Voyager Class Destroyers

Ship Characteristics

Dimensions Length 425 ft
Beam 40.9 ft
Draft 11 feet
Displacement (standard) 2,800 tons
Displacement (full load) 3,750 tons
Performance Speed (max) 33.5 knots
Speed (cruising) 16 knots
Endurance 6,000 nm @ 26 knots
Armament Guns 8 4.5 inch Mark 6, 4 20mm
Torpedoes 4 21 inch


In his memoirs, Andrew Lambert, the Australian Navy's Chief Designer during the early and middle 1950s, described the construction of the new Voyager class as "one hell of a learning experience". The original requirement was deceptively simple; the Australian Navy had obtained a license to the new Swedish Bofors 4.7 inch twin mounts that combined very high rate of fire with long range and great hitting power. They had then designed the gun as the 4.5 inch Mark 6, a twin mount that threw its 60 pound shells at a rate of 40 rounds per minute per barrel. A modified version of this mount, with a different shield and a built-in Contraves optical on-mount control system was supplied to India as the 4.5 inch Mark 6*. The Australian Navy asked for a new destroyer that was basically a Tribal armed with the new gun turrets. And that is where the problems started. The first problem appeared to be weight; the new gun turrets were much heavier than earlier mounts and the new destroyers, armed with four of the new twin mounts, turned the scales at just over 3,950 tons each. Even then, the weight of armament expressed as a percentage of total was more than 50 percent greater than for the earlier ships.

The real problem came with the realization that the new gun turrets were proper turrets with trunking and substantial below-decks machinery. The early 4.7 inch mounts on the Tribals and 4 inch mounts on the Improved Tribals hadn't presented this feature. The immediate issue was hull depth. Forward, this presented no problems, the raised forecastle provided the needed depth. Aft was a different matter. There, the shaft lines were such that there was inadequate depth for the trunking of Y turret. A number of expedients were tried, including mounting both X and Y at the same (raised) level but all were rejected. The only solution was to move Y mount forward until the hull depth was adequate to accommodate the shaft lines.

This, of course, moved X turret forward and that compressed the whole center of the ship. The designers faced a problem; either they had to use a new, larger hull or the center section had to be redesigned and the existing hull used to carry a reduced standard. The larger design was drafted out and eventually became the basis for the new light cruiser. However, 3,950 tons was already very large for a destroyer and a further increase (it was estimated that the new ships would need to be approximately 4,500 tons to avoid congestion) was impossible. The congestion amidships had to be resolved by deleting things. One of the two quintuple torpedo tubes and the aft fire control systems were deleted, solving the congestion problem but at significant cost in terms of overall combat capability.

At this point, weight raised its head again. Calculations showed that the ships were top heavy (a point that made the sacrifices resulting from the congestion problem more palatable) and, even after the loss of equipment midships, the margins were still inadequate. It was now painfully obvious that the original hull was too small for a four-turret layout and the best way out of the design problems was to redesign the ship with three mounts only. Unfortunately, three twin mounts was the emerging international destroyer standard and the Australian Government wanted to be seen to go one better; four twins was it and would have to stay. In the end, the close-range anti-aircraft armament was reduced to four single hand-swung 20mm mounts. Nevertheless, the ships remained seriously tight designs. Quoting Andrew Lambert again "After we completed the design, the lot of us gathered under a lightning-blasted tree in the middle of the scrub and swore a dreadful oath (we'd been swearing for 18 months but this was something special) that wed never criticize another design team again. We understood something we hadn't comprehended before; there are reasons why ships were designed the way they were and trying to go one better was usually a very bad idea."

The size and apparent power of the new destroyers lead to some anguished debate. Were ships that large really destroyers at all? Added to the size consideration was another; the sheer gunpower of these ships was nothing short of ferocious. Their four twin turrets threw an incredible 320 60 pound shells per minute, for a total one-minute broadside weight of 19,200 pounds. By way of comparison, a typical World War Two 8 inch cruiser had a one-minute broadside weight of 12,150 pounds. They went through a series of type names including "scouts" and "leaders" before it was eventually admitted that they were indeed destroyers after all. The appearance of the Indian Rana class destroyers at about the same time with the same gun armament as the Australian ships but substantially larger at 4,450 tons locked that decision down. Although they looked impressive, the 4 Voyagers (Voyager, Vampire, Vendetta and Waterhen), laid down between 1952 and 1957 were not popular ships once experience with them had started to accumulate. The V&Ws as they came to be called, were cramped, congested and so topweight critical that every minor alteration to them had to be approved at Chief Designer level before being implemented.

