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In naval terminology, a destroyer is a fast and maneuverable yet long-endurance warship intended to escort larger vessels in a fleet, convoy or battle group and defend them against smaller, short-range but powerful attackers (originally torpedo boats, later submarines and aircraft).

Before World War II, destroyers were light vessels without the endurance for unattended ocean operations; typically a number of destroyers and a single destroyer tender operated together. During and after the war, larger and more powerful destroyers capable of independent operation were built, particularly as cruisers ceased to be used in the 1950s and 60s.

At the dawn of the 21st Century, destroyers are the heaviest surface combatant ships in general use, with only four nations (the United States, Russia, France and Peru) operating the heavier class cruisers and none operating battleships or true battlecruisers. Modern destroyers, also known as guided missile destroyers, are equivalent in tonnage but vastly superior in firepower to cruisers of the World War II era, capable of carrying nuclear missiles.

Early history

The emergence and development of the destroyer, up until World War II, was related to the invention of the self-propelled torpedo in the 1860s. A navy now had the potential to destroy a superior enemy battle fleet using steam launches to drop torpedoes. Fast boats armed with torpedoes were built and called torpedo boats. By the 1880s, these had evolved into small ships of 50-100 tons, fast enough to evade enemy picket boats.

At first, the danger to a battle fleet was considered only to exist when at anchor, but as faster and longer range torpedoes were developed, the threat extended to cruising at sea. In response to this new threat more heavily-gunned picket boats called "catchers" were built which were used to escort the battle fleet at sea. They needed the same seaworthiness and endurance, and as they necessarily became larger, they became officially designated "torpedo boat destroyers", soon contracted to destroyer in English. The anti-torpedo boat origin of this type of ship is retained in its name in other languages, including French (contre-torpilleur), Italian (cacciatorpediniere), Portuguese (contratorpedeiro), Polish (kontrtorpedowiec), Czech (torpédoborec), Greek (antitorpiliko,αντιτορπιλικό) and so on.

Once destroyers became more than just catchers guarding an anchorage, it was realized that they were also ideal to take over the role of torpedo boats themselves, so they were fitted with torpedo tubes as well as guns. At that time, and even into World War I, the only function of destroyers was to protect their own battle fleet from enemy torpedo attacks and to make such attacks on the battleships of the enemy. The task of escorting merchant convoys was still in the future.

An important development came in 1884 with HMS Swift, a large torpedo boat with six 47 mm quick-firing guns and three torpedo tubes. While still not fast enough to engage torpedo boats reliably, she at least had the armament to deal with them.

The Japanese Kotaka (Falcon) of 1885 was "the forerunner of torpedo boat destroyers that appeared a decade later". Designed to Japanese specifications and ordered from the London Yarrow shipyards in 1885, she was transported in parts to Japan, where she was assembled and launched in 1887. She was armed with four 1-pounder (37 mm) quick-firing guns and six torpedo tubes, reached 19 knots (35 km/h), and at 203 tons, was the largest torpedo boat yet. In her trials in 1889, Kotaka demonstrated that she could go beyond a role of coastal defense, and was capable of following larger ships on the high seas. The Yarrow shipyards, builder of the parts for the Kotaka, "considered Japan to have effectively invented the destroyer".

Almost immediately after the order of Kotaka was placed, Fernando Villaamil, second officer of the Ministry of the Navy of Spain where he was put in charge of developing the concept of a new ship designed to combat torpedo boats, placed an order for a large torpedo gunboat in November 1885, with the British builder James and George Thompson, of Clydebankmarker, not far from where the Yarrow shipyards would move from London twenty years later. The ship, named Destructor (literally Destroyer), was laid down at the end of the year, launched in 1886, and commissioned in 1887. Her displacement was 380 tons, and she was armed with one 90 mm Hontoriamarker guns, four 57 mm Nordenfelt guns, two 37 mm Hotchkiss cannon and 3 Schwarzkopf torpedo tubes. Her complement was 60 men. In terms of gunnery, speed (22.5 knots in trials) and dimensions, the specific design to chase torpedo boats and her high seas capabilities, Destructor is widely considered the first torpedo-boat destroyer ever built.

