In the 21st century the term “destroyer” in naval circles covers a wide array of warships of various capabilities and sizes. However when the term was coined in the last decade of the 19th century the vessel had a very specific type of role.
For centuries, during the age of sail, the European Imperial powers built bigger and grander warships to overwhelm enemy vessels and project their power abroad. Then in the second half of the 19th century technology began to change the face of naval warfare beyond recognition thanks to steam power, electricity and larger guns mounted in turrets. Even with these new technologies the Imperilaist powers continued their mad pursuit of bigger and better but another weapon threatened to throw everything off balance – the self propelled torpedo.
The torpedo was invented in Britain in 1866 by Robert Whitehead. The term had previously been used to describe a type of anti-ship mine which is why the American David G. Farragut is remembered for saying “Damn the torpedoes” during the Battle of Mobile Bay in the American Civil War; he was referring to an enemy minefield. It would actually be the Austrian government who would commission Whitehead to design and develop the weapon with the Royal Navy only becoming interested in 1870. The torpedo was a small weapon with big potential in that it was a self-propelled warhead that when it exploded against the hull of a ship could tear a massive hole in it especially in the early days when warships weren’t armoured against such weapons. Another effect it had was that when the warhead detonated it created a vacuum in the sea that was quickly filled with sea water that would slam against the weakened hull thus increasing its effectiveness beyond its own warhead.
The world’s navies took a long time to appreciate the torpedo as a credible weapon; it was an extremely troublesome and imprecise weapon in those early days but perhaps most importantly to Victorian minds the torpedo launchers didn’t look as impressive as big guns. Nevertheless some naval strategists rallied around the new weapon and proposed that its effectiveness would be best used by a fleet of small warships operating close to the coast to protect against raiding and bombardment from naval vessels. Thus the torpedo boat was born and while the Royal Navy were initially hesitant over the use of such vessels, British shipyards produced some of the best for sale to other countries most notably in South America. The Royal Navy did commission its own torpedo boats starting with HMS Lightning in 1876 but the jury was still out at that time.
All that would change in 1891 during the Chilean Civil War. A pair of torpedo boats attacked and sank the rebel ironclad frigate Blanco Encalada in a daring attack. Several other large ships were sunk this way and finally the world’s navies began to appreciate the new weapon. New warships were designed to specifically counter the torpedo boats. The first were the “torpedo cruisers” which were effectively light cruisers with smaller calibre weapons that were more effective in destroying the small torpedo boats. These vessels were largely a failure however because they were too slow to be able to intercept the torpedo boats and lacked the range to properly support the fleet. Therefore a new warship type was proposed that was smaller yet again but fast and potently armed. These were the torpedo boat destroyers.
In 1892 the Royal Navy ordered its first torpedo boat destroyers and these would be powered by water tube boilers that would allow them to achieve the speed and range necessary to effectively counter the torpedo boats. The first torpedo boat destroyer, and indeed the first destroyer, for the Royal Navy was HMS Daring commissioned in 1895. Displacing just 290 tons she was armed with a 12-pounder main gun and three 6-pounder secondary guns plus three torpedo tubes. The class was a great success and more types followed.
The torpedo boat destroyer was required to provide a defensive screen against torpedo boats for the main fleet. If a torpedo boat attacked then it would use its lighter weapons which were quicker to reload than the main fleet’s guns to destroy them. Should a big ship attack the fleet then the torpedo boat destroyer could assist by attacking with its own torpedoes although this would have to be done as part of a coordinated effort with the big gun ships as the torpedoes still had a short range requiring the torpedo boat destroyer to get in close before firing.
As the 19th century passed in to the 20th century the torpedo boat destroyers began to take on other roles such as reconnaissance, minelaying, escort, fisheries protection and training duties. They were also among the first vessels to be used to hunt an even newer invention – the submarine. This meant that the term “torpedo boat destroyer” was no longer valid and it was therefore shortened simply to “destroyer”.