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Robert Whitehead and the History of the Torpedo
by Edwin Gray
ISBN 0-87021-245-1

Reviewed by Rear Admiral Peter Chabot, USN(Ret.)

[Ed. Note: Rear Admiral Chabot is the former Manager of the MK 48 Torpedo Program in the Naval Sea Systems Command.]

ow did Whitehead come to build torpedoes in Italy and H Marconi make them in England? This bit of trivia may have occurred to individuals familiar with naval weapons and war at sea. This is an updated and expanded biography of the 19th century Englishman whose work had more influence on the course of naval warfare than most of the admirals of his time combined.

Robert Whitehead is an interesting study; an engineering genius, an eminently successful businessman, and a gentle family patriarch who sincerely believed the value of his invention was in its deterrence to war, a weapon so devastating that it would tend to prevent war rather than facilitate it. His unique talent was in applied mechanics that led first to the invention in the 1860’s of the automobile torpedo itself (as differentiated from towed or spar torpedoes), and then to each major improvement in the weapon until his death in 1905. Whitehead was addition-ally an entrepreneur who promoted and sold the product of the family-operated enterprise to some fourteen separate nations while amassing a considerable fortune.

But a lack of financial discipline and the excesses of his English estate, Paddockhurst, cost him a considerable portion of that wealth. And while his engineering achievements were recognized by awards and titles from many of the nations of Europe, he never received, in his lifetime, a single honor from the government of his native England.

The Devil’s Device, while first a biography of Whitehead, is also a history of the weapon from its crude inception to today’s underwater guided missile. But it is the story of personalities and events surrounding the weapon rather than a technical and engineering treatise. And as such it makes for good reading for a broad based audience.

Whitehead, born in 1823 in Lancashire, began professional life as an engineering apprentice and then moved to formal study of drafting, engineering, and mechanics. Like many English engineers of that period, he followed opportunity to the European continent and with the good offices of an uncle, became involved in marine engineering in shipyards of France and Italy. He progressed rapidly and by the late 1850’s, Whitehead was directing both design and construction at the Stabilimento Tecnico Fiumano (STF) engineering works at Fiume, near Trieste.

The Battle of Lissa in 1866 brought initial international recognition to Whitehead. Employing ramming tactics, the outnumbered and outgunned Austrian fleet mauled the Italians, sinking three and severely damaging three additional ships of the line. Whitehead had designed and built the propulsion plant of the FERDINAND MAX, the key Austrian participant. While Tegethoff, the Austrian commander, became a national hero and naval observers concluded the underwater ram was THE weapon of the future, Tegethoff wired Whitehead, “‘Thanks to (the reliability and performance of) your first class engines, I was able to win the Battle of Lissa.”

But in 1864, Whitehead had commenced the work that led to the self propelled, underwater torpedo that would render untenable the close quarters required for ramming tactics. Beginning with a proposal by an Austrian officer for a small, unmanned, surface device carrying an explosive charge, the effort evolved to an underwater vehicle that could deliver an attack beneath the surface, unobserved and below the armor belt where ironclads were most vulnerable. The initial torpedo emerged from the STF shops in 1866 and was offered for trials with the Austrian navy. Powered by compressed air at 6 knots over a run of 200 yards, it delivered an 18-pound dynamite warhead. And so began the evolution that has led to today’s subsurface missiles which employ extensive logic embedded in onboard digital computers to acoustically locate, classify, and attack surface and submarine targets at speeds of 50 knots and higher with warheads containing the equivalent of hundreds of pounds of TNT.

As might be expected, one of the initial problems Whitehead faced was getting his torpedoes to consistently run at a depth which would insure impacting the targefs hull. The issue consumed nearly two years of effort, until a middle-of-the-night inspiration resulted in a pressure chamber and pendulum device which Whitehead crafted in 1868. Always called “The Secret” (throughout his life Whitehead refused to patent any of his inventions because he feared industrial piracy), his depth sensor/controller remained virtually unchanged in principle through WWII!

As engines improved and range increased, accurate direction control became increasingly important. Whitehead, in 1895, was probably the first individual to put to work the initial practical gyroscope devised by Ludwig Obry. Again, his system of a high speed gyro wheel to detect deviation in direction and com-pressed air to control the torpedo’s rudder were basic ingredi-ents to torpedo control into the 1950’s.

