Britain’s Cold War-Era Monster Destroyer Has Finally Been Retired

Cold War military history is full of “might-have-beens,” with canceled projects ranging from nuclear-reactor-juggling tracked mecha-robots, to electron guns that would generate invisible radar-absorbing fields around spyplanes, to name just two. When it comes to the U.K. Royal Navy, this includes its lone Type 82 destroyer, HMS Bristol, which it just retired today.

In the United Kingdom, the fate of the planned CVA-01 class of aircraft carrier remains another tantalizing “what if?” While the catapult assisted take-off, but arrested recovery (CATOBAR) flattop was canceled as a cost-saving measure in 1966, work did still progress on its planned escorts. The mighty Type 82 class guided-missile destroyers would have provided a defensive umbrella around the carrier.

So big that it was sometimes described as a cruiser, only one example of the Type 82 was ever built, after which the Royal Navy concentrated its efforts on more modest-sized destroyers — at least until the arrival of today’s Type 45 class. The one-off Type 82 destroyer HMS Bristol was, at 507 feet long, marginally longer than the current Type 45, which measures 500 feet.

For much of its career, the pioneering HMS Bristol was considered a “white elephant,” but it remained in Royal Navy service until today, October 28, 2020. It had spent its last days as a training vessel confined to the dockside at Her Majesty’s Naval Base, Portsmouth, on the south coast of England.

HMS Bristol, the solitary Type 82 destroyer, was originally expected to be the lead example of a class of eight ships. These were to have provided both anti-submarine warfare (ASW) and anti-aircraft warfare (AAW) support for the CVA-01 class of carriers, four of which were also envisaged for the Royal Navy. 

When the axe fell on the CVA-01 as a result of the 1966 Defence White Paper, the Type 82 building program was trimmed back to a single hull, which it was decided would serve primarily as a trials platform for new weapons and equipment.

Construction work on HMS Bristol began at Swan Hunter in Tyne and Wear, northeast England, in November 1967 and the destroyer was launched in June 1969. Entering Royal Navy service in March 1973, the new destroyer was characterized by its unusual three-funnel arrangement that served a combined steam and gas turbine propulsion system. This was the last Royal Navy warship design to be powered by steam, bringing to an end a period of British maritime history that had begun in the early 1820s, with the first experiments using steam-powered warships.

The destroyer’s primary armament included a twin GWS Mk 30 zero-length launcher for a total of 40 Sea Dart surface-to-air missiles (SAMs). HMS Bristol was the first warship to carry this ramjet-powered area-defense weapon that had a maximum range of 40 miles and could engage targets flying at altitudes up to 60,000 feet. Weighing 1,210 pounds, the Sea Dart missile utilized semi-active radar homing guidance.

The twin Sea Dart launcher on HMS Bristol after its return from the Falklands in 1982., HUGH LLEWELYN/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

Twenty Ikara missiles were provided for the ASW system, based around the GWS Mk 40 launcher. Ikara was an Australian-designed rocket-powered missile that could deliver a homing torpedo, or a nuclear depth charge, out to around 10 miles from the ship. Once in the drop zone, the Ikara’s payload was released under a parachute, then either detonating, in the case of the depth charge, or, if a torpedo, beginning its search pattern to hunt for a submarine.

The Ikara was supplemented by a Limbo anti-submarine mortar, the basic design of which dates back to World War II. This weapon, optimized for shallow water engagements, consisted of a three-barrel launcher that fired three mortar bombs fused to create a three-dimensional explosive burst around the target. The bombs could be fitted with a pre-programmed pressure fuse or a delayed-action time fuse. The effective range was a little over half a mile.  

As well as being the first Royal Navy warship to be armed with the Sea Dart and Ikara, HMS Bristol introduced other innovations in its 4.5-inch-caliber Mk 8 main gun — a weapon that remains in service today — and its computerized Action Data Automated Weapons System Mk 2 (ADAWS-2), which coordinated the various weapons and sensors.

Although the warship had a flight deck at the stern, a helicopter was not usually embarked as the vessel lacked a hangar or aviation facilities, a reflection of its original role as a carrier escort, where it was expected to work in cooperation with rotorcraft embarked in the carrier. Another deficit was long-range anti-ship weaponry, again expected to be handled by other elements of the carrier group, including embarked aircraft. 

After entering service, HMS Bristol spent much of the 1970s undertaking trials of its various weapons and control systems, which then found themselves arming a new generation of (smaller) destroyers, as well as guided-missile frigates.

After a fire in the boiler that burnt for four hours off the coast of Wales in February 1974, HMS Bristol lost the use of its steam propulsion system for two years, until repairs could be made. In the interim, it was still able to operate using its two Rolls-Royce Olympus gas turbines.

By 1979, new electronic countermeasures, Corvus chaff launchers, and a pair of 20mm Oerlikon cannon had been added and the veteran Limbo ASW weapon was deleted. The former Limbo housing was thereafter used for a while as a makeshift swimming pool.

Despite being mainly engaged on trials work, the HMS Bristol was more than capable of combat duty and its command and control facilities made it an ideal flagship. It also carried more extensive communications and data links than other Royal Navy warships, allowing it to serve as a “node” for other Royal Navy vessels to communicate with other NATO ships — frequently from the U.S. Navy or French Navy — that may have had incompatible communications suites.

The destroyer’s value as a flagship was proven during the Falklands War of 1982 when the Royal Navy Task Force sailed to the South Atlantic to retake the Falkland Islands after the Argentine invasion. The big destroyer’s extra capacity allowed additional staff to be embarked for the flagship role and it sailed to the South Atlantic as the lead ship in a group of reinforcements, before joining the carrier battle group.

HMS Bristol also fired its Sea Dart missiles in anger in the South Atlantic — among the 18 Sea Darts launched from this warship and the smaller Type 42 destroyers during the campaign — but did not register any Argentine aircraft destroyed.

When the previous flagship in the campaign, the aircraft carrier HMS Hermes, departed for the United Kingdom after the British victory, HMS Bristol took on this role.

A Royal Air Force Chinook helicopter loads stores on HMS Bristol at Ascension Island during the Falklands campaign., KEN GRIFFITHS/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

Prior to the Falklands War, it had been expected that HMS Bristol would be retired prematurely under the 1982 Defence White Paper, but the destroyer’s usefulness had been adequately demonstrated and it was given a reprieve, including a refit based on lessons from the then-recent conflict. The light anti-aircraft weapons were boosted with the addition of another pair of twin 30mm Oerlikon cannon and a pair of single 20mm Oerlikons, and more modern SRBOC countermeasures launchers were also fitted. The SRBOC — or Super Rapid Bloom Offboard Countermeasures is a short-range mortar that punches out chaff or infrared decoys to spoof anti-ship missiles like the Exocets encountered in the Falklands.

Losses during the Falklands War also provided an opportunity for HMS Bristol to remain in the frontline fleet until 1984 when it suffered a boiler explosion that required extensive repairs. While these were being conducted, the obsolete Ikara was removed and a new Type 1022 long-range air search radar was added.

In 1987, HMS Bristol was adapted for a training role, receiving additional accommodation and classrooms to serve the Britannia Royal Naval College, Royal Navy’s initial officer training establishment.

Officially decommissioned in 1991, HMS Bristol continued its training duties in Portsmouth, but no longer ventured out to sea. So began almost three decades in which the destroyer provided the first taste of Royal Navy life for successive generations of Sea Scouts, Sea Cadets, and members of the Combined Cadet Force, alongside other training duties. According to Royal Navy figures, the destroyer hosted up to 17,000 visitors every year, while providing “the closest thing to a sea-going experience without leaving port.”

HMS Bristol as a training vessel dockside in Portsmouth in 2009., CROCHET.DAVID/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

By early 2020, however, there were reports that HMS Bristol was to be scrapped since it was too expensive to maintain and no longer fit for purpose as a training ship.

Despite calls to save the unique destroyer from scrapping and instead turn it into a museum, the destroyer’s fate now seems to be set. According to the U.K. Ministry of Defence, HMS Bristol will be “released for disposal by March 31, 2021,” with “no plans” to review the decision. 

Although it was destined to see out its service in the relative obscurity of a dockside role, HMS Bristol nonetheless played a vital role in training officers and other recruits to serve aboard Royal Navy warships. While the successors to the stillborn CVA-01 are now entering service as the new Queen Elizabeth class of carriers, they are in turn protected by the six-strong class of Type 45 destroyers — the logical descendants of the Type 82 carrier escorts.

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Thomas Newdick

Staff Writer

Thomas is a defense writer and editor with over 20 years of experience covering military aerospace topics and conflicts. He’s written a number of books, edited many more, and has contributed to many of the world’s leading aviation publications. Before joining The War Zone in 2020, he was the editor of AirForces Monthly.