County-class destroyer

The County class was a class of guided missile destroyer, the first such vessels built by the Royal Navy. Designed specifically around the Seaslug anti-aircraft missile system, the primary role of these ships was area air defence around the aircraft carrier task force in the nuclear-war environment.[2][3] A class of ten ships was envisaged in 1958 for about £6–7.5 million each,[4] equivalent to a costed programme for four large, Seaslug-armed, 15,000-ton cruisers, estimated at £14 million each,[5] based on an upgraded Minotaur-class cruiser (1951), approved for full design in early 1955. The final four County-class ships, with hull numbers 07 to 10, were delayed in 1960 while an antisubmarine escort carrier was considered. Hulls 07 and 08 were approved in 1963 as a temporary stopgap,[6] and hulls 09 and 10 were cancelled.

HMS Kent at Portsmouth in 1989
Class overview
Preceded by: Daring class
Succeeded by: Type 82
  • Batch 1
  • Batch 2
In commission: 16 November 1962 – 22 September 2006
Completed: 8
Cancelled: 2[1]
Laid up:
General characteristics
Type: Destroyer
Displacement: 6,200 tons
Length: 520.16 ft (158.54 m)
Beam: 54 ft (16 m)
Draught: 21 ft (6.4 m)
Speed: 30 knots (56 km/h; 35 mph)
Range: 3,500 nautical miles (6,500 km; 4,000 mi)
Complement: 471 (33 officers, 438 ratings)
Aircraft carried:Wessex HAS Mk 3 helicopter
Aviation facilities: Flight deck and enclosed hangar for embarking one helicopter

The class was designed as a hybrid cruiser-destroyer, with a much larger displacement (similar to that of the Dido-class cruiser) than its predecessor, the Daring class. In 1955 the new First Sea Lord Louis Mountbatten specified the development of an April 1955, 4800 ton Fast fleet escort design (DNC 7/959) as a Seaslug carrying vessel with a Y stern positioned twin 3/70 AA mount replaced by Seaslug (DNC 7/1002) [7] instead of the then approved development of a large GW 58A 15,400 ton cruiser [8] which would have combined Seaslug with 984 3D radar and a conventional Tiger class gun armament. During 1956–1958 a full 'alternative' gun armament was an option for the new GW Fast Escort, [9] based on a modern combined gas turbine and steam turbine ('COSAG') propulsion unit, as enlarged Daring fleet escorts, armed with two twin Mk 6 4.5, two twin L/70 40mm and a twin 3 inch/70 guns. A detailed March 1957 study [10] opted for a medium tensile 505 ft hull and a fit of 18 Seaslug and 4 special (nuclear) Seaslug for extended range AA, anti missile and anti ship.[11] twin Mk 5 Bofors 40mm were maintained with the future and effectiveness of Project Greenlight (Seacat missile), under doubt[12] and Limbo was the only anti-submarine weapon.

A revised design in March 1958 added Seaslug and Seacat missiles and added a telescopic hangar. First Sea Lord Mountbatten staged an impressive demonstration shoot for flag officers and politicians, from Seaslug test ship HMS Girdle Ness in which ten successive Seaslugs were launched and rode the beam, including salvo of two Seaslug and the success of the included hits in the lethal zone of two piston engine Fairey Firefly radio controlled drones, at 16 km, undemanding targets with a speed of only 315/375 mph [13] but this apparent success, enabled Defence Minister, Duncan Sandys to gain the approval of Cabinet Defence Committee for Seaslug production to be approved in 1958 [14] While the missile worked against World War two level targets, the beam guidance system was dubious at range and in rough water which meant eight fixed stabilisers were added. Advocacy for the guided missiles fit[15] was led by the First Sea Lord, Admiral Mountbatten[16] and the Cabinet agreed, despite staff reports over missile unreliability and inaccuracy,[15] confirmed by the dismal performance in the following 1959 Seaslug target launches at Woomera in Sth Australia [17] convinced many RAN officers, Seaslug was unsuitable for the RAN, the vulnerability of the above-waterline missile magazine.[18] Final, late 1958 revisions,[19] were to adopt a high flush deck from B turret, increasing internal space, the cancellation of the nuclear Seaslug, and provision of portable fins for the Seaslug, all allowed storage of 20 extra missile bodies in tubular form for rapid assembly. Against staff advice, a tight fitting, fixed side hangar for the anti-submarine Wessex helicopter was added on the insistence of the First Sea Lord.[20] While a flawed layout, it proved usable when tested in war in the South Atlantic in 1982 on HMS Antrim. Lord Mountbatten classified the cruiser sized County class as destroyers rather than cruisers, They had destroyer level fittings. Politically the Tigers and Cruisers were considered outdated empire relics, and the apparently impressive performance of Seaslug on the missile range against Gloster Meteor UC15 drones, he could give the Royal Navyand a large number of County-class 'destroyers' and large ship commands and posts for ambitious officers.[21]

