The British generally led the world in the design and construction of destroyers in this period, other countries generally following the British lead. Germany’s most advanced destroyer class at the beginning of World War I was the ‘S30’ class of six ships completed in 1914 and 1915 with a displacement of 970 tons, an armament of three 3.4-in (88-mm) guns and six 19.7-in (500-mm) torpedo tubes, and a speed of between 33 and 36 kt on the 23,500 to 25,000 hp (17520 to 18650 kW) delivered to two shafts by steam turbines. After 1916 Germany’s priority was the large-scale construction of submarines rather than surface warships, and this meant that only 22 more destroyers were completed in the period up to the end of the war in November 1918. The last of these to be completed were the three ships of the ‘H145’ class, of which two were commissioned in 1918 and the third only in 1920 for the French navy as part of Germany’s war reparations. These ships had a displacement of 1,147 tons, an armament of three 4.1-in (105-mm) guns and six 19.7-in (500-mm) torpedo tubes, and a speed of between 34 and 37 kt on the 23,500 to 25,500 hp (17520 to 19010 kW) delivered to two shafts by steam turbines.
Advanced destroyers were also built in this period by France, Italy, Japan and the USA, and less advanced ships by countries such as Austria-Hungary and Russia. The last destroyers completed for the French navy in World War I were the 12 units of the ‘Tribal’ class, which were built in Japanese yards to a standard based on that of the Japanese ‘Kaba’ class. The ships had a displacement of 690 tons, an armament of one 4.7-in (120-mm) and three 12-pdr guns (one of the latter on a high-angle mounting for anti-aircraft use) and four 18-in (457-mm) torpedo tubes in two twin mountings, and a speed of 29 kt on the 10,000 hp (7455 kW) delivered to three shafts by oil- and coal-fired triple expansion engines. Other French destroyer classes were the ‘Temeraire’ class of four 950-ton ships completed between 1910 and 1914, the ‘Bory’ class of 12 780/880-ton ships completed between 1910 and 1915, the ‘Casque’ class of three 790/820-ton ships completed between 1908 and 1912, the ‘Huzzard’ class of 11 407/514-ton ships completed between 1906 and 1912, the ‘Claymore’ class of 21 340/415-ton ships completed between 1903 and 1911, the ‘Mousquet’ class of 18 310/370-ton ships completed between 1900 and 1904, the ‘Flamberge’ class of four 310-ton ships completed between 1900 and 1902, the ‘Durandal’ class of three 305-ton ships completed between 1899 and 1901, and the ‘Pique’ class of two 310-ton ships completed between 1900 and 1902.
The last destroyers completed for the Italian navy in World War I were the eight units of the ‘La Masa’ class. These ships had a displacement of between 785 and 850 tons, an armament of four 4-in (102-mm) guns, two 3-in (76-mm) anti-aircraft guns and four 17.7-in (450-mm) torpedo tubes in two twin mountings, and a speed of between 28.5 and 33 kt on the 15,000 to 17,500 hp (11185 to 13050 kW) delivered to two shafts by steam turbines. Other Italian destroyer classes were the ‘Pilo’ class of eight 770/850-ton ships completed between 1913 and 1916, the ‘Animoso’ class of two 750/840-ton ships completed in 1914, the ‘Ardito’ class of two 695/790-ton ships completed between 1913 and 1914, the ‘Indomito’ class of six 672/770-ton ships completed between 1913 and 1914, the ‘Soldato’ class of 10 395/425-ton ships completed between 1907 and 1910, the ‘Nembo’ class of six 330/385-ton ships completed between 1903 and 1905, and the ‘Lampo’ class of five 320-355-ton ships completed between 1900 and 1910.
The last destroyers completed for the Japanese navy in World War I were the two units of the ‘Tanikaze’ class. These ships had a displacement of 1,300 tons, an armament of three 4.7-in (120-mm) and six 21-in (533-mm) torpedo tubes in two triple mountings, and a speed of 34 kt on the 28,000 hp (20875 kW) delivered to its shafts by steam turbines. Other Japanese destroyer classes were the ‘Amatsukaze’ class of four 1,225-ton ships completed between 1915 and 1917, the ‘Umikaze’ class of two 1,150-ton ships completed between 1908 and 1911, the ‘Momi’ class of eight 850-ton ships completed between 1918 and 1919, the ‘Tsubaki’ class of six 885-ton ships completed between 1917 and 1918, the ‘Momo’ class of four 835-ton ships completed between 1915 and 1916, the ‘Kaba’ class of 10 665-ton ships completed in 1914 and 1915 and the ‘Sakura’ class of two 605-ton ships completed between 1911 and 1913.
