UNITED24 - Make a charitable donation in support of Ukraine!


Torpedo Boats

There were few things more promising of instructive and interesting developments in naval warfare than the torpedo-boat. A torpedo-boat is small war vessel fitted to use the torpedo as its primary weapon of attack. The principal requirements of a torpedo boat are high speed, efficient means of launching torpedoes, handiness, and fair seaworthiness. To attain these essentials the boats are long, slender, very lightly built, and low in the water. Since its first appearance, in crude form, it went through rapid and startling transformation, from the open rowing boat with its spar torpedo, to the swift and highly-powered vessel carrying explosive bombs of self-propelling character.

By in 1896 England had 256, France 244, Russia 185, Germany 155, and Spain 46. Of England's 256, 42 were of the class known as torpedo-boat destroyers, or vessels which, in addition to being equipped for attacking with torpedoes, were specially designed to destroy other torpedo boats. The trial speeds of these 42 boats varied from 26 to 28 knots. At that time, England also had 28 torpedo vessels building, designed to attain a speed of 30 knots, and had let contracts for several others designed to attain a speed of 32 knots.

The adoption of the torpedo as a naval weapon has had one especial and beneficial effect on the sea service of the day. It has been the means of supplying the younger officers of the Navy with a fresh outlet for display of dash and enterprise. Twenty-five years earlier there was every prospect that the introduction of mastless ships would turn the life of an ordinary junior executive officer into the most uneventful and humdrum of existences. It looked as if watch keeping and dock drills were to be the sum total of his career in peace times unless he were fortunate enough to obtain the independent command of a small gunboat, and even in that case he would hardly be better off than before. The same conditions confronted the men.

The advent of the torpedo and the new class of vessels which followed in its wake changed all that, however. As the torpedo gradually developed from its crude initial state, likewise had the ship which carried it as the main weapon of offense. With a flotilla of torpedo boats and a host of destroyers there stood at hand many opportunities of displaying individual ability, and, in war time, many roads to fame and honor. In battle the greatest prizes may fall into the hands of the youngest officers and their gallant crews.

The torpedo as an offensive weapon made its appearance during the American War of the Rebellion, from 1860 to 1865, and, by its achievements during that war, established itself as a factor to be considered in naval warfare. So many and so brilliant were the successes which were achieved through its use in this war that it was almost immediately taken up by the maritime powers of Europe and became a recognised naval offensive weapon.

The torpedo of that time was the spar-torpedo, which, being carried at the end of a spar, twenty to twenty-five feet long, capable of being rigged out and in, and placed at various angles, could be brought in contact with the bottom of the enemy's vessels by a pulling boat or a steam-launch and discharged by means of an electric connection. For success it was necessary to come alongside the enemy before discovery and disablement. The rapid-fire gun of small caliber and the searchlight were not then in existence, so that the task of the torpedo in the hands of fearless men was, on a dark and foggy night, less impossible than might be thought. For some years the torpedo remained as it was at the close of the war, the weapon of the regular pulling boats and steam launches of the man-of-war. Boats which in time of peace did duty as the regular running boats of the ship, were provided with apparatus for the use of the spar- torpedo in time of war as a part of their equipment.

The deepest interest was awakened among the maritime nations of Europe in this deadly method of attack, and they began at once the development of the torpedo and all that was necessary to render it a reliable and certain weapon. With better torpedoes and wider experience in controlling and guiding them came consideration of the character of boat best adapted for their use. Such a boat must avoid observation as far as possible and therefore should not be conspicuous. It must offer a poor target to an enemy's guns and therefore should be small. It must escape pursuit and therefore should be fast.

The effectiveness of defence is weakened by the fact that in all navies the number of torpedo-boats was from three to seven times greater than the number of armor-clads, and the loss of several torpedo-boats cannot be compared in gravity with the loss of a single armor-clad carrying an incomparably larger crew, and costing an incomparably greater sum.

From the year 1868 the transformation of steam-launches or boats pulled by oars into torpedo-boats became an object of solicitude, especially in France, England, and Sweden, where regulations were enacted permitting of the use of existing material for that purpose. But it was soon found that no medium course was sufficient, and that the moderate speed of ordinary boats would not answer. Steam-launches only had a speed of six or seven knots, and an attack under such conditions had little chance of success, for the assailant had the disadvantage of remaining too long exposed to the fire of his enemy; while, if the object of his attack was in motion, it would fail nine times out of ten.