While short on the support and logistic spares stocks of a traditional cruiser, they were still envisaged by the DNC as being 'probably' used in the cruiser role[22] with space for Flag staff offices, and admiral's barge accommodation[23] in the 1960s: the last decade when the UK oversaw significant colonial territory ("East of Suez"). Its missile capability had been overtaken by aircraft development by 1962–63, when HMS Devonshire and Hampshire entered service, but in the early and mid-1960s the modern lines of these guided-missile destroyers, with their traditional RN cruiser style and their impressive-looking missiles, enabled the overstretched Royal Navy to project sufficient power to close down the threat of a militant, left-leaning Indonesia to Malaysia and Borneo during the Indonesia-Malaysia confrontation.[24]

Ships of the class

Eight vessels were built in two batches between 1959 and 1970, the later four vessels carrying the improved Seaslug GWS2 and updated electronics requiring rearranged mastheads. The major identifying feature was the Batch 2 vessels' prominent "double-bedstead" AKE-2 antennas of the Type 965 air-search radar, and their taller foremast carrying the Type 992Q low-angle search radar.

Ships' names

Four of the "Counties" took names used by the famous three-funnelled interwar County-class cruisers: London, Norfolk, Devonshire and Kent. (The last of these, HMS Cumberland, had survived until 1959 as a trials ship). Devonshire, Hampshire and Antrim also inherited the names of Devonshire-class armoured cruisers of the First World War.

Four of the new ships were named after counties containing a Royal Navy Dockyard; these were: Devonshire (Devonport Dockyard), Hampshire (Portsmouth Dockyard), Kent (Chatham Dockyard), and Fife (Rosyth dockyard). Glamorgan and Antrim were named after the counties in Wales and Northern Ireland which contain the port cities and regional capitals of Cardiff and Belfast (by analogy to London, England). Norfolk commemorated the county of Nelson's birth, and the important 19th-century ports of Great Yarmouth and King's Lynn.

Three of the ships' names have been subsequently re-used: HMS London was a Type 22 frigate, in RN service from 1987–1999, and now serving with the Romanian Naval Forces as Regina Maria. HMS Kent and HMS Norfolk were used for RN Type 23 frigates which were named after British dukedoms.

Ship Builder Laid Down Launched Commissioned Fate
Batch 1
Devonshire Cammell Laird, Birkenhead 9 March 1959 10 June 1960 15 November 1962 Sunk as target, 17 July 1984
Hampshire John Brown & Company, Clydebank 26 March 1959 16 March 1961 15 March 1963 Broken up at Briton Ferry, 1979
Kent Harland & Wolff, Belfast 1 March 1960 27 September 1961 15 August 1963 Broken up at Alang, 1998
London Swan Hunter, Wallsend 26 February 1960 7 December 1961 4 November 1963 Sold to Pakistan as Babur, March 1982
Batch 2
Fife Fairfield Shipbuilding, Govan 1 June 1962 9 July 1964 21 June 1966 Sold to Chile as Blanco Encalada, August 1987
Glamorgan Vickers-Armstrongs, Newcastle 13 September 1962 9 July 1964 14 October 1966 Sold to Chile as Almirante Latorre, September 1986
Antrim Upper Clyde Shipbuilders, Govan 20 January 1966 19 October 1967 14 July 1970 Sold to Chile as Almirante Cochrane, June 1984
Norfolk Swan Hunter, Wallsend 15 March 1966 16 November 1967 7 March 1970 Sold to Chile as Capitán Prat, April 1982

Design features

The County class was designed around the GWS1 Seaslug beam riding anti-aircraft missile system. Seaslug was a first-generation surface-to-air missile intended to hit high-flying nuclear-armed bombers and shadowing surveillance aircraft like the Tupolev Tu-95 "Bear", which could direct strikes against the British fleet from missile destroyers and cruise missile-armed submarines. Bears were formidable targets for a missile like Seaslug; the long-range Soviet turboprop aircraft flew at an altitude of 7.5 miles, at 572 mph (921 km/h)[25] and were barely within the engagement capability of Seaslug.

