Category Archives: Navy

New Design Images of Type 26 Frigates

Earlier today the Royal Navy released new images of the planned class of Type 26 Frigates.

The images show a rather sleek looking vessel, stealthily like the Type 45 Destroyers, with a very similar, albeit shorter and set back. It looks very similar to a lot of the other recent European designed Frigates such as the Dutch Zeven Provincien, Danish Absalon and Spanish Bazan classes. As with the Type 45′s, its nice to see us designing modern warships, but why are we essentially designing ships now that the rest of the world built a decade ago? What is it with out defence policy and procurement that takes so long?

Some more technical specifications have also been divulged:

  • Displacement – 5,400 tonnes
  • length – 148 metres
  • crew – 118, with space for up to 190
  • Vertical launch missile silo
  • Medium Calibre Gun, that looks suspiciously like an Oto Melara
  • A Phalanx-style CIWS
  • Hangar to accomodate Merlin or Lynx Wildcat
  • A flexible mission space for UAV, seaboats, special forces or humanitarian operations

According to reports the planned order is for 13, although given the manner in which warship classes almost always end up consisting of a lot less than the original order, the Royal Navy might do well to get 10. There are currently 13 Type 23 Frigates in the fleet. According to the Portsmouth News the final decision for ordering these ships will be taken in the 2015 Defence Review, so of course that is vulnerable to cuts.

The first ship is scheduled to enter service, but again, expect this to slip once the project goes through the various hoops at the MOD. Mind you, Phillip Hammond announced today that 25% of senior military and civilian staff at Commodore/Brigadier level and above will be cut over the next few years, so things might actually start to run smoother!

Some of the quotes from the Defence Minister, Peter Luff, refer to how the project will sustain shipbuilding jobs in Britain. The design IS modular, a la Type 45 and CVF, but if the first ship is due to enter service in 2020, work will have to start in about 2015 at the very latest one would imagine (unless the ‘in service’ date is actually delivery date, but the two are different). One suspects that there will end up being a gap between the end of the QE programme and the Type 26 work, which might leave shipbuilding jobs in Portsmouth in particular vulnerable.

I’ve gone on record before in my belief that these will be the most important ships in the 21st Century Royal Navy. One only has to take a cursory glance a the operational taskings of the fleet, and 95% of what Royal Navy ships are doing is Frigate work. The Type 26 seems like a step in the right direction for chasing pirates and insurgents in RIB’s.

See the MOD, BBC or Portsmouth News articles for more information. There’s also a nifty looking animation on the BBC website.

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Life onboard a Royal Navy submarine

There’s an interesting article about life on HMS Triumph, on the BBC website here.

 

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New Patrol Vessels could plug gap for Royal Navy and Portsmouth

HMS Severn (P282) and HMS Mersey (P283), two R...

A report in today’s Portsmouth News suggests that the Government may be on the verge of ordering two new Patrol Vessels for the Royal Navy.

Apparently such a move would be partly motivated by a need to keep the BAE shipbuilding yard in Portsmouth occupied between the end of the Type 45 and QE Class programmes, and the beginning of the Type 26 project. The proposed new ships would be built in 2014 and 2015, at a combined cost of £150m. BAE in Portsmouth already have a good track record of  building Patrol Vessels, having completed HMS Clyde and similar vessels for Trinidad and Tobago, which have recently been sold to Brazil. I am very dubious about the idea of building ships solely to preserve jobs, but in this case there is a strategic need for them.

I have long been of the opinion that well-armed Offshore Patrol Vessels are the answer for tackling low-intensity operations in places such as the Horn of Africa and the Carribean. A helicopter is a must, and the current 30mm gun is probably not powerful enough. A few more miniguns would probably not go amiss either. The ability to operate and launch several RIBs would also be important. Some might point to the lack of decent anti-air defences as a downside, but is this really needed for anti-narcotics and anti-piracy? Perhaps a shoulder-launched SAM or two might be the answer?

But looking at the current situation, is it a good use of a £1bn air defence Destroyer to have it sat east of Suez chasing Arab Dhows and Pirate Skiffs? Basing a patrol vessel in the Carribean and the Horn of Africa semi-permanently – as with minehunters – and rotating crews would free up a lot more escort hulls. An RFA as a mother ship would be pretty sensible as well I should imagine. It’s not far from the global corvette concept that was advanced a few years ago. And if you think about it, 30 or 40 years ago Frigates were not much bigger than River Class patrol vessels anyway. Yet the size of escort vessels has creeped up relentlessly, with the addition of ever more complex weapon systems.

Aside from the operational considerations, such a move would safeguard jobs in Portsmouth, and keep BAE’s shipbuilding in England running. Portsmouth is now BAE’s only shipbuilding operation in England, with its other main yard being on the Clyde. The political implications of Scottish independence do not bear thinking about, and it is surely sensible for the Government to play it safe when it comes to ensuring that such a strategic industry remains in British hands for the future. The shipbuilding industry in Scotland has enjoyed many years of political subsidy, and now must  endure the consequences of Alec Salmond’s bluff and bluster.

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HMS Defender due into Portsmouth on Wednesday

 Type 45 Destroyers HMS Daring & HMS Dauntless

The fifth and newest Type 45 Destoyer, HMS Defender, is due to enter Portsmouth Harbour for the first time at 9.30am on Wednesday morning. The penultimate ship of the class to arrive, she will anchor up overnight in the Solent tomorrow evening, and should be visible from Southsea seafront.

Very nice ships, all with great names (well, except Duncan maybe!), but still too few of them - even just two more might have really made a difference. With Daring, Dauntless AND Diamond all away on deployments at the moment, and Dragon preparing to leave later this year, the operational tempo for escort ships is clearly creaking at the seams. It does seem a waste to use ships that were designed to provide area defence for 60,000 ton carriers chasing pirate Dhows.

