In naval terminology, a destroyer is a fast, manoeuvrable, long-endurance warship intended to escort larger vessels in a fleet, convoy, or battle group and defend them against powerful short-range attackers. They were originally developed in 1885 by Fernando Villaamil for the Spanish Navy as a defense against torpedo boats, and by the time of the Russo-Japanese War in 1904, these "torpedo boat destroyers" (TBDs) were "large, swift, and powerfully armed torpedo boats designed to destroy other torpedo boats". Although the term "destroyer" had been used interchangeably with "TBD" and "torpedo boat destroyer" by navies since 1892, the term "torpedo boat destroyer" had been generally shortened to simply "destroyer" by nearly all navies by the First World War.
Before World War II, destroyers were light vessels with little endurance for unattended ocean operations; typically, a number of destroyers and a single destroyer tender operated together. After the war, the advent of guided missiles allowed destroyers to take on the surface-combatant roles previously filled by battleships and cruisers. This resulted in larger and more powerful guided-missile destroyers more capable of independent operation.
At the start of the 21st century, destroyers are the global standard for surface-combatant ships, with only two nations (the United States and Russia) officially operating the heavier cruisers, with no battleships or true battlecruisers remaining.[note 1] Modern guided-missile destroyers are equivalent in tonnage but vastly superior in firepower to cruisers of the World War II era, and are capable of carrying nuclear-tipped cruise missiles. At 510 feet (160 m) long, a displacement of 9,200 tons, and with an armament of more than 90 missiles, guided-missile destroyers such as the Arleigh Burke class are actually larger and more heavily armed than most previous ships classified as guided-missile cruisers. The Chinese Type 055 destroyer has been described as a cruiser in some US Navy reports due to its size and armament.
After the Second World War, destroyers grew in size. The American Allen M. Sumner-class destroyers had a displacement of 2,200 tons, while the Arleigh Burke class has a displacement of up to 9,600 tons, thus growing in size almost 340%.
The emergence and development of the destroyer 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 fire torpedoes. Cheap, fast boats armed with torpedoes called torpedo boats were built and became a threat to large capital ships near enemy coasts. The first seagoing vessel designed to launch the self-propelled Whitehead torpedo was the 33-ton HMS Lightning in 1876. She was armed with two drop collars to launch these weapons; these were replaced in 1879 by a single torpedo tube in the bow. By the 1880s, the type had evolved into small ships of 50–100 tons, fast enough to evade enemy picket boats.
At first, the threat of a torpedo-boat attack to a battle fleet was considered to exist only when at anchor, but as faster and longer-range torpedo boats and 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 significant seaworthiness and endurance to operate with the battle fleet, and as they inherently became larger, they became officially designated "torpedo-boat destroyers", and by the First World War were largely known as "destroyers" in English. The antitorpedo boat origin of this type of ship is retained in its name in other languages, including French (contre-torpilleur), Italian (cacciatorpediniere), Portuguese (contratorpedeiro), Czech (torpédoborec), Greek (antitorpiliko, αντιτορπιλικό), Dutch (torpedobootjager) and, up until the Second World War, Polish (kontrtorpedowiec, now obsolete).
Once destroyers became more than just catchers guarding an anchorage, they were recognized to be also ideal to take over the offensive role of torpedo boats themselves, so they were also fitted with torpedo tubes in addition to their antitorpedo-boat 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 with the construction of HMS Swift in 1884, later redesignated TB 81. This was a large (137 ton) torpedo boat with four 47 mm quick-firing guns and three torpedo tubes. At 23.75 knots (43.99 km/h; 27.33 mph), while still not fast enough to engage enemy torpedo boats reliably, the ship at least had the armament to deal with them.
Another forerunner of the torpedo-boat destroyer (TBD) was the Japanese torpedo boat Kotaka (Falcon), built in 1885. Designed to Japanese specifications and ordered from the Isle of Dogs, London Yarrow shipyard in 1885, she was transported in parts to Japan, where she was assembled and launched in 1887. The 165-foot (50 m) long vessel 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 built to date. In her trials in 1889, Kotaka demonstrated that she could exceed the role of coastal defense, and was capable of accompanying larger warships on the high seas. The Yarrow shipyards, builder of the parts for Kotaka, "considered Japan to have effectively invented the destroyer".