The Seaslug system was a large weapon. Each missile was 6 m (19 ft 8 in) long and weighed two tons; its handling arrangements and electronics systems were also large; so even fitting a single system aboard a ship the size of the Counties was a challenge. The missile was stowed horizontally in a long unarmoured magazine, above the waterline, that took up a great deal of internal space. The risk of fire near the magazine was checked by an automatic sprinkler system.[26] On the last four ships, some of the missiles were stored partly disassembled in the forward end of the magazine to enable the complement of missiles to be increased. These missiles had their wings and fins reattached before being moved into the aft sections of the handling spaces and eventually loaded onto the large twin launcher for firing. The limitations of the beam riding guidance for Seaslug and lack of a homing head, meant Mk 1 and 2 Seaslug were intended to have nuclear variants to compensate for inaccuracy, but the alternative nuclear warhead, for the first group of County GMD, Mk 1 Seaslug was dropped due to its need for extra crew, space and security, having been planned for large armoured cruisers, and development of the Nuclear Seaslug for the group 2 County Class was cancelled in June 1962,[27] to reduce the naval budget, and the RNs requirement for tactical nuclear warheads, below 334. The County DDG and their Seaslug missile were interim ships and the new Sea Dart AA missile would have speed and accuracy not requiring nuclear warheads. First Lord Mountbatten doubted the usefulness of tactical nuclear weapons by 1962, due to escalation theories,scientific advice and greater evidence of fallout consequences, leading to the test ban treaty in 1962. There were also staff and space difficulties with carrying nuclear warheads on confined destroyers.[28]As early as 1952, Air Marshall Slessor the most influential Defence Advisor to Winston Churchill considered the Navy irrelevant in nuclear war,[29] he first defined, the role of RN was 'uncertain' [30] as a pretext to maintain a large fleet, required only for political reasons. The collapse of the 1956 Suez operation and the huge impact of the UK hydrogen bombs tests in 1954-57 [31] led to the 1957 Sandys Defence Review, and reliance on nuclear deterrence by strategic aircraft, missiles and missile submarines and doubt a nuclear WW3 would last long enough to require trans Atlantic convoys. And corresponding doubt whether major conventional war was still possible on the basis of the last 1954-5 HC speeches of Churchill [32] and Eisenhower, justified large cutbacks of UK/US large ship, destroyer and carrier programme [33] and the future role (and relevance) of the Royal Navy was 'unclear' [34] moving the RN to more limited, East of Suez task forces, with gun and Seaslug and Seacat armed, destroyers escorting medium British aircraft carriers with only a limited nuclear strike capacity against ships and cities, with, RN Buccanear S1 and S2 bombers, mainly aimed to deter regional powers like Indonesia [35] Early versions of the equivalent US missile system, Terrier like Seaslug relied on beam riding and needed a nuclear warhead variant to compensate for inaccuracy at low level and range, RIM7 Terrier. However, by 1962 the US was concentrating on the medium range radar guided Tartar and long range Talos, which had success against long range Nth Vietnamese air targets from 1968.[36] The RAF, semi active land based Bloodhound missile was unrelated to the RN Seaslug development, but drew top scientists away from RN work. The County class design attempted to give maximum protection from nuclear fallout, with the operation rooms, where the ship was fought, located 5 decks below, deep in the ship, with a lift from the bridge,[37] which maintained some duplicated command systems. The operations room, sited the main radar, sonar, electronic warfare screens and communication data and computer links. The electronics required for the Seaslug were the large Type 901 fire-control radar and the Type 965 air-search radar. These required a great deal of weight to be carried high up on the ship, further affecting ship layout. According to a RN Naval architect, "Sea Slug did not live up to expectations" and was obsolete by 1957.[38] The compromises required by the heavy and dated Seaslug system detracted from the success and popularity of an otherwise advanced ship design. Its ineffectiveness and vulnerable magazine[39] and missile fuel, reduced confidence in the class, which had potential as command ships, having good seaworthiness, speed and in the group two County class a spacious operations room with ADAWS.

