HMS Swift (1907)

HMS Swift (1907) was one of Admiral Fisher’s less successful ideas. She was meant to be the first of a new class of large high speed destroyers that would replace the River class and be able to work with Fisher’s battlecruisers, but she ended up far too large and expensive for the role, and wasn’t repeated. However she did perform well in service, and was most famous for taking battle in a battle with German destroyers on 20-21 April 1917, where she fought alongside the Broke.


When Lord Fisher became First Sea Lord in October 1904 he already had a vision for the Royal Navy, in which speed was key. An important element of this plan was thus the need for a high speed destroyer that could operate as with the faster capital ships he was planning to build. In his manifesto, Naval Necessities, he included a plan for a 36-knot destroyer, complete with a list of dimensions and weights. It was to be armed with two 4in guns, carry two torpedo tubes, have a displacement of 900 tons, dimensions of 320ft length and 35ft width and make 36 knots at 19,000shp. The new design was to replace the River class destroyers, and probably the scout cruisers then in use.

HMS Swift from the right HMS Swift from the right

It soon became clear that Fisher’s plans were unrealistic. The specifications were given to the assistant DNC on 26 October 1904, and passed onto Henry Deadman, the DNC’s destroyer specialist. He reported that the ship would be far too lightly built, and would be weaker than the 30-knotters. He also calculated that she would be unable to make the required speed. His initial estimate was that a 320ft long destroyer might reach 31 knots with 19,000shp. On 3 January 1905 a legend for a 1,140t, 320ft long ship that could make 33.5 knots at 19,000shp was produced. This was followed on 5 January by a legend calling for a 1,560ton ship, 360ft long and 36ft wide, capable of 36 knots at 29,000shp.

This was far larger and more costly than Fisher had hoped, and he altered his plans. The main construction effort would go into the high-low mix of Tribal class destroyers and Cricket class coastal destroyers. The Tribal class replaced the 36 knot destroyer as the main fleet boat, and reached 33 knots on half the displacement and power of HMS Swift.

Work still continued on the 36 knotter, but now as an experimental design. The first invitation to tender called for a ship armed with three 12-pounder/ 18 cwt guns (soon increased to four), two torpedo tubes, capable of reaching 36 knots in a moderate sea. She was to be oil powered, and to carry enough fuel to steam 1,600 nautical miles at 10 knots or eight hours at full speed. She was to have a separate chart house, similar to the River class.

Armstrong, John Brown, Fairfield, Cammell Laird and Thornycroft were all asked to tender designs. All of the designs used four shaft turbines, with HP turbines on the flanks and LP and astern turbines in the centre. They had between 10-12 boilers. All five designs were submitted by September 1905. The costs ranged from £191,717 to £284,00 and the fully loaded displacement from 1,114t to 1,981t.

None of the designs were entirely satisfactory, but Cammell Laird’s was closest to Fisher’s vision, and in December 1905 they were offered the contract. Cammell Laird made it clear that many changes would be needed to the design, and despite the lengthy construction process they were never penalised for over-running on time.

The eventual design used twelve small boilers in four boiler rooms, producing 30,000shp. The armament was changed to four 4in Mk VIII guns (two side by side on the forecastle and two on the centre line aft). The order was placed on 30 March 1906 and she was to be delivered by the end of December 1908. The construction process turned out to be rather more complex than expected, and she wasn’t ready for her official trials until 16 September 1909.

Cammell Laird had to cope with a number of problems while building the Swift. When work first began there were no oil burning destroyers in service in the Royal Navy, although HMS Spiteful had been used for tests of oil burning since the summer of 1904. Parsons turned out to be unable to the required turbines at the weight they had originally promised, and the Swift’s trials displacement rose from 1,680t in the original design to 2,131t on the actual trials. When she was launched, the Swift was the largest destroyer in the world.