The German aviso Greif, launched in 1886, was designed as a "Torpedojäger" (torpedo hunter), intended to screen the fleet against attacks by torpedo boats. The ship was significantly larger than torpedo boats of the period, displacing some 2,266 t (2,230 long tons), with an armament of 10.5 cm (4.1 in) guns and 3.7 cm (1.5 in) Hotchkiss revolver cannon.
The first vessel designed for the explicit purpose of hunting and destroying torpedo boats was the torpedo gunboat. Essentially very small cruisers, torpedo gunboats were equipped with torpedo tubes and an adequate gun armament, intended for hunting down smaller enemy boats. By the end of the 1890s, torpedo gunboats were made obsolete by their more successful contemporaries, the TBDs, which were much faster.
The first example of this was HMS Rattlesnake, designed by Nathaniel Barnaby in 1885, and commissioned in response to the Russian War scare. The gunboat was armed with torpedoes and designed for hunting and destroying smaller torpedo boats. Exactly 200 feet (61 m) long and 23 feet (7.0 m) in beam, she displaced 550 tons. Built of steel, Rattlesnake was unarmoured with the exception of a 3⁄4-inch protective deck. She was armed with a single 4-inch/25-pounder breech-loading gun, six 3-pounder QF guns and four 14-inch (360 mm) torpedo tubes, arranged with two fixed tubes at the bow and a set of torpedo-dropping carriages on either side. Four torpedo reloads were carried.
A number of torpedo gunboat classes followed, including the Grasshopper class, the Sharpshooter class, the Alarm class, and the Dryad class – all built for the Royal Navy during the 1880s and the 1890s. In the 1880s, the Chilean Navy ordered the construction of two Almirante Lynch class torpedo gunboats from the British shipyard Laird Brothers, which specialized in the construction of this type of vessel. The novelty is that one of these Almirante Lynch-class torpedo boats managed to sink the ironclad Blanco Encalada with a self-propelled torpedoes in the Battle of Caldera Bay in 1891, thus surpassing its main function of hunting torpedo boats.
Fernando Villaamil, second officer of the Ministry of the Navy of Spain, designed his own torpedo gunboat to combat the threat from the torpedo boat. He asked several British shipyards to submit proposals capable of fulfilling these specifications. In 1885, the Spanish Navy chose the design submitted by the shipyard of James and George Thomson of Clydebank. Destructor (Destroyer in Spanish) was laid down at the end of the year, launched in 1886, and commissioned in 1887. Some authors considered her as the first destroyer ever built.
She displaced 348 tons, and was the first warship equipped with twin triple-expansion engines generating 3,784 ihp (2,822 kW), for a maximum speed of 22.6 knots (41.9 km/h), which made her one of the faster ships in the world in 1888. She was armed with one 90 mm (3.5 in) Spanish-designed Hontoria breech-loading gun, four 57 mm (2.2 in) (6-pounder) Nordenfelt guns, two 37 mm (1.5 in) (3-pdr) Hotchkiss cannons and two 15-inch (38 cm) Schwartzkopff torpedo tubes. The ship carried three torpedoes per tube. She carried a crew of 60.
Early torpedo gunboat designs lacked the range and speed to keep up with the fleet they were supposed to protect. In 1892, the Third Sea Lord, Rear Admiral John "Jacky" Fisher ordered the development of a new type of ships equipped with the then-novel water-tube boilers and quick-firing small-calibre guns. Six ships to the specifications circulated by the admiralty were ordered initially, comprising three different designs each produced by a different shipbuilder: HMS Daring and HMS Decoy from John I. Thornycroft & Company, HMS Havock and HMS Hornet from Yarrows, and HMS Ferret and HMS Lynx from Laird, Son & Company.
