Looked upon as an "Equalizer" weapon in the 1870s-80s, the torpedo boat (TB) combined speed and stealth to mount solo or massed attacks on capital ships of the enemy fleet. The torpedo boat evolved from the 20-30 foot steam launch, but the invention of the self-propelled torpedo in the 1860s-70s and the installation of specialized equipment to launch it, soon set the TB apart from an ordinary ship's boat. Small, maneuverable, and relatively cheap to manufacture (tens of thousands of pounds vs. upwards of £1M apiece for a battleship), they inspired hope in second- and third-rate navies. The construction of state-of-the-art torpedo craft became a niche market for shipbuilders in the period, and lucrative contracts often fell to yards specializing in the manufacture of high-speed engines and boilers, such as Thornycroft and Yarrow in Britain. With the development of compressed air tube-launched torpedoes in the 1880s, and the improvement in performance of the Whitehead torpedo itself, the torpedo-boat became a threat no navy could afford to ignore. The TB squadrons of the Japanese Navy proved a key ingredient in Japan's naval victories over the Chinese in 1894-95 and the Russian Empire in 1904-05. The torpedo boat indeed became one of the pillars of the jeune école strategy in France, which de-emphasized capital ship construction in favor of light, maneuverable craft, succeeding in hijacking French policy for a decade near the beginning of the battleship arms race. At the same time, the navy most invested in the armored battleship -- the Royal Navy of Great Britain -- somewhat prematurely announced in 1884 that its Admiral class would be the last battleships ever built in Britain.
Although this was patent nonsense, starting in the 1880s battleships and cruisers mounted batteries of quick-firing guns to defend against torpedo attack: the 6" QF BLR was a principal weapon of this type, while various combinations of 6-pdr, 9-pdr, and 12-pdr QF guns were common. As time went by, 3", 4.1", 5", 6", and 7" were mounted in many combinations. But starting in the mid-1880s, fast vessels, larger and better armed than the torpedo boats and of comparable speed, also were introduced to defend the friendly fleet. Known as Torpedo Boat Catchers (TBC) or Torpedo Gun Boats (TGB) in the RN, they were down-sized cruisers with TB-style machinery; unfortunately at their relatively large size, they ended up being slower than the TBs they were supposed to catch. An alternative approach had been sketched with the single 203-ton, oceangoing TB Kotaka (Falcon), built in 1887-88 by Yarrow's for the Imperial Japanese Navy. With enhanced size, fuel capacity, and seakeeping qualities, Kotaka suggested a simpler and more technologically relevant solution to the TB defense problem, underlined by her satisfactory performance in the Sino-Japanese War; her builders, Yarrow, considered her the first true Torpedo Boat Destroyer.
Starting about seven years later than the first TGBs, enlarged TBs with the same purpose were first developed in Britain and Spain. These were adopted by the Royal Navy and eagerly sought by all the major fleets. These speedy interceptors were dubbed Torpedo Boat Destroyers by Jacky Fisher, commander of HMS Vernon, the Royal Navy Torpedo School, and clever wordsmith; they were known as contre-torpilleurs in France's Marine Nationale and contratorpederos in the Spanish Navy. In English, this was soon shortened to "destroyers." Initially powered by high-speed triple-expansion marine engines, these 250-to-350-ton vessels were capable of 26-30 kts, (rising rapidly to 30-35 kts after turbine engines were adopted post 1900 -- again at Fisher's insistence). At right, plan of the Spanish destroyer Furor, built 1896 in Scotland. Furor was destroyed in the Battle of Santiago, after joining her squadron in Cuba in 1898.
With new high-pressure boilers and high-speed reciprocating engines, torpedo boats and destroyers vied with each other for record speeds at trials, but were seldom able to maintain or equal these speeds once in service due to the need for constant maintenance and adjustment to high-speed piston engines. That is, they could not maintain these speeds until the adoption of the turbine engine. Following Charles Parsons' audacious demonstration of turbine power at the Spithead fleet review in 1897, the Royal Navy began serious talks with the inventor on application of turbines to swift destroyers. The result was HMS Viper (left), the first turbine-powered destroyer. She was capable of 33 kts -- 37 under forced draft --, an astounding speed in 1899. Unlike her piston-powered rivals, moreover, she was capable of sustained high speeds without terrific noise and vibration. Although Viper was wrecked after only 8 months in service, her phenomenal performance had set the bar for her successors: from then on all British destroyers would rely on Parsons turbines. Moreover, after cautious testing, it was decided to go forward with turbine power for Britain's groundbreaking new all-big-gun battleship, HMS Dreadnought of 1906, and for numerous small cruisers.
