A Typ 1934 destroyer, of which Georg Thiele was one, is seen probably at a French port after the defeat of that country by the Germans, sometime later in 1940. These ships were large and well armed, but suffered from a variety of mechanical problems that reduced their effectiveness. She and all the destroyers that took part in the action at Narvik were painted the standard early-war Kriegsmarine scheme of medium grey on the hull and a lighter grey above that.
Destroyers as a type evolved rapidly in the slightly more than twenty years that elapsed between World War I and World War II. Lessons had been learned from the experiences at Jutland and, even more, in the Dover Patrol. It was easy to reach the conclusion that bigger, more powerfully armed destroyers not only could perform their nominal duties of escorting the main battle fleet better than their smaller counterparts, but that they could also perform many of the singular duties of small cruisers as well. As cruisers grew in size between the wars, larger and larger destroyer classes were designed to fill in as multi-purpose, highly capable warships, big enough to act independently, alone or in small groups, at a distance from the fleet, yet small enough that they could be produced in large numbers and be considered expendable when risks needed to be taken.
The end of World War I left the victorious navies, in particular the British and American, in possession of a large number of relatively small, war-production destroyers. These nations had little impetus to build more of this type in the years immediately following the Armistice. Other Allied nations, those with smaller economies and less need during the war to build up a large fleet of conventional destroyers, were the first to study the lessons of the war and begin designing a new generation of destroyers. This happened more or less independently in France, Italy and Japan beginning in the first half of the 1920s.
It started specifically in France, where the six Jaguar-class contre-torpilleurs were ordered in 1922. These were large and fast – 2126 tons standard displacement, 119 metres overall length and thirty-five knots – and were well armed with five 5.1in (130mm) main guns, two 3in (75 mm) anti-aircraft mounts and two triple 21.6in (550mm) torpedo tubes. This kind of size and capability served as a model for other navies and was followed by the Italian Navigatori class ordered in 1926 and the Japanese ‘Special Type’ authorised in 1923.These latter, which were laid down starting in 1926, were smaller than the French ships, at 1750 tons, but were faster and better armed. As interested as the major powers were in events in the Mediterranean, it took the Japanese to truly alarm them. The British, with the drawing down of the massive navy built for the war, were finding themselves hard put to maintain forces in the Far East sufficient to counter the rapid build up of the Imperial Japanese Navy. The Americans, even more than the British, were keeping a close watch on the Japanese, who were seen as a direct threat to US interests in China, the Philippines and Hawaii. US Navy war planning, in particular after the end of World War I, assumed that the next war would be with Japan.
Except for a couple of one-offs, the Royal Navy only seriously resumed building destroyers with the ‘A’-class of 1928–9 and these were straightforward updates of the late-war repeat ‘W’-class design. It was not until the ‘Tribal’ class of 1936 that the British really responded to the threat posed by large destroyers being built elsewhere. Most British destroyers built well into the late 1930s were smaller. Much more typical were the ‘H’-class ships launched in 1936 that displaced 1350 tons and were armed with four 4.7in (119mm) guns and twin quadruple 21in (533mm) torpedo tubes. The US Navy, with its large fleet of ‘four-pipers’, was not able to convince a parsimonious Congress to build any new destroyers until the early 1930s and even then, the designs evolved slowly, only reaching a size and capability that matched the Japanese ‘Special Types’ with the Porter-class leaders starting in 1935. Like the British, the Americans continued mainly building somewhat smaller destroyers, but by the later 1930s these had grown incrementally to a size very similar to their foreign contemporaries.
It was not just in greater size and greater armament that destroyers changed between the wars. The nature of the threats to warships in general had evolved rapidly during and after World War I, and destroyers had to evolve to protect themselves and the ships they escorted. Destroyers were the natural choice to become the primary anti-submarine platform for the protection of fleets and convoys. The state-of-the-art in ASW (anti-submarine warfare) between the wars centred on sonar for the detection of submarines and depth charges for their destruction. The first operational sonars were deployed in 1923 in the Royal Navy and 1931 in the US Navy. By the outbreak of World War II, they were common in the world’s navies. The idea behind depth charges dates back to 1910, but the first practical version was the Royal Navy’s Type D of 1916. However, without sonar, depth charges were only marginally effective.
The other new threat introduced in World War I was aircraft. The primitive biplanes of 1918 may not have seemed much of a threat to warships, and AA (anti-aircraft) weapons were still rare at the end of the war, but the rapid evolution of aircraft and aircraft carriers soon made them a major, if not the major, factor in any naval operation. The relatively small size of destroyers, even the larger ones developed between the wars, limited the number of AA weapons they could carry, but not the critical role they could play in AA defence. In the days before radar, destroyers were spread in a wide screen to locate and report incoming aircraft in time for defences to be prepared. Even after radar became ubiquitous, the role of destroyers in AA defence, if anything, expanded. Radar picket destroyers were first widely used in the Okinawa campaign, where they proved to be critical in giving early warning of kamikaze attacks, which they drew like magnets.
In general, the growth in size of destroyers reflected the growth in the demands put on the type. From being rather fragile, fair-weather torpedo boats, destroyers evolved between the wars into fast, long-ranging ships, capable of carrying out virtually any job that needed to be done. So useful were they, that many nations found themselves regretting they had not built more of them before the fighting began again.
One nation that certainly had such regrets was Nazi Germany. The once-proud Hochseeflotte was emasculated by the Versailles Treaty. That treaty, intended by the victors in World War I as a way of ensuring that Germany could no longer disturb the peace of the continent, in fact guaranteed exactly the opposite. Germany was so humiliated by the treaty that fertile ground was prepared for every form of radical ideology, not least that espoused by Hitler and the Nazis. The post-Versailles navy, known as the Reichsmarine, was relatively apolitical, but was not immune to the sense of shame and anger that pervaded the rest of the nation.
The treaty restricted Germany to no more than twelve active destroyers and twelve torpedo boats, and those allocated to the Reichsmarine by the victors were hardly the newest and best survivors of the war. The treaty’s provisions allowed these old ships to be replaced fifteen years after they were launched by new construction no larger than 800 tons. As all of the twelve destroyers retained by the Reichsmarine were launched between 1911 and 1913, this allowed the Germans to begin building new destroyers in 1926, but this was hardly an auspicious time in Germany economically or politically, and there was no enthusiasm in the Reichsmarine for the construction of new destroyers less than half the size of foreign contemporaries. That situation changed only when Hitler took power in 1933. Suddenly money was available and the political will to rearm extended even to the Reichsmarine. More importantly, the new government was willing to ignore the Versailles restrictions, so that when the first new destroyers were laid down in 1934, they were comparable in size and armament to new construction elsewhere. Where the German destroyers suffered in comparison to others was in the reliability of their power plants. The Germans opted to give their new destroyers high-pressure superheated steam propulsion, which would theoretically give improved endurance using a smaller, lighter engineering plant. The Americans pioneered this technology and had success with it, but the Germans, and to a lesser extent the British, had great difficulty perfecting this propulsion system. German destroyers would be continually plagued in the upcoming war by untimely engine failures.
But by far the biggest problem the Germans had with their destroyers, when a new world war broke out in September 1939, was that there were simply too few of them. When Germany entered the war, she had twenty-one operational destroyers. This was nowhere near enough to perform the myriad of tasks at which they would have been useful, anything from escort duties to harbour defence to anti-submarine patrol to a new role that no warship designer could have anticipated – high-speed transport.