Defence of the Realm – Royal Navy

The Royal Navy

The Royal Navy  was formed under the 1707 Acts of Union when the English Navy absorbed the three-ship Royal Scots Navy in to their flotilla. Operating closely with the Navy are the Royal Marines who are the maritime infantry and with the Navy form the Naval Service of the British armed forces. Perhaps more than any other branch of the armed forces the Royal Navy has been for many centuries the most visible aspect of Britain’s influence operating all over the world defending her empire and interests.

Royal Navy History

Pre-20th Century

World War I

Russian Civil War

World War II

Cold War

Falklands War

’91 Gulf War

UN Peacekeeping

21st Century

Warship Classes

Warship Classifications

Royal Navy Aircraft

Royal Navy Gallery

Royal Navy Videos


The Cressey Catastrophe

HMS Cressey

HMS Cressey

For over two thousand years the British Isles had been subject to invasion be it from legions of Roman soldiers, Nordic Vikings or the Spanish Armada. It was therefore embedded on the British psyche that a strong navy was essential for the island nation to survive. After the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 where the Royal Navy defeated the combined French and Spanish fleets Britain was the dominant naval power in the world and for the first time in its history the island nation was safe. The situation remained largely unchanged for over a hundred years and so entire generations grew up believing that thanks to the Royal Navy Britain was impervious to invasion even as the German leader, Kaiser Wilhelm II, began building his own fleet to challenge it.

Cressey-class HMS Aboukir

Cressey-class HMS Aboukir

Among the home fleet were a force of cruisers known as the Cressey-class. Built between 1899 and 1901 the Cressey-class cruisers displaced 12,000 tons and were well armoured for their day with some sections having as much as 152mm of steel protecting it. They were powered by two 4-cylinder triple expansion steam engines driving two shafts that propelled them to a speed of 21 knots. Main armament was two 9.2inch Mark X which could fire a 380lb shell out to a range of 29,000 yards and these were backed up by 12 6-inch and 12 12-pounder guns. Each Cressey-class ship had a crew complement of up to 760.

Such was the rapid pace of the arms race between Britain and Germany in the years leading up to the First World War that these ships were soon declared obsolete in the face of new equivalent German cruisers and so became part of the Royal Navy Reserve going to sea occasionally for training purposes. The outbreak of war saw the activation of the Royal Navy Reserve and the Cresseys formed the 7th Cruiser Squadron assigned to patrol the North Sea entrance to the English Channel. The inexperience of the reservist crews and the fact the Cresseys were slower than their German counterparts sparked widescale criticism of their use in this way from analysts and the more realistic members of the Admiralty. However the Royal Navy at large was gearing up for its Second Battle of Trafalgar in which the premier ships of both sides would meet in honourable combat for control of the sea. The Cresseys therefore had to perform the more mundane patrol taskings and there were those who believed that when the Germans learned of these ships it would actually encourage an attack. The 7th Cruiser Squadron therefore earned the unflattering nickname of the Live Bait Squadron.

HMS Euryalus

HMS Euryalus – Rear Admiral Christian’s flagship

In mid-September 1914 four of the Cresseys (Aboukir, Cressey, Euryalis and Hogue) and a variety of supporting ships were at sea under the command of Rear-Admiral Arthur Christian aboard Euryalus. Severe weather was hampering their progress and while this was of little concern to ships the size of the Cresseys it was more worrying for the relatively tiny destroyers. On the 17th September Christian decided that the weather was too bad for them to remain at sea and ordered them to return to port leaving the four Cresseys to continue the patrol. The weather remained poor and the ships had to work hard to keep at sea. Then on the 20th September Christian was given some unfortunate news from his flagship’s engineering crews. HMS Euryalus had expended a considerable amount of its fuel and needed to return to port soon. Frustrated by this development he considered transferring his flag to one of the other cruisers however the weather was proving so fierce that it was almost impossible to launch a sea boat and therefore he signalled to Captain J. Drummond aboard HMS Aboukir that he was to assume command of the squadron while Euryalus returned to port. The three remaining Cresseys continued their war patrol alone.