As can be seen at right, the Viper was a low-freeboard craft with little more than a catwalk around the funnels and boiler room casing aft of the diminutive bridge. Far at the stern was a flush deck mounting several 6-pdr guns. At 210' x 21' x 7', Viper displaced 340 tons. Typically for her time, she had a whaleback fo'c'sle deck; this feature and her great speed guaranteed a wet ship, like all early TBs and TBDs. She mounted one QF 12-pdr and five 6-pdr QF guns. Her pair of 18" torpedo tubes was aligned above the rails, one to a side. In her way, Viper was as revolutionary a ship as the later Dreadnought. She was not a fortunate craft, piling up on a reef after less than a year in service. But she had already made her impact on the maritime world. Turbines were in order for all succeeding British destroyers, and German and French boats too, after a few years' delay. As with piston-engined destroyers, the ships' hulls remained crammed with boilers, steam-pipes, and engines to the point where there there was little room left over for the men's quarters (see cutaway plan).
In the 1890s, having decided on a practicable design and committed to the TBD as its principal anti-TB weapon, the British outbuilt everyone in this category, producing more than 100 destroyers in less than a decade. The last of these, the River Class of 1903 - 04 (left and enlarged view) were enlarged by some 100 tons and adopted a built-up forecastle deck for improved seakeeping -- a feature actually copied from the most recent destroyers in the German Navy. With the advent of the British River class, the modern destroyer type was plainly emerging. Ship sizes had doubled in 10 years, to 550 tons with the first Rivers. The combination of great speed with markedly improved seaworthiness made the new destoyer a clear winner; and the navies of Europe, Japan, South America, and the U.S. soon added destroyer flotillas to their navies, often containing a sampling of British, German, and French-built craft. The Germans continued to favor somewhat smaller ships through the First World War, and continued to call their destroyers "torpedo boats." The French stuck with their beloved torpilleurs, delaying a bit before joining the stampede to TBDs aftr 1900. Schichau style destroyers retained a small well deck between the forecastle head and the bridge (below right); had a stumpy foremast and a much taller main. These features provided immediate visual distinction between German and British destroyers during the impending conflict.
At right you can appreciate the gap between forecastle and bridge on a pre-WWI German destroyer, referred to above. A glance at the bridgeworks will confirm that this is a much burlier vessel than the Viper. One of her two 3" guns is visible on the forecastle. The torpedo tubes can be seen along both rails, just abaft the #1 funnel. This photo is part of an excellent series of photos from the 1900s by sailors from the XI German destroyer flotilla, now made available online. This series is notable not just for its fine views of the destroyer flotilla and the pre-dreadnought German battle fleet (see below), but for its revealing glimpses into German mariners' daily life.
In addition to torpedo duties with the Fleet, destroyers were unceremoniously tapped for emergency duty against submarines -- another newly developed type -- during wartime. The "tin cans" soon proved adaptable, well-balanced warships, usually with the speed to escape superior force. Destroyers were soon in use as high-speed minelayers and antisubmarine escort ships. In fact, the speedy torpedo vessels saw more action from day to day than the huge dreadnoughts, which spent much of the War confined to base by fear of submarines and mines, or by wartime coal shortages. American four-pipers and British "V" and "W" class destroyers became welcome shepherds for the great convoys of merchant ships which cossed the U-boat-infested Atlantic in the later years of WWI (a system successfully instituted by Sir John Jellicoe after his retirement from command of the Grand Fleet). Many of these escort vessels reprised their rôles 20-some years later in the opening phase of WWII, until enough of the newer Fletchers, River class frigates, sub chasers, destroyer escorts, and other antisubmarine warfare (ASW) vessels could be built to take their places.
A Portfolio of Early Destroyer Photos
USS Cushing (TB-1), a classic Herreshoff-built torpedo boat, seen on her trials off Newport, R.I. in 1890. Lightly armored conning towers were a common feature of early TBs, but had such restricted visibility as to be antithetical to the brash spirit of torpedomen, small boat enthusiasts to a man. For a stern view, click here.
