Destroyers for Great Britain

By Dickey, John L. | Sea Classics, February 1999 | Go to article overview

Destroyers for Great Britain

Dickey, John L., Sea Classics

50 overage American WWI-era flush deck destroyers lend-leased to the Royal Navy became the first American-built warships to officially join the fight against the Axis.

Between 1917 and 1922 the American shipbuilding industry produced 273 flush deck, four-stack destroyers. Their construction became a high priority program when the ships were urgently needed to fight the Kaiser's U-boat fleet. Only 40 of the ships would be commissioned before World War One ended, 28 of them would serve in European waters during that conflict, but after the war ended the ships were kept very busy stationing themselves between ancient enemies as well as new antagonists like the Red and White Russians. They delivered relief supplies to starving refugees, returned soldiers to their homelands and generally helped to keep a recently won but fragile peace.

As always, Americans wanted their boys home and wanted no more of conflict. The Armed Forces were "drawn down" rapidly and many of the ships were sent into reserve -146 were deactivated in 1922 alone, some in commission for only a few months. These reserve destroyers in Philadelphia and San Diego soon became known as "Red Lead Rows" since red lead was then the best protective coating for metal available. Money was light and idealism was high, with world leaders convinced that wars could be eliminated from the human condition by arms limitation. Treaties designed to preserve world peace sent 93 of the flush deck destroyers to the scrap heap, along with hundreds of older ships.

The technology of warfare changed considerably between the time the ships were designed and the time WWI ended, and the changes in the next 20 years were even more dramatic. In 1917 the airplane was hardly given any serious consideration. Antiaircraft weapons for the ships being built consisted of .30-cal. Lewis machine guns and one or two 3in./.23-cal. dual purpose guns. When the four-stackers arrived in European waters they got their first depth charges from the Royal Navy since that weapon had not been produced in the US Detection of submarines in 1917 was still primarily dependent upon good lookouts. Underwater sound detection was in its infancy and the equipment available resembled little more than a stethoscope suspended beneath the keel of a ship. When the ships were reactivated in 1939, most of those laid up in 1922 still had the WWI equipment installed and installation of sonar equipment became a top priority. Even those destroyers on active duty were not all equipped with this modern equipment. The Asiatic Fleet destroyers did not get sonar until 1940-41. Interior communications was limited to voice tubes in 1917, and this was still the primary system in most flush deckers when they recommissioned in 1939. These ships were about the last ones built using direct current for ship's service power, lighting, etc. Their total generating capacity was only 75 KW. This was increased to 120 KW by the 1930s, but even this was barely enough by 1940. As built, they had only the magnetic compass to guide them, the gyro not entering service in any numbers until the early-1920s (by 1923 only about one in three ships had gyros). The original radio installation had a reliable range of about 300 miles. By the end of WWII ships regularly communicated over five times that distance.

Beginning in 1932, the outgoing Hoover Administration began a modest naval shipbuilding program, primarily to simulate the nation's badly damaged economic system. President Roosevelt expanded the program somewhat, realizing that the Navy had been allowed to deteriorate during the years since the end of "The War To End All Wars." New technology and new materials were available, but the military had not yet benefited from the advances and new ships were needed to replace those left over from WWI. Soon the four-stackers were unofficially considered "second line" resources and many were converted to other uses - DMs (Light Minelayers), AVDs (Seaplane Tenders), AVPs (High Speed Transports) and DMSs (High Speed Minesweepers). …

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