The River Class Destroyers (E class) saw a significant change in the design of British destroyers, with a greater emphasis on seaworthiness and robustness at the cost of a reduction in the theoretical top speed. Although they were controversial when they first appeared, the concept was soon provided to be valid, and most British destroyers well into the First World War were descendents of the River class.
Concept and Development
The first generation of British destroyers, the turtleback 27-knotters and 30-knotters that later became the A class, B class, C class and D class, had been designed and produced at great speed. The first of the 27-knotters had been ordered in the 1893-4 programme and completed in 1895-6, by which time the first of the 30-knotters had already been laid down. Most of these ships were completed in 1897, by which time two further sets of orders had been placed. As a result the Navy found herself with a large group of ships that had been developed and built with little time to test the early examples.
It is thus not surprising that a number of serious flaws were soon found with these designs. In December 1900 Commander John M de Robeck, the senior destroyer officer in the Mediterranean under Admiral Fisher, wrote to the Admiralty with a series of criticisms of the existing ships and a list of requirements for new destroyers.
De Robeck’s main criticisms of the 27-knotters and 30-knotters were that they lacked the endurance to operate in the Mediterranean, where the destroyers were based at Malta, but needed to be able to reach the Dardanelles, they were too lightly built and they were rarely able to produce their official top speed in service. This was partly because their trials had been carried out with a light load of 35 tons of coal, compared to the 100 tons carried in service, and partly because their turtleback bows dug down into heavy seas, making them very wet and often forcing them reduce speed in heavy seas. The forward superstructure carried the bridge and the forward guns on the same level, while the chart table was located in the conning tower underneath the bridge.
De Robeck wanted a destroyer with the endurance to steam from Malta to the Dardanelles at 18 knots then operate there for two days. This required an endurance of 1,650nm. The 30 knotters could only do 1,400nm at 13 knots. He suggested that the new destroyers should have four boilers and be able to make 18 knots using two of them. He wanted them all to be turbine powered. The turtleback should be replaced with a normal raised forecastle. They should be able to maintain their designed speed in heavier seas than the 30 knotters. He also wanted a new separate navigating bridge, which would also have space for the chart table.
The Director of Naval Construction was opposed to these requirements, on the grounds that they would make the new destroyers too large and too expensive. He was supported by Admiral A. K. Wilson, Third Sea Lord and Controller of the Navy with overall responsibility for new construction, but they did agree that all future speed trials would be carried out fully loaded. The first ship to be affected by this new policy was the turbine powered destroyer HMS Velox, which thus had an official speed of 27 knots.
However the criticism of the 30 knotters wouldn’t go away. In May 1901 the Commander-in-Chief at Portsmouth, Admiral Hotham, produced a report that listed the problems found by his destroyer commanders. Many of these were the same as de Robeck’s, including that they were too wet, flaws with the turtleback and the problems caused by having the 12-pounder gun and bridge on the same platform. In addition they all complained about the location of their cabins, which were right at the stern, where they were difficult to access. As a result the destroyer captains rarely got any proper rest when at sea, and when they did have time to go to their cabins, their location mean they were badly affected by the movement of the ship. They were too weakly constructed, and didn’t live up to their official top speed.
Faced with all of this pressure, in July 1901 the DNC began work on a design for the destroyers to be ordered in 1902. This called for a modified bow, a normal forecastle (which could also contain extra accommodation space), a modified bridge with a chart room behind the conning tower and a bridge built on top, more reliable engines (heavier and running at lower RPMs in the 30 knotters), and designed to run their trials with a realistic load. At first the aim was to reach 27 knots, but this was reduced to 25.5 knots late in 1901 and more strength added. This design was approved by the DNC in October 1901
In the summer of 1903 work began on the new destroyer design for 1904-5. This soon emerged as a slightly enlarged version of the River class, with a top speed of 27 knots, but otherwise rather similar. These boats were never built, but their design did influence the later Beagle class and related designs.
The River Class destroyers were followed by two very different designs, both inspired by Admiral Fisher after he became First Sea Lord in 1904. These were the Tribal Class destroyers, a group of larger, faster destroyers with quite poor endurance, and the Cricket Class coastal destroyers which were much smaller and were soon re-designated as 1st Class Torpedo Boats. Neither of these types were particularly successful, and the next major type, the Beagle class, had much in common with the River class, including their overall size and speed. Most British destroyers until well into the First World War were based on this basic design, with some improvements in each new class, so the River class can be seen as the predecessors of the standard British destroyer.
