Reflecting on the life and times of the Type 42 destroyers

When HMS Edinburgh hauls down the White Ensign in Portsmouth on 6 June it will mark the end of an era for the Royal Navy as the last Type 42 destroyer leaves the fleet.
The service of the 14 Type 42s built for the RN has spanned 38 years. They have seen service around the world, participated in several conflicts, 2 were lost in action, 2 severely damaged in accidents but adapted from Cold War air defence specialists to become more general purpose escorts. Thousands of sailors have served in these ships over the years & we owe their crews, their designers and their builders a debt of gratitude. Doubtless there are good and bad memories and dits-a-plenty to be shared as these ship pass into history. The story of the class is probably worthy of several volumes but here is a brief overview.

Development and design

In 1966 the Labour government cancelled the CVA-01 aircraft carrier project and the Type 82 destroyers that were designed as the carrier’s main escorts. The Type 82 programme was quite advanced and HMS Bristol was eventually completed. The Type 82 was really a light cruiser, large, heavily armed and expensive, with complex steam & gas turbine propulsion. In some ways it was a blessing that the costly Type 82’s were axed as the RN was able to get decent numbers of the alternative cheaper Type 42s.

The Type 42 was always an ‘austerity design’ and although by the batch 3 ships many of the problems had been cured, they were always considered only a partial success. Sometimes the quality and excellence of the RN crews could overcome these deficiencies, sometimes not. In the design stage it was decided not exceed a certain hull length in the erroneous belief that would save on cost, the first 8 ships were too short and this caused various problems throughout their lives. Poor sea-keeping was not only tiring for crews but affected the operation of the gun and delicate missile launcher on the foredeck. Rather cramped with a crew of around 250 (300 could be crammed in at a push), there was small margin for additional equipment but the RN just about managed to keep them effective with small incremental upgrades. The Type 42 was built around the Sea Dart missile system that was designed to provide area defence for the fleet from medium or high level Soviet bombers. The Sea Dart was pretty effective when the targets obliged by flying high but lacked the ability to engage close-in and low-level aircraft and anti-ship missiles. The RN developed the excellent Sea Wolf system for this role but it would be too costly to fit to the already cramped Type 42. Inexcusably for an air-defence destroyer, close-in weapons (CIWS) amounted to just 2 of manually–aimed WWII vintage Oerlikon 20mm cannons. This was quickly remedied after the Falkland’s war with fitting of 4 modern 20mm cannons and ultimately by the 1990s all ships were properly equipped with 2 Phalanx 20mm radar-controlled gatling guns. Unlike the Type 82, there was a hangar and flight deck which allowed the carrying of a Wasp and then the superb Lynx helicopter which gave the ship a major anti-submarine capability and light anti-shipping punch. Finally the Mk 8 4.5” gun provided limited air defence capability, last-ditch anti-shipping role, but was mainly used for bombarding land targets.

The Royal Navy pioneered gas turbine propulsion and the Type 42 was powered by 2 Rolls Royce Olympus and 2 Tyne gas turbine engines which were light, easy to maintain or replace, flexible in operation and could quickly accelerate the ship to 30+knots. Their main drawback was heavy fuel consumption (compared to modern diesel-electric ships), large air intakes required and considerable noise at speed, a significant problem when hunting submarines.

There first 6 ships of the Batch 1 design were completed between 1975-79. The 4 Batch 2 ships with improved electronics and radar and were completed between 1980-83. The 4 Batch 3 ships, completed 1982-85, had an additional 12 metres length inserted in the foredeck and slightly increased beam giving them far better sea-keeping qualities.

RN service

First of class, HMS Sheffield commissioned in February 1976, built at Vickers Shipbuilding in Barrow (now part of BAE Systems and dedicated to nuclear submarine construction) and the construction programme was spread between Swan Hunters (Newcastle – now closed), Cammel Liard (Birkenhead – closed but revived as ship repair yard) and Vosper Thorneycroft (Southampton, moved to Portsmouth then swallowed by BAE and now under threat of closure).

The Falklands war has dominated the story of the Type 42. On 4th May 1982 HMS Sheffield was hit by an Exocet missile, caught unawares while transmitting on satellite comms, she failed to detect the missile but without adequate CIWS would probably have been unable to save herself anyway. The missile failed to explode but the resulting fire eventually destroyed the ship, killing 22 of her crew. On 12th May HMS Glasgow was hit by a 1000lb bomb which fortunately passed right through the ship without exploding. She was patched up but had to limp home leaving HMS Coventry as the only remaining air defence ship in the task force. Coventry was sunk on 25th May 1982 by bombs while bravely operating in an exposed position to defend the landing ships with Sea Wolf-armed HMS Broadsword. The idea was that the combination of Sea Dart and Sea Wolf would provide long and short-range anti-aircraft coverage but although initially a success, Coventry’s luck ran out when she accidentally blocked Broadsword’s field of fire. This would not have been a problem for a single ship fitted with both weapons. HMS Exeter and Cardiff arrived as replacements and Exeter (with her better radars & electronics) achieved 3 aircraft kills. The Sea Dart system was a partial success in the Falklands war, exact figures are disputed but it achieved a roughly 50% hit rate. Its greater achievement was to force Argentine pilots to attack at low-level where their bombs sometimes didn’t fuse properly and failed to explode. What can be seen is that the presence of fighter aircraft (Sea Harriers) was a more effective weapon against attacking aircraft. Ship launched missiles are generally inferior to fighter aircraft, although missile systems in theory can be available 24/7 when it is difficult to maintain continuous combat patrol (CAP) cover. Although 2 were lost and 1 damaged the ‘expendable’ ‘fighting 42s” achieved their main strategic objective that was to defend the carriers and other ships that ultimately won the war.

Unfortunately there were 2 significant mishaps involving Type 42s. In 1988 HMS Southampton collided at night with the merchant vessel she was escorting in the Gulf. This was the result of a junior officer making a ship-handling error and she was lucky that the collision did not set off an explosion in her Sea Dart magazine or cut her completely in half. Southampton was transported back to the UK and fully repaired. In 2002 HMS Nottingham grounded on a well-charted submerged rock off Australia. Good damage control ensured she survived but had to be transported back to the UK for major repairs on a specialist heavy lift vessel. She had recently had a refit and upgrade and it was decided to repair her at a cost of £39M but she only remained in service for a further 4 years, making her repair a questionable decision.

In the 1st Gulf war HMS Gloucester grabbed the headlines by destroying an Iraqi Silkworm anti-ship missile aimed at USS Missouri. Despite many more advanced missile systems in service across the world’s navies, to this day HMS Gloucester remains the only ship to have ever shot down a missile with another missile in combat. HMS Cardiff’s Lynx helicopter also sank 2 Iraqi minesweepers with Sea Skua missiles. In Operation Telec, 2003 (2nd Gulf war) HMS Liverpool, Edinburgh & York were deployed in support of land forces and mine-sweeping operations. HMS Nottingham participated in Operation Sharp Guard the naval blockade to prevent weapons reaching of the former Yugoslavia during the civil war in 1996.  HMS Gloucester helped evacuate British citizens from Beirut in 2006 when Lebanon’s war with Israel escalated. HMS Liverpool provided a fitting swan song for the fighting 42s, serving with distinction off Libya in 2011. (Full story here)

These are the headline events involving the Type 42s but their work through 4 decades involved a diverse range of tasks supporting British interests, from patrolling UK waters, to the Persian Gulf, the Caribbean, Falklands and around the world. Earlier in their careers they spent much time escorting task groups centred on one of the RN’s 3 aircraft carriers but this role diminished as their services as general escort were increasingly required as a result of the declining frigate fleet. Their contribution has been immense, overall they have more than repaid the money invested in building and maintaining them.

Legacy and lessons

The Type 42s are being replaced by the Type 45 destroyers in RN service and it is interesting to draw comparisons and lessons from the Type 42 story.

  • Size. It is unwise to build warships that are slightly too small in order to make small cost savings in the short-term. As steelwork is a relatively cheap component of a warship’s cost it makes sense to build ships that are as seaworthy and stable as possible and have space for new equipment to be added in future. The Type 45 has taken this to an extreme, being very large, really a cruiser at almost double the displacement, 8000 tons compared to the 4300 (full load Type 42, batch 3). This has several other advantages, particularly that the Type 45’s size allows placement of its radar at the top of a very tall mast giving increased range of detection of low-level threats. The extra space means ship is also vastly more comfortable for its crew.
  • Manning. Despite being almost twice the size the T45 has a considerably smaller ships company (190) than the T42 (250). This is a major advantage in peacetime as manpower is the RN’s biggest cost after equipment. Also it simply is putting fewer people in harm’s way. However in a battle situation, over-reliance on automation is no substitute for manpower when repairing damage or making hasty repairs. The bulk of the T45 may help in absorb greater damage but would the small crew be too stretched to cope with the physical demands of damage-control?
  • Quantity. Although the Type 42 had limitations, they were at least affordable and the RN eventually managed to get 14 built. Sometimes quantity has a quality all of its own and with just 6 Type 45s, however capable, a ship can only be in one place at once. With just 6 T45s the RN will probably only have 2 or 3 for operations at any given time. In the 40 year life of the T42, 2 were sunk and 3 sustained severe damage. The number of hulls gave the RN options and it could just about absorb battle losses or cope with ‘sods law’ that says things will sometimes go wrong. The RN has always understood you may need to accept ship losses in order to win the battle. Are Type 45s now too few and too expensive to risk?
  • Needed. Despite a few naval commentators on the extreme fringe who claim all escort warships have had their day, the supposedly obsolete Type 42s were busy on deployment all over the world right up until the end of their lives. There only slight concession to their age was their withdrawal from deployments in the Gulf region where there is a slightly elevated and sophisticated threat. UK waters, the South Atlantic and the Caribbean were the main destination for the Type 42s in the twilight of their careers. RN surface escorts are continually worked hard and always in demand by governments, despite their continual reduction of the fleet.

End of the road

So far all the decommissioned Type 42s have been scrapped, despite various proposals for other uses. Most optimistic was the plan to use one as an adventurous training cruise ship. Various groups in the UK would like to obtain an ex-RN warships to be sunk as a diving reef (like the former HMS Scylla). There were also failed proposals to preserve HMS Cardiff and HMS Liverpool as museum ships in their namesake cities. It always seems a remote possibility that the Batch 3 Type 42s could be sold to the Pakistani Navy as they are worn out and obsolete. At the time of writing HMS Liverpool, Manchester, Gloucester and York are laid up in Portsmouth at various stages of being stripped of useful equipment probably before being towed away for scrap, most likely in Turkey.