Siddeley seems to have hoped that a compromise solution of the E-2A for AEW and modified HS-125's for COD would be politically favoured.

But all plans for a Gannet replacement of any description were cancelled along with CVA-01, at least until 1982 when the Falklands war proved that a great need for carrier-borne AEW aircraft still existed.

SAR and A/S Helicopters

From the start it was planned that two Westland Whirlwind helicopters, or the later Wessex helicopter, would be used in the Plane Guard and Search and Rescue role.  It was initially determined that no other helicopters would be carried in order to maximise the number of fixed wing aircraft that could be embarked, all anti-submarine (A/S) helicopters being carried by escorts and auxiliaries.  However in 1962 it was accepted that the new anti-submarine escort cruiser (below) was not going to be funded as hoped and so five Wessex A/S helicopters were reluctantly added to the CVA-01 airgroup, these later being replaced by the new Westland Sea King HAS.1 (based upon the Sikorsky S-61D airframe, later designated the SH-3).

Escort Cruisers

Simultaneously with CVA-01, two other new classes of ship were being designed as escorts for the new carrier(s), in order to provide them with anti-aircraft and anti-submarine defence.

The first class was originally intended to be an enlarged version of the "Leander" Class  frigate, but carrying the new Sea Dart guided weapons system - hence the general purpose frigate style designation "Type 82".  However the design grew in size - partly because of growth in the size of the Sea Dart AAW missile system and partly because the requirement to mount the Ikara ASW missile system on the same hull - finally at some 6,750 tons full load and 507ft length overall it turned out to be similar in size to the new large "Country" class guided missile destroyers or old style light cruisers.  Most plans called for at least six ships, including substitutions for a final two County class DDG's.

(Above) An official model of the Type 82 design dating to 1967, and (below) HMS Bristol as completed in 1973.

It was officially stated on 23 February 1966, at the time of CVA-01's cancellation, that Type 82 ships (no actual number was mentioned) were expected to be ordered later that year, the Defence Secretary thereby claiming that the Royal Navy would therefore soon have more large ships than it did now!  In fact the RN quickly recognised that the expensive Type 82 design made little sense with no new carriers to escort, and by August the RN was willing to cancel all 4 units that it was still hoping to get post-CVA-01 in return for 9 extra Leander's.  One Type 82 ( HMS Bristol) was still ordered on 4 October from Swan Hunter, but the remaining three ships were formally cancelled in July 1967.  HMS Bristol escaped the axe largely because of the need for her to serve as a weapons and systems trials ship for new weapons (including the GWS.30 Sea Dart SAM and Ikara ASW missile systems, and the single Mk.8 4.5" gun), the latest ADAW-2 combat data system, and the proposed Anglo-Dutch "Broomstick" radar (RN designation Type 988) with Comprehensive Display System (CDS), although the Broomstick was soon to be cancelled because of rising costs and space requirements, and was replaced by the less capable Type 965 (with AKE-2 aerial) on HMS Bristol.  

The main disadvantages of the sophisticated and versatile Type 82 design were the lack of an embarked helicopter (not considered essential for its primary carrier escort role) and high costs - the expected cost when design work began in the early 1960's was £10 million each, this rose to  £16 million in 1966 and £21m HMS Bristol was ordered in 1967, she finally cost £27m in inflated 1972-73 money when completed.  Additional units would have cost a million or two pounds less in real terms.

One of the many Escort Cruiser sketches developed in the early 1960's, this one dates to 1961.

