Town-Class Destroyers, Part I
By Kristin Ann High
February 2021

The famous Destroyers for Bases deal remains one of the controversial events of the Second World War. The controversy primarily centers on the American destroyers: on both sides, British and American, some remain committed to proving the “other side” got the better deal.

In recent years, the revisionist idea that the American destroyers were of little military value to the Royal Navy has gained a wide hearing. Even PBS’ Mystery! featured them in an episode of Foyle’s War — the murderous American patent-thief was permitted to return to the U.S. from Great Britain because he was essential to Lend-Lease, and had been instrumental in pushing through the deal. The American ships were said to be “of little military value,” but their exchange was symbolic of the ties between America and Great Britain, and thus an “important first step toward winning the war.”

In some ways this reaction was inevitable. The American destroyers were hailed at the time in prose worthy of a modern-day political campaign. They were “Fifty Ships That Saved the World,” or given such astounding credit as “fifty destroyers saved five-hundred ships.” The deal was a “bonanza” for America, and so on.

None of these lofty claims can be substantiated even in the context of the time. Because the European understanding of the Second World War — the European view of history, if you will — is so very different from the American understanding, it can be difficult to clear away both wartime propaganda and modern-day revisionism to take a more rational view of the consequences of the the Destroyers for Bases deal.

The American Destroyers

The United States Navy’s flush-deck family of destroyers comprised 273 ships in three major classes: six ships of the Caldwell class (DD-69 through DD-74), 111 ships of the Wickes class (DD-75 through DD-185) and 156 ships of the Clemson class (DD-186 through DD-347; ships DD-200 through DD-205 were not built). They were called “flush-deck” because, in contrast to the all of the preceding classes of American destroyers with a raised foredeck foreward of the bridge, their weather decks were all on the same level, flush with one another.

Together the flush-deckers represent the culmination of U.S.N. destroyer design, from the inception of the torpedo boat destroyer at the turn of the 20th century to the end of the Great War. Fast and well armed, displacing between 1,100 and 1,300 tons, the flush-deckers epitomize the changing role of the destroyer, from screening, defensive operations at the outset of the 20th century to the workhorses of modern war at the turn of the 21st.

By the end of the Great War, when the flush-deckers had been transformed from the Caldwell class (often erroneously called “prototypes”) to the mass-produced ships of the Wickes and Clemson classes, there was a definite change in the place held by the destroyer, signaled by a new designation for the largest of these ubiquitous craft, the fleet destroyer.

The fleet destroyer was responsible for scouting and screening the battleline, protecting it from torpedo attacks by enemy destroyers and small craft — like their old nemesis, the torpedo boat — and, perhaps most importantly, fighting submarines and aircraft. Fleet destroyers mounted both ASDIC and depth charges as well as the beginnings of anti-air (A/A) armament, the former two copied from the British, the latter an integral part of the American design from the beginning.

Like all United States ships built between 1890 and 1925, the flush-deck family of destroyers were progressive designs, in that each successive class drew on the experiences gained in preceding classes, as well as the gaining from the processes and technologies perfected during their building.

Perhaps the most telling aspect of the flush-deckers was that, by the end of the building program in the early 1920s, there were nearly 300 of them in commission (though not for very long; 1922 saw large numbers laid up in reserve).

DD-134: Wickes-class USS Crowninshield, later the Town-class HMS Chelsea, later loaned to the R.C.N., still later the Russian destroyer Derskyi.

The 'Town'-Class Destroyers

The Town-class destroyers exchanged for leases were 50 flush-deckers, comprising three Caldwell-class destroyers, 27 Wickes-class destroyers, and 20 Clemson-class destroyers. Of these, the British Admiralty allotted 44 ships to the Royal Navy and six to the Royal Canadian Navy. The Royal Navy received three Caldwell-class destroyers, 23 Wickes-class destroyers, and 18 Clemson-class destroyers, turned over in six groups. The Royal Canadian Navy received four Wickes-class destroyers and two Clemson-class destroyers, turned over in a single group.