While ably demonstrating Whitehead’s engineering achieve-ments, the author weaves in a thoroughly researched and well written description of early engagements involving torpedoes. The focus is on actions before World War I, and the period of naval history many readers will already know. Most significant are such battles as Weshaiwei (Japan/China) in 1895, Port Arthur (Japan/Russia) in 1895, and Tsushima (Japan/Russia) in 1905. While it will come as no surprise, the narrative also clearly demonstrates that the weapon is a stem taskmaster as hardships and casualties were significant among those employing torpedoes.

Included are many of the unusual events of torpedo warfare which provide human interest and color – such as the WWI British submarine commander who surfaced his craft to recover a torpedo that missed its target, made it ready again on board, and fired it for a hit (and a confirmed sinking) on a subsequent target. One of the initial aerial torpedo attacks was executed by a British aviator who was forced by engine problems to land his float plane on the water and subsequently taxied into firing position. After achieving a hit and a sinking (a tug), and unburdened of the torpedo weight, he was able to coax his aircraft into the air and make good his escape.

While most people will recognize that Captain Georg von Trapp was a naval officer (the Trapp Family Singers of The Sound of Music), many will not know that he was the World War I U-boat commander credited with sinking the French armored cruiser LEON GAMBETI’A Von Trapp’s first wife was Robert Whitehead’s granddaughter, Agathe, and after her untimely death of diphtheria in 1922, Georg hired Maria as governess for his five children — and the world is familiar with the story from there. Again, this is a book of torpedo events and people.

Published originally in 1975, this 1991 updated and revised edition reflects author Gray’s continued research of his subject and newly available information in Whitehead family letters and Royal Navy documents. Added is a full chapter dealing with torpedo problems encountered by German and American submariners in WWII. While readers will be familiar with our own MK 14 issues, similar difficulties in German torpedoes are given equal treatment. The contrast in finding solutions is remarkable!

For the serious student, eleven appendices provide compre-hensive information on the characteristics of torpedoes built by the Whitehead works and the principal naval powers from the beginning up to the present. A final appendix documents principal factors in torpedo engagements through 1895 including date, location, warring parties, attacker and target, and results. A thorough bibliography of primary and secondary sources supports the.entire text.

Mr. Gray has written extensively on undersea warfare, both in historical form and in novels. In The Devil’s Device, he has achieved a most enjoyable work that will have a significant appeal to both the naval professionals and to others having a more casual interest in war at sea.


by V. E. Tarrant
Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1989.  190pp.
Ministry of Defence (Navy)
London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1989.     396pp.

Reviewed by Marc Milner
University of New Brunswick

[Reprinted with permission from Naval War College Review]

John Keegan once observed that the vast amount of raw data  in logs, signals, orders, charts, and the like burden naval history with such a density and volume of facts that the prospect of writing it might “crush the spirit and blind the imagination of all but the most inspired and dedicated scholar.” Compared to the more visceral problems confronting those who wrestle with land battles, modem naval “battle” history does present unique challenges. One of them is that the historiographical concept of naval battle has been extended in this century to include episodes that were, in essence, protracted campaigns of attrition waged by submarines against shipping. Far more than the distinct and discrete “battle piece” – like Jutland or Midway — throughout that Keegan had in mind, these campaigns were shaped and driven by hard data; such as loss and tonnage rates, wastage, rates of new construction, volumes of cargoes deliv-ered, and serviceability and strength returns. The submarine campaigns of this century were battles writ large, with all the detail of particular actions overburdened by the mountains of data compiled by shore staffs.

That essential truth is amply demonstrated in these two excellent books. However, they do more than simply recount the relentlessly accumulated data in plus and minus columns. They fill large gaps in the English language literature on the U – Boat campaigns. Tarrant’s The U-Boat Offensive 1914-1945 covers the whole sweep of two world wars and provides a remarkably concise yet thorough account of the German U-boat campaigns in both. His discussion of operations is set in a solid strategic context and within the broader context of the evolu-tion of naval warfare itself. His account of the wedding of time-honoured blockade strategy with the new possibilities – and limitations – of submarines in the First World War is tightly focused and marvelously balanced. The same can be said of his handling of World War ll in which the complex pressures of strategy, the intelligence war, and the contest between Allied tonnage losses and new construction are clearly set forth, he displays a fine sense for the limits of DOnitz’s fleet and for the imperatives of the war of attrition. The U-Boat Offensive also provides enough technical detail on U-boat development to carry the story.

Tarrant’s text is itself a major contribution to the field, but it is also particularly useful for the enormous volume of essential data that it provides on aspects of the U-boat war.