In layout the River class destroyers were an evolution of the 30-knotters of the B, C and D classes. The most obvious changes were that the turtleback was replaced with a raised forecastle, and a new dedicated bridge was built on a higher level. This allowed a chart house to be installed under the bridge, and meant that the bridge was no longer on the same level as the 12-pounder gun. The commanders of the River class destroyers all appreciated the enclosed chart room, as it gave them somewhere to rest close to the bridge – the captain’s cabin was in the stern and could only be reached along the open deck, making it tricky for the captain to get any real rest while at sea.
As originally designed the River class destroyers carried the same armament as the 30-knotters – one 12-pounder and five 6-pounders, two alongside the bridge area, one at the stern and one on each side of the main deck. The raised forecastle blocked part of the forward view of the 6-pounders, so part of it was cut away at the rear to give a better view forward and sponsons were added to allow the guns to be trained freely.
Even as the ships were being built, their firepower was being criticised as being inadequate. In January 1903 the incoming DNC suggested moving the flank guns from their sponsons up a level onto the forecastle. The change was agreed in time for the fifteen ships of the 1903-4 programme.
It was also becoming clear that the 6-pounder guns weren’t much use. In February 1905 the Admiral (D) asked if the Rivers could be modified to carry two extra 12-pounders in place of the five 6-pounders. The DNC suggested removing the conning tower so that two 12-pounders could fit side by side on the forecastle, and place another one aft. Alternately two of the 6-pounders could be removed and the aft gun replaced with a 12-pounder. At this point nothing was done, but in 1906 the three 12-pounder layout was approved for all ships still under construction (although it does appear that all of the River class ships were already complete by then).
In July 1906 an alternative plan was suggested. The single forward 12-pounder/ 12cwt would be retained, but the 6-pounders would all be removed, and replaced by lighter 12-pounder/ 8 cwt guns taken from larger warships. Two would replace the forward 6-pounders and one would be positioned at the stern. The lighter 12-pounder had proved to be just as effective as the heavier gun at the short of short ranges destroyers fought at. The new arrangement was approved on 23 October 1906, and existing ships were to be re-armed in 1907-8, starting with Nith, Ness, Ettrick, Wear, Ure and Swale.
The River class ships were also more robust than their predecessors.
They all had four boilers, arranged in two single and one double stokehold. The double stokehold was in the middle, with the stokers working in the middle of the room. In the single stokehold the stokers worked from the ends furthest from the double stokehold, so the uptakes from each single boilers was close to one from the double stokehold. Each builder was allowed some freedom with the exact details of their ships, so some had four funnels in two pairs and others had two larger funnels, each serving two boilers.
Ships in Class
The original plan was to order ten River class ships in the 1901-2 Programme. The original plan was for two of these to be turbine powered, but only HMS Eden was actually built with turbines, HMS Velox taking up the second slot.
Four companies each received orders in the 1901-2 Programme – Palmers of Jarrow (Erne, Ettrick, Exe), Yarrow of Glasgow (Ribble, Teviot, Usk), Hawthorn Leslie on the Tyne (Derwent, Eden) and Laird of Birkenhead (Foyle, Itchen). The River class boats were the first class of British destroyers to have thematic names, with each being named after a British or Irish river (although not automatically after ones close to their shipyard). All four builders produced slightly different designs. Palmers and Yarrow ships had four separate funnels and were 225ft long, while Lair and Hawthorne Leslie boats had two funnels and were 220ft long.
Eight more River class boats were ordered in the 1902-3 Programme. This time Thornycroft built two at their Chiswick yard on the Thames (Kennet, Jed) and the previous four companies also received orders. Yarrow built one (Welland), Palmers built two (Cherwell, Dee), Laird built two (Arun, Blackwater) and Hawthorne Leslie built one (Waveney).
The biggest batch, of fifteen ships, was ordered in the 1903-4 Programme. White’s of Cowes on the Isle of Wight produced two (Ness, Nith), their first British destroyers since 1894-5 when they produced three A-class 27-knotters. Thornycroft built two at Chiswick (Chelmer, Colne), the last full size destroyers to be built there (they also built some of the Cricket coastal class destroyers at Chiswick, but their Tribal class destroyers were built at their new yard at Woolston, Southampton). Yarrow built two (Gala, Garry), Palmers built three (Swale, Ure, Wear), Laird built three (Liffey, Moy, Ouse) and Hawthorn Leslie built three (Boyne, Doon, Kale). These ships all had their flank guns raised up from the original sponsons to the forecastle level.
Three extra River class boats were later added to the class. Palmers had built an extra ship on spec, and eventually the Navy decided to buy it in place of one of the fourteen destroyers originally planned, as HMS Rother.
Cammell Laird also built two River class boats on spec, launching them in 1905. They were intended for the export market, but failed to sell. In 1908 they offered them to the Admiralty, but at first there was no interest. However two of the original River class ships, HMS Gala and HMS Blackwater were lost in collisions, in 1908 and 1909. In 1909 the Navy decided to buy the two Cammell Laird boats at a reduced cost of £50,000. They became HMS Stour and HMS Test.
