Reflecting on the life and times of the Type 42 destroyers

Apr 2, 2013   //   by NavyLookout   //   Articles, blog  //  4 Comments

HMS Nottingham Type 42 destroyerWhen 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.

A maritime-centered defence strategy for Britain makes sense

Mar 20, 2013   //   by NavyLookout   //   Articles, blog  //  11 Comments

With the fight against the Taliban drawing to a close in Afghanistan for better or worse, those planning the future of UK defence will be at something of a crossroads prior to the 2015 Strategic Defence Review. (Assuming there is actually some real strategic thinking in government!) As usual it looks likely there will be less money for defence in 2015, given the chronic weakness of the UK economy. The debates are already beginning and although there are a few back-bench MPs finally speaking out against further defence cuts, the majority will probably support the soft option of defence cuts in preference to cuts to ballooning welfare and NHS budgets. In a climate of further austerity it is imperative that the little money available is spent the right way. Here we argue that a maritime-centered strategy will best prepare us for the coming challenges. For most of the 20th Century Britain was committed to a more ‘continental’ strategy but the end of the Cold War and long-term European peace has removed the need for this. The concept is not something new, rather a recognition of the lessons from history that a strong navy that has served us well over hundreds of years and is the way forward in the 21st century.


Although it is hard to predict the future, what is certain is that rapidly growing industrialised global populations will be competing harder and harder for food, materials and energy. This is why the 21st Century has often been called the ‘Maritime Century’ as the sea itself will not only continue be the world’s ever-busier main trade route, but will increasingly be harvested, mined and drilled for its riches. Hopefully peaceful and sustainable means can be established for the fair sharing of resources but conflict does grow more likely. The pressures of population growth and climate change add more temptation for nations to ignore international law and treaties and take whatever they can from the oceans. Therefore the ability to enforce the law, and if necessary, protect our resources, will require naval forces, far stronger than we have now. With a large, internationally agreed Exclusive Economic Zone of nearly 300,000 Sq Km around the UK, our home waters alone represent a considerable challenge to protect. Those nations best equipped to exploit and defend their seas will be best placed to meet 21st century challenges. Many nations, particularly in Asia are waking up to this and acting accordingly. It is ironic that Britain, once the leading maritime nation, is so now so muddled about this issue.

Because 95% of our physically traded goods and much of our food and energy is dependent on ships arriving and departing from the UK and then safely navigating the worlds oceans, we simply must have more contingency options to protect these ships rather than hoping for the best. Two world wars showed that the UK could be brought almost to the point of starvation by submarines attacking this shipping. Today the merchant ships are far bigger and vulnerable and carry cargoes worth hundreds of millions of pounds - the loss of even one could have serious economic impact.

The first role of our armed forces should be to deter & prevent conflict in the first place and navies are particularly well suited to this. In a general sense the “fleet in being” is a deterrent to other nations but also in a specific region warships can be deployed for extended periods loitering off a coast with an implied threat but without firing a shot. Warships can also become mercy ships almost overnight and can deliver aid, medical support supplies and manpower assistance quickly when needed. Navies offer politicians a persistent and flexible tool for measured response that can be easily ramped up or backed down without the commitment of troops on the ground or the very temporary presence that aircraft deliver. Mobility is the key element of a maritime strategy. It is far easier and cheaper to transport large amounts of weaponry, men and materials over long distances by sea than over land or by air.

Naval strategy theorist J. S. Corbett said that a decisive sea battle is not always a requisite for victory, rather gaining sea control for a period of time. Naval power is about control of the sea (and the air over the sea) which then allows:

  • the free passage of vessels carrying goods
  • the ability to mount an amphibious landing or attack adjacent lands
  • protection of vessels & installations gathering resources from the sea or sea bed. (Increasingly important).

What happens on the land, not the sea is ultimately decisive but what happens at sea will heavily influence the outcome. Without men on the ground no victory is possible but without control of the sea it will usually be very hard to get meaningful numbers of properly supplied and equipped men there in the first place. The ‘unseen’ economic and financial impact of what happens at sea should also be considered as a part of naval strategy. It should also be noted that sea control was a pre-requisite for almost every major successful operation conducted by Britain in World War II.

Maritime warfare is always a joint in nature but the environment adds another layer of complexity when operating aircraft or landing men. The Fleet Air Arm and the Royal Marines do not exist to be the Navy’s private airforce and private army, rather they exist because they have the expertise specific to the maritime environment and both deserve much greater investment.

Who are the threats?