On the morning of September 22nd 1914 the weather began to settle and after days of rolling and pitching the three crews looked forward to a welcome respite as they patrolled an area known as the Broad Fourteens located around 18 miles from the Dutch coast (then a neutral country in the fighting). Unknown to them however another crew nearby were pleased to have a rest from the storm – the crew of German submarine U-9 under the command of Kapitänleutnant Otto Weddigen. U-9 had attempted an attack on British transports a few days earlier but the storm had forced Weddigen to call off the operation and now he and his men were returning to their home port.



At 06:00 U-9 had surfaced to replenish its batteries when lookouts spotted the shape of the three Cresseys in the distance travelling at a rather conservative 10 knots. Sensing an opportunity, Weddigen ordered U-9 to submerge and he plotted an attack. At 06:20 he fired a single torpedo at the lead cruiser, Aboukir, striking the British ship on the starboard side. The resulting explosion tore a hole big enough to flood the engine room and Aboukir ground to a shuddering halt before beginning to list to starboard. Drummond was overwhelmed. He had no idea what had caused the explosion and suspected they had blundered in to a minefield. Despite counter flooding the ship continued to list and it became obvious that the Aboukir was lost. Hogue and Cressey were therefore signalled to assist in recovering the Aboukir’s crew.

Weddigen couldn’t believe his luck!

HMS Hogue

HMS Hogue

After his initial attack Weddigen had surfaced once more and observed the two other ships going to the aid of their comrade. After 25 minutes he saw Aboukir finally slip below the surface taking 527 men with her and both Hogue and Cressey were launching boats to rescue the men in the water. Weddigen decided to take full advantage of the situation and fired a pair of torpedoes at the nearest ship, Hogue. The firing of the torpedoes raised the forward hull of the submarine out of the water and lookouts aboard Hogue spotted her. The British, finally realising they were under submarine attack, began firing on the submarine but it was too late and at 07:05 the torpedoes struck Hogue. The damage inflicted was even greater than that upon Aboukir and just 10 minutes later she sank beneath the surface.

Horrified at what was happening, HMS Cressey went after U-9 looking for revenge firing a salvo of gunfire in the submarine’s direction. Going to full power Cressey then attempted to ram U-9 but failed. Weddigen responded by firing his two aft torpedoes at the ship one of which missed but the other struck the British vessel although the damage was not fatal. Seeing this Weddigen turned U-9 around and he fired his last two bow torpedoes at the cruiser. The torpedoes impacted on the Cressey’s starboard side. Heavy flooding caused the ship to turn turtle and she remained upside down for nearly an hour before slipping beneath the waves thus closing this tragic chapter of the Royal Navy’s history. In all 1459 men were killed while 837 were rescued by British and Dutch ships.

Back home, the British press were furious. Having saturated the British public with the belief that the Royal Navy was invincible the loss of the three cruisers in such spectacular fashion shook the population to its core and there were calls for someone to answer for the tragedy.

There were several factors that attributed to loss.

  1. A large portion of the blame was attributed to Rear Admiral Christian in that he had not made clear to Drummond when he handed over command of the squadron just how much much authority he had. On the morning of the attack the weather had calmed but Drummond did not know if he had authority to order the destroyers to sea and provide a defensive screen for the cruisers against submarines.
  2. The British completely failed to recognise the threat posed by the German U-boats. The first few months of the war had been disastrous for Germany’s submarine force and this lead many in the Royal Navy to believe that they were a null threat. A damning fact emerged after the incident that the three cruisers were sailing in a straight line at the time of the initial attack on Aboukir despite standing orders that all large warships must patrol in a zig-zag pattern to make them more difficult targets for torpedo attack.
  3. Inexperience of the three reserve crews played a significant part in the incident primarily over what happened immediately after the first torpedo struck Aboukir. It was not until U-9 was sighted that anyone aboard the three ships considered the possibility of a submarine attack. Therefore no measures were taken that could have saved Hogue and Cressey.