The Swift gained a great deal of press attention. When she was launched at Birkenhead on 7 December 1907, she was the largest destroyer yet built, and was expected to reach 36 knots, which would have made her the fastest ship in the world. She was christened by the wife of Samuel Roberts M.P., a director of Cammell Laird. She was portrayed as being a ‘destroyer of destroyers’. A great deal of fuss was made about her powerful engines, which at 30,000hp were 7,000hp more powerful than those in the battleship HMS Dreadnought! However early reports of her speed were inaccurate. In July 1908 it was reported that she was unofficially believed to have reached 38 knots. By February 1909 this had been reduced to a belief that she had achieved her target speed of 36 knots, but experiments with her propellers were also reported. In the same month it was reported that she had reached 38 knots with her engines running at high pressure, but in neither case was an official speed given, or any details given about how long these speeds were achieved.

At the end of March 1909 Cammell Laird held their annual meeting. At this point the company had to admit that the Swift had not yet achieved her contract speed, mainly because of problems with a ship of ‘such novel type’. She was then reported to be in the Clyde, having her propellers altered. In September 1909 it was reported that she had completed her trials, in which she had exceeded 36 knots. It was also ‘given out’ that she was three knots quicker than any other boat in the British Navy, but this was very much not the case! For some time her top speed was given as 38 knots in the press.
On her official trials the Swift reached 35.037 knots. The DNC decided to reduce her target speed to 35.5 knots, and Cammell Laird were only fined £5,000 for failing to reach that speed.

Although she was very large and very expensive, the Swift was generally well received. In September 1910 her first captain, John S. Dumaresq, reported that she was too large and visible to work as a torpedo boat at night, but was suitable for use as a fast fleet scout. She was vulnerable to enemy gunfire because many of her steam pipes were above the water line and could thus easily be damaged. However her massive engines gave her very good acceleration – with all boilers lit she could go from 10 knots to 25 knots in seven minutes and to 34 knots in twenty minutes. She needed a less flimsy bridge structure, and an improved bow to allow her to take full advantage of her high speed, but she could maintain a speed of 21 knots in weather that forced standard destroyers to drop down to 10-11 knots. She was somewhat under-armed for her size, especially compared to the scout cruisers of the period, which weren’t much larger and were armed with ten 12-pounders (although were ten knots slower).

Service History

At the start of March 1910 the Swift was commissioned at Portsmouth, with orders to join the Nore destroyer flotilla of the Home Fleet, but she was then damaged in a collision with a gunboat in the Solent and had to return to port for repairs. This was only a short delay, and she departed for Harwich on 11 March.

In July 1910 she took part in the annual naval manoeuvres. She was part of a force that carried out an attack on Milford Haven on 13 July, but the attackers were repelled by the port’s guns and submarines. On 18 July she was forced into Queenstown to refuel.

In the 1912 battle practise the Swift came top of her class (Swift class) with 94 points.

In 1912 the Swift became the leader of the 4th Torpedo Boat Destroyer Flotilla.

Despite her problems, the Swift was still a prestigious ship. Churchill used her as a transport at least twice while serving as First Lord of the Admiralty. In May 1912 he used her to watch the annual naval manoeuvres. In August 1913 he used her to travel to Harwich, arriving on Saturday 9 August, before heading to London.

In the April 1913 Navy List she was listed as one of three ships directly attached to the commander-in-chief of the First Fleet.

In the January 1914 Navy List she was the flagship of the 4th Destroyer Flotilla, commanded by Captain Charles J. Wintour.

On 17 June 1914 the hospital ship RFA Maine ran aground on the Isle of Mull, and was wrecked. The Swift  was used to bring 35 patients ashore at Campbeltown.

First World War

In July 1914 the Swift was the flotilla leader for the Fourth Flotilla of the First Fleet of the Home Fleet. In late July the flotilla was based at Queenstown, Ireland, but on 29 July it departed for Scapa Flow. Once there the Swift and its flotilla patrolled the three main entrances into the flow, while waiting for the arrival of the main fleet, which arrived on 31 July.

Ship's Mascot on HMS Swift Ship's Mascot on HMS Swift

In August 1914 the Swift wasn’t listed in the Pink List, but the Navy’s staff monographs listed her as the flagship of the 4th Destroyer Flotilla, which contained twenty Acasta or K class destroyers. She was commanded by Captain C.J. Wintour.

