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History of The Destroyer Escort

The production of destroyer escorts was first seriously considered by the United States Navy in the spring of 1939 when war clouds were gathering in Europe. Even then, it was suspected that, in the event of war, there would be a need for a mass produced destroyer type capable of transoceanic convoy and anti-submarine warfare.  A number of designs were produced and rejected since production was not yet considered a matter of urgency.  However, by the spring of 1941, a design was approved by the General Board, an assemblage of senior officers with authority to approve or disapprove new construction.

At about the same time, the need for escorts demanded immediate attention.  The British had their backs to the wall fighting a foe under the sea as dangerous as the one in the air. Royal Navy Read Admiral J.W.S. Dorling, Senior Officer of the British Supply Council in North America, impressed American Navy Secretary Knox with their urgent need for destroyer escorts, using Lend-Lease funds to defray the cost.  Because of commitments for other types of craft, it was not until February 1943 when the first DE was delivered.

The capability of submarines to interdict their enemy's supply lines and to destroy his ability to wage war was the single reason for the inception of the destroyer escort. Since the destroyer was the only surface fleet unit that could effectively locate, attack and destroy a submarine, it was logical that we should develop a destroyer type that would concentrate on the submarine and thereby release destroyers for fleet assignment. Hence, the destroyer escort.

The first two DEs went to the Royal Navy. They, and the ones that followed, were to be known in that Navy as the "Captain Class." The next two DEs went to the U.S. Navy, i.e., Doherty (DE-14) and Austin (DE-15), and they were followed by twelve more in short order. By July of 1943, the program was going full blast. No less than sixteen U.S. yards were involved in building DEs. Between February 1943 and the end of the war in September 1945, 563 DEs were built. Of these, 37 were manned by the U.S. Coast Guard, 78 went to the Royal Navy, eight to the Brazilian Navy and six to the Free French. In 1944, 95 destroyer escorts were converted to APDs, high speed transports. Like destroyers, all DEs and APDs commissioned in the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard were named after Navy, Marine or Coast Guard heroes.

Destroyer Escorts varied from 1140 to 1450 tons unloaded displacement, 300 tons more when fully loaded, and 290 to 308 feet in length. Complements ranged from 180 to 220 officers and men. They did not have the offensive armament and fire control of destroyers, nor the speed. They were, however, vastly more maneuverable than destroyers and had a much smaller turning circle.

US Navy DEs also had the latest and best equipment in antisubmarine warfare (ASW), including sonar echo ranging gear with a maximum underwater detection range of 4000 yards (two miles). This was an electronic apparatus that obtained accurate ranges and bearings on submerged objects through supersonic sound transmission. Supersonic sound, unlike audible sound, travels in a straight line like a light beam. When it strikes a solid, metallic object, it bounces back on the same bearing to the source. Instrumentation at the source (the DE) heterodynes supersonic sound to audible "pings" and indicated true compass bearing and range or distance to the target, enabling the destroyer escort to attack.

In addition to sonar and surface search radar, air search radar was installed on DEs operating in areas where air attack was probable.

There were two depth charge racks on the stern and four "K" guns on each side to fire depth charges outward, and an ahead thrown weapon called a "hedgehog". The latter fired a batch of twenty-four bombs which would take off from the bow like a flock of geese, land in the water in an elliptical pattern measuring fifty yards in diameter, and explode on contact with a solid underwater object. Developed by the British, it was an excellent ASW weapon.

The depth charge, with its 300 to 600 pounds of TNT, was the traditional antisubmarine weapon. However, a depth charge barrage required a high degree of accuracy to score, particularly against the double-hulled German U-boats. The "water hammer" effect of a 300 pound depth charge required an explosion within 30 yards of the submarine hull for damage and 10 yards for a kill. The 600 pound depth charge lethal area was considerably enlarged. They had a "teardrop" shape with tail fins, like aerial bombs, to make them sink faster. Depth charges were detonated by hydrostatic pressure, and depth was set before firing. Later models also had magnetic impulse detonators which would fire when in proximity to a submarine. Japanese submarines, lacking the hull strength and depth tolerance of their German counterparts, were more vulnerable to destruction by this weapon. A DE carried about 100 depth charges.

DEs were classified in two types, distinguished by each other by main battery armament. The earlier type had three 3"/50 caliber dual purpose (surface or air) guns mounted inside circular gun shields. Later types had two 5"/38 caliber dual purpose destroyer type guns in enclosed movable gun mounts. Both types could be fired individually or by director fire control. The 3" guns were frequently criticized as lacking in penetration power against double-hulled U-boats. The 5" type was far more effective. Most DEs were of the 3" type.