These ships all featured a turtleback (i.e. rounded) forecastle that was characteristic of early British TBDs. HMS Daring and HMS Decoy were both built by Thornycroft, displaced 260 tons (287.8 tons full load), and were 185 feet in length. They were armed with one 12-pounder gun and three 6-pounder guns, with one fixed 18-in torpedo tube in the bow plus two more torpedo tubes on a revolving mount abaft the two funnels. Later, the bow torpedo tube was removed and two more 6-pounder guns added, instead. They produced 4,200 hp from a pair of Thornycroft water-tube boilers, giving them a top speed of 27 knots, giving the range and speed to travel effectively with a battle fleet. In common with subsequent early Thornycroft boats, they had sloping sterns and double rudders.
The French navy, an extensive user of torpedo boats, built its first TBD in 1899, with the Durandal-class torpilleur d'escadre. The United States commissioned its first TBD, USS Bainbridge, Destroyer No. 1, in 1902, and by 1906, 16 destroyers were in service with the US Navy.
Torpedo boat destroyer designs continued to evolve 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 Turbinia 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 34 knots (63 km/h; 39 mph) 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 torpedo boat-style turtleback foredeck by a raised forecastle for the new River-class destroyers built in 1903, which provided better sea-keeping and more space below deck.
The first warship to use only fuel oil propulsion was the Royal Navy's TBD HMS Spiteful, after experiments in 1904, although the obsolescence of coal as a fuel in British warships was delayed by oil's availability. 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 tube mountings (later on, multiple mountings) were generally found amidships.
Between 1892 and 1914, destroyers became markedly larger; initially 275 tons with a length of 165 feet (50 m) for the Royal Navy's first Havock class of TBDs, up to the First World War with 300-foot (91 m) long destroyers displacing 1,000 tons was not unusual. Construction remained focused on putting the biggest possible engines into a small hull, though, resulting in a somewhat flimsy construction. Often, hulls were built of high-tensile steel only 1⁄8 in (3.2 mm) thick.
By 1910, the steam-driven displacement (that is, not hydroplaning) torpedo boat had become redundant as a separate type. Germany, nevertheless, continued to build such boats until the end of World War I, 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 motor torpedo boat.
Navies originally built TBDrs to protect against torpedo boats, but admirals soon appreciated the flexibility of the fast, multipurpose vessels that resulted. Vice-Admiral Sir Baldwin Walker laid down destroyer duties for the Royal Navy:
Early destroyers were extremely cramped places to live, being "without a doubt magnificent fighting vessels... but unable to stand bad weather". During the Russo-Japanese War in 1904, the commander of the Imperial Japanese Navy TBD Akatsuki described "being in command of a destroyer for a long period, especially in wartime... is not very good for the health". Stating that he had originally been strong and healthy, he continued, "life on a destroyer in winter, with bad food, no comforts, would sap the powers of the strongest men in the long run. A destroyer is always more uncomfortable than the others, and rain, snow, and sea-water combine to make them damp; in fact, in bad weather, there is not a dry spot where one can rest for a moment."
The Japanese destroyer-commander finished with, "Yesterday, I looked at myself in a mirror for a long time; I was disagreeably surprised to see my face thin, full of wrinkles, and as old as though I were 50. My clothes (uniform) cover nothing but a skeleton, and my bones are full of rheumatism."
In 1898, the US Navy officially classified USS Porter, a 175-foot (53 m) long all steel vessel displacing 165 tons, as a torpedo boat, but her commander, LT. John C. Fremont, described her as "...a compact mass of machinery not meant to keep the sea nor to live in... as five-sevenths of the ship are taken up by machinery and fuel, whilst the remaining two-sevenths, fore and aft, are the crew's quarters; officers forward and the men placed aft. And even in those spaces are placed anchor engines, steering engines, steam pipes, etc. rendering them unbearably hot in tropical regions."
Three destroyer divisions attacked the Russian fleet in port, firing a total of 18 torpedoes, but only two Russian battleships, Tsesarevich and Retvizan, and a protected cruiser, Pallada, were seriously damaged due to the proper deployment of torpedo nets. Tsesarevich, the Russian flagship, had her nets deployed, with at least four enemy torpedoes "hung up" in them, and other warships were similarly saved from further damage by their nets.
