HMS Edinburgh, the last of the Type 42 destroyers, will be hauling down her flag on June 6th:
In 1966 the Labour government cancelled the CVA-01 aircraft carrier project and the Type 82 destroyers that were designed as the carrier’s main escorts. The Type 82 programme was quite advanced and HMS Bristol was eventually completed. The Type 82 was really a light cruiser, large, heavily armed and expensive, with complex steam & gas turbine propulsion. In some ways it was a blessing that the costly Type 82′s were axed as the RN was able to get decent numbers of the alternative cheaper Type 42s.
The Type 42 was always an ‘austerity design’ and although by the batch 3 ships many of the problems had been cured, they were always considered only a partial success. Sometimes the quality and excellence of the RN crews could overcome these deficiencies, sometimes not. In the design stage it was decided not exceed a certain hull length in the erroneous belief that would save on cost, the first 8 ships were too short and this caused various problems throughout their lives. Poor sea-keeping was not only tiring for crews but affected the operation of the gun and delicate missile launcher on the foredeck. Rather cramped with a crew of around 250 (300 could be crammed in at a push), there was small margin for additional equipment but the RN just about managed to keep them effective with small incremental upgrades. The Type 42 was built around the Sea Dart missile system that was designed to provide area defence for the fleet from medium or high level Soviet bombers. The Sea Dart was pretty effective when the targets obliged by flying high but lacked the ability to engage close-in and low-level aircraft and anti-ship missiles. The RN developed the excellent Sea Wolf system for this role but it would be too costly to fit to the already cramped Type 42. Inexcusably for an air-defence destroyer, close-in weapons (CIWS) amounted to just 2 of manually–aimed WWII vintage Oerlikon 20mm cannons. This was quickly remedied after the Falkland’s war with fitting of 4 modern 20mm cannons and ultimately by the 1990s all ships were properly equipped with 2 Phalanx 20mm radar-controlled gatling guns. Unlike the Type 82, there was a hangar and flight deck which allowed the carrying of a Wasp and then the superb Lynx helicopter which gave the ship a major anti-submarine capability and light anti-shipping punch. Finally the Mk 8 4.5” gun provided limited air defence capability, last-ditch anti-shipping role, but was mainly used for bombarding land targets.
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The Falklands war has dominated the story of the Type 42. On 4th May 1982 HMS Sheffield was hit by an Exocet missile, caught unawares while transmitting on satellite comms, she failed to detect the missile but without adequate CIWS would probably have been unable to save herself anyway. The missile failed to explode but the resulting fire eventually destroyed the ship, killing 22 of her crew. On 12th May HMS Glasgow was hit by a 1000lb bomb which fortunately passed right through the ship without exploding. She was patched up but had to limp home leaving HMS Coventry as the only remaining air defence ship in the task force. Coventry was sunk on 25th May 1982 by bombs while bravely operating in an exposed position to defend the landing ships with Sea Wolf-armed HMS Broadsword. The idea was that the combination of Sea Dart and Sea Wolf would provide long and short-range anti-aircraft coverage but although initially a success, Coventry’s luck ran out when she accidentally blocked Broadsword’s field of fire. This would not have been a problem for a single ship fitted with both weapons. HMS Exeter and Cardiff arrived as replacements and Exeter (with her better radars & electronics) achieved 3 aircraft kills. The Sea Dart system was a partial success in the Falklands war, exact figures are disputed but it achieved a roughly 50% hit rate. Its greater achievement was to force Argentine pilots to attack at low-level where their bombs sometimes didn’t fuse properly and failed to explode. What can be seen is that the presence of fighter aircraft (Sea Harriers) was a more effective weapon against attacking aircraft. Ship launched missiles are generally inferior to fighter aircraft, although missile systems in theory can be available 24/7 when it is difficult to maintain continuous combat patrol (CAP) cover. Although 2 were lost and 1 damaged the ‘expendable’ ‘fighting 42s” achieved their main strategic objective that was to defend the carriers and other ships that ultimately won the war.