This footage from British Pathé shows the moment the first American destroyers arrived in Britain as part of the Destroyers for Bases Agreement. The deal provided the Royal Navy with much needed ships in return for leases to build or use bases in British overseas possessions. However, the deal met criticism on both sides of the Atlantic, and concerned an American public that was at the time overwhelmingly in favour of keeping out of the war.
The destroyers on camera were the first of 50 such ships transferred to the British in early September 1940. Eventually, 43 were commissioned into the Royal Navy as the Town-class with the last seven being handed to the Canadians. A number of the British ships were operated by Norwegian and Dutch crews, with nine more being transferred to the Soviets.
In the US, the deal was politically problematic as critics argued it threatened US neutrality, that it breached the Neutrality Acts preventing the sale of arms to combatant nations, and, critics were also concerned by President Roosevelt’s bypassing of Congress to push the agreement through. However, Roosevelt had already authorised the sale of ‘surplus’ arms to Britain, the US Navy declared the ships as non-essential to national defence, and the agreement was declared legal by the Justice Department. Additionally, it was argued that the use of the leased bases strengthened US national defence.
In return for the 50 ships, the British granted the US use of land in Newfoundland, Bermuda, the Bahamas, Jamaica, Saint Lucia, Trinidad, Antigua, and British Guiana for air and naval bases. Dozens of facilities were constructed by the Americans in these territories, and although most were closed or handed back in 1949 many saw use into the 1990s and beyond. The agreement leased these bases for 99 years, rent free.
In Britain, the deal was considered by some to be one-sided and costly, although it did allow the British to reduce some garrisons and free up assets for use elsewhere. However, the ships were all from three ageing destroyer classes (Caldwell, Wickes, and Clemson) built in the First World War and had long been placed in reserve. As such, the condition of the ships varied, with many requiring significant restorative works prior to re-entering service.
They were named after towns, except for vessel that leaded the first flotilla to Britain – the former USS Herndon, renamed HMS Churchill, but more than half of the ‘new’ ships were yet to enter service by Spring 1941.
Winston Churchill’s somewhat (tactically) muted complaints did raise this issue, and resultantly the Americans transferred a further ten vessels – former Lake-class cutters – to the British. These were newer and, serving in the Royal Navy as the Banff-class sloop, proved to be useful convoy escorts.
While, at cost, the deal provided the Royal Navy with ships it direly needed, it was more important in the wider British-American partnership and confirmed Roosevelt’s intentions to do what he could – without breaching neutrality – to assist Britain.