British Destroyers and Frigates: The Second World War and After

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British Destroyers and Frigates: The Second World War and After. By Norman Friedman. Seaforth Publications, Barnsley, 2006, paperback reprint 2017.
Reviewed by Tim Coyle

‘BRITISH DESTROYERS AND FRIGATES’ was first published in 2006 and this 2017 Seaforth Publications paperback edition offers the warship design and naval historian community an opportunity to renew their focus on these handsome and dashing ships. Those familiar with Norman Friedman’s meticulous research and historical overviews which characterise his formidable naval literature output will find the British destroyers and frigates narrative well served.

The book’s bibliography shows that British destroyers and frigates have been well covered in past years; however Friedman reinvigorates the topic through primary source ship covers, most of which were unpublished, from the National Maritime Museum.

Friedman begins his destroyer coverage with the famous Tribal class of the mid-1930s. The book’s chronology follows the development of British destroyers through World War II, examining the war emergency classes and the later-war Battle class culminating in the post-war DARING class, the last ‘conventional’ British destroyers. Post-war, with the rise of the Soviet sub-surface threat, Commonwealth navies (the RN, RAN and RCN) converted many of their war emergency destroyers to anti-submarine frigates while the RN laid down missile-armed Fleet Aircraft Direction Escorts, Type 81 Tribal class General Purpose Frigates and the ‘post carrier generation’ destroyers of the County and Type 42. The last class addressed in the book is the Type 45 DARING of the early 2000s.

Entwined in the destroyer narrative are the sagas of the sloops, the HUNT class escort destroyers and the hundreds of World War II ocean escort frigates and corvettes. The pre-war sloops – slower and less well-armed than destroyers but more suited to patrol and escort – had their genesis in the optimistic but later failed 1930 London Conference which limited destroyers numbers in the major navies. The sloops comprised the GRIMSBY and BLACK SWAN classes with the appellation ‘frigate’ commencing with the River class followed by the Loch and Bay classes. The famous Flower class and the Castle class were classed as corvettes.

In his Introduction Friedman describes how the destroyer’s role changed from its 1930s concept. The strategic RN naval thinking of the early 1930s was that the fleet was likely to steam a considerable distance before engaging an enemy fleet (such as the ‘main fleet to Singapore’ so beloved of British strategists and the interwar Australian Government). In such a scenario destroyers would have both a main battle role and a screening role en-route – in the latter case against submarines and air and mine threats. All destroyers had torpedoes and a mass torpedo attack could be severely disruptive even if they all missed (viz. Jellicoe’s ‘turn away’ at Jutland).

The RN saw an anti-submarine panacea in ASDIC (latterly Sonar) and began equipping destroyers with this equipment in 1931 primarily to support the screening role. It took the refinement of ASDIC, the development of anti-submarine tactics and the inception of wartime ocean escorts, formed into hunter/killer’ groups supported by organic airpower, to bring the U-boats to heel (but arguably not entirely defeated).

The optimistic British ‘10 year rule’ (no war for ten years) defence policy was discarded following the collapse of the Geneva Disarmament Conference in 1932. The naval staff rushed to rethink ship characteristics. The Tribal class were initially regarded as small cruisers and Friedman comments that the RAN’s choice of three Tribal class destroyers were to supplement its three LEANDER class light cruisers. But many thought that the Tribals were not ‘real’ destroyers – more akin to light cruisers – and the Staff attempted to define a ‘true’ destroyer for the emerging maritime threats. Friedman begins Chapter Three with: ‘The Tribals were not really destroyers. What sort of true destroyers, if any, should succeed them?’ The Staff considered a multi-role destroyer, able to conduct both fleet defence and torpedo attack, to be contradictory and moved that two distinct destroyer types should be developed: large gun types and smaller torpedo carriers. This contradiction was never totally resolved and the British continued building larger destroyers offering both heavier gun batteries and powerful torpedo armaments. This led to the large War Emergency Destroyer program. However the exigencies of war gave rise to a modified ‘two tier’ destroyer concept in the HUNT class, of small destroyers to supplement the larger ships, having the advantage of cheapness and faster construction.

At the same time as the London Conference the RN introduced the sloop as a convoy escort to replace destroyers. This required vessels with good sea-keeping and endurance, able to keep up with a ‘fast’ 12 knot convoy and a gun to deal with surfaced submarines, enemy raiders or a small warship, a submarine detection and engagement capability and good habitability in tropical conditions.

The exponential demand for escorts with the onset of war saw the RN turning to cheap and simple hulls with reciprocating engines; characteristics of trawlers and whale catchers. Thus arrived the over 250 Flower class corvettes to be manned by ‘hostilities only’ crews of the RNVR and RCNVR. The stop-gap Flowers were supplemented and then overtaken by the new frigates of the River, Loch and Bay classes fitted with more capable ASDIC and Squid mortars. Many of these frigates continued in post-war service in home and foreign navies.

Apart from the post-war destroyer conversions to anti-submarine frigates, the new generation destroyer required large missile batteries and helicopter capabilities with consequent growth in size. However, as the RN’s presence shrank from ‘east of Suez’ so destroyer numbers declined.
As told by Friedman the destroyer saga from 1936 to the early 2000s is complex, exhibiting the constant battle between changing strategic challenges, staff requirements and available resources. The book is well illustrated and, as is usual in a Friedman warship design history, complemented by the peerless ship plans of A D Baker III. British Destroyers and Frigates is a must for the warship design enthusiast and historian.

J E McDonnell was a World War II RAN veteran, serving mainly in destroyers. He became a best-selling naval fiction author in the 1950s and 60s. One of his most popular books was ‘Gimme the Boats’, of life aboard a wartime destroyer. The first line of the book is: ‘A destroyer is a beautiful brute of a ship …’. Those who served in destroyers or even viewed them from afar will agree after reading this book.

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