The second design was for a new anti-submarine escort cruiser.  A series of sketches to meet the Staff Requirement were developed from the late 1950's onwards - which varied enormously in size, capabilities and of course cost.  The 1960 design was for a 6000 ton warship of 489ft length overall and capable of 26 kts.  There would have been a Seaslug SAM launcher forward of the conventional centreline superstructure and two quadruple Seacat SAM launchers.  It would have carried eight Wessex helicopters, with the hanger below the flight deck aft.  By 1961 the design had evolved in to a carrier style layout with a near full length flight deck and island superstructure, able to carry and operate nine of the new but large Sea King helicopters.  This design was 603ft long and displaced 11,500 ton.  A twin Mk.6 4.5" gun turret was mounted forward of the bridge and a Sea Slug SAM launcher was aft, mounted below flight deck level in a similar configuration to the County Class destroyers.  A two-shaft steam plant would have driven the ship at 26 kts.  The concept was that one of these ASW escort cruisers (a class of five was projected) would accompany each fleet carrier and be responsible for ASW protection, thus relieving the carrier of the need to operate a large number of bothersome ASW helicopters, instead the carrier would be freed for attack functions and the number of high-performance fixed-wing aircraft embarked could be maximised.  The first cruiser was due to be included in the 1962/63 Naval Estimates, but it seems that a (nominally 10,000 tons) Escort Cruiser effectively lost a competition within the Admiralty for funding priority over a slightly cheaper (nominally 6,000 tons) Type 82 frigate/destroyer.  In 1963 the project had to compete for scarce  funding and design resource with both CVA-01 and the just initiated and but very high priority "Polaris Project", it soon became clear that there was not going to be room for the smaller but still expensive Escort Cruiser class until these were ordered and under construction.  As a stop-gap, a conversion of the three Tiger-class cruisers to carry helicopters began to be mooted.



In October 1964 a new Labour government took power, and one of its first actions was to announce a major Defence Review with a declared intent of capping defence spending to £2 billion (in 1964 prices) until 1975, by 1969-70 this would represent a cut of nearly £400 million compared with previous plans.

The USS Oriskany (shown in 1950 as CV-43, and 1970 as CVA-34) was modernised more than any other USN operated Essex and thus gives some impression of the scale of work and likely final appearance of the RN Essex's.  She was considered to be unable operate the F-4 Phantom or F/A-18A/B Hornet by the USN, and was paid off in 1976, the last Essex to go bar for the training carrier USS Lexington.

USS Shangri-La (CVA-38) about 1965, her possible transfer to the RN in 1969 as a replacement for HMS Victorious and HMS Ark Royal was being seriously discussed at that time.  As a result of modernisations in the 1950's,  her length overall was now 889 ft, and she displaced about 41,000 tonnes full load.

Despite the RN's efforts to reduce costs (and less validly weight), the high price tag of the new carrier programme attracted continuous criticism from both politicians and the other services, particularly from the RAF which believed that the UK's defence budget couldn't now stretch to both the Navy's new carrier and its own new long range strike aircraft (initially the TSR.2, later the F-111), and thus lobbied with considerable effect against the RN's carrier force in general, and the CVA-01 order in particular.  Perhaps critically, both Earl Mountbatten and Sir Caspar John had retired by this time, removing from the scene the strongest and most effective supporters of CVA-01 during the projects formative years.  Sir Caspar John was replaced in 1963 as First Sea Lord by Admiral of the Fleet Sir David Luce, an honourable man who unfortunately proved to be ineffectual in leading the defence of the carrier programme against the RAF's formidable, well planned and no holds-bared attacks - Sir David was perhaps too much of a gentleman and refused to 'fight fire with fire' as Sir Caspar John would undoubtedly have done.  Even worse for the Royal Navy, in August 1965 Earl Mountbatten was replaced as Chief of the Defence Staff by Field Marshal Sir Richard Hull, when asked Sir Richard never gave more than luke warm support to the RN's carrier programme and he clearly saw himself as a neutral - or at most an umpire - in the bitter war ragging between the RAF and the RN.

In desperation, the RN began to look for alternative (i.e. cheaper) options to the increasingly threatened CVA-01, in particular the buying or leasing from America of three of the originally 27,000 tons full load  Essex Class carriers of World War 2 vintage - many of which were currently in US Navy 's reserve fleet.  The initial price was low (indeed the first ship may have been free), but very significant costs would have been incurred converting the ships to RN standards and fully modernising them so that they could the operate the latest aircraft.   This would have been a major task as the Phantom FG.1 and Buccaneer S.2 were considerably heavier and "hotter" (higher launch and landing speeds) than the equivalent F-8 Crusader and A-4 Skyhawk that the USN operated from even its most modernised (SCB-27 plus SCB-125) "attack carrier" Essex's. 

