H.M.S. Polyphemus - 1881

Old wood-engraving of POLYPHEMUS in drydock

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HMS Polyphemus was an experimental torpedo ram of the Royal Navy. Laid down at the Royal Chatham Dockyard in 1878, the iron vessel was partially submersible and intended to attack by stealth. With a top speed of 17.8 kts, she was fast by the standards of the day, though her power to catch enemy battleships was never put to the test. She represented the Royal Navy's burning interest in the Whitehead locomotive torpedo, carrying five 14" launching tubes and a complement of 18 torpedoes, allowing several reloads per attack. Her most visually arresting feature, besides the bulging ballast tanks, was her murderous spur ram, which contained one bow torpedo tube (seen above with a wreath incongruously attached for the vessel's launch in June 1881.) Tactically, this is an acknowledgment of the likelihood of failure in torpedo attack. Torpedoes of the day had a range between 400 and 800 yards (870m) at 21 kts, but were undergoing exhaustive testing and improvement. By 1889 Whitehead's 18" model boasted performance of 1,000 yards or 910m @ 22 kts., carrying an enlarged warhead of guncotton. Even at this rate, to launch a torpedo attack Polyphemus would need to approach within ramming distance of her target anyway.

The Admiralty had set up a Torpedo Committee in 1872 to examine ways in which the newly invented (1866) Whitehead torpedo could be launched at sea. The Royal Navy's first purpose-built torpedo launching ship was HMS Vesuvius which, with a maximum speed of less than 10 knots, was intended to stealthily approach within a few hundred yards of enemy ships at night to launch her torpedos. In the mid-1870s, Barnaby and his assistant J. Dunn developed plans for a fast, cigar-shaped vessel, protected by 2 inches of armour on the deck, carrying five submerged torpedo tubes. The design was modified in late 1875 into a larger vessel equipped with a ram. Early in 1876 the design was modified again into a 240' long unarmoured torpedo ram with a top speed of 17 knots. Later the design was modified yet again to have armour added to the exposed steel deck.

POLYPHEMUS in drydock - low angleThe ship had a cast iron keel which could be unbolted and dropped for emergency buoyancy. The bridge deck and aft flying bridge were also detachable and could float away as rafts should the ship's hull be sunk. The Polyphemus had an 80-volt electric lighting plant -- the first in the Royal Navy.

The innovative, but strange Polyphemus was an experimental ship. She pioneered the underwater beam torpedo tube for the British Navy (she had four). She was capable of voyaging from Plymouth to Gibraltar, or from Gibraltar to Malta at 10 kts without refueling. She proved here worth in the Berhaven raid, an exercise in 1885 meant to simulate a sneak atack on the Russian fleet base at Kronstadt. In the night exercise, Polyphemus penetrated elaborate net and boom defenses. Later she was stationed at Malta and practiced maneuvers with the Mediterranean fleet; but being highly invested in battleship artillery, the spit-and-polish admirals of her day found little use for her; and two sister-ships which had been ordered were canceled. As it happened, the development of quick-firing intermediate guns made Polyphemus obsolescent by the end of the decade. Technology evolved towards smaller, lower-cost, more agile vessels to deliver torpedoes: TBs and destroyers, and later the submarine, which Polyphemus anticipated in many ways. The ship was sold for scrap in 1903.

Polyphemus Plans & Specifications

Original plans for HMS POLYPHEMUS, 1881

Specifications for the Polyphemus:
Dimensions: 240' x 37' x 20'6"   Displacement: 2,640 tons. Speed: 17.8 knots. Armament: (5) 14" torpedo tubes, 18 Whitehead Mark II torpedoes. (6) 1" Nordenfelt machine guns. Wrought-iron ram. Armor: Deck - 3" compound armour; hatches - 4"; conning tower - 8". Propulsion: coal-fired boilers, horizontal compound engines, twin screw. Crew: 80.

Metric Specifications:
Dimensions: 73m x 11m x 6.25m   Displacement: 2,640 tons. Speed: 32.99 km/hr. Armament: (5) 356 mm torpedo tubes, 18 Whitehead Mark II torpedoes. (6) 25 mm Nordenfelt machine guns. Wrought-iron ram. Armor: Deck - 76 mm compound armour; hatches - 102 mm; conning tower - 203 mm. Propulsion: coal-fired boilers, horizontal compound engines, twin screw. Crew: 80.

Polyphemus Photo Gallery

Broadside photo of the POLYPHEMUS
Polyphemus coming into port after a day's maneuvers with the Fleet.

Quarter view of the POLYPHEMUS
Polyphemus -- stern quarter shot at Malta.

1:1200 model of the VESUVIUS

1:1200 Model of the Polyphemus. When the ship was "flooded down" for offensive operations by filling her ballast tanks, the waist section ran nearly awash. Six machine guns were mounted in pillboxes on the flying deck, on the outboard ends of the three bridges.

View of Polyphemus' Ram in Drydock

Polyphemus under construction at the Royal Chatham Dockyard. This view shows the ship's bizarrely shaped ram, the result of elaborate tests in the towing tank.

View of Polyphemus' Ram in Drydock

Closeup of Polyphemus' ram in drydock; it contained her bow topedo tube. Twin rudders under the bow were to assist in steering when backing off after a ramming attack; also improved the ship's turning radius.

The Whitehead Torpedo - Invented 1866

Diagram of early Whitehead Torpedo

Early model Whitehead torpedo

An early model Whitehead torpedo, dating from the 1870s. Whitehead and his imitators used the tapered form until around 1906, when tests proved that the now-familiar blunt-nosed shape actually caused less friction and made for a full knot's faster passage through the water: by 1912 the adoption was complete. Whitehead torpedoes were driven by compressed-air motors; other models used flywheel technology and electric motors.