The last destroyers completed for the American navy in World War I were the first units of the ‘Clemson’ class, which eventually totalled 94 ships completed up to 1920. These flushdecked ships had a displacement of 1,190 tons, an armament of four 4-in (102-mm) guns, one 3-in (76-mm) anti-aircraft gun and 12 21-in (533-mm) torpedo tubes in four triple mountings, and a maximum speed of 35 kt on the 27,500 hp (20505 kW) delivered to two shafts by geared steam turbines. The preceding class, of which 109 units were delivered between 1917 and 1919, was the ‘Wickes’ class. This had a displacement of 1,090 tons, an armament of four 4-in (102-mm) guns, two 3-in (76-mm) anti-aircraft guns and 12 21-in (533-mm) torpedo tubes in four triple mountings, and a maximum speed of 35 kt on the 26,000 hp (19385 kW) delivered to two shafts by geared steam turbines. Other significant American destroyer classes built in World War I included the ‘Caldwell’ class of six 1,020-ton ships completed between 1917 and 1918, the ‘Tucker’ class of 12 1,110-ton ships completed between 1915 and 1916, and the ‘Cassin’ class of 14 1,035-ton ships completed between 1913 and 1915.
More British development
After World War I, all the British destroyers up to and including the ‘M’ class were soon discarded as worn out and also obsolescent in the light of destroyer experience in that war. Further development was based on the ‘VW’ and ‘Marksman’ classes. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, the older destroyers were gradually replaced by newer vessels, and on the outbreak of World War II in September 1939 the only 1918 destroyers still in British service were one ‘R’ class ship, 11 ‘S’ class ships used mainly in the minelaying role, most of the ‘VW’ class ships used mostly in the escort role, and eight leaders. With large numbers of comparatively new ships on strength at the end of World War I, the Royal Navy ordered no new destroyers in the period between 1918 and 1924, and then made the sensible decision to give Thornycroft and Yarrow, the two premier builders of British destroyers, a relatively free hand in the creation of two prototypes, the Amazon and Ambuscade, for the type of comparative evaluation that could lead to the creation of a new standard type providing significant improvements over the ‘VW’ class in terms of higher speed, longer range and better habitability. Both ships were launched in 1926, and from them were evolved for the Royal Navy and Royal Canadian Navy the 11 ships of the ‘A’ class with an armament of four or five 4.7-in (119-mm) guns and quadruple mountings for their eight 21-in (533-mm) torpedo tubes, nine generally improved ships of the ‘B’ class, 14 ships of the ‘C/D’ class with a single 3-in (76-mm) anti-aircraft gun in place of the earlier ships’ two 2-pdr anti-aircraft guns, 18 ships of the ‘E/F’ class with provision for rapid conversion to the minelaying task, 18 generally improved ships of the ‘G/H’ class, and nine ships of the ‘I’ class with a tripod rather than pole main mast and quintuple rather than quadruple torpedo tube mountings.
The ‘I’ class destroyers were launched in 1936 and 1937, and at this stage the British halted further development along this course to produce the ‘Tribal’ class of an eventual 27 destroyers for the Royal Navy, Royal Australian Navy and Royal Canadian Navy. These ships reflected British concerns that their destroyers were being outstripped technically and operationally by the large destroyers being built in a number of other countries. As a result the ‘Tribal’ class destroyer was a highly capable although expensive warship with its gun armament doubled, its torpedo armament halved, and its anti-aircraft and anti-submarine armaments both significantly enhanced. The ‘Tribal’ class destroyers thus possessed a displacement between 1,870 and 1,925 tons, an armament in their baseline British form of eight 4.7-in (119-mm) guns in four twin turrets, four 2-pdr anti-aircraft guns in a quadruple mounting and four 21-in (533-mm) torpedo tubes, and a speed of 36 kt on the 44,000 hp (32805 kW) delivered to two shafts by geared steam turbines.