Although a former Captain of HMS Ark Royal considered the offered American carriers to be in far better material condition than his old command, a somewhat more detailed inspection of one ship revealed possible maintenance problems.  As the inspection also indicated a likely service life of just 15 years rather than the hoped for 20 years, the superficially attractive RN Essex route still only took the carrier fleet in to the early or mid 1980's, and at quite considerable cost - recent experience with HMS Victorious and Eagle had shown that a conversion and modernisation of the scale required by each of the Essex's would inevitably take several years, and as a good rule of thumb cost  would cost about half that of building a new carrier of similar size.  The USN was willing to transfer SCB-125 modernised Essex-class carriers such as the USS Shangri-La to the RN from 1969, but it was decided that the Essex proposal offered hardly any improvement on the existing situation, and CVA-01 (which given a 30 year service life would last in to the early 2000's) remained the preferred route forward.

An artist's impression of the RAF's General Dynamics F-111K variant.

By the end of December 1965 the plans and tender documents for the construction of CVA-01 were complete and were boxed-up ready for issue to shipyards in the third week of January 1966, but this was delayed as arguments about the project raged on, and the Navy's argument that the defence budget should be increased so that both new carriers and the RAF's F-111 strike aircraft could be procured fell on stony ground with both the Secretary of State for Defence, Denis Healey, and the Prime Minister, Harold Wilson.  Faced with the imminent and stark prospect of CVA-01's cancellation, the Naval Staff finally produced a new plan for a fleet that by cutting back on other naval forces could still contain new carriers while remaining within the governments declared defence budget ceiling, but it was too late, the Defence Minister commenting that "the die was cast".  Nevertheless, on 27 January 1966 the Board of Admiralty formally approved the final design of CVA-01, and by this date orders for long-lead items for the ship already totalled £3.5 million.  The Cabinet considered the Defence Review on 14 February 1966, the result was inevitable when the Minister of Defence for the Royal Navy, Christopher Mayhew, was barred from attending to present the Naval Staff's new plan, and the Defence Secretary strongly supported the F-111 purchase - during his presentation he used RAF visual aids and distributed maps that impressively showed the range of coverage of RAF F-111's operating primarily from island bases, indicating that it could match the capabilities of RN aircraft carriers (unfortunately the manufacturer of the F-111 - General Dynamics - was soon to admit that the aircraft's range would be much less than that promised).  No voice was raised in favour of CVA-01, apparently some "neutral's" such as the Minister of Transport were strongly influenced by the argument that even if CVA-01 was approved, just one new carrier was not enough to make the carrier fleet capable of doing its full job (Healey had consistently thought that it was 3 aircraft carriers or none, with some validity as many in the Naval Staff would surely have admitted in private at the time), and as no more could apparently be afforded the Review's cancellation recommendation thus became easy to rubber stamp.  The Defence White Paper published on 22 February 1966 formally announced the cancellation of the CVA-01 programme.  The paper explained, in what was later to become an infamous statement, that:

Experience and study have shown that only one type of operation exists for which carriers and carrier-borne aircraft would be indispensable; that is the landing or withdrawal of troops against sophisticated opposition outside the range of land-based air power.  It is only realistic to recognise that we, unaided by our allies, could not expect to undertake operations of this character in the 1970s - even if we could afford a larger carrier force.  .... Our plan is that, in the future, aircraft operating from land bases should take over the strike-reconnaissance and air-defence functions of the carrier ... Airborne early-warning aircraft will ... [subsequently] operate from land bases.

however, rather confusingly the same document went on:

The aircraft carrier is the most important element of the Fleet for offensive action against an enemy at sea or ashore and makes a large contribution to the defence of our seaborne forces.  It can also play an important part in operations where local air superiority has to be gained and maintained and offensive support of ground forces is required.

British troops landing in the Falklands in 1982 in the face of determined Argentinean air attacks would certainly have agreed with the later statement at least!

A supposed partial replacement for the RN's lost carrier force in an "East of Suez" context was that the RAF would be allowed to take up its option for 50 American General Dynamics F-111K long-range strike aircraft that had been previously arranged in 1965 when the government cancelled the BAC TSR.2 because of rapidly escalating costs and severe management problems.  Although the F-111K order was actually placed, the whole sorry saga was brought to a close in January 1968 when the government also cancelled this order, citing rising costs and a significant degradation in performance estimates from the manufacturer.  The total expenditure on all these cancelled Defence programmes was enormous, due to political chicanery and mis-information the actual expenditure on  CVA-01 by the time of its cancellation is unknown, but the disastrous TSR.2 programme cost £195 million and the F-111K programme £46.4 million - in both cases without a single plane ever entering service! 