In 1960, because US-designed missiles were seen at the time to be superior to the Seaslug, the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) proposed a County class armed with the US Tartar missile and two additional modifications: hangar space for three Wessex helicopters and a steam propulsion system, rather than the combined steam and gas system used in the County class. However, the RAN instead decided to proceed with the Perth class (a modified version of the US Charles F. Adams class). Two different reasons have been put forward for the Australian decision: according to an Australian history, British authorities would not allow a steam-propelled variant of the County,[40] whereas, according to a British account, the re-design required to accommodate the Tartar missile would have taken longer than the RAN deemed to be acceptable.[41]

The US Terrier missile had some support amongst the RN staff, but consideration was not given to acquiring it for the second batch of four ships, as the County class were 'shop windows' for advanced UK technology, and it was vital for the British missile and aerospace industry to continue the Seaslug project, to allow the development of the much improved Sea Dart missile. Following problems with the original version, a reworked Action Data Automation Weapon System (ADAWS) was successfully trialled on HMS Norfolk in 1970.[42] In the mid-1960s the County missile destroyers were assets; their impressive appearance and data links, feeding off the carriers' Type 984 radar, projected effective capability during the Indonesia–Malaysia confrontation.[43][44] The Mark 1 Seaslug was operationally reliable and proved useful as a missile target for the new Sea Dart missiles in the late 1970s and early 1980s. (The supersonic Mark 2 version proved less effective for this.) There are questions as to whether it was ever fully operational and there were problems with missiles breaking up when the boosters separated.[45] Inaccuracy, primitive beam-riding guidance and lack of infrared homing or a proximity fuze in the Mk 1 made it of limited value.[46] Short-range air defence was provided by the GWS-22 Seacat anti-aircraft missile system, which made the Counties the first Royal Navy warships to be armed with two different types of guided missile.

Batch 2 improvements

As constructed, the County-class ships were armed with a pair of twin QF 4.5-inch gun mountings. These had magazines for 225 shells for each gun, two-thirds of the magazine capacity for the same guns in the Leander-class frigates.[47] The second batch of four ships (Antrim, Fife, Glamorgan and Norfolk) were refitted in the mid-1970s – their 'B'-position turrets were removed and replaced by four single MM38 Exocet surface-to-surface anti-ship-missile launcher boxes in order to increase the fleets anti-ship capability following retirement of its aircraft carriers. [48] This made the County-class ships the only Royal Navy ships to be fitted with three separate types of guided missile: Seaslug, Seacat and Exocet. It also left the un-refitted ships as the last Royal Navy vessels able to fire a broadside from multiple main armament gun turrets. HMS London fired the last Royal Navy broadside on 10 December 1981 in the English Channel, after returning from its final deployment in the West Indies.[49] It had also fired off the last Seaslug Mk 1 stocks that year, as targets for Type 42 Sea Dart workups, prior to her hand-over to the Pakistani Navy. Sold by the British Government 23 March 1982, she sailed without notice from Portsmouth in late May 1982 for Pakistan during the Falklands crisis, and consideration may have been given to reclaiming it for war service.

Possible development

It was suggested by Vosper Thornycroft that the Counties could have been developed for the anti-submarine role by replacing the obsolete Seaslug GWS system with a larger hangar and flight deck and the possibility of removing Seaslug and rebuilding the missile tunnel as storage for extra Lynx helicopters.[16] Certainly, these arrangements as originally installed to operate a single Wessex anti-submarine helicopter were problematic, with a hangar so cramped it took an hour to get the aircraft either in or out again, during which evolution the port Seacat launcher was unusable. However it was determined that beam-restrictions would still limit the Counties' helicopter operation in RN service to the obsolescent Wessex, as they were too narrow to handle the far more capable Sea King HAS. The Chilean navy, however, did convert two of the four ships they purchased along these lines.

