Abandoned Warships: 10 Decaying Aircraft Carriers, Submarines & Other Military Vessels

ghost-ships-reserve-fleet-3 (Image: Amy Heiden Photography; abandoned warships & other vessels)

There’s something uniquely sad about abandoned ships and the decaying wrecks of ghostly maritime vessels. To see these once-graceful and mighty military craft condemned to rust away in some forgotten dock can be a melancholy experience. Yet it’s not all doom and gloom. Damaged though they may be, the hulks of these great ships remain a testament to their past glories – and serve as a reminder of how quickly naval power evolves, leaving older vessels obsolete. This article documents some of the world’s most impressive abandoned warships, from decommissioned aircraft carriers and decaying cruisers to rusting frigates, derelict submarines and more.

Missile Cruiser Colbert (C 611)

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abandoned-warships-colbert-missile-cruiser-6 (Images: Boreally.org; abandoned missile cruiser Colbert, France)

For a long time, the formidable Colbert was one of the jewels in the French Navy’s crown. An anti-air missile cruiser that was later converted to an missile cruiser, it patrolled French waters for nearly forty years during the height of the Cold War.

But perhaps its most-famous incarnation was as a museum ship. In 1991, the Colbert began a two-year conversion into a floating museum in the port of Bordeaux. Opened in 1993, it was a smash hit. Crowds flocked to this slice of French naval history. At one point, it was the biggest attraction in Bordeaux (which is saying something). Sadly, not everyone saw the Colbert’s beauty. A ‘let’s sink the Colbert’ association was formed and the city eventually withdrew funding. In 2007, it was decommissioned.

Left to rust in a ship graveyard at Landévennec, the corroding cruiser Colbert remained a surprisingly powerful sight. While the exterior of the hull became rain-streaked and grimy, the interiors were left largely intact. When these photos of the abandoned warship were taken, there was even a missile still poised above the firing tube, never to be launched.

Abandoned Stealth Ship: Sea Shadow (IX-529)

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lockheed-sea-shadow-abandoned-stealth-ship-2 (Images: Amy Heiden Photography; mothballed stealth ship Sea Shadow)

In 1984, Lockheed invested a hefty sum of money in building a top secret, experimental stealth ship known as Sea Shadow. Funded by DARPA for use by the US Navy, the Sea Shadow was supposed to give America’s maritime forces an edge in the Cold War – a warship almost invisible to radar.

However, the collapse of the Soviet Union meant interest in stealth ships began to dip. With Sea Shadow never intended to be put to use (she was a prototype), the ship was finally revealed to the public in 1993. So impressive was this strange, almost alien, piece of naval tech that the producers of James Bond borrowed the idea for the Pierce Brosnan outing Tomorrow Never Dies.

In the early 2000s, the US Navy began efforts to sell the ship, but encountered such a lack of interest that the Sea Shadow was instead mothballed. For nearly six years, this unique vessel was left to rust out of sight on a marine barge. Finally, in 2012, the abandoned warship was sold for scrap. It was dismantled mere months later.

Soviet Light Cruiser Murmansk (1955)

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abandoned-battle-cruiser-murmansk-sunk-norway-2 (Images: FL3JM; Carsten Aniksdal – website; sunken Soviet light cruiser Murmansk)

For many years, the Soviet cruiser Murmansk was one of the most-haunting sights in Norway. Decommissioned in 1994 following nearly 40 years of service, the abandoned warship was sold to India for scrap. Unfortunately, the process of getting the Murmansk to its destination proved spectacularly difficult. A storm caused it to run aground off the coast of the tiny village of Sørvær. And there its rusted hulk remained for nearly twenty years.

By the mid-2000s, the Murmansk looked truly spectacular. The parts of the vessel still above the water’s surface had completely rusted, leaving a decaying wreck that attracted sightseers from miles around.

Sadly, this epic landmark couldn’t last. In 2009, the Norwegian government decided to get rid of the Murmansk. The operation ultimately involved a terrific engineering effort to build a massive breakwater around the ship, drain it of water and then take the 13,600 ton light cruiser apart, piece by piece. The project was completed in 2013, a year after dismantling of Murmansk began.

