Super Destroyers

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Super Destroyers – From the Torpedo Boat Era to the Dominant Surface Warship of Today. By Robert Stern, Seaforth Publishing Barnsley 2024.

Reviewed by John Mortimer

Genesis of this book draws upon the author’s previous book on naval disarmament treaties and their impact on various ship types, as well as the booklet “Super Destroyers” published by Conway’s in 1978.

Introductory chapters address: Steam launches, torpedo boats and competing ideas 1876 -1885; Torpedo boat destroyers and their evolution towards flotilla leaders 1884-1915; The test of battle 1917; and The immediate precursors 1917-1918. These chapters detail the introduction of technological  features relevant to the evolution of destroyers of the First World War, their changing roles, armament and propulsion developments, their growth in size and overall performance. The author also comments on particular problems identified in various designs and the influence of developments in other navies. Coverage concentrates on the major European navies, the United States and Japan. Mention is also made to some selected ships because of their special or novel characteristics.

There are numerous candidates for the major influence on development of super destroyers, however, the author concludes that: “the truest precursors of the first super destroyers of the 1920s were the 2060-ton ships of the SMS S113 and V116 classes.” Only one ship of each class was built by Germany.

The main thrust of Super Destroyers occurs in the discussion of developments during the First World War, the Inter-war years – especially  the period of the naval armament treaties and their impact on the contracting navies in their development of large destroyers, their evolving size and capabilities. The post treaty period and experience during the Second World War witnessed further growth in the size and capability of what would become multi-role or highly specialised ships. The author’s analysis of these periods and influences is well researched and is evidenced by his extensive use of sources reflected in numerous footnotes.

Ships the author describes as “standard destroyers” are also included. This fosters comparisons between larger ships and the more numerous ships of destroyer class.  Illustrative of standard destroyers are the Royal Navy ships which evolved from the V and W class and were built up to and including the Second World War. One is tempted to compare the large Tribal class with the subsequent  J to M class and subsequent classes of the Royal Navy destroyers. While the Tribal class are seen as super destroyers as they were large and relatively heavily armed for surface warfare, they initially were not well armed to meet the air and submarine threats. This was the case in most navies, so the Tribal class were not exceptional in this respect. Nor were the other “standard destroyers.”

The early stages of the Second World War found virtually all navies in the conflict rapidly re-assessing their needs for enhanced range, endurance, seakeeping, crew size, and additional power requirements to support the needs of communications, command and control, and, increased sensor, weapons and ammunition requirements. The war witnessed a major and rapid growth in technological developments which significantly impacted ship size and design.

The Second World War witnessed a major growth in shipbuilding, especially in the UK, USA and Canada, and to a lesser extent in Australia. These construction programs included super destroyers, “standard destroyers”, frigates, sloops and corvettes and recognised the varying strategic needs of the participating countries and their industrial capacities. These programs identified that trade-offs were required in terms of capability and vessel numbers recognising the differing needs of operations in high and lower threat areas, the nature of threat likely to be encountered and its geographic spread. Not all tasks required a highly capable destroyer. In this respect the Battle of the Atlantic was not usually carried by super destroyers or indeed “standard destroyers”, but rather by modified destroyers built during the First World War or the 1930s with enhancements to their range, ASW weapon carriage, radars, sonars, high frequency direction finding, communications etc. These ships were complemented by smaller sloops, frigates and corvettes, which were largely designed for the protection of shipping role. However, as ship numbers improved during the Battle of the Atlantic ‘standard destroyers” were occasionally engaged in providing direct support to the escort group.

The chapter titled “Building from experience 1942-1945” notes that each of the combatant navies built on their wartime experience that took advantage of hard earned lessons of the war. Not all of them had the capability to turn those plans into ships in a timely fashion. This was particularly the case for Italy and to a lesser extent Japan and Germany.  The evolution of the Japanese Shimakaze and Akizuki is examined in some detail, even though both classes had their origins before 1939. Development of the Royal Navy’s Battle and Daring class destroyers is also assessed in some detail. Analysis of the United States approach is covered under the title of “Super Fletchers” referring to the Gearing and Sumner class destroyers.

