The destroyer's development always remained linked to what would remain, until very recently, its chief weapon system - the torpedo. A retired Austrian naval captain presented designs for an unmanned explosive boat in the early 1860's, and by the end of the decade naval engineer Robert Whitehead had perfected a self-propelled torpedo. So-called spar torpedo boats, with an explosive charge tipping a long pole extending from the bow, had come into use during the 1860's.
Union naval hero W.B.Cushing used one to sink the Confederate ironclad Albemarle, while the Confederate "submarine torpedo boat" Hunley sent the Union corvette Housatonic to the bottom. Spar torpedoes often proved as hazardous to the attacker as the target. Throughout the 1870's several navies built special-purpose torpedo boats, with spar torpedoes and a towed version - less dangerous in every respect. These primitive delivery systems soon gave way to today's familiar torpedo tube. As torpedo tubes became more prevalent, the small, cheap warships posed a tremendous threat to the expensive ironclad battleships at the core of most fleets. The British Royal Navy tried to respond with the "torpedo-boat catcher" Rattlesnake, which failed to catch any torpedo boats during her trials. Refinements led to the "torpedo-boat destroyer," a torpedo boat enlarged to mount a respectable gun armament. The Royal Navy built the first vessels of this type, and other nations followed. These early destroyers only displaced 200 to 300 tons, and were designed simply to counter enemy torpedo boats. They could not stand heavy seas or rough weather, but since their prey could not do so either, this was not considered a serious problem.
In 1898, a new German torpedo boat destroyer type, the S-90, changed the destroyer concept radically. The S-90's designers sacrificed some of the speed of early types for a slightly larger and substantially more rugged hull. Unlike her contemporaries, S-90 could accompany the fleet on the high seas. The Royal Navy quickly recognized the S-90's potential - in fact, faster than her owners did - and ordered the River class, the first true destroyers. The River class - half again as large as previous boats - could only make 25 knots compared to the 29 or 30 of most torpedo boats. However, their greater size and raised forecastle allowed them to maintain that speed in seas that would sink a tiny torpedo boat.
Other nations copied the concept, though many designs soon managed to maintain high speeds on the larger hull. Armament became fairly standardized around the world, with three to five guns in the three-inch to four-inch range plus two to four torpedo tubes. By the time the First World War broke out in August, 1914, the destroyer had become an integral part of the battle fleet, charged with protecting the mighty dreadnoughts from enemy torpedo attack and launching their own torpedoes at the enemy battle line. The Great War also brought a new task to the destroyer, one to become an integral part of her wartime duties up to the present day. A new kind of torpedo boat made its presence known when the German submarine U-21 sank the British cruiser Pathfinder on 5 September 1914. Seventeen days later the U-9 sent three British armored cruisers to the bottom of the North Sea. Destroyers at first could only attempt to ram submarines or destroy them with gunfire, but since the early submarine made its attacks while surfaced there was a good chance of success with these methods. As submarines became more sophisticated, destroyer weaponry had to keep pace.
The destroyer truly became the "maid of all work" during the First World War. Naval histories written in the years immediately after the war - whether in English, German, Italian, Russian or French - invariably put the word "precious" in front of "destroyers." Destroyers laid and swept mines, protected merchant shipping and warships from submarines, hunted enemy airships, attacked enemy merchant shipping, shelled enemy land targets and maintained their vital torpedo attack and defense roles in the battle fleet. The destroyer once again grew larger. From the 550-ton British River class, most standard destroyers - the Austrian Tatras, German V25s, British Tribals or Italian Audaces - all weighed in between 800 and 850 tons. Wartime experience called for bigger boats, with heavier gun and torpedo armaments, more rugged construction and greater range.
