The particular functions of the Torpedo Cruiser class of vessels, or the "torpedo chaser," as she was familiarly known, are to chase and destroy torpedo boats, to act as torpedo boats themselves when opportunity presents itself, and as Lookout and dispatch vessels in fleet operations. To this end they are to be provided with batteries of numerous quick-firing guns of sufficient power to penetrate any unarmored vessel, with very high speed, and with efficient torpedo-launching apparatus. In addition, the machinery is protected by a judicious arrangement of the coal bnnkers, in combination with thin armor plates.
The usefulness of this class of vessels has been shown very clearly in the Chilean revolutionary war, when the ironclad Blanco Encalada was torpedoed and sunk by the torpedo gunboats Almirante Condell and Almirante Lynch; owing to their size, and consequent less fatigue of crew, together with an ample coal supply, they were enabled to operate a long distance from their base of supplies. If they had not possessed these features, especially the ability to keep the sea, the attempt would doubtless have been unsuccessful, if indeed attempted at all.
A great development has taken place in the 1880s in that class of war ship known as the torpedo vessel, a class constructed by the different navies, in which are sought the characteristics of small size of hull, light gun armament, powerful torpedo offense, highest speed, thoroughly good sea-keeping qualities, and relatively large coal capacity. Experience had sufficiently demonstrated that high-sea torpedo boats, though able to go to sea, were not properly sea keeping. Life on board such small craft was unendurable in even moderately rough weather; for though the boat may escape injury, the personnel will be demoralized by the discomfort incident to cramped accommodations and incessant motion.
As a dividing line between the torpedo boat and the torpedo vessel a displacement of 300 tons was generally accepted. And in order to distinguish the torpedo vessel from the torpedo cruiser an upper limit of 1,000 tons displacement seems to have been adopted. These restrictions are not absolute and future developments may abrogate them.
The primary object of the torpedo cruiser was be the discovery and destruction of the ordinary torpedo craft of the enemy. The heavy armament of the vessel will necessarily prevent an ordinary torpedo-boat from trying conclusions with her opponent by means of her torpedo, and the speed of the cruiser will enable her to choose her own distance in which to encounter her foe.
The value of this type of vessel can not be overestimated. It combines in a great measure the offensive qualities of the torpedo boat with the cruising and coast guarding qualities of the gunboat, having an advantage over the former in size and speed, and over the latter in the ability to cover a greater length of coast line in a shorter space of time. By the early 1890s the average displacement of those building was about 830 tons. They ranged in speed from 19 to 22 knots, and carry an armament of rapid-fire guns and torpedoes.
Germany put afloat in 1882 the Blitz and Pfeil, of 1,380 tons each. Their length was 245 feet ; breadth, 32 feet 6 inches ; and draught 13 feet 6 inches. The armament consisted of one under water-tube in the bow, one 4.9-inch B. L. on top of a short forecastle, and four 3.4-inch B. L. in broadside. The Blitz's machinery consisted of two sets of compound engines and eight locomotive boilers fitted to work with forced draft and operating twin screws. The vessel made a maximum speed of 18 knots and immediately attracted attention. On account of her size, however, she should be classed as a torpedo cruiser, a new type, of which she was the forerunner, that absorbed attention for the next few years to the exclusion of the torpedo vessel.
France was soon to the front in this new development, launching in 1885 the Condor, of 1,240 tons. On trial the Condor made 17.8 knots. Austria and England followed suit, the former with the Panther and Leopard - built in England - of 1,530 tons and nearly 19 knots speed, and the latter with the Scout, class of 1,600 tons and 17.6 knots ; and later with the Archer class, of 1,770 tons and 17.5 to 18 knots.
The desirability of having with all fighting sea fleets some fast handy vessels, capable of discharging torpedoes was thus recognized, but the necessity for such vessels additionally designed to operate against torpedo boats, which, in their increasing numbers and better sea-going qualities, had become a serious menace to the safety and morale of a fleet, was now regarded as imperative. The French Condor promised a partial solution of the problem, but in copying her and improving on her, the torpedo vessel became the torpedo cruiser, with all the capabilities pertaining to the cruiser class, capabilities most desirable, but which seriously interfered with the handiness, manoeuvring powers, and maximum speed so indespensable in torpedo-boat warfare. Cruisers of 1,300 tons and upwards could not be easily handled or obscured among a number of ships in close proximity to one another, nor would they be difficult objects to hit, and every shot would tell.
