HMS Hotspur (1870)

Although largely overshadowed in naval history by battles such as Trafalgar, the Battle of Lissa in 1866 was for a time one of the most influential naval engagements of the 19th century. Also known as the Battle of Vis, it took place on July 20th 1866 in the Adriatic between the navies of Austro-Hungary and Italy and was one of the first major engagements between ironclad warships. Naval gunfire during the course of the battle, especially from the Italian fleet, proved largely ineffective due to the superiority of the Battle of Lissa ram shiptarget ship’s armour leading to a series rammings by opponents which proved far more destructive.

Observers the world over looked to the battle as an example of how modern naval warfare was to be conducted and concluded that while every effort should be made to address the problem with the guns, ramming would in the meantime become a major part of naval warfare. Even before Lissa, some naval leaders were already coming to this conclusion with the French proposing dedicated ram ships that took advantage of steam propulsion to propel them in to an enemy as early as 1840. However, it was not until after the battle that most navies began to take the tactic seriously in the industrial age leading to the retrofitting of rams to existing ships and the addition of a ram on nearly every new major warship then being designed or under construction. Most rams protruded several feet ahead of the ship and below the waterline, something that would cause more than one tragic collision over time.

Even in the wake of Lissa, few countries took the concept of dedicated ram ships seriously but the British Royal Navy saw great value in their application. Work began on designing such a vessel within a year of Lissa and the design for HMS Hotspur was finalised and authorised in 1868. A number of considerations were made regarding the mission of the vessel. With the ram being considered the principle means of attack, it was expected to survive more than one ramming during a major engagement and so was reinforced by an extension of the armour belt.

As well as the ram, Hotspur was designed to carry a single 12inch (305 mm) 25-ton muzzle-loading rifle forward of the superstructure. This weapon was intended to allow the Hotspur to rake a rammed enemy vessel with gunfire should the two ships become stuck on one another as happened on at least one occasion at Lissa. Alternatively, the gun could fire at a target the Hotspur had missed with its ram or defend itself against counter attack while the ram was brought to bear. While rotating turrets were becoming a common fixture on warships at the time, the designers of Hotspur were concerned that the bearings on which such turrets rotated would not survive the violence of an impact against another ship. Therefore they designed a static armoured gunhouse in which the weapon would be located on top of a rotating turntable. The gun would then be aligned to one of four gun ports to aim at the enemy – two to starboard and two to port – however the gun could not be fired directly ahead at the ship the ram was heading for. The 12inch gun was supported by two muzzle-loading 64-pounder (160mm) weapons in open mounts positioned aft.

HMS Hotspur 1870 royal navy ram shipConstruction of the Hotspur was undertaken by Robert Napier & Sons of Glasgow in their shipyard at Govan on the River Clyde. The design featured a short but prominent forecastle that gave way to a waist with a railing before meeting the long main deck that extended to the stern. Hotspur had a typical complement of 209 men, displaced 4,331 tons and was powered by 3,500 indicated horse power Napier reciprocating steam engines that drove two propellers. The Royal Navy commissioned Hotspur in to the fleet on November 17th 1871 but quickly proved something of a disappointment. While the new warship displayed excellent manoeuvrability, something important for attacking a warship taking evasive action, the vessel was unfortunately significantly underpowered and was unable to overtake or often even match the speeds of the ships that were its intended target. Commissioned the same year as Hotspur, the 7,749-ton French ironclad Océan had a top speed of 13 knots compared to the British vessel’s best speed of 12.65 knots despite being over 3,000 tons heavier.

This fact cast an unfavourable light on the vessel since it was clear it could not adequately perform its intended mission namely supporting the main fleet in a major engagement. However, some suspected that the Royal Navy actually had a more aggressive role in mind for the vessel but had kept it to themselves so as to avoid the fury of the growing number of radical voices in Parliament such as John Bright who had staunchly opposed the Crimean War and and any foreign policy that was aggressive in nature. Once in service, one mission conceived for the Hotspur was to attack ships moored in port possibly in a preemptive strike. In this capacity, the ram ship’s relatively poor top speed was less of an issue but such an attack would have to be carried out with significant support from conventional warships to destroy or decoy enemy defensive fire. MPs such as Bright feared the development of such offensive weapons would provoke an arms race or encourage an opponent to make their own preemptive strike first.

Joining the fleet, Hotspur spent much of her early life in reserve or conducting trials to develop tactics for other ram ships then under construction such as HMS Rupert which was built along similar lines as Hotspur but featured a rotating turret. In the second half of the 1870s, Imperial Russia was expanding and under Tsar Alexander II had waged a series of conflicts with the Ottoman-Turks aimed at reclaiming lost territories and reestablishing a Russian naval presence in the Black Sea. The perceived threat this posed to British shipping in the eastern Mediterranean upon the outbreak of yet another Russo-Turkish War in 1877 was enough to warrant a significant build-up of British naval forces in the region and this included Hotspur.

