The torpedo was one of the most potent maritime weapons for nearly one hundred years. Its reliability was proven as late as 1982 when a Mark VIII xx torpedo, designed in 1936, sank the Argentine cruiser BELGRANO. In the two World Wars the torpedo sunk more tonnage than mines, gunfire and bombs combined.
In its form as a locomotive (including electricity) torpedo, as generally understood, it was the idea of one man, Robert White-head. He was the English manager of an engineering firm established at Fiume, Austria in the 1850s under English management. The firm made the engines of the Austrian flagship at the Battle of Lissa, 1866, when the Italians were defeated. It was in that year that Whitehead with his son, John, age 12, and one trusted workman completed his prototype torpedo after two years work. It was a cigar shaped automobile weapon, propelled by a pneumatic engine, designed to run at any chosen depth, independent of the firing craft and designed to explode on hitting the target. These identical principles were embodied in all torpedoes through-out the life of the weapon. So successful was it that it was in production at Woolwich Arsenal (England) by 1872.
It is, however, proper to recall that in 1884 an American naval officer, Commander J.A. Howell, USN, constructed a torpedo in which the gyroscope was the influential component. He is accorded the father of gyro stabilisation and rose to flag rank. Howell’s torpedo was in some respects superior to the contemporary Whitehead. The basic idea was revolutionary, for the propulsive energy was stored in the fly-wheel. The Howell torpedo, tried before the U.S. Navy Board in 1884, was a 14 inch weapon. The fly-wheel stored 378,000 foot pounds when spun to 10,000 rpm and gave a speed of 15 knots over 200 yards. An improved model tried before the French in 1890 gave 24 knots to 400 yards and ran on to 800 yards at reduced speed. By 1898 the performance reached 30 knots to 800 yards, this being equivalent to that of the contemporary Whitehead. Most of Howell’s torpedoes were made by the Hotchkiss Ordnance Company. It was quoted that “it undoubtedly ran through to the point at which it was aimed, something which no other torpedo could be depended upon to do”. It lost that advantage when the Whitehead torpedo was fitted with the Obry gyroscope. The gyroscope adopted in the Whitehead torpedo was invented by Ludwig Obry formerly of the Austrian Navy. The wheel reached its maximum speed of 2,400 rpm in something less than half a second so that it was in nominal control of the torpedo as soon as it was launched.
The Obry gyroscope was adopted in 1896 by the United States Navy. As an indication of the accuracy expected, the 18 inch Mark I USN torpedo when run on the proving range, was required to be within eight yards right or left of the target at 800 yards; whereas without the gyroscope the deviation accepted was three times that amount.
The British Navy possessed 4000 Whitehead torpedoes which had to be modified to take the Obry gyroscope. In 1897 a number of these were tried out in the Channel and Mediterranean fleets and in 1898 it was decided to modify them with the Obry gyroscope paying a royalty of £25 per set to Whitehead.
The first Obry gyroscopes purchased by America were fitted with angling gear whereby the gyroscope could be pre-set at any desired angle up to 90 degrees with the axis of the torpedo. However, there are noted torpedo warriors who are firmly of the belief that the less you ask of the torpedo the more likely you are to get satisfaction.
The Spanish American War of 1898 provides very few instances of torpedo activity. The United States Navy then possessed very few torpedo craft. The principal torpedo incident occurred in the armoured cruiser ALMIRANTE OQUENDO which was damaged by the explosion of her above water torpedo warheads when hit by shell fire. The result was that the United States Navy abandoned the firing of above-water torpedo tubes, except in torpedo craft, for some years.
Torpedo manufacture in the United States began, as previously mentioned, with the Howell fly-wheel type but in 1891 the American manufacturing rights of the Whitehead torpedo were bought by the Brooklyn firm of Bliss and Williams-later E.W. Bliss and Company-makers of machinery for canning and sheet metal work. The negotiations were carried out by a notable engineer, Frank Leavitt. He did not endorse the Whitehead Brotherhood engine and proposed to fit a turbine instead. Leavitt’s turbine driven heater torpedo appeared in 1903, and in 1905 the United States Navy placed an order for 300 Bliss-Leavitt torpedoes.
Early in the century a very substantial increase in progressive performance was obtained by heating the air charge. In 1904 the British Sir W.G. Armstrong, Whitworth and Company of Newcastle-upon-Tyne patented the Elswick heater. In this the contents of the air vessel are warmed by a spray of liquid fuel, injected by compressed air and ignited by the firing of a cartridge. The Elswick heater was tried out at Weymouth, Dorset, England in an 18 inch Whitehead torpedo before British and Japanese naval representatives in 1905 and confirmed an increase in speed of nine knots over 1000 yards compared to running cold. Thus the two basic improvements were in place, gyroscope steering and the heater system.