It seemed to Alfred Thayer Mahan in "The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660-1783" that there was on the surface an evident resemblance between the role of the fire-ship and the part assigned in contemporary warfare to the torpedo-cruiser. The terrible character of the attack, the comparative smallness of the vessel making it, and the large demands upon the nerve of the assailant, are the chief points of resemblance ; the great points of difference are the comparative certainty with which the modern vessel can be handled, which is partly met by the same advantage in the iron-clad over the old ship-of-the-line, and the instantaneousness of the injury by torpedo, whose attack fails or succeeds at once, whereas that of the fire-ship required time for effecting the object, which in both cases is total destruction of the hostile ship, instead of crippling or otherwise reducing it.
An appreciation of the character of fire-ships, of the circumstances under which they attained their greatest usefulness, and of the causes which led to their disappearance, may perhaps help in the decision to which nations must come as to whether the torpedo-cruiser, pure and simple, is a type of weapon destined to survive in fleets.
The fire ship first appears, incorporated as an arm of the fleet, in 1636. Whether specially built for the purpose, or whether altered from other purposes to be fitted for their particular end, they received a special equipment. The command was given to officers not noble, with the grade of captain of fire-ship. Five subordinate officers and twenty-five seamen made up the crew. Easily known by grappling- irons which were always fitted to their yards, the fire-ship saw its role growing less in the early years of the eighteenth century. It was finally to disappear from the fleets whose speed it delayed and whose evolutions were by it complicated.
As the ships-of-war grew larger, their action in concert with fire-ships became daily more difficult. On the other hand, there had already been abandoned the idea of combining them with the fighting-ships to form a few groups, each provided with all the means of attack and defence. The formation of the close-hauled line-of-battle, by assigning the fire-ships a place in a second line placed half a league on the side farthest from the enemy, made them more and more unfitted to fulfil their office. Finally the use of shells, enabling ships to be set on fire more surely and quickly, was the last blow to the fire-ship.
In heavy weather small hulk must always mean comparatively small speed. In a moderate sea, we are now told, the speed of the torpedo-boat falls from twenty knots to fifteen or less, and the seventeen to nineteen knot cruiser can either run away from the pursuing boats, or else hold them at a distance under fire of machine and heavy guns. These boats are sea-going, " and it is thought can keep the sea in all weathers ; but to be on board a 110-foot torpedo-boat, when the sea is lively, is said to be far from agreeable. The heat, noise, and rapid vibrations of the engines are intense. Cooking seems to be out of the question, and it is said that if food were well cooked few would be able to appreciate it. To obtain necessary rest under these conditions, added to the rapid motions of the boat, is most difficult.
Larger boats are to be built; but the factor of loss of speed in rough weather will remain, unless the size of the torpedo-cruiser is increased to a point that will certainly lead to fitting them with something more than torpedoes. By 1890 it seemed not improbable to Alfred Thayer Mahan in "The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660-1783" that like fire-ships, small torpedo-cruisers will delay the speed and complicate the evolutions of the fleet with which they are associated. Mahan argued that for deep-sea fighting the transfer of the torpedo to a class of larger ships will put an end to the mere torpedo-cruiser. The fire-ship continued to be used against fleets at anchor down to the days of the American Civil War ; and the torpedo-boat will always be useful within an easy distance of its port.
This class of vessels, as torpedo cruisers proper, did not prove a success. They were intended to chase and destroy torpedo boats, as well as to engage large ships with their torpedoes. They were loaded with guns. men, torpedoes and machinery. The fastest of them can catch torpedo boats proper in deep water and in a sea way, but they cannot follow them into shoal water. It is hard to urderstand in what way they were intended to use their torpedoes. They were too large to make a surprise attack. They had guns heavy enough to engage much larger and heavier vessels, but they would not dare to come near enough to use them. Stripped of their heavy guns and torpedoes, they would make very efficient scouts, especially the later and faster ones.
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