Early in the 1870s it was proposed to construct small special steam vessels, in which a lightness of hull, fineness of lines, and exceptionally large motive power would ensure a speed of from 15 to 18 knots, for use as torpedo-boats. A little before this the Whitehead torpedo had been introduced and was being experimented with by all the European powers. It was destined to revolutionise ideas of torpedo warfare and make more necessary the construction of the special torpedo vessels then proposed.

The States which were relatively the poorest and weakest were the first to avail themselves of this improvement. The King of Sweden, struck by the advantages possessed by these little vessels, as well as by their small cost, in 1872 sent to New York and invited bids for two torpedo-boats.

Keeping in view these general requirements, Thornycroft built, at their yards in Chiswick, for the Norwegian government, in 1873, the first vessel ever constructed solely for torpedo service. This, which was subsequently named the Rasp, vessel was 57 feet long, had a displacement of 72 tons, and made a speed of 14.9 knots. She was originally provided with an apparatus for the towing torpedo. Though she proved highly satisfactory, and met fully all that could be hoped for from the first boat representing a new departure in naval construction, she was regarded for four years as an experiment, and during that time no countries followed where Norway had led.

In 1877 Russia commenced in earnest to build torpedo boats, ordering as many as 100 during that year, and England built one, the Lightning, which proving satisfactory, she ordered twelve others. One of these twelve attained a speed of 22 knots. She, however, practically stopped at this point, and for seven years continually decried torpedo boats and stubbornly refused to treat them as worthy of her consideration. In 1884 she only had 19 as against Russias 115 and Frances 50, and it was not until she was driven to it by this activity upon the part of her neighbors that she entered upon the building program that gave her more torpedo boats than any other nation.

In 1877 a new builder, Mr. Yarrow, made his appearance. Yarrow, often a successful competitor of Thornycroft, launched his first torpedo-boat in 1874 ; it was only 16.80 metres long. In 1877 he built, for the English government, the "Lightning" (twenty-four metres long), which, on her trial trip, showed a speed of 18.75 knots. This boat carried three Whitehead torpedoes, and served, after a few modifications in details, for the type of a large number of the same class.

Experience showed that the volumes of black smoke issuing from smoke-stacks were as visible by the beams of the electric light as the most opaque bodies. Thornycroft was the first to attempt to contrive a perfectly silent engine, but he had less success in smoke-consumers. Experiments conducted at Portsmouth, in 1878, intended to find means for concealing the approach of torpedo-boats under cover of darkness, showed that the object had not been attained by the inventor; for they were invariably discovered either by the noise of the machinery or by the flame which issued from their smoke-stacks. It became necessary, therefore, to remedy these defects, and, in 1879, Yarrow did away with the smoke-stack and discharged the smoke below the water-line. But it seemed at first impossible to give such boats the great speed which was evidently necessary. In spite of every device, boats of so small a tonnage could never be given more than a certain speed; but the efforts of constructors did not abate, for the prize was great for that one who could, by increased swiftness, add so greatly to the armaments of the naval powers.

While they were increasing in this manner the length and tonnage of the boat, the question of handling the torpedo itself was by no means settled. The question was whether they were to continue to carry it by means of a sleeve and the staff, and so attack squarely, end on, or would it be better to carry it at the side and explode it during an evolution, without stopping the engine? The Swedes seemed to think the last method the best, because it detained the boat a shorter time under the close fire of the enemy's musketry. At the same time such a manoeuvre is more difficult than the first mentioned, exacting from the commanding officer a better judgment of distances and more coolness; so the general judgment was, that it was better to attack bows on.

The most noted torpedo-boat builders in the 1880s were Messrs. Yarrow, and Messrs. Thornycroft, of London. Each of these great firms employed from 1,000 to 1,200 workmen, and can turn out at least one completed boat per week. The rivalry which existed in the first instance between these two builders, and later among an increasing number of builders, had quite as much to do with the development of the types of torpedo-boats as have considerations of their warlike purpose and efficiency as means of offense. Very similar in their construction, and no less famous for speed and maneuvering qualities, were the boats built by the Messrs. Thornycroft.

The chief peculiarity of torpedo-boats is their almost phenomenal speed. They were built of steel, the different classes ranging in length from 55 feet, intended for harbor defence, to vessels of 166 feet, capable of making an extended cruise at sea. By the 1890s it was commmon to hear torpedo-boats spoken of as "20 knotters," or "30-knotters," as if speed, regardless of size, cost, number of men involved, offensive power, etc. , were the one consideration in such vessels; and there is no doubt that in the popular mind a 30-knot boat must be far superior to a 20-knot or a 24-knot boat, no matter what may be the relations existing between other qualities of the two boats.

