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The strength of twice three thousand horse
That seeks the single goal;
The line that holds the rending course,
The hate that swings the whole;
The striped hulls, slinking through the gloom,
At gaze and gone again —
The Brides of Death that wait the groom —
The Choosers of the Slain!

(from) Destroyers Rudyard Kipling

Basic Information

The invention of the torpedo boat upset people - suddenly it was possible to destroy a major warship from a relatively small boat, and that sort of maths is liable to make an admiral sweat, so there was an urgent need to find some way of protecting valuable capital ships from attack.

First generation torpedo boats could only be used effectively against a stationary target, so they could be effectively warded off with harbour defences such as booms and guard-boats, but pretty soon they had advanced to the point that they could attack a fleet underway, and so the guard boats had to go to sea as well … and, with the necessary modifications to allow them to become sea going craft, the torpedo boat destroyer was born. These days we just call them destroyers. They started off as relatively small craft, fast and manouverable, roughly the equal of the torpedo boats and mounting a few light cannon and machine-guns sufficient to disable or destroy an attacker. Later generations were bigger and more heavily armed so that they could destroy torpedo boats further away, and it was not much of a leap of imagination to fit them with their own torpedos so that they could launch attacks of their own against enemy warships when they weren't needed to protect their own. Once submarines joined the category of "things that fire torpedos at our ships" it was also not much of an innovation to equip the destroyers to hunt and kill those as well.

The onset of convoy warfare in WW1 - and more especially in WW2 - caused additional changes in the destroyer: Whilst a significant proportion remained as "fleet destroyers" - still intended to go into battle with major warships - others were re-designed for long range commerce protection, sacrificing speed and anti-surface armament for seakeeping endurance and anti-submarine and anti-air firepower. Some classes also reversed the historical trend for increased size to create smaller, cheaper ships that were easier to mass produce - these were known as "Destroyer Escorts" in the US (although the Royal Navy tended to call them frigates or even corvettes). A variety of other duties were also expected of destroyers, including a role as miniature capital ships in low intensity warfare … where it was often found that contemporary designs were actually not that effective against torpedo boats and needed further modification.

In general, destroyers lacked operational range due to their small size and were required to operate with the support of another ship such as a destroyer tender or from a shore base and operations of a group of destroyers would often be co-ordinated from a "destroyer leader" - a similar, but larger, design of ship with space for a group headquarters staff aboard.

The modern destroyer is often quite a large ship, usually specialising in anti-aircraft warfare using guided missiles and often has little or nothing to do with its tiny ancestors.


1. full source reference

Game and Story Use

  • The change in pace between being a small thing that has to dodge out of the way of the battleships, to a relative giant can be played out even in the course of a single war if, for example, a WW2 era fleet destroyer finds itself transferred from escorting main fleet units to patrolling some remote archipelago at the head of a flotilla of gunboats. Suddenly it is the giant that needs to worry about navigational hazards and supplying heavy firepower to its consorts…
  • Like old style frigates, destroyers were often "maids of all work" and could get up to all sorts of things that a larger and more valuable ship wouldn't be considered for - and a smaller one might not be equal to.
  • Destroyers could often end up involved in amphibious work.
    • HMS Campbeltown's one way trip to St Nazaire as part of Operation Chariot is a famous example.
    • Less famous are several instances during the allied evacuation of Northern France in 1940 when destroyers extracting troops from various harbours ended up fighting direct fire battles with enemy tanks. These traditionally ended badly for the tanks.
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