The Lend-Lease Destroyers

A deal between America and Great Britain arms the Royal Navy and ends US neutrality.

Germany’s wartime strategy against the United Kingdom had changed between 1940 and 1941. It was Adolf Hitler’s view that the destruction of enemy merchant vessels was more critical to victory than the destruction of enemy warships. If Germany was successful, the British Empire would be bled dry of its logistics, losing thousands of tons of shipping, and with it the means to defend itself. The new American president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, was conscious of this crisis. Among his first decisions was to supply the UK with weapons and ammunition, but these were not enough. British shipping required protection. In addition to the construction of merchant replacements in American shipyards, surplus US Navy destroyers from the last war would be transferred to the British.

The transfer of warships did not happen overnight. Selling machine-guns and bullets was one thing, but providing destroyers constituted a far greater breach of American neutrality laws. Badly needing reinforcements for the Royal Navy, Prime Minister Winston Churchill proposed an exchange of gifts between friends—American destroyers for British bases in Bermuda and Newfoundland. A friendly exchange would have downplayed his vulnerabilities in Parliament, but Roosevelt required an official deal to appease Congress. From a strategic perspective, it was also important for the British to promise that no American destroyers would be surrendered to the Germans.

Roosevelt’s plan required proper legislative language, and much political shoring, in order to work. He initially proposed the Lend-Lease concept to Congress in March 1940 but came back empty-handed. His executive action had skipped around his country’s Neutrality Acts. Attorney General Robert Jackson offered some clever interpretations to support Roosevelt’s position, such as the President’s authority as Commander-in-Chief to dispose of military forces as he saw fit. There was also a way to bypass an amendment to the Naval Expansion Bill that blocked transfers of essential equipment, once the Chief of Naval Operations agreed that British bases were more strategically valuable than old warships. Most important of all was that the deal between Washington and London was already done. The “four stacker” destroyers were taken to Nova Scotia for British transfer in early September 1940. The President broke the news to the press first over Labor Day 1940. Regardless of legal loopholes and opinions, he had pulled the United States out of the seemingly safe harbor of wartime neutrality.

Out of the scores of US destroyers built between 1917 and 1920 that passed to His Majesty’s Navy, seven went to the Royal Canadian Navy and two to the Royal Norwegian Navy. From May to August of 1944, approximately nine of the secondhand destroyers were transferred from Britain to the Soviet Union. These warships, all from the Caldwell, Clemson, and Wickes classes, were a mixed bag. Displacement varied from 1,020 to 1,090 tons. Their machinery included oil-lit boilers and geared turbines. Most were fitted with twin shafts with an output from 18,000 to 27,000 shaft horsepower. Fuel capacity was between 290 and 375 tons. At the time of their transfer, the warships were armed with four-inch mounts, fifty-caliber antiaircraft guns, and triple torpedo tubes, although modifications were carried out upon receipt.

American destroyers were typically named after distinguished military personnel, but their new British owners renamed them after towns that would have been recognized in England, America, and even the colonies. USS Wickes (DD-75), for example, became HMS Montgomery (G-95), and USS Sigourney (DD-81) became HMS Newport (G-54). The Royal Canadian Navy renamed their seven destroyers after rivers. Those that arrived prior to their deployment to Great Britain were generously stocked with provisions but possessed many flaws. HMCS St. Croix (I-81), formerly the USS McCook (DD-252), lost steam across the Atlantic and had to turn back to Newfoundland. Others that reached the safe haven of British shipyards were in need of repairs.

The US House of Representatives passed Lend-Lease on 8 February 1941 with a vote of 260 to 165. It was the day before a German U-boat and warplanes destroyed eight ships in a British convoy out of Gibraltar. Twenty-two additional merchants would be lost to submarine “wolf packs” and air raids within the month. The American bill could not be moved fast enough. On 8 March, the US Senate passed the bill with a vote of sixty to thirty-one. The Lend-Lease Act was signed by Roosevelt on 11 March, around the same time when Admiral Karl Doenitz sent his U-boats 200 miles to the west to prey upon allied shipping.

80-G-10826
Above, the Lend-Lease destroyer HMS Roxburgh, also spelled as Roxborough, in Hampton Roads, Virginia on 3 September 1942. (Photo courtesy US National Archives/Naval History and Heritage Command)

Destroyers were appreciated replacements for lost tonnage but were meant to go into harm’s way. Many were risked in the brutal combat and harsh conditions of the North Atlantic. While sailing with a convoy, HMS Roxborough (I-07), formerly USS Foote (DD-169), was slammed by weather so fierce that its bridge collapsed and eleven sailors were killed. Roxborough got back to Saint John, Newfoundland, and in August 1944, transferred to Russia as the Doblestnyi. On 20 September 1942, HMCS St. Croix (I-81) detached from a convoy to search for an airborne contact, only to run into a U-boat ambush. Two torpedoes knocked St. Croix out of action and a third sank her. Another Russian transfer, the Dyatelnyiformerly HMS Churchill (I-45) and originally USS Herndon (DD-198)was sunk by the submarine U-956 during a convoy run on 16 January 1945.

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USS Maddox (DD-168) in Boston in 1919. Operated by the British as HMS Georgetown (I 40) and later by the Soviets as Zhostki, this was one of the last Lend-Lease destroyers to be returned after the war. (Photo courtesy US Naval History and Heritage Command)

Two obsolete Soviet-flagged destroyers, Druzhny and Zhostki, were returned to Great Britain in the summer and fall of 1952. They were formerly commissioned as HMS Lincoln (G 42) and HMS Georgetown (I 40), and before their transfer from America in 1940, were the USS Yarnall (DD-143) and USS Maddox (DD-168). These were the last of approximately fifty US destroyers sent to Great Britain under the Lend-Lease Act that helped in part to reconstitute His Majesty’s Navy, as well as those of Canada, Norway, and the Soviet Union. Nearly every other warship from the “Destroyers for Bases” agreement had gone to war, only to be sunk, scuttled, beached, blown up as target ships, or scrapped.

Additional notes

“Four stacker” referred to the destroyer’s four exhaust funnels, a common design of the period, however HMS Leeds (ex-USS Conner) and HMS Ludlow (ex-USS Stockton) were fitted with only three stacks each.

HMS Hamilton, according to Schull’s Far Distant Ships, after a period of service with the British, was transferred to the Royal Canadian Navy.

Sources

Boyne, Walter J. Clash of Titans: World War II at Sea. Touchstone, 1997.

“Destroyers Transferred to Great Britain as a Result of the Destroyers for Bases Agreement”. The Navy Department Library. Naval History and Heritage Command. https://www.history.navy.mil/content/history/nhhc/research/library/online-reading-room/title-list-alphabetically/d/destroyers-transferred-to-britain-under-destroyers-for-bases-agreement.html

Gilbert, Martin. The Second World War: A Complete History. (Revised ed.) Owl, 1989.

Pious, Richard M. “The historical presidency: Franklin D. Roosevelt and the destroyer deal: normalizing prerogative power.” Presidential Studies Quarterly, vol. 42, no. 1, 2012, p. 190+. Gale Academic Onefile, https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/A283021909/AONE?u=mlin_b_bpublic&sid=AONE&xid=5db7e06b. Accessed 2 Sept. 2019.

Schull, Joseph. Far Distant Ships: An Official Account of Canadian Naval Operations in World War II. Stoddart, 1991.

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One Comment Add yours

  1. Don Broderick says:

    No doubt that complex and deep research were in order, for the author to put his arms around this interesting subject. Nice job!

    As a Navy veteran, I can’t help but think that the crew’s living conditions aboard these four stackers were quite difficult, to say the least.

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