Propaganda postcard of the incident with Weddigen’s portrait in top left corner

Weddigen and his crew returned to Germany as heroes; the entire crew were awarded the prestigious Iron Cross medal for the action. The British propaganda machine made much of the fact that Hogue and Cressey were attacked rescuing survivors from Aboukir but in the eyes of his people he remained a hero until two years later while in command of another U-boat, U-29, he was killed when his vessel was rammed by the legendary British battleship HMS Dreadnought.

While the whole incident was a tragedy for the Royal Navy it did demonstrate the awesome power of the submarine and this changed the face of naval warfare forever.

Type 21 Frigate

TYPE 21 1

There was a time when Britain’s shipyards provided the world’s navies with the finest warships. British designs were highly sought after particularly in South America, Africa and Australia but in the 1960s this export success took a dramatic turn and the United States became the primary supplier of warships to the western world. British shipbuilders thought they knew exactly who to blame; the Royal Navy itself. The fact of the matter was that British warship designs were first and foremost tailored to British requirements and then modified to suit an export customer. In the 1960s the increasingly leaner Royal Navy opted for more sophisticated vessels to make up for the smaller number of hulls in service. The result was a number of ships that were exceptionally high in quality but subsequently came with an extremely high price tag.

British shipbuilders felt that under these conditions the chances of achieving export success with the newest designs was becoming less and less likely. They therefore lobbied the Royal Navy and Parliament to produce the next class of RN frigate free from any government specification. They argued that they could produce an effective warship ideal for the convoy protection role that would be cheaper than contemporary warships such as the superlative Leander-class. In a rather bold move the Admiralty were wooed in to agreeing.

TYPE 21 2

The result was the Type 21 frigate, known as the Amazon-class, and in trying to achieve the goals promised by the shipbuilders the type failed appallingly. First-of-class HMS Amazon was completed in 1974 at a cost of no less than a Leander-class and sea trials proved that despite her relatively small size she was overweight compared to the original proposal. Stability problems with the ship being top heavy would dog the class throughout their entire service life and often this resulted in ballast tanks being filled to counteract this problem. RN planners began to realize that with this top heavy problem the class would prove difficult-to-impossible to modernise with the new sensors and weapons then in development as this would upset this balance further.

Crews initially complained of the vessel being quite overcrowded in places despite a high degree of automation for the time. Although smaller than a Leander-class the crew complement was similar but this criticism died away when they saw how luxurious (at least compared to previous warships) the crew compartments were. It was one of the first ships in the Royal Navy to properly take in to consideration ergonomics and crew comfort leading many to consider the ship the cushiest job in the fleet. The work stations were very modern and made crews transferring from older ships feel like their new vessel was a quantum leap in performance even if it wasn’t entirely true.

TYPE 21 3

The Type 21 was propelled by a twin shaft arrangement with propulsion provided by an all-gas turbine configuration. The primary powerplant comprised of two Rolls-Royce Olympus engines, a maritime development of the same aviation engine that powered aircraft such as the Avro Vulcan and most famously the Aerospatiale/B.A.C. Concorde. These produced over 50,000shp and were used for propelling the ship to its top speed of 30knots. The smaller secondary Rolls-Royce Tyne gas turbines provided secondary power and could be used for cruising while diesel generators produced electricity for the onboard systems. When operating at an economical cruise speed of 17knots the Type 21 had an operating range of around 4,000 nautical miles.

HMS Amazon and HMS Antelope were completed with a weapon fit comprising of a single 4.5inch dual purpose gun, a weapon that had proven highly successful on the Leander-class once problems with stoppage had been resolved, and had both anti-ship and limited anti-air capabilities with target data provided by radar although final training of the weapon was done manually. Dedicated anti-air weapons consisted of a Sea Cat surface-to-air missile (SAM) launcher and two 20mm Oerlikon anti-aircraft guns. Against large maritime patrol aircraft like the Soviet Il-38 “May” it would be reasonably effective but against a fast jet however it was almost useless. It also had a useful secondary role as a weapon against fast attack craft like the Soviet Osa-class torpedo boat and there was also the capability to use it to attack a target on the shore such as an artillery gun emplacement.

As the first two vessels were being built however there were already concerns that the type would be poorly matched against the increasing threat from the rapidly modernizing Soviet Navy surface force. Therefore from the third ship onwards a minor redesign allowed the following vessels to carry MM38 Exocet anti-ship missiles. The missiles were mounted on a platform ahead of the bridge and this necessitated the relocation of the decoy deployment system further aft as this had been where it had been located in the early ships. This dramatically improved its ability to engage hostile ships out to a range of 28 miles and thsi feature was retrofitted to the earlier ships later.

TYPE 21 4

Initially the Type 21 had no indigenous anti-submarine warfare (ASW) capability in the form of torpedo tubes or the Ikara ASW missile as equipped other RN warships but instead relied entirely on its helicopter. At first the Westland Wasp was the only RN helicopter small enough to operate from the flight deck but it was always intended to carry the new Westland Lynx which was replacing the Wasp from the late 1970s. The Lynx was a formidable ASW weapon being capable of independent detection and attack as well as insert Royal Marines on to another ship or beachhead. It also had a potent anti-fast attack role when fitted with a quartet of Sea Skua missiles. The Type 21 could only operate a single aircraft and the problem with this arrangement was that if the aircraft was shot down or became unserviceable on the flight deck due to mechanical breakdown then the frigate was effectively defenceless against hostile submarines and would have to rely on support vessels for protection. This fact was not lost on the Royal Navy who again modified the ship with two triple mounts for launching Mark 44 or 46 torpedoes.

The eighth and last ship was completed in 1978 and the class asserted itself within the Royal Navy operating primarily in the North Atlantic. The class consisted of;

  • HMS Amazon (F169)
  • HMS Antelope (F170)
  • HMS Active (F171)
  • HMS Ambuscade (F172)
  • HMS Arrow (F173)
  • HMS Alacrity (F174)
  • HMS Ardent (F184)
  • HMS Avenger (F185)

Despite the early misgivings, the Admiralty seemed happy with their newest ship. It was an aesthetically pleasing design looking modern and clean compared to previous classes and despite being heavier than had been intended the powerful propulsion system afforded the vessel a high degree of manoeuvrability. Some of the more practical naval officers still recognised the class’ shortcomings however and when the Falklands War broke out in 1982 these officers were naturally concerned. Seven of the eight ships of the class were made available for the conflict with HMS Amazon away in the Persian Gulf at the time.

TYPE 21 6

The Type 21s formed part of the 4th Frigate Squadron and were initially tasked with escort duties for the taskforce’s larger ships such as the carriers, supply ships and the troopships. HMS Arrow had the distinction of being the first British warship to fire on the Argentinians when it bombarded defensive positions around Port Stanley. Then the vessel became the first British warship to be attacked in the war when she was straffed by an Argentinian fighter aircraft that fortunately lacked any ground attack weapons. When the Type 42 destroyer HMS Sheffield was hit by an Exocet missile on May 4th it was Arrow that lead the rescue effort taking off 225 of her crew. The ship would also undertake firefighting efforts for HMS Plymouth later in the war.