The Spanish Destructor is thought to have influenced the designation and concept of later destroyers developed by the British Navy.

Shortly afterwards, Britain began experiments with the Rattlesnake class 'torpedo boat catcher', a class of 17 large torpedo boats - the first precursors of destroyers to be built as a class, rather than as single ships. On tests, Rattlesnake proved to be marginally faster than torpedo boats, but not fast enough to be decisive.

HMS Havock (1893)

The first ships to bear the formal designation "Torpedo boat destroyer" (TBD) were the Daring class of two ships and Havock class of two ships of the Royal Navy, developed in 1892 under the newly appointed Third Sea Lord Rear Admiral "Jackie" Fisher. The Daring and Decoy were ordered on 27 June 1892 from Thornycroft at Chiswick, while the Havock and Hornet were ordered five days later from Yarrow at Poplar. All were launched in 1893-94. Each was armed with a single 12-pounder gun, three 6-pounders (57 mm), and three 46 cm torpedo tubes. They also had the range and speed to effectively travel with a battle fleet.

The French navy, an extensive user of torpedo boats, built its first destroyer in 1899, with the Durandal-class 'torpilleur d'escadre'.

The United Statesmarker commissioned its first destroyer, USS Bainbridge, Destroyer No. 1, in 1902 and by 1906 there were 16 destroyers in service with the US Navy.

Pre World War I

Destroyer design evolved around the turn of the 20th century in several key ways. The first was the introduction of the steam turbine. The spectacular unauthorized demonstration of the turbine powered Turbiniamarker at the 1897 Spithead Navy Review, which, significantly, was of torpedo boat size, prompted the Royal Navy to order a prototype turbine powered destroyer, HMS Viper of 1899. This was the first turbine warship of any kind and achieved a remarkable on sea trials. By 1910 the turbine had been widely adopted by all navies for their faster ships.

The second development was the replacement of the boat-style turtleback foredeck by a raised forecastle, which provided better sea-keeping as well as more space below deck.

Paulding class 1909 destroyer USS Perkins.
The British experimented with oil propulsion for the Tribal class of 1905 but switched temporarily back to coal for the later Beagle class in 1909. Other navies also adopted oil, for instance the USN with the Paulding class of 1909.In spite of all this variety, destroyers adopted a largely similar pattern. The hull was long and narrow, with a relatively shallow draft. The bow was either raised in a forecastle or covered under a turtleback; underneath this were the crew spaces, extending 1/4 to 1/3 the way along the hull. Aft of the crew spaces was as much engine space as the technology of the time would allow: several boilers and engines or turbines. Above deck, one or more quick-firing guns were mounted in the bows, in front of the bridge; several more were mounted amidships and astern. Two torpedo tube mountings (later on, multiple mountings) were generally found amidships.

Between 1890 and 1914 destroyers became markedly larger: initially 300 tons was a good size, but by the start of the First World War 1000 tons was not unusual. However, construction remained focused on putting the biggest possible engines into a small hull, resulting in a somewhat flimsy construction. Often hulls were built of steel only 1/8in thick.

By 1910 the steam-driven displacement (i.e. not hydroplaning) torpedo boat had become redundant as a separate type. Germany nevertheless continued to build such torpedo boats until the end of WWI, although these were effectively small coastal destroyers. In fact Germany never distinguished between the two types, giving them pennant numbers in the same series and never giving names to destroyers. Ultimately the term torpedo boat came to be attached to a quite different vessel - the very fast hydroplaning motor driven MTB.

Life on early destroyers

Early destroyers were extremely cramped places to live. In the Havock-class no crew member could ever get undisturbed rest, with officers sleeping on cushioned chairs around the wardroom instead of beds. Spray and condensation made life miserable. The first British class to have separate cabins for officers, or a heating stove for the captain, was the River class of 1902.