While capital-ship engagements were scarce in World War I, destroyer units engaged almost continually in raiding and patrol actions. The first shot of the war at sea was fired on 5 August 1914 by HMS Lance, one of the 3rd Destroyer Flotilla, in an engagement with the German auxiliary minelayer 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 transports and as 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 Jutland, 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 they were difficult to hit with torpedoes.
The desire to attack submarines under water led to rapid destroyer evolution during the war. They were quickly equipped with strengthened bows for ramming, and depth charges and hydrophones for identifying submarine targets. The first submarine casualty credited to a destroyer was the German U-19, rammed by HMS Badger on 29 October 1914. While U-19 was only damaged, the next month, HMS Garry successfully sank U-18. The first depth-charge sinking was on 4 December 1916, when UC-19 was sunk by HMS Llewellyn.
The submarine threat meant that many destroyers spent their time on antisubmarine 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 and 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 classes set the standard of destroyer building well into the 1920s.
Two Romanian destroyers Mărăști and Mărășești, though, had the greatest firepower of all destroyers in the world throughout the first half of the 1920s. This was largely because, between their commissioning in 1920 and 1926, they retained the armament that they had while serving in the Italian Navy as scout cruisers (esploratori). When initially ordered by Romania in 1913, the Romanian specifications envisioned three 120 mm guns, a caliber which would eventually be adopted as the standard for future Italian destroyers. Armed with three 152 mm and four 76 mm guns after being completed as scout cruisers, the two warships were officially re-rated as destroyers by the Romanian Navy. The two Romanian warships were thus the destroyers with the greatest firepower in the world throughout much of the interwar period. As of 1939, when the Second World War started, their artillery, although changed, was still close to cruiser standards, amounting to nine heavy naval guns (five of 120 mm and four of 76 mm). In addition, they retained their two twin 457 mm torpedo tubes and two machine guns, plus the capacity to carry up to 50 mines.
The 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 5-inch (127 mm) guns and three triple torpedo mounts. The second batch of the class gave the guns high-angle turrets for antiaircraft warfare, and the 24-inch (61 cm), 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 5-inch (127 mm) guns, and the subsequent Mahan class and Gridley classes (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 138 millimetres (5.4 in) guns and nine torpedo tubes, but could achieve speeds of 45 knots (83 km/h), 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 were rated at over 38 knots (70 km/h), 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 millimetres (5.9 in) 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, and had four 4.7-inch (119 mm) guns and eight torpedo tubes; the American Benson class of 1938 was similar in size, but carried five 5-inch (127 mm) 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 4.7-inch (119 mm) guns in four twin turrets and four torpedo tubes. These were followed by the J-class and L-class destroyers, with six 4.7-inch (119 mm) guns in twin turrets and eight torpedo tubes.
Antisubmarine sensors included sonar (or ASDIC), although training in their use was indifferent. Antisubmarine weapons changed little, and ahead-throwing weapons, a need recognized in World War I, had made no progress.
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.
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 early-war fleet destroyers were ill-equipped for combating these new targets. They were fitted with new light antiaircraft guns, radar, and forward-launched ASW weapons, in addition to their existing dual-purpose guns, depth charges, and torpedoes. Increasing size allowed improved internal arrangement of propulsion machinery with compartmentation, so ships were less likely to be sunk by a single hit. In most cases torpedo and/or dual-purpose gun armament was reduced to accommodate new anti-air and anti-submarine weapons. By this time the destroyers had become large, multi-purpose vessels, expensive targets in their own right. As a result, casualties on destroyers were among the highest. In the US Navy, particularly in World War II, destroyers became known as tin cans due to their light armor compared to battleships and cruisers.
The need for large numbers of antisubmarine ships led to the introduction of smaller and cheaper specialized antisubmarine 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 TBDs from which the contemporary destroyer had evolved.
Some conventional destroyers completed in the late 1940s and 1950s were 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 antisubmarine 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 US Charles F. Adams class.
The 21st century destroyers tend to display features such as large, slab sides without complicated corners and crevices to keep the radar cross-section small, vertical launch systems to carry a large number of missiles at high readiness to fire, and helicopter flight decks and hangars.
A number of countries have destroyers preserved as museum ships. These include:
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