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Torpedo Warfare


TORPEDO WARFARE. Robert Whitehead's self propelled torpedo—a cigar-shaