HMS Worcester was one of sixty-seven V and W Class destroyers in the British Navy, most serving in both world wars. Worcester was one of the last to be ordered in April 1918, built at Cowes and then launched in October 1919 so unlike many of her sister ships, she never saw active service in the First World War.
When built, these ships were the most advanced in the world and went on to be reliable, speedy and well-armed destroyers. Originally they were planned to be deployed in flotillas of 16, working together in fast, armed attacks. However early-twentieth-century communications were not sophisticated enough for this to be successful, so the flotillas were reduced to eight, including one larger ship with the flotilla’s senior officer and his staff on board.
By the Second World War, the V&Ws were used mainly as convoy escorts, although they could also engage with the enemy including submarines when needed. Some were converted to give them extra fuel stowage and became slower Long Range Escorts, others including HMS Worcester were designated as Short Range Escorts. Worcester reported for duty in September 1939 as part of the 16th Destroyer Flotilla and was put into service for escort and patrol in the English Channel.
The V&Ws working together were an essential and effective part of the heroic evacuations from Northern France in May 1940. HMS Worcester made six trips to Dunkirk as part of Operation Dynamo, rescuing 4,350 troops and bringing them back to Britain.
Worcester’s darkest hour was as part of the Channel Dash in February 1942. The German battleships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau and the cruiser Prinz Eugen decided to take the direct route back to German ports from their station at Brest in Brittany. This meant travelling through the English Channel, where British forces believed they could stop them.
The operation was chaotic and unsuccessful with both the RAF and the Navy suffering many losses of men. HMS Worcester was the last in line as part of a torpedo attack and pushed in too close before firing. She was hit, lost bridge communications and power, and received six hits in total as she drifted. The ship was on fire and taking on water and the order ‘Prepare to Abandon Ship’ was given. Some aboard heard this as ‘Abandon Ship’ and went straight into the water. Her sister ships managed to pick up some of these sailors but some were swept away as the remaining flotilla swerved to avoid torpedos.
The German fleet soon ceased fire – assuming HMS Worcester was about to sink – and moved on through the Channel. Slowly Worcester’s crew managed to get one boiler going and enough water pumped out to enable her to move. The boiler had to use seawater and the crew jettisoned everything they could to keep the ship light enough to stay afloat. Somehow she limped back to Harwich.
26 men had been killed or fatally wounded and 45 were injured. HMS Worcester was able to be repaired and was pressed back into service. She was again badly damaged after detonating a mine in the North Sea in December 1943. This time she was considered too damaged to repair. Her final days of the war were spent as an accommodation ship and then she was broken up in February 1947.
In 1941-42, the people of Great Britain were asked to invest in war savings equivalent to the cost of building a new Navy vessel through an initiative called Warship Weeks. The residents of Worcester raised the enormous £769,173 in their Warship Week in March 1942, shortly after HMS Worcester’s tragic involvement in the Channel Dash. The City then formally adopted HMS Worcester and its crew. As with many other communities, Worcester’s sea cadet unit took on the name of the adopted ship after the war.
This painting of HMS Worcester was presented to the City of Worcester by the V&W Destroyer Association and hangs in the Guildhall. The Citys civic collection also includes the ship’s bell.
The V&W Destroyer Association was a group of those who served on these ships. They have collated many first-hand accounts of HMS Worcester, which can be read on their website.