1982 Falklands War

Antrim and Glamorgan both served in the Falklands War; Antrim was the flagship of Operation Paraquet, the recovery of South Georgia in April 1982. Her helicopter, a Westland Wessex HAS Mk 3 (nicknamed "Humphrey") was responsible for the rescue of 16 Special Air Service operators from Fortuna Glacier and the subsequent detection and disabling of the Argentinian submarine Santa Fe. In San Carlos Water, Antrim was hit by a 1,000 lb (450 kg) bomb which failed to explode. Glamorgan, after many days on the "gun line" bombarding Port Stanley airfield, was hit by an Exocet launched from land at the end of the conflict. It destroyed her aircraft hangar and the port Seacat mounting. Her captain's prompt reaction to visual detection of the Exocet narrowly averted a hit on the fatally vulnerable Seaslug magazine, by turning the ship so as to give as small a target as possible (the stern) to the incoming weapon. The ship suffered fourteen deaths, injuries, and was lucky to survive with extensive damage and flooding. Had the missile hit a few inches higher, the above waterline magazine would have blown in an explosive fireball and many more of the crew[50] might have been lost.


All eight of the class had short Royal Navy careers, serving on average less than 16 years. Only London of the first batch would serve further (transferred to Pakistan) while the other three Batch 1 ships were decommissioned by 1980 with Hampshire being immediately scrapped in 1977, and Devonshire sunk in weapons testing in 1984. Kent would serve as a floating (though immobile) accommodation and training ship in Portsmouth harbour until 1996. The four ships of Batch 2 however would be operated for 16 to 23 more years after sale to the Chilean Navy, in which they all received extensive upgrades and modernisation.

Construction programme

The ships were built at the major UK yards, with some of the machinery coming from Associated Electrical Industries of Manchester, Parsons Marine Steam Turbine Company of Wallsend-on-Tyne, John I. Thornycroft & Company of Southampton, Yarrows of Glasgow, and the Wallsend Slipway and Engineering Company, Wallsend-on-Tyne.

Pennant Name Built by Ordered Laid down Launched Accepted
into service
Commissioned Estimated
building cost[51]
D02 Devonshire Cammell Laird, Birkenhead[52] 24 January 1956[39] 9 March 1959[39] 10 June 1960[39] November 1962[52] 15 November 1962[39] £14,080,000[52]
D06 Hampshire John Brown & Company, Clydebank[52] 27 January 1956[39] 26 March 1959[39] 16 March 1961[39] March 1963[52] 15 March 1963[39] £12,625,000[52]
D12 Kent Harland & Wolff, Belfast[53] 6 February 1957[39] 1 March 1960[39] 27 September 1961[39] August 1963[53] 15 August 1963[39] £13,650,000[53]
D16 London Swan Hunter, Wallsend-on-Tyne[53] 6 February 1957[39] 26 February 1960[39] 7 December 1961[39] November 1963[53] 14 November 1963[39] £13,900,000[53]
D20 Fife Fairfields of Glasgow[54] 26 September 1961[39] 1 June 1962[39] 9 July 1964[39] June 1966[54] 21 June 1966[39] £15,250,000[54]
D19 Glamorgan Vickers Shipbuilding, Newcastle[54] 26 September 1961[39] 13 September 1962[39] 9 July 1964[39] October 1966[54] 11 October 1966[39] £14,100,000[54]
D21 Norfolk Swan Hunter[55] 5 January 1965[39] 15 March 1966[39] 16 November 1967[39] February 1970[55] 7 March 1970[39] £16,900,000[55]
D18 Antrim Upper Clyde Shipbuilders, Govan[56] 5 January 1965[39] 20 January 1966[39] 19 October 1967[39] November 1970[56] 14 July 1970[39] £16,350,000[56]

Cost of ownership

Running costs

Date Running cost What is included
1972–73 £500,000 Average annual maintenance cost per vessel for County-class destroyers[57]
1981–82 £7.0 million Average annual running cost of County-class destroyers at average 1981–82 prices and including associated aircraft costs but excluding the costs of major refits.[58]

Cost of major refits

Date Running cost What is included Citation
£5½ million – £8 million Cost of recently completed major refits for County-class destroyers. [59]