Preparations for a successor design saw the same hull being retained but the armament being cut to two twin 4.5 inch turrets, this allowing the institution of a full close-in defense battery of 57mm guns with the intention that these should be replaced by MOG as soon as that weapon was available. As events were to show, this design essentially went nowhere. By the late 1950s, it was becoming obvious that the primary driver on warship design was going to be providing the internal volume necessary for the new generations of automatic guns and guided missiles. The classic destroyers that had been built in early and mid-1950s were inadequate to meet this new standard and a much larger series of designs were needed.

In the end it was the last of the Voyagers that became the RANs first missile Destroyer, being delayed in dockyard hands for almost two years until 1962 as designers renewed their battle with Archimedes and Sir Isaac Newton to squeeze a MOG launcher onto each beam amidships. The pair of MOGs and their associated equipment, cost the last of the torpedo tubes, the 20mm guns and all but one of the ships boats amongst other sacrifices. For all that, the conversion was successful enough to be repeated on the rest of the class and introduced the ridged hull inflatable boat to RAN service as well as guided missiles.

While they carried the burden of being the RANs front line Destroyers for their first decade or so of service, the next class of destroyers, named for seven State capitols to replace the pre-war Cruisers of the same names (lead by HMAS Wellington commissioned in 1966), left the V&Ws in an awkward position and approaching their mid life refit.

The very heavy gun armament that was such a feature of the class and their superiority over the rest of Australias aged fleet mandated their continued service, but the modest missile fit was at best only sufficient for self protection. The introduction of the Jabiru missile (Jabiru I entered RAN service in 1966 aboard HMAS Wellington) system only exacerbated the problem in an era when the Destroyers role was becoming defined as the primary AAW platform of the fleet.

Lamberts successor is said to have fallen to the floor foaming at the mouth when approached over the possibility of refitting the Voyagers with Jabiru. The volume constraints made a Destroyer standard Jabiru II fit impossible, and a more considered examination of the facts proved that even the smaller Jabiru I (as fitted to Frigates and Sloops) forward of the bridge, while just barely possible, required the elimination of all gun armament while providing little more than a token complement of missiles.

The classs other great shortfall was in ASW, while not the primary role of a modern Destroyer the V&Ws reliance on depth charge rails at the stern and lack of torpedo tubes again left its ASW capability best described as self defense only. More serious was the complete lack of facilities for operating helicopters or the smaller Rotodynes that had become so vital for ASW work.

A hanger, or at least a landing pad, were seen as essential and there was no question that any aviation facilities would come at the cost of at least one if not both aft 4.5 turrets. Shorn of half her main armament, this would reduce a V&W to little more than a Frigate in terms of firepower, and even with a third MOG fitted aft over the hanger the ship was of marginal utility compared to her cost of operation in purely naval terms.

However most clouds have at least a semi-precious lining, and if eight 4.5 guns were no longer sufficient to put the V&Ws in the first rank of Destroyers, they had proved very handy for supporting military operations. Against land targets their weight of fire was generally quite devastating and the Australian Army had just commenced a major counter insurgency campaign on Mindanao. The other great benefit of naval gunfire is its mobility and Mindanao being an island seemed custom made for the old destroyers.

Even reduced to four guns a V&W still represented the equivalent of two land-based batteries of medium artillery, and with the generous hanger not to mention the small amount of internal volume freed up by the removal of X and Y turrets, it was found that the class was ideal for supporting the war on land. Not only could the destroyer bombard targets for the army, but with its helicopters (or supporting RAAF Rotodynes off its flight deck) and command facilities, act as mobile base for raiding parties, small landings and supporting patrols around the coast. They were still cramped, even more so when troops were embarked for short ferry trips, and while deployed in the Philippines the class usually left the majority of their MOG reloads and ASW weapons ashore in some effort to compensate for the lack of storage to cater for the extra guests.

