ON a winter day in 1975 tugs busied themselves around a new arrival at the Royal Navy dockyard in Portsmouth. The subject of their attention, a ship called Sheffield. A brand new ship, the first of a new generation of vessel that was to take the Royal Navy out of the steam age, through the cold war and into the hazardous waters of the 21st Century.
By modern naval standards the Type 42 destroyer was a rush job. There was an urgency behind its building because the Royal Navy did not have modern air defence ships. This was the result of a decision taken in the late 1960s to scrap big aircraft carriers and the fighter jets they carried.
The navy had the weapon for the job, but not the ships to carry it. That weapon was a modern second generation guided missile called Sea Dart. It was to be fitted to a class of big escort ships that were destined to sail in protection of new aircraft carriers that now were not to be built. One of those escorts survived the cuts. HMS BRISTOL was completed as the only ship of her type. She carried Sea Dart but the radars she used to detect aircraft were anything but new. Plans for her to mount an Anglo-Dutch three dimensional radar were scrapped, so Bristol made do with 1950s technology.
The navy was desperate to get Sea Dart afloat, so designers were briefed to install the system in a hull much smaller than HMS BRISTOL’s. The new ships also had to carry a gun, anti-submarine torpedoes, and a helicopter. The design wasn’t good enough. Accountants had their way and made designers lop nearly 50 feet from the hull, while still retaining the heavy armament.
So in 1975, HMS SHEFFIELD commissioned just seven years after design work began. Along with her modern missiles, she was powered by modern gas turbine engines, making her fast, and requiring fewer personnel. By the standards of the time she was very modern. She did however carry the handicap of that 1950s generation radar.
Here is a Royal Navy recuritment film from 1975 featuring a new HMS SHEFFIELD
By 1982, Type 42 destroyers were entering service at roughly yearly intervals. The accountant- shortened hulls which made for poor seakeeping got their missing 47 feet back in time for the final four ships to be completed to the original hull specification. The year saw Sheffield, and her sister ships Coventry, Glasgow Cardiff and Exeter take part in the British operation to retake the Falkland Islands from Argentina. The summer of ’82 was not to be a good one for the Type 42.
First Sheffield then Coventry were sunk. Sheffield was hit by an air launched Exocet missile. Coventry was bombed by Argentine jets.
A Video of the attack on HMS SHEFFIELD
Documentary on the sinking of HMS COVENTRY
The loss of two modern air defence ships to air attack highlighted serious problems with the ships, and Royal Naval capability. However it ultimately made the remaining Type 42s some of the most capable and useful warships in the world.
Accident investigators refer to the “Swiss Cheese Effect” Imagine slices of Swiss cheese with holes in them. Stack the separate slices and the holes line up. It takes a number of things to happen to make one incident. It was so in the loss of Sheffield and Coventry.
When Sheffield was hit by the Exocet missile her main air warning radar was switched off because the ship needed to use her satellite communications gear and the radar interfered with transmissions. Hole number one. Less than a decade before, had this situation arisen that “gap” in the radar cover would have been filled by a specially designed aircraft carrier launched plane known as the Gannet. The Gannet carried a radar that would alert the fleet to any approaching aggressors. By 1982, the Gannet was long gone. Hole number two.
When the missile hit Sheffield, it ploughed unchallenged into her side starting fires. There was no last-ditch line of defence, not short range missile system or automatic gun to destroy the Exocet at close quarters. Hole number three.
Other factors including the lack of redundancy in fire mains and the inclusion of flammable material in the ship’s fittings contributed to her loss and the death of more than 20 of her crew.
When HMS COVENTRY was attacked 21 days later circumstances also conspired against her. Her ancient 1950s radar had trouble operating in the coastal waters she was patrolling. It was designed to work in open sea not amongst islands and hills. Hole number one. Sea Dart performed well. Coventry had “kills” to her name but it had been designed as a missile to take out high and medium-level Russian aircraft, not as a weapon tasked with slugging it out with low level fast jets. Hole number two. Like Sheffield, she had no close in weapon protection. Hole number three. Instead she sailed in company with a frigate that carried such a system. During the crucial moments of the air attack, that system, known as Sea Wolf failed, sealing Coventry’s fate. Hole number four. On the face of it the Type 42 had a disastrous time in the Falklands. A third ship, Glasgow had a narrow escape when she was hit by a bomb.
Post Falklands the performance of the Type 42s was scrutinised. Already newer ships of the class were being built with more modern radar and a programme to refit the older ships started. The fatal absence of a close-in weapon was addressed with the addition of two American Vulcan Phalanx automatic radar controlled Gatling guns on each ship. Sea Dart was slowly improved to the point that when it left service with the last Type 42 in 2013 it remained viable, if old weapon.
Despite the loss of nearly 40 lives, and the destruction of two ships, the Falklands Conflict turned the Type 42 into a front-line escort capable of a multitude of tasks.
It was a conflict nine years later where the Type 42 shed the stigma of doubt that surrounded its capabilities. During the first Gulf War, HMS GLOUCESTER, one of the last four lengthened ships was deployed to the Persian Gulf. While escorting the US Battleship Missouri she fired her Sea Dart missiles destroying an Iraqi Silkworm anti-ship missile. This was the first missile on missile engagement in any war and demonstrated the enhanced capabilities introduced into the class in the years after the Falklands.
HMS GLOUCESTER on patrol in the South Atlantic close to the spot where Sheffield sank
As the Cold War ended, the role of the Royal Navy changed. The so called “peace dividend” meant massive cuts, but the Type 42s survived remaining at the heart of the fleet. Their gun, torpedo system, and helicopter made them useful general purpose ships. The downing of a Silkworm in 1991 wasn’t Gloucester’s only success. Her Lynx helicopter, armed with Sea Skua missiles took on seven Iraqi warships and won.
Improved sensors and enhanced capabilities made them ideal warships to patrol the once hostile waters round the Falklands as part of Britain’s commitment to protecting the islands. Type 42s took on drug smugglers in the Caribbean, provided humanitarian aid for disaster-struck nations, evacuated refugees and also maintained that core role of providing air defence to Royal Navy task forces.
TV news report from HMS GLOUCESTER
Royal Navy profile on the Type 42. Quite dated as it talks of the future Type 45 destroyer now in service
In 2011, 36 years after HMS SHEFFIELD commissioned, her sister, Liverpool took part in Operation Unified Protector, the NATO blockade of Libya during the civil war there. She was fired on numerous times, and during her patrol dispensed 200 4.5 inch shells, destroying gun and missile emplacements.
HMS LIVERPOOL's last captain on the ship and her role off Libya in 2011
Gloucester, York and Edinburgh stripped of gear awaiting tow to scrap, Portsmouth February 2015
On an autumn day in 2015 tugs in Portsmouth Harbour busied themselves around a decommissioned warship. The subject of their attention, a ship called Gloucester. An old ship, bound for scrap. The last of a generation of vessel that took the Royal Navy out of the steam age, through the cold war and into the hazardous waters of the 21st Century.
HMS GLOUCESTER towed to the breakers in September 2015