It may be argued that attacks by torpedo boats in action have been so few in number as to offer data of little value but a careful review of the facts show that experience has been extended enough to afford lessons of greater value than can be deduced from peace maneuvers where the elements of danger and doubt existing under the strain of an attack in battle cannot be represented.
Torpedo boat warfare had its origin during the American Civil War about thirty five years ago.
An account of its operations during and since that time will include not only the modern Whitehead or automobile torpedo with which we are more directly concerned at present, but also a record of the spar torpedo used on the comparatively slow launches of a generation ago.
The great dissimilarity of these two weapons would appear to offer little that could apply to present or future conditions, but a study of the operations in this mode of warfare discloses a striking likeness in the use of the old weapon and the new; and that the methods employed, and the results obtained, have not changed with time, in spite of the marvelous change in the weapons employed.
It will be seen that a certain balance of power exists between the offense and defense, and that the spar torpedo launch of thirty years ago held much the same relation to the battery of the ship of that time that the modern torpedo boat holds to the R.F. [rapid fire] gun of today.
Thus the operations of the spar torpedo are not given as a matter of historical interest of an obsolete weapon, but to illustrate certain methods of offense and defense in this mode of warfare, and certain results obtained that applies to the weapons of today, or to those we may have in the future.
Boat attacks with the spar torpedo covered a period of about twenty years, and they were employed in four wars in which seven different nations were engaged. The use of the Whitehead or automobile type of torpedo in attack covers about the same length of time—has been in four wars in which seven different nations were engaged.
We have thus a fair comparative record of both weapons from which we may select those features of attack which are common to both, and therefore peculiar to this mode of warfare rather than to the weapons themselves.
Of the many questions that can be discussed with the data collected on this subject, it is preferred to direct attention more especially to the principle feature involved in attack, that of the offensive power of the torpedo boat as against the defensive gunfire of the ship.
The attacking boat was a cigar shaped launch with a possible speed of about seven knots, and a crew of four men. It passed out of the harbor after dark unobserved by the inner fleet and approached the Ironsides from seaward. The boat was hailed at a short distance, but got alongside and exploded her torpedo. The vessel was severely injured, but not sufficiently to be withdrawn from service. The explosion partially filled the boat with water. It drifted away and the crew jumped overboard. Two of them were captured but the other two subsequently regained their boat, relighted the fires and returned safely to Charleston, again passing the inner fleet unobserved.
A partly submerged boat of 4 knots speed was employed in the attack. She was observed and fire opened upon her at about 100 yards. Within about three minutes after discovery she succeeded in exploding her torpedo alongside. The vessel in the meantime continued to fire, slipped the cable, backed the engines, and all hands were at quarters.
The Housatonic was sunk with a loss of five lives. The torpedo boat was sunk with a loss of nine lives. The boat was not injured nor were any of the crew killed by gunfire, but she was drawn down through her inability to clear herself from the sinking vessel.
The attack was made by a special boat of low freeboard about 25 feet long, and came down the river against the tide. The night was moderately dark and it is claimed the boat was hailed at 50 yards, and fire opened upon her. She succeeded in getting a torpedo alongside the vessel but at that instant the propeller turned over and disabled the torpedo gear.
It is stated that the watch on deck concentrated a rapid fire with muskets, revolvers, and pistols, down upon the boat: the rapid firing seemed to stop her progress and dropping about 12 feet astern she darted ahead again. The torpedo failed and the boat escaped without any casualties.
This may be classed as a successful attack insofar as demonstrating that the torpedo boat got alongside and escaped without injury.
The attack was made at 2 A.M. by a steam launch fitted with boiler iron to protect the crew. The launch was sighted on the beam about two hundred yards away apparently drifting with the tide. When hailed, she approaching ship and succeeded in exploding her torpedo amidships causing serious damage. The boat and crew escaped without injury. Three shots only were fired at her before she got alongside and she steamed off under the fire of heavy guns and musketry. The boat was apparently very deliberate in this attack, passing through the fleet and easily avoiding detection by the guard boats and lookouts.
The attack was made by a small steam launch with a crew of four men. The boat was early discovered in its approach. The ship’s cable was slipped and she went ahead at full speed directing her broadside fire and a fusillade of musketry upon her assailant. The attack was abandoned and the boat returned to Charleston without any casualties. This is a case in which the torpedo boat failed through the defensive gunfire of the ship or, more correctly speaking, through its moral influence.
