The handsome and powerful Type 34 and 34A destroyers (Zerstörer 1934 and Zerstörer 1934A) were designed in the early 1930s to match the large destroyers then entering service with the French and Polish navies. The Royal Navy’s Tribal class destroyers ordered in 1936 were in turn intended to counter the Types 34 and 34A.
Although the German vessels seemed impressive, significant problems were encountered as they came into service. Their theoretically efficient high-pressure steam machinery, which had been adopted after minimal testing, caused endless problems, proving particularly susceptible to corrosion, while the vessels’ geared turbines were also unreliable.
A further problem was poor seaworthiness – despite attempts to improve stability by using light alloys instead of steel in the superstructure, top-weight was a constant problem. This issue worsened as the surviving vessels were fitted with ever-increasing numbers of AA guns in the later stages of the war. Even when first completed, they were so unstable that a minimum fuel level of 30% had to be maintained at all times to give adequate ballast, something which significantly reduced their maximum range and operational capabilities.
Despite these problems, they were well-armed vessels, mounting five single 127mm (5in) guns, plus a far more powerful AA armament than most of their foreign counterparts. However, their main armament’s effectiveness was compromised by limited ammunition stowage of only 120 rounds per gun, compared to an average of 300 rounds per gun for British destroyers.
The next generation of German destroyers, the Type 36 and its derivates, were enlarged to improve seaworthiness and fitted with a clipper bow instead of the earlier near-vertical stem to reduce the amount of water breaking over the forward gun mountings in rough weather.
Unfortunately, later vessels of this class, the Types 36A and 36A (Mob), mistakenly sacrificed these gains in order to mount a main armament of four or five 150mm (5.9in) guns. As designed, they carried a twin turret forward and three single guns in shielded mounts aft. Slow production of the turrets led to several vessels being completed with four single guns in shielded mounts.
These were difficult to operate in rough weather – the ammunition was manually loaded, and handling 45.3kg (99.8lb) shells and 23.5kg (51.8lb) cartridge cases on heaving decks dramatically reduced the theoretical rate of fire. The new guns were markedly heavier than those of the earlier destroyers, and even allowing for the reduction from five guns to four, stability was worsened by the extra 13 tonnes (12.8 tons) of top-weight.
The belated introduction of the twin turret did nothing to improve matters. It weighed 60.4 tonnes (59.5 tons), almost twice the weight of two single guns. This concentrated weight so close to the bows meant that the turret was often half-submerged in high seas.
Although it should have given its crew far better protection from the elements than the single mounts, early examples were poorly sealed. This often resulted in soaked gun crews and frequent turret breakdowns as seawater caused short circuits and damaged control equipment.
The shortcomings of these up-gunned destroyers were so acute that the final class to be completed by the end of the war, the Type 36B, reverted to a main armament of five single 127mm (5in) guns. •