Though offering a very high degree of ability, the destroyers of the ‘Tribal’ class were too expensive for a similar level of overall capabilities to be repeated in later classes, which therefore dropped one 4.7-in (119-mm) twin turret, reintroduced two quintuple mountings for 21-in (533-mm) torpedoes, and reduced the number of boilers to just two so that a single funnel could be used. This scheme resulted in the nine and eight ships of the generally similar ‘J’ and ‘K’ classes launched in 1938 and 1939. The 16 ships of the equally sized ‘L’ and ‘M’ classes differed mainly in having dual-purpose guns in fully enclosed twin turrets, which reflected the growing British appreciation of the importance now possessed by aircraft in naval affairs, but perhaps inevitably the additional expense of this arrangement resulted in the eight ships of the ‘N’ class reverting to the earlier and simpler arrangement. Something of the nature of British destroyer operations in World War II can be gleaned from the career of the Kelly, a ‘K’ class unit. Although several destroyers achieved more than the Kelly and most had longer careers, the Kelly became extremely well known largely as a result of the ship’s apparent ‘knack’ of finding naval hot spots.
Into World War II
The origins of the closely related ‘J’ and ‘K’ class destroyers can be found in a general perception in naval circles that the ‘Tribal’ class was too large and too costly, and as a result the following ‘J’ and ‘K’ class destroyers were designed to a more austere pattern, with greater emphasis on torpedoes and less on guns. The two virtually identical classes were ordered in March and April 1937 for delivery by July 1939 in reflection of the British perception that war with Germany was now inevitable, and was made possible only by the inclusion of eight shipyards in the programme.
The lead ships of the two classes were ordered from Hawthorn Leslie on the Tyne and, as was customary at the time, both were named after notable commanders: the lead ship of the ‘J’ class was Jervis in honour of one of the 18th century’s ablest admirals, while the lead ship of the ‘K’ class was named Kelly in honour of Admiral of the Fleet Sir John Kelly, once commander-in-chief of the Atlantic Fleet, who had died in 1936. Captain Lord Louis Mountbatten commissioned the ship as leader of the 5th Destroyer Flotilla in August 1939, and the Kelly was still working up at Portland when World War II started at the beginning of the following month. One week later the Kelly dashed to Le Havre to pick up the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, bringing them back to Portsmouth, from which the ship steamed to Plymouth. A few days later the Kelly was involved in the effort of rescuing survivors of the carrier Courageous, which had been sunk. The Kelly was then detached to Scapa Flow in the Orkney Islands for two months before steaming to the Tyne for a short period of rest, which was interrupted by an emergency trip to a tanker that had been mined. However, as it went alongside the tanker, the Kelly hit another mine, the resulting explosion resulting in great damage aft. The ship regained the Tyne under tow and spent the next two months under repair. The Kelly was ready for sea once more in February 1940 and returned to Scapa Flow and, soon after this, she ran foul of the larger Gurkha in a snowstorm while escorting a convoy. Collision damage put the Kelly back into dock once more, in this instance on the Thames. The repairs had been completed in time for the destroyer to be involved in the closing days of the disastrous Norwegian campaign.
The Kelly was one of six destroyers ordered to Namsos for evacuation of part of the Anglo-French expeditionary force, but the ships were heavily dive-bombed on 3 May, both Afridi and the French Bison being sunk. Only a week later German forces moved into the Low Countries and France, and the Kelly was one of seven destroyers escorting the cruiser Birmingham when the latter was despatched to intercept a German minelaying force that had been reported west of the Kattegat. The Kelly and Kandahar were detached en route to investigate a U-boat sighting, but no contact was made and, joined by the older Bulldog, the destroyers steamed to rejoin the main force. Just after nightfall, a torpedo hit the Kelly’s port side right on the ship’s weakest point, the junction between two boiler spaces. Pouring steam, the Kelly immediately lost way with water pouring into the forward boiler room through a huge hole between the keel and the waterline. Even though the badly damaged hull was grinding badly in an uncomfortable sea, the ship’s longitudinal framing held: the Kelly settled to starboard but, with the bulkheads fore and aft of the boiler room shored thoroughly, seemed safe for the time being. The Bulldog came alongside and passed a tow line, and the Kelly then had to use emergency steering to reduce a tendency to yaw. Meanwhile the crew threw overboard all movable topweight.
