The Heritage Case for the Preservation of HMS Plymouth

HMS PLYMOUTH : Image Source : Forces80

HMS PLYMOUTH (1959-88) is a vessel of notable historic interest. This paper provides the compelling heritage case for preservation, in addition to supporting her inclusion in the National Register of Historic Vessels.

HMS PLYMOUTH served with great distinction in most of the significant Naval Operations and engagements since the Second World War. Her role in the Falklands War is of particular note.
Whilst her distinguished history, by itself, provides a convincing case for preservation, this paper will demonstrate that HMS PLYMOUTH is worth saving for more than just an illustrious past.

HMS PLYMOUTH is unique because there are no other post World War II Royal Naval surface warships in preservation in the United Kingdom.

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Of course, HMS PLYMOUTH’s significance needs to be contextualised within the history of Britain’s significant (preserved) naval heritage and this is briefly considered in the next section.
Britain’s Maritime Heritage – a short history.

Britain is justly proud of its maritime heritage and demonstrates this pride in the impressive maritime museums and preserved warships maintained for public display and historical research.

The Historic Dockyard at Portsmouth is famous for its ships and artefacts such as THE MARY ROSE (early 16th century), Admiral Lord Nelson’s flagship, HMS VICTORY (late 18th century) and HMS WARRIOR (mid-19th century) – a warship built with a wrought iron citadel and depicting the transition from sail to steam power.

In addition, HMS TRINCOMALEE (1817, preserved at Hartlepool) HMS UNICORN (1824, preserved at Dundee) and HMS GANNET (1878, preserved at Chatham) demonstrate the progression in shipbuilding from wood to iron and steel and again, from sail to steam propulsion.

The early 20th Century is represented by HMS CAROLINE, (1914, preserved at Belfast) a First World War light cruiser, and the only ship still afloat that saw action at Jutland.

Mid 20th century examples are, HMS BELFAST (1939, a 6” Cruiser) berthed on the Thames at London; HMS CAVALIER (1944, Ca class Destroyer) permanently located in Chatham Historic Dockyard, and HMS MEDUSA (1943, Harbour Defence Motor Launch) which is currently being restored at Southampton. They are all examples of warships that were built in the immediate World War II period and this is reflected in their design, construction and technology.

The fact that HMS PLYMOUTH is a prime example of a post WWII warship design and construction has become a far more significant weighting factor in favour of preservation. Such are the profound changes incorporated in a modern ship’s power, propulsion, weapon and ship husbandry systems in recent decades, the like of HMS PLYMOUTH will never be seen again.

Thus, from a development point of view, HMS PLYMOUTH represents an important period of time in our maritime history, just as surely as HMS VICTORY celebrates the Royal Navy’s excellence with sail-driven ships, HMS WARRIOR demonstrates how ships were built during the industrial revolution and HMS BELFAST represents an era when Naval firepower was king.

The historic significance of HMS PLYMOUTH derives naturally from the following four accepted ‘domains’:

(1) Her relevance to naval technology.
(2) Her reflection of key social changes in the post war period.
(3) Her military-political role in supporting foreign policy.
(4) The pivotal role she played in the Falklands War.

1 Relevance to Naval Technology

HMS PLYMOUTH, a Type 12 first rate anti-submarine frigate marked an important step in the modernisation of the Fleet after WWII. The class represented a new breed of fast, seaworthy vessels capable of hunting and destroying modern conventional submarines; for many years the Class formed the backbone of the Royal Navy’s frigate force.

  • Designed to operate in the Iceland–Faeroes gap and with experience derived from the protection of Artic convoys during WWII the Type 12 hull was created to shed water and prevent the build up of ice, as well as enable the ship to steam at high speed. The seakeeping qualities were, at the time, rated the best of all NATO frigates.
  • To provide a degree of protection to the crews the ASW weapons were re-located to the stern.
  • To counter the strategic threat of the early Cold War era, she was fitted with Type 177 Medium Range Sonar, which significantly improved our ability to combat a Soviet Navy, whose chief strength – then – lay in huge numbers of fully ocean-going submarines.
  • Type 12 frigates also served in most of the Commonwealth Navies, either purchased from UK Shipyards or constructed locally as in the RAN and RCN.

2 Given the established success of the Type 12 form, virtually the same hull and machinery was repeated in the equally successful Leander Class.

The significance of the design and technology seen in HMS PLYMOUTH has been internationally recognised by a number of naval authorities.
According to Friedman (2007):

‘The Type 12 and the Leander class frigates [are] probably the most successful post-war British warships ……’

HMS PLYMOUTH’s machinery was the final manifestation of steam propulsion in a surface warship and took temperatures and pressures to new limits: the Babcock and Wilcox boilers applied superheated steam of 550psi at 8500F to twin geared turbines capable of developing 30,000shp, far above the modest 17psi at 2620F found in HMS WARRIOR (1860) with its 3,700shp twin cylinder horizontal trunk engine.

As noted by Rear Admiral Hammersley (2009): ‘The reliability of the Y100 steam plant configuration of HMS PLYMOUTH was one of the factors we could take for granted during the Falklands Campaign’

Over her lifetime time further technical advances were applied to the ship, keeping her fit for purpose throughout a long and very active life from 1959 to 1988. Thus, there are numerous technologies which can be displayed to the public showing the advances made.

  • At the time of her build, HMS PLYMOUTH’s electronic equipment used glass thermionic valves and although she retained these and her analogue systems for her 4.5” gun and mortar Mk10 ASW some of equipment was replaced by transistor based systems.
  • With the development of the German XXI submarine, its projected XXVI successor and the advent of nuclear propulsion for submarines, the ship was retro-fitted with the ability to deploy a small helicopter greatly enhancing strike speed and range and overall capability. In order to accommodate the helicopter one set of triple Limbo Mk 10 ASW mortar was removed and a magazine fitted for lightweight homing torpedoes to be carried by the ‘Wasp’ helicopter which was to become the standard on frigates of this size. The ship also evolved from ‘dumb’ weapons to ‘smart’ weapons –i.e. the single Bofors 40/60 gun was replaced with the ‘Seacat’ close range missile system, which proved very effective in the confines of San Carlos Waters in 1982.

2 Post-WW2 Social Change

HMS PLYMOUTH was operational from 1959-1988, which represented a period of marked social change. In particular, conscription ended and life for those onboard had to be improved for an all Volunteer Service. In 1965 it was no longer mandatory to wear uniform when going on night shore leave.

Ship design at last banished much of the equipment which hitherto had been included in living spaces such as hull and fire pumps and steam capstans, greatly enhancing the habitability of living spaces.

The sailors’ hammocks were finally replaced half way through her life by bunk beds ending an ancient tradition that was synonymous with life at sea (and incidentally removing a damage control facility as they were lashed and stowed in a precise way so they could be used to plug leaks if the need arose).

The major refit of 1966 also gave the sailors the luxury of a separate dining room. The sailors may have liked the idea of not having to carry meals to the living quarters, but they were probably not so happy when they no longer collected their time-honoured tot of rum – ending a tradition that had lasted from 1731 to 31st July 1970. As noted by Captain John Wells:

‘In 1968 saw the abolition of officer cooks and ships cooks and the branches were amalgamated, reflecting the greater proficiency of the average naval cook and his ascendancy in the status within the hierarchy of the lower deck’ 3 Reflecting the ‘duty of care’ that is now integral to the British Government’s commitment to our servicemen, HMS PLYMOUTH is fitted with a consecrated chapel to honour and remember those who were killed in the conflict and provides solace for those who did return and a place to reflect on the nature of armed conflict.

The memorial chapel, with plaques listing over 130 men lost, was dedicated on 24th October 19934

3 The Ship’s Military and Political Role

Apart from fulfilling her designated role and participating in numerous national and multi-national exercises, HMS PLYMOUTH supported more diverse political aims and military objectives than most other ships in the British Fleet. She has distinguished herself in many ‘active’ roles, including the following examples:

  • HMS PLYMOUTH served in the Borneo campaign, supporting the fledgling Federation of Malaysia in the armed confrontation with Indonesia.
  • HMS PLYMOUTH was one of the first ships on the Beira Patrol when Rhodesia’s primeminister Ian Smith announced a unilateral declaration of independence to separate his country from the United Kingdom, in 1965. The patrol stopped fuel reaching Ian Smith’s illegal regime via a pipeline from the port of Beira in Mozambique and it was to last until 1975. This was a deployment where the political objectives were paramount.
  • HMS PLYMOUTH was active in the Icelandic ‘cod wars’. The Icelandic Government suddenly imposed a 200nm fishing zone around Iceland. This was not recognised by the United Kingdom or the international community. Royal Naval ships were dispatched to protect our fishing boats from harassment by Icelandic gunboats intent on cutting their trawl nets. This was a deployment to protect our economic interests.
  • More peaceful duties have included ‘showing the flag’ around the world and she was due to embark on one such a trip to the West Indies in 1982. However before she was able to set sail the Argentine Junta had invaded The Falkland Islands and HMS PLYMOUTH was called on to make, what was unquestionably, the most significant contribution in her entire career.

At a time when Britain’s international standing was waning, it is perhaps ironic that HMS PLYMOUTH suddenly found itself at the centre of an apparent renaissance of military-political power due to the Falklands War: where she was the centre of the world’s only ‘hot’ naval war since 1945, from which many military/naval lessons have been drawn.

