Military history


The British Destroyer Situation 1939–1941


The British built hundreds of destroyers in World War I, but most of them were unfit or gone by the mid-1920s. In 1927, the Admiralty commenced a “modern” destroyer-building program. For that year and through 1935, the Admiralty ordered nine destroyers a year except in 1929 (the year of the economic crash), when it ordered only five. These ships were 312 feet in length and displaced about 1,400 tons. Except as noted in parentheses, the names of the ships began with the letter assigned to the annual order (e.g., Acasta in the “A” order of 1927).

In the mid-1930s when Germany, Italy, and Japan laid down larger, heavier-gunned fleet destroyers, the Admiralty followed suit with the Tribal class (Afridi, Cossack, etc.). These ships, mounting eight 4.7” guns in four turrets, were 355 feet in length and displaced about 1,900 tons. The Admiralty ordered sixteen of this type for delivery by 1937.

Meanwhile, the annual destroyer orders continued. The Admiralty reduced the number of ships purchased from nine to eight, but they were larger than their predecessors: 339 feet in length, displacing about 1,700 tons. These were the last “modern” destroyers to enter service before the war.

As can be seen from the foregoing lists, by the time World War II commenced, the Admiralty had built a grand total of 109 “modern” destroyers. However, the British transferred the five ships of the 1929 class to the embryonic Canadian Navy in 1937-393, leaving the Royal Navy a force of 104 “modern” destroyers. The Admiralty converted thirteen of these (9 Es, 4 Is) to fast minelayers, leaving 91 for regular service.

Upon the outbreak of war, two further annual orders were under construction, as well as eight vessels intended originally for Brazil and Turkey that were retained, six with the H class and two with the I class.

In addition to the fleet of “modern” destroyers, the Royal Navy had in commission about sixty smaller World War I-vintage destroyers. Thus, when World War II began, the Royal Navy had a total destroyer force of about 165 vessels.4

When Winston Churchill assumed the post of First Lord of the Admiralty in September 1939, he was immensely displeased with the destroyer situation in the Royal Navy. He declared that British destroyers had become too big, too complex, and too expensive, and took too long to build. For urgently needed convoy escort, he insisted that the Admiralty order, in addition to the regular fleet destroyers, fifty smaller, less complex destroyers that could be built in one-third the time of the regular ones. His insistence resulted in a crash program to build the Hunt-class “escort destroyer,” a ship 264 feet in length with a displacement of about 1,000 tons, armed with four (later six) 4” guns in twin mountings.

Remarkably, British shipyards launched twenty-eight Hunts by the end of December 1940. Had the U-boat war been confined more or less to the home waters of the British Isles and to the Mediterranean (as in World War I), these little ships might well have made a big difference as convoy escorts. However, by the time the Hunts entered service in 1941, the main arena of the U-boat war had spread to the wider reaches of the Atlantic, beyond the useful range of these short-legged vessels. Besides that (and severe teething problems) the Hunts were not suitable for operations in the extremely rough waters of the North Atlantic. Altogether in the war, the Admiralty built eighty-six Hunts, which were useful mainly in the Mediterranean.

As the war progressed the Admiralty mass-produced 120 more fleet destroyers, more or less standardized at a length of 339 feet. In addition, it built sixteen Battle-class destroyers that, like the Tribal class, were big, complex vessels, 355 feet in length.

British destroyer losses in the period from, 1939 to the end of 1941 were heavy: a total of fifty-six vessels. Forty-six of these were “modern.” The cause of loss other than enemy air attack is noted in parentheses.

Owing to these losses and to the unsuitability of the Hunts for operations in the North Atlantic, in the summer of 1940 Prime Minister Churchill requested that President Roosevelt “lend” the British fifty (or more, if possible) destroyers for convoy escort. This resulted in the famous 1940 “Destroyer Deal” in which the United States transferred to the British and Canadian navies fifty 314-foot, 1,200-ton World War I—vintage “four stack” destroyers. The British renamed these ships after towns common to the United States and Britain, hence they became Town-class vessels. In a second, less well known loan in early 1941, Roosevelt transferred to Britain ten relatively modern (1928-1932) 250-foot, 1,700-ton very-long-range Coast Guard cutters, which the British classified as sloops. The loans in more detail:

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