At the time these attacks were made against unprotected ships on the outer blockade, the ironclads and transports on the inner blockade were exceedingly open to attack but were not molested. Boats were employed in rowing guard around the ships, a number of tugs were detailed to seam slowly around the ironclads and, where practicable, they were protected by boom nets and every device ingenuity could suggest.
The attack was made by a steam launch of about 10 knots speed, carrying a crew of 23. It ascended the river without detection. When hailed by the lookouts on the ship the launch went full speed by the boom and made a complete circle so as to approach bows on. The boom was struck and breasted in and the torpedo successfully exploded against the ship. All this time the fire of the enemy was very severe. “Three bullets struck my clothing,” reports Lieut. Cushing, and the air seemed full of them.
The enemy’s fire continued at fifteen feet range. The ship was sunk. The launch was disabled by filling with water, but was uninjured by gunfire. Of the crew of 23, two were drowned, but no one was lost by gunfire.
The boats used were small handy steam launches, with high speed for that day (12 to 15 knots) and were fitted with a spar or a towing torpedo. They were generally transported to a point near the scene of the attack on board a merchant vessel fitted up for the purpose.
The attack at Batoum was made against the Turkish fleet anchored in the roadstead. No special preparations for defense against an attack of this character seems to have been made, except that one vessel was acting as a guard ship. The attack was made by four boats. The leading boat had a towing torpedo which, it is claimed, she succeeded in placing under the guard ship, but it failed to explode, owing to injury to the electric wires. Fire was opened upon the boats, both from the shore and from the ships. No vessel was injured, and the boats and crew escaped without any casualties.
This was the first attack of the war and shows evidence of the respect that the Russians had for the gunfire of the ship.
The attack was made by four steam launches starting from a base seven miles away. A previous reconnaissance had been made to ascertain the position of the vessels. The boats could steam six or seven miles an hour against the current at that time and their crews numbered from nine to 15 men who were protected by shields of boiler iron. The plan was arranged for one boat to make the attack supported by a second boat, while the third boat was to come to their assistance in case of need, and the fourth boat was to remain in reserve.
The ships were sighted at some distance and the boats were some time in their vicinity, without being discovered. The leading boat went full speed to attack when 135 yards away and the Turks opened fire at 65 yards. This distance was covered by the boat in about half a minute. She succeeded in getting alongside and successfully exploding the torpedo. The boat fouled alongside, and it is claimed remained some minutes before getting clear. Then the second boat came up, and successfully exploded another torpedo under the same ship. The second boat also got fouled alongside, and remained some time before being able to extricate herself. Finally, both boats got away after the attack had lasted about 20 minutes. At the first alarm, the firing from the ship was wild, reputed as being “here, there and everywhere.” The turret guns continued to fire, until the second explosion and for some time the ship “poured on the boats a fire of musketry” at close quarters.
The one vessel attacked was sunk. The boats all returned in safety, with no one killed or wounded.
Six boats made the attack, starting from the depot ship, five miles away at sea, a rendezvous was appointed for after the attack. Five of the boats were fitted of spar torpedoes, and one with a towing torpedo, the fittings of which, on all occasions, proved it a failure. The boats proceeded in two lines abreast to find the ships . . . which they had no difficulty in doing.
The boats approached in plain sight of the ships, and became separated in the darkness. The first boat claims to have approach one of the vessels within 30 yards before discovery, and exploded her torpedo alongside. The boat fouled in the protecting boom around the vessel; for an appreciable time was unmanageable. She was received with a “storm of bullets,” and at the first alarm, there “commenced a general fire of artillery and musketry.” After the explosion and during the delay, before being able to escape from the iron-clads, heavy guns were firing and the boat was “under a hail of bullets.” The description of the vessel’s gunfire is quoted from the reports of both sides. The boat escaped with slight injuries. None of the crew were either killed or wounded.
The second torpedo boat in the attack encountered a book of chains and hawsers, against which her torpedo was exploded. The Russian report states the boat was sunk by a shot, but the Turks say she was capsized by the boom and the entire crew rescued as prisoners. The other four boats in this attack retreated when fire was opened on the leaders.
None of the ships were damaged. One torpedo boat was injured and one was sunk by colliding with obstructions, but neither the boat nor any of the crews were injured by gunfire.
