HMS Nubian as was said before, is not as famous as it deserves to be, but as Alex Clarke has tried to show throughout the series – none of the class though are as famous as they deserve to be, so if you haven’t already, then please go read the series (in order of publication):
and of course, HMS Nubian I.
Grand Strategy is often confused with being some sort of concept or idea which makes everything fit, everything magically work, will serve as a solution to every problem. In reality it can never be that, because the world is always changing – the future cannot be predicted with absolute plausibility, definitely not certainty. Therefore the reality of Grand Strategy is its insurance, its capabilities being procured to provide options for governments to deal with the eventualities which crop up. It can be as simple as the build of a railway or securing a stockpile of suitable raw materials, it can be as complicated as ensuring lasting friendships which exist over and above changes in governments. These facts were understood in the 1930s, possibly because of the nearness of WWI, possibly because despite claims of ‘peace in our time’ many were very conscious of the possibility of war. Yet if Admiral Sir Reginald Bacon’s book, Modern Naval Strategy (1941) – important enough to be published and printed in war time Britain, is anything to go by they weren’t listened to enough.[i]
That judgement though is something to be taken with a pinch of salt, he’d left the RN twenty years before and despite having an excellent reputation – and certainly writing several very interesting books, useful books, he would have liked to have made a lot more of himself in the navy than he did, probably aspiring to a position equivalent to that of Jackie Fisher. What matters though is not any of this, but a description which starts at the bottom ofp58 of Modern Naval Strategy¸ as if it has no significance “These are general utility vessels, large enough in these days to do the work of small cruisers, but their main use is with a battle fleet, to attack and ward off enemy…” he is describing destroyers and the only large destroyer the RN had in 1939 when this book was being written, were the Tribal class.[ii] Why does this description, by this retired, slightly bitter Admiral matter, because Bacon was important – even from outside the navy he had a following within, his words carried weight, otherwise why else in times of rationing and convoy would they printed. More so the fact that such an individual, pre-disposed and suitable equipped, to pick apart anything he could about the current strategy, describes it in such terms is perhaps the best testimony, that Tribal class destroyers were a great example of the reality of Grand Strategy.
Pre-War Deployments of the Tribals were about diplomacy, they were good for this role, they were big enough to do it – warships require a lot of stuff to fight a war, to wage a peace they need a lot of space to do stuff, witch doctors and cocktail parties always require more than anyone initially plans for.[iii] That might be more food, more drinks, more space for dancing or whatever, but they always require more and it is important to be able to accommodate it. The other side of diplomacy is needing to look powerful, the whole of using hard power diplomacy to back up soft power is it needs to look hard – this is why coastguard or border force lack the impact of a warship, they’re either painted white or don’t carry a big enough gun. In the modern world it may be a missile which carries the punch, but the money shot from the journalist’s perspective is still staring down the barrel of a gun. It just is. The Tribals were a great design for all this, they had eight guns which whilst not massive, were plenty big enough to stare down.
Just as importantly they had space thanks to their design, they looked striking and they carried elite crews. Smartly dressed, well organised, well drilled, well led, but just as importantly, able to think for themselves when they needed to. In peace time these attributes are impressive, to friend and foe alike, in war time, they save ships – through handling, like Cossack in the fiord with the Altmark, like damage control on Eskimo or Nubian or like quick thinking like Sikh.[iv] Pre-war they also took part in a lot of exercises, again equipping themselves well, these exercises were where the RN tried its best to find out if they would be capable of doing independent deployments, whether these ships, built to be as much small cruisers in terms of mission profile as they were destroyers, would actually be able to do it. They must have been satisfied because the war wasn’t going very long before that is exactly what they were doing.
During War time the Tribals were ubiquitous throughout the naval war, it’s no surprise that Nubian racked up so many battle honours, where there was a fight, the RN sent the Tribal destroyers. Tribal’s were sent because the RN could rely upon them whether acting independently or as part of a task group, it could rely upon them to fight aircraft, ships or submarines, it could upgrade them as technology developed, as threats evolved and on top of this because of the reputation they created they served an extra psychological element within the forces they were assigned to. This started really in Norway, Narvik cemented it, but it was the Altmark incident, the rescuing of the prisoners taken by the Graf Spee that started the myth. The shouts of “the Navy’s here”. This was then grown by every action, every battle, racing across the Atlantic to intercept the Bismark, being the key link at Matapan, facing off against a battleship solo, sinking cruisers at Cape Bon, fighting at Ille de Bas and forging a path during Operation Irregular. These are storied ships, perhaps like all World War II ships were, but also perhaps more so; no other class could be quite be said to have as committed to getting into trouble – perhaps they were more sensible, but wherever a Tribal class destroyer went, it wouldn’t being enjoying quiet for long.
Nubian is perhaps thanks to her war time service the best example of the Tribal class destroyer as a tool of grand strategy; they were a capability procured to fill the cruiser gap, the destroyer gap, the warship gap. Her honours list is like an overview of the naval war of WWII, where the fighting was heaviest at that time, she would be found – she was an asset, which may as well have been asked for by name by theatre commanders she shows up so often. The question is though whether this was because through procuring to fill gaps the RN managed to get an excellent design which is why they were called upon, or whether it was because there were those gaps there was nothing else to call upon. Honesty requires that it must be admitted it was a bit of both. However, they could not have filled those gaps, they could not have achieved all they did, Nubian certainly wouldn’t have managed her list of honours if the hadn’t been good, if they hadn’t been great.