At the time of cancellation the Defence Secretary, Denis Healey, declared that CVA-01 would have cost £500 million to build.  This was indeed a huge sum in the context of an actual 1966-67 Defence Budget of only £2,100 million, and when a new Leander Class frigate cost about £5 million and even a Resolution Class SSBN only cost about £40 million (excluding its Polaris missiles).  However when the shocking number was later queried, it eventually emerged that rather than this being the cost of a single ship as was carefully implied at the time, the amount being quoted was in fact the total estimated cost for:

  • Building two CVA's - Presumably at £100+ million each as the Treasury claimed, rather than the Admiralty's final estimate of £70 million in current money.  This was justified on the basis that just one new carrier would not make operational sense, so funding for a second unit had to be assumed.

  • No less than eight escorting Type 82 destroyers, apparently at about £20 million each.  At the time the RN had six in its long-term costings, but presumably  four per carrier are assumed.

  • The cost of developing and acquiring the necessary aircraft for the airgroups.  Presumably this is only new aircraft as the Buccaneer's were already available and paid for, but the Phantom's on order for the RN were almost certainly included in this total, as may well have been the planned new AEW and COD aircraft.

  • Although not specifically mentioned, the "hidden" cost of new supply ships for the RFA and of dockyard infrastructure improvements (e.g. a new £5 million dry dock able to accommodate CVA-01 was planned for Portsmouth) may also have figured in the amount as both were included in the new carrier cost estimates presented by the RAF during its anti-CVA-01 lobbying.

Admittedly the RN would certainly have pressed for a second CVA once HMS Queen Elizabeth was safely on the stocks (indeed it was already internally planning for an order in late 1969!), but HMS Ark Royal was to operate for nearly 7 years as the UK's only fleet (strike) carrier in the 1970's, and the FNS Charles de Gaulle will do the same for France from 1999 until 2015.  CVA-01 HMS Queen Elizabeth could have become the UK's only fleet carrier in the same way from perhaps 1973.  But in 1965-66 the one fleet carrier option (unsatisfactory though it might be) was apparently not considered by either the RN or the government.

Immediately after the cancellation of CVA-01 became known, the entire Board of Admiralty handed their resignations to the First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir David Luce. These were refused, but Admiral Luce and the Minister of Defence for the Royal Navy, Christopher Mayhew (a light-weight politician who did his very best for the service, but was unfortunately often ignored by the Defence Secretary), both tendered their own resignations to the Prime Minister in a rather futile but nevertheless very honourable protest.  Sadly at a time of crisis when the Royal Navy desperately needed a powerful, influential and politically astute pro-carrier supporter such as the recently retired Chief of the Defence Staff, Admiral of the Fleet Lord Louis Mountbatten, the man was not to be found.

HMS Ark Royal during her final commission, her deck packed with Phantom's, Buccaneer's, and Sea King and Wessex helicopters.  The initial airgroup of HMS Queen Elizabeth would have been very similar. (Source: Fleet Photographic Unit)

Assuming that the CVA-01 tender documents had been issued as scheduled, it was hoped to order the ship before the end of 1966, almost certainly from the John Brown shipyard on Clydebank which was considered to be the most suitable candidate as lead yard.  By a strange coincidence, HMS Queen Elizabeth would have been laid down in Autumn 1967 on the same slip (No.4?)  that had just been used for the newly launched Cunard liner, Queen Elizabeth 2 - which was also of identical length overall (963 feet)! 

Under the original 1960 plans it had been hoped to complete the CVA-01 design and order the first ship in early 1965, she would have been laid down in mid-1965, launched in mid-1967, enter service in mid-1970 and become operational in mid-1971.  By 1963 the schedule had slipped by 10 or more months, and her commissioning date had become 1972.  By late 1965 there had been further slippage, largely due to a shortage of staff in the Ship Design Department, but it was still expected that CVA-01 would complete acceptance trials by the end of 1973, and thus would enter operational service late 1974.