Six Russian boats attempted to plant torpedoes near the Turkish shore about daylight, and were greeted with “a shower of balls” from the batteries. A Turkish steamer from Rutschuk cut off the retreat of the boats and they took refuge amongst the rushes of the island in a position still exposed to fire. According to the Russian account at 8 A.M., one of the boats was ordered to drive off the steamer at all hazards. The boat rushed out at high speed, ran under a heavy artillery and rifle fire, and succeeded in striking the side of the ironclad with his torpedo, which failed to explode. The gunfire had disabled the gear. The boat was struck by a shot but succeeded in escaping with two of the crew wounded.
A Turkish monitor was proceeding down the river and, upon sighting the attacking boats, rigged out booms and nets and opened a lively fire of case shot and musketry. The monitor also maneuvered endeavoring to run the boats ashore.
The attack was made by two boats with the crews shielded as usual by boiler iron. The leading boat had her torpedo gear disabled, the boat somewhat injured, and retired. The second boat collided with one of the booms rigged out from the ship and drifted aft within six feet of her side.
The monitor was uninjured. Both boats escaped with slight injuries and several men wounded.
Four boats made the attack starting from their depot ship about three miles at sea. The two leading boats steered for the nearest ironclad. Their presence was signaled by the guard boats and they were at once met with a heavy fire from the ships and the battery on shore. One torpedo was exploded against a boat or some obstruction alongside, which probably saved the ship. The attacking boat fouled alongside and had a hand to hand struggle with the Turks lasting some minutes. The lieutenant in command of the boat was harpooned through the clothing with a boathook and partially dragged overboard but was pulled back by his crew and the boat retired without injury. Two other boats claim to have exploded their torpedoes alongside but evidently not close enough to cause damage. The fourth boat in renewing the attack fouled alongside but eventually cleared.
In this attack the Turks behaved with great coolness. Fire was kept up on the boats from the first alarm by half of the men lying on the deck, by machine guns on the forecastle and poop deck, by the broadside guns and by the battery on shore.
One Russian, the only casualty, was wounded by a boat hook. The ironclad had a mark on her armor belt from the explosion of the torpedo but it was otherwise uninjured. The Turks and others claim that this attack was completely frustrated by the excellent gunfire of the ship. It is noted, however, that all four boats were within torpedo range and as there were no casualties, there appears no good reason why the ship was not blown up.
Two boats made the attack and started forward as soon as the French fleet was signaled to open fire. Within half a minute, the first boat exploded her torpedo alongside of the vessel attacked. The vessel was sunk and 255 men were drowned. The torpedo boat was injured and one of her crew killed by gunfire.
The second torpedo boat, although getting alongside of the vessel she had attacked, fouled and failed to explode the torpedo. A hot fire was poured in upon her by the Chinese. She finally got clear with two of her crew wounded.
Soon after and under cover of smoke, a third torpedo launch attacked this same vessel and sank her.
The two Chinese ships attacked were supported by a battery on shore and took the precaution of shifting their anchorage during the night. They were not protected by any booms and had no guard boats.
Two boats made the attack starting from their ship, and occupying four hours in reaching the anchorage and finding the enemy in the darkness. They saw one of the ships several hundred yards away and both succeeded in exploding their torpedo alongside of her. One of them fouled alongside for a while. Both of the ships and the shore battery opened up a promiscuous fire on the boats and on each other. The boats are reported as passing through a hail of projectiles.
The ship attacked was sunk. Both boats escaped without injury and but one of the crew was killed. It was afterwards discovered that both ships were sunk. It is presumed the second one was sunk by the gun fore of the other or by the guns on shore.
We have recorded fifteen attacks with the spar torpedo boat, three of which took place in broad daylight and twelve at night. In one of these day attacks, two ships were sunk in battle while the boats and crew received but little injury. In another daylight attack a single boat got alongside of a ship, underway and escaped without injury. The other daylight attack of two boats on a monitor was unsuccessful though neither boat was sunk.
Of the twelve night attacks, one was abandoned upon being discovered and fired upon by the ship.
Of the eleven attacks where the boats rushed in, eight of them succeeded in getting a torpedo alongside, two exploded against a boom and one failed to explode.
Of the eight night attacks where the torpedo was placed alongside a ship, one failed to explode, three exploded and injured the ship, and four exploded and sank four ships.
Of these eleven night attacks, five of the ships were surrounded by booms or obstructions, and in only one such case, that of the Albemarle, was the ship sunk in spite of the boom.