Early Destroyer tactics and engagements

The destroyer's initial purpose was to protect against torpedo boats, but navies soon appreciated the flexibility of the fast, multi-purpose vessel that resulted. Vice-Admiral Sir Baldwin Walker laid down destroyer duties for the Royal Navy:
  • Screening the advance of a fleet when hostile torpedo craft are about
  • Searching a hostile coast along which a fleet might pass
  • Watching an enemy's port for the purpose of harassing his torpedo craft and preventing their return
  • Attacking an enemy fleet

The destroyer's first major use came in the devastating Japanese attack on the Russian fleet in Port Arthurmarker at the opening of the Russo-Japanese War in 1904. Three destroyer divisions attacked the Russian fleet in port, firing a total of 18 torpedoes, and severely damaging two Russian battleships.

World War I

While capital ship engagements were scarce in World War I, destroyer units were almost continually engaged in raiding and patrol actions. The first shot of the war at sea was fired on 5 August 1914 by a destroyer of the 2nd Flotilla, Lance, in an engagement with the German auxiliary minelayer Königin Luise. The first British naval casualty was Amphion, the light cruiser leading the 3rd Flotilla, which ran into a mine laid by Königin Luise.

Destroyers were involved in the skirmishes that prompted the Battle of Heligoland Bight, and filled a range of roles in the Battle of Gallipoli, acting as troop’s transports and fire support vessels, as well as their fleet-screening role. Over 80 British destroyers and 60 German torpedo-boats took part in the Battle of Jutlandmarker, which involved pitched small-boat actions between the main fleets, and several foolhardy attacks by unsupported destroyers on capital ships. Jutland also concluded with a messy night action between the German High Seas Fleet and part of the British destroyer screen.

The threat evolved by World War I with the development of the submarine, or U-boat. The submarine had the potential to hide from gunfire and close underwater to fire torpedoes. Early-war destroyers had the speed and armament to intercept submarines before they submerged, either by gunfire or by ramming. Destroyers also had a shallow enough draft that torpedoes would find it difficult to hit them.

The desire to attack submarines underwater led to rapid destroyer evolution during the war, which were quickly equipped with strengthened bows for ramming, depth charges and hydrophones for identifying submarine targets. The first submarine casualty to a destroyer was the German U-19, rammed by Badger on 29 October 1914. While U-19 was only damaged, the next month Garry successfully sank U-18. The first depth-charge sinking was on 4 December 1916, when UC-19 was sunk by Llewellyn.

The submarine threat meant that many destroyers spent their time on anti-submarine patrol; once Germany adopted unrestricted submarine warfare in January 1917, destroyers were called on to escort merchant convoys. US Navy destroyers were among the first American units to be dispatched upon the American entry to the war, and a squadron of Japanese destroyers even joined Allied patrols in the Mediterranean. Patrol duty was far from safe; of the 67 British destroyers lost in the war, collisions accounted for 18, while 12 were wrecked.

At the end of the war the state-of-the-art was represented by the British W class.


The trend during World War I had been towards larger destroyers with heavier armaments. A number of opportunities to fire at capital ships had been missed during the War, because destroyers had expended all their torpedoes in an initial salvo. The British 'V' & 'W' classes of the late war had sought to address this by mounting six torpedo tubes in two triple mounts, instead of the four or two on earlier models. The 'V' and 'W's set the standard of destroyer building well into the 1920s.

Fubuki class destroyer, Uranami
next major innovation came with the Japanese Fubuki class or 'special type', designed in 1923 and delivered in 1928. The design was initially noted for its powerful armament of six five-inch (127 mm) guns and three triple torpedo mounts. The second batch of the class gave the guns high-angle turrets for anti-aircraft warfare, and the oxygen-fueled 'Long Lance' Type 93 torpedo. The later Hatsuharu class of 1931 further improved the torpedo armament by storing its reload torpedoes close at hand in the superstructure, allowing reloading within 15 minutes.