On the 10th May 1982, HMS Arrow continued to distinguish herself in combat when along with her sister ship HMS Alacrity she took part in a dramatic chapter of the war when both entered Falkland Sound under the cover of darkness to establish whether the Argentinians had mined the area. Just how they were supposed to detect the mines remains a topic of intense debate with the most cynical arguing that the Royal Navy viewed these ships as expendable compared to a Type 22 or Type 42 destroyer and so if they hit one it wouldn’t be such a loss in the grand scheme of things. The ships passed through the sound without encountering any mines but in the early hours of the following morning the frigates encountered the Argentine supply vessel ARA Isla de los Estados attempting to run supplies to the Argentine garrison. The rules of engagement permitted the frigates to attack and HMS Alacrity fired fifteen 4.5inch rounds from her DP gun which ignited the huge amounts of fuel and ammunition onboard. The resulting explosion destroyed the vessel killing 22 of the 24 crew in the only surface-to-surface combat of the war. That wouldn’t be the end of it however. As the two vessels completed their mission and turned back towards the taskforce they were spotted by the Argentine submarine ARA San Luis. The submarine fired on the two ships but both torpedoes failed to find their targets as a result of successful countermeasures employed by Arrow. Mechanical problems prevented the San Luis from attacking again and the submarine slipped away.

With the Argentine Navy’s surface force taken out of the fight by the sinking of the ARA Belgrano the main threat now came from low level fast jets of the Argentine air forces. The Sea Cat SAM proved almost impotent in defending against this type of attack and the 20mm Oerlikons proved a more effective anti-aircraft weapon prompting the fitting of an additional pair further aft later in the ships’ careers. It was because of this impotency against fast jets that two of the class were the major Royal Navy casualties in the war and both would be lost within two days of each other during the vital San Carlos landings. For the better part of a week the Royal Navy fought one of the most pitched and deadly battles in its history as the Royal Navy desperately tried to fend off the Argentinian air force who were trying to stop the British from putting troops and supplies on the island.

Sea Cat

Sea Cat

HMS Ardent was hit first on the 22nd May by two bombs from an Argentine aircraft both of which landed on the flight deck. The vessel remained afloat as firefighting efforts, including support from HMS Yarmouth (below), tried to save the vessel but later in the day the ship was hit again in another air attack by Argentine pilots who saw it as a target of opportunity. From a tactical perspective this was a mistake by the Argentine pilots since Ardent was already out of the fight due to the damage sustained in the first attack and was certainly out of the war. Therefore by attacking Ardent they were risking their lives for a tactically insignificant target, throwing away their bombs that would have better served being used against one of the other RN ships that hadn’t been hit yet.

TYPE 21 5a

On May 23rd 1982, HMS Antelope was hit during an air strike on the British ships at San Carlos. The attacking Argentine pilot flew his aircraft so low that as he passed over Antelope his wing struck the radar mast although he was able to maintain control and return to Argentina. One of his stick of bombs broke through the hull of the ship killing steward Mark Steven however its arming pin had failed to engage. A follow up attack saw a second bomb strike the ship but again the weapon failed to detonate. The ship was moved to more sheltered waters as a bomb disposal team worked through the night to disarm it.

After three attempts to disarm one of the weapons the team used a small explosive charge to try and destroy it in a controlled explosion. Unfortunately, this detonated the weapon and in the early hours of May 24th the night was illuminated by an immense explosion as the ship’s hull was torn open. A newspaper journalist nearby photographed the blast and the picture has become one of most enduring images of the war.


HMS Antelope

One of the cold realities of war regarding both these losses is that it was better that they got hit by the Argentine bombs rather than the troopships they were protecting during the landings. The troopships were crammed full of soldiers and several of them were requisitioned ocean liners that had no armoured protection or adequate countermeasures to tackle combat damage. In this respect their sacrifice meant they achieved their mission which in the Nelsonian traditions of the Royal Navy is an honourable fate for any ship.

While the remaining five ships survived the war they did not come off entirely unscathed. Their prolonged use in the South Atlantic during a bitter winter conflict had weakened their hulls requiring significant strengthening efforts to prolong their useful lives in the mid 1980s. This strengthening increased the displacement of the ships by a few hundred tons depending on the extent needed. The tragedy of the type in the Falklands campaign spelled the end for this class in the Royal Navy however and when an offer was made from Pakistan in the mid 1990s to buy all six remaining ships it was greeted with open arms. In a final irony the class that had failed to win any export orders was now being sold abroad second hand.