A concluding chapter titled “A type for the future:1946-” takes a very broad approach in an attempt to bring the discussion up to date. The author starts with a brief synopsis of the major powers at the end of World War 2 and highlights the economic and other challenges facing Great Britain and France which drove them from the top tier of world naval powers. This resulted in the United States and the Soviet Union as the two remaining global great powers, before the economic burden drove Russia to be dropped from the top rank. The author then concludes that this evolution opened the door for new economic players to become major naval powers, specifically China, and perhaps India.

The concluding chapter then turns its attention to naval destroyers and observes the rapid obsolescence of ships that had fought the Second World War due to the increasing capability of aircraft and submarines. It concludes that the Second World War showed that bombs and torpedoes far outweighed shells fired from guns as the cause of damage, and that submarines and aircraft were the most efficient carriers of these weapons. Hence post war warship disposals concentrated on the larger gun armed ships, such as battleships and cruisers because their roles were being taken over by increasingly sophisticated missile armed multi-role destroyers, some of which were classified as frigates, such as in the US. It then goes on to explore how the big destroyer evolved into the contemporary all purpose warship that has become the dominant surface combatant in the world’s navies.

Evolution of the super destroyer represents a quantum leap in the range at which an adversary can be engaged. Early torpedo boats, gunboats and the destroyers of the First World War were limited usually to little more than two kilometres, because of the reliability and range of their weapons, limited detection ranges and the impact of seakeeping on platform stability. These ranges progressively increased through the Second World War and into the early post war period. Development of precision guided weapons in the 1950s through to the 1970s witnessed early surface to air, surface to surface and anti submarine missiles which, coupled with improvements in surveillance capability, extended the range at which adversary forces could be engaged. These developments have flowed through to the current day where many destroyers now have the ability to engage adversary platforms at extended ranges – over 160 kilometres for Standard 2 anti-air missiles, 200 kilometres for the Norwegian Naval Strike Missile and over 2,500 kilometres for Tomahawk land strike missile. Embarked helicopters also provide an ability to perform strike, or target strike and anti-submarine operations at arm’s length from the parent ship. The modern multi-role destroyer can contribute both in the maritime environment with air, surface and sub-surface attack, and can also provide air defence and land strike in support of the land battle. As such the modern destroyer is now a much more flexible and valuable asset for overall defence purposes.

Developing technologies, such as remotely operated vehicles and lasers, offer some prospect of extending multi-role destroyer capabilities. However these technologies are still to be proven and are in early stages of development. To some extent this is surprising since the Jindivik pilotless target aircraft and Ikara anti-submarine missile were developed some 60 or more years ago, as was the US DASH remotely controlled drone.

Other concepts which should be addressed in evolving surface combatant capability are the Japanese approach to helicopter carrying destroyers (DDH) which can operate helicopters in large numbers as well as strike and air defence aircraft. This would resolve the limitations of a surface combatant force comprising only ships able to carry a single medium size helicopter. The arsenal ship being examined by South Korea and Japan is also worthy serious consideration, given the current inability to replenish vertical launch systems at sea.

There are a few errors in the book, but these do not detract from the overall excellence of the publication. A photograph of the first HMAS Swan suggests it is from the British “Acheron” class, but she was a specific design developed to meet Australia’s needs and was known as a “River” class torpedo boat destroyer.  The Australian ships were differently armed, longer and had greater range than the “Acheron” class. Also the photograph of USS Stoddert is captioned as being in Sydney, but the photo seems to be in Port Phillip Bay, where Allan Green did most of his photography.

Super Destroyers is a well researched and written book. The text is complemented with a series of ship photographs which are of very high quality. Australian ships are well represented in the text and photographically. Many of the photographs are from the Allan Green collection held by the State Library of Victoria. This book is highly recommended.

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