In September, 1940, Britain traded a number of its New World naval base sites for 50 "overaged' (old) destroyers in the so-called "Destroyer Deal." That doesn't seem like a large number of destroyers, except that it was "large" relative to the existing British destroyer fleet.

Why did Britain have so few destroyers, even after its World War I experience with submarine warfare that they needed to trade for old ones?

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    Editing your question like that after reading my answer, making part of my answer irrelevant, is a bit much don't you think? Commented Dec 15, 2013 at 19:52
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    Why not add an Update addendum instead with the new understanding, maybe even pointing back at the source that misled you, to better inform future readers? Commented Dec 15, 2013 at 19:54
  • @PieterGeerkens: First, I upvoted you, so have no fears on that ground. Second, I edited IN a reference to your answer, then "thought better of it" (because it's answered in the Wikipedia link) and decided to restore the "status quo ante." But in any event, it is no skin off your back.
    – Tom Au
    Commented Dec 15, 2013 at 21:22
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    I understand. Just grist-for-the-mill as an idea to keep the site improving. Commented Dec 15, 2013 at 21:30

6 Answers 6


This source provides a complete list of the RN's vessels in service in September 1939. It lists 113 Modern Destroyers, 68 Old Destroyers, and 54 Corvette Escorts (including 4 Australian and 2 Indian), for a total of 181 destroyers and 54 Escorts. An additional 24 Modern Destroyers were under construction.

Additionally, the Royal Canadian Navy included 7 River-Class destroyers in 1939, and commissioned 1 additional River-Class and 8 Town-Class destroyers in September 1940 as pat of the WWII building program that would make it the Allies' third-largest navy, by number of vessels, in 1945. The Royal Australian Navy had the destroyers Stewart, Vampire, Vendetta, Voyageur and Waterhen in service in September 1939.

The most frequent RN organization of destroyers appears to be this:

Eight destroyers, each in the charge of a commander, plus a specially fitted leader commander (sic) by a captain, usually comprised a flotilla.

Additionally, between the wars the importance of airpower in deciding naval battles was increasingly recognized as of importance. Older destroyers without the capability of mounting A_A guns, and other modern armament, were often retired rather than moth-balled as not worth the expense of the latter. It was the surprisingly effective role of airpower in sinking the Bismarck that finally convinced the sceptics on both sides that the North Atlantic would be a battle of submarines against ASW vessels, rather than of surface fleet raiders eluding chasers.

Update comparison of Royal Navy between October 1918 and September 1939:

                    1918   1939     change
Battleships          34     15    -18   -54%
Cruisers             64     56     -8   -12%
Aircraft Carriers     0      7     +7     NA
B & C & AC combined  98     78    -20   -19%

Destroyers          233    181    -52   -21%
Escorts               0     54    +54     NA
D & E combined      233    235     +2    +1%

(ignoring specialty ships like minelayers, minesweepers, AA cruisers, etc.)

Contrary to the claim made in another answer, the large ships were disproportionally decommissioned in comparison to the smaller vessels.

Update #2:
Note also that the German submarines in World War 2 were fr the first 2 or 3 years much more effective than in World War 1, at least partially due to having broken the British and American maritime codes.

Update #3:
It was less about the number of destroyers available in 1939-40, as the much greater effectiveness of the Luftwaffe and Kriegsmarine in sinking them than was anticpated. In one letter to Roosevelt inquiring after the destroyers, Churchill noted that in the preceding ten days the Royal navy had had 11 destroyers sunk in the English Channel, and then proceeds to list them.

Update #4:
The double whammy of losing the French Navy as an ally in the Mediterranean, and of the German U-boats being able to base in the Bay of Biscay and Brittany area, was completely unexpected. No pre-war planning in the Admiralty could have been expected to foresee such a rapid fall of France.

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    Nice find. Note that the US destroyers, rather than being modern post (Great) war models, were all old WWI construction that the US had mothballed.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Dec 15, 2013 at 19:45
  • @T.E.D.: They are in addition to those listed above. Commented Dec 15, 2013 at 19:45
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    @T.E.D.: Actually, it turns out that the U.S. thought so little of them that they had not even properly moth-balled them! They all required much more refitting than Churchill expected, and I don't believe any were in service in less than 3 to 4 months refit. At least they floated, so didn't take up precious dry-dock capacity. Commented Jan 13, 2014 at 1:09
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    @T.E.D.: I read once that the Admiralty inquired if they could return the destroyers and get their bases back. Commented Jan 13, 2014 at 1:11
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    @PieterGeerkens - For Update #4 you could also bring in that the French refused to allow GB to use their ships post-surrender leading to Mers-el-Kébir.
    – Kobunite
    Commented Jan 15, 2014 at 10:38
  1. The main idea of the deal from the British POV was to drag the US further into the war, not just increase RN's power.
  2. The emergency need for destroyers was due to heavy losses from convoy duties; which was not anticipated before the war.

(The source is the Churchill's WW2 book).

  • Another reason is destroyers in WW1 being mostly tasked with destroying capital ships, and the post-WW1 naval treaties greatly limited the number of those, and thus the number of destroyers needed to counter them. By the time WW2 approached, a crash program to build destroyer sized ships to counter the growing German U-boat threat (if it were recognised before the war started) would not have been able to build very large numbers in British yards, there simply wasn't the capacity.
    – jwenting
    Commented Dec 17, 2013 at 6:43

Perhaps there's a clue in this snippet from the wikpedia Battle of the Atlantic page:

Despite their success, U-boats were still not recognized as the foremost threat to the North Atlantic convoys. With the exception of men like Dönitz, most naval officers on both sides regarded surface warships as the ultimate commerce destroyers.

A destroyer is almost no help whatsoever against a full-blown battleship, as its guns will not be able to penetrate the larger ship's armor. So if the naval officers making shipbuilding requests before the war thought that the bigger ships were more important, they would natrurally prioritize the building of those ships, to the detriment of small ships that cannot be effective against them.

It should also be noted that the British, while getting some use out of those 50 transferred destroyers, didn't really find them as useful as one might think. In fact, they were of the opinion that the US was getting much the better of the deal, and were mostly going along to try to keep the relationship between the two countries close.

Britain had no choice but to accept the deal, but it was so much more advantageous to America than Britain that Churchill's aide John Colville compared it to the USSR's relationship with Finland. The destroyers were in reserve from the massive US World War I shipbuilding program, and many of the vessels required extensive overhaul due to the fact that many were not preserved properly when inactivated; one British admiral called them the "worst destroyers I had ever seen", and only 30 were in service by May 1941.

  • Maybe it was a sub rosa transfer of assets to the U.S. to hedge against a possible British defeat, with the theory being that the destroyers would be "destroyed" in combat in that event.
    – Tom Au
    Commented Dec 15, 2013 at 19:45
  • @TomAu - IIRC from my reading of Churchill, one of his concerns about this deal was that many in Parliment would look at it in exactly that cynical way. Churchill himself was careful to try to promote the view that England would fight on from Canada if need be, preciesly to counter that sort of US fatalsism.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Dec 15, 2013 at 19:48
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    Also, with the unexpectedly sudden fall of France, dry-docks in Britain were in short supply. Since the U.S. destroyers at least floated, I presume they could be refitted afloat without occupying precious dry-docks. Commented Dec 15, 2013 at 20:15
  • @T.E.D.: Churchill also reminded Hitler (and the world), that Germany was at war with the British Empire, not just the British Isles.
    – Tom Au
    Commented Dec 15, 2013 at 22:46
  • @TomAu Sorry, I'm not quite getting the Empire angle here. The US obviously was not part of the Empire - so, am I missing something? Commented Dec 17, 2013 at 8:31

As stated by Pieter Geerkens in his answer, the Royal Navy had 181 destroyers available to it in 1939 (including any that were in refit). I'm posting this in order to expand on the other answers.

In 1939 the Royal Navy maintained a large number of fleets and stations including (but not limited to):

 - Home Fleet (Admiral Sir Charles Forbes)    
 - Mediterranean Fleet (Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham)
 - Cape of Good Hope Station [Covered the South Atlantic] (Vice Admiral Sir George Lyon)
 - North America and West Indies Station (Vice Admiral Sir Sidney Meyrick)
 - East Indies Station (Admiral Sir Ralph Leatham)
 - China Station (Admiral Sir Percy Noble)
 - New Zealand Station [Pre-cursor to the Royal New Zealand Navy] (Commodore Henry Horan)

The Royal Navy was faced with a need to maintain, and in some cases increase, deployments to these stations.

  • The Mediterranean Fleet had to fight/guard against the German and Italian navies.

  • The Home Fleet had to protect the UK itself and associated shipping.

  • The East Indies Station and China Station (alongside the Royal Australian Navy) had to guard against increased Japanese aggression.

Granted, not all of these formations contained destroyers but the extent of the deployments maintained by the Royal Navy is important in this case.

  • It's also worth considering the number of escorts required to keep up the tempo of operations required for the convoys of WW2. Increased tempo = increased maintenance requirements = more escorts needed.
    – Kobunite
    Commented Jan 8, 2014 at 14:58
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    And the age of individual ships and classes. Many of especially the smaller ships (thus destroyers, the DE construction having been in large part to counter this) were obsolescent even in the 1930s, but budget constraints prevented large scale replacement programs (thus the lighter and smaller DEs were designed to replace old WW1 era DDs).
    – jwenting
    Commented Mar 4, 2014 at 8:30

I wouldn't say the Royal navy has 'so few' they had a very large number, it just turned out they could have done with quite a lot more. The main reason they felt themselves so short of destroyers is they underestimated the submarine/u boat threat and the need for convoy escorts.

There was limited Royal Navy investigation of submarine and anti-submarine warfare in the interwar period, they really should have developed some of the anti submarine weapons and methods during the interwar period. The dismissing of the the need to convoy merchant vessels was fairly blind in the light of WW1 experience

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    many of the existing DDs were not optimised for oceanic missions, let alone ASW operations. They were intended as cruiser killers in surface engagements in the North Sea and Mediterranean, relatively sheltered water near shore bases, and under the umbrella of land based air and of cruiser guns.
    – jwenting
    Commented Mar 4, 2014 at 8:31
  • My point is that the Royal navy had a rough proportional number of destroyers in their force mix as anyone else, for a navy of it's size a had a good number of destroyers, destroyers are maids of all work, there are very useful in huge vaierty of roles. The under estimation of the need for convoy escorts, and anti submarine warfare was the factor the really pushed on their allocation of destroyers during the war as they had not allowed for these roles during the inter war period
    – pugsville
    Commented Mar 6, 2014 at 5:38

Destroyers and Transports are those unexciting little necessities that Peacetime admirals cut back on in favor of big shiny Battleships or Aircraft carriers. No dignitary gets excited about breaking a beer bottle over a destroyer's bow.

When serious fighting breaks out, suddenly you need these vital support vessels and you feel the pinch until your industry kicks in.

  • Do you have any references to show that Britain disproportionately decommissioned destroyers between the wars, compared to battleships and cruisers? Commented Jan 7, 2014 at 22:43
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    The number of destroyers and light vessels at the end of a war is huge compared to capital ships in wartime. If they reduced them proportionally, there would be no capital ships left on the average, and the navy would consist of only light vessels. And the issue isn't only with Britain - the US itself had similar issues when it fully entered the war, and both had problems in WWI in finding escorts, Frigates were always in short supply in the days of sail...it is more a universal fact of naval life.
    – Oldcat
    Commented Jan 7, 2014 at 22:50
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    This is simply false by the best records I can obtain. See my answer above. Commented Jan 8, 2014 at 3:10

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