History has shown that to keep one ship on station on deployment, you need four ships. Ships are normally in one of four states – on deployment (or transiting), working up, shaking down or in refit. Given that the average deployment to the South Atlantic or east of Suez lasts 5 to 7 months, working up and FOST can take the same kind of time frame, and comprehensive refits can take around 18 months, we can see quite easily that six ships will not be enough to everything that we want them to do. The bizarre thing is that everyone knows it, even amateur analysts such as myself. The Admirals definitely know it, but aren’t allowed to say so as it would embarass the politicians.

Such a procurement strategy does seem strange, when only a couple of weeks ago the Army managed to keep the vast majority of its tanks, which are only – on average – used once in a decade, and then in nothing more than an armoured brigade level. Destroyers and Frigates are like infantry battalions – on a never-ending deployment cycle that has no slack. Sure, ships cost money, but lack of ships when it matters can cost a whole lot more.

The other problem is one of strategy. What exactly do we want the Type 45′s to do? In conception, and in armament, they are powerful area defence Destroyers, with a very capable anti-air and missile system, and a very powerful radar fit. Is it a good use to send them patrolling? Granted, any military asset should be able to perform basic functions specific to its service in the short term – witness gunners and sappers, for example, operating as infantry in Northern Ireland. But it seems that the Type 45′s are very much written into the escort deployment roster. Things do seem to smack of short-termism.

Once the Type 45 programme has been delivered, attention shifts to the imminent arrival of the Carriers, in whatever shape or form that takes, and then the crucial Type 26 programme of future Frigates.

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Warship preservation: HMS Caroline and HMS Plymouth

This is HMS Caroline (1914) in the Titanic Qua...

HMS Caroline (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve been following with interest the stories of two particular ‘grey navy’ warships of the twentieth century: the Great War vintage Destroyer HMS Caroline, and the Falklands veteran Frigate HMS Plymouth.

I’ve gone on record before with my opinion that warship preservation in this country is woeful. We have a marvellous collection of older historic ships – Mary Rose, Victory, Warrior, Trincomalee, Great Britain to name but a few. But HMS Belfast aside, we have a terrible record of preserving twentieth century warships for the future admiration of British people who did not live through those turbulent years. It’s an inadequate tribute to the millions of British men – and women – who served with distinction during some of Britain’s finest years.

Portsmouth was perhaps the first place to really tap into the naval heritage idea. Of course, HMS Victory went into dry dock here in the 1920′s, around the same time as which the Royal Naval Museum was founded. With the freeing up of space and docks in the yard as it was run down, HMS Warrior and the Mary Rose joined in the 1980′s, making a fine collection of ships. There was definitely a concerted effort to develop the historic dockyard in Portsmouth, with an awareness that the Royal Navy and the Dockyard were winding down, and that tourism would be a growth sector.

Yet what is really missing is a ship from the ‘grey navy’, the twentieth century. Time and time again ships have been decomissioned, and ideas for preservation mooted, with nothing happening and a flood of fine old ships going to the breakers yard. Personally I think that HMS Fearless would have made a fine museum, with a flight deck for various events, and a tank deck that would have given plenty of potential for exhibitions etc. It also would have made a useful link up with the Royal Marines Museum.

At present HMS Caroline and HMS Plymouth are the two most prominent warships up for grabs. But both, steeped in history, are at serious risk of going for razorblades. HMS Caroline was built in 1914, and served at Jutland. After the end of the First World War she was decomissioned and has served as a naval reserve depot ship in Northern Ireland ever since. She was finally decomissioned in March 2011. She is formally under the ownership of the National Museum of the Royal Navy, based in Portsmouth. There have been plans to open her up as a museum ship in Belfast, but nothing more than public pronounciations. It’s time for definite action if they want to keep her there – such an important ship should not be allowed to sail into oblivion because the city leaders in Belfast can’t come up with a plan to make good on their promises. The MOD will commence disposal procedures soon if a concrete plan is not formed for her future use, and the National Museum of the Royal Navy have promised that if Belfast cannot get their act together she will be brought to Portsmouth. Presumably if that happens then we’ll hear a lot from Belfast about the pesky English stealing their ship. If it matters that much, they’ll find a way. Somehow I doubt it. Whatever happens, she should be preserved as closely to her 1914 appearance as possible, where as many people as possible can see her and appreciate her.

The Falklands War veteran HMS Plymouth, a Type 12 Frigate, is also in a vulnerable state at present. Decomissioned in 1988, for some years she was a Museum ship in Birkenhead. However, In 2006 the Trust that owned her closed, leaving her homeless. She is still in Birkenhead, but time is running out to find a permanent home for her. Plymouth has expressed a trust in homing her, fittingly in her old home port and namesake city. However, the offer of a berth at Millbay Docks was withdrawn in 2007, and it has been rumoured that she has been sold for scrapping – these reports are, as far as I can tell, unconfirmed. The situation with inactivity is similar to that in Belfast – Plymouth City Council has ‘expressed an interest’, but nothing more. Plymouth’s record on naval heritage isn’t so much woeful, but non-existant. Time and time again we hear MP’s Plymouth pleading that the loss of the naval base would decimate the city. Yet virtually nothing has been done to develop any kind of alternative industries or maritime heritage sector. We’re constantly being told that Devonport is the largest naval base in Europe. Look on google maps, and then the list of RN ships based in Plymouth, and you can see that there is plenty of superfluous space there. There was a possibility at one time that she could come to Portsmouth, but to be honest she has very little connection with Pompey, and if it comes to a choice between Caroline and Plymouth, the authorities will probably choose Caroline.

Personally I would like to see both preserved, and maintained to their 1916 and 1982 appearance respectively, in a setting that does them justice. But we just don’t do warship preservation in this country. I’ve done a bit of research on Museum ships in the US – they have seven battleships, five aircraft carriers, once cruiser, five submarines and two destroyers. Considering Britain’s proud naval history, what we have left is a poor return. Although they are large and expensive to maintain, ships should be seen in the same context as how museums develop their collections of other historically important artefacts. And what better way to display naval heritage than in a ship? Any other way seems inadequate in my opinion. Reading about the Nelsonian navy is one thing, but going onboard HMS Victory is on a different planet. It just needs more planning and foresight – potential museum ships need to be identified before they leave service, and chosen for their suitability.