U-boat losses are recorded in detail at the end of each chapter; merchant shipping losses (in various arrangements), new U-boat construction, monthly U-boat strength returns, U-boat specifica-tions, and other tables are provided in appendices. Much of this information is already available in British official and naval staff histories and in out-of-print monographs, and the text is based largely on Admiralty in-house publications available at the public Records Office in Kew. But it would be impudent to suggest that Tarrant has simply repackaged a familiar tale. Rather, he has produced for the first time a truly comprehen-sive and scholarly account of the German U-boat arm in the world wars. The worst that can be said is that his standard of documentation is less than the scholarly norm.

The U-Boat Offensive wiD serve as an essential reference on the U-boat campaigns. However, its significance is surpassed by that of the publication of The U-Boat War jn the Atlantic 1939-1945, one of the confidential Admiralty in-house sources upon which Tarrant and many others before him have drawn. Long revered by specialists in the field as the Grail for U-boat operations in the Second World War, The U-Boat War was compiled after the war under British and American direction by Fregattenkapitan Gunter Hessler, Staff Officer (Operations) to BdU from 1941 onwards and Admiral DOnitz’s son-in-law. Among Hessler’s able research assistants was a young German naval officer named JOrgen Rohwer, now the foremost authority on the Battle of the Atlantic. Hessler’s credentials for writing this account were impeccable and so too were his sources, which included the surviving U-boat logs, the War Diary of BdU, and other captured German records.

Her Majesty’s Stationery Office bas published a facsimile edition of the original three-volume “BR 305.” Its 400-plus pages of text cover deployments, operations, analysis of U-boat activities, equipment, tactical developments, and evaluations of the significance of Allied countermeasures. The comings and goings of individual submarines and “wolfpacks” are described in detail, as are contemporary German assessments of convoy battles. The text is buttressed periodically with maps, diagrams, and charts illustrating strategic and tactical deployments and concepts, and with no less than thirty-two diagrams, published in a separate wallet, from the original BR 305. The diagrams contain a goldmine of data: flow charts of pack composition, strength returns, tonnages sunk, deployments by theatre, and the like. To this facsimile edition the reviser bas appended brief notes correcting errors and explaining incidents in the text along with reflections on the latest intelligence revelations, and a brief index.

It is difficult not to indulge superlatives when assessing the importance of Hessler’s work and its publication for wide distribution. Nothing like it has ever been available; The U-Boat War is without a doubt the most important book ever published on the Battle of the Atlantic.

Amid the welter of books which clutter the field of twentieth century naval history, Hessler’s and Tarrant’s stand out as essential additions to modem naval h’braries. They also demonstrate that naval historians have been neither crushed or blinded by the challenges of their field.


by K. Jack Bauer and Stephen S. Roberts
Westport, Conn. Greenwood Publishing, 1991
ISBN 0.313-262..0 20 $75.00

Reviewed by Norman Polmar

This is a remarkable book, listing every U.S. major combat-ant acquired by the Navy from 1775-1990 in 350 pages of text and photos.  Forty pages of text are devoted to detailing each U.S. submarine, from Holland’s PLUNGER, the submarine built for the Navy– but never accepted- and HOLLAND {SS-through the LOS ANGELES {SSN-688) and OHIO {SSBN-726)

For each submarine the authors provide the crafCs number, name, builder, building dates, disposition (if stricken or sunk), basic characteristics, and a paragraph of information on authorization, design, reclassifications, and other details. There are also some unusual facts given, such as the TECUMSEH {SSBN-628), originally to have been named WILLIAM PENN, although there is no mention of the PLUNGER (SSN-595) having been named PLUNGER when ordered as an SSGN and the BARB (SSN-596) having been the PLUNGER as an SSGN. As noted in the book, four submarines of this series were reor-dered as THRESHER-class attack submarines when the Regulus II missile program was canceled.

Unfortunately, the guided and ballistic missile submarines, radar pickets, hunter-killers, and research submarines are listed separately from the standard submarines {SS/SSN), and thus the specialized submarines are not listed in chronological or numerical order. But this is a minor limitation as there is a name index and limited hull number index in the book.

There are ten photos in the submarine section. These are the normal shots of the craft and could have easily been deleted, if only in an effort to reduce production costs. And cost is a big factor – but the book is a must to those interested in the history of U.S. warships or the Navy. Beyond subma-rines, the book similarly lists the Navy’s sailing ships, beginning with the 74-gun ship-of-the-line AMERICA launched in 1782; armed merchantmen, ironclads, and other warships of the 1800s; monitors; battleships; cruisers; destroyers; escort ships; frigates;and aircraft carriers.

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