HMS Hotspur 1870 royal navy ram ship 2

On February 14th 1878, Hotspur and nine other ironclad warships were instructed by the British government to transit the Dardanelles with the aim of reaching Constantinople to protect British lives and ships that had gathered at the city. Under the command of Admiral Geoffrey Hornby, the force went in two waves with Hotspur and Rupert both being in the second wave. Poor weather helped conceal their journey from eyes on the shore and this included the Turkish defensive gunners who were on a war footing and Hornby’s force had not yet received permission from the Turkish authorities to sail through. In the end, Hotspur and its compatriots steamed through unmolested although one ironclad, HMS Alexandra, ran aground and had to be towed back to open water by HMS Sultan.

Being moored off Constantinople, the crew of Hotspur and the other British warships could actually see the tents of the Russian Army outside the city. The combined firepower of the British force was enough to discourage the Russian artillery units from engaging them but soon news filtered down that the Russians planned to float mines at the British ships as they operated in the Sea of Marmora should Britain join in the war. Fortunately, the Russian desire to negotiate grew stronger than the desire to sink British warships and the crisis began to wind down.

Hotspur returned to Britain and put in to Devonport, Plymouth where it sat waiting for a major reconstruction to be undertaken. The work finally began in 1881 and was undertaken by Laird & Sons of Birkenhead in Merseyside. The work was primarily concerned with up-gunning the ironclad to make it a more flexible warship and saw the addition of a second 12-inch gun. The two 64-pounders were replaced by two 6-inch rifled breechloading guns and these were backed up by eight 3-inch guns and eight machine gun mounts.

Two years after the reconstruction was completed, in 1885 war loomed with Russia once again. On April 7th 1885, news reached Britain that Russia’s troops had attacked an Afghan fort as they expanded across central Asia. With Aghanistan providing a buffer between the Russian Empire and the British Empire in India, the attack sparked a diplomatic crisis and the Royal Navy mobilised the Particular Service Squadron, again under Admiral Hornby and including the HotspurHotspur, under the command of Captain Francis Durrant, expected to sail for the Baltic but mediation between the two superpowers by the Afghans themselves helped avoid war.

Shortly after the crisis passed, Hotspur found itself sailing off North Wales as it undertook guard duties for the port of Holyhead until 1893 after which it was once again put on the reserve list. It should have been the end for the ship at that point but it was given a new lease of life when it was reactivated in 1897 and made ready to sail to Bermuda to take up guard duties there. Hotspur remained at Bermuda throughout the last years of the 19th century and in to the 20th century when the ship would provide the backdrop to a tragic mystery.

Commander Frank Garforth assumed command on September 15th 1900. His career had been marred by an incident in which several sailors were injured and he was held responsible aboard another dedicated ram ship, HMS Conqueror, earlier that year. On November 7th 1901, his lifeless body was discovered floating in the sea and it remains unclear exactly how he died. He was replaced by Commander Robert H. Travers who remained in command until 1904 when the Hotspur was finally scrapped in Bermuda by which time the concept of dedicated rams was long dead as naval guns improved.


D-class Submarines of the Royal Navy

At the dawn of the 20th century, the submarine was firmly establishing itself within the world’s navies and the Royal Navy began to seriously look at its future applications. In 1905, a committee was set up to finalise the specifications for the next class of British submarine which would be significantly larger than the C-class boats which were then just entering service. While the C-class and the classes before it were short ranged vessels primarily operated in the coastal and harbour protection role, the new class would be the first British submarines designed for a more offensive role requiring greater endurance to conduct patrols at sea.

royal navy c class submarine world war 1 one

C-class submarine

The resulting D-class submarine was one of the most influential designs in the history of the submarine service incorporating numerous innovations that would be carried on in later classes. It was obvious from the very start that the new class of submarine was going to be significantly bigger than the types then being fielded in order to carry sufficient fuel and provisions for its longer ranged mission. They would also have to take greater consideration in to crew comfort and accommodation than previous classes. This saw the new design eventually swell to over twice the displacement of the C-class coming in at 483 tons on the surface and 595 submerged.