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Another Aircraft Carrier U-turn

Artist depiction of the Queen Elizabeth-class,...

Artist depiction of the Queen Elizabeth-class, two of which are under construction for the Royal Navy. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’m several days late in reporting this one, but earlier in the week it emerged that the current governing coalition is planning to perform a u-turn and introduce both Queen Elizabeth Class Aircraft Carriers into service. Previously, it had planned to mothball one. Both will enter service with the Royal Navy once completed, as was originally planned by the previous Labour Government.

The mothball option emerged in the Strategic Defence and Security Review, which also opted to purchase conventional ‘cat and trap’ versions of the joint strike fighter rather than the vertical version -a decision that was also reversed earlier this year. Yet another defence u-turn raises questions about the coalitions judgement – whilst changing your mind is nothing to be ashamed of if the situation demands it, that decision makers have got so many things wrong in the first place is worrying. If decisions about acquiring equipment appear to be unsound, how much confidence can we – or more importantly our servicemen – have about the decision making when it comes to commiting troops?

I have always been a firm believer that there is no point in having just one of anything in defence terms. If you only have one aircraft carrier, it can only be fully operational half of the time. At best. And if you feel that you can do without it 6 months of the year, do you really need it that other 6 months? The French have had all kinds of trouble with their carrier Charles de Gaulle, and whenever she’s in port, the French have no other carrier. The Falklands – and the Royal Navy’s recent operational tempo – shows that to have one ship effective at any one time, you need at least one, preferably two more in refit or working up. One suspects that the current era of no strike carriers was prompted by the RAF trying to prove that we do not need them at all. That philosophy has clearly proved to be unsound, with carrier-borne air cover proving to be effective – militarily and financially – over Libya.

According to Defence sources, the first Carrier – Queen Elizabeth – should be undergoing sea trials by 2017. Sections being constructed in shipyards around Britain are currently being assembled in Scotland. Both ships will be based in Portsmouth, and extensive work is going on in Pompey to configure jetties and supporting infrastructure to take them. Seeing them steam into Portsmouth for the first time is bound to be an impressive sight. They are perhaps overkill for out financial means nowadays, and probably bigger than we really need militarily, but on the flip side, it is difficult to overestimate what an impact a 60,000 ton flat top could project.

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The Sinking of the Laconia: two old friends reunited

Back in early 2011, I covered a fantastic Docu-Drama entitled The Sinking of the Laconia, the story of a liner-cum-troopship sunk by a German U-Boat in the South Atlantic in 1942. Not only is it a remarkable story, but my great-uncle Leading Stoker Thomas Daly was onboard. He survived the sinking, but later died of Dysentery contracted in captivity in Vichy North Africa.

When I reviewed the TV series, the response was incredible. I had more hits in an hour than I normally have in a week. Even in the 18 months since, I’ve had hundreds of comments and emails regarding the Laconia, it really is a story that has captured the imagination of so many people. I can tell when it has been screened somewhere in the world, as hit ratings for the search term ‘Sinking of the Laconia’ go through the roof!

Yet even as incredible as the story of the Laconia is, it never ceases to amaze me that the incident is still able throw up surprises today. Two of the men who visited my blog in the days after the programme screened were John Royal and Tony Large. Both had been sailors onboard HMS Enterprise – by a huge coincidence, my great-uncle had been on the Enteprise too – and were coming home to Britain onboard the Laconia. They were in the Canteen on the Laconia when the ship was torpedoed. Separated in the chaos, they never saw each other again. They never even knew if the other had survived. Yet having both found my blog, they were reunited some 70 years later, with the assistance of Neil Pendleton who runs the Laconia page on Facebook. Even more remarkably, both had emigrated to Australia, and were living not a million miles from each other down under!

They recently met up, accompanied by many of their respective families. I share this photo with their blessing.

I can’t think of anything that I have done as a historian that has humbled me as much as being able to play a small part in reuniting these two fine gentleman, so long after they were separated by war. As I have often said about the effects of war, my grandad and great-uncle might have suffered terrible, but all of the other people affected by war were also somebody elses grandad or great-uncle, or father or son or brother. To be able to contribute to something  positive, through the history of war, is so inspiring.

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River Pageants and Fleet Reviews

Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II with Admiral Si...

Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II with Admiral Sir Alan West on board HMS Endurance at the Trafalgar Fleet Review in 2005 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I did find it quite amusing watching the coverage of the Diamond Jubilee Thames River Pageant. A lot was made of how we haven’t had one since the times of Charles II. Presumably, we are led to believe that such an event is incredibly rare and fitting for such an occasion. The reality is, that for virtually every coronation or Jubilee in recent centuries, we have held a Fleet Review, normally at Spithead in the Solent.

Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897 was marked by a fleet review, as was the coronation of Edward VII in 1902. George V’s coronation was marked in a similar fashion in 1911, as was his Silver Jubilee in 1935. A Coronation Review followed in 1937 for George VI. A Coronation Review was held for our current Queen in June 1953 (plan of the fleet at anchor), and then another for her Silver Jubilee in 1977 (plan of the fleet at anchor). The first major Royal event for over a century to not be marked by a fleet review was the Queen’s Golden Jubilee in 2002 – ostensibly on the grounds of cost, but one suspects because we haven’t got anywhere near enough ships to make a decent review. A Fleet Review was held in 2005 to mark the bicentenary of the Battle of Trafalgar (list of ships present), and one suspects that this event was given primacy because international navies were probably more likely to attend a fleet review for this than one for a Golden Jubilee.

