Plan Z:
Britain’s Ultimate Wartime Destroyer

By the mid-1930’s, the Royal Navy had developed a standard design for most of its destroyers based on the destroyer Amazon commissioned in 1927 and based on the lessons of the Great War. By 1939 this design was a relatively small boat compared to the destroyers of other nations, but the Royal Navy built them in numbers.

Designed as a multi-purpose destroyer, the British boats naturally displayed a number of weaknesses. The chief complaints centered around a perceived weakness against enemy air attacks and submarines, as the destroyer’s role moved away from torpedo attacks and surface combat against similar enemy ships. Dive bombers had made 89 attacks against British destroyers during the war’s first year, sinking nine boats, severely damaging 16 and slightly damaging 20, an appalling failure rate for their anti-aircraft defenses – just over half of all dive-bomber attacks succeeded in at least damaging the target destroyer.

Not all British destroyer designs had followed the standard pattern: the Tribal class, laid down in 1936, was much larger with a design maximized for surface gunnery combat. The Tribal design evolved from the smallest of a series of cruiser proposals prepared in 1934, to carry ten 4.7-inch guns on 1,830 tons with a speed of 36 knots. Modified into a destroyer, the boat carried eight guns and added a bank of four torpedo tubes.

That became the basis of the new destroyer design ordered in 1942. Discussions carried on throughout 1941 had pushed a variety of agendas; while Director of Naval Construction (DNC) Stanley V. Goodall cautioned that attempting a design-by-committee would result in an overly large boat, the Sea Lords directed him to press on.

The DNC’s destroyer section had a huge workload in the midst of an ongoing naval war, and tried to draw on as many existing design elements as possible. The new destroyer’s hull would be a slightly longer and somewhat wider version of the Tribal class; suggestions of a bulbous bow were rejected but a transom stern was adopted which added a little speed to the boat.

Goodall had full access to the U.S. Navy’s Fletcher class design, but felt that the Americans had taken too great a risk with regard to stability (too many weapons and directors for the boat’s size) and fire (fuel tanks stretching all the way to the main deck, which also affected stability). They also had innovative power plants, and Goodall demurred from making radical changes for engine-room crews and maintenance personnel in the midst of wartime.

HMS Hogue, seen post-war.

The British designers instead copied the machinery and internal layout of the J-class and subsequent destroyers laid down in 1937, enlarging both to drive the big new destroyer at 34 knots. That was noticeably less than the last class of the standard type; the Ch class boats were rated for 36 knots. But the designers felt the lesser speed a necessary compromise for all of the other capabilities demanded of the new destroyer.

The main armament remained at four Mark III 4.5-inch guns, high-angle dual-purpose weapons in the same twin turrets mounted on newer British battleships and aircraft carriers. They were grouped forward where they could be more easily controlled by the high-angle gunnery director also fitted there. For close-range defense, the new destroyer would finally abandon the quadruple 40mm Vickers “pom-pom” for the long-barreled Bofors 40mm gun on the sophisticated (and, in practice, highly unreliable) Dutch-designed Hazemeyer twin mounting. In addition to four of the double mounts, the boat would carry six more of them in single mountings.

While some argued that the new destroyer would be too large to conduct torpedo attacks and therefore should do without the weapons, giving the space over to more anti-aircraft guns, the boat would carry two quadruple mounts. The new destroyer would also mount a heavy depth-charge armament, with two stern-mounted rails and four additional depth-charge throwers (later replaced by the Squid anti-submarine mortar).

The anti-aircraft and anti-submarine outfits came with the latest electronics: radar, sonar and fire direction, all requiring additional crew to man them and air-conditioning to keep the delicate equipment from overheating. That helped push the size of the destroyer ever larger, along with the requirement for a greatly extended range for operations in the Pacific Ocean against the Japanese.

Only HMS Barfleur of the Battle class deployed to a World War II combat zone.

The resulting boat weighed in at 2,315 tons’ displacement, much larger than previous British destroyers and slightly bigger than the American Sumner class, though not nearly as big as the grossly oversized German destroyers of Plan Z and far smaller than post-war designs which crammed even more electronics aboard the boats. A number of senior officers believed the design far too large, as did Prime Minister Winston Churchill, but First Lord of the Admiralty A.V. Alexander approved the design, noting that modern destroyers required heavier guns and modern electronics.

The new destroyer also broke with earlier naming conventions; the destroyers would be known as the Battle class with all boats named after successful British or English naval battles. Sixteen were ordered in 1942, and 26 more in 1943 to an improved design with an additional 4.5-inch gun, a more reliable mounting for the twin 40mm Bofors guns, and quintuple torpedo mounts boosting the total to 10 tubes. The 1943 boats also now carried the names of land as well as naval battles.

Wartime priority went to repairing and refitting existing ships rather than constructing new ones, and all of the Battle class experienced significant building delays. Seven boats were commissioned before the end of the war, but only one made it to the Far East before hostilities ended (with others on their way). All of the 1942 orders were completed, though several went immediately into the Reserve Fleet and would never be commissioned, while only five of the 1943 orders were ever completed. Two of the cancelled contracts were transferred to Australia’s Cockatoo yard in 1946 and finally completed in 1950.

Our massive Second World War at Sea: Plan Z expansion set includes eight Battle-class destroyers, all of them appearing fairly late in the scenario set. That’s a little earlier than they entered service historically, but without the distractions of wartime it’s probably a reasonable timeline. They are very useful ships, though certainly not overwhelmingly better than the destroyers of the final “standard” classes.

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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.