Post Cancellation

After the cancellation of CVA-01, a much smaller and cheaper aircraft carrier design became an acceptable option to the Admiralty Board, but the Defence Secretary dismissed this new proposal (it seems to have never been detailed) out of hand.  The Admiralty then requested the "special refit and modernisation" of HMS Ark Royal (despite her already being in a poor material condition) in order to allow her to operate Phantom's and permit the maintenance of a three carrier force throughout the 1970's - HMS Ark Royal and Eagle with Phantom's and Buccaneer's, and HMS Hermes with Buccaneer's only.  The expensive (eventually costing £32.5 million) 3-year long modernisation of Ark Royal was politically very convenient and therefore approved, and work began March 1967.  But on 18 July 1967 the government published a "Supplementary Statement on Defence Policy" spelling out an unexpectedly premature run-down of the remainder of the existing fixed-wing strike carrier force: Victorious was to go in 1969, Hermes in 1970, and Eagle and Ark Royal in the mid-1970's.  Hermes was offered to Australia at only a nominal cost and in 1968 was inspected Australian government officials whilst RAN Skyhawk and Tracker aircraft undertook practise landings and launches, however the offer was finally turned down due to operating and manpower costs.

On 16 January 1968 yet further defence cuts were announced and it was decided that all the strike carriers would now be gone by 1972, in step with new plans to complete the UK's withdraw from "East of Suez" by the end of 1971.  Indeed, HMS Victorious was immediately paid-off, using a fire during a refit as a convenient excuse to avoid a planned final commission, even though her Captain had estimated that the damage would cost under £1 million to repair, and would not delay her re-commissioning date.  The planned refit of Eagle to fully "Phantom'ise" her was also cancelled, and for a while it even seemed likely that the refit of Ark Royal might be abandoned as uneconomic given her revised mid-1972 pay-off date.

In June 1970 a new Conservative government was elected to government.  Whilst in opposition they had promised to reverse the decision to phase out the Royal Navy's carriers and retain at least two fleet carriers.  In October 1970, the Secretary of State for Defence Lord Carrington, announced a temporary reprieve to HMS Ark Royal - "until the late 1970's".  But the other two remaining strike carriers were not so lucky.  A proposed £12-15 million conversion of HMS Hermes to a Commando (helicopter) carrier - replacing HMS Albion - was confirmed and HMS Eagle's planned decommissioning in early 1972 was to go ahead as scheduled.  Officially Eagle would then go in to reserve, but she actually was to be a source of spares for Ark Royal.  It was estimated that it would cost no more than £5 million to have resurrected Eagle's refit but the government felt that it could not afford this.  In 1971, in response to continuing pressure to retain Eagle, Lord Carrington informed Parliament that retaining her in service was not possible because the aircraft in her Buccaneer squadron were urgently required by the RAF, and were thus scheduled for transfer [in 1972].  This blunt and rather ironic statement could have done nothing to help the already low morale of the Royal Navy, and in particular the Fleet Air Arm.  It  would have perhaps been a little more diplomatic if Lord Carrington (later to be the Foreign Secretary who resigned when the Falklands War erupted in 1982) had pointed out that the previous government had reassigned the Phantom FG.1's allocated to HMS Eagle's airgroup to the RAF, and that they now formed 43 Squadron RAF which was vital to the air defence of the UK, and that the un-replaced Sea Vixen FAW.2's of Eagle's 899 fighter squadron were now hopelessly obsolete.  Perhaps the problem with that approach is that some people might then have remembered the "1965 Defence White Paper" and suggested that 43 Squadron should be given a swing land/carrier role - pilot training would have been a big but probably not insuperable problem.  [Arguably this was yet another success for the RAF in its 100 years long battle with Royal Navy over carrier aviation, which culminated in the extra-ordinary 2010 decision by another new Conservative government to "gap" UK carrier based aviation for a decade and disband Joint Force Harrier, in preference to cuts to the RAF's land-based Tornado aircraft]


To a Future Fleet

Immediately after the cancellation of CVA-01, the Admiralty set up a "Future Fleet Working Party" to consider designs for new surface ships in light of the new circumstances.  The old Escort Cruiser concept, which was still nominally in the construction programme, influenced a range of studies in to new cruiser and commando ship's.  A report entitled 'Ship Design Recommendations and Studies'  was submitted by the FFWG to the Board of Admiralty in August and was discussed at length over the next few months.  In July 1967 the government basically approved the reports key recommendations as they had been refined, and the RN began planning for three new classes of warship - a 'cheap' frigate (which became the not so cheap Type 22) to replace the aging Leander Class design in the shipyards, a destroyer (which became the Type 42) which could get Sea Dart to sea in a smaller and cheaper hull than the now less than ideal Type 82, and finally a helicopter cruiser to succeed the converted Tiger class.  Most importantly, these plans enjoyed the vital support of the Treasury which considered the new proposals to be realistic, unlike the old CVA-01 centred plans!