The original Whitehead Brotherhood 3 cylinder radial engine made in Peterborough, England, remained in vogue for a very long time and is still traceable in later torpedoes, including the German 21 inch G7A which came into service in 1937. Admission was by cam-operated valves, originally of the piston type, the exhaust escaping through ports in the cylinder walls uncovered towards the end of the power stroke, and thereafter through a slot in the piston, uncovered by relative movement of the gudgeon. From the crank case the exhaust air emerged through the hollow propeller shaft, contributing to the speed of the torpedo. The pronounced heel by a single screw being replaced by contra-rotating screws. This engine had other applications in the British Navy such as producing power for electricity generators.
Even Louis Schwartzkopff, who pirated Whitehead’s design, adopted the Brotherhood radial engine for his torpedoes for the German Navy. He improved upon the reliability and maintenance requirements by using phosphor bronze in the construction and this design became attractive to new navies such as the Japanese and even the British Admiralty purchased some to make up requirements.
Encouraged by the principle of heating the air charge the Whitehead Company developed a superior wet heater system in which fuel was sprayed into a combustion chamber through which the air passed before entering the engine. This improved the performance of the locally made (Fiume) torpedoes which could now do 2,200 yards at 34 knots and 4,370 yards at 29 knots. The British Admiralty was not happy with the complexity of this design, however, and a simplified wet heater was designed by Engineer Lieutenant S.0. Hardcastle, RN and it became known as the RGF (Royal Gun Factory) heater. It was combined with a new four cylinder engine and had a range of 7 ,000 yards at 29 knots or 550 yards at 35 knots.
The manufacture of torpedoes begun in 1872 at Woolwich, England (Royal Gun Factory) ceased in 1912 and a new Royal Naval Torpedo Factory was opened at Greenock on the Clyde in Scotland. The first new torpedo to bear the RNTF name was the 18 inch Mk VIII specially designed fur submarines for tubes of that calibre. Whitehead at Weymouth Dorset, England continued to supply torpedoes of RGF design as well as their own, being the only Royal torpedo factory in the United Kingdom after 1909. The Leeds, England firm of Greenwood and Batley who began in 1886 ceased production in the same year. By 1914 many navies possessed this dominant maritime weapon. In the years 1875-1917, the Fiume works produced about 12,000 torpedoes the Weymouth firm started in 1890 and, believe it or not, a works was established at St. Tropez, France, started at about the same time. Both were still in existence in 1939, by which date their business lay largely in the export of models to navies too small to warrant the establishment of national torpedo factories, such as Brazil, Holland, Turkey, Poland, and Greece to name only a few supplied.
The torpedo was chosen by the British Admiralty in 1913 as the main weapon for naval aircraft. A prophetic decision when one considers the result of the Taranto assault by the British Navy in 1940, and also the BISMARK engagement. But even more so, the use by the Japanese and the United States of air borne torpedoes in the Pacific in 1942-45.
Torpedo manufacture in the United States began, as previously mentioned, with the production of the Howell fly-wheel type in the early 1880s and later by Whitehead by the Brooklyn firm of Messrs. Bliss and Williams-later E.W. Bliss and Company. The latter’s turbine driven weapon was adopted exclusively in 1905 and expanded during 1914-18, work being undertaken by the naval torpedo station at Newport, Rl. The USN torpedo assembly at Alexandria, Virginia, with a planned capacity of between 2,500 and 3,000 annually, was in completed 1919. The author of this article served in one of the 50 flush decked American destroyers in 1942 and thinks that the torpedoes were Bliss-Leavitt models. In 1940, despite reverting to their original line-canning machinery-the Bliss Company undertook a British Admiralty order to build submarine torpedoes, which were in short supply. These were of the current British design-Whitworth threads and all.
In 1920 the newest Royal Navy torpedo was the 21 inch Mark V introduced in 1918. This torpedo was designed to be launched above-water and was capable of 29 knots for 15,000 yards. In order to increase this range and speed an interesting development took place in the British Navy. The air vessel of the heater torpedo accounted for one third of the total weight of the weapon, but the air it contained was made up of only 21 percent oxygen. The obvious answer was to increase the amount of oxygen and to find a more volatile fuel. Experiments were begun in HMS VERNON at Portsmouth in the early 1920s.
By 1926 the development of the 24.5 inch torpedo had reached the stage of manufacture. This was an enriched air torpedo and they were manufactured for use in the battleships NELSON and ROONEY. However, enriched air was dangerously unstable, although the Japanese developed a pure oxygen torpedo. It was known as the “Long Lance”. It carried a warhead of over 1,000 pounds of explosive and could be set at 49 knots for 24,000 yards and 36 knots for 43,000 yards. This was a surprise to the Allies in the 1939-45 war.
Now we come full circle to the faithful Mark VII; the best alternative was the burner cycle semi-internal combustion torpedo engine. This was a four cylinder radial, fed with air from the main vessel. The fuel (initially shale oil, later paraffin) was burned in the air before it entered the engine but most of the oxygen was retained to be burned within the cylinders as more fuel was injected into them. Ignition was spontaneous as in a diesel engine and exhaust gases were ejected through ports in the piston crown and cylinder liner into a hollow propellor shaft. In fact an improved Brotherhood engine.
So was born the 21 inch Mark VIII, easy to maintain, rugged and reliable, and destined to remain in service for over half a century. The initial Mark VIII had a range of 5,000 yards at 40 knots and appeared in 1927. It went into service in the P class British submarines of 1930-31. An above water launched torpedo was also developed. It entered service as the Mark IX in 1930. Its range was 13,500 yards at 30 knots and 10,500 yards at 35 knots.
It has been mentioned that the United States Navy abandoned above-water tubes in major war vessels for some years and likewise did the Royal Navy. The answer was to construct submerged torpedo rooms in all major warships. However, constructors were never enthusiastic about them and the two submerged torpedo flats in the British battleships ROY AL OAK and QUEEN ELIZABETH were done away with in the 1930s and NELSON and RODNEY, with their enriched air torpedoes, were fitted with bow submerged tubes.
In concluding this article it would not be suitable for submariners to discuss only submarine torpedo discharge so it might be of interest to review the other very potent carrier of the torpedo, the aircraft. It was Lieutenant D.H. Hyde-Thomson of the British Navy, a torpedo officer, who is credited with submitting in 1911 a number of papers in conjunction with Commander Murray Suetor (later Rear Admiral) stressing the potentialities of the combination of aircraft and torpedo. I have no doubt that the United States Navy. more air-minded than the British Navy, could put forward an earlier subvention. However, Mr. T.O.M. Sopwith, the noted aircraft designer, was asked by the Admiralty to design a torpedo-carrying seaplane and the first flight was made in this machine from Calshot near Southampton, England at the end of 1913. The pilot was Lieutenant A.M. Longmore, RN, later to become an Air Chief Marshal, Royal Air Force. In 1915 the 310hp Short seaplane was developed to carry the Mark IX aircraft torpedo. Mr. Sopwith later designed the Cuckoo, a folding wing biplane powered by a 200hp Hispano Suiza engine as a carrier torpedo aircraft. Alas, in 1918 the Royal Navy lost its air component and this acted as a brake on the rapid development of maritime torpedo warfare.
The British naval torpedo planes at Taranto and in the BISMARCK engagement were obsolete Fairy Swordfish armed with the 18 inch Marie: VIII torpedo. The principle Luftwaffe torpedo aircraft were the Ju 88’s carrying two 18 inch torpedoes. The standard USN torpedo plane on entering the war was the Douglas Devastator and took a leading part in the 1942 Battle of the Coral Sea.
Perhaps if the British Navy had kept control of its air arm between the wars we would not have experienced the calamity of the sinking of PRINCE OF WALES and REPULSE. Similarly the Jack of appreciation of the power of the submarine torpedo nearly brought the 1939-45 war to an end in 1943 despite the lessons of 1917.
To conclude, Robert Whitehead died on November 14, 1905 at the age of 82. No official recognition was ever given him in his native land. In 1883 he bought an estate at Paddockhurst near Worth in Sussex, England with beautiful views. He died at Worth, a far cry from Fiume where he spend most of his life.
Note: I am indebted to the publication Engineering which carried a number of authoritative articles on torpedoes in 1945 and 1946 by the late Commander Peter Bethell, RN. They have kindly allowed me to use extracts from these articles. Similarly, I am indebted to Admiral Poland, the author of The Torpedo Men. H.M S. Yemon’s Story 1872-1986. To both I extend my thanks.
LCDR Patrick Tailyour, RN(Ret.)
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