The Falke, a boat built by the Messrs. Yarrow for the Austro-Hungarian Government, was 135 feet long, 14 feet wide, draught of water 5 feet 6 inches, and attained on the trial trip a speed of 25 miles per hour. The armament consisted of two Nordenfeldt machine-guns, carried on deck, and two bow-tubes for discharging Whitehead torpedoes.

A vessel completed by the Messrs. Yarrow for the Japanese Government was the largest that had been yet built. It is 166 feet long, 19 feet wide, is provided with twin screws, to give greater facility in turning, and maintains a speed of 24 miles per hour. The engines are protected by a steel deck one inch thick; and, in addition to two bow-tubes for discharging torpedoes directly ahead, two turn-tables are mounted on deck, from which torpedoes can be launched in any desired direction.

France began, under the program of January 30, 1875, the construction of torpedo boats subject to the following limitations: - Length about 20 meters (75.6 feet) ; hull of steel capable of resisting musket fire; maximum speed, 14 knots; sufficient coal for eight hours at full speed.

In 1877 the Russian government had no less than 100 boats of a similar character under construction by different firms. These boats were 75 feet long, 10 feet beam, with a speed of 18 knots. Italy followed the next year with a vessel very much like the Lightning. About the same time the first German torpedo boat was constructed. It was rather larger than the British and Italian boats.

About the time of the beginning of the construction of special torpedo-boats, the Whitehead torpedo had made such progress as to find some advocates for its use. From the uncertainties attending the action of the early automobile torpedo and the demonstrated efficiency of the spar-torpedo under the existing conditions, the latter was in many instances preferred to the former, and most of the early torpedo-boats were originally provided with spar-torpedoes and later fitted for the use of the automobile torpedoes.

The automobile torpedo, designed by Whitehead, soon replaced the carried torpedo, at least for the larger torpedo-boats. This substitute relieved the assailant from the necessity of putting his carried torpedo in contact with his enemy's hull, and from that time the torpedo-boat discharged its offensive weapon from a distance of three to four hundred metres. To use the expression of Adm. Donaldson, the boats then carried the torpedoes at the end of a boom four hundred metres long. It was in this manner that carried torpedoes gave way to launched torpedoes.

The ironclads therefore began to increase the number of their rapid-fire and machine-guns, and great attention was given to the study of the electric light. The introduction of the rapid-fire gun was the death-blow of the spar-torpedo and emphasised the necessity for high-speed torpedo vessels for use with the automobile torpedo. The torpedo itself, and the means for firing it, were rapidly improved. The growth and improvement in the torpedo-boat more than kept pace with its principal weapon. From 1878 on, the work of construction of special torpedo vessels by the European powers has gone on steadily, although, in the case of individual nations, there had been delays from indecision as to the types which should be taken up.

England, especially, had by this time divided her torpedo-boats into two distinct groups : those of the first class, intended to act singly, of which the "Lightning" (twenty-six and one-half meters long and of thirty-two and one-half tons) was the type. Some of these had a spur or ram, partly with an idea of improving their sea-going qualities, partly with a view that they might act by shock against boats of a similar character. They were provided with three Whitehead torpedoes, which were projected by the aid of a movable tube, which could be pointed like a piece of artillery. The second-class boats were only about nineteen metres in length, and had a displacement of twelve and one-half tons. Their armament consisted of two Whitehead torpedoes and two launching-tubes. Thus the two torpedoes of the second-class boats were always ready for launching, while the first-class boats could only send off one at a time. Then the projectiles of the ship which was being assailed might destroy the two reserve torpedoes, which were carried on deck, close to the tube, and without any protection ; so that, as far as armament went, the second-class boats might be considered superior to the first. More than that, they soon discovered that the first-class boats were not sufficiently sea-worthy to be able to go outside and watch the coasts in all weathers.

An enlargement in the sphere of the torpedo-boat, by which it was to prove its title to consideration as a separate branch of navies rather than one of the weapons of ships, was marked by the construction of sea-going torpedo-boats, of which Batoum, completed in 1879 for Russia, was the first. In 1879, the Russian torpedo- boat Batoum (length 100', beam 12' 6", displacement 50 tons) made the voyage from London to Nikolaief, a distance of 4800 miles, with a crew of three officers and nine men, at an average speed of 11 knots. In the following year, four boats for the Argentine Republic, of the same length and slightly less displacement, made the voyage from Plymouth to Buenos Aires, under sail, with little difficulty, one of the boats requiring 72 days for the passage.

