Famous 50 Destroyers

Famous 50 – Page 1 of 3
by William F. MacMillan (USCS #L-3825)
Text taken from the USCS 34th National Convention Program Booklet


This photo of the USS Fairfax, DD-93, shows a typical four stacker destroyer of the kind traded to Great Britain, photo probably taken in the 1930’s.

In September 1940, the United States while neutral, traded 50 over age destroyers to Great Britain for 99-year rights to establish American national defense bases on British territory in the Western Hemisphere.

The ships were originally commissioned in 1918 and 1919. Some had been decommissioned since 1922 and were recommissioned to participate in the Neutrality Patrol or specifically to prepare for transfer to the Royal Navy. Each vessel was renamed for a town common to Great Britain and the United States. The ships transferred to Canada were named for a river common to the two countries.

By the spring of 1940, the U-boat offensive against shipping to and from Great Britain had the Royal Navy’s escort forces stretched to the limit. It was against this background that on May 15, Prime Minister Winston Churchill sent a cable to President Franklin D. Roosevelt requesting 40 or 50 older destroyers “to bridge the gap between those available and the large new construction underway”.

The President’s response was not encouraging, but the following month, after more heavy destroyer losses in the British Fleet, a further shift of naval strength in Germany’s favor due to Italy’s entry into the war and the surrender of France, a new plea from Churchill received favorable consideration.

Although the climate for providing the requested aid had improved, there were substantial obstacles to overcome. It was an election year and there was a strong isolationist sentiment among segments of the population and there were legal prohibitions to giving or selling the destroyers to a belligerent nation. Against this background, the possbility of trading the destroyers for British base site along the Atlantic coast was introduced.

After negotiations with Britain and the Attorney General’s legal opinion, which cleared the way, the agreement for the exchange was signed at 7 p.m. on Sept 2, 1940. Admiral Harold M. Stark, Chief of Naval Operations, signed the necessary documents certifying that the destroyers were not essential to national security the next day.

The first contingent of eight destroyers sailed from Boston for Halifax on Sept. 4 and arrived Sept 6. By coincidence, some of the destroyers arrived at the entrance to the harbor just as an ocean liner entered the port carrying the first of the British crews. The ships were transferred fully armed, lavishly provisioned, and with spare parts intact.

Obviously, the Navy and the destroyer personnel had been forewarned of the possibility of the impending transfer. The Commander of the Atlantic Squadron had been alerted on August 20 that the target date of handing over the first eight destroyers was Sept. 6 and the transfer site would be Halifax, Nova Scotia. The eight ships were commissioned in the Royal Navy Sept. 9, and five had reached the destination in the British Isles by the end of the month.

The other contingents were transferred to their new owners Sept. 23 and 24, Oct 8 and 23, Nov 26 and Dec 5, 1940. All of the ships, with one exception, served in the North Atlantic as soon as they had completed necessary initial modifications. The CAMERON, ex Welles, was severely damaged during a German air raid while in dry dock at Portsmouth on Dec 5. Deemed unsuitable for active sea service, the hulk was studied to determine damage control and design information.

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