Much has been made of the fact that the Royal Navy has shrunk so much in intervening years that we do not have enough ships to form a large fleet review. In the opinion of this historian, it’s just a sign of the changing of times. Britain no longer has an Empire, and thus no need for a navy the size of that that it had in the late Victorian period. I’m sure none of us would like the tax bills – and no doubt the bankruptcy – that would come from maintaining a massive fleet of warships without the finances to do it. Also, a cursory glance down the Royal Navy’s Fleet Bridge Card shows that most ships are either on operations, about to go on operations, have just returned, or are in refit. There isn’t much time for spit and polish in the modern, threadbare operational tempo.

But, as a Portsmouth person, it is a shame that the Solent cannot play its traditional part in marking such a major royal event. For all the wonderful post-modernist rhetoric about the Thames River Pageant, it is a face-saving event, make no mistake about it. Whatever the rights or wrongs about it, it is a sign of change.

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Falklands 30 – HMS Coventry

A starboard bow view of the British destroyer ...

After experiencing heavy air raids at San Carlos, and some very brave flying by Argentine pilots, the Task Force commanders devised a new tactic to try and give early warning of air raids, and also to shoot down offending aircraft before they got close to the vulnerable landing ships or the carriers out to sea.

HMS Coventry – a Type 42 Destroyer – and HMS Broadsword -a Type 22 Frigate – were paired up and stationed north of Pebble Island, ‘up threat’ as a radar picket and trap for Argentine aircraft heading for San Carlos. Coventry was armed with Sea Dart, a medium-range anti-aircraft and anti-missile weapon. Broadsword had the new Sea Wolf system, more ideal for close range work. The idea was that Broadsword could defend Coventry, whilst Coventry’s long range radar and Sea Dart could pick off incoming threats. This was specifically suggested by the Commanding Officers of both ships. Of the three Type 42 Destroyers that had originally sailed with the Task Force, one had been sunk (Sheffield) and another had been badly damaged (Glasgow), both by air attack. The ‘Type 64′ combo took up position north of Pebble Island on 21 May.

Coventry had had an eventful – and rather succesful war – thus far. One of the ships on Exercise Spring Train before being sent south to the Falklands, she entered the Total Exclusion Zone on the 1st of May, taking up picket duties in advance of the Task Force. She alternated between acting as a radar picket and bombarding shore positions around Stanley. For these shore bombardments she was teamed up with HMS Broadsword, for extra defence. On 3 May Coventry’s Lynx was sent to attack the Argentine patrol ship Alfrez Sobral. The patrol boat was heavily damaged by the new Sea Skua missiles, and later boarded by the SBS. On 4 May – the day that HMS Sheffield was sunk – Coventry was to the north west of the task force, repairing her troublesome 909 Radar. Sheffield was in the south-western position that Coventry had occupied until that point when she was hit by an Exocet missile. On 9 May Coventry was sent closer to the Falklands in an attempt to lure out Argentine aircraft. Four Sea Dart missiles were fired – a Hercules transport escaped unharmed, one Puma Helicopter was destroyed and two A-4 Skyhawks may possibly have been shot down. Later on the same day Coventry directed two Sea Harriers to attack the spy ship Narwal.

Remaining off Pebble Island for several days, Coventry and Broadsword continued acting as a radar picket. Coventry directed numerous Sea Harrier patrols onto targets – this is a role performed by surface ships, escorts in particular, that is often overlooked. It is possible, in hindsight, that Coventry and Broadsword had been in the same position for too long, and it is clear that the Argentines were well aware that they were there and determined to do something about it.

25 May – Argentina’s national day – began in much the same hectic fashion. One Skyhawk was shot down after returning from a raid on San Carlos, and another Skyhawk was splashed, this time directly attacking Coventry and Broadsword. The second raid, however, had more luck. Of the six airfraft – in two waves of three – two returned to base before reaching the Falklands. Flying low and using the land mass of West Falkland as radar cover, Coventry was unable to pick up the Skyhawks on their radars. Broadsword DID pick them up, but called OFF a Sea Harrier patrol. Coventry’s radar – designed for operating in open sea – was struggling to pick up the aircraft against Peble Island’s land signature. Small arms fire diverted the first two Skyhawks towards Broadsword. Her Sea Wolf locked on, but unable to distinguish between the two targets, for all intents and purposes went to sleep. Defenceless, one of the Skyhawk’s bombs hit the sea, bounced up and passed through the flight deck, destroying the Lynx helicopter in the process.

The second wave pressed on soon after. Once again Coventry and Broadsword declined assistance from the Sea Harriers, confident that the threat could be dealt with. Coventry fired a single Sea Dart and missed. Broadsword locked on with her Sea Wolf, but at the last minute Coventry, carrying out evasive maneouvres, slewed right in front of Broadsword’s line of fire. The first Skyhawk pilot fired his cannon at the hangar, before releasing his bombs – three 550lb general bombs. All three struck, and exploded seconds later. The second Skyhawk failed to release its bombs.

A large hole was torn in the port side, and men were killed in the auxiliary machine space, the computer room and the dining room where a first aid party were mustered. The explosion in the computer room wrecked the operations room above. Fire spread through the ship, and water poured in through the gaping hole. Smoke and fire spread beyond the capabilities of damage control, particularly as the ops room – the nerve centre of the ship – had been taken out. No order to abandon ship was given, but it was obvious to all onboard that the Coventry was sinking. Quietly and efficiently, liferafts were deployed. Broadsword began picking up survivors, and helicopters began arriving from San Carlos water. Many men – including Captain Hart-Dyke – simply stepped off of the upturned hull into lifeboats. Twenty minutes after being hit, HMS Coventry sank – the fourth Royal Navy warship lost in the Falklands, and the third in four days since the landings at San Carlos. Coventry’s survivors were later returned home on the QE2. 22 men were killed, and one man died in 1983 of his injuries.

Although the loss of any warship is hard to take – and especially the loss of lives – Coventry had performed admirably, and had probably saved countless ships at San Carlos and in the Task Force from being attacked and sunk. Such is the lot of Royal Navy warships sometimes. I’ve always found it intriguing that Coventry was sunk in a manner almost identical to Lieutenant-Commander Bill Hussey’s HMS Lively in 1942. Different war, 40 years apart, but the same spirit.