The guard or picket boat did not always give the alarm in time to prevent the attack and it is noted that in one case at least, the guard boat refused to give the alarm. This may have been due to the thought that the guard boat has as much to fear from the ships guns as the attacking torpedo boat.
There have been 33 spar torpedo boats employed in these 15 attacks and the number of men engaged about 350. Three boats or about 9% were lost. Twelve men or about 3% were killed. These losses were due to the dangers incident to the attack, but the gunfire of the ship did not sink a single boat, and killed only one man. Six ships were sunk in these attacks and three others damaged while over five hundred lives were lost. Sixteen torpedoes were exploded in these attacks and seven or about 45% proved fatal to the ship.
In all of these attacks we cannot fail to be impressed with the amount of gunfire the boats withstood without being disabled, and this from ships were broadside fire amounted to nine or ten shots a minute in addition to small arms and machine guns.
There were seven Turkish men-of-war anchored in the harbor just returned from the bombardment of the enemy forts. No defensive preparations were made by booms, guard or picket boats, but all lights were extinguished afloat and ashore. The night was dark and rainy.
Two boats armed with the Whitehead torpedo made the attack and two other boats were held in reserve. They had started from their ship as a base five miles at sea and had considerable difficulty in finding the place in the darkness. They approached slowly and, when about sixty yards away from the first ship, fired their torpedoes, both of which failed. The boats retreated in safety under a heavy fire of small arms.
The Blanco was at anchor without any protecting booms, guard or picket boats. A watch of seven men was kept on deck and steam was up, but an attack of this character was unexpected. It was a partly cloudy, moonlight night, and the day was breaking when the attack was made. No searchlight was used.
Two torpedo boat destroyers made the attack, coming from a base at Valparaiso miles away. They entered the harbor close together and passed on each side of the Blanco. The vessel claimed that the boats were discovered at 2,000 yards, fire opened at 500 yards with 6 pdr., 1 pdr., Nordenfelt and machine guns and continued for about seven minutes. The boats claim to have come up to 100 yards before their bow torpedoes were fired and before the vessel fired on them. The greater distance is more nearly correct.
One torpedo struck the Blanco, sinking her with a loss of nearly 200 of her crew. Both boats escaped without any casualties. Later these boats attempted to attack the Chilean men-of-war on several occasions but found that they had profited by experience.
Booms and sunken torpedoes were made use of or the vessels steamed out to sea every night. On one occasion the armed transports were moored behind an outer line of neutral sailing vessels, which prevented the attempt to use torpedoes; why the neutral vessels were not even more advantageous to the attacking boat is not explained.
The two torpedo gunboats engaged an armed transport in broad daylight at sea and fired 400 R. F. projectiles. They caused little damage, making only about eight hits or 2%. The transport fired 130 R. F. projectiles and seven 5-inch shells at the torpedo boats without injuring them.
The attack was made by one torpedo gunboat and three torpedo boats from a base five miles distant. The first attempt was abandoned owing to the pickets on shore sending up signal lights announcing their approach.
The following night a second attack made after the pickets had been driven off by the fire of a steamer. The night was cloudy and dark. The boats entered the bay in line abreast at slow speed, passed over the mines in safety and opened out to find the enemy. It was the intention after proceeding well within the bay to continue the search by turning to the right in succession as usual, but they became separated in the darkness and each acted independently.
The torpedo gunboat came across a vessel in the darkness but did not realize it was the Aquidaban until a sharp fire of artillery was opened upon him. He then went at full speed, turning toward the vessel so as to fire his bow tube. This failed. The boat then circled around the stern and stopped the engines for about ½ minute; the then passed along the port side at a distance of 400 ft. and fired a torpedo, which struck the Aquidaban. The boat then went at full speed away.
In the meantime, the sharp artillery fire from the vessel continued. The gunboat was struck 38 times, but only one of her crew of 40 was slightly wounded and the boat was uninjured. After the gunboat, the first torpedo boat passed within 200 yds. of the vessel and fired her torpedoes but was not hit. The second torpedo boat passed within 1,000 yds. and received one hit. The Aquidaban was sunk by the torpedo.
While no torpedoes were used in this case, the affair is mentioned as showing that the fire of the forts which may have been directed upon them was unsuccessful in stopping a boat.
The men-of-war anchored behind a line of gunboats acting as guard boats and two miles away from the farthest end of the boom. The torpedo boats—1½ miles away from the fleet watching the boom—acted as picket boats or outposts to give alarms and to guard the opening in the boom.
