War of words – ‘Destroyer’

With Marc DeSantis.

With the advent in the late 19th century of the ship-killing torpedo launched by small and cheap torpedo boats, the Royal Navy, the world’s foremost operator of big and expensive warships, sought a counter. Their solution, the ‘torpedo boat destroyer’ (soon truncated to just ‘destroyer’) was a small, fast craft of around 275 tons that could knock out torpedo boats before they came too close.

Etymologically, ‘destroyer’ may be traced to the Old French verb destruire, destruire, meaning ‘to destroy’. Its first appearance in English, in an alternate spelling, came in 1382 in John Wycliffe’s Middle English translation of the Bible (Book of Revelation): ‘Appolion, and by Latyn hauynge the name Destrier.’

Destroyers were used in both World Wars, though by this time they were themselves equipped with torpedoes. Their most formidable opponents were now submarines.

Representative of WWII British destroyers were those of the B-class. Equipped with 4.7-inch cannons, anti-aircraft guns, torpedoes, and depth charges, they were tasked with protecting convoys and hunting U-boats.

A B-class ship, HMS Bulldog, was involved in one of WWII’s most significant destroyer actions. On 9 May 1941, Bulldog, helmed by Commander A J Baker-Cresswell, caught U-110 on the surface of the North Atlantic and hammered the sub with her guns. The German crewmen leapt overboard, but failed to ensure the boat was properly scuttled.

Seizing the opportunity, a boarding party was sent to investigate the still-surfaced sub. Within, Sub-lieutenant David Balme found an Enigma machine, used to encrypt wireless messages, along with several codebooks. This haul would be of vast importance to the British war effort, helping Ultra codebreakers at Bletchley Park rapidly to decipher secret German naval wireless messages.