In addition to the above weapons, a DE had a secondary batter of about eight 20mm machine gun cannon and one quadruple 1.1" or one twin 40mm machine gun cannon. Although designed primarily for antiaircraft, these guns were quite often effective antipersonnel weapons. They could quickly sweep an enemy gun crew off the deck of a submarine or keep men pinned down inside the conning tower of a damaged submarine on the surface. The advent of kamikazes in the Pacific induced a hurried and massive addition of 40mm, 20mm, 50 caliber and even 30 caliber machine guns.

All 5" and most 3" DEs had a battery of three torpedo tubes. The Evarts class, diesel powered and with shorter hulls, did not have torpedoes. Some experts thought that torpedoes were superfluous. As will be seen in chapter The Battle off Samar, torpedo batteries were among the main reason for the destroyer escorts' hour of glory.

Both the 3" and the 5" DEs had a highly developed tactical control system known as a combat information center (CIC). This was an area abaft the bridge and under the flying bridge that received, evaluated and plotted on a universal drafting machine (DRT) all information from sonar, radar, bridge, lookouts, radio, semaphore flags or signal lights, and anything else pertinent. It then fed data and recommendations to the captain on the flying bridge to assist him in his decisions. The CIC was generally, but not always, under the immediate supervision of the executive officer. The value of the CIC in the destruction of enemy submarines was considerable.

A number of different power plants were used. The Navy contracted where it could. There were DEs with diesel geared engines, diesel electric, steam turbo geared and steam turbo electric engines. In general, DEs with similar main engine plants were kept in the same operational divisions to simplify problems such as fuel type, speed, maneuvering capabilities and spare parts.

Two DEs in each division had high frequency direction finders (HF/DF), replete with the latest editions of compromised German, Italian or Japanese submarine codes. HF/DF was casually referred to as "Huff-Duff". The two DEs were stationed far enough apart so that cross bearings could be obtained when submarines surfaced to transmit messages to headquarters or to each other. This was one of the most important electronic tools aboard the DEs. The data produced was vital. Unfortunately, it was an incredibly boring station to man. Days might pass without a signal being received. Frequently, this transmission lasted only a minute or so, and considerable skill was required to get an accurate fix on the surfaced submarine.

All DEs had radio telephone. All tuned in on at least three long range coded frequencies, i.e. the Navy Department in Washington, the Commander in Chief Atlantic (or Pacific) Fleet, and one other such as the Admiralty in London. All had navigation radio direction finders. Some had the newly developed Loran. All had one officer who spent a large part of his time encoding or decoding classified messages.

The great majority of officers and men were reserves. With the exception of the earliest DEs, when some regular Navy officers were placed in command to train their juniors, DEs were commanded by reserve officers with ranks of senior grade lieutenant or lieutenant commander. Practically all commanding officers had prior command experience on subchasers, patrol craft or minesweepers.

Extreme youth characterized the men and, to a lesser degree, the officers. On most DEs, except for the senior petty officers, the average age of the enlisted personnel was under 20. The commanding and executive officers were both generally under 30 and were often the only officers aboard with seagoing experience. On the first few ocean crossings, these two officers frequently stood "watch and watch" on the bridge under way because there were no others qualified to stand "Officer of the Deck Underway" watches. This allowed for very little sleep. Both senior officers had undergone intensive courses in antisubmarine warfare at a training facility at Miami, the Subchaser Training Center (SCTC). The school commandant, Captain MacDaniel, was extraordinary. Later on, if a skipper had an under-performing officer on his ship, he could quickly be removed by a word to "Captain Mac".

The enlisted men were not only young but often "fresh off the farm". Only a few chief and first class petty officers were sent aboard at commissioning. They formed a nucleus from which to build a crew capable of operating and fighting the new ship. They were the key personnel who could make or break a ship and upon whom officers heavily relied. Many of them came from large ships and had extensive sea going experience in wartime. They were tolerant of some of the obvious mistakes made by the officers, and their loyalty was unquestioned. They maintained the ship's readiness and trained and educated the youthful seamen put in their charge.

Fueling at sea was a necessity. Whereas DEs had the capacity to cross the Atlantic or run from the west coast to Hawaii without refueling en route, this presupposed steady steering on a great circle course at the most economic speed. In convoy, however, DEs zigzagged, followed devious routes to avoid submarines, and ran at speeds about three knots faster than the merchant ships. Fueling at sea was a tense operation that tested the mettle of the skipper and helmsman alike.