As a cul-de-sac in Australian destroyer design, the V&Ws still introduced three revolutions into the RAN, they were the first ships to see service with MOG (aside from trials), the first to use inflatable boats as a standard fit in place of the traditional gigs, whalers and launches, and lastly they were the catalyst that formalized the navys own infantry. Politically the Australian Army had a great deal more clout than the RAN through the 50s and 60s, and were never going to allow the navy to have a Marine Corp no matter how sensible it might have been in many ways. But the RAN had been sending out landing parties of Blue Jackets to use the old term, before there was an Army, a Navy or even an Australia, most notably to for the Boxer Rebellion in 1900, but more recently the RAN had keeping the peace across Australias island protectorates since the end of the Second World War.

However it was on Mindanao that things came to a crunch, naval ratings received a scanty training in small arms and drill, however working alongside the Army in active operations in the Philippians proved they were little better than boy scouts in comparison to the professionals. In Canberra the reaction probably would have been to withdraw the naval landing forces and keep them at sea, but nobody asked them, probably because they knew what the answer would be. The manpower was too valuable to waste and the commanders on the spot set up a small program to run naval gunnery rates through the Armys local training facility and attach a few to Army units for experience. In due course Canberra was presented with a done deal, and reluctantly accepted the reality that some naval personnel needed proper infantry training. Thus was born a new rate of Seaman at Arms and a stone frigate to train them, HMAS Suvla Bay, was set up in the Armys Shoalwater Bay training area in Queensland.

Since the V&W classs mid life refit was so minimal, and the demand for at least two of the class to be on station around Mindanao, the usual remedial work was largely skimped, leaving the ships in a rather tired condition by the time the Mindanao campaign wound down. During the same period the majority of the replacement Wellington class destroyers had entered service and the need to retain the old girls was much less pressing. There was some talk of retiring the whole lot early, but the V&Ws did have one last role to play.

Voyager and Vendetta were in the worst condition and went into reserve after little more than cosmetic refit by Garden Dockyard in 1976. Vampire and Waterhen, sailed south to Williamstown and emerged eighteen months later to re-commission as Cruisers! This refit, that bordered on a reconstruction, removed everything from the main deck up, eliminated the aft boiler room and the 4.5 from B position, leaving the 4.5 of A mount as almost the only visible trace of the original design.

The new look V&W had a sextuple Falcon launcher in place of B mounting, two remote controlled twin 35mm mounts amidships, and a full Jabiru I Mk.2 launcher amidships, in front of a new bigger hanger. The real difference was in the superstructure and internal arrangements. They were now training ships. Aside from a skeleton crew, the new accommodation catered for up to 60 officer cadets and as many as twice that number of ratings. There were a few classrooms its true, but the main purpose of the new Training Cruisers was practical experience. The ships had a representative example of every new/current weapons system in the fleet, or an interface that represented it grafted onto the existing hardware. The ships made up from their early embarrassment in boats, with two 45 launches, another pair of 40 motorboats and a brace of Montague whalers in davits.

Thus ended the career of last great Gun Destroyers spending their twilight years as floating boarding schools and cruise ships until Waterhen paid off for the last time in 1988, the Bicentennial Review and festivities being her swansong. The simultaneous de-commissioning of the old and commissioning of the new Waterhen being one of the many events made much of (along with that years keel laying ceremonies).

It shouldnt be thought that the role of Training Cruiser was a sinecure, between them the two ships did three circumnavigations of the globe, numerous circuits of the Pacific, Indian and Southern Oceans as well as taking part in regular fleet exercises both RAN and international and a good deal of other interesting stuff. In effect the rebuilt Vampire and Waterhen were training ships, survey vessels, minor amphibious assault ships and rather useful escorts as the situation warranted, not to mention Search and Rescue platforms. It was Vampire that went out after the four distressed yachts from the 86 Transworld Race, and one of the pair was often to be found shadowing the annual Sydney to Hobart flotilla.

Class Members

Name Ordered Laid Down Launched Commissioned Fate
Voyager 1952 1953 1955 1957 Scrapped 1978
Vampire 1953 1954 1956 1958 Scrapped 1978
Vendetta 1954 1955 1956 1958 Scrapped 1987
Waterhen 1955 1956 1957 1961 Scrapped 1988
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