The Board of Inquiry absolved Coventry’s crew of any blame. Coventry was noted to be well prepared for war, having spent much time training and 6 months serving with NATO standing forces in the North Sea in 1981, in addition to Exercise Spring Train. However, there were a few lingering mechanical difficulties, such as the 909 radar. The Board of Inquiry – and others – did find that the ships had a lack of close in weapons, beyond missile systems, and this was rectified with the fitting of Phalanx and Goalkeeper to many ships soon after the Falklands War. Coventry and Broadsword had been instructed not to call on Sea Harrier support unless absolutely necessary, as this might chase enemy aircraft away rather than destroy them. Both ships had worked well together. It was found, however, that Coventry was not sufficiently trained for inshore anti-air warfare work. This is not surprising, given that the ship was designed for open-water warfare against the Eastern Bloc in the North Atlantic.

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Falklands 30 – HMS Antelope

Antelope's magazines exploding on 24 May 1982

If you had to pick five iconic images that came out of the 1982 Falklands War, the sinking of HMS Antelope in San Carlos Water.

HMS Antelope was a Type 21 ‘A’ Class Frigate. Ordered to fill a gap for a cheap, expendable patrol frigate, the Type 21′s were designed jointly by Yarrow and Vosper Thorneycroft, and hence they had ‘yacht’ like lines. Commissioned in 1975, she was the only ship in her class not to be fitted with Exocet missile launchers. Their performance and accomodation was reportedly good compared to other contemporary British warships.

Antelope only arrived in the Falklands theatre on 21 May 1982. After the loss of her sister ship HMS Ardent, she was positioned to perform air defence duty at the entrance of San Carlos Water from Falkland Sound. On 23 May she was attacked by four Argentine Skyhawks in two waves. The second aircraft managed to put a 1,000lb bomb into Antelopes starboard side, killing one crewman. The bomb did not explode and the Skyhawk was shot down by small arms fire from Antelope’s upper deck. The second wave of Skyhawks attacked soon after. One of the attacking aircraft was shot down by Antelope’s 2omm cannon, and crashed through the ships mainmast. Although the pilot was killed, one of his bombs pierced the ship without exploding.

Antelope quickly moved into more sheltered water, and took oboard two Explosive Ordnance Disposal technicians from the  Royal Engineers – Warrant Officer Phillips and Staff Sergeant Prescott. Both unexploded bombs were in particularly dangerous situations – one was inacessible due to wreckage, and the other had been damaged. Neither would be easy to defuse. After attempting to remove this bombs fuse three times remotely, the EOD team placed a small explosive charge on the fuse. This charge ignited the bomb, killing Prescott instantly and seriously wounding Phillips. The ship was torn open. With major fires spreading and the water main fractured, Commander Nick Tobin gave the order to abandon ship.

Five minutes after Tobin left his ship, the missile magazine ignited, illuminating the night sky in San Carlos, and providing some of the most memorable war footage of the late twentieth century. The abandoned Antelope burned throughout the night and into the next day, her back broken, she slipped beneath the waves the next day on 24 May 2012.

As harsh as it sounds, both HMS Ardent and HMS Antelope were ‘sacrificial lambs’ in San Carlos. The Royal Navy and the Task Force could probably take the loss of two general purpose frigates – it might have found the loss of one of the landing ships, or even one of the Type 22 Frigates harder to take. Although the Type 21 Frigates were carrying obsolescent missile systems – such as Sea Cat – and were placed in an exposed role, they performed admirably in a war for which they were not entirely suited.

The interesting this is, the MOD always convenes a Board of Inquiry whenever a Royal Navy ship is sunk or badly damaged. And in the case of HMS Antelope, the report of the Board of Inquiry is actually available to read online here, albeit heavily redacted. The Board found that HMS Antelope and her crew had only passsed Operational Sea Training the year before with a ‘satisfactory’ pass, and that her training had been truncated – in particular regarding anti-air warfare. For this reason she had not been considered a first choice to deploy to the Falklands, but was sent south due to the gravity of the situation. She was sent into San Carlos straight after arriving in the theatre, and hence it was the first action that any of here crew had experienced.

In a sense, Antelope and her crew were completely in the wrong place at the wrong time, and for whatever reason were unprepared for what was facing them, with obsolescent weapons. But then again, any whether prepared or not any Royal Navy warship is liable to find itself in harms way. I think its particularly striking that HMS Antelope was sunk in a very similar manner to ships such as Lieutenant-Commander Bill Hussey’s HMS Lively in 1942 – fighting bravely, but overwhelmed by a swarm of enemy aircraft.

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Falklands 30 – The San Carlos Landings

 Three landing craft from HMS FEARLESS, contain...

In the case of the Falklands War, the British Task Force was attempting to dislodge an uninvited invader. In order to do so, the Argentine sea and air forces had to be worn down to a point at which British amphibious forces could land on the islands, and then defeat the Argentine land forces in battle.

Ordinarily, amphibious operations would only be attempted once a number of criteria were achieved. Firstly, air and sea superiority would have to be achieved, in order for friendly air and naval craft to protect the landing ships during their most vulnerable phase. Secondly, western military philosophy in 1982 suggested that offensive operations such as amphibious landings should not be undertaken unless the attacked had at least a numerical superiority of 3:1 over the defender.

In May 1982, the British task force had largely forced the Argentine fleet back into port after the sinking of the Belgrano, thus solving one potential headache. And although the task force had given a good account of itself in dealing with air attack – the Sea Harriers in particular proving to be more than a match for Argentine fighters – the British had not worn down enough of the Argentine air inventory to claim air superiority. The Falklands were within range of fast jets flying from the Argentine mainland. In addition, the task force only possessed a reinforced Brigade, of three Royal Marine Commandos and two Parachute Battalions. The Argentines on the Falklands, meanwhile, numbered Divisional strength – albeit comprised mostly of conscripts – and had had time to dig in.