On 15 October 1914 the cruiser HMS Hawke was operating in the North Sea off Aberdeen when was hit by a torpedo fired by U-9 while attempting to catch up with the rest of her squadron after picking up mail. The Hawke wasn’t missed until later, when she failed to respond to an order to retreat north-west. The Swift was sent from Scapa Flow to try and find the cruiser, but there was no sign of her. The Hawke had capsized and sunk almost immediately after being hit. After two hours the Swift found a raft carrying one officer and twenty men, and only then was the cruiser’s fate discovered. Another boat with 49 survivors was rescued by a Norwegian steamer, so there were only seventy survivors from the Hawke, and 524 men were lost. The Swift herself reported being attacked by a U-boat soon after finding the survivors.

It is perhaps not surprising that everyone constantly imagined U-boats in these circumstances, even inside the anchorage at Scapa Flow. On 17 October the Swift reported sighting a periscope inside the harbour, and seeing a torpedo being fired at her. There had indeed U-boats in the area, but none inside the harbour, but even so all of the reports convinced Admiral Jellicoe that the anchorage was no longer safe, and the Grand Fleet was moved around to Loch Swilly, in the north of Ireland.

In November 1914 the Swift was the flagship of the Second in Command of the Fourth Flotilla, one of the Home Fleet Destroyer Flotillas.

On 9 November an intercepted telegram suggested that two minelaying cruisers might have left German on a raid. The Swift and two divisions of destroyers were sent out from Cromarty to patrol an area off Kinnaird Head. However they didn’t spot any enemy ships, and returned to harbour on 11 November.

By 22 February 1915 she was the flotilla leader of the Fourth Flotilla, then commanded by Captain C J Wintour. She held that position in the June 1915 Navy List

In June 1915 the Swift was the flagship of the commander of the Fourth Flotilla of the Grand Fleet and was based at Scapa. However she was proving to be rather too lightly constructed for service in the stormy northern waters, and after a refit in July 1915 she was attached to the flag ship of the Grand Fleet, before eventually moving south to join the Sixth Flotilla at the start of 1916.

In the August 1915 Navy List she was still listed as the flotilla leader of the Fourth Flotilla.

In the September and December 1915 Navy Lists she had left the Fourth Flotilla, and was listed as one of three ships attached to the flagship of the Grand Fleet.

In January 1916 the Swift was the flotilla leader for the Sixth Flotilla, part of the Dover Patrol, but was undergoing a refit at Hull. She would spend most of the rest of the war with the Sixth Flotilla, only leaving in November 1918 to rejoin the Grand Fleet.

During 1916 her forward 4in guns were replaced with a single 6in breach loading gun. Her bridge was also made larger and stronger in the same year.

In October 1916 the Swift was the flotilla leader of the Sixth Destroyer Flotilla at Dover. When the Germans raided into the straits (battle of the Dover Strait, 26-27 October 1916), she was part of a force that was based at Dunkirk, and missed the battle.

In January 1917 the Swift was part of the Sixth Destroyer Flotilla at Dover.

The Swift took part in the minor battle of the Dover Strait (20 April 1917). The Germans sent six torpedo boats to bombard Dover and six to bombard Calais, probably with the objective of hitting the Allied shipping in the Downs (to the north of Dover) or attacking the Dover Barrage, the minefield guarding the entrance to the Channel. Swift and Broke were at sea when the raid began. About seven miles to the east of Dover they ran into the six torpedo boats sent against Dover. Both British destroyers fired torpedoes, hitting and sinking the torpedo boat G.85 amidships. The Swift then gave chase to two more torpedo boats, but suffered some damage from gunfire and had to give up the chase. She then returned to the scene of the fight, where she found the badly damaged Broke in need of assistance. The Swift’s commander (Commander Ambrose Maynard Peck) was awarded the DSO for the clash. Only one man on the Swift was killed during the clash. Her navigating officer, executive and gunnery officer, surgeon and one gunner also won the DSO. Perhaps of more immediate interest to her crew was the later award of £955 in bounty to be split between the officers and crews of the Swift and Broke as a reward for sinking two German destroyers.