The Imperial Russian Navy, helped by the bitter experience of the 1904-1905 Russo-Japanese War, led the way in this destroyer revolution. The Novik, launched in 1911, could hit 38 knots and carried four four-inch guns and eight torpedo tubes. Improved versions boasted as many as 12 tubes. By the end of the war Britain was building dozens of 1,500-ton W-class destroyers with four guns and six torpedo tubes, while the German S-113 class topped 2,000 tons with four 5.9-inch guns (larger and more heavily-armed than some cruisers). The war also brought new types of equipment to destroyers, requiring more space and crew to handle them. Depth charges and hydrophones, known to Americans as sonar, gave the destroyer a means of detecting submerged submarines and attacking them. While the destroyer remained the chief defense of the battle fleet against submarines, naval planners realized that the destroyer's high speed and slender shape did not lend themselves to the anti-submarine struggle. Specialized escorts which sacrificed speed for longer range and greater manueverability took over convoy defenses.
After the war, most naval construction ground to a halt, though both Italy and Japan continued their wartime building programs. New destroyer construction halted in the United States for a decade and a half. With hundreds of war-built "flush-deck" destroyers laid up in reserve status, the U.S. Congress was understandably reluctant to spend money for new ones. Except for the old American flush-deckers and a handful of Japanese and Italian boats, almost all destroyers which saw action in World War Two were built after the First World War. The hard service conditions of the Great War wore out the small destroyers, and they went to the scrap heap with all use wrung out of them. In 1927, the Japanese took the next great leap forward in destroyer capability, launching the Fubuki class, known as the Special Type destroyers. The Fubuki carried six five-inch guns in three twin turrets, as opposed to the single, open mounts used on destroyers up to that time. The guns could elevate to 75 degrees, making them usable against aircraft as well as ships. The big (2,300-ton) destroyers also carried nine 24-inch torpedo tubes, burned oil fuel and could make 38 knots when new and still maintain 34 knots 15 years later. The massive Japanese 24-inch torpedo, a closely-guarded state secret, carried a warhead half again as large as that tipping the 21-inch torpedoes standard in the American, British, Italian and German navies. In 1933 the Japanese introduced the oxygen-fueled Type 93 "Long Lance" torpedo, with a speed of 49 knots and a maximum range of 22,000 yards, three times that of American torpedoes.
In Europe destroyer construction went in two opposite directions, sparked by the naval limitation treaties of the 1920's and 1930's. The French, impressed by the German S-113 (which they seized as a war reparation), built a series of large "super-destroyers." These were to continue the original destroyer concept and serve as a "destroyer of destroyers." By the late 1930's this concept culminated in the Mogador class - over 4,000 tons displacement, with eight 5.5-inch guns in twin turrets and ten torpedo tubes. They were more powerful, though less sturdy, than the British Arethusa-class light cruisers built at about the same time (six six-inch guns, six torpedo tubes, 6,700 tons). During World War Two American and British reports always called the giant French destroyers "light cruisers."
The arms treaties put no limits on warships of 600 tons or smaller, and first Italy and then others built ships to take advantage of this loophole. Through some creative accounting the boats could be made somewhat larger than that. These torpedo boats in practice proved dangerously overloaded (a Japanese torpedo boat capsized in a gale in 1934) and far less capable than true destroyers. Italian designers saved weight in the Spica class, for example, by reverting to a 17.7-inch torpedo.
By the time the last of the American flush-decked destroyers slid into the water they were already obsolete, but new vessels did not appear until the mid-1930's. The London Naval Treaty of 1930 limited destroyers to 1,500 tons, and the first new American destroyer classes held to this limit, climbing only slightly when the size limit on individual destroyers rose to 3,000 tons. American destroyer designs emphasized long range, looking toward a future war with the Japanese across the vast stretches of the Pacific Ocean. The pre-war pattern destroyers mounted five five-inch guns. The torpedo battery steadily rose from eight to 12 to 16 tubes. By 1939 the U.S. Navy entered large-scale production of new destroyers, holding to a very similar design but with 10 torpedo tubes. When war returned in 1939, the destroyer had assumed a crucial role in all navies as a flexible, multi-purpose warship. The first action involving destroyers came on 3 September, two days after the German attack on Poland, with the Polish destroyer Wicher damaging the German Leberecht Maass. Within weeks destroyers had carried out a bewildering array of missions. German destroyers laid mines and hunted enemy merchant shipping. British destroyers hunted German submarines and returning passenger liners, escorted the battle fleet and transported troops across the English Channel. American destroyers helped form neutrality patrols in the Atlantic, quietly helping the British spot German ships. The war expanded to the Mediterranean Sea in June, 1940 when Italy joined Germany in the struggle against Britain and France, and destroyers fought vicious battles in the enclosed sea against submarines and against one another.
