FAQ About Destroyers

Q: Who invented the destroyer class of ships?

A: The British inventor Robert Whitehead improved on the Austrian design of the self-propelled ocean torpedo in 1866. By the mid-1870s he was marketing it to the world’s navies. All of them began to develop the torpedo boat to carry the weapon within range of capital ships. To protect against torpedo boat attacks, designers began to work on the torpedo boat destroyer. Within a decade the two distinct designs merged and the term destroyer became common.

Q: Who perfected the destroyer?

A: The Japanese became the first world navy to prove that destroyers were a viable design during the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905. In 1928 Japan introduced the revolutionary  Fubuki class with 5-inch guns in fully enclosed, water-proof gun mounts, an event in world naval history that sobered the other nations into a destroyer arms race.

Q: How are destroyers named?

A: American destroyers are named after naval heroes. Japanese destroyers often named their ships after descriptive terms like types of clouds or waves. The British named their Tribal class after ethnic groups they had encountered around the world. The I-class ships, preceding the Tribals, were given names starting with I. The 50 American WW I destroyers given to Great Britain in 1940 were renamed after towns that existed in both the United Kingdom and United States. Germany named some of their destroyers after people and some just had numbers.

Q: How big were destroyers?

A: The early ocean-going British designs were around 200 feet long. By WW II, most nations’ destroyers ranged around 370 to 390 feet long with a width of nine to 10 feet. Weight ranged from 1,500 tons to 2,100 tons for most nation’s destroyers. By comparison, an American battleship was 608 feet long and weighed 29,000 tons.

Q:What was the first American destroyer?

A: USS Bainbridge (DD-1) was 245 feet long and weighed 420 tons. It was commissioned in 1902 and served through 1919. After commissioning, it served in the Pacific and Mediterranean during WW I. It never served in American waters territorial waters.

Q: How fast were destroyers?

A: The fastest destroyers could make 35knots or around 42 miles per hour if they were rushing. Most would cruise at speeds of 20 knots or less to conserve fuel. If escorting convoys, they would move forward only as fast as the slowest ships in the convoy. That meant they might roam the outskirts of the convoy at speed looking for submarines.

Q: How were destroyers armed?

A: The British armed their first destroyers in the 1880s with 6-pounder and 1-pounder cannons and torpedoes that were 18-inches in circumference.  By 1905, Japan was arming its destroyers with 12-poun der guns. By 1915, the British were using 4.7 inch guns and 21-inch torpedoes. The Americans were far behind in gun development and were using 3-inch guns and 18-inch torpedo tubes in 1915.

By World War II, most nations had settled on 5-inch guns that fired a 40-pound shell about 10 miles. The Americans were still using 21-inch  torpedoes while the Japanese were using the deadly 24-inch Type 93 that had a 1,000-pound warhead and an effective range of 11 miles. The Americans and British were also equipped with the hedgehog, an anti-submarine weapon that threw 24 65-pound shells ahead of the ship. The shells only exploded on contact with an enemy submarine’s steel hull, making it superior to the much heavier 300-pound depth charge.

Q: How were destroyers used?

A: Their original purpose was to attack larger enemy ships with torpedoes. In WW I, their purpose changed to escort battleships and cruisers, and then merchant convoys. In WW II that escort duty remained their purpose early in the war. By mid-war, bold destroyer commanders convinced their admirals to allow divisions of destroyers to become independent attacking forces. In the Atlantic, British and American destroyers teamed with aircraft carriers to form hunter-killer teams to find and destroy U-boats.

Q: How effective were destroyers in sinking submarines?

A: Not very in World War I. A U-Boat or its periscope had to be sighted before a destroyer could drop its depth charges. 

By World War II, sonar, radar, and High Frequency Directional Finding (Huff-Duff) that homed in on U-Boats’ radio transmissions back to Germany made finding the U-Boats easier. Aircraft flying from hunter-killer groups of aircraft carriers escorted by destroyers also spotted the shapes of submarines under the ocean’s surface. By the end of the war anti-submarine tactics used by destroyers and destroyer escorts had been so perfected that few submarines even set out on the ocean. One destroyer escort, the USS England, sank six Japanese submarines in 12 days.

Q: What were the best destroyers?

A: The United States started commissioning the Fletcher class in late 1942. In just three years 175 would be built. In 1944 the Allen M. Sumner class would come on-line,. The Sumners added one more gun than the Fletchers for six 5" guns in three gun mounts, compared to 5 guns in 5 gun mounts for the Fletchers.  The Japanese would build 19 copies each of the Kagero and Yugomo classes, similar in quality to the Fletchers, but their industrial capacity could not match the Americans. The British Tribal class was considered its best class. The German Type 34 and Type 36 destroyers suffered from mechanical breakdowns of their engines. They were terrible ships and never a factor during World War II.

Q: What are destroyer escorts?

A: Destroyer escorts were developed by the United States. They were smaller versions of destroyers designed to protect convoys and attack submarines. They had lower top speeds, smaller deck guns, but were equipped with plentiful depth charges and hedgehogs as their primary target was submarines.