HMS Mermaid (F76) was an unusual ship within the Royal Navy’s post-war history in that it was one of the very few “one-offs” to serve under the RN ensign. Mermaid’s life in the Royal Navy was also short but far from uninteresting.
The story of this unique ship begins not in the UK but in the African country of Ghana. In the 1960s, Ghana was under the presidency of Kwame Nkrumah who as well as leading his country to independence from Britain in 1957 was a strong advocate of Pan-Africanism often at the expense of support from the west. Nkrumah had ambitions that Ghana, already the first British possession in Africa to gain independence, should be a political, economic and military leader in this new era of post-colonial Africa. In order for his country to exert that kind of influence on the continent Nkrumah had ambitious plans for his armed forces which included building a powerful navy comprising of modern surface ships.
One such ship was the Black Star which was to double as both the navy flagship and presidential yacht for Nkrumah. Unfortunately for Nkrumah his government was overthrown in 1966 while he was on a state visit to Vietnam. The Black Star was already under construction however at the Firth of Clyde yard and at an advanced stage when work was ordered to be stopped and the incomplete vessel be transferred to Portsmouth Dockyard. There she remained at anchor until the Royal Navy decided, without much enthusiasm it has to be said, to take her on charge as HMS Mermaid, the sixteenth vessel in the Royal Navy to have carried the name, and was transferred this time to Chatham Dockyard to be brought up to RN standards.
Upon completion HMS Mermaid had a displacement of 2,300 tons as standard and could attain a maximum speed of 24 knots thanks to its eight 16-cylinder diesel engines. As dictated by the Ghanan specifications the ship shared a common hull with the Royal Navy’s Type 41 and Type 61 frigates. Much of the internal machinery remained the same and was one of the reasons the Royal Navy took her on charge; had there been significant changes then the operating costs would have been higher thus dissuading the RN from acquiring the ship.
The main changes over the frigate designs was a reordering of the superstructure which resulted in a rather long flush deck and the two exhausts streamlined into a single funnel. Because it was intended to operate as a presidential yacht there were extra accommodation areas in the superstructure which were put to use for transporting Marines or trainees. Armament was light compared to most Royal Navy frigates with twin 4 inch guns on the foredeck in ‘A’ position, four single Bofors 40 mm guns arranged along the upper superstructure and a Limbo anti-submarine mortar mounted aft in a similar fashion to the Leander-class destroyer. The sensor suite included Types 170 and 176 sonar for Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) and a Plessey AWS-1 radar on the foremast supported by a navigational radar. Typical complement was 177 officers and men although this varied either side depending on the tasking which usually involved training.
In layout and capability HMS Mermaid had more in common with contemporary US Coast Guard cutters than a modern frontline Royal Navy warship. As such she was never operated in the same fashion as a Leander-class for example. She was often employed in a training role when operating in the North Atlantic where she would have proven extremely vulnerable had a conflict with the Soviet Navy broken out.
On occasion HMS Mermaid undertook fisheries protection duties as tensions with Iceland over established fishing grounds in the North Sea came to a head in the Third Cod War. Believing the Far East to be more suited to HMS Mermaid the vessel found itself acting as the Hong Kong guardship on several occasions while frontline warships carrying out the role were in dock or assigned other duties temporarily. In 1975 HMS Mermaid was slated to assist in evacuating British nationals from Saigon in the final days of the Vietnam War but this requirement failed to materialize and HMS Mermaid was excused from taking part in that particular chapter of history.
The most tragic part of HMS Mermaid’s history occurred on September 20th 1976. The vessel was engaging in replenishment-at-sea operations with the British minesweeper HMS Fittleton. The larger size of HMS Mermaid generated powerful forces in the sea which repeatedly rocked the considerably smaller HMS Fittleton coupled with the ships unusually short forecastle which presented alignment problems made for a tricky replenishment operation. These forces created by HMS Mermaid eventually forced HMS Fittleton ahead of the larger vessel causing a fatal collision which resulted in HMS Fittleton capsizing. Twelve men were killed in the incident while many others sat for several hours trapped in the minesweepers hull waiting for rescue.
In 1977 HMS Mermaid was sold to the Royal Malaysian Navy and renamed KD Hang Tuah. Interestingly she retained her F76 penant with the Malaysians.
Displacement: 2,300 tons (standard) / 2,520 tons (full load)
- Length – 339.3ft
- Beam – 40ft
- Draught – 12.2ft
Propulsion: 8 × 16-cylinder diesel engines producing 14,400shp
Top Speed: 24kts
Cruising Speed: 15kts
Range: 4,800nm at 15kts
- 2x Vickers 4.0in guns
- 2-4x 40mm Bofors AA guns
- 1x Limbo ASW Mortar