Up to this time there had been no indication of the torpedo’s source (in fact the S31, one of four ‘E-boats’ operating in the area), but at about midnight another E-boat appeared out of the night as the Germans attempted to finish the damaged destroyer: the boat sideswiped the Bulldog and then screeched down the Kelly’s starboard side, which was nearly level with the water: the E-boat then disappeared astern, and not one shot had been fired. On the following day the Bulldog continued to tow the Kelly, which was now settling further into the water as there was no power to run the pumps. All non-essential members of the crew were taken off, and a tug then arrived to take over the tow. It was only after four days that the Kelly reached the Tyne, where the ship was taken over for repair by its builder.
It was in December 1940 before Mountbatten could recommission his ship. In the spring of 1941 the Kelly was once again based at Plymouth as leader of the 5th Destroyer Flotilla, which was ordered to Malta in April. The Mediterranean theatre was at this time is a state of very considerable turmoil: the Allies were on the verge of losing Greece as Royal Navy ships were evacuating some 50,000 troops to Crete, Axis forces were taking the islands of the Aegean, and German aircraft based in Sicily were pounding Malta. There was thus the very real possibility that the Allies would lose both Crete and Malta.
Smaller naval vessels were still able to operate from Valletta, the capital and main harbour of Malta, and these included the ships of the 5th Destroyer Flotilla that was part of Force K, the Malta-based naval element that attempted to intercept and sink Italian ships taking men, equipment and supplies from Italian ports to the Axis forces in North Africa. While returning from one of these night-time forays, on 2 May, the men of the Kelly witnessed the mining of a sister ship, Jersey, at the entrance to the Valletta’s Grand Harbour: the Jersey was brought in, but was declared a constructive total loss.
From the middle of May it became clear that the time had come for the German assault on Crete. British naval strength was sufficient to prevent a seaborne invasion, but the Germans instead undertook an audacious airborne assault that was to be reinforced by sea. The German airborne troops fought with a grim determination to hold their air-heads as the British committed every available warship to prevent the arrival of seaborne reinforcements. By night the British ships had great success in sinking large numbers of caiques loaded with German troops, but by day the German air force made life dangerous in the extreme: on 21 May Juno sank within two minutes of being hit by a large bomb; and on the next day Greyhound also succumbed, as too did the cruisers Fiji and Gloucester after they had exhausted all their anti-aircraft ammunition. On 23 May the Kelly reached the area from Malta in company with Kashmir, Kelvin, Kipling and Jackal. Together with the Kashmir and Kipling, the Kelly was ordered to undertake a night-time shelling of the German-held airfield at Maleme. The Kipling was prevented from participation in the attack by mechanical problems, but even so the effort began well with the interception and destruction of a pair of heavily laden caiques. The nights of this time of the year are short, however, and with most surviving British ships pulled back to Alexandria on the Egyptian coast, the Kelly and her sisters were out on a limb.
By dawn the ships were only just off Crete, but the ships evaded the first high-altitude level bombing attack. The level bombers were followed by altogether more dangerous dive-bombers: operating from nearby airfields on the Peloponnese, some 24 Ju 87 dive-bombers attacked the two destroyers. Both British vessels undertook violent evasive manoeuvres and tackled the attackers with a hail of fire from their machine-guns, 20-mm cannon, 2-pdr pom-poms and even 4.7-mm (119-mm) main guns as the Germans cleverly attacked from every direction. In only a very short time the Kashmir was foundering, its back broken, and the Germans now concentrated on the hapless Kelly. The ship was turning at full speed and heeling strongly in the process when a bomb struck just aft of amidships. The ship did not recover, rolling onto her beam ends and then capsizing to port: after 30 minutes, and with many of the crew still trapped, the ship slipped under the water.
Fortunately for the survivors, the Kipling now arrived and was able to pick up 219 men from the water. The ship was heavily attacked right through this exercise, but completed its task and headed for Alexandria, which it reached on the following day.