Great Carrier Reef: Scuttled USS Oriskany

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uss-oriskany-abandoned-aircraft-carrier-7 (Images: US Navy (1, 2, 3, 4, 5); Gareth Richards; USS Oriskany ‘Great Carrier Reef’)

The USS Oriskany – better known as the Mighty O – was something of a pioneer in naval history. A ‘long-hulled’ Essex class carrier, known by some as the Ticonderoga class, the Oriskany served as the prototype for an upgrade programme that would see older wartime carriers reequipped for the jet age. Displacing an incredible 30,800 tons of water, everything about the ship was massive… including its fate, whereby it was dubbed the Great Carrier Reef. Alongside its might, the Oriskany is perhaps best known for being spectacularly scuttled off the coast of Florida.

In May 2006, the Navy towed the decommissioned Mighty O 22 miles out to sea. 500lbs of C4 were strapped to strategic points on the vessel. At the appointed time, a massive blast ripped through the abandoned warship, sending it spiraling down to the ocean floor. At the moment it sank, it became the largest artificial reef in the world.

Interestingly, the Oriskany’s story doesn’t end there. Aside from becoming one of the world’s diving hotspots, it also saw a historic first. On July 6, 2007 Personnel Specialist 1st Class Kevin Armold was re-enlisted by Army Maj. Shean Phelps on the deck of the sunken aircraft carrier. This was the first time in history that anyone had re-enlisted on a drowned vessel.

Abandoned Russian Submarines, Kola Peninsula

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submarine-graveyard-abandoned-kola-peninsula-4 (Images: submarines.narod.ru; decaying submarines on the Kola Peninsula)

Memorably described by Lonely Planet as a “100,000-sq-km knob of tundra, bogs and low mountains between the White and Barents Seas,” the Kola Peninsula is one of the loneliest, bleakest places in a country that’s full of them. It’s fitting, then, that this landmass is home to one of the most-desolate naval graveyards in existence. A haunting world of rusted hulks and decaying scrap, the Soviet submarine graveyard near Olenya Bay has to be seen to be believed.

A relic of the Cold War, the graveyard began in the 1970s as a quick way to scrap unwanted vessels. So overwhelmed with demand was the shipyard that many were used as target practice and sank in the bay. There they lay for decades… and possibly they lie there still. The entire region is in a restricted zone, and getting in is extremely difficult for civilians to do. There are also some serious environmental concerns surrounding the area, as different chemicals have seeped into the water.

Resolution-Class Submarines (Polaris), Rosyth

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abandoned-submarines-polaris-resolution-renown (Images: Andy Dean; Polaris subs Revenge and Repulse (top), Resolution and Renown)

The Resolution-class submarines came about in response to the breakneck pace of the Cold War. In the old days, the British government had relied on the RAF to deliver its nuclear deterrent, dropping atomic bombs on Russian cities in the event of Armageddon. Then things changed. Anti-aircraft missile systems became more effective. Radar improved. It looked like planes would no longer be a survivable deterrent.

The answer was the Resolution Class of submarines – Resolution, Repulse, Renown and Revenge. Armed with three thermonuclear devices each, their mission was a secret and terrible one. In the event of a nuclear apocalypse, they would rain missiles down on Moscow and key Soviet cities, wiping millions of lives out at the touch of a button. Thankfully, this terrible eventuality never came to pass and the Polaris subs were phased out beginning in 1996.

Today, all four sit at Rosyth Dockyard Fife, awaiting safe disposal. They can still be seen from land – a haunting reminder of a tense and uncertain time.

French Aircraft Carrier Clemenceau (R98)

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clemenceau-r98-abandoned-aircraft-carrier-5 (Images: Yannick Auberger (1, 2, 3); NetMarine; USN; abandoned aircraft carrier Clemenceau)

Affectionately known as ‘le Clem’, the Clemenceau was a vast monster of a ship, the sixth aircraft carrier in the French Navy. Although small by American standards, it represented a fantastic breakthrough for French engineering, as the state had been relying on US and UK equipment in the aftermath of World War Two. For nearly forty years she patrolled the oceans, before finally being decommissioned in 1997.