No single commander built a greater reputation for courage and daring than Italian Commander Francesco Mimbelli of the torpedo boat Lupo. In May, 1941, 20 motor sailing craft ventured from Greece to Crete with the Lupo as their lone escort. Three British cruisers and four destroyers set upon the small convoy. Mimbelli and his tiny boat charged the British squadron, seeking close range to launch their small torpedoes. The British scattered under the ferocious attack, and most of the convoy managed to escape. Later that year Lupo fought another impossible battle against two British cruisers and two destroyers, but this time could not save her convoy. Finally in 1942 she went down after a furious fight, a lone wolf facing four British destroyers.
American destroyers joined the war well before the formal declaration of war. As German submarines continued their attacks on British shipping, the U.S. Navy took a more and more active role in helping detect them. In July, 1941, U.S. Marines occupied Iceland. In September President Franklin Roosevelt issued a "shoot on sight" order for German submarines, and a month later the U.S. Navy began escorting convoys well into the war zone. A German submarine attacked the destroyer Greer in September, and in October another sank the American destroyer Reuben James with the loss of 115 American sailors. The Second World War became truly global with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December, 1941. American and Japanese destroyers undertook the same missions as their European counterparts, made both more and less difficult by the vastness of the Pacific.
The Japanese destroyer Hayate became the first enemy warship sunk by American forces in World War Two during a bombardment of Wake Island. U.S. Marine gunners hit her with three salvoes and the Hayate exploded, taking all 168 crewmen down with her. About an hour later a Marine fighter plane hit the Japanese destroyer Kisaragi's depth charge racks, causing another massive explosion which wiped out the destroyer and all 150 of her crew. Destroyer combat did not always prove that deadly, but the intense involvement of destroyers in all types of naval action caused severe losses. The Imperial Japanese Navy sent over 120 destroyers into action during the war; the IJN finished the war with 11 of them. The small warships could not take nearly as much punishment as a cruiser or battleship, since destroyers had no armor, and their crews suffered accordingly. That became clear when Japanese and Allied destroyers tangled among the Indonesian archipelago in the opening weeks of the war. The Japanese used their destroyers to escort invasion and bombardment forces, and as fast transports to carry assault troops. The American, British, Dutch and Australian defenders sent out their own outnumbered warships to intercept.
The four elderly "flush-decked" destroyers of the U.S. Asiatic Fleet gave a good account of themselves. But the fighting in Indonesia stressed the importance of well-trained crews and aggressive captains. The poorly-trained Dutch crews were no match for the sharply-honed Japanese destroyermen, especially in night actions. The IJN had prepared for years to fight at night, carefully selecting sharp-eyed lookouts and gunners and training hard in the unforgiving waters of the North Pacific. The training paid off as the crack Japanese destroyer flotillas finished off the Allied East Indies fleet with little help from their larger warships. Japanese tactics were built around their weapons. Expecting to fight while outnumbered, the Japanese sought night action and carefully avoided daylight battles. Their outstanding Long Lance torpedo gave them an enormous range advantage. The preferred tactic was to launch dozens of the big torpedoes in a huge salvo at the start of the battle, preferably before the enemy spotted the Japanese. In the confusion which was sure to follow, the Japanese would dash in among the enemy and finish him off. That tactic worked well at the Java Sea, the largest engagement in Indonesian waters, but proved less useful later in the war. While the Long Lance could travel over 12 miles, the odds of hitting something at that distance were miniscule. The target ships almost always had time to spot the approaching shoal of torpedoes and avoid them. All torpedo salvo really accomplished was to alert the enemy to the Japanese attack.