We find in these conditions what we have failed to find before—a complete defense: protecting booms, picket boats, shore batteries, searchlights, guard boats and the fleet obscured in darkness, ready with a defensive R. F. battery and prepared for attack. In short, every modern known means of defense.
We will now leave the fleet in security and join the Japanese torpedo boats. These boats had reconnoitered the boom at night with the object of breaking, cutting or blowing up an opening in it. In so doing, it was discovered that the boom, instead of being secured to the shore, ended in the midst of a dangerous shoal around which the boats could pass with justifiable risk.
The first attack was attempted with ten boats. The night was dark. The plan was to advance in single column around the end of the boom and, when well inside the harbor, to form in double column with a leader and mate in pairs. Each boat would then turn eight points to the right and advance to the attack. The plan was in the main carried out, except that when the attack opened, the boats became separated in the darkness and acted independently. There were a few narrow escapes on account of collision among them.
Two boats were injured on entering the harbor and three did not find the enemy, leaving but five to engage in the attack. Four of these fired their torpedoes and escaped in safety, but one of them subsequently ran on a reef in leaving the harbor and was lost.
The remaining one of the five fired a torpedo, which sank a large ironclad. This torpedo boat claims to have come suddenly upon a vessel in the darkness, fired her bow torpedo at 300 yds. and, turning, fired a broadside torpedo and was making off at full speed when a 3 pdr. Burst the steam drum and disabled her.
The ironclad claims to have received the alarm from the Chinese torpedo boats and, with the crew at the guns, opened a miscellaneous fire at imaginary objects.
When the fire was gotten under control, the crew waited in suspense. All saw the boat at 1,000 yds. and fire was immediately reopened. The boat was under fire for some time—it is stated at 30 minutes—when her crew was rescued by another boat and she was abandoned. The boat which did the rescuing received a few rifle shots.
The next day, it was found that the disabled boat had received three hits from R. F. guns, one of which was through the smoke stack. As but two shots hit the hull and one of these happened to strike in her only boiler room, the fortune of war was certainly against her.
From five boats engaged in the attack, eleven torpedoes were fired. One ironclad was sunk. One boat was disabled by gunfire while another was lost and two injured through the dangers of navigation. Ten lives were lost on the boats.
On this occasion, four boats made the attack and the plan was similar to that of the first attack. As before, they became separated when the attack commenced, each acting independently. All of these boats apparently passed through the Chinese fleet of ten gun- or guard boats and cruisers, without observing them or being observed.
Three of the boats fired their torpedoes and retired safely. The fourth, in retreating, ran over the boom at full speed without injury. Eight torpedoes were fired. Two cruisers were sunk, one schooner and one tugboat.
In the six night attacks in which the boats ventured within torpedo range, eight vessels were sunk (three armored vessels, three cruisers, a tugboat and a schooner).
In only one night attack out of the six did the torpedo fail to sink a vessel and, as might be expected, this was the first boat attack ever made with the Whitehead torpedo.
In the six night attacks, twenty-seven boats were employed, though only 15 discharged their torpedoes and were under fire. One boat was disabled by gunfire and one was lost by running aground.
About five hundred men took part in these attacks and the loss was less than 2% killed. Thirty-two torpedoes were discharged and nine of them made hits sinking eight vessels. Thus a percentage of hits of over 28. The percentage of hits by the Japanese guns in the battle of Yalu was about 15. Thus the crucial test of war shows that the torpedo within its range is more accurate than the gun in battle.
Success almost invariably followed night attack with either weapon against ships unprotected by obstructions and day attacks were made without material injury or undue risk to the boat. In both cases, in spite of the apparent danger from what would appear to be overwhelming gunfire, trivial loss was inflicted upon the boats.
The results of all torpedo boat attacks show that, of 58 boats engaged, not one was sunk by gunfire, two were disabled by a lucky shot, and four others were lost through dangers incident to the attack. Of about 800 men engaged, less than 3% lost their lives.
On the other hand, fourteen vessels have been sunk, three damaged, and many hundreds of lives lost.
I have already occupied so much of your time that I will refrain from entering into a discussion of the many interesting points involved, leaving each one to form a more satisfactory conclusion of his own.
/s/ F. F. Fletcher
Lt. Comdr U.S.N.
Source: Papers of Frank Friday Fletcher (1855-1928), University of Virginia Library, Charlottesville, Virginia.