Torpedocraft reached a high standard in Japan, where an elite corps found a new expression for the samurai cult of the warrior (Bushi-do) through use of swift TBs such as this specimen from the Sino-Japanese War (1894-95). Two squadrons of these vessels infiltrated Chinese-held Port Arthur in a midnight surprise attack, spraying the harbor front with machine-gun fire and landing armed parties. The TB attack signaled a full-bore land assault that stormed the fortress on Nov. 21, 1894. Having carried the position, the Japanese massacred prisoners and civilians at Port Arthur.
Pioneer Japanese warship Kotaka, world's largest TB when built and said to be the first true TBD. Designed in Japan, she was built in sections in Britain and assembled at the Yokosuka Naval Arsenal on arrival in Japan, commissioning in 1888. Photo is dated 1889. Specifications for the Kotaka:
Dimensions: 165' x 19' x 5'7"; (4) 1½" QF guns, (6) 14" TT. Propulsion: (2) coal-fired boilers, triple expansion engine developing 1,400 ihp, shafted to single screw. Speed: 19 kts.
Metric: 50.3m x 5.8m x 1.7m; (4) 37 mm QF guns, (6) 36 cm TT. Propulsion: (2) coal-fired boilers, triple expansion engine developing 1,044 kW, shafted to single screw. Speed: 35.2 km/hr
HMS Havock, built by Yarrow in 1893, was one of four prototype TBDs in the British fleet. They were widely imitated in other navies. The bow tube stands out clearly in this toplit photo.
Specifications for the Havock:
Dimensions: 185' x 18.5' x 7'3" Displacement: 275 tons. Speed: 26 kts. Armament: (1) 3" 12-pdr, (3) 6-pdr, (3) 18" torpedo tubes (bow plus 2 deck). Metric: 56.4m x 5.6m x 2.21m; (1) 76 mm 12-pdr gun, (2) 44mm, (3) 45 cm TT.
Detail of cutaway view of HMS Hornet, Havock's sister ship, shows the cramped nature of these craft. Hornet's Yarrow boilers are visible under the funnels, ranged athwartship. Her sister Havock was equipped with locomotive boilers, allowing for a comparison -- a comparison the Yarrows won hands down. As for the engines, the cylinder heads were bolted right through the deck, no doubt with a great deal of bracing. These ships were notorious for vibration at speed. Aft tubes and searchlight on deck; blue tube, port and pump outboard of engine comprise a patent ash ejector from the boiler room. To view the entire diagram, click here.
HMS Daring and her sister Decoy were the other pair of early destroyers in Britain's 1894 quartet; they were built by Thornycroft. At 260 tons, the 185-foot boats proved excellent steamers. After breaking 28 knots on trials, Daring was dubbed the "Fastest Boat Ever" by the penny press. Moreover, she could roam 38 nautical miles at 10 knots on a single ton of coal. Credit for this brilliant performance was laid to a new Thornycroft boiler design developed for, and proudly named for, the Daring. Enlarge photo
A typical French contre-torpilleur of 1901, the Flamberge was a Normand type vessel of the Arquebuse class, derived from the Durandal class of 1899. Early French destroyers were half-again-as-large versions of their TBs (torpeilleurs). These small ships had a rounded turtledeck from the bridge aft. In order for the crew to get about, they had a planked flying bridge attached some four feet above the gunwale with diagonal bracing. This being the standard French destroyer design from 1899 to 1906, these ships came in several classes with from two to four funnels. Identical versions were exported to the Russians (Forel class), Japanese (Hayabusa class) and Turks (Samsun class - below). French destroyers of this period were somewhat smaller and two to four knots slower than their British contemporaries. Despite their odd appearance, they were very seaworthy and maneuverable vessels of 250 - 310 tons.
Specifications for the Samsun class:
Dimensions: 188.7' x 20.7' x 9'2", 310 tons. Maximum draft: 10'6". Propulsion: (2) coal-fired Normand boilers; 2-shaft VTE developing 4,800 ihp; maximum speed: 26 kts. Armament: (1) 9-pdr, (6) 3-pdr MG, and (2) 18" torpedo tubes. Tactical radius: 1800 nm @ 10 kts. Crew: 62.
