A Class Destroyers (1912)

The A Class Destroyers of 1912 was the designation given to the surviving ‘27 knotters’, the second generation of British destroyers, in 1912. By the outbreak of the First World War they were almost obsolete, but many served for most of the war, normally with the various defensive flotillas scattered around the British coast.

The first British torpedo boat destroyer was HMS Havock of 1893, one of a small group of 26-knotters. Even before the Havock had been completed, the Admiralty decided to order another six destroyers, three from Thornycroft and three from Yarrow. These formed the first part of the 1893-4 destroyer programme. They were similar in overall design to the 26-knotters, other than their slightly higher top speed of 27 knots.

The Thornycroft boats formed the Ardent class, of which only HMS Boxer survived to see service in the First World War.

The Yarrow boats formed the Charger class, all three of which were broken up in 1912.

The first batch of six 27-knotters was followed by a large number of follow-up orders, which completed the 1893-4 destroyer programme.

Two were ordered from Doxford, becoming the Hardy class. Both had been broken up before the outbreak of war in 1914.

HMS Lightning c.1900
HMS Lightning c.1900

Three were ordered from Palmer, becoming the Janus class. The Janus was broken up in 1914, but Lightning and Porcupine both served in the war.

Two were ordered from Earle, becoming the Salmon class. Both were broken up in 1912.

Three were ordered from Laird, become the Banshee class. All three were broken up in 1911-1912.

Three were ordered from White, becoming the Conflict class. HMS Teazer was broken up in 1912, but HMS Conflict and HMS Wizard both survived the war.

Two were ordered from Hanna Donald and Wilson, becoming the Fervent class. Although they were considered to be the worst of the 27-knotters, both HMS Fervent and HMS Zephyr served through the war.

HMS Conflict on speed trials
HMS Conflict
on speed trials

Three were ordered from Fairfield, becoming the Handy class. Only HMS Handy survived into the war, but she was already on the sale list at Honk Kong in 1914 and didn’t return to service.

Three were ordered from Hawthorn Leslie, becoming the Sunfish class. All three served throughout the First World War.

Three were ordered from J & G Thomson, becoming the Rocket class. Only HMS Surly survived into the First World War.

Three were ordered from the Naval Construction & Armament Co (soon to become Vickers), becoming the Sturgeon class. All three were broken up by 1912.

Two were ordered from Armstrong, becoming the Spitfire class. Both had been broken up by 1912.

One was ordered from the Thames Iron Works, becoming HMS Zebra, which was broken up in 1914.

This gave a total of 6 ships from the original order  and 30 ships from the follow-up orders, for a total of 36 27-knotters.

In 1912 the Admiralty decided to group all of its destroyers into lettered classes. The surviving 27-knotters became the A Class. At the outbreak of the First World War twelve of these ships were still in existence, although HMS Handy was already up for sale, and many had been withdrawn from front line service.

HMS Fervent at sea
HMS Fervent at sea

The ships that eventually became the A Class had much in common. All were armed with two torpedo tubes (some had been built with a third tube in the bow but that was removed fairly quickly), one 12-pounder gun on a platform above the forward conning tower and five 5-pounder guns, two below and to the side of the 12-pounder platform to allow all three guns to fire forward in a chase, two along the side and one at the rear. They all had a turtledeck bow, rising up to the forward conning tower, which had the gun platform and bridge above it. The location of the torpedo tubes varied between builders, often depending on the layout of funnels and thus the distribution of clear deck space. The 12-pounder platform also served as the bridge, but had no protection against the weather, and was very wet.

All of the early destroyers followed the classic layout of accommodation, with the captain’s cabin in the stern and the officers and other more senior staff next to him. The ratings and stokes accommodation was in the bows. The engine rooms and boiler rooms were in the middle, and there was no way to get to the officer’s quarters below deck. This arrangement was unpopular with the destroyer’s commanding officers, who found it very difficult to get back to their cabins when the ships were on duty, and who had no shelter on the open bridges. One limit on their endurance was thus said to be the physical drain on the officers. Surviving crew lists show that stokers made up the largest part of the crew on these coal powered destroyers, often accounting for over half of the total manpower onboard.

Internally they were very different. Each builder was allowed to suggest their own combination of boilers, engines and funnels. The standard layout was to have four boilers in two stoke holds, but the arrangement of stoke holds and engine rooms varied between builders. Some gave each boiler room a single funnel, producing two funnelled ships. Some trunked the uptakes from boilers two and three to produce three funnelled ships. In this case the two boiler rooms had to be next to each other to allow the middle two boilers to be connected. Some gave each boiler a separate funnel, producing four funnelled ships.

HMS Wizard before 1908
HMS Wizard before 1908

Many of the 27 knot destroyers took part in the 1896 and 1899 naval exercises, but by 1900 they had been superseded by the new generation of 30 knotters, and none of the 27 knotters were involved in that year’s exercises.

Both the 27-knotters and the 30-knotters were criticized for the emphasis on maximum trial speed. The trials were normally carried out with a light fuel load, and without the guns installed, producing artificially high top speeds. The turtleback foredecks were also criticized for throwing water onto the ships at any significant speed, making the bridges very wet at high speed. The position of the 12-pounder gun on the same platform as the bridge was also a problem, as the operation of the gun interfered with command of the ship. During the First World War many of these older ships were given a modified bridge structure, taking advantage of searchlight platforms that had been installed on the back of the bridge. The base of this platform could be enclosed, and the bridge moved on top.

By 1914 many of the surviving A class ships had been moved into secondary roles, but after the outbreak of the First World War all but the Hardy were seen pushed back into front line service. All eleven were allocated to the Local Defence Flotillas – Boxer, Wizard, Ranger and Surly at Portsmouth, Lightning, Porcupine, Conflict, Fervent and Zephyr at the Nore and Opossum and Sunfish at Devonport. This meant that they were engaged in unglamorous but often demanding work, carrying out local patrols, searching for mines and submarines, escorting ships and in some cases supporting operations off the Belgian coast. Towards the end of the war, as more modern ships became available in large numbers, several of the oldest destroyers were withdrawn, but some remained in use throughout the war.

HMS Zephyr was the only one to move onto a different duty, joining the Irish Sea Hunting Flotilla during the second period of unrestricted submarine warfare.

HMS Boxer at Sea
HMS Boxer at Sea

Only two of the A class destroyers were lost during the war.

HMS Lightning was sunk by a mine in 1915.

HMS Boxer was lost in a collision in 1917.

All of the surviving ships were sold to be broken up in 1920.

Displacement (standard)


Displacement (loaded)


Top Speed

27 knots (contract)






197.25-204.5ft oa
194ft-200ft pp




One 12-pounder gun
Five 6-pounder guns
Two 18in torpedo tubes

Crew complement

45-50 (Brassey 1895)

Ships left by 1914

HMS Boxer
HMS Lightning
HMS Porcupine
HMS Conflict
HMS Wizard
HMS Fervent
HMS Zephyr
HMS Handy
HMS Opossum
HMS Ranger
HMS Sunfish
HMS Surly

British Destroyers From Earliest Days to the Second World War, Norman Friedman. A very detailed look at the design of British destroyers from their earliest roots as torpedo boat destroyers, though the First World War and up to the start of the Second World War, supported by vast numbers of plans and well chosen photographs [read full review]
cover cover cover

Books on the First World War | Subject Index: First World War

How to cite this article: Rickard, J (11 January 2019), A Class Destroyers (1912) , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/weapons_A_class_destroyers_1912.html

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