They weren’t perfect, in fact as super destroyers they were arguably not as good as their Japanese or Italian equivalents – but whilst they were built under the ‘destroyer leader’/super destroyer allowance of the Naval Arms Treaties – they weren’t built for that role. The RN as has been said built them for the role they needed them for, they built them as light cruisers, as fighting destroyers and as those things they did great – they rank up and beat all comers. They could do this because their design was not only flexible and adaptable, but most of all strong. Rightly in the stories of Eskimo & Nubian the loss of large sections of their hull focused on the damage control efforts – but those would have been impossible if the rest of the hull had not been strong and able to take the strain such make do arrangements impart upon it. Like therefore the building of a railway, Tribal class destroyers represented grand strategy, they secured thanks to their design capabilities which when coupled with motivated and well led crews, not only fulfilled those gaps they were desired for, but grew to encompass even more.
The reality of Grand Strategy seems to have been lost in its etymological transition to the less imperial/age of empires sounding ‘Geo-strategy’; maybe not in its truth, but certainly in the wider perception and translation of it. “Doing more with less” is a great slogan, but as the two World Wars illustrated, no matter how great the technological advantage, more was always better… individually almost all variants of the Sherman were outclassed by pretty much every late war German tank, yet more often than not they were deployed in larger numbers and as a consequence were able to either overwhelm to destroy or outmanoeuvre to force back. In contrast todays debates, even when bringing in history are almost more focused on tactics than strategy, let alone grand strategy; when discussing designs of warships, it is the anti-submarine mission, the air-defence missions, the naval gunfire support mission, which are discussed – the ships are built and focused on very specific role. This is fine when there are numbers to be able to generate a balanced task group. The Tribals were built in a time when the RN fielded more than 15x the force it does today, yet still they were procured as generalists, with a focused capability yes, but generalists.
In WWII, when building for the Royal Canadian Navy, some had to be completed with 4in rather than 4.7in guns, what mattered to the war effort was putting the hulls in the water, the rest could be sorted later. The reason for this, as has been said many times, but which is key, is that the Tribals were critical in the early years of the war to making up for numbers of destroyers and cruisers – a force much greater in size than that possessed today, yet was still not great enough in mass for the missions required of it. The continued utility of the Tribals for the RN, even after greater numbers of destroyers and newer cruisers came into service, was that fighting what was in reality a four ocean (plus Mediterranean) conflict meant they could never have enough. This was the unthinkable conflict of the 1930s, a truly global conflict, it is the worst case scenario even to today, it was only wageable through alliances – not necessarily of equals, but of equally committed. The problem perhaps with modern alliances is if the members are not equally committed, are not putting in their honest fair share, then they become either valueless or protection rackets – either way, the costs can be massive and poisonous.
This is the reality of grand strategy, Tribals, along with many other classes, hundreds of thousands of soldiers and aircraft, were all part of that; as whilst they might not have in volume equalled the contributions of others by the time the conflict was ending, their value was great enough to ensure a powerful voice was retained at the table throughout. Grand Strategy though is not the whole reason for their greatness or their retention, again as has been said many times, the Tribal design enabled them to be upgraded – which meant they could adapt as the tools if not the nature of the conflict evolved. Most importantly though the Tribals were good ships, which had built up an enviable reputation that ensured a strong esprit d’acore – the psychology referenced earlier; meaning Fleet Commanders could rely upon them to not only be prepared for the impossible, but to relish it. In any war the impossible, the unexpected, are what should be expected – so being prepared for that makes a difference. In a global war this reality is just made bigger and infinitely more likely.
Ps. I turn 31 this year and it will be 5yrs since I passed my viva, 4yrs since I graduated with my PhD; I love being a historian and especially a naval historian, I love bringing the stories of ships, their designers, their builders, their crews, out into the open for more people to know.
I take being an “Auctoris” (Latin for Historian and which literally means Authority or Author) very seriously, it’s a responsibility for me to pass on these stories and others, the lessons learned and the feats accomplished, so that people aren’t forgotten and what they sacrificed is not forgotten; but as much as I love it, you can’t survive on contract work forever.
So I will keep trying for a permanent or at least long term post for the remainder of this year, I will research and write a new series of ‘shorts’ on cruisers, to complement the Town class research I’m writing up…
Alongside all this, I will of course do my best to be published in a journal and to get that proper lecturing post, but if I don’t then I will have start looking elsewhere, but hopefully whatever I do, wherever life takes me I will get to keep writing these short histories – then at least I’ll be able to still have a bit of that dream.
I’ve chosen to explain this now because I’ve seen a lot of friends give up recently, I can understand that, I can even understand why some have chosen to go completely cold turkey as far as History is concerned. I won’t name them as I’m sure what they are trying to do is hard enough without the highlighting, they know who they are and they I know I wish them my best, that route though would never be for me; I write to relax for starters, if I stopped doing History I’d need to get a new hobby? What would you take up at 31? Playing solitaire seems awfully tame in comparison…
But saying all that I can’t write all this history, hopefully inspire the next generation of historians that will come behind me and not be honest about the realities of being a historian. It would not be responsible, it would not be being a good Auctoris. So here it is, tagged on the end of the last in this series of Tribal class destroyers… at the end of an article where I try to give the class a little summing up… and where hopefully it will be read.
PPs. Before I get bombarded on twitter (I wish) I do remember I’ve promised to do a second series looking at the RAN & RCN Tribal class ships and I will, they’re the next project after the cruisers. So expect that to start, if everything runs to time, about July time, maybe August…
[i] (Bacon & Mc Murtie, 1941)
[ii] (Bacon & Mc Murtie, 1941, pp. 58-9)