Most other nations replied with similar larger ships. The US Porter class adopted twin five-inch (127 mm) guns, and the subsequent Mahan class and Gridley class (the latter of 1934) increased the number of torpedo tubes to 12 and 16 respectively.
In the Mediterranean, the Italian Navy's building of very fast light cruisers of the Condottieri class prompted the French to produce exceptional destroyer designs. The French had long been keen on large destroyers, with their Chacal class of 1922 displacing over 2,000 tons and carrying 130 mm guns; a further three similar classes were produced around 1930. The Le Fantasque class of 1935 carried five guns and nine torpedo tubes, but could achieve speeds of , which remains the record speed for a steamship and for any destroyer. The Italians' own destroyers were almost as swift, most Italian designs of the 1930s being rated at over , while carrying torpedoes and either four or six 120 mm guns.

Germany started to build destroyers again during the 1930s as part of Hitler's rearmament program. The Germans were also fond of large destroyers, but while the initial Type 1934 displaced over 3,000 tons, their armament was equal to smaller vessels. This changed from the Type 1936 onwards, which mounted heavy 150 mm guns. German destroyers also used innovative high-pressure steam machinery: while this should have helped their efficiency, it more often resulted in mechanical problems.

Once German and Japanese rearmament became clear, the British and American navies consciously focused on building destroyers that were smaller but more numerous than those used by other nations. The British built a series of destroyers (the A Class to I Class) which were about 1,400 tons standard displacement, had four guns and eight torpedo tubes; the American Benson class of 1938 similar in size, but carried five guns and ten torpedo tubes. Realizing the need for heavier gun armament, the British built the Tribal class of 1936 (sometimes called "Afridi" after one of two lead ships). These ships displaced 1,850 tons and were armed with eight guns in four twin turrets and four torpedo tubes. These were followed by the J Class and L class destroyers, with six guns in twin turrets and eight torpedo tubes

Anti-submarine sensors included sonar , although training in their use was indifferent. Anti-submarine weapons changed little, and ahead-throwing weapons, a need recognized in World War I, had made no progress.

Operations in the inter-war period

During the 1920s and 1930s destroyers were often deployed to areas of diplomatic tension or humanitarian disaster. British and American destroyers were common on the Chinese coast and rivers, even supplying landing parties to protect colonial interests.

World War II

Main articles: British World War II destroyers, German World War II destroyers, Italian World War II destroyers, Japanese World War II destroyers

By World War II the threat had evolved once again. Submarines were more effective, and aircraft had become important weapons of naval warfare; once again the fleet destroyers were ill-equipped for combating these new targets. They were fitted with new anti-aircraft guns, radar, and forward-launched ASW weapons, in addition to their existing light guns, depth charges, and torpedoes. By this time the destroyers had become large, multi-purpose vessels, expensive targets in their own right rather than expendable vessels for the protection of others; moreover, they were one of the most sunk kinds of ships even though they were mass produced. This led to the introduction of smaller and cheaper specialized anti-submarine warships called corvettes and frigates by the Royal Navy and destroyer escorts by the USN. A similar programme was belatedly started by the Japanese (see Matsu class destroyer). These ships had the size and displacement of the original torpedo boat destroyers that the contemporary destroyer had evolved from.


Some conventional destroyers were completed in the late 1940s and 1950s which built on wartime experience. These vessels were significantly larger than wartime ships and had fully automatic main guns, unit Machinery, radar, sonar, and antisubmarine weapons such as the Squid mortar. Examples include the British Daring class, US Forrest Sherman-class, and the Soviet Kotlin-class destroyers.

Some World War II-vintage ships were modernized for anti-submarine warfare, and to extend their service lives, to avoid having to build (expensive) brand-new ships. Examples include the US FRAM I programme and the British Type 15 frigates converted from fleet destroyers.

