When World War II ended in August 1945, six years of bitter conflicted had honed the Royal Navy to a high peak in terms of training, equipment, operational efficiency and combat effectiveness.
This article was submitted to the UK Defence Journal by renowned defence analyst Richard Beedall.
Thirty-seven years of relative peace then followed before the Royal Navy next saw serious combat – the brief but bloody Falklands War of April to June 1982. Although the on-going Cold War against the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact meant that the Royal Navy was theoretically prepared for war at short notice, in practice complacency, incorrect planning decisions, inadequate designs and false economies would cost the Royal Navy and its personnel very dearly.
Television images of the ships of the Task Force departing for the South Atlantic were impressive. However even before combat began, it was obvious to informed observers that the service was taking many serious risks regarding its equipment. For example:
- A critical dependency on a small number of slow, short-range and lightly armed Sea Harrier fighters
- A complete lack of airborne early warning aircraft
- A reliance on unproven ‘high tech’ weapon systems, e.g. the Sea Dart and Sea Wolf missile systems
- A shortage of close-in and point defence weapons – very few WW2 vintage 20mm and 40mm cannons and no modern systems such as the American Phalanx CIWS
- The limited ability of the newest warships (Type 42 destroyers and Type 21 and 22 frigates) to take damage and continue to fight – lightly built with no armour and lacking redundancy
But the situation was far worse than was immediately obvious.
On 4 May 1982, two Argentine Navy Super Étendard aircraft attacked the Task Force. They fired two AM39 Exocet missiles, one of which hit the Type 42 destroyer HMS Sheffield. The ship was abandoned four hours later and sank six days later – the first Royal Navy warship sunk in combat since 1945. Twenty of her crew were killed and 26 injured.
The Report of the Board of Inquiry at HMS Nelson into the loss of HMS Sheffield showed how badly the RN had regressed since 1945. Initially marked “Secret”, a redacted version of the report was released in 2006 and last year a declassified copy of the full report was provided to newspapers. The Board believed that “if all the right reactions had been taken quickly … it might have been possible to frustrate the attack”, however:
- The Captain was a submariner and the Executive Officer a helicopter pilot. As such they both lacked experience with Type 42 destroyers and air defence, and neither was present in the ship’s Ops Room at the time of the attack
- With unfortunate timing, the Anti-Air Warfare Officer had left the Ops Room and was having a coffee in the wardroom, while his assistant had left “to visit the heads”
- When a nearby ship, HMS Glasgow, detected the approaching aircraft, the Principal Warfare Officer in Sheffield’s Ops Room failed to react, “partly through inexperience, but more importantly from inadequacy”
- When the incoming missiles came into view, officers on the bridge were “mesmerised” by the sight and did not broadcast a warning to the ship’s company before the ship was hit
The report states:
“Nobody called the captain. His ship did not go to ‘Action Stations’, did not fire off any clouds of chaff in an attempt to deflect the Exocets, and did not turn towards the incoming missiles in order to narrow the Sheffield’s profile. Moreover, some of the ship’s weapons were unloaded and unmanned, and no attempt was made to shoot down the incoming missiles.”
After Sheffield was hit, things did not get any better as large fires broke out immediately and acrid black smoke quickly spread throughout the ship. Firefighting was largely limited to external boundary cooling … using buckets! The spread of fires was not adequately controlled due to the presence of ignitable material coverings and lack of adequate curtains and sealing to restrict smoke and fires. The Inquiry severely criticised the ship’s fire-fighting equipment, training and procedures and certain members of the crew. The report says “the control of firefighting and other activity after impact lacked cohesion. No emergency HQ1 was established, it was not clear where Command was located, the control of personnel was uncoordinated”.
Numerous small but serious design defects were revealed during the war: the Formica panels extensively used in warships created lethal flying shrapnel shards when subject to blast; some hatches were too small for the passage of men with breathing apparatus; PVC cable insulation and foam furnishings gave off toxic fumes in a fire. Even naval uniforms had serious problems, they were made of nylon and other synthetic materials which melted on to the skin in heat, severely exacerbating burns.
The loss of four warships (six ships in total) during the Falkland’s War was a serious wake-up call for the RN and the next few years saw significant improvements in numerous areas. For example: more realistic damage control training; the introduction of new uniforms made from cotton impregnated with flame retardant chemicals; the widespread installation of new light cannon and point defence systems; and a redesign of the Type 22 frigate.
In the 1990’s I worked in the Arabian Gulf and on many occasions, could compare the regional navies with the post-Falkland’s Royal Navy – often unflatteringly. Whilst the local warships were always smart in external appearance, numerous coats of paint often clogged fixtures and fittings, weapons could not train, and expensive electronic systems had often not worked for years due to a lack of spares and maintenance. For major exercises, undertrained crews seemed to struggle to do much more than get their ship out of port for the photo shoot. In littoral waters, a key communication tool was the mobile phone!
The Falklands War gave the Royal Navy both invaluable combat experience and the prestige of victory. But it is now 36 years since the Falklands War started, and the Royal Navy and the UK government must strenuously guard against falling into a peacetime compliancy that will be expensive to remedy in terms of lives, reputation and national treasure.
Just a few of the many potential issues are:
- The shortage of spare parts and the excessive cannibalisation of these from operational or under-construction warships and submarines
- The [in]adequacy of munition and missile stocks for war
- The extent to which the RN warships can sustain damage and maintain combat effectiveness (when was shock testing last performed on any RN warship?)
- The dependency on shore based training and the use of ‘simulators’ to replace training ships and training cruises
- The impact of very lean manning on both operational efficiency during extended operations, and damage control capabilities. The 6,900 tonnes Type 26 frigate will have a complement of just 118!
- The lack of opportunities for junior personnel to gain experience before being placed in positions of huge responsibility
- The ability of Flag Office Sea Training (FOST) to maintain its high standards with fewer staff, fewer ships passing through, and the Portland naval base long gone
- A dependency on technology (e.g. GPS for navigation) and the ability of crew members to take over when computers and automated systems fail
- The unimpressive showing of RN personnel during some accidents and incidents since 2000
As the last few veterans of 1982 retire from the RN, it is not clear that the Senior Service still has the intangible advantages in terms of doctrine, morale and training that it has held since Admiral Nelson’s day.
The expanding navies of the Middle and Far East may soon regard the RN with the condescending view that it might have once have regarded them.