The English then, following the example of Russia, ordered from Yarrow some boats thirty and a half metres long, capable of going to sea, and to carry coal enough to steam one thousand miles, while their speed was to be nineteen knots. Yarrow was now quite capable of satisfying these demands, for in 1879 he had delivered to the Admiralty a boat twenty-six metres long and of twenty-seven tons' displacement, which attained a speed of 21.9 knots; while he was just completing a large torpedo-vessel for the Italian government, aud was only waiting the enlargement of his ship-yard to begin building some of the same kind for Russia.

The purposes for which torpedo-boats were used naturally divide them into two large classes - the sea-going- and the harbor or coast defence. This division, while not directly recognised in the classifications of torpedo-boats by the various nations, was accepted the division of duties to which boats already constructed are considered assignable, and is implied in all the classifications. The characteristics of the boats for the two purposes are essentially as different as are the characteristics of the sea-going battle-ship and the coast-defense monitor. To obtain the best results the natural division should be recognised and boats designed and constructed to meet the requirements of service in each class.

It was imperative that the sea-going torpedo-boat shall be seaworthy - that is, capable of remaining safely at sea in all such weathers as may reasonably be anticipated. Since the size of the boat has so vital a bearing upon its efficiency, it is important to consider what limitations are placed upon size by the necessity of seaworthiness, in order that it may be determined whether the size of boat consistent with the other characteristics required is consistent with this demand.

For several years great attention had been paid to the sea-worthiness of torpedo-boats, and now a new element in their construction was to be brought forward, - viz., the protection necessary to enable these little boats to resist the projectiles of the rapid-firing guns which now formed part of the equipment of all ironclads. At the same time it was necessary to bear in mind the part the little vessels were to play in coast defense, and many ports of refuge were built for their shelter, which the English called "hornets' nests."

Following the example of other governments, Germany at first ordered torpedo-boats from Yarrow and Thornycroft, and then, taking these for models, constructed similar ones in their own ship-yards. The first one they built at home 'was named the "Schischau" (the name of the constructor). It had a displacement of eighty-five tons, and carried coal enough to run three thousand five hundred miles at the speed of ten knots. In a five hours' trial she showed an average speed of 21.7 knots. The Schischau works have been very successful, for a torpedo-boat built by them for Russia made twenty-three knots an hour, while others ordered by Turkey exceeded that speed.

In 1887, Italy built some torpedo-boats of forty-two metres in length with double rudders, lighted by electricity, and having two launching-tubes forward and two others aft, on a revolving platform. They were armed with two rapid-fire Nordenfelt guns. These new models were said to have attained a speed of 24.96 knots.

Besides these advances, new types of small vessels called "aviso-torpilleurs" [dispatch torpedo-boats] and "contre-torpilleurs," were brought forward. These acted for the ironclad squadrons like cavalry for an army corps, protecting the flanks, and attacking and running down torpedo-boats which ventured too near the big ships. 1883 the English had two of these "dispatch torpedo-boats" upon the stocks. They were fifty-nine metres long, with a displacement of four hundred and thirty-five tons, and their armament consisted of one 6-inch gun, three 5-inch, and several machine guns. About the beginning of 1887, Thompson, of Glasgow, built the torpedo-cruiser "Destructor" for the Spanish government. She measured nearly fifty-six metres in length, with a displacement of four hundred and eighty tons. The Italian " aviso-torpilleur" which was also launched in 1887, had three independent engines and three propellers. She is seventy- three metres in length, nearly eight metres beam, 2.90 metres draught of water, and a displacement of seven hundred and forty-five tons. She was expected to have a speed of twenty-three to twenty-four knots.

From 1871 to 1888 the length of these boats was tripled, the tonnage increased tenfold, and the speed also in the ratio of eight to thirteen.

By the end of the 19th Century torpedo experts were agreed that the long, 18" torpedo was the most desirable. There remained to be considered the number of tubes which should be installed. The bow tubes which were at one time generally fitted have been abandoned on account of the interference of the bow wave with the tube and on account of the higher-speed boats running down the on the torpedo before it could gather way after being fired. Upon British, German, Italian, Russian, and United States first-class boats three training tubes had generally been installed. The Austrian, French, and Spanish boats of the same class, the British torpedo-boat destroyer and the German division-boat had but two each.

The improvements in the range, speed, and directive force of Whitehead torpedoes, as well as in torpedo boats and firing appliances, caused a considerable change in naval opinion, which was inclined to regard the Whitehead as a most dangerous weapon; still it seemed not likely to take the lending part in future wars, because the danger from it may be greatly reduced by careful disposition of ships at night, proper scouting, and increasing vigilance.

Join the GlobalSecurity.org mailing list

Page last modified: 04-08-2018 18:08:23 ZULU