The shape of the new sub would also be came radically different compared to the C-class with the fitting of ballast tanks mounted externally along the pressure hull, a feature that would continue until the Oberon-class launched in 1960. These had the advantage of offering a significant increase in reserve buoyancy that made the submarine easier to manoeuvre and safer to operate in unsettled waters. It also freed up considerably more space inside the pressure hull for fuel and supplies. Another feature included in the design aimed at increasing stability was the fitting of hydroplanes on the forward half of the hull as well as the rear. These had been introduced on the C-class but unlike the earlier type they were positioned so that they remained submerged even when the submarine was cruising on the surface while the aft hydroplane was much further forward due to the unusual shape of the external ballast tanks. The angle of rise and dive angles were set at 50 degrees with the forward hydroplane and 70 degrees in the rear.

Perhaps the biggest departure for British submarine design that the D-class undertook was the adoption of a diesel-fuelled engine for cruising on the surface. This offered numerous advantages over the previous petrol-powered types including importantly for its envisioned mission, greater economy. It was also considerably safer since it was found that explosive fumes often built up in the pumps when using petrol engines. The French Navy had launched the world’s first diesel-powered submarine, the Aigrette, the same year the D-class committee met, proving the concept worked although there were some misgivings especially concerning reliability. The two diesel engines were 600hp units developed by Vickers and each drove their own propellers making the D-class the first British twin-screw submarine type. For propulsion underwater the diesels were cut off and power was provided by a 410kw electric motor.

The D-class had a comparatively impressive range of around 2,500 nautical miles making it a truly ocean-going warship while it could cruise at an economical 5 knots submerged for 45 nautical miles. The committee had demanded that the submarines be capable of around 13 knots on the surface and while it was reported that some of the class could on occasion exceed this figure they generally didn’t travel faster than 11 knots. They were designed for a top speed of 10 knots submerged but the actual speed was closer to 9 although it was rare for them to operate at such speeds due to the significant drain on the batteries this would incur.

Primary armament consisted of two forward 18-inch torpedoes mounted in tubes located vertically on top of one another and with a single reload available for each. The tubes were covered by a one-piece external cap designed to be rotated through 90 degrees to reveal them when it came time to fire. The size of the D-class led some on the design committee to raise concerns that it would not be manoeuvrable enough to escape attack by an enemy vessel and so provision was made for an aft torpedo tube that could be used to launch a torpedo at a pursuing attacker. Unlike the earlier coastal types which could signal the shore with lamps or semaphore, the sea-going nature of the D-class made wireless a requirement from the start and as such it was the first British submarine to be designed with the capability. The aerial was mounted in the coning tower and was extended when riding on the surface but unfortunately was quite short ranged.

D-class submarine Royal Navy World War One WWI

So many innovations were being incorporated in to this new design that the committee demanded that the construction of the first-of-class be undertaken by Vickers at Barrow-in-Furness under a veil of total secrecy. The building where HMS D1 was laid down on May 14th 1907 was therefore heavily guarded and all workers sworn to secrecy. The naval race with the Kaiser’s Germany was now in full swing and Germany was building their own submarines starting with the SM U-1 based on the Karp-class designed by Spaniard Raimondo Lorenzo d’Equevilley Montjustin for the Imperial Russian Navy. While inferior to the D-class, the U-1 was an impressive start for the Germans when it was compared to the previous British classes. Further east, the Russians began construction of the Akula as HMS D1 neared completion in 1907 but both these designs were still inferior to the British sub.

D-class submarine royal navy world war one 1 I (1)D1 was launched at Barrow-in-Furness on May 16th 1918, a year and two days after she was laid down, in a secret ceremony where the only invited guests were a handful of officers from the depot ship HMS Mercury. The submarine was formally commissioned in to the Royal Navy in September 1909 by which time work had started on HMS D2 and HMS D3 at Barrow. On May 3rd 1910, D1 received a new commander in Lieutenant Noel F. Laurence (later Admiral Laurence) who commanded the submarine through that year’s annual naval exercise. The exercise was the chance to get some invaluable experience of the new type engaged in operations similar to what it might experience in war. After loading supplies and fuel in Portsmouth, D1 slipped out of harbour and transited to its operating area off the west coast of Scotland completely undetected by the British Home Fleet. The submarine then conducted a three-day patrol simulating two attacks on British cruisers before putting back to port. Key to remaining undetected was D1’s battery capacity which allowed it to remain submerged during the bulk of daylight hours (in winter the D-class was found that it could remain submerged throughout the fewer daylight hours.)

