With the outbreak of World War I, the UK launched several shipbuilding programs, envisaging the construction of 321 destroyers and 39 leaders, in addition to various ships of other types.
To support the Grand Fleet’s operations in the high seas and to protect coastal areas, the UK Navy needed different classes of destroyers. Some required fuel stock, good seafaring characteristics, and heavy torpedo armament; others prioritized high speeds, powerful artillery, and less powerful torpedoes. At the end of the war, attempts were made to combine these various requirements, resulting in the appearance of the V-, W-, and S-class ships. Although some of them were intended for action in coastal areas, many of these destroyers also participated in the operations of the Grand Fleet.
Despite its ambitious construction plans, the UK Navy faced the war with a little more than 200 destroyers, but with only 75 of them being up-to-date ships with oil boiler heating, while the rest were suited only for coastal service. The majority of the destroyers could hardly keep up with the speed of the battle cruiser formations. Most of the destroyers were distributed among nine flotillas as well as the Home Fleet and China Station squadrons, while a smaller part of the fleet was in the reserve or undergoing minor repairs.
British destroyers had their trial by fire in the bay of Heligoland Bight on August 28, 1914. Initially, British submarines discovered light forces of the German Navy and reported this to headquarters. It was decided to halt the Ostend Operation and conduct a search for the enemy to cut off part of the patrolling German ships from the main forces. Headquarters allocated quite an impressive force for this purpose, including battle and light cruisers, submarines, plus 1st and 3rd destroyer flotillas. The latter were supposed to cruise in the area of Sylt, then reach the designated starting point, form a line, and commence their search for the enemy forces. At this time nine German destroyers and three light cruisers were patrolling the area nearby lightship Elbe, while two light cruisers were at the mouth of the Weser and Ems rivers, three were in Wilhelmshaven, and the heavy ships of the High Seas Fleet were located in their bases and could not leave their berthings until the tides changed.
On August 28, at around 5 am, German destroyer G194 evaded two torpedoes fired by a British submarine. The Commander of the destroyer reported to Admiral Hipper about the attack, which resulted in him sending the 5th destroyer flotilla to pursue and attack the submarine and launch their aviation. A couple of hours later, G194 stumbled upon British cruiser Arethusa and four destroyers that opened fire on them and began pursuit. Having assessed the superiority of the enemy forces, the German ships began to retreat towards their base. At the same time, German light cruisers left harbor and set course for a rescue mission. The British ships caught up with the escapees several times, but the intervention of the German patrol cruisers saved the destroyers. However, the presence of the British battle cruisers predetermined the outcome of the battle, by the end of which, at 2 pm, the German Navy had seen three light cruisers and one destroyer sunk; two more light cruisers and three destroyers had also been damaged. German sailors noted the superiority of the British destroyers' armament over theirs; however, they also noted poor quality of the British shells, which slightly reduced the overall effectiveness of their fire.
The next major clash involving destroyers happened on January 24, 1915, when the Admiralty received information about the deployment of a large German Navy task force in the area of Dogger Bank. Battle and light cruisers were sent out to intercept the enemy, accompanied by destroyers from the 1st and 3rd flotillas. At around 7 am, cruiser Aurora, followed by fourteen destroyers, reported the discovery of the enemy to the flagship. The German task force changed its course and headed southeast at maximum speed. The British began the pursuit, with the fastest M-class destroyers breaking forward and coming under fire from armored cruiser Blücher, that was bringing up the rear of the enemy squadron. An artillery duel between the battle cruisers began, resulting in British flagship Lion being seriously damaged and forcing her to leave the battle. In turn, after a number of hits, Blücher could not go on and became a stationary target, continuing to fire fiercely from her remaining guns. Her agony was cut short by torpedoes from the British destroyers, led by Meteor.
Underwater threats were one of the main naval problems for the Triple Entente throughout the war. All possible means were deployed to combat enemy submarines. For example, on April 24, 1916, the British Navy began setting up deep-sea mines and barrages to seal the exit to the sea for the German Navy's Flanders U-boat flotilla based in Bruges. The operation involved a large number of drifters, mine-laying trawlers, and minelayers, covered by two monitors, Dover patrol destroyers, and patrol boats. After the completion of the work, at around 8 o'clock, three German destroyers attacked the British ships. The covering destroyers Medea, Murray, Melpomene, and Milne rushed to intercept the enemy forces. During the pursuit, they failed to notice that they had entered the zone defended by coastal batteries that immediately opened their fire upon coming into range. Successive hits followed one after another, damaging Melpomene more than the others—with one of the shells exploding in the engine room, causing the ship to stop. Medea and Milne began to tow the damaged ship, but the German destroyers tried to take advantage of the situation and attacked. Medea quickly released the tow and, together with Murray, darted at the enemy, delivering fire from all of her guns. At the same time, the British monitors came rushing in to support the attack of their destroyers. Their offense resulted in the enemy deciding to retreat.
