Hello all, and welcome to my new series where we take a look at interesting and often under-appreciated historical ships that deserve their shot in the limelight. Victory Belles is close at hand to release, and when it does, new ships will join our ranks and swell our fleets. There are obvious choices, the famous names like Johnston, Bismarck and Yamato that even the most casual naval enthusiast can recognize at a glance, whose inclusion is all but a forgone conclusion. But the ranks of naval history is full of forgotten heroes, ships that did not win campaigns or even battles, but who still managed to rise to the occasion and contribute their part to the war effort. These ships should not be lost to the sands of time. They too, should be given their due consideration.
HMS Sabre: An Introduction
Our first vessel of interest is HMS Sabre, an Admiralty S class destroyer of the Great War. She was laid down on the 10th of September, 1917, at which time the gruesome Battle of Passchendaele raged on the Western front. She would only be launched a year later, on the 23rd of September, 1918, with only a few more bloody weeks left in the war as the 100 Days Offensive crushed the German lines. Ultimately she would miss the conflict she was built for, only being commissioned into the navy in 1919.
HMS Sabre's particulars were much the same as the rest of her class. She displaced 1075 tons at her design displacement, was 276 feet long, 26 feet wide, and had a draft of 10 feet. She carried three QF 4-inch Mark IV guns, all on the centerline, two twin 21 inch torpedo tubes amidships, two fixed 14 inch torpedo tubes on deck fore of the bridge, a single 2 pounder "Pom pom" anti-aircraft gun, and several Lewis guns for close defense. Her top speed as designed was 36 knots, and her range was 2750 nautical miles at 15 knots.
(HMS Sabre some time after commissioning)
Built too late for the war she was designed to fight in, Sabre's interwar career was quiet and uneventful. As the years dragged on, advancements in destroyer design made her increasingly obsolescent, which did not bode well for a ship that was already smaller than several of her contemporaries even when brand new. The Royal Navy began it's interwar destroyer program with the much larger 1400 ton A-class, with more firepower, torpedoes, and perhaps more importantly, far greater range and accommodations than the old ships. Even more aggressive escalations in destroyer design like the giant Japanese Fubuki class, or the powerful American Farragut class with their visionary dual-purpose main battery, made for a world where Sabre and her kin were increasingly second or even third rate combatants. One of these new ships could unleash a more powerful torpedo salvo from one launcher than what the S class had aboard the whole ship.
Gradually, the S class were phased out of service, and by 1939 scrapping had cost the class fifty of their ranks. HMS Sabre was certainly on the books for a similarly dull fate, were it not for the intervention, of War Were Declared.
HMS Sabre in WW2
When war broke out in September 1939, HMS Sabre was not in fighting condition. She wasn't even armed. The ship had been disarmed and converted to a radio controlled target in 1937, but had apparently not seen much use in this capacity as she was still fit to be rearmed and returned to service when her nation called upon her once again. On the outbreak of war, the Royal Navy was desperate for any hulls to press into service as escorts and patrol ships against the ever apparent threat of German U-Boats. This was not an unforeseen eventuality, plans for converting obsolete ships into anti-air and anti-submarine escorts were drawn up as early as 1937, and work began in earnest on the first ships in 1938, but the outbreak of the conflict rapidly expanded the need for these types of ships, as well as the amount of resources and manpower that were allocated to such projects.
(HMS Sabre, as converted to a target ship)
It was in this state that the story of HMS Sabre truly begins in earnest. Thus far I have bored you with statistics and background information about the development of the destroyer and how it pertains to her, but now, we get to see why we are here. Among the desperate search for hulls to commandeer into the war against raiders and submarines, Sabre's name was called. She was rearmed with a single QF 4" Mark IV fore of the bridge, given a 12-pounder anti-aircraft gun and two Vickers quad .50 cals amidships, and her stern was loaded with eight depth charge launchers and up to forty charges. In this configuration, she was well equipped to hunt the underwater menace that was arrayed to strike at Britain's vital arterial supply lines. It was not as a hunter, however, that she would find her true calling to her nation.