This highly successful exercise was unfortunately marred by repeated troubles with the revolutionary diesel engines. The fact that D1 had two diesel engines meaning there was always a spare to fall back on was viewed as positively as possible by its supporters but it was clear Vickers had to address this problem if the D-class was to be a success. Despite grand ambitions for a fleet of 18 D-class vessels, the orders was scaled back to ten to allow Vickers time to remedy the reliability issues with the diesels so that these could be implemented on the recently laid down D4, D5, D6, D7 and D8. The latter two vessels in the class were constructed at Chatham Royal Dockyard in Kent and were followed by HMS D9 and D10.  During this time, the D-class would find itself receiving yet another first when D4 was completed with a 12-pounder quick firing deck gun and while this would not be fitted to any other members of the class, deck guns would remain on British designs until after World War II.

As experience on HMS D1 and D2 filtered back, a series of recommendations for improvements were submitted and began to be incorporated in HMS D9 and D10. These improvements became so extensive and included greater armament, increased displacement and improved engines that they became a new class entirely. As such D9 and D10 became the first of the new E-class submarines which would serve with great distinction during the Great War however they would also scupper plans for anymore D-class boats. HMS D6 would be the final D-class to be commissioned (April 19th 1912) while D8 was built to a marginally different configuration incorporating redesigned hydroplanes that were all set at 50 degrees for changing depth as opposed to the 50/70 split in the previous vessels. Along with the E-class fleet, the eight D-class boats formed the backbone of the Royal Navy’s patrol submarine force upon the outbreak of war in August 1914.

D-class submarine royal navy world war one 1 I (3)On August 28th 1914, the Royal Navy met the German Navy in their first major engagement of the war at the First Battle of the Heligoland Bight. The battle took place in the south-eastern North Sea after a British force attacked German patrols off the north-west German coast. Although entirely a surface action, British submarines did play their part and among them was HMS D2 and D8 who were tasked with patrolling the mouth to the River Ems in north-west Germany to block any German reinforcements that may attempt to enter the battle.

Nearly two months later, D8 was sent to shadow the German hospital ship Ophelia which was reportedly looking for survivors from German torpedo boats destroyed in an engagement with HMS Undaunted. The British had become suspicious of the hospital ship because of the amount of radio communication it was making with the German Admiralty and when her crew spotted the British submarine’s periscope they quickly changed course and headed for home even though they were protected under the articles of war which both sides respected in the early months. The M-class destroyer HMS Meteor was sent to inspect the ship under international law and observed her commanding officer throwing secret documents overboard as it approached. The British decided to seize the vessel as a war prize believing it had been spying on British warships thus invalidating its hospital ship status. The British renamed the ship SS Huntley and used it for transporting fuel from Portishead to Boulogne before it was sunk by UB-10 on December 21st 1915.

The class would suffer its first combat loss on November 3rd 1914. D5 was sailing near South Cross Buoy off Great Yarmouth in pursuit of German Admiral Franz von Hipper’s battlecruisers that had raided Yarmouth the day before when it struck a mine laid by the SMS Stralsund. There were only five survivors including Lieutenant Commander Godfrey Herbert who had been in command. Almost three weeks later on November 23rd 1914, D2’s commanding officer Lieutenant Commander Arthur Jameson was washed overboard while the submarine was charging its batteries on the surface. The submarine was then put under the command of Lieutenant Commander Clement Head but his captaincy would be shortlived for on November 25th, just two days after Jameson’s death, D2 was spotted by a German patrol boat on the surface off Borkum which proceeded to ram the British vessel. The submarine quickly sank taking Head and his entire crew of 25 with it.

Along with the E-class fleet, the D-class spent much of the early war years patrolling the Heligoland Bight as part of the British effort to contain the German Navy in port. On June 15th 1915, HMS D4 under the command of Lieutenant Commander John R. G. Moncreiffe stumbled across the unfortunate German netlayer Bielefeld that had ran aground and was being assisted by a German destroyer. Seizing the opportunity, Moncreiffe attacked the destroyer with a single torpedo which unfortunately missed and alerted the Germans to D4’s presence. The destroyer powered up and went in pursuit of the submarine in the extremely shallow water attempting to ram its coning tower that was only just below the surface. Luckily for Moncreiffe and his crew, he eventually managed to evade the destroyer and return to the position of the Bielefeld where they sank the German ship before escaping out to sea.

On August 13th 1917, D6 under the command of Commander William Richardson took part in an effort to lure out German U-boats using a decoy sailing vessel, HMS Prize so-named because she was actually a German topsail schooner captured in the English Channel mere hours after the war began. During the patrol, the two British vessels encountered the U-Boat UB-48 which exchanged gunfire with Prize before disappearing. Later that night close to midnight, D6 was on the surface when they observed Prize explode from a torpedo hit from UB-48 which had returned under the cover of darkness before escaping again. Prize sank with all hands.