In the late summer of 1942 American Marines landed on Guadalcanal, starting a bloody struggle for control of the strategic Solomon Islands. In the Solomons, Japanese and American sailors proved themselves the equal of their countries' naval heroes of 1904 and 1812. Immediately after he heard the news of the American landings, Japanese Vice Admiral Gunichi Mikawa gathered every available warship at Rabaul, the Japanese base at the northern end of the Solomons chain. The Japanese admiral headed out with seven cruisers and one lone destroyer - all others were out on convoy escort operations. Off Savo Island they caught the Allied covering force unprepared and sank three American and one Australian heavy cruisers without loss to themselves. But in repeated night actions in the waters of "Ironbottom Sound" the Americans emerged victorious. Energetic and inventive Japanese admirals like Mikawa and Raizo "Tenacious" Tanaka found their match in American destroyer leaders Frederick Moosbrugger and Arleigh "31-Knot" Burke. The Solomons marked the high point for surface warfare in the Pacific theater, but a new type of naval battle decided the war. After the battles of the Coral Sea and Midway in 1942, the aircraft carrier emerged as the backbone of the modern navy. Destroyers protected the carriers from enemy submarines and air attack. They also took on the dangerous task of acting as "plane guard," picking up downed fliers at the risk of being run down by the giant carriers. In October, 1944, American destroyermen found that carriers also had to be protected from enemy surface attack. Off the island of Samar in the Phillipines, a large force of Japanese battleships and cruisers successfully eluded American air attacks and surprised an American escort carrier group. The group commander ordered his three destroyers and one destroyer escort to charge the oncoming Japanese while the carriers tried to hide in a rain squall. Without hesitation, the Americans entered the fray, trying to keep their boats between the giant Japanese warships to hamper enemy fire. Somehow the four small ships kept the Japanese busy for over an hour. The destroyer Hoel traded gunfire with the battleship Kongo, then fired her torpedoes at the pink-painted cruiser Haguro, driving her out of the battle. Next the small Fletcher-class boat took on the cruiser Chikuma, the Japanese flagship at Savo Island. Finally the cruiser Tone finished off the destroyer and then pulled away. Renewed air attacks and the threat of bigger American ships caused the Japanese to withdraw.
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By the end of the war, the destroyer had grown once again. Anti-aircraft defense became far more important, and both Japanese and American destroyers swapped some of their main guns for more light anti-aircraft guns (the Royal Navy preferred to sacrifice torpedo tubes and keep the gun armament). Radar sets first sprouted on American warships in 1940, and by the end of the war became essential equipment. Radar operators at first had specialized radar rooms, which gave way to Combat Information Centers where all sorts of data could be gathered and interpreted. The U.S. Navy converted a number of destroyers to "radar pickets," with extensive radar equipment and communications gear to guide friendly fighter planes to their targets. The standard American destroyer of 1945, the Gearing class, displaced 3,500 tons and carried six five-inch guns in twin turrets plus ten torpedo tubes. The Gearings remained in service until the early 1970's, though heavily modernized. A handful are still operated by foreign fleets.
A small, inexpensive destroyer known as the destroyer escort also appeared during the course of the war. With minimal armament but extensive range and anti-submarine equipment, she was perfectly suited to guard convoys. Simple construction allowed them to be built in large numbers. The Royal Navy began the trend with its Hunt class, and the U.S. Navy built hundreds of its equivalent. The Japanese launched their own version, and the Italians built three dozen of a similar vessel, though they continued to call them torpedo boats. In the decades following the Second World War, the destroyer became even more important to the world's navies. No new battleships were laid down after the war, and very few cruisers. The destroyer took over all surface ship roles, and grew even larger to accomodate the weapons and personnel this required. The U.S. Navy has not launched a true cruiser since the early 1970's; only the Soviet Union has done so in the last 20 years. The American Spruance class, the backbone of the fleet in the last decades of the Cold War, displaces more than twice what a Gearing did. Their Soviet / Russian equivalent, the Sovremmenny class, is even larger. From a specialized torpedo attack and defense vessel, the destroyer has become a general-purpose warship, taking over every surface role.