Britain’s W-Class Destroyers
As the Great War at sea continued, the Royal Navy found itself dissatisfied with its standard destroyer designs. The type had evolved rapidly over the previous decade, as torpedo boat and torpedo-boat destroyer types had merged and the size of the boats steadily increased.
In 1910 the Admiralty issued a tender for a new oil-fueled destroyer, armed with two four-inch guns, one 12-pounder (76mm) gun and two torpedo tubes. She would displace just under 800 tons, and make a top speed of 27 knots. Over the next six years the British retained the same basic design, but continued to enlarge it and by 1916 the standard destroyer had grown to 1,000 tons, with a third 4-inch gun in place of the useless 12-pounder and a second pair of torpedo tubes, and a top speed now expected to touch 32 knots.
Even the enlarged destroyer failed to keep up with the emerging needs of the war at sea: a multi-role warship able to conduct torpedo attacks, anti-submarine warfare, battle fleet screening, convoy escort, mine-laying and even more tasks. By the 1930’s naval literature would describe the destroyer as a “maid of all work.”
The cramped destroyers could not accommodate the extra personnel and communications gear required by a flotilla commander and his staff. To solve that problem, the Royal Navy ordered a series of destroyer leaders, enlarged versions of the destroyers with a fourth four-inch gun. The five boats ordered in April 1916, known as the V class since all five had names beginning with the letter “V,” weighed in at 1,100 tons’ displacement and could make 34 knots.
The new leaders made a very good impression as soon as they came off the drawing boards, causing the Admiralty to re-think its plans to repeat the last Admiralty design. Instead they ordered 26 more units to the V-leader design, as the V-class (all with names beginning with the letter V). Though nearly identical to the leaders (they lacked the compass platform of the first group), they would serve as flotilla destroyers.
The new boats were much larger than the Admiralty standard, 312 feet long compared to 276 feet for the earlier boats. Both types carried the same machinery outfit: three oil-fired boilers powering a set of geared turbines to produce 27,000 horsepower. That gave the smaller destroyers a top speed of 36 knots, compared to 34 knots for the V-class and W-class. They carried their guns in single mounts fitted in two super-firing pairs, fore and aft, with the torpedo tubes in two banks amidships, in what became the standard British destroyer layout for the next two decades.
Rear Admiral Sir Morgan Singer, the Director of Naval Ordnance and Torpedoes, urged a move from dual to triple torpedo tubes, arguing that the bigger boats could easily accommodate the increased weight. Rather than delay delivery of the new destroyers, they received the same dual mounts as previous boats, but the decks beneath them were strengthened to allow the triple tubes to be fitted later if desired.
Waterhen, a W-class destroyer in Australian service, seen between the wars.
Singer’s desired torpedo mounts were ready by December 1916, when the Admiralty ordered 23 more boats to the same design, and these became the W class. Other than carrying six rather than four tubes, they were identical to the V class.
In February 1917 the Admiralty decided to revert to a smaller destroyer design, opting to place what ultimately became 57 orders for S-class destroyers, a modified version of the last “Admiralty” class. These would be cheaper to build and could be commissioned more quickly, both of these serious considerations with German submarines ravaging British commerce, and were also faster.
But even as British shipyards laid down the smaller destroyers, the first of the larger boats ordered in the previous year began to join the fleet. Initial impressions were very positive, and the Admiralty moved to the W class for its 1918 orders, with 16 contracts placed in January and 38 more in March and April.
Yet the Admiralty had not finished with improvements. The bigger destroyers could mount bigger guns, and rumors of new German destroyers under construction with larger guns filtered in from various sources. The new destroyers therefore would carry the 4.7-inch guns previously mounted on the even bigger Shakespeare-class destroyer leaders. These threw a much larger shell (50 pounds, compared to 31 for the 4-inch Mark V) over a much greater distance (15,800 yards for the new weapon against 9,600 yards for the 4-inch gun).
The 4.7-inch Mark I was an outstanding weapon, able to match the range of the German 5.9-inch (150mm) gun fitted to the High Seas Fleet’s new gigantic torpedo boats though not the throw-weight (its shell was just slightly more than half the weight, and rate of fire was about the same). The British seem to have only been aware that the Germans had moved to larger guns, and not known of their seemingly insane decision to go with cruiser-sized weapons.
None of these “Modified W” class would see action in the Great War; sixteen of them were completed after the end of the war. They and their near-sisters became the backbone of the post-war destroyer force, as the smaller boats were retired or scrapped. Some Modified-W boats remained in front-line service as fleet destroyers in the early months of World War II. Twenty-one others were modified for long-range escort duty, losing one boiler, two of their guns and their torpedo tubes in exchange for greater fuel bunkerage, anti-aircraft and anti-submarine weapons, and radar. Another fourteen boats would be converted to anti-aircraft escorts, and a dozen more became short-range escorts with much less extensive modifications due to wartime priorities.
In Great War at Sea games, the V class doesn’t rate a different playing piece than the Admiralty-type destroyers; Great War at Sea is primarily a battleship game and there’s not a lot of granularity possible when rating the smaller warships. The Modified W class appears in Jutland, with more of them in Jutland 1919 to allow the Allied player to fit out the Grand Fleet exclusively with the new boats. They have a stronger torpedo armament, with half again as many tubes per boat, but all other game ratings are the same as the Admiralty type; the 4.7-inch gun still falls within the nominal “1” rating for light guns.
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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and award-winning journalist, he has published over 100 books, games and articles on historical subjects.
He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold.