50 Destroyer Pre-War Base Deal

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Vaclav Havel


Figure 1: Wickes-Class Destroyer.

Figure 1: Wickes-Class Destroyer.

This post is going to look at the Destroyers for Bases deal between the US and UK. The bargain was an executive agreement announced on 2-Sep-1940 to trade 50 WW1-era US destroyers to the UK for US basing rights in the Caribbean, Bermuda, and Newfoundland. I have seen the destroyers described as obsolete, which seemed odd for ~20-year-old destroyers that nominally have 30 year lifetime (typical for most US Navy ships).

Alas, age is not the only factor in determining the performance of a ship. These destroyers were designed and built under wartime conditions by a navy that was still learning the ropes of modern naval warfare. As such, their design and outfitting were probably not appropriate for service as WW2 North Atlantic convoy escorts battling Type VII U-boats. Performance-wise, the ships were "wet" and lacked the maneuverability, weapon systems, and sensors required of a WW2 anti-submarine vessel. To a large extent, this is to be expected because they were designed for a different time with different threats.

Corrosion was also another major issue with these ships. Most of these destroyers had been put into the US Navy's Reserve Fleet,  which is often called the "Mothball Fleet." Ideally, ships in the Reserve Fleet are treated to prevent corrosion. However, there were signs that these ships were not properly mothballed and many suffered from severe corrosion issues. These issues had to be resolved before the ships could go back on active duty. For more details on these issues, see this article.

To be fair, many of these ships were refit and used effectively by the US Navy in WW2. However, the UK was facing an existential threat from U-boats and they needed convoy escorts in a hurry. The time required to repair and refit the ships would be an obstacle to their defense of the UK. The following quote from Winston Churchill in a cable to Roosevelt in late 1940 sums up his opinion of the ships and their issues.

We have so far only been able to bring a few of your fifty destroyers into action on account of the many defects which they naturally develop when exposed to Atlantic weather after having been laid up so long.

The deal was important because it provided President Roosevelt a way to help the UK without raising the ire of the isolationist elements in the US. Once it was clear that the destroyers had issues, President Roosevelt transferred 10 Lake Class Coast Guard Cutters to the Royal Navy as a gesture of good faith. The Lake Class ships were 10 years newer and their design was more suited to ASW operations.

The rest of this post will discuss the 50 destroyers in the deal along with the other ships of the same classes. This is a tale of two nations, US and UK, trying to make use of whatever assets were available to give themselves time to build more modern ships.

For those who like to follow along, my Excel workbook is available here. All of the data is from Wikipedia.


Figure M: Commissioning Dates of US Battleships at the Start of WW2.

Figure 2: Commissioning Dates of US Battleships at the Start of WW2.

The 50 destroyers were built by the US during a 273 destroyer building program that started during WW1 (1916) and finished in 1922. By the time of WW2, all but ~30 of these ships ended up in Reserve Fleet.

While these destroyers are frequently described as old, understand that much of the early WW2 naval fighting was done using WW1-era ships. For example, seven out of nine US battleships at the start of WW2 were built during or shortly after WW1 (Figure 2). Of these old battleships, two were permanently lost during the attack on Pearl Harbor (USS Oklahoma and USS Arizona).

The destroyers traded to the UK were from three classes: Caldwell, Clemson, and Wickes. The Royal Navy referred to these ships as the Town Class. Table 1 shows that most of the ships of these classes served in WW2.

Table 1: Total Number of Caldwell, Clemson, Wickes-class Destroyers built.

As is shown in Table 2, the Clemson, Caldwell, and Wickes-class ships were very similar in terms of their general characteristics.

Table 2: Key Characteristics of Deal Destroyers.

I looked at the range of Royal Navy ship displacements for classes launched after 1935 (Table 3). The Caldwell, Clemson, and Wickes-classes are displacement-wise most similar in displacement to the Black Swan sloop or G-class Destroyer-classes.

Table 3: Displacement Range of Royal Navy Classes Launched Post-1935.


Notable Ships of the Clemson and Wickes Classes

Some of these ships did give notable service:

  • USS Ward (Wickes-Class Destroyer)
    Fired the first shots against a Japanese midget submarine entering Pearl Harbor just before the attack.
  • USS Reuben James (Clemson-Class Destroyer)
    The first US warship sunk by hostile action in the European theater during WW2 by the Germans. The sinking occurred on 31-October-1941, less than two months before the Pearl Harbor attack.
  • USS Buchanan (Wickes-Class Destroyer), renamed HMS Campbeltown
    The UK turned this ship into a surface running torpedo during the St. Nazaire Raid. The use of a surface ship as a torpedo reminds me of the boat African Queen, which starred in the movie of the same name.

Survival in US and UK Service

Table 4 shows the number of losses and survivors of these three classes, with about 16% of the ships being lost for all causes during WW2. I defined losses to include ships that ran aground or ended up being used as target ships;

Table 4: WW2 Survivors and Losses In the Destroyer Deal Classes.

Table 5 shows the losses of the three classes while in UK service (or those countries who the UK transferred them to), which ended up being about 20% of the ships were lost.

Table 5: Survivors and Losses in UK service.

While the 50 destroyers were traded to the UK, a number of them ended up in Canadian and USSR service (Table 6).

Table 6: Country whose Navy the Destroyers Ended Up.


The ships were not the best, but they were all President Roosevelt could provide at the time and still ensure his re-election in 1940. And this deal provided a small start on what would eventually become the Atlantic Charter, a cornerstone of US and UK cooperation during WW2.

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One Response to 50 Destroyer Pre-War Base Deal

  1. NotACapitalist says:

    Trained as a historian I find studies such as this amusing and revealing of man's psyche. Here the languages of the Maths are engaged, presenting one perspective of a "moment" in time regarding a limited sample of the equipment on the historical stage. Thanks, it is a story I enjoy. As a "War Baby" born in the City of Brotherly Love, I have an intimate relationship (bias) with the time, the setting, the events. How truly fortunate I am.

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