A Tale of Two Ships
Before going into how the Zubian came about – and how she got her name – we must first discuss two separate Tribal-class destroyers serving in the Royal Navy during the First World War: Nubian and Zulu.
The Tribal class destroyers – not to be confused with the destroyer line of the same name put forth in the 1930s – were conceived during an interesting time for naval development, when oil was beginning to phase out coal as a means of propulsion, and warship designers were beginning to see the value of the destroyer as a versatile fleet vessel capable of performing more tasks than just torpedo boat interception.
With the introduction of this new class in 1904, the British Admiralty lay down some intentionally simple base requirements for the new ships before construction, like the need for turbines and oil boilers; and an armament consisting of three 76 mm guns, complemented with two torpedo tubes. However, other, more superficial details in the design of the ships were left to the whim of the individual shipbuilding companies that the government contracted to carry out construction. This led to each ship having a unique appearance.
Keeping with the convention in her class, this ship was named after the tribal peoples of Upper Egypt with her launch and commissioning in 1909. Performing well in initial trials, Nubian began the First World War on patrol in the English Channel together with other Tribals, hunting for German submarines and raiders that would threaten the supply shipments to the continent.
In October 1916, Nubian formed part of the armed response to a flash German torpedo boat raid on coastal defences and transport ships near Dover. Having strayed ahead of her flotilla, Nubian encountered the fleet of German boats and mistook them for Allied vessels returning from France. Her crew were caught off guard when they were greeted with gunfire and attempted to respond, but it was too late. A German torpedo struck between the bridge and the bow, causing heavy structural damage, but no casualties.
After the raiders had withdrawn, the disabled Nubian was attached to a line to be towed back to Dover, but bad weather caused her to break away and drift into a nearby cliff, killing 15 of her crew and causing the bow section of the ship to be completely severed.
Coming from the same batch of Tribals as Nubian, this destroyer had a rough start to the war, suffering three separate collisions, two of them with her sister ship Crusader. During the following years, Zulu successfully carried out patrol duties near the straits of Dover, with a sprinkling of convoy escorts and mine laying operations near the German-held Belgian coast from time to time.
In November 1916, just a month after Nubian had crashed into the cliffs of Dover, Zulu struck a mine laid by a German submarine while crossing the English Channel, killing three members of the crew near the engine rooms, and tearing the stern section of the ship clean off. The badly crippled warship was thankfully in proximity to a French destroyer, which managed to tow what was left back to the French coast.
After the incident with Zulu, the Royal Navy now found itself in a difficult situation. The fleet needed all the ships it could take to face the unremitting submarine menace, and they could not afford to give free rein to the German Navy in the Channel under any circumstances, as it was the main artery of supply for the troops in the trenches. They now had two completely incapacitated modern destroyers in drydock, just begging to get scrapped for their precious metal. It was decided in the end that the Navy could not afford to do so, and thus began one of the most remarkable salvaging operations in history.
The mangled remains of the once proud Tribals were assembled at Chatham Dockyard in Kent, and a skilled group of engineers was assembled and tasked with performing some extraordinary ‘surgery’. Both Nubian and Zulu were missing large parts of their hulls. The key was that each ship had taken the damage on opposite ends of their hulls (Nubian had lost her bow, and Zulu had lost her stern), so if they could cut away some excess and unite the pristine ends of both ships, they would have themselves a brand-new Tribal-class destroyer.
Sure enough, the two ships were sectioned amidships between the two frontmost of their four exhaust funnels and carefully stitched together. Despite some slight differences between the two ships – like an 89 mm difference in width – they were similar enough that the operation resulted in astonishing success. The new ship was recommissioned in 1917 and joined up again with the Dover patrols in the 6th Destroyer Flotilla under Admiral Reginald Bacon. Admiral Bacon was shown to have a sense of humour when he aptly rechristened the new ship as ‘Zubian’ – an amalgamation of ‘Zulu’ and ‘Nubian’, in honour of the donors that made her possible.
What might have seemed like a mad scientist’s experiment turned out to function perfectly in action, as was proven in early 1918 when it came time to test her mettle. While on her usual patrol route, she came across a German submarine in the act of laying sea mines and gave chase. After an unsuccessful attempt at ramming the sub – a common anti-submarine tactic at the time – she dropped her depth charges over its last known position. The successful sinking of the U-boat would soon after be confirmed by divers.
She continued her career normally in the Dover patrols, occasionally participating in escort missions for convoys and raiding parties on the Belgian ports from which the U-boat fleet operated out of, until the end of the war some months later. After the war, the Admiralty unfortunately decided to do away with this remarkable ship, along with all other battle-hardened destroyers of the Tribal class, to open the window to newer destroyer designs that could incorporate the lessons learned from the first modern naval war.