Metric Dimensions: 57.5m x 6.3m x 2.8m, 310 tons. Maximum draft: 3.2m. Propulsion: (2) coal-fired Normand boilers; 2-shaft VTE developing 3,579 kW; maximum speed: 48km/hr. Armament: (1) 9-pdr, (6) 3-pdr MG, and (2) 45 cm torpedo tubes. Tactical radius: 3,334 km @ 18.5 km/hr. Crew: 62.
Artist's conception of destroyers mixing it up during the first months of the Russo-Japanese War, 1904.
After experimenting with older piston-engined Schichau types in the 1890s, Japan largely settled on Yarrow and Thornycroft types around 1900. As with her battleships, an initial pair of boats would be ordered from the British makers, and then an entire class copied by Japanese naval arsenals. Here, the Kasumi, a 31-knot Yarrow model, on trials in February 1902. Her sister Akatsuki was mined and sunk off Port Arthur during the war. Principal Japanese yards specializing in TBs and destroyers were the Kure and Yokosuka arsenals and the Kawasaki Shipyard in Kobe. Japanese destroyers were classified as "First Class Torpedo Boats," and the real torpedo boats listed as Second and Third Class Torpedo Boats.
Specifications for the Akatsuki class (including Kasumi ):
Dimensions: 224'7" x 20'7" x 5'8¼" Displacement: 363 tons normal; 415 tons deep laden. Armament: (2) 3.1"/40 and (4) 2¼" QF guns, (2) 18" TT. Coal capacity: 89 tons. Propulsion: Four coal-fired Yarrow boilers, 2-shaft triple-expansion engines developing 6,000 ihp. Speed: 31 knots. Crew: 59.
Dimensions: 68.45m x 6.26m x 1.73m Displacement: 363 tons normal; 415 tons deep laden. Armament: (2) 80 mm/40 and (4) 57 mm QF guns, (2) 45 cm TT. Coal capacity: 89 tons. Propulsion: Four coal-fired Yarrow boilers, 2-shaft triple-expansion engines developing 6,000 ihp. Speed: 57.41 km/hr. Crew: 59.
Russian destroyers tilted toward the early Schichau type, but the Russian Navy included many Yarrow and Thornycroft clones as well. Here is the Burny, posted to Port Arthur in 1902, cornered by the Japanese after the Battle of the Yellow Sea, Aug. 1904, and forced to scuttle on the lonely coast of Shandong. Three of her sisters participated in the Battle of Tsushima the following year, after being towed all the way from Europe to Japanese home waters. As in Japan, Russian practice was to purchase prototypes abroad and copy them en masse in Russian yards, principally St. Petersburg's Nyevsky Shipyard.
Dimensions: 201' x 20'2" x 5'10" Displacement: 356 tons. Armament: (1) 3.1"/50 and (5) 2" QF guns; (2) 18" TT. Coal capacity: 80 tons. Propulsion: Four coal-fired Thornycroft boilers, 2-shaft triple-expansion engines developing 5,700 ihp. Speed: 26½ knots. Crew: 62.
Metric dimensions: 64m x 6.4m x 1.8m Displacement: 356 tons. Armament: (1) 80 mm/50 and (5) 47 mm QF guns, (2) 45 cm TT. Coal capacity: 80 tons. Propulsion: Four coal-fired Thornycroft boilers, 2-shaft triple-expansion engines developing 5,700 ihp. Speed: 49 km/hr. Crew: 62.
”Naval Battle in the. Japan Sea,” woodblock print by Getsuzo: Exciting depiction of Japanese torpedo attack at the Battle of Tsushima, May 1905.
HMS Viper, first turbine destroyer, photographed at anchor in 1900. Dimensions: 210' x 21' x 7' (64m x 6.4m x 2.1m) Displacement: 350 tons. Armament: (1) 3.1"/50 12-pdr and (5) 2" QF 6-pdr guns; (2) 18" TT. Coal capacity: 80 tons. Propulsion: Three coal-fired boilers, 2-shaft Parsons turbine engines developing 10,000 ihp (7,457 kW) -- 2 propellers per shaft. Speed: 36.6 knots (67.6 km/hr). Crew: 68.