The River class was thus one of the biggest classes of British destroyers ordered in peacetime, with thirty three boats in the original plans and a total of thirty six boats when the extras are included.
Six similar destroyers were produced for Australia. These were originally based on the 1904-5 River class design, but evolved into the equivalent of the later pre-war British designs. They are variously described as the Australian River class, Australian Acheron class or Parramatta class destroyers, with Australian River class the most common designation. Part of the confusion was caused by their later construction, with the first batch launched in 1910-11 and the second in 1914-15, by which time many details of their design had been altered.
The new destroyers were controversial even before they had been completed. The apparent loss of speed was the main problem, especially when new German and French destroyers were reported to be up to 5 knots faster. Admiral Charles Beresford, who had replaced Fisher in the Mediterranean, made a case for reverting to the older 30 knotters in May 1904, one only four River class ships had been completed, and he had had no chance to test them out properly. His arguments were dismissed in London, although he did get them into the press in July 1904.
By the summer of 1904 enough of the new destroyers had been completed to allow them to take part in the summer torpedo boat manoeuvres. These immediately demonstrated that they were superior to the 30-knotters. They were nearly as fast in nearly any sea conditions (apart from a dead calm), were better sea-keepers, coped better with bad weather, and could use their forward 12-pounder and forward torpedo tubes in far worse weather than the 30-knotters. In mid August, after the manoeuvres were over, thirty one destroyers set off on a return trip from Ireland to Cornwall and back. They ran into bad weather during the return trip, and only four River class boats (Avon, Cherwell, Eden and Welland) and one 30-knotter managed to reach Waterford. Similar incidents were reported by the commanders of many of the early River class boats.
Two River class boats were lost before the outbreak of war in 1914. The Gala sank after colliding with the scout cruiser HMS Attentive during night manoeuvres on 27-28 April 1908. The Blackwater sank after colliding with the merchantship SS Hero on 5 April 1909.
At the outbreak of the First World War the remaining thirty four River class boats were split. Twenty were part of the Ninth Destroyer Flotilla, which was based at Chatham before the war, and moved to the Tyne after the outbreak of the conflict. Seven boats, three of the Yarrow boats and all four of the Thornycroft boats, were on the China station. The remaining seven were attached to the Grand Fleet.
This picture began to change in 1915. The seven boats in China were moved to the Mediterranean, to support the operations around the Dardanelles, and remained there for the rest of the war. In March 1915 the Beagle class destroyers, which had been escorting troop ships across the Channel, were sent to the Dardanelles. Eight of the River class boats were sent south to replace them, forming the Portsmouth Escort Flotilla. Two were used to form the North Channel Patrol, which was meant to guard the northern entrance to the Irish Sea, although one was soon taken over by the Senior Naval Officer at Liverpool.
During the rest of the war most of the home based River boats served either at Portmouth or with the Seventh Destroyer Flotilla based on the Humber. Two spend some time with the Devonport Local Defence Flotilla. By the end of the war the twenty-eight surviving River class boats were split into three groups – thirteen were with the Seventh Destroyer Flotilla on the Humber, seven were part of the First Destroyer Flotilla at Portsmouth and eight were in the Mediterranean.
Six River class boats were lost during the war. The Erne ran aground on 6 February 1915 while serving with the Grand Fleet. The Edenwas sunk in a collision on 18 June 1916 when serving at Portsmouth. The Foyle was sunk by a mine on 15 March 1917 when serving at Devonport. The Kale was sunk by a mine on 15 March 1917 when serving on the Humber. The Derwent was sunk by a mine on 2 May 1917 when serving at Portsmouth. The Itchen was sunk by UC-44 on 6 July 1917 when serving on the Humber.
Ships in Class
HMS Erne – Directly attached to Grand Fleet, lost when she ran aground on 6 February 1915
HMS Ettrick – Ninth Flotilla, Tyne, 1914-15; Portsmouth Escort/ Local Defence Flotilla 1915-17; Seventh Destroyer Flotilla, Humber, early 1918; First Destroyer Flotilla, Portsmouth, rest of 1918.
