The Kellys – British J, K & N Class Destroyers of World War II
By Christopher Langtree
Published by Chatham Publishing, Kent, England
Distributed in Australia by Peribo
58 Beaumont Street, Mount Ku-Ring-Gai NSW 2080.
Hardcover 224 pages, RRP $110.00.
Reviewed by Vic Jeffery
One could be forgiven for thinking a book with the title, The Kelly’s, relates to the 19th Century Australian bushranger Ned Kelly and the infamous Kelly gang.
Not so; author and historian Christopher Langtree uses the name ‘Kelly’ as shorthand for all 24 members of the group which comprises three flotillas of eight each, of those magnificent British J, K and N class destroyers of World War Two.
The flotilla leader, HMS Kelly of course, was Lord Louis Mountbatten’s flagship and the most famous of the group. Of the three flotillas, the N-class flotilla was the only one to be entirely non-Royal Navy manned with five being Australian, two Dutch and one Polish-manned.
I believe they were perhaps the most handsome destroyers ever constructed. With their sleek low silhouettes, single raked funnel and a certain jauntiness about them, fast, heavily armed, innovative, and highly manoeuverable, they were a considerable advance in British destroyer design.
The five that served in the Royal Australian Navy during the War, Napier, Nizam, Nepal, Nestor and Norman were awarded 24 battle honours between them including Malta convoys, Atlantic, Bismarck 1941, Crete, Libya, Mediterranean, Indian Ocean, Pacific, Burma and Okinawa.
Amazingly, although the RAN’s N-class destroyers had a very busy war, only four men were lost to enemy action, in the Mediterranean when four stokers were killed when Nestor was near-missed by two heavy bombs which flooded the boiler rooms and caused the ship to lose power. A sister ship HMS Javelin took the stricken Nestor under tow, but as the tow parted twice and with more air attacks imminent at dawn, the daunting task of getting the crippled destroyer back to Alexandria 250 miles away became impossible. The decision was made to scuttle Nestor; her crew was taken off and she was sunk with a series of shallow set depth charges dropped nearby on 16 June 1941.
The second part of this book covers the entire service careers of the ships in detail, including the 12 lost on wartime service. It is indeed interesting to read the postwar careers of the four surviving RAN N-class ships after they reverted to Royal Navy control in 1945.
The five N-class in reserve, four former Australian and the former Polish Piorun (ex-Nerissa), came under close scrutiny for conversion to Type 16 frigates as part of the program to combat the new Soviet high-speed submarines that were entering service, which were faster than the wartime constructed anti-submarine frigates and sloops.
It was decided to produce a different type of conversion, the Type 18. These ships would have two primary purposes, firstly to protect convoys against submarine attack and secondly a seek-anddestroy role, in cooperation with aircraft if necessary.
History reveals that as the N-class destroyers were halfway through their hull lives, the project was not proceeded with. They remained in reserve until 1955 when the decision was made to dispose of them.
The 113 photos selected for this book are first class, with many never published previously.
The book fittingly opens with a doublepage spread of one of the finest destroyer shots of World War Two, a magnificent photo of HMS Kimberley at a vital moment of the Second Battle of Sirte on March 22, 1942. Kimberley is seen pounding through rough seas at 30 knots with guns elevated as the 14th Destroyer Flotilla turn to make a torpedo attack.
As well as the photographs, 24 technical and line drawings by John Lambert, 12 tables and eight appendices support this commendable book. John Roberts provides the known 17 colour camouflage schemes used by these ships.
These destroyers were certainly among the best destroyers of the Second World War. Ships based on the original design were still in service in the 1970s, long after these greyhounds of the sea had been scrapped.
Author Christopher Langtree is to be commended on his first effort in producing such an excellent reference book in an easy-to-read format, and also producing a work which fills a void in naval history.