British Destroyers: From the Earliest Days to the Second World War

Norman Friedman, British Destroyers: From the Earliest Days to the Second World War, Naval Institute Press, 2009. 320 pp. illustrations, notes, tables, and index.

Review by Andrew Lambert
King’s College, London

The development of the locomotive torpedo in the mid nineteenth century provided a fundamental challenge for the dominant sea control navy of the era. Just as steam, armour, heavy rifled guns and rotating turrets provided the Royal, (and Union ) Navy with the means to transform sea control into strategic naval power projection, an English engineer quite literally knocked the bottom out of ironclad coast assault forces. The Royal Navy was among the first to visit Robert Whitehead’s factory at Fiume (then in Austria ) and purchase the right to use his ‘secret’. They were anxious to understand the new threat, and to assess its potential as a weapon for attacking enemy warships in harbour. The first British torpedo craft, HMS Vesuvius was a stealth vessel, designed for a slow, silent approach into enemy harbours at night, to get close enough to use the new weapon. The next prototype, HMS Polyphemus, a radical high speed armoured torpedo carrier, solved the problem of deploying a short range weapon in a fleet action by emphasising speed and protection. Finally the 1870s and 1880s produced the 30-60 ton torpedo boat, a cheap craft based on commercial steam launches that, when mass-produced, became a threat to the existing order at sea. The Royal Navy had to face numerous French torpedo craft based in small harbours all along the southern coast of the English Channel . They could attack the fleet or, in line with the commerce raiding doctrine of the Jeune Ecole, strike at merchant vessels. After experimenting with small torpedo cruisers, which were too expensive, and too slow, and torpedo gunboats, moderately fast, well-armed, seaworthy craft the Royal Navy settled on the torpedo boat destroyer in 1892. In essence the new type were super torpedo boats, larger and faster versions of the problem, armed with rapid firing guns and the odd torpedo. These ships, little more than skeletal racing hulls, crammed full of ultra-light weight power plants, with a few weapons on the upper deck, very limited supplies of fuel and food. These early ‘turtle-back’ destroyers were striking craft, low-lying, back, and topped off with a forest of funnels and ventilators to keep the boiler rooms free of smoke, and supplied with oxygen for the furnaces. They were demanding places to work, constantly wet, rolling, vibrating and dangerous. They were almost uninhabitable, the crew receiving extra ‘hard-lying’ pay for their trouble, like early submariners. It was work for young men with strong nerves.

Although the Royal Navy was well aware that trial speeds rarely translated into sea-going performance it was suckled into a race to the swift with France, Russia, Germany and Italy, one which served the interests of specialist builders, and advanced the relevant technologies. Down to the 1920s the Royal Navy wisely left the development of ships and machinery to specialist firms, notably Yarrow and Thornycroft, who competed to improve speed, and made large profits selling their designs abroad. A by-product of this dynamic private sector was that in both World Wars British shipyards had ships under construction for overseas customers, and most ended up in Royal Navy service. Similarly export successes ensured specialist destroyer building capacity in Britain was always greater than required by the peacetime orders of the service.

The introduction of the Parsons steam turbine transformed the destroyer, increasing speed while reducing maintenance, both at sea and in harbour. In 1900 HMS Viper reached 36 knots, three knots faster than any other warship, heralding a new era of speed obsessed designs.

Contemporary British thinking about the use of destroyers focussed on wiping out enemy torpedo forces, to facilitate the blockade and other coastal operations. By blockading French flotilla bases with larger, faster craft it should be possible to catch and kill any that put to sea. The destroyer only became a fleet escort when it had the range and seaworthiness to keep station with the battleships. The necessary tactics were developed in the Mediterranean under Admiral Sir John Fisher – who had ‘invented’ the destroyer half a decade earlier. The constant trade off between size, cost, speed, guns and torpedoes was further complicated by the shift to focus on Germany as the most likely enemy after 1904. The German bases were a lot further away than those of France, which suited the new slower, but more seaworthy ‘River’ class ordered in 1901-02, ships that came closer to the old torpedo gunboat concept. As First Sea Lord between 1904 and 1910 Fisher wanted 36 knot destroyers, but his prototype, the 2000 ton HMS Swift, was simply too large for mass production. Between 1900 and 1914 the British would try every conceivable mix of size, power, weapons and concepts in a seemingly endless search for the ‘right’ destroyer. With the specialised builders competing to improve performance the Navy could push the development of hulls and machinery down to 1914, bringing the speed of smaller craft back over 30 knots, and increasing the torpedo battery to reflect the fact that the function of the destroyer had shifted from operating independently to destroy torpedo boats to acting as fleet torpedo boats.

In peacetime the British generally built economical units, in significant numbers. In wartime, when the financial limits were removed, they shifted to superior types, as far as shipbuilding resources would allow. Indeed it was only with the benefit of hard won experience in the First World War that the balance between gun and torpedo power would be stabilised. While the Grand Fleet favoured torpedoes the Harwich Force stationed in the southern North Sea stressed gun power to deal with German destroyers. By 1916 a classic design had emerged, the superb ‘V and W’ class and the large ‘destroyer leaders’ of 1916 that doubled ahead gunfire, introduced fire control equipment and improved seaworthiness. The move from 4 inch to 4.7 inch guns almost doubled shell weight, creating a potent all-round fighting ship, while geared turbines and improved boilers enabled Thornycroft’s 1600 ton ‘leader’ HMS Shakespeare to reach 42 knots on trials. Post war British destroyers, and numerous overseas units built in British yards, developed the basic design with increased range, improved weapons and new sensors, including sonar, into an economic, effective type that formed the backbone of the British and Canadian flotillas down to the middle of the Second World War.

Friedman is critical of the inter-war type, contrasting their relatively low pressure power plant and the lack of sophisticated anti-aircraft fire control and high angle guns with American practice. As he notes these failings limited endurance and led to heavy losses from air attack. However, the British did experiment with high pressure steam plant in the 1920s, but after the failure of these tests decided to wait for more reliable systems: they were quick to follow the American lead. The air threat also requires further analysis. The only aircraft that proved dangerous to such fast, manoeuvrable vessels were dive bombers, a type that could only operate effectively when unopposed by defending fighters. The majority of British losses occurred when destroyers were used, without air cover, to evacuate defeated British armies from France , Greece and Crete . Half a million British soldiers were saved from prisoner of war camps by these ships. It is unlikely if any destroyers, used in this way, would have done much better, and few navies would have attempted such operations in daylight.

On a positive note the combat record of the inter-war destroyers against their larger German, Italian and French counterparts was very good, and none of them were any better equipped against dive bombers. In addition the British units proved devastatingly effective in the anti-submarine role. By April 1940 they had cut a swathe through the U-boat arm with text book multi-ship attacks. As newer, bigger destroyers ships joined the fleet the surviving inter-war units were modified to emphasise their capabilities as fast Anti-Submarine escorts in the Battle of the Atlantic, where they joined First World War veteran ‘V and Ws’ and ex-American four stackers. By 1943 radar, HF/DF, Hedgehog and even Squid ahead thrown anti-submarine weapons had replaced guns and torpedoes as the main weapons of older destroyer. A few of them even fought a new ‘torpedo boat’ threat on the British Coast , German motor torpedo boats.

In Norman Friedman’s treatment the evolution of the British destroyer becomes far more than just a catalogue of designs, it is the history of a concept in the broadest context of strategy and policy. Based on a major research project his analysis is supported by newly executed drawings by A. D. Baker, a wealth of striking images and rich appendices. This first rate book will provide much food for thought, for historians, students of ship design, and those grappling with the endless problem of balancing the best ship against the need for numbers.

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