The task force, however, was under considerable pressure to effect a landing on the Falklands. Any operation aimed at re-taking the Islands would, ultimately, require an amphibious landing. If international opinion turned against Britain and forced a ceasefire, then the proverb ‘possesion is nine tenths of the law’ might come into play. Hence, the politicians in London wanted a landing as soon as possible. Although the main Battlegroup of the task force had steamed into the waters around the Falklands earlier in May, the landing force had taken some time to assemble – in particular, the landing ship HMS Intrepid had been brought out of mothballs in Portsmouth Dockyard, and was the last piece of the jigsaw. As soon as she arrived, the landing could take place. Sandy Woodward was also conscious of the oncoming southern winter, which would add to the wear and tear on the task force – there was a limit to how long the ships could stay at sea fighting, and getting the war over with as soon as possible was a priority.

San Carlos, an inlet on the west coast of East Falkland, had been reconnoitred by Special Forces for weeks prior to the landings. It was accessed via the northern entrance of Falkland sound. It was around 60 miles from the capital Port Stanley, and considered ideal for a landing. It had direct access from the South Atlantic, and was in a sheltered water. There were plenty of landing beaches, and hills on the outskirts for the landing forces to dig in to in the event of a counter-attack. And crucially, it was believed that the Argentines were expecting a landing near Port Stanley. Heavily influenced by the American, direct strategy of attack, the Argentine’s expected the Marines and Paras to land on the beach outside of Stanley and leg it up Stanley High Street. But Stanley was heavily defended, and was garrisoned by thousands of Argentines. San Carlos, by contrast, had very few. In a classic example of Liddel-Hart‘s indirect approach, San Carlos was chosen as it would allow the land forces to gain a foothold and build up, before striking east.

Interestingly, it was not thought possible for any amphibious landing to succeed at San Carlos – according to to British pre-war plans, the US armed forces or the Argentines. Yet necessity virtually forced the British planners to choose San Carlos by default, after all other possibilities had been discounted.

Given that the landings were likely to come under air attack, air-defence was a key consideration. Woodward detached the two Sea Wolf Type 22 Frigates Broadsword and Brilliant, the Sea Dart armed Type 42 Destroyer HMS Coventry, and a force of Frigates and Destroyers to provide naval gunfire support. The landings would be led by the Landing Ships HMS Fearless and HMS Intrepid, with their Landing Craft.

Intelligence suggested that there were very few Argentine troops in the area, which would give the British landing forces time to dig in and build up in preparation for an assault on Stanley. Despite this, there was naturally a sense of trepidation among the Marines and Paras preparing to land on D-Day. Would the Argentines subscribe to Rommel’s thoughts on amphibious landings, and attempt to throw the landings back into the sea in the first 24 hours?

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Another F-35 Volte Face

The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter Lightning II, bu...

The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter Lightning II (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’m sure I don’t need to tell you all about today announcement by the Defence Secretary in the House of Commons explaining the Government’s decision to backtrack and purchase the STOVL version of the F-35 Lightning Joint Strike Fighter, instead of the conventional carrier version. The original plan was, of course, to purchase the STOVL version – ie F-35B – as replacement for the Harriers, to operate from the new Queen Elizabeth Class Carriers.

The coalition has now performed two u-turns on the Joint Strike Fighter issue. First, soon after coming into office they abandoned the vertical take-off verson, in favour of  the higher performance variant. Now, having seen the costs for installing catapults and traps on the aircraft carriers spiral, they have decided to go back to the vertical take off variant.

One cannot help but feel that this constant to-ing and fro-ing has probably added a significant amount to the cost, for no discernible gain, and will almost certainly delay their introduction into service. And as anyone who has worked in retail will tell you, there is nothing more annoying than a customer who keeps changing their mind every five minutes. It’s bad enough if someone is buying a book or a loaf of bread, but 50+ fighter aircraft?

There are some upshots to the decision. It is possible that both aircraft carriers will come into service, and slightly earlier in 2018, compared to lengthy delays if they had to be converted to ‘cat and trap’. There have been some concerns that the B version has a less impressive performance than the C version. Compare the following specs:

  • Range – B version, 900 nautical miles; C Version, 1,400 nautical miles
  • combat radius – B version, 469 nautical miles; C Version, 615 nautical miles

The lack of range is apparently due to the B version having to accomodate extra plant for vertical landing, which eats into its fuel capacity. I’m not sure if it’s just me, but the differences do not seem too critical – isn’t the beauty of an aircraft carrier that you can move it 100 miles closer in if need be, and if safe to do so? Apparently the B version will be able to carry less weapons than the C version as well, however I am having trouble finding firm specifications for this. It should also be remembered that the B version will, in theory, be able to operate short-term or in an emergency from other ships that have landing spaces, or from rough airstrips on land – neither of which the F-35 C can do. By way of a contrast, the Sea Harrier had a combat radius of 540 nautical miles, but didn’t have such a high performance as the F-35 in other respects. I seem to recall that the SHAR was hardly bristling with armaments either.

The decision making regarding the Joint Strike Fighter project has been flawed from day one. Perhaps setting out to buy the STOVL versions was not the wisest decision in hindsight, but to decide to switch to the C version, and then back to the B version again in a year shows a serious case of indecision and narrow-mindedness. A decision that was supposed to save money in the long run, ended up costing us more money in the short term and not happening anyway. Let’s hope that this kind of defence procurement strategic direction never transgresses into decision making in war.

Still, I cannot help but feel that we would have been far better off purchasing some F-18′s off the shelf in the first place – both in terms of cost and capabilitity.

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Remember the Falklands @ Portsmouth Dockyard

Myself and the HSO (History Support Officer) have just got back from the ‘Remember the Falklands‘ event at the Dockyard in Pompey today. HMS Dragon and HMS York were open to visitors, providing a contrast between the 1982 vintage of Royal Navy ship, and the modern escort fleet.