HMS Ranger, early turbine destroyer, photographed at Portsmouth. She shows the clear influence of the Viper; only the placement of the mast and size of the funnels appear different from the earlier ship.
German Schichau type destroyers practice a high-speed attack run, 1907. The Danzig yard of Friedrich Schichau enlarged its excellent 128-ft TB design to create the 200+-ft destroyers which set a world standard. The German ships' tall mizzen and stump foremast provided immediate visual distinction from British destroyers. Beginning in 1907, all new German destroyers were turbine-driven. Schichau class craft were also exported to Japan, Russia, and Turkey; Photo Feature
Now that's what I call a tight formation! German Schichau type destroyers on maneuvers, c. 1910. This shot brings to mind eyewitness accounts of masterful maneuvering at breakneck speed when the two fleets' scouting forces collided at Jutland; "There was handling of ships in those ten minutes such as never had been dreamed of by seamen before." The patch of roiling waters where boats and high-speed wakes crisscrossed, while 12" shells arched overhead, became known as "Windy Corner" - in Cockney slang, an exposed and perilous place.
Excellent rendering of the WWI German Schichau type destroyer V-108, as shown on the Digital Navy.com website (recommended browsing!) Vulcan and Krupps' Germania style were quite similar, with two funnels spaced well forward and a long quarterdeck. Schichau destroyers measured appr. 266' x 29' x 8', carried two 3.5" guns and (8) 18" torpedoes; were capable of 36.5 kts at full throttle.
Metric specs: Dimensions: 81.1m x 8.84m x 2.44m; (2) 88 mm guns and (8) 45 cm torpedoes; speed: 67.6 km/hr.
In the German and Japanese navies, destroyers were classified as First Class Torpedo Boats. With Teutonic consistency, Germany built a dozen destroyers every year from 1900 on; 95 of the most modern, turbine-driven type were available by 1915.
The Tin Fish: Principal Weapon of the Tin Can
The "tin fish:" The destroyer's deadly weapon being loaded in the torpedo tube. An 18" torpedo carried a 200-lb warhead of wet guncotton (pyroxylene). Driven by compressed air, the torpedo had an exhaust port in the center of its two counter-rotating propellers.
Torpedo launched! The exhaust is clearly visible exiting the port amid the cluster of already-spinning propellers. A Type VI weapon of 1906 had a range of 1000 yds (730 m) at 35 kts, and up to 4000 yds (3660 m) at gradually decreasing speed.
Cutaway diagram of a WWI-era German torpedo.
HMS Swift, 1907: an experimental flotilla leader, or super-destroyer. Displacing 2,170 tons, she mounted four 4" guns and two 18" torpedo tubes; was capable of 35 kts. A one-off, Swift was the size of a medium WWII destroyer (354'9" x 34'2" x 10'6") and demonstrated the feasibility of very high speeds using turbine engines. She relied on twin screw while earlier turbine destroyers (from Viper onwards) had all been quad-screw on two shafts. These features were soon adapted into smaller and more affordable vessels, mass-produced in the Royal Navy's buildup for WWI.
HMS Laertes, c. 1915: a flotilla leader of the L class, brand-new at the start of World War I. 260' long and 27' wide, she displaced 807 tons; mounted three 4" guns and four 18" torpedo tubes. In action she led a swarm of 22 destroyers. Laertes was in the thick of it during the Battle of Heligoland Bight on August 28, 1914: while leading her flotilla in to attack SMS Mainz, she bore the brunt of a deadly accurate broadside from the German light cruiser's 4.1" guns. Though Mainz was eventually finished off by Adm. Sir Wlliam Goodenough's Town class cruisers, Laertes was hors de combat. After effecting makeshift repairs, she limped home to Harwich for a lengthy stay in the dockyard refitting, and later fought at Jutland.
Building destroyers was a lucrative specialty business. Yards like Thornycroft and Yarrow provided a very large percentage of the world's destroyers in the pre-dreadnought and dreadnought eras. Lesser yards like J.S. White's (above) made a good living from niche marketing, including specialty boilermaking. Nor was this pattern limited to Britain: the Italian ad below, typical for its time, gives more than a hint of megalomania as it lines up all ships built and building to make an impressive show. These vintage adverts (and others scattered throughout the site) were originally produced for Jane's Fighting Ships, 1914 edition.