Lt Robert Harman, her navigating officer, Lt Henry Simpson, her executive officer and gunnery lieutenant, Surgeon John Westwater and Gunner Henry Turner (credited with the torpedo ship that sank one of the German destroyers) were all awarded the DSC.

After the battle she was repaired, and the 6in gun on the forecastle was replaced with two 4in QF Mk V guns.

In June 1917 the Swift was part of the Sixth Destroyer Flotilla at Dover. By this point the flotilla was one of the largest in the fleet, and the Swift was one of four flotilla leaders (Swift, Broke, Faulknor and Botha), serving alongside the flotilla cruisers Active and Attentive, thirty five destroyers, two torpedo boats, six patrol boats and the seaplane carrier Riviera!

In July 1917 the clash in the Dover Straits back in 1916 came up before the Prize Court. The crews of the Swift and the Broke  were awarded £955 for the destruction of G.42 and G,85, based on their combine crews of 191 men.

Late in 1917 the Swift took the members of the Channel Barrage Committee, under Admiral Roger Keyes, on a tour of the existing anti-submarine barrage nets in the Dover Straits. During the visit the Swift passed over the top of the main barrage net without triggering any of the explosives. During a second visit to an experimental barrage in the Swin (part of the outer Thames estuary) the Swift actually ran into the top of the nets, again without suffering any damage (although the nets were damaged). Unsurprisingly the committee were not convinced that the nets were an effective way to block German access to the Channel.

In January 1918 the Swift was part of the Sixth Destroyer Flotilla at Dover but was undergoing repairs at Chatham.

On the night of 14-15 February 1918 the Swift and the Marksman were patrolling on the West Barrage when German destroyers raided into the straits once again. Once again the Germans were able to get into the Straits, this time sinking seven drifters and a trawler and damaging another seven ships, without being intercepted by any of the British destroyers. However this would be the last of the seven German raids into the straits.

In mid-March 1918 the Germans carried out a minor raid on the left of the Allied line, close to the Channel coast. At the time the Swift was based at Dunkirk, but on the day in question she had been sent on patrol in the Dover Straits, so missing the action.

The Swift was involved in the Zeebrugge raid of 23 April 1918, although was on the fringes of the operation.

On 6 May 1918 the Swift hit a mine, which killed one officer and one rating. She was repaired in time to take part in some of the last bombardments of the German held coastline.

In June 1918 the Swift was part of the Sixth Destroyer Flotilla at Dover but was undergoing repairs. She was now one of an impressive seven flotilla leaders that were part of the massive flotilla.

In November 1918 the Swift was one of a number of destroyers that had just moved from Dover to form the 21st Destroyer Flotilla in the Grand Fleet. The new flotilla was mainly made up of M class destroyers with three older flotilla leaders – Swift, Seymour and Botha.

In November 1919 the Swift was in charge of a care and maintenance party at Portsmouth, part of the reserve.

In July 1920 the Navy announced that the Swift was to be sold.

The Swift received three battle honours, for the battle of the Dover Straits (21 April 1917), the Ostend/ Zeebrugge raid of 23 April 1918 and for operations off the Belgian Coast in 1917-18.

Wartime Summary
July 1914-August 1915: Flagship, Fourth Flotilla, Grand Fleet
September-December 1915: Attached to flagship of Grand Fleet
January 1916-June 1918-: Flotilla leader, Sixth Flotilla, Dover Patrol
-November 1918-: 21st Destroyer Flotilla, Grand Fleet

1 August 1912-April 1913-: Commander George B.W. Young
5 December 1913-22 February 1915-: Captain C J Wintour
-April 1917-: Commander Ambrose Maynard Peck
1 October 1917-February 1919-: Commander Reginald T. Amedroz

Displacement (standard)


Displacement (loaded)


Top Speed

35 knots


4-shaft Parsons turbines
12 Laird boilers




353ft 9in


34ft 2in


Four 4in/ 45cal BL Mk VIII guns
Two 18in torpedo tubes

Crew complement


Laid down



7 December 1907



Sold for break up

November 1921

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 (3 December 2020), HMS Swift (1907) ,

Help - F.A.Q. - Contact Us - Search - Recent - About Us - Privacy