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Dmitry Yudo aka Overlord, jack of all trades
David Lister aka Listy, Freelancer and Volunteer

Sunday, January 26, 2020

Ramming speed

Today, I'm going to take one of my periodical voyages into the depths of history, or at least slightly outside the scope of the normal date range of subjects I cover on here. The catalyst for this was the bloody awful TV adaptation of War of the Worlds that the BBC aired at the start of last December. In that dire program they failed to include one of the iconic parts of the entire book, and several films (even the 2004 Tom Cruise film had something sort of like it, if you squinted hard enough). I am talking of course, about HMS Thunderchild.

Now those of you who know the book, will recall that Wells described the HMS Thunderchild as a torpedo ram, and to be fair that's possibly a better description of today's article. The second half of the 19th century was an odd time for Naval types. They were experiencing a period that us tank historians will instantly recognise. Ironclads were arriving, and the only way to penetrate an ironclad’s armour was by steadily bigger and bigger guns. In turn this meant that theoretically you could armour a small boat, and make it fast enough, that the size of gun needed to penetrate the armour was so big it would not be able to track the smaller craft well enough to hit it. However, such a concept was of no use as in return the small craft would lack the firepower to do damage to the bigger ship. Remember at this time the ironclads were armed with banks of guns down the side of each ship, no turrets were in sight. All that changed in 1866 when the Whitehead torpedo was unveiled by its Austro-Hungarian inventor, and suddenly the smaller ship has a potent weapon as well.
Whitehead torpedo with the Argentinian Navy
Another thing that happened in 1866, also involving Austrian Empire was the Battle of Lissa. It has been claimed that torpedo rams were strongly influenced by this battle. At this battle a smaller Austrian Empire force ran into an Italian force near the island of Lissa. The Italians were lined up in column astern, the Austrians formed a block and charged in from the flank, much like at the battle of Trafalgar. As luck would have it the Italian commander was transferring his flag as the Austrians approached, meaning that only one portion of the Italian fleet opened fire. As the action devolved into a messy brawl the Italian ship Affondatore tried to ram an Austrian ship but missed. Then the Erzherzog Ferdinand Max tried to ram two Italian ships, but both managed to dodge the attack. Then after a bitter gun duel with the first ship they had tried to ram, the Erzherzog Ferdinand Max found herself in position again and went for the ram. The Italian ship slowed and tried to reverse out of the way and suffered the inevitable consequences. She sunk some two minutes later with a 5ft hole below the water line. The Italians then attempted to counter-ram the Erzherzog Ferdinand Max, however they missed. The gun decks on the Italian let fly at the damaged Austrian ship with a full, point blank broadside. But in the excitement, they had forgotten to load any shot.
One of the Austrian Empire ships after the battle of Lissa
With all the ramming involved some have claimed that the torpedo ram class of ships from around the world were designed to sink by either torpedo or ramming attacks. It seems this is not the case, however. To explain I shall focus on the Royal Navy’s use of the Whitehead torpedo.
HMS Vesuvius
The first ship designed for the Whitehead was HMS Vesuvius. She was in part an experimental ship, in part an actual warship. Her stated purpose was to sneak into French ports at night and start firing off torpedoes at moored ships. This sounds great at first glance, however, her slow speed of just 9 knots, single torpedo tube and only ten reloads make this seem dubious. Despite this several new ideas were included in her design, such as using coke to reduce the smoke given off, and that was vented underwater to reduce her visibility. However, before she was even laid down a new, improved class of ship, the true torpedo ram was designed.
HMS Polyphemus in her dry dock before launch, showing off the odd shape of the hull, the Ram and the bow torpedo door.
This new ship was named HMS Polyphemus. She was very low in the water, her hull resembling a submarine, and plated with 3 inches of armour. Ships of the line, like the ones at the Battle of Lissa usually had about 5in of plating, so she was extremely well protected. She was armed with five torpedo tubes, one in the bow inside the ships ram. The other tubes were pointing out the sides of the hull, with one each side on the 90-degree line, and two angled forward. In addition, she carried 18 spare torpedoes.
HMS Polyphemus afloat.
Like HMS Vesuvius her mission was to penetrate enemy harbours and sink ships with torpedoes. You might wonder why the targets were to be in harbour, well the Whitehead only had a top speed of 26 knots, which made hitting a moving target with a single torpedo extremely unlikely, especially as you are firing from fixed tubes.
So why the presence of the ram? Easy, it was to help the ship gain access to the enemy harbour. If the enemy placed a sturdy berm across the entrance to the harbour, then ships like HMS Vesuvius would be unable to gain access. But the torpedo ram could just cut through the barriers.

All this was tested out in 1885. In April the Russians orchestrated the Panjdeh incident. Fearing a possible attack into India the British began to prepare for war. One option was to attack Kronstadt harbour, or at least blockade it. The Russians when faced with the creation of a large Royal Navy fleet, and the British allocating some £11 million pounds for war, backed down and the crisis ended. However, it was decided to conduct trials of potential fleet actions of a type similar to the Kronsadt scenario. Thus, Berehaven on the south-west tip of Ireland was selected to stand in for the Russian base. It was defended by shore based torpedoes, command detonated mines and several berms and obstacles. The force playing the "Russian" ships inside the harbour, successfully managed to slip past the blockading "British" fleet and arrived off Glasgow.
To explain the caption, Berehaven is in Bantry bay.
However, before the exercise was completed, HMS Polyphemus was unleashed. One night, dodging torpedoes fired from shore installations, and bodily smashing through nets, steel hawsers and booms she ripped into the centre of the harbour at full steam, and would likely have had plenty of targets to launch her torpedoes at.

However, this class was to die out quite quickly, for the shortest lived of the class look at the US Navy's attempt, the USS Intrepid. She was commissioned on 31st of July 1874, and decommissioned on the 22nd of August, of the same year! The reason for the torpedo ram's short life was twofold. First, quick firing gun development meant that smaller lighter guns with sufficient punch that could be trained on a fast boat were coming into widespread service. Equally, a simple defence against torpedo attacks in harbour was devised, the anti-torpedo net suspended from booms. With the means of attack negated, and the chance of survival limited the torpedo ram was quietly retired with only a handful of her class having been built around the world.
The only picture I could find of USS Intrepid.
This is the USS Alarm, from 1873. As you can see she appears to be similar design to a Torpedo Ram as well, although less well protected. It is likely she was an experimental design similar to HMS Vesuvius.  Below is a sketch of her firing all her torpedo tubes.
HMS Polyphemus was sold for scrap on the 7th of July 1903, just a few short weeks after the 1903 opposition of Mars, and the class is now immortalised by HMS Thunderchild. From the description of HMS Thunderchild in the book, it almost certainly is HMS Polyphemus that Wells describes in action.

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Image credits
www.bevs.org and www.stolenhistory.org