The story of her fate is somewhere between tragic and farcical. Le Clem was sent to India for disposal, but managed to become embroiled in a series of international disputes. The Indian Supreme Court blocked access to it on environmental grounds. Activists boarded it. At one point, the abandoned warship was seized by Egyptian authorities. After nearly five years of being shunted from one continent to the next, the decaying hulk of the mighty Clemenceau returned to Europe to be put to rest at Hartlepool, North East England. By 2010, it was gone for good.

Abandoned Frigate HMS Plymouth (F126)

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frigate-abandoned-warship-hms-plymouth-6 (Images: Tom Blackwell – website: Lucid Dreams; abandoned frigate HMS Plymouth)

The HMS Plymouth has a pedigree matched by few ships in this article. As part of the war effort during the Falklands War, the Plymouth bombed Argentine positions, and was heavily bombed in return. Nearly destroyed when a bomb blew up on her deck, causing a depth charge to detonate below and start a fire, the Plymouth was ultimately saved. At the conclusion to the war, the South Georgia Argentine forces formally surrendered on-board.

With such a history, it’s perhaps no surprise the Plymouth was purchased by the Warship Preservation Trust for future generations. Unfortunately, the Trust itself collapsed in 2006, leaving the Plymouth homeless. Eventually towed to Birkenhead, it spent several years quietly rusting behind razor wire fences, no longer accessible to the public. The hero ship of the Falklands War was eventually taken to Turkey – amid intense public opposition – and scrapped in late 2014.

Minesweeper HMS Bronington (M1115)

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abandoned-warships-hms-bronington-minesweeper (Images: El Pollock; Darren Hillman; abandoned minesweeper HMS Bronington)

The former stomping ground of none other than Prince Charles, the decommissioned minesweeper HMS Bronington launched way back in 1953. With its mahogany hull, it marked the end of the ‘wooden walls’ era of naval vessels – a tradition that stretched right back to the dawn of British seafaring. Like the HMS Plymouth, she was added to the Warship Preservation Trust’s roster in the early 2000s. And, just like the Plymouth, she was left with nowhere to go when the trust folded.

Today, the Bronington remains in storage at Birkenhead. In this case “storage” is a polite way of saying the once-mighty vessel is slowly decaying; untended and unloved. Pictures taken a few years ago show she’s slowly sinking, the sea reclaiming her as it has so many ships. Today, her sides are streaked with rust, and the whole thing has an indescribable air of melancholy. A sad end for what was once an important Royal Navy vessel.

National Defense Reserve Fleet (NDRF)

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ghost-ships-reserve-fleet-7 (Images: Amy Heiden Photography; ghost ships of the National Defense Reserve Fleet)

Not so long ago, America’s National Defense Reserve Fleet was a monstrous shadow navy that could, in theory, be brought back to life at any time to defend US interests. Consisting of decommissioned merchant and military vessels that could be reactivated within 120 days at times of national emergency, it once held over 2,200 ships in multiple locations, among them the ghost fleet moored in Suisun Bay, California.

Since those heady days, however, the need to have an enormous reserve navy has diminished somewhat; although not entirely vanished. While the NDRF continues to operate, it does so in an vastly reduced capacity. Many of its vessels are currently being scrapped, and the last known total of ships stood at a mere 100.

That’s not to say the NDRF isn’t still spectacular. The great ships still floating need to be seen to be believed. Rust coated and decrepit, they’re still filled with everything from beds to dinner plates – as if the phantom-like ships themselves were just itching to get back to active duty. Although it’s unlike any of them will ever see action again, they remain a powerful reminder of the strength of the US Navy.

Related – 11 Abandoned Ferries, Cruise Ships, Ocean Liners & Hovercraft

 
 


 
 
 

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