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Royal Navy Torpedo Vessels 1870-1914

22 Sep 23


(Seaforth – £40.00)

ISBN 9781399022859

191 pages

Chris O’Flaherty

In the present epoch of experimentation, innovative thinking and the exploration of operational boundaries, this book fits rather neatly. In the pre-Dreadnought era that dominates the timeframe explored by this volume, it is revealing to read about the degree to which their Lordships were prepared to expend money and devote shipbuilding resources to develop this small-ship field of warfare. And for the marine engineers among the NR’s readership, many of the technical details will be riveting.

The opening chapter sets a general scene for the book with a history of early torpedoes. This usefully includes the disambiguation between ‘torpedoes’ as drifting or static underwater explosives (known since 1907 as mines) and the self-propelled explosive devices fired from vessels (including submarines) and shore stations, or dropped from airframes and now drones, which current parlance describes as torpedoes.

This chronicle then plunges much deeper than just the headline history of torpedo boats.  Noting that the book does indeed focus on the firing vessels rather than the minutiae of the torpedoes themselves, the level of detail and descriptive evolution of the torpedo-firing ships and associated propulsion, armament, armouring, hull form and seamanship equipment all make for a fascinating tale of late 19th-century naval architecture and thinking. The nature of some engineering trials being equally fascinating, the vibration trial of the 22-knot Torpedo Boat 79 in 1886 led to the statement that she was “exceptionally free from vibration at all speeds, a glass of water full to the brim remining unspilt on the table”. In this vein, a top tip for readers is knowing the difference between fire-tube and water-tube boilers, as the book does not explain this until page 112, despite many mentions beforehand. And having said all that, for the weapons purist the opposite is true in that some technical generalisations regarding torpedoes can be a tad distracting.

The detailed description of the ‘Torpedo Ram’ HMS Polyphemus provides a good illustration of naval innovation at this time. Quoting from an article dated 1889: “This vessel must, of course, to a certain extent, be regarded as an experiment”. Her ‘stealth’ hullform saw this 2,600 ton vessel built with just 4-foot 6-inches of freeboard to her weather deck (which was, by design, frequently awash when underway). This concept of a very low profile was also drawn into the designs of First Class Torpedo Boats, which were intended to use their low observability (enhanced in later versions by side-exhausts for their boilers, removing the need for funnels) to gain firing positions for the short-range, mainly ‘Whitehead’, torpedoes in use for much of the period. Combined with speed and manoeuvrability, such characteristics went on to influence the Motor Torpedo Boats that fought the small ship battles of World War 2 (and beyond). Further indicative experimentation in torpedo vessel development resulted in the counter-intuitive conclusion that smaller (4’4” diameter) fixed-pitch propellers can generate higher top speeds than larger-sized (5’6” diameter, or even 6’6” diameter) propellers which give better initial acceleration … it took trials with 25 specially constructed propellers, of varying sizes and pitches, to determine this.

Packed with illustrations, photographs and line drawings that provide visual context to complement the technical account, this is a very detailed book. Your reviewer found it an informative read, and can certainly see marine engineers doting over it should they wish to re-live their undergraduate lectures on 19th century naval architecture and boiler evolution.