HMS Exe – Directly attached to Grand Fleet 1914-15; Portsmouth Escort/ Local Defence Flotilla 1915-1917; Seventh Destroyer Flotilla, Humber, 1918
HMS Cherwell - Ninth Flotilla, Tyne, 1914-15; Portsmouth Escort/ Local Defence Flotilla 1915-17; Seventh Destroyer Flotilla, Humber, early 1918; First Destroyer Flotilla, Portsmouth, rest of 1918
HMS Dee – Grand Fleet 1914; North Channel Patrol 1915; Liverpool 1915-1917; Seventh Destroyer Flotilla, Humber, 1917-18
HMS Swale - Directly attached to Grand Fleet 1914-15; Portsmouth Escort/ Local Defence Flotilla 1915-1917; Seventh Destroyer Flotilla, Humber, 1918
HMS Ure – Grand Fleet 1914; Sixth Destroyer Flotilla, Dover, 1915-1916; Portsmouth Escort Flotilla 1917; Seventh Destroyer Flotilla, Humber, early 1918; First Destroyer Flotilla, Portsmouth, rest of 1918
HMS Wear – Ninth Flotilla, Tyne, 1914; Mediterranean late 1914-1918
HMS Rother – Ninth Flotilla, Tyne, 1914-15; Portsmouth Escort/ Local Defence Flotilla 1915-17; Seventh Destroyer Flotilla, Humber, early 1918; First Destroyer Flotilla, Portsmouth, rest of 1918.
HMS Ribble – China Station 1914; Mediterranean 1915-1918
HMS Teviot – Ninth Flotilla, Tyne, 1914-15; Portsmouth Escort/ Local Defence Flotilla 1915-17; Seventh Destroyer Flotilla, Humber, early 1918; First Destroyer Flotilla, Portsmouth, rest of 1918
HMS Usk - China Station 1914; Mediterranean 1915-1918
HMS Welland - China Station 1914; Mediterranean 1915-1918
HMS Gala – Lost pre-war
HMS Garry – Ninth Flotilla, Tyne 1914; Grand Fleet early 1915; North Channel Patrol 1915-1917; Seventh Destroyer Flotilla, Humber, 1918
Hawthorne Leslie Boats
HMS Derwent – Ninth Flotilla, Tyne, 1914-15; Seventh Flotilla, Humber, 1915; Portsmouth Escort Flotilla 1915-2 May 1917 when sunk by mine.
HMS Eden - Ninth Flotilla, Tyne, 1914-15; Seventh Flotilla, Humber, 1915; Portsmouth Local Defence Flotilla 1915-18 June 1916 when sunk in collision
HMS Waveney - Ninth Flotilla, Tyne, 1914-15; Seventh Flotilla, Humber, 1915-1918
HMS Boyne – Grand Fleet 1914; Devonport Local Defence Flotilla 1915-17; Seventh Destroyer Flotilla, Humber 1918
HMS Doon – Ninth Flotilla, Tyne, 1914-15; Seventh Flotilla, Humber, 1916-1918
HMS Kale - Ninth Flotilla, Tyne, 1914-15; Seventh Flotilla, Humber, 1916 until sunk by mine 27 March 1918
Cammell Laird Boats
HMS Foyle – Ninth Flotilla, Tyne, 1914; Grand Fleet 1914- early 1915; Devonport Local Defence Flotilla 1915-15 March 1917 when sunk by mine
HMS Itchen – Ninth Flotilla, Tyne, 1914-1915; Seventh Flotilla, Humber, 1916 until sunk by UC-44 on 6 July 1917
HMS Arun – Grand Fleet 1914; Portsmouth Local Defence Flotilla 1915- 1917; Seventh Destroyer Flotilla, Humber, early 1918; First Destroyer Flotilla, Portsmouth, rest of 1918.
HMS Blackwater – Lost pre-war
HMS Liffey - Ninth Flotilla, Tyne, 1914; Portsmouth Local Defence Flotilla 1915- 1917; Seventh Destroyer Flotilla, Humber, early 1918; First Destroyer Flotilla, Portsmouth, rest of 1918
HMS Moy - Ninth Flotilla, Tyne, 1914-1915; Seventh Flotilla, Humber, 1916-1918
HMS Ouse - Ninth Flotilla, Tyne, 1914-1915; Seventh Flotilla, Humber, 1916-1918
HMS Stour - Ninth Flotilla, Tyne, 1914-1915; Seventh Flotilla, Humber, 1916-1918
HMS Test - Ninth Flotilla, Tyne, 1914-1915; Seventh Flotilla, Humber, 1916-1918
HMS Kennet - China Station 1914; Mediterranean 1915-1918
HMS Jed - China Station 1914; Mediterranean 1915-1918
HMS Chelmer - China Station 1914; Mediterranean 1915-1918
HMS Colne - China Station 1914; Mediterranean 1915-1918
HMS Ness - Ninth Flotilla, Tyne, 1914-1915; Seventh Flotilla, Humber, 1916-1918
HMS Nith - Ninth Flotilla, Tyne, 1914-1915; Seventh Flotilla, Humber, 1916-1918
225ft 6in-233ft 6in oa
23ft 5in – 23ft 11in
Armaments as designed
One 12-pounder gun
Armaments in service (general)
Four 12-pounder guns
Ships in Class
|Laird 'on spec'