The advent of surface-to-air missiles and surface-to-surface missiles, such as the Exocet, in the early 1960s changed naval warfare. Guided missile destroyers (DDG in the US Navy) were developed to carry these weapons and protect the fleet from air, submarine and surface threats. Examples include the Soviet Kashin-class, the British County class, and the American Charles F. Adams-class.

Modern destroyers

The Royal Navy currently operates 7 ships of the Type 42 class with HMS Southampton reducing to extended readiness in 2008. The destroyers (as well as frigates) are, as always, the workhorses of the fleet, the former optimized for air defense and the latter for surface and subsurface warfare. They are equally at home in large task groups or on independent operations which may include sanctions enforcement, humanitarian relief or anti-drug patrols. British destroyers (of recent times) have an average displacement of around 5000 tonnes, and are armed with a mixture of guns and missiles including 114 mm (4.5 inch) Mk 8 guns, Sea Dart Missiles, 20 mm Close range guns, Vulcan Phalanx close in weapons system (CIWS), and anti submarine torpedo tubes. These ships are due to be replaced by the new Type 45 or Daring-class destroyers which will displace roughly 7,200 tonnes. A class of 6 ships is envisaged. They will be equipped with the UK variant of the Principal Anti-Air Missile System (PAAMS) and BAE Systemsmarker SAMPSON radar. The ships are assembled at Scotstounmarker, by BAE Systems Surface Ships. HMS Daring, the first of her class, was launched on 1 February 2006.

The Italian navy (Marina Militare) currently operates 2 each of the Luigi Durand de la Penne and Orizzonte-class of destroyers.

The Canadian Navy currently operates the Iroquois-class destroyers, a class of four helicopter-carrying, anti-aircraft, guided missile destroyers. Launched in the 1970s, the Iroquois were the first Canadian all gas turbine powered military ships, using two turbines for cruise power, and another two fast-starting "boost" turbines for speeds of up to 29 knots (54 km/h) (such an arrangement is known as COGOG). Previously the Soviet Navy had used all-gas turbine propulsion on their Kashin class destroyers of the 1960s but the Iroquois were the first to be built to this scheme either in Canada or in the US. The design of the Iroquois was a major inspiration for the US's later Spruance class ships. They were originally fitted out for anti-submarine warfare, but the entire class underwent major retrofits as a part of the Tribal Class Update and Modernization Program, or TRUMP, in the 1990s. These refits had the effect of re-purposing the ships for air-defense, and the ships are now referred to as area air-defense destroyers.

The Indian Navy operates three Delhi-class destroyer. These ships are armed with Kh-35 missiles, which have a range of 130 km, in the anti-ship role. They will be replaced by the Brahmos cruise missiles. Shtil (AKA SA-N-7 Gadfly) system is installed to counter airborne threats. The Barak point-defense missile system has been installed in Delhi and will soon be installed in the other two ships of its class. These destroyers also carry the RBU-6000 rockets in the anti-submarine role and are provided with five 533 mm torpedo launch tubes that can launch the SET-65E, Type 53-65 torpedoes. The destroyers have the capability to carry two Sea King helicopters. The Delhi-class will be augmented by the new Kolkata-class destroyer, the first of which was launched in March 2006.

The Chinese People's Liberation Army Navy has recently commissioned a number of new modern destroyers in addition to the four Sovremenny-class. Three new classes were launched since 2003, known as the Luyang, Luyang II and Luzhou-class. The latter two are armed with long range air defense missiles, the indigenous HQ-9 and the Russian S-300 respectively. It has been speculated that once the PLAN has been satisfied with one of the two designs (either the 052C or 051C), it would be selected for series production as the next generation of advanced air defense destroyers for China.

In the US Navy, destroyers operate in support of carrier battle groups, surface action groups, amphibious groups and replenishment groups. The destroyers currently in use by the US Navy are the Arleigh Burke-class. Destroyers (with a DD hull classification symbol) primarily perform anti-submarine warfare duty while guided missile destroyers (DDGs) are multi-mission (anti-submarine, anti-aircraft, and anti-surface warfare) surface combatants.