Torpedo launch diagram, 1891

An 1891 diagram whows an underwater compressed-air tube launch, the preferred Whitehead method. Other torpedoes were launched with a moderate burst of gunpowder.

Torpedo tubes, USS FLUSSER, 1916

The lab where Robert Whithead, Scots inventor and engineer, assembled and tested torpedoes from 1866 on.This is right on the Rijeka waterfront near the Naval Academy.  Enlarge

Robt. Whitehead with beat-up test torpedo, 1870s
Robert Whitehead, at right, with a battered test torpedo in front of the factory, c. 1875.

Whitehead torpedo factory, Fiume, Austria, 1905

The factory, expanded to meet the worldwide demand for Whiteheads. This shot dates from 1905, just before the Dreadnought lent fresh impetus to the international arms race.

Torpedo Frame outboard of a Lightning class TB

An early launching system was the drop frame, seen here on a Lightning class British torpedo boat in the 1870s. This problematic launch method was replaced by the torpedo tube, which forced the weapon into the water with a burst of compressed air.

U.S. Navy Whitehead torpedo, cutaway diagram, c. 1898

By the mid-1890s the Whitehead torpedo had developed into this elongated form, but retained the conical, pointed tip. Their accuracy in aim and guidance dates to 1895, when Whitehead purchased the patent to the gyroscope from Ludwig Obry, the Austrian navy officer who had invented it. Using the improved gyroscope for azimuth control proved a breakthrough. This system could guide torpedoes up to 7,000 yards -- a range they had achieved by around 1909.

Argentine torpedo trainees, Fiume, 1888
Argentine sailors who have come to Fiume for training pose with one of their Whitehead torpedoes, 1888.  Enlarge

Early American Torpedo Boat CUSHING

The preferred form of torpedo delivery in the pre-dreadnought era: the torpedo boat (TB). Here is USS Cushing, named for the Civil War hero who first sank an enemy by torpedo attack. Built by Herreshoff, she is seen after completing a test run on the waters off Newport, R.I.   Stern view of the same vessel

Torpedo Launch at U.S. Navy Torpedo School, Newport, RI, 1894

Torpedo Launch at U.S. Navy Torpedo School, Newport, RI, 1894. Stern of USS Winslow (TB-5) in background. The pugnacious Winslow saw some of the ruggedest combat of the Spanish-American War in a fracas at Cárdenas Bay.

Torpedo tubes, USS FLUSSER, 1916

The "tin fish:" The destroyer's deadly weapon was launched from a torpedo tube, which shot the torpedo into the water with a burst of compressed air. 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. Above, a single 18" tube on the destroyer USS Flusser, circa 1916.

Self-propelled German torpedo, circa 1916

A WWI era German Schwartzkopff torpedo. It was found through trials that the blunt-nosed model was actually a full knot faster than the pointy-nosed shape; the changeover was made in the first decade of the 20th century.

The torpedo boat was soon to be eclipsed by the larger and more survivable destroyer. By the time of WWI, however, the ideal platform for the torpedo became the submarine, its technology quietly perfected on the very eve of that dreadful conflict. Ironically, one of the destroyer's main duties then became anti-submarine warfare -- a task for which the type proved well suited.

Torpedo Launch from USS MILWAUKEE, c. 1925

But subs, destroyers, and TBs were not the only torpedo delivery systems. Through WWI British cruisers and battleships all had their own torpedo departments; due to their much larger size, they could carry many more torpedoes than a submarine. There are no known cases of a battleship sinking -- or even hitting -- a foe with torpedoes. There are plenty of cases of cruisers waging effective torpedo warfare in both world conflicts. Above, torpedo launch from the Omaha class cruiser USS Milwaukee, circa 1925.

U.S. Standard PT boat, World War II

Torpedo boats were transformed by the application of the internal-combustion engine. This originally was a desperate dodge by the Italian navy in WWI, when a number of surplus U.S.-made gasoline aircraft engines became available and were used to power the famous MAS boats, which carried two torpedoes each. The British developed their own gasoline-powered torpedocraft, the Coastal Motor Boat (CMB), which carried the same payload as the MAS TB. Two of the British model are still in existence. Both the Italian and the British models proved very satisfactory in action, taking out enemy battleships and smaller units by torpedo attack. Cmdr. Luigi Rizzo's MAS-15, which sank the A-H dreadnought Szent István in June 1918, is preserved at the Vittorio Emanuele Monument in Rome.

Shown above is the standard American PT boat used in the Pacific War, powered by three-shaft Packard V-12 gasoline engines and carrying two to four 21" Mark 8 torpedoes. Typically they also had two twin .50 MG mounts; many variations on the standard design were evident in the fleet, but all combined high-speed, planing plywood hulls and tactics emphasizing speed and stealth to attack large warships with their torpedoes. PT boats ranged from 70 to 82 feet 50 to 75 tons; speed achieved ranged from 35 to 40 kts (as compared to 25 - 27 for their WWI predecessors). Similar craft were used in the British, German, and Italian navies in WWII. Both the Italian and American variants cited here were wooden-hulled and proved quite formidable in combat.

Japanese Long Lance torpedo, World War II

Undoubtedly the deadliest torpedo of the Pacific War was the Japanese Type 93 Long Lance, driven by compressed oxygen for extra range and speed with reduced wake. This super-torpedo measured 610 mm in diameter (24 in) by 9m long (29'6") and weighed 2.8 tons, including a 490 kg (1,080 lb 4 oz) warhead. Cruiser- and destroyer-launched Long Lances took out eleven Allied cruisers, eleven destroyers, and a fleet carrier in 1942-43. Later in the War the torpedoes were modified to become manned suicide craft, or kaiten. Variants of the Long Lance were developed for use in Japanese subs and midget subs also.