Destroyer escorts customarily went alongside a designated merchant marine or navy tanker in the convoy to fuel, although some preferred to fuel astern of the tanker. This author initially did it both ways, finally settling on the alongside procedure as the faster. Escorts took their fuel through a heavy hose. The black bunker oil came across heated to about 250 degrees Fahrenheit and a 100 pounds per square inch pressure. Once hooked up, a DE could take about 95,000 gallons of fuel in 50 minutes. However, coming alongside the tanker and getting the hose across in rough weather could be nerve wracking.

Both ships had to be steaming at exactly the same speed, and the escort had to maintain a precise position relative to the oiler. It was necessary to bring the two ships in close proximity, (about 100 feet) get heaving lines across, follow with heavy lines, haul the 6" diameter hose over to the escort, and commence pumping fuel. This was usually carried out at nine to ten knots, out of the main formation, sometimes with an escort fueling from the other side of the same tanker. Astern waited another escort ready to move into the fueling position as soon as it was clear and also to act as a rescue ship in case of a man overboard during the hazardous evolution. Of course, all this had to be carried out with alacrity as the escorts being fueled weakened the antisubmarine screen. It was customary to fuel each escort twice on each transatlantic passage so  that their bunkers remained at least 40% full in case an emergency or extended bad weather made fueling impossible. Unlike navy tankers, merchant marine tankers had little or no prior experience in fueling other ships at sea. Yet, this author never fueled from one that did not handle the procedure professionally and expeditiously.

Fueling from an aircraft carrier was not one of my accomplishments. I am told, however, that it was one of the prime destroyer escort experiences.

The destroyer escort was classified as a major combat vessel. In general, DEs were deployed in four types of operations. The first consisted of escort divisions of six or more DEs each, escorting merchant marine convoys, navy supply vessels, or troop transports. Convoy escort was a defensive operation designed to ward off enemy submarine and aircraft attacks on ships carrying men and equipment for the overseas war effort.

The second grouping operated as part of "hunter-killer" (HUK) teams in task forces, each consisting of a small aircraft carrier (CVE) and five or six DEs that went to sea for the specific purpose of locating and destroying submarines.

A third operation, more common in the Pacific than the Atlantic, was antisubmarine and antiaircraft screening of capital ships as they bombarded enemy shore installations prior to amphibious assaults

The fourth assignment developed in the Pacific in the later stages of the war. The DEs manned "picket" stations on the outer perimeter of fleet and landing operations to engage kamikazes and to warn inner perimeter vessels of their approach. This was very hazardous duty, and DEs suffered personnel and material casualties.

In fact, there were few tasks DEs could not perform. They engaged shore batteries, suicide manned torpedoes and suicide speed boats. They guarded minesweepers while they performed their dangerous tasks. They even delivered personal mail to other fleet units, a highly important morale function.

The High Speed Transport (APD)

APDs were destroyer escorts and World War I type (four piper) destroyers altered to have light troop transport capabilities. They were created by two opposite but complementary situations. The first was a need for light transports with relatively shallow drafts and a capacity to move light army or marine units rapidly to myriads of Pacific islands. The second was a growing excess of destroyer escorts in the Atlantic, permitting several to be converted.

Another deck was added along with troop berthing and messing accommodations for about 10 officers and 150 men. A very large davit was installed on either side, each of which could launch and recover two 36 foot assault landing craft (LCVP). It could carry underwater demolition teams (UDT) or move troops, supplies, light trucks and jeeps to and from the staging areas. The 3"/50 caliber main battery was replaced with a more efficient destroyer type 5"/38 caliber gun forward in a movable mount. Torpedoes, hedgehogs and K guns were removed. The sound gear and depth charges in stern racks remained to leave the APD with a reduced antisubmarine capability. Additional 40mm and 20mm guns were installed to increase the ship's close-in antiaircraft armament.


The destroyer escorts played a major role in breaking the back of the German and Japanese submarine fleets and, together with APDs, contributed heavily to the defense against the kamikaze corps. From North Africa to Anzio to Normandy, across the broad reaches of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, from Leyte to Iwo Jima to Okinawa to Tokyo Bay, their crews cheered, laughed, fought, bled and died.

Be Sure To See the
Life Aboard A DE Photo Library

Andrews, Jr., Lewis M., Tempest, Fire and Foe - Destroyer Escorts in World War II and The Men Who Manned Them, 1992, Narwhal Press, Inc., Charleston, SC. Call the DESA office to order a copy of this book.



 

 
 

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