Her Majesty’s Ship Bildeston
Naming the ship
Coniston Class mine counter-measures vessels were all called after villages in the United Kingdom with names ending in ‘ton’, the class being designated after HMS Coniston, the first of these ships to be laid down. When the Admiralty was asked why Bildeston was chosen, a suggestion was made that ships’ names had been sprinkled throughout the alphabet.
What minesweepers do
Coniston Class vessels were minesweepers, each with a 40-mm gun, which gave their secondary role as patrol vessels. Constructed in wood and non-magnetic aluminium, their displacement was 420 tons, being 46.6 metres in length and 8.8 metres in beam. Powerful Deltic diesel engines were designed to tow specialist wires behind the ship in deep water to cut cables of buoyant mines. Also towed were acoustic noise-makers and magnetic loops, which exploded mines at a safe distance. A ship’s crew was five officers and 34 men.
First into service
HMS Bildeston was laid down at the yard of JS Doig Ltd at Grimsby on 18 May 1951 and was launched on 9 June 1952. The commissioning date of 28 April 1953 made her the first into service. HMS Bildeston was attached to the Minesweeping Training Squadron at Portsmouth and in 1954 she joined the 50th Minesweeping Group based on the River Forth near Edinburgh. From 1957 to 1966, she was in reserve at Southampton.
Becoming a minehunter
Transfer to Rosyth meant conversion into a minehunter, when a propulsion system providing precise manoeuvrability at slow speeds was installed. To counter buoyant mines, these ships also had wire-sweeps but their primary work was using high frequency sonar to search for seabed mines. Once located, a diving team destroyed the mine or an explosive charge was placed alongside it by a remote delivery system.
Patrolling UK and Europe
HMS Bildeston was re-commissioned in 1968 and joined the 1st Mine Counter Measures Squadron. In 1980, she represented the Royal Navy in the NATO Force; then for five years joined the newly formed 3rd MCM Squadron based at Rosyth and in 1986 was deployed to the Mediterranean. HMS Bildeston saw service around UK and Europe, where she took part in route surveys; search and recovery operations on lost ships, missiles and aircraft; anti-gun running patrols around Northern Ireland and many exercises. Since her re-commissioning in 1968, the ship has steamed 250,000 miles.
The ship had an active affiliation with her namesake village, her crew making informal visits to Bildeston over the years. In 1984, the rampant red lion insignia, which had been on the funnel, was presented to the Red Lion Public House. The ship paid her last visit to Ipswich Dock on 7 November 1986, 33 years of service having made her then the oldest ship in the Royal Navy. At the end of the year, HMS Bildeston was handed over for disposal at Portsmouth.
A lasting reminder
On 20 September 1987, the white ensign and ship’s bell were handed over by former commanding officer Lt Cdr Roderick Higham at a service in Bildeston Parish Church. These items were ‘accepted for safekeeping for ever more’ and are now ‘a lasting reminder of the long and personal association between the village and the ship’.
© Sue Andrews 2020