The class could be described as a failure in Royal Navy service and if this is true then the blame has to be put on both the naval architects and the Royal Navy both of whom were unable to meet in the middle with what they wanted. With no Royal Navy specification the shipyards produced a ship with no clear approach to its surface combat role. When it did go to war it was then put in to a situation for which it was totally unsuited, to provide air defence for the landings at San Carlos against fast jet types, and the class suffered accordingly. The Sea Cat installation was always considered a mistake and should have been replaced ideally by the superlative Sea Wolf SAM which would have gone a long way to saving Ardent and Antelope and perhaps then the retrospective view of this class might not be so tainted. That having been said the success of HMS Arrow in the conflict shows that not for the first time in its history it was the most important weapon system in the Royal Navy’s arsenal, its skilled and professional people, that made that particular ship a success.

Role: General Purpose Frigate

Displacement: 3,100tons (standard) / 3,700tons (full load) – both figures increased following strengthening.

Complement: 175 Officers and Crew


  • Length: 384ft
  • Beam: 41.7ft
  • Draught: 19.5ft


  • Primary: 2x Rolls-Royce Olympus gas turbines (50,000shp)
  • Secondary: 2x Rolls-Royce Tyne gas turbines (9,900shp)
  • Max Speed: 30kts
  • Max Range: 4,000nm at 17kts


  • 1x 4.5inch DP gun
  • 4x MM38 Exocet SSM
  • 1x Sea Cat SAM
  • 2x 20mm Oerlikon AA guns (Additional pair added post 1982)
  • 2x Triple cell Mark 44/46 ASW torpedo mounts

Twelve Little S-Boats

The S-Class submarine was a diesel-electric attack submarine operated by the Royal Navy during the Second World War. The first batch of the production line covered 12 vessels and all were delievered before the war broke out. This batch suffered 75% losses and this lead to a rather morbid poem being devised based on a 19th century nursery rhyme. It is unclear who wrote the poem or how it came in to being but it became well known among the submarine service.


For those not familiar with the class, Starfish, Seahorse, etc are the names of the submarines.

Twelve little S-boats “go to it” like Bevin,
Starfish goes a bit too far — then there were eleven.
Eleven watchful S-boats doing fine and then
Seahorse fails to answer — so there are ten.
Ten stocky S-boats in a ragged line,
Sterlet drops and stops out — leaving us nine.
Nine plucky S-boats, all pursuing Fate,
Shark is overtaken — now we are eight.
Eight sturdy S-boats, men from Hants and Devon,
Salmon now is overdue — and so the number’s seven.
Seven gallant S-boats, trying all their tricks,
Spearfish tries a newer one — down we come to six.
Six tireless S-boats fighting to survive,
No reply from Swordfish — so we tally five.
Five scrubby S-boats, patrolling close inshore,
Snapper takes a short cut — now we are four.
Four fearless S-boats, too far out to sea,
Sunfish bombed and scrap-heaped — we are only three.
Three threadbare S-boats patrolling o’er the blue,

Two ice-bound S-boats…

One lonely S-boat…

The survivors, left ominously blank in the fatalistic rhyme, were HMS Sealion (scuttled), HMS Seawolf (broken up), and HMS Sturgeon (sold).

River-class OPV

River-class 2

The fleet of three River-class Offshore Patrol Vessels (OPVs) constitute the main force of the Royal Navy’s Fisheries Protection Squadron and regularly patrol the UK’s Economic Exclusion Zone (EEZ). A fourth vessel, HMS Clyde (P257) was modified for operations in the South Atlantic to operate around the Falklands Islands. Due to these modifications HMS Clyde is considered part of a sub group of the class. In 2013 an additional three vessels built to a slightly upgraded design to allow them to operate EH101 Merlins off the flight deck were ordered by the Royal Navy and will enter service from 2017.