Barely a few weeks into the war, on the 10th of October, 1939, she was rammed by the armed merchant cruiser Jervis Bay, and put into repairs for several months. On the 6th of May, 1940, she finally emerged from drydock following her embarassing scuffle, and the timing of her return would prove fortuitous. The Battle of France had begun, and within weeks, the formidable French and British armies on the continent would be routed, in one of the single most devastating and complete landslide victories in military history. Hundreds of thousands of men were driven to the sea and forced to make their stand in the small coastal cities of Northern France, and if not relieved soon, somehow, Britain was about to lose her army.
Enter, Operation Dynamo, in the final days of May, 1940. We'll come back to this one a couple more times in the series, because the heroism by so many ships there is worth talking about, and the ensemble of the naval vessels that made this incredible sealift possible is one that deserves to be brought to Victory Belles. HMS Sabre was tasked with carrying soldiers out of Dunkirk, where over 300,000 men were trapped and surrounded by divisions of the German Army. For her part, HMS Sabre would make ten round trips to the harbor, more than any other destroyers in the operation, going above and beyond to deliver as many men out of harm's way as she possible could. Aboard a ship originally designed for a complement of 90 men, she loaded 800 soldiers onto her decks during her second trip to Dunkirk on the 28th of May. So overloaded was she, that she lay low in the water from the weight of all those she carried aboard. Her commander had to gradually nurse the ship out of the harbor, carefully watching the tides and charts to keep her from running aground.
Altogether, she would rescue 5,675 soldiers during Operation Dynamo, putting her among the top ten vessels by number of men evacuated in an operation involving nearly 700 vessels of all types. Her Captain, Brian Dean, was awarded the Distinguished Service Order for commanding the ship during the evacuation, and we'll see more of his influence on Sabre's career later. For now, the British army has been saved and is ready to defend England from whatever is coming (spoiler alert: it's nothing, Operation Sealion sucks), and HMS Sabre has played a mighty great role in it for a ship so long in the tooth.
(HMS Sabre in her WW2 configuration. Note the air warning radar atop her mast, visible as an X shaped antenna)
But there are more British forces trapped in areas being overran by the Germans, and Sabre is not about to let them go without her aid. Operation Ariel, taking place after Dynamo, concerned evacuating all British military and civilians from France as it fell. In the course of this operation, she would rescue 1400 civilians from the island of Alderney in the channel, and her record of rescue would continue to accumulate. Later that year, on the 30th of August, the Dutch ocean liner SS Volendam was torpedoed while escorted by Saber, among others. The destroyer would participate in an evacuation of the stricken vessel, who carried mostly civilians at the time including young children. Sabre would embark 320 children and 286 other passengers, and at this point one might begin to wonder if her Captain had a certain talent for organizing his ship to make a lot of deck space available on very short notice. Amusingly, the liner would not sink, and was later towed back to port and repaired. Perhaps a false alarm, but when lives are on the line it is best to err on the side of caution.
As if 1940 had not been an active enough year for Sabre, December would provide the chance for one last remarkable rescue attempt. On the 5th of December, the 2500 ton Dutch cargo ship SS Stolwijk's rudder broke in tempestuous seas,and she was carried off by violent storm force winds and waves. She crashed into the rocky shores of the Irish coast, and HMS Sabre risked life and limb to try and save the crew from the mortal peril. The destroyer was brought among the breakers where the Stolwijk had foundered, but her bravery would be rewarded with near death. A mighty wave battered the tiny destroyer, demolishing her bridge like a tin shed in a tornado, ripping away deck fittings, and tossing her hull violently. Her commander was severely wounded, and the rescue attempt had to be abandoned lest the destroyer herself perish. For all her talents in rescue operations, and all her commitment to saving lives, there were things above and beyond the reach of even the valiant Sabre.
It was this action that would permanently retire her Captain, the same Brian Dean who had led her at Dunkirk and throughout the year of 1940. When the bridge was struck he was concussed, and forced into an early retirement. I know next to nothing about the man, save for the actions his ship performed, but I think it's clear that he was very dedicated to putting himself and his ship on the line for other's safety. The actions of HMS Sabre do not add up any other way.
