U.S. Navy Plan Gold:
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
From its origins as a “torpedo boat
destroyer” charged with hunting down
enemy small craft and protecting battleships
from torpedo attack, by the end of the First
World War the destroyer had evolved into a
larger and much more capable warship. Most
fleet destroyers of the Great War displaced
about 800 tons, with three or four guns and
two to six torpedo tubes.
The Russian Novik, launched in 1911,
broke from this pattern. A much bigger vessel
(1,280 tons), she could make 36 knots as her
designed speed and at a special trial in 1913
after some modification she ran at 37.2 knots
and claimed the title of world’s fastest
warship. She carried much heavier armament
than foreign destroyers. The Imperial Russian
Navy built classes of big destroyers for both
its Black Sea and Baltic fleets, but most
other nations retained their 800-ton designs.
The German Navy built a handful of large boats
for its own use and German yards built a few
for export to Argentina, while the Italian
Navy built several classes of large destroyers
classed as “esploratore” and likewise
exported several to Romania.
The United States Navy, however, adopted
the Russian lessons whole-heartedly. In 1911
the Cassin class of 1,000-ton destroyers
was authorized, replacing the previous 750-ton Paulding type. Like Novik, they
carried four four-inch guns and eight torpedo
tubes, but still had the relatively low speed
of 29 knots. The Caldwell class introduced
a new “flush deck” hull form rather
than the traditional “broken forecastle,”
which was thought to give better sea-keeping
at the price of weaker hull strength.
A class built in quantity. Four-four
flush-deckers in the Panama Canal Zone,
The huge American program of 1916 called
for a maximum fleet speed of 35 knots, the
design speed of the Omaha-class scout
cruisers and Lexington-class battle
cruisers. A new destroyer would have to match
that speed, and would also need long range
for anticipated operations against Japan across
the wide spaces of the Pacific Ocean. The Wickes class was a Caldwell with
a larger power plant, capable of 35 rather
than 30 knots but carrying the same armament
of four four-inch guns and twelve torpedo
tubes, and with a very similar outward appearance.
They completed with two dept-charge racks,
and had a standard crew of 105 men.
Fifty of them were ordered as part of the
1916 program, but United States entry into
the First World War in April 1917 caused this
to be increased to 111. Destroyers had turned
out to be uniquely useful in combating enemy
submarines; not surprising given that submarines
of the era were essentially torpedo boats
that could briefly submerge. Like many other
wartime mass-production programs, they became
known as “Liberty” destroyers.
Eleven shipyards participated in the program,
and details differed between ships built at
different yards, particularly regarding their
machinery. Boats built at Bethlehem Steel’s
Union Iron Works had Yarrow boilers and were
noted for much shorter endurance than their
sisters (about 2/3 that of destroyers built
in other yards) due to very poor fuel economy;
the boilers were also found to deteriorate
very quickly in service.
None of the Wickes class made their
projected endurance figures, however, and
the design was modified to increase both fuel
stowage and efficiency. The Clemson class
had about 35 percent better endurance on average,
although because of the varying quality of
shipyard work some Clemsons actually
did slightly worse than the best of the Wickes class.
To balance the big German destroyers with
5.9-inch guns, the Clemson class had
its decks strengthened to carry five-inch
guns but only five of the 156 boats built
actually received these weapons. Two others
were given double mounts for their four-inch
guns. The Clemson design had its aft
four-inch gun on a raised platform; Wickes-class
boats were modified to the same standard.
Very few of either class were completed in
time for the Great War, and none of them saw
combat as fleet destroyers. With 273 total
boats available, there was no urgency to build
new destroyers after the war and no new destroyer
design would be prepared until 1934. Sixty Wickes-class boats with Yarrow boilers
were scrapped or expended as targets in 1929;
ten years or less of service had worn out
their machinery and with over 200 similar
destroyers still on hand there was no incentive
to re-build them. Seven others were lost in
a mass stranding on the California coast in
Four Wickes-class boats having
their aft gunnery position modified
to Clemson standards. Mare Island Navy
The London Naval Treaty of 1930 limited signatory
nations’ total tonnage of destroyers,
and when the U.S. began to build its Farragut class in 1934, flush-deck destroyers had
to make way for them. Thirty-five more were
scrapped between 1935 and 1937 to comply.
When war broke out again in 1939, the U.S.
Navy had 168 flush-deck destroyers in its
inventory: 120 of them in destroyer configuration,
and another 48 that had been converted to
fast minelayers or small seaplane tenders.
Of the fleet destroyers, fifty were transferred
to the Royal Navy in September 1940 for conversion
to long-range escorts. On the 70 remaining,
27 served in three Atlantic Fleet destroyer
squadrons and 13 in the Asiatic Fleet. The
other 30 were assigned “other duties”
which included training submarine crews.
’23 Skidoo. Destroyer Squadron
Seven aground at Point Honda, California.
A flush-deck destroyer, Reuben
James, would be the first American
warship sunk in World War II. By the end of
the war, most of those still in service had
been converted to fast transports, minesweepers
or minelayers. The last of them, Hatfield, was retired in 1947. Nine originally sent
to Britain served under Soviet colors until
the early 1950s; one (Stewart) was
captured by the Japanese in 1942 and served
the Imperial Navy as a patrol boat before
being reclaimed in 1945.
Clemson- and Wickes-class
destroyers appear in the Great War at Sea game Plan
Gold. The difference between them
in game terms is solely based on fuel endurance;
the Wickes-class counters also represent Clemson boats with poor fuel economy
as the Clemson pieces represent Wickes-class
boats with particularly good performance.
Send these craft into battle! Order U.S. Navy Plan Gold while you still can!
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.