Displacing 1,700 tons the River-class are the largest purpose-built patrol vessels ever operated by the Royal Navy; HMS Clyde is larger still being closer to 2,000 tons to increase endurance. The vessels were specifically designed with a large open deck aft allowing them to be fitted with mission specific equipment with relative ease. This means they can undertake a wide variety of roles if necessary and can include fire-fighting, disaster relief and anti-pollution work. To assist in any of these roles they are equipped with a 25 tonne capacity crane and two rigid inflatables for boarding other vessels. Two Ruston 12RK 270 diesel engines propel the vessel up to speeds of 21 knots and at a cruising speed of 12 knots it has a range of 7,500 nautical miles. Typical crew complement is 30 while there is room for an additional 20 persons should the need arise. Armament consists of one 20mm Oerlikon cannon and up to five General Purpose Machine Guns (GPMGs). HMS Clyde is more formidably armed however with a 30mm DS30B cannon and two fixed Minigun positions backed up by GPMGs.

River-class 3

The current fleet consists of;

HMS Mersey (P281)
HMS Severn (P282)
HMS Mersey (P283)
HMS Clyde (P257)

The three vessels of the Fisheries Protection Squadron enjoy a relatively quiet life as opposed to HMS Clyde which has to deal repeatedly with Argentine aggression over sovereignty of the Falkland Islands and Latin American solidarity with Argentina. This culminated in Brazil refusing to let Clyde dock in Rio De Janeiro in January 2011.

HMS Mermaid (F76)


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.

BLACKSTARQueensdockMarch1969 smOne 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.

HMS FITTLETON 20 September 1976 2The 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.


Commissioned: 1973

Decommissioned: 1977

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

Supermarine Scimitar


  • Crew: 1
  • Length: 55 ft 3 in (16.84 m)
  • Wingspan: 37 ft 2 in (11.33 m)
  • Height: 17 ft 4 in (5.28 m)
  • Wing area: 485 ft² (45.06 m²)
  • Empty weight: 23,962 lb (10,869 kg)
  • Loaded weight: 34,200 lb (15,513 kg)
  • Powerplant: 2 × Rolls-Royce Avon 202 turbojet, 11,250 lbf (50.1 kN) each
  • Maximum Speed: 640 kn (736 mph, 1,185 km/h) at sea level
  • Range: 1,237 nmi (1,422 mi, 2,289 km
  • Service ceiling: 46,000 ft (14,000 m)
  • Armament
    Guns: 4 × 30 mm guns.
    Hardpoints: 4 underwing pylons for bombs, rockets and external tanks.

When it entered service in 1957 the Supermarine Scimitar was the heaviest fighter ever built for the Royal Navy. It was a powerful aircraft with high subsonic speed and was well liked by its pilots – a fact that hides an unenviable safety record. Although predominantly a fighter the aircraft entered service at a time when fighter aircraft being fitted with radar was becoming the norm rather than being confined to so-called “all-weather” fighters. Therefore by the 1960s it was almost an obsolete aircraft although it would have given a good account of itself against Soviet aircraft like the MiG-19 and early MiG-21s. Efforts to arm the aircraft with AIM-9 Sidewinders came to little as the Scimitar was slowly phased out in favor of the even bigger DeHavilland Sea Vixen with its integrated weapon system of radar and missiles.

This fact saw the aircraft relegated to the strike role until replaced by Blackburn Buccaneer S.1s. In this capacity they even became armed with free-fall nuclear weapons. Most Scimitars spent their last days as tankers for the thirsty Buccaneer S.1, orbiting the carrier to refuel the Buccs straight after take off. The aircraft last flew in 1970 as part of the Fleet Requirements Unit providing targeting training to the crews of frigates and destroyers.

A single example can be viewed at the Carrier Experience Exhibit at the Yeovilton Fleet Air Arm Museum.