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  2. Purvis,M.K., 'Post War RN Frigate and Guided Missile Destroyer Design 1944–1969', Transactions, Royal Institution of Naval Architects (RINA), 1974
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  4. G. Moore. Daring to Devonshire in Warship 2006. Conway Maritime. (London) p124, 130
  5. Moore. Daring to Devonshire (2005), p124
  6. G. Moore. Daring to Devonshire in Warship 2005. Conway Maritme, p 130 & ADM 167 162 1963
  7. Moore. Daring to Devonshire in Warship 2005, p123
  8. Moore. Warship (2005), p 123
  9. Hall (May 2008), pp. 48–51.
  10. DNC 7/1014 for Board of Admiralty
  11. DNC 7/1014
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  15. Wise (2007), pp. 19–21.
  16. Jane's (1980).
  17. E. Grove in Harding, RN 1930–2000, p. 198
  18. Moore (2005), pp. 132–133, note 26, p. 135.
  19. ADM 167 152 1958 and First Lords Record (Public Record Office)- the final, construction order, ship cover and legend no longer exist
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  21. Wilson (2013), pp. 624–625.
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  23. Friedman (2006), pp. 181–190.
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  27. R. Moore. Nuclear Illusion and Nuclear Reality. Britain, the United States and Nuclear Weapons 1958–1964. Palgrave. London (2010) p 222
  28. Mountbatten (1989).
  29. A.Seldon. Churchill Indian Summer. Conservative Government 1951-5. Hodder & stoughton (1981) London , p 334-5
  30. A. Seldon. Churchill Indian Summer 1951-5(1981)London, p 334-5
  31. G. Freudenberg. Churchill & Australia. Macmillan. Sydney (2008) p 529-30 & A. Seldon. Churchill Indian Summer 1951-55. H&S.London (1981)p 314-16,334-5
  32. Freudenberg. Churchill & Australia(2008)p529-30 & Seldon. Churchill Indian Summer (1981)p314-16, 334-5
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  34. Statement on Defence 1957. Future Options. HMSO. 15/3/1957, p 7-8, s15
  35. E. Hampshire. British Guided missile Destroyers. County, T42, T82 and T45. (2016) Vanguard
  36. S.Tindle. USS Long Beach.The Last Cruiser, in Ships Monthly,Aug 2018,p40.
  37. Marland (2016), p. 77.
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  39. Moore (2005), p. 133.
  40. Cooper, Alastair; cited by Stevens, David, ed. (2001). The Royal Australian Navy. The Australian Centenary History of Defence (vol. III); South Melbourne, Oxford University Press, pp. 190–1
  41. Friedman (2006), pp. 195.
  42. Friedman (2006), p. 191.
  43. Wilson (2013), pp. 627 & spec.
  44. Hall (December 2008), p. 50.
  45. Friedman (2006), p. 192.
  46. Brown & Moore (2003), p. 39.
  47. Friedman (2006), p. 189.
  48. Marriott (1989), p. 106.
  49. Hall (December 2008), pp. 51.
  50. Hall (May 2008), p. 51.
  51. "Unit cost, i.e. excluding cost of certain items (e.g. aircraft, first outfit)."
    Text from Defences Estimates
  52. Navy Estimates, 1963–64, page 70, Table 3 (Programme): List and particulars of new ships which have been accepted or are expected to be accepted into HM service during the Financial Year ended 31 March 1963
  53. Defence Estimates, 1964–65, page 72, Table 3 (Programme): List and particulars of new ships which have been accepted or are expected to be accepted into HM service during the Financial Year ended 31 March 1964
  54. Defence Estimates, 1967–68, page 75, Table 3 (Programme): List and particulars of new ships which have been accepted or are expected to be accepted into HM service during the Financial Year ended 31 March 1967
  55. Defence Estimates, 1970–71, page XII-81, Table V: List and particulars of new ships which have been accepted or are expected to be accepted into HM service during the Financial Year ended 31 March 1970
  56. Defence Estimates, 1971–72, page XII-81, Table V: List and particulars of new ships which have been accepted or are expected to be accepted into HM service during the Financial Year ended 31 March 1971
  57. Hansard HC Deb 16 December 1974 vol 883 c316W Question to the Secretary of State for Defence about the approximate annual average refit cost per vessel for (a) a County-class destroyer and (b) a Leander-class frigate, 16 December 1974.
  58. Hansard HC Deb 16 July 1982 vol 27 cc485-6W Question to the Secretary of State for Defence, 16 July 1982.
  59. Hansard HC Deb 16 December 1974 vol 883 c316W Question to the Secretary of State for Defence about the approximate cost of a long refit of (a) a Leander-class frigate and (b) a County-class destroyer, 16 December 1974.


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Further reading

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