D-class submarine royal navy world war one 1 I (3)

On September 12th 1917, D7 under the command of Lieutenant Oswald E. Hallifax was cruising off the coast of Northern Ireland when he and his men spotted the German U-boat U-45. U-45’s war up to that point had been a successful one having sunk 45,622 tons of allied shipping. Hallifax dispatched a torpedo at the U-boat which struck the rear of U-45 as its crew attempted to dive to safety. U-45 sank killing all but two of its crew who were rescued by D7 and taken prisoner.

HMS D3 2

The crew of HMS D3 

Tragedy was narrowly averted on February 10th 1918 when D7 was mistakenly depth charged by the M-class destroyer HMS Pelican. Now under the command of Lieutenant George Tweedy, D7 managed to surface and show her flag to the Pelican before any serious damage was done. Not as lucky however was D3 which on March 12th 1918, found itself the focus of attention from French airship AT-0 off Fecamp in the English Channel which mistook the identification rockets the British crew released for being German. The French airship dropped a series of bombs on the British submarine which sent it under the waves. Survivors of the attack managed to escape the doomed submarine and it was only when the French airmen heard them speaking English did they realise their mistake. Efforts to rescue the men proved to be in vain and they had drowned by the time help arrived.

D4 would add another U-boat to the D-class’ list of victims on May 12th 1918 when under the command of Lieutenant Claud Barry, it attacked and sank UB-72 in the English Channel south of Weymouth. The U-boat had been in service with the Germans for just eight months but accounted for sinking over 10,000 tons of allied shipping. Only three of the crew survived the sinking.

A month later on June 24th 1918, the D-class fleet would suffer its last wartime loss when D6 was attacked by UB-73 with a torpedo from a range of just 80 meters. UB-73’s torpedo passed under D6 and exploded throwing a column of water 30-40 feet into the air. At first it appeared D6 was unscathed but approximately half a minute later the front of the British submarine pitched down abruptly and it sank soon afterwards. Only two of D6’s crew survived the sinking and were taken prisoner by the Germans. When these men were questioned over the sinking after the war, the British Admiralty determined that the torpedo must have employed a magnetic pistol; a device used to trigger the warhead by detecting the magnetic field around a metal object such as a ship. UB-73 would survive the war to be surrendered to the French.

As 1918 drew on, the surviving four D-class vessels were becoming increasingly obsolete compared to the newer types then being fielded by the Royal Navy. When it was decided to conduct experiments in to new ways to detect a submerged submarine such as with piezoelectric hydrophones dipped in to the sea from airships (a precursor to modern ASW helicopters), the 10-year old D1 was chosen to be deliberately sunk off Dartmouth harbour. The submarine was sunk to a depth of 25 fathoms (150 feet) on October 23rd 1918 for the trials.

The remaining three submarines were briefly retained by the Royal Navy after the war but seldom went to sea or even had a permanent crew assigned. D4, D7 and D8 were then decommissioned in 1919 before being sold for scrap in December 1921 to H. Pounds based in Portsmouth. Despite their problematic birth, the D-class can be considered a success in their own right. However, their contribution to the development of British submarines and their operation cannot be overstated and would prove the genesis from which nearly every major British submarine class was derived until the nuclear age.





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.

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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

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

Porpoise-class Submarine


The Porpoise-class submarine was the first new submarine class launched by the Royal Navy after World War II with first of class HMS Porpoise being launched in 1956. In the period between 1945 and 1956 the Royal Navy’s submarine assets continued to comprise of the war-era T-class albeit it in its upgraded and smoothed off version to reduce its underwater acoustic signature. Somewhat ironically although not uncommon amongst the wartime allies the Porpoise-class was inspired by German advancements made in the closing stages of the war.

HMS Cachalot

HMS Cachalot

The Porpoise-class was one of the most capable conventional submarines available to NATO in the late 50s and early 60s. They were perhaps the quietest submarines in NATO and were far quieter than the equivalent Soviet Navy Whiskey-class. This meant they were difficult to detect; a fact dramatically proven when during exercises HMS Rorqual managed to make it all the way to the Statue of Liberty undetected by the US Navy. Top speed was 18knots submerged although a more economical (and quieter) 14knots was the norm.


The Porpoise-class was the first submarine class in the Royal Navy not to be fitted with a deck gun since the R-class of World War I. This was because deck guns had become obsolete weapons due to the increasingly sophisticated detection methods employed by ASW forces that required all attacks to be made submerged. Additionally the removal of the gun reduced underwater drag and noise. The Porpoise-class was armed with eight 530mm torpedo tubes with four forward facing and two aft. A complement of 30 torpedoes could be carried or alternatively the tubes could fitted with mines.