TRIBALS, BATTLES AND DARINGS: THE GENESIS OF THE MODERN DESTROYER

Reviewed by: REAR ADMIRAL R. G. MELLY

Dr Alexander Clarke has written a book which builds on his considerable knowledge of, and interest in, the 16 ships of the Tribal-class which were introduced into service at the start of the Second World War.  These handsome and well-armed ships were conceived of in the 1930s, during an era when international treaties constrained the mix of ships that could be built.  Seen to be large, general-purpose ships, capable of fulfilling the more traditional roles of a light cruiser, they were occasionally referred to as ‘back pocket cruisers’.

The author goes on to present, in some detail, the role played by this class of ship during World War Two.  With their reputation for aggression and for fire power established by their participation in the Altmark incident and at the Second Battle of Narvik, the ships were soon in great demand for a wide range of missions. Indeed, it was their utility and the esprit de corps of their ship companies, rather than their design concept, which led to no fewer than 12 of the 16 ships operated by the RN being lost during the course of the war, despite a proven ability to withstand considerable damage.

The design and layout of the Battle-class vessels, the first of which were ordered in 1942, reflected the lessons learned during the first years of the war. In particular, there was an increased emphasis on air defence, and the installed weapons (barring the torpedoes and depth charges) were viewed as being dual purpose.  Slightly larger than the Tribals that they were replacing, thereby improving the stability required for the gunnery systems, the ships were built with worldwide operations in mind. Ultimately, although 7 vessels were completed by the end of the war, only Barfleur, deployed to the Pacific, saw action.

The next evolution of the concept was the introduction of the Daring-class. This class of ship, which introduced the Mk VI twin 4.5in turret, was larger again, with the propulsion machinery arranged in two units to improve survivability.  More importantly, the ships were designed with radar and electronic warfare systems as a central core around which they would be constructed.  The ships were introduced at a time of financial constraint and manpower shortages; however, it was also a period of rapid technological change and the dawn of the guided missile age, and it was ultimately these factors which led to the eight ships of the class which were commissioned having operational lives spanning a period of just 20 years.

The book is sub-titled “The Genesis of the Modern Destroyer”.  In the final pages of the book, the author reflects on the current composition of the Royal Navy, positing that the Type 26 and Type 45 are the inheritors of the sub-strand started with the Battle-class destroyers, in as much as they are “a general purpose orientated design …. although also used as a fighting class”. Personally, I am not sure that it is quite that simple, and the thesis, which I had expected to be more prominent, would have benefitted from more elaboration, perhaps with mention of the impact made by some of the intermediate classes of warship.

The book is crammed with detail and has a truly extensive bibliography.  However, my enjoyment was marred by the numerous editing mistakes and by a perception of a lack of structure in the way that the impressive array of facts is presented.  The most gripping part of the read, which in practice was the larger part of the book, was the narrative of the Tribal-class at war; it was at this point that the author’s undoubted passion for the subject was apparent.