The Royal Navy destroyers were given the names of towns common to both Great Britain and the United States, and were thus called the “Town” class. The Royal Canadian Navy destroyers were given the names of rivers running between Canada and the U.S., being thus the “River” class; generally, though, the R.C.N. ships were referred to as Town-class destroyers by the Admiralty, to avoid confusion (!) with the later British River-class frigates.

Condition of the 'Town' and 'River'-Class Ships

To characterize the flush-deckers that were exchanged for basing rights as “old” is both accurate and misleading. The flush-deckers that became the British Town class and their Canadian stablemates were not uniformly drawn from the very best, nor from the very worst, of the U.S.N.’s remaining flush-deckers, but were an admixture of those ships. Some were ready for sea as soon as their British and Canadian crews could handle them, some needed the usual minor refits, and some were in poor condition, reflecting their age, previous service, and the effects of having been laid-up in reserve for 10 to 20 years.

DD-70: Caldwell-class USS Craven, recommissioned Conway in 1939 and HMS Lewes in 1940. On the way to England she joined the hunt for Admiral Scheer.

A number of the ships were ready for action by the time their R.N. crews had completed familiarization trials. Several ships of the initial exchange were ready in time to participate in the hunt for Admiral Scheer and search for survivors from convoy HX.84 in November 1940. Given the debilitating losses of destroyers in the first year of WWII and the unsuitability of the Hunt-class escort destroyers for work in the western North Atlantic (or anywhere at all, in the case of the First Group ships), to say the flush-deckers exchanged with the Royal Navy were “of no military value” is not supported by the historical records of the Admiralty.

Just considering the fact that the Royal Navy had been pressed into employing auxiliary cruisers as convoy escorts — merchant ships with between four and six 6"/45-calibre BL Mk.XII rifles, woefully inadequate for dealing with anything other than an armed merchant raider, and utterly incapable of dealing with U-boats — it is taking too broad a view to discount the flush-deckers in such an out-of-hand fashion.

The 'V'/'W'-Class Destroyers

The Town-class destroyers’ greatest contribution to the British war effort may well have been freeing up the British V/W-class destroyers for reconstruction as long-range escorts, and to be fitted out with the most up-to-date weapons and sensors for the short-range escort role.

Unlike the American flush-deckers, the British V/W-class ships were superb sea boats, with a good hull-form compromise between speed, stability and manœuverability. More importantly, they had counter-rotating propellers, where the flush-deckers did not. This meant that the British ships’ manœuverability was markedly superior to the American ships — indeed, the flush-deckers had a “tactical radius” only slightly smaller than that of a British battleship, certainly not an advantage when dealing with submarines.

The British ships also had superior electronics — ASDIC and early meter-wavelength RDF on several ships — and several ships had already been refitted with wide pattern-throwing depth-charge mounts employing improved depth charges. They also had a heavier anti-air fit — one 12-pdr (3”/50-calibre QF HA Mk.I) and two to four 2-pdr “Pom-Poms” (40mm/39-calibre QF HA Mk.II), and on some of the ships, two quadruple-mount Vickers HMGs. The American ships still mounted only two 3”/23-calibre HA Mk.4 A/A weapons, plus some Browning HMGs (both the British and the Americans soon abandoned the HMG A/A weapons as being too light and too short-ranged).

The one area in which the American ships surpassed the V/W-class ships was endurance — the range, in nautical miles, to which a ship may safely operate. The British destroyers of the Great War era had been built to screen and scout for the Grand Fleet in the waters of the North Sea. They were intended to operate near home waters, with friendly ports or anchorages near to hand, and a premium was placed on speed, torpedo armament, and main battery. As a consequence, they had a rather limited endurance and thus were poor convoy escorts.

While it is certainly true that most of the Town class served only about three years of active service with the Royal Navy and the Royal Canadian Navy, it is not true that they made no militarily important contribution, either in terms of what their presence in the North Atlantic made possible, or in the direct effect of their escort duties on the merchant convoys plying those waters.

There is much more detail to be had on the Town class and their service in the war, so tune in next time for a full listing of the names of all Town-class ships, their dates of service and notable actions fought, and SWWAS counters and ship data sheets.

See the Town class in action — order Second World War at Sea: Bismarck now!