When arguing the case for defence spending one must answer the questions “who are the enemies we could be fighting? and why must we be involved in further conflict anyway”. Public opinion in the UK is hardening against the use of our forces in the wake of the disasters in Iraq and bloody stalemate in Afghanistan. It is hard to see much political will for significant interventions in the near future. Although some would like the UK and others to intervene in Syria to prevent a slaughter of civilians the truth is we don’t have the military strength, the stomach for more casualties nor can we afford the financial cost. UK forces have been in action almost every year since WII and an extend rest, recuperation and restructuring period, particularly for the Army would be desirable. (But one suspects it probably won’t be like that) When short-term threats are reduced it is much harder to argue the case for defence spending to politicians who generally are only thinking ahead for the next 5 years or less. Warships generally require at least a decade to be agreed, funded, designed, built, trialled and worked up but are key to the long-term defence of UK interests. Failure to invest in appropriate skills, infrastructure and research will mean loss of the ability to generate an effective fleet. Just because there is no specific threat today does not mean one won’t develop quickly in future, certainly much faster than we can build warships and train men.

Our trade routes remain threatened by piracy and this needs to be address with suitable numbers of simpler patrol ships to police the sea lanes but NOT at the cost of more capable warships. There is also a small residual terrorist threat but merchant shipping is most vulnerable to rogue states using mines, mini submarines, swarm attacks or land-based missiles particularly in key ‘choke’ points such as the Straits of Hormuz.

For now we must remain concerned about Iran, North Korea, and in the longer term China and in particular Russia. War with any of these states would be awful to contemplate and to be avoided but we need credible forces in order to both be taken seriously in negotiations and to protect our interests and support our allies. There are also ‘failed states’ that may become stronghold for terrorism and crime and may destabilise their neighbors A strong navy would give us choices and the option to defend ourselves at arm’s length, without a navy we are simply subject to the whims and will of others. The UK remains committed to protect the people of the Falklands indefinitely. Fortunately for now the Argentine military is a shambles but we cannot become complacent. Although in theory the garrison on the islands could be re-enforced with troops and aircraft by a precarious air bridge in an emergency, it is upon the RN that defence from a determined attack on the Falklands mainly rests.

Where might we have to fight?

Lets hope we don’t have to fight anyone, but any conflict involving the UK in the foreseeable future it is most likely to be outside Europe (although retention of proper homeland defences are prudent). The very fact that we may fight from distance means it will probably directly involve the Navy or at least transport of forces by sea. It is perhaps partly because Afghanistan is land-locked that we were unable to use our ability to control the sea (as in many times past) to gain a decisive advantage. There will be occasions when events occurs that are beyond the reach of naval forces but the majority of the world’s population lives within 500 miles of the coast and two-thirds of the globe is ocean so this is statistically going to be infrequent. In Mali the French re-enforced by air but were still reliant on supplies and armoured vehicles shipped in by sea to a port on the Ivory Coast. The UK made a token show of support by lending a couple of C-17 transport planes but it requires vast numbers of transport aircraft to support even a small army in the field compared to what can be transported by ship. Recent conflicts involving UK forces in Bosnia, Sierra Leone, the Gulf Wars and Libya all had a very significant naval dimension.

“The Army should be a projectile to be fired by the Royal Navy” Lord Edward Grey

Is an all-round defence capability indispensable?

Many argue the UK should continue to divide its ever-shrinking defence budget into 3 equal slices spread between the services to retain a supposed ‘broad range of capabilities’ to meet a variety of scenarios. While this approach was just about credible when the defence budget was over 4% of GDP with Soviets bearing down on us, at less than 2% of GDP, we have to accept we can’t be ‘all things to all men’ anymore. We have 3 services that are so diminished they are becoming capable of only token efforts without the depth to become involved in serious conflict or without total reliance on allies. The intervention in Libya was only a success because we were not up against serious opposition and it only lasted a conveniently short time. If we were to divert resources into a naval build up we could forgo some capabilities such a RAF ‘deep strike’ and Army main battle tanks & heavy artillery. We can take advantage of our island status and accept we are not likely to need to engage in a full-scale nation v nation land battles and if we really need to bomb something, then let us use the vastly superior reach of sea-launched Tomahawk missiles or carrier-based aircraft. The Army needs to keep up its infantry numbers but could become focussed on short & light-weight intervention or long-term peacekeeping operations, rather than large-scale frontal assaults. The RAF would be responsible for defence of UK airspace and develop niche skills such as cyber warfare .

Let us be clear, naval forces are not a complete panacea and there will be a loss of some capabilities by prioritising the RN. However by trying to maintain too many capabilities, some of which are almost redundant or at least luxuries, we are simply over-stretched in all areas to the point where they are too weak to be effective against any serious opposition. Too many in Europe have fallen into the trap of thinking that advances in aircraft, missile, satellite or even IT technology render lessons from history irrelevant or have somehow sidelined naval power while there rest of the world can see otherwise. The maritime-based defence strategy is a natural fit for the UK and will give us the best ‘punch per pound’ and the most effective range of options for our limited budget.

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