HMS Dragon

HMS Dragon

HMS Dragon

Dragon is the newest of the Type 45 Destroyers to join the fleet, having only arrived in Portsmouth a matter of months previously. As I have previously commented after visiting Daring and Dauntless, the space on these ships is incredible compared to their earlier counterparts. It’s such a privilege to look round such a clean, tidy new-smelling ship. You know when you buy a new car, and for a few months it has that new smell? Well, Dragon still has that.

OK, who let a ginger in the ops room?

The ops room in particular is incredible, the sheer amount of desks and monitors is a sight to behold. You get the impression that the skill in commanding a modern warship is how the officers – and warrants and CPO’s for that matter – learn to control and process what goes in and out of that inner sanctum. One thing that occurs to me… I’ve been on three Type 45 Destroyers now, and never been allowed onto the bridge – what is on the bridge of a T45 that we aren’t allowed to see?

HMS York

HMS York

HMS York

HMS York is a batch 3 Type 42 Destroyer, one of the ships that was hastily redesigned after the lessons of the Falklands were digested. Longer than her earlier counterparts, she has a more pronounced bow for improved seakeeping, and distinctive strengthening beams down the side. I believe that she’s up for decomissioning in the next year or so. The difference between her and Dragon is striking – so much less room, so much more cramped, and overall looking very tired. The funny thing is, that we were allowed to see a lot more on York – including the 1970′s looking Ops Room (half the size of Dragon’s), the bridge, and also ratings and officers quarters. The crew were also remarkably informative and chatty. It’s always a phenomenon looking round warships – some ratings look bored out of their minds, whilst others seem to love spinning a yarn.

Sea Dart - never to be fired again?

Sea Dart – never to be fired again?

Other Sights

As per usual at these kind of events the band of Her Majesty’s Royal Marines played.

I also managed to get some good pictures of the new Up Harbour Ammunitioning Facility currently being constructed. The New UHAF is much closer to the Dockyard than before, not too far off the corner of Middle Slip and North Corner Jetties.

the new UHAF

the new UHAF

My conclusions about the day? I can’t stress enough how important these days are. The Royal Navy is notoriously bad at blowing its own trumpet and doing the PR thing. Everyone knows about the Eurofighter Typhoon thanks to the RAF’s PR department, but how many people are as aware of Type 45 Destroyers? The Royal Navy, if it want’s to be at the forefront of defence, needs to win hearts and minds at home as much as battles at sea.

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Falklands 30 – The loss of HMS Sheffield

HMS Sheffield (D80)

HMS Sheffield (D80) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

After the sinking of the Belgrano and the Vulcan raid on Stanley airfield, there certainly seems to have been a feeling that the gloves were now off in the South Atlantic.

HMS Sheffield, the lead ship of the Type 42 class of Destroyers, was built at Vickers at Barrow, being launched in 1970 and commissioned in 1975. She was a Portsmouth based ship, as were the rest of the Type 42′s. The Sheffield had been away from home for quite some time, having been taking part in Exercise Spring Train on her way home from an Arabian Gulf Patrol when she was diverted down south.

When the Task Force entered the Exclusion Zone on 1 May, the three Type 42 Destroyers – Sheffield, Coventry and Glasgow – were ‘up front’ performing radar picket duty. Their Type 965 radar in particular gave good long-range coverage, and in that sense the Type 42′s were they eyes and ears of the task force, and the outer layer of the air defence ‘onion skin’ based around protecting the vital aircraft carriers. A very important task – which the modern Type 45′s are very much suited for – but a very lonely and dangerous job too.

It was known that the Argentines had purchased a number of French Exocet anti-ship missiles, which could be launched from Super Etendard aircraft flying from the Argentine mainland. Although the French had withdrawn their technical support as part of the EEC arms embargo, it was expected that the Argentines would at least attempt to use them. After the loss of the Belgrano, this suspicion was even more keenly felt.

HMS Sheffield was first spotted by an Argentine Navy Lockheed Neptune maritime patrol aircraft at 7.50am on 4 May. The Neptune tracked the Sheffield for the next two hours, obviously undetected. At 9.45am two Exocet-armed Super Etendard’s took off from Tierra del Fuego, refuelling from a KC-130 Hercules tanker on their way to the target. At 10.50am both aircraft ‘popped up’ from their low-level flight. After failing to sight the target initially, 25 miles later the Sheffield appeared on the Etendard’s radar screens.

Both Etendards launched their Exocet’s at 10am, at a range of 20 to 3 miles. The sea-skimming missiles raced towards the Sheffield. The Etendard’s had not been detected by the task force as had been expected – it was intended that anti-Exocet procedures would begin once the Etendard’s radar signature was detected. The missiles, however, were spotted by the other Type 42 Glasgow. Sheffield, however, appeared to be silent and inactive. She had been using her satellite communications, which rendered her Typ3 965 radar inoperable for a short time. Sheffield was silent, until the anonymous message was heard ‘ Sheffield is hit’.

One of the Exocets was eventually picked up by the Sheffield, but far too late to do much about it. Five seconds later, the missile struck Sheffield amidships, tearing a gash in her hull feet above the water line. Evidence suggests that the missiles warhead did not explode, but the ships fire main was fractured. The combination of this and the burning of un-spent missile fuel caused a fire to spread through parts of the ship. Eventually the fire was so hot that the ships paint bubbled and blistered, and the heat on the deck could be felt through boots. The Sheffield was effectively dead in the water.

Sheffield was taken in tow by HMS Yarmouth, but sank days later after water flooded through the gash in her side. She was the first Royal Navy ship to be sunk in action since the Second World War. Twenty of her crew were killed, most of whom were in the Galley at the time of the missile strike. As a Portsmouth based ship all of them were either from Portsmouth or had Portsmouth connections. Looking back, it is difficult not to form an opinion that the loss of the Sheffield – the first havy loss of the conflict – delivered a serious reality check to officials and public, many of whom might have been under the illusion that the Falklands might be an easy war.