Afterwards, she would set to sea with a new commander, although, fittingly, there was still some heroics left for the old destroyer. On December 31, 1941, mere hours before the new year, the British tanker Cardita was struck by a torpedo from a German U-boat. The struggle to save the ship was finally lost on the 3rd of January, 1942, and she foundered, taking 27 of her crew to the bottom with her. Of the survivors, 10 would be rescued by Sabre, a ship which by now had saved well over 7000 other souls. This would be the last notable rescue operation undertaken by HMS Sabre during WW2.
Fittingly, this is where the story of the Sabre goes quiet, as the rest of her career would be uneventful. As 1942 rolled around, the first of the dedicated escorts would begin to come online, and larger, more capable old destroyers would finish their conversions into convoy escorts. HMS Sabre would still remain active throughout the war, serving on the English coast, the Western approaches, and on Atlantic Convoy duty. Faithful to the end, she was finally decommissioned in November of 1945, putting an end to over three decades of service. She would be scrapped at Grangemouth the following year. HMS Sabre in Victory Belles
I don't just write to amuse myself, but for an audience. Therefore, let me preface this part with a disclaimer. HMS Sabre is not a viable modern combatant in the era of Victory Belles. She only has a single 4 inch gun and no torpedo tubes, and some light anti-air. She is in no condition to fight surface or air combatants. She's a functional anti-submarine ship, but there are lots of other, more modern vessels that perform the role just as good as Sabre, while also being less functionally useless against other threats. Still, I think she's a valuable inclusion for the potential she has as a character, even if she's in the same tier of lethality as armed merchants like Rwalpindi.
In fact, the emphasis of Sabre shouldn't be on combat at all, because in all her years of service, she never drew a drop of blood from her enemies. I can find no submarines sunk accredited to her. No aircraft shot down by her anti-air fire, and she never fired her guns in anger against surface combatants. She vigorously saved lives, and yet never took them. Perhaps this leans towards a pacifist character, which would be interesting to explore. A warship who has forgone fighting and instead dedicated their life to doing as much as they can to provide mercy and salvation from this terrible, cruel war would be a great character study. My mind immediate jumps to the movie Hacksaw Ridge and it's main character, Desmond Doss, who as a soldier refuses to kill, and yet is singularly responsible for saving dozens of men by his bravery.
HMS Sabre need not be entirely pacifist in game, functionally, but with her armament, I don't think she'll have a choice. Whether she wants to or not, she isn't hurting anyone. As a Belle, I think her dedication to lifesaving might come from a sort of resignation, that of knowing she's living on borrowed time and that she's toothless. Rather than give up, she finds new purpose, and works to make as much of a difference as she can in this new calling. I think it'd make a really compelling and humanitarian story, and not one seen often in the shipgirl genre, since the stars are usually iconic, modern vessels that are more than capable of just fighting conventionally.
Of course, we can't just ignore the namesake either. A ship named Sabre ought to be a thoroughly competent swordswoman, with a sharp and finely crafted sabre as part of her accessories. Being a destroyer she of course wouldn't be entitled to a very ornate or fancy one, since as everyone knows, destroyers are the Poor Blood Infantry of the oceans, commoners deigned to die in droves for the safety of their betters, the battleships. Still, I think that her skill ought to be such she can put the best swordsBelles(?) of the Royal Navy to shame, embarrassing far more prestigious and famous vessels and denying them even so much as a single blow against her in sparring matches.
Then again, swords are not the only thing that are associated with sabers. Everyone loves a cute girl with a cat motif, but usually that implies styling after cuddly housecats, not flesh-rending behemoths like Smilodon. Yes, it crossed my mind to give HMS Sabre a sabertooth cat motif, harking back to everyone's favorite ice age predators. However, as cool as it would be for HMS Sabre to run around with a headdress made from the pelt of an ancestral feline terror, or otherwise pick up some big cat mannerisms, I don't think it fits in the context of the rest of the character I have developed for her. I absolutely do think it should be made as a special skin or costume for her, but as a core part of her character and personality? Let's leave the Machairodontine motifs to someone else.
HMS Sabre is not a remarkably powerful or strong ship, but her history is remarkable and I think makes for a very unique character. I think very few obsolete, small destroyers have this much personality and story, and that it would translate to a compelling and rich tale to be explore in game. Even if bringing her along basically means an empty slot in your fleet. I hope you give her your due consideration, and tune in next time when we take a look at another British destroyer, a ship whose life is defined not by heroism, but by suffering.