4 The Falklands War

HMS PLYMOUTH is best known for the prominent role she played during the Falklands War. In April 1982, she sailed with Royal Marines and SAS aboard, in company with HMS ANTRIM and RFA TIDEPOOL and, later HMS ENDURANCE, to retake South Georgia. The successful conclusion of this detachment culminated in the destruction of the Argentine submarine SANTA FE, capitulation of the garrison ashore and the signing of a surrender document in the wardroom of HMS PLYMOUTH.

While this action was a necessary precursor to the primary objective of restoring political control of the Falkland Islands to its British inhabitants, the retaking of South Georgia served to underline the serious intent of the UK and was an important boost to morale back at home..

HMS PLYMOUTH soon returned to Falkland waters where she was involved in every aspect of the campaign, from escorting amphibious shipping and landing craft into San Carlos Waters, inserting Special Forces, covering the aircraft carriers, to bombarding shore targets with her twin 4.5” guns and protecting shipping in San Carlos Waters from attacking Argentine aircraft.

During one such air attack, she was targeted by Mirage aircraft and hit by four bombs, which had been released too low and therefore failed to detonate, plus numerous cannon shells, putting out of action her anti-submarine mortars, and causing a depth charge to explode on the edge of the flightdeck which set fire to a mess deck. After the ship’s company had extinguished the fire and carried out immediate repairs, further support was provided by the repair ship Stena Seaspread and after this short spell, HMS PLYMOUTH was again operational.

Five members of her ships company were wounded, one seriously. With the surrender of the Argentine forces on East Falklands, HMS PLYMOUTH was the first warship to enter Port Stanley when Captain David Pentreath her commanding officer, briefly assumed the duties of ‘Queen’s Harbour Master’ As graphically described by Baroness Thatcher:

‘HMS PLYMOUTH was never far from the thick of the action whether it be at South Georgia, in San Carlos Bay or off Port Stanley itself. The Ship’s Company distinguished themselves time and time again over those arduous months and I constantly marvelled at the bravery of all our young men as they fended off repeated attacks. Britain will always be grateful for what you did two decades ago. We will remember those who did not return and we will honour those who did’

Summary of the Case for Preservation

Warships are, by their very nature, a multifaceted complex technological creation from both construction and social perspectives. The ships on display in the heritage fleet show how personnel used to live and work within the confines of a warship. They also emphasise that the Senior Service’s social hierarchy is unique and HMS PLYMOUTH’s very layout provides a typical example of what it was like to serve in the Royal Navy in the late 20th Century. Importantly, HMS PLYMOUTH comes from the recent past and there are many of the people who served on her available to recall life aboard the ship. This provides the opportunity to augment the library of oral recollections that could be used to enhance the experience of visitors to the ship when used within the exhibition scenario.

At the time of her decommissioning, she was, by modern standards, already a fairly old ship and with the other ships of her class already been disposed of there was no need for any of her fittings to be remove and thus she remains virtually complete. With so little of her equipment having been disturbed, each piece is displayed in its correct context, indeed much original machinery is still capable of operation e.g. diesel generators, sonar, radar, turret and Seacat launcher.

By any objective criteria, HMS PLYMOUTH is of outstanding significance to our nation’s maritime heritage. The Falklands War can be viewed as pivotal in radically changing not only military thinking and tactics in the late 20th Century but also Britain’s standing in the world at large.

This historic ship, which already has a proven track record as a successful visitor attraction, cannot be allowed to fade way from the public eye. The surrender of Argentine forces in South Georgia was signed in her wardroom, she was present at the San Carlos landings and was later damaged by bombs and cannon shells, defending the anchorage. She is one of the very few ships to have been involved in every action throughout the campaign. Moreover, the Type12 frigate represents an important and successful class, justified of preservation in her own right.

HMS PLYMOUTH is thus more than worthy to take her place alongside such ships as HMS VICTORY or HMS BELFAST, indeed she is unique in reflecting the RN in the latter part of the 20th Century.

Norman Friedman, British Destroyers and Frigates; p 196
Rear Admiral Peter Hamersley, CB, CBE ,Fleet Engineering Officer 1982, in conversation with the author May 2009.
Captain John Wells, The Royal Navy, An Illustrated Social History 1870 – 1970
Warship World, Volume 4 Number 9, Winter 1993, p21Baroness
Margaret Thatcher, OM, PC, FRS, Letter of 26th August 2002 to the Ship’s Company ofHMS Plymouth.

Contributing Source: hmsplymouth

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Mark Milligan
Mark Milligan
Mark Milligan is multi-award-winning journalist and the Managing Editor at HeritageDaily. His background is in archaeology and computer science, having written over 7,500 articles across several online publications. Mark is a member of the Association of British Science Writers (ABSW), the World Federation of Science Journalists, and in 2023 was the recipient of the British Citizen Award for Education, the BCA Medal of Honour, and the UK Prime Minister's Points of Light Award.

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