As a result of the strike on the Sheffield, the Task Force changed it’s missile defence procedures. As soon as the Etendard’s radar signature was picked up, the codeword ‘handbrake’ would start the wholesale launching of chaff decoys, thousands of tiny metal strips that were intended to divert any missiles away from ships. The Argentines launched other Exocet strikes, but the only other ship to be sunk by one was the merchant vessel Atlantic Conveyor, later in the war.

The official MOD report into the sinking – as is cutomary whenever a ship is damaged or lost – found that the ships fire-fighting equipment, training and procedures were poor, and criticised certain anonymous members of the crew, who are difficult to positively identify and the report is heavily redacted. When the Sheffield’s Captain, Sam Salt, landed on the flagship HMS Hermes, he was received in a cold manner, and all but left on his own according to eyewitnesses. This coldness would suggest that their was a feeling at the time that the Sheffield was caught with her pants down. It’s probably difficult for those of us who have not commanded a Destroyer in war to form any kind of opinion on this, except perhaps that in the ‘fog of war’ unfortunate events do sadly happen.

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Falklands 30 – the sinking of the Belgrano

The Argentine cruiser ARA General Belgrano lis...

The first heavy loss of life in the Falklands War occured when the British Submarine HMS Conqueror torpedoed and sank the Argentine Crusier, the General Belgrano on 3 May 1982.

The ARA General Belgrano was a Brooklyn Class Cruiser, originally built for the US Navy as USS Phoenix. In that guise she served throughout the Second World War, before being sold to Argentina and renamed in 1955. In 1982 she had an armament of 15 6-inch guns, 5 5-inch anti-aircraft guns, as well as 40mm and 20mm anti-aircraft guns. In 1968 she was retro-fitted with Sea Cat missile systems, which we obsolescent in 1982. As a WW2 vintage ship she had relatively thick armour compared to other Falklands-ear ships, her main belt of armour being 5.5 inches thick, and her deck armour 2 inches. The Belgrano did not actually take part in the operations to invade the Islands – Operation Rosario – but eventually put to see from Ushaia in southern Argentina on 26 April, accompanied by her two destroyer escorts, ARA Piedra Buena and ARA ARA Bouchard (both also ex-US Navy ships).

The British battle group had entered the north east of the exclusion zone around the islands on 1 May. The Task Force Commander, Rear Admiral Sandy Woodward, feared that the Belgrano and her escorts would form the southern part of a pincer attack by the Argentine fleet, with the northern pincer formed of the aircraft carrier Vienticino de Mayo. The de Mayo had actually been preparing to launch a Skyhawk strike on the British fleet on 2 May, when light winds made it impossible to launch aircraft. She was also escorted by two Type 42 Destroyers, Santissima Trinidad and Hercules. HMS Spartan had been assigned to track down the de Mayo, and although she never located the carrier, Woodward’s memoirs suggest that if she had, she would have been sunk.

There seems to have been a lot of controversy in recent years about the sinking of the Belgrano. It has been painted as a monstrous, heavy-handed or even illegal act by left-wingers, anti-war activits and Argentines alike. Nobody in Argentina – in particular men on the Belgrano – seems to have been aggrieved that the Conqueror attacked the Belgrano whilst she was outside the exclusion zone. Hovering around the edge of a war zone, with clearly hostile intent, is asking to be sunk. On 23 April a message was passed to the Argentine government via the Swiss Embassy in Buenos Aires, to inform that although the British Government had announced a maritime exclusion zone, it would not limit its actions to within this zone if hostile threats occured outside of the zone. This is an important point to make. Essentially, any Argentine ship leaving port was liable to be attacked.

Sandy Woodward later said that “the speed and direction of an enemy ship can be irrelevant, because both can change quickly. What counts is his position, his capability and what I believe to be his intention”. The decision to torpedo the Belgrano was taken after much deliberation, though the military chain of command and at war cabinet level. It was not a decision that seems to have been taken lightly. Indeed, Conqueror seems to have been tracking the Belgrano for three days before she attacked – hardly ideal, militarily, as it placed the Conqueror at much risk, but it does show that due diligence was taken. We also need to recognise that the sinking of the Belgrano did represent a fine feat of arms by the Conqueror’s crew and her Captain Christopher Wreford-Brown. It certainly suggests that British submarine’s were very effective, not surprising given that they had spent years practising their craft in the North Atlantic shadow-boxing with the Soviet submarine fleet.

Interestingly, a book published in 2011 suggested that signals intelligence showed that the Belgrano was actually steaming towards a rendevouz inside the exclusion zone, which clearly would signal hostile intent. Accounts from survivors suggest that the ship was not in a high state of defence – neither the Belgrano nor her two destroyers were zig-zagging. Compare this lax state to some of the vigorous anti-submarine actions taken by the British task force during the war. It is absolutely tragic that over three hundred young men died when the Belgrano was sunk. But it is even more tragic that they were condemmed to their deaths by a Government and a Navy that sent young, poorly trained conscripts sea in an obsolete ship, with inadequate anti-submarine defences, lifejackets or liferafts.

What might have happened had the Belgrano not been sunk? Certainly, her 6-inch guns outranged and outgunned anything that the British fleet had. They were almost certainly outranged by surface missiles such as Exocet, but none the less the Belgrano and her task force, could, potentially, have caused some damage to the task force. In particular, if the de Mayo had managed to launch air strikes, and the Belgrano had appeared from the south, a double threat might have been a bit of a problem. Add into that mix the potential for Super Etendard Exocet strikes, then we can see that it was important for the British to remove whatever threats they could, however they could.

The sinking of the Belgrano not only removed the Argentine Navy‘s second most dangerous ship from the war, it also had a serious morale effect – not only did it provide a boost early in the war, but it also compelled the Argentine Navy – agitators in starting the war in the first place – to scurry back into port and not sail out again for the rest of the conflict. This superiority of the waves made the British Task Force’s job that little less difficult when it came to gaining a degree of air superiority, and then eventually landing on the Falklands.

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