University of Portsmouth's History Blog

Tin Cans and Relics: The Royal Navy’s over-age destroyers in the Second World War

Although Winston Churchill argued for the importance of building new destroyers, at the outset of the Second World War in 1939, many destroyers in the fleet were aged, and of limited practical value.  In a paper given on Wednesday 8 May, Dr Jayne Friend examined the careers of these destroyers in the context of propaganda, culture and imagination to suggest how these very different classes of vessel had wide-ranging but parallel importance and purpose. Dr Jayne Friend is a naval historian specialising in the relationship between the Royal Navy, culture and identity within Britain. She gained her PhD, titled “‘The Sentinels of Britain’: Royal Navy Destroyers, British Identity, Culture and Civic Celebration, 1895-1945”, from the University of Portsmouth in 2023, and the project was supervised by Dr Rob James, Professor Brad Beaven and Dr Mathias Seiter from the UoP History department.

HMS SKATE, an R Class destroyer of the First World War, built in 1917 and the oldest destroyer in service with the Royal Navy, during WWII. Photograph taken at Liverpool. by Royal Navy official photographer, Lt H.W. Tomlin.

HMS SKATE, an R Class destroyer of the First World War, built in 1917 and the oldest destroyer in service with the Royal Navy during WWII. Photograph taken at Liverpool by Royal Navy official photographer, Lt H.W. Tomlin.

In March 1936, Winston Churchill urged for not just a ‘replacement, but a multiplication’ of destroyers to meet an anticipated ‘culminating point in Europe’. Exemplifying the success of the 220-strong destroyer fleet in 1915, he stressed the need to hasten shipbuilding in 1936, advocating that as many ships as possible be made available for convoying and coastal protection. A programme of building resulted in the impressive Tribal-Class destined for fleet action. Even so, the terms of the London Naval Treaty and budgetary limitations had impeded construction during the 1930s so that by the outbreak of the war many destroyers were over-age and were pressed into service during the conflict and helped plug an unfortunate gap in shipping. In addition, the British government acquired 50 aged destroyers from the United States with the aim of bolstering convoy escorts. Outwardly, this can be said to have reflected a navy ill-prepared to meet the demands of the conflict and willing to cede its naval prestige in exchange for old destroyers termed in German propaganda, ‘a mess of pottage’. Whilst the practical value of these vessels may be debated, they played an important symbolic role in negotiating naval hegemony, Anglo-American diplomacy and the Royal Navy’s public image at a difficult time in the progress of the war.

You can see a recording of Jayne’s paper here.  The passcode is 0Fbcmr@C.

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