The 1967-8 'Study 23', the direct ancestor of the Invincible-class.

In December 1967, Naval Staff Target 7097 for a large "Helicopter carrying Command Cruiser" (CCH) that could replace aircraft carriers as the command and control hub of RN task groups, while also contributing ASW helicopters was approved, and the first set of studies (21, 22 and 23) were presented by the Director of Naval Construction in January 1968.  It was decided that the NST should be based upon the 18,700 tons Study 23, that VSTOL capability should be investigated within an airgroup of 12 aircraft, and that the cost should be limited to £38 million (about half the final cost estimate for CVA-01).  The CCH concept was steadily developed through the 1968-1970 period in to the 'Through Deck Command Cruiser' (TDCC or sometimes just TDC ) design.  Although the TDC design was aircraft carrier like in appearance, the use of the term "aircraft carrier" was strictly forbidden to naval staff; indeed allegedly one officer was dismissed from the service for doing so.  The sketch design was completed by the end of 1970, followed by 18 months of detailed design refinement, during which time  Vickers Shipbuilding played an important role.  In 1972 tenders to build the first ship were invited from industry. 

An official artist's impression of the CAH  from 1973.  Note the Exocet MM-38 SSM launchers at the open bow, the Harrier jump-jet, and the lack of a ski-jump.  

After the 1970 general election campaign the new Conservative government quickly reneged on it's promise to retain the RN's fleet carriers as described above, and thus in the face of RAF opposition the RN urgently pressed for an order for the first of the new cruisers - which now  bore the official designation of "Helicopter carrying Heavy Cruiser" (CAH), although the term "Cruiser Assault, Helicopter" was also widely if incorrectly used.  Finally in April 1973 HMS Invincible - the first of what was to be three ships - was ordered from Vickers at a projected cost of £96m, it had been estimated at just  £60m in February 1972, and thanks largely to inflation her final cost upon completion in 1980 was £185m! 

In 1979 the new class (consisting of HMS Invincible, HMS Illustrious, and the newly ordered HMS Ark Royal) was re-designated yet again, this time to  "Aircraft Carrier, Support " (CVS), i.e. anti-submarine warfare carriers.  This was partly to better reflect their role and the addition of 5 (later 6 and eventually 7) fixed-wing STOVL Sea Harrier FSR.1's to their airgroup, but also politics and the rise to power of Margaret Thatcher (the "Iron Lady") allowed the words "aircraft carrier" to reappear in the Royal Navy's order of battle in order to help inflate its apparent strength against the Soviet threat - at least on paper.

Flight deck of HMS Invincible, HMS Illustrious is in the background.

HMS Ark Royal, the RNís last conventional fleet carrier, was finally de-commissioned in December 1978.

In a final twist of fate the RAF ended up inheriting many redundant ex-RN Phantom's and Buccaneer S.2's, which it then reluctantly put in to service to replace its own cancelled F-111K's, but so impressed did the RAF become with these planes that it subsequently placed new orders for both on its own account.  It eventually operated over 90 Buccaneer S.2's and 170 Phantom's - far more the RN Fleet Air Arm had ever hoped for!

Names: In May 1964 the name Queen Elizabeth was approved by H.M. Queen Elizabeth II  for CVA-01.  The plan was to announce the name to the public when the ship was ordered, but it was cancelled before this happened.  The name Duke of Edinburgh was reserved for a possible second carrier but this name never reached the stage of being formally approved by the Queen.  [Ref: ADM 1/29044 in the Public Records Office]


A summary of the rapid decline of the RN's fixed-wing strike carrier force around and after the cancellation of CVA-01 is as follows:

End of an era, HMS Ark Royal leaving Malta in 1979 flying her "paying off" pennant, and being broken up for scrap at Cairn Ryan in 1981.

