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British Destroyers and Frigates – the Second World War and After

A welcome re-publishing of Norman Friedman’s landmark study, this book comes at a timely moment for anyone who follows British defence procurement, and in particular, naval procurement.

Matelots of my generation tend to shake their heads at the woes sustained by current MoD procurement programmes, and it is easy for us to look back to an imaginary time when well-founded, fully-equipped fighting ships flew off the stocks all across the land. The reviewer served his Initial Sea Time on board HMS CUMBERLAND, a Batch 3 Type 22, built incorporating all the bloody and painful lessons re-learned during the Falklands conflict, designed to take punishment and keep on fighting.

Friedman’s book shows that corporate memory has always been short, big organisations often kill their people and that financial pressures will often lead to flaws, omissions and misplaced optimism in warship design and construction. In the 1930s, as now, the field was a battle between budgets, proven technology, innovation, politics and attempts to predict future trends. The genesis of so many of the famous corvette, sloop, frigate and destroyer classes that fought in various actions across the globe was often fraught.

Friedman shows that in the early ‘30s, financial constraints and the notorious ’10 year rule’ (A Treasury-driven assumption, and a howling intellectual self-deception that was paid for in both blood and treasure during the war) that assumed that no war would be fought within the next decade, annually-updated as a cover to not invest, saw limits on both numbers and capabilities. There was also an inability to fully grasp the meaning of emergent trends such as naval aviation. In one meeting, Director (Plans), Admiral T. V. Philips expresses his concerns about the lack of sufficient anti-aircraft armament on the proposed J,K and N classes of Destroyers. This was a fleet-wide shortfall, that would tragically cost Philips his own life and those of many others during the sinking of the PRINCE OF WALES in 1942.

Personalities shine through the detailed summaries of minutes and correspondence, with the benefit of hindsight. Thus Andrew ‘ABC’ Cunningham, the fighting admiral’s fighting admiral, is recorded as considering gun arrangements the key factor in destroyer design. A destroyer man himself, he would use all firepower available to him in the Med in the coming war, as well as providing Churchill with a more formidable and less pliable First Sea Lord than the elderly and infirm Sir Dudley Pound.

As ‘the war clouds gather,’ to coin the phrase, the discussions, meetings and correspondence change markedly in tone. Armament, survivability, speed and speed of construction begin to eclipse treaty and treasury limitations. In several instances, the Navy is forced to compromise on quality in order to get sheer numbers of escorts out and off to war. Friedman paints a detailed picture of the pressures of wartime as the Navy’s decision making cycle speeds up to a furious rate in order to cope with a deadly adversary and rapid technological leaps forward.

From 1945 onwards, the Navy has to start making do with legacy wartime platforms, as many programmes get cancelled owing to the nation’s near-bankruptcy from the war. Friedman shows that the RN strove hard to stay abreast of innovations, however, with research and development programmes running for higher-pressure steam turbines, marine gas turbines, radar, missiles, sonar, helicopters and automation. During Mountbatten’s tenure as First Sea Lord, the RN moves away from the ‘Convoy Escort Group’ towards the expeditionary ‘Task Group’ way of thinking. The lines between Frigate and Destroyer become more clearly defined, whereas at the upper end of the scale, the lines between Destroyer and Cruiser get blurred with the ‘County’ and Type 22 Batch 3 classes.

Friedman shows that the fundamentals of naval design and construction never change - exchanges about hull and weight growth, and trade-offs between weapons systems are a constant throughout the book.

5/5 anchors. This book remains the definitive landmark study of its subject.