The relatively-recent addition of cruise missile launchers has greatly expanded the role of the destroyer in strike and land-attack warfare. As the expense of heavier surface combatants has generally removed them from the fleet, destroyer tonnage has grown (a modern Arleigh Burke-class destroyer has the same tonnage as a World War II light cruiser). Arleigh Burke is billed by her builders as ton-for-ton the most powerful warship in history.

The Russian Navy and the People's Liberation Army Navy of the People's Republic of Chinamarker operate the Sovremenny class, a class of large multi-purpose missile destroyers. They are powered by pressure-fired boilers, making them capable of speeds in excess of . Their armament consists of 8 SS-N-22 Sunburn anti-ship missiles, launchers for SA-N-7 Gadfly anti-air missiles and two AK-130 twin-barreled 130 mm automatic naval guns which can fire laser-guided shells. While they also carry 533 mm torpedo tubes and RBU-6000 rocket launchers for use against submarines, their primary mission is to attack surface ships. Their anti-aircraft missiles have a surface attack mode, and both the 130 mm guns and the torpedoes are useful against ships at close range.

Future destroyers

The last US Navy Spruance-class destroyer in service, USS Cushing, was decommissioned on September 21, 2005. The Zumwalt class are planned to replace them; on November 1, 2001, the US Navy announced the issuance of a revised Request for Proposal (RFP) for the Future Surface Combatant Program. Formerly known as DD 21, the program will now be called DD to more accurately reflect the program purpose, which is to produce a family of advanced technology surface combatants, not a single ship class. DD(X), also called Zumwalt class, is much larger than traditional destroyers, being nearly three thousand tons heavier than a Ticonderoga-class cruiser (c.12,500 tonnes, larger than most heavy cruisers from the World War II era). It will potentially employ advanced weaponry and an all-electric Integrated Power System; however, the construction programme was subsequently reduced to just two vessels, and there is currently only funding for three in total. With the retirement of the Spruance class, the Navy began commissioning an advanced variant of the Arleigh Burke class with expanded ASW capabilities, the Arleigh Burke Flight IIA, beginning with USS Oscar Austin. As of 2006, 22 of these vessels are in service, with at least seven more under construction.

The $5.2 billion Command & Control and Air-Defense Capability Replacement project is meant to replace Canada’s Iroquois class destroyers whose primary role shifted to area air-defense after TRUMP refits in the 1990s. Although the area air-defense capability had not previously existed, the Canadian Navy now regards “wide area air defense” as part of Canada’s core naval capabilities. When the project began, Canadian Navy destroyers were expected to need replacing by 2005, they are now expected to serve until 2010. There was some work on a replacement design, known to Navy-watchers as the Province class destroyers, but this was confined largely to studies of a much-improved multi-function three dimensional phased array radar system being developed in conjunction with the Dutch and German navies, known as Active Phased Array Radar. Current speculation is that the ships themselves would be similar to a "stretched" Halifax-class frigate.

See also



  • Destroyers, Anthony Preston, Bison Books (London) 1977. ISBN 0-600-32955-0
  • The First Destroyers / David Lyon - Caxton Editions, 1997 - ISBN 1840673648
  • Kaigun: Strategy, Tactics, and Technology in the Imperial Japanese Navy, 1887-1941, David C. Evans, Mark R. Peattie. Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, Maryland ISBN 0-87021-192-7
  • The Origins of Japanese Trade Supremacy: Development and Technology in Asia from 1540 to the Pacific War, Christopher Howe, The University of Chicago Press, ISBN 0-226-35485-7
  • Conway's All the World's Fighting Ships (1860-1905): Gardiner, Robert (Ed.), Naval Institute Press, 1985.
  • The Atlantic Campaign, Dan van der Vat.
  • DD-963 Spruance-class
  • Navy Designates Next-Generation Zumwalt Destroyer

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