  • December 1965 - HMS Centaur paid off.  Used as an accommodation ship until stricken early 1971. Sold for scrapping to Ship Breaking (Queenborough), Kent, 11 August 1972.

  • November 1967 - HMS Victorious slightly damaged by fire during refit.  Decision made not to repair and paid off 13 March 1968.  Stricken July 1969 and broken up at Faslane.

  • 14 July 1970 - HMS Hermes de-commissioned for conversion to amphibious-assault helicopter carrier, all equipment for operating fixed-wing aircraft removed.  Re-commissioned 18 August 1973.   Converted to ASW carrier in 1976 refit.  Converted to STOVL Harrier carrier in 1980-81 refit. Served in Falklands War April-July 1982.  Paid off 12 April 1984.  Stricken 1 July 1985.  Sold to India and renamed Viraat (R22) 19 April 1986.

  • 26 January 1972 - HMS Eagle paid off.  Used for spares to support Ark Royal.  Stricken October 1978 and broken up at Cairn Ryan, Wigtownshire.

  • 4 December 1978 - HMS Ark Royal paid off.  Stricken 1980 and broken up at Cairn Ryan, Wigtownshire.

In Hindsight...

In the early/mid-1960's the Royal Navy was determined to get what it considered from a military point of view to be the minimum required size of ship for its new class of aircraft carriers, and it should be remembered that in the mid-1960's the RN still saw itself as a very major global force in a post-Empire world, and as a near-equal to the USN.  There were still many active duty officers and quite a few ratings who had seen service in the Second World War, and all the Admirals had originally joined up when the Royal Navy was regarded as the largest and most powerful navy in the world.  But ultimately the Royal Navy was unable to effectively counter the aggressive and effective attacks from the RAF on its carrier plans, and combined with economic realities the plans eventually came to nought.  In hindsight, a smaller and slightly less expensive medium size carrier of 30-40,000 tons, as advocated by Lord Carrington and others at the time, may have possibly survived and actually been built, but like most compromises it wouldn't have really satisfied anyone.   A medium size carrier was too expensive for those inside and outside the RN advocating much smaller ships (20,000 tons or less), while by the early 1960's the large carrier faction could claim that the capability of such a carrier to safely operate a balanced airgroup of modern high-performance aircraft was questionable and would only get worse, and that repeated studies had shown the overall cost-effectiveness of a medium sized carrier was very dubious.  And of course, by 1965 the RAF was now totally against the RN operating any aircraft carriers at all - old or new - and would oppose anything able to operate fixed wing-aircraft.  Finally, if one or more of the CVA's had been built, it's doubtful how long the RN could have afforded to man and run them - even at the time the Second Sea Lord (whose responsibility it was) had grave concerns. 

From a current perspective the Royal Navy's ideas for the CVA-01 class look over ambitious and unaffordable, although perhaps not much more so than the current also much troubled CVF project!  Interestingly Admiral Sir Horace Law, a member of the Board of Admiralty in the mid-1960's, and as Controller of the Navy ultimately responsible for the design and construction of CVA-01, was later to suggest that the poor performance of the British warship-building industry in the 1970s showed that the UK shipbuilding industry would not have been capable of successfully building such a vessel. With hindsight he believed that the politicians were at fault for approving the concept, and that the Admiralty was wrong to have pressed so strongly for a ship that could not be afforded. Even at the time, rather too many senior people already held this point of view for the CVA-01 project to have much chance of surviving the decade from initiation to completion of the first ship - and it's not really surprising that the project was finally cancelled.  Prime Minister Harold Wilson and Minister for Defence Denis Healey who ultimately wielded the axe were certainly not anti-RN per say, they were intelligent men who apparently made the decision with some reluctance, considering it to be the most sensible course in the difficult circumstances they were faced with. 

With the cancellation of CVA-01 the RN entered a prolonged period of shock, reduced importance and self-questioning, reluctantly retreating from its old Imperial stations back to the North Atlantic as a NATO focused and primarily ASW-orientated force.  It probably wasn't until the Falklands War of 1982 that the RN finally managed to regain it's self-esteem and public prestige, and progressed for good or bad from a "big ship" mentality to a "small'ish ship" mentality.  


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 © 2004-13 Richard Beedall unless otherwise indicated.