On April 25, 1916, the German High Seas Fleet made another full-force raid, this time at a town called Lowestoft. After the bombardment commenced, British forces consisting of three light cruisers and eighteen destroyers arrived. The sole purpose of the squadron was to divert the enemy's attention away from the city in order to protect it. The plan worked, and the German battle cruisers turned towards the British ships, but it didn’t take long before flagship Conquest was seriously damaged by German heavy shells. Trying to save their cruisers, the British destroyers put out a smoke screen, and under its cover the squadron retreated to a safe distance, but still keeping the enemy in sight. The German task force, having mostly failed in their mission, headed back to base, narrowly avoiding the main forces of the Grand Fleet.
A few weeks later, destroyers took part in the Battle of Jutland. On the last day of May of 1916, two armadas of steel were set on a collision course for each other in the waters of the North Sea without even knowing it. The British had superior numbers, with 155 warships under the command of John Jellicoe against 99 combat ships under the command of Reinhard Scheer, but neither opponent was aware of each other's strength or plans. Destroyers and torpedo boats accounted for more than half of the ships that participated in the battle on both sides. The British side had 72 destroyers and 5 leaders from seven different flotillas.
During the daytime, both sides made several reciprocal destroyer attacks, with the British having three ships sunk, and three more being heavily damaged. In turn, the German Navy lost four destroyers. Aside from this, the 13th British flotilla managed to hit the bow end of battle cruiser Seydlitz with a torpedo, but the ship remained operational. With the arrival of the Grand Fleet's main forces, the situation became absolutely hopeless for the German Navy, so Admiral Scheer made the only right decision—to retreat. As night approached, the light forces of both sides became more active.
At around 11:30 pm, twelve destroyers of the 4th flotilla discovered unidentified ships at the starboard beam. These turned out to be German dreadnoughts accompanied by light cruisers, and with their discovery, a close-range battle began. Leader Tipperary was completely incapacitated, while Spitfire, Sparrowhawk, Broke, and Contest were damaged to various degrees. But they hit back hard, with cruiser Rostock receiving a fatal torpedo hit. 11 people were killed and 37 wounded on the German ships by gun-fire from the destroyers. After regrouping, at around 00:10, the British destroyers tried to attack again, but all of their torpedoes missed their targets. The destroyers came under a firestorm unleashed by the German squadron, resulting in Fortune and Porpoise being seriously damaged. However, the British shells did their work, killing and wounded 22 people on battleship Oldenburg.
At around midnight, the 9th and 10th flotillas stumbled upon the enemy's formation, and, amidst the ensuing chaos, destroyers Petard and Turbulent were sunk.
At about 1:45 am, the 12th destroyer flotilla, consisting of 15 ships, was ready to attack the German dreadnought formation. However, because of an incorrect report, the offensive was halted. Following this, leader Faulknor increased her speed without a signal, causing stretching in the ship formation. It was only at about 02:00 that the flotilla, having turned in a circle, caught the enemy in sight again. The German dreadnoughts, having also noticed the destroyers, immediately opened fire and began to maneuver. Due to a combination of mist and rain, the German fire was ineffective, while four British destroyers were able to deliver a 12-torpedo salvo from close range, whilst remaining unharmed. At 02:10, two torpedoes hit the side of battleship Pommern with a deafening explosion, breaking the ship in two and causing it to turn over. The British tried to repeat their attack, but failed, with return fire damaging Onslaught, Mindful, Maenad, and Nessus. At 02:15, German destroyer V4, at the forefront of the battle, was hit by one of the torpedoes launched by the 12th flotilla, quickly causing the ship to sink.
The remainder of the night passed without further clashes. The destroyers were already running out of fuel, and they could only get back to base at an endurance speed. During the Battle of Jutland, the British lost one leader and seven destroyers, with many ships suffering serious damage or crew losses. This battle highlighted numerous weaknesses in the ships' technical characteristics and in flotilla organization.
During World War I, the British Navy lost 67 destroyers and 3 leaders in total. These losses were heavy in comparison to other types of ships. However, destroyers proved their worth in large battles. In addition to their usefulness as part of fleet formations, destroyers proved to be efficient submarine hunters, having sent to the bottom a third of the 186 submarines sunk during the war. After the capitulation and destruction of the German Navy, nearly all M- and S-class destroyers were withdrawn from the fleet, with 42 ships of earlier construction being sold for scrap. In addition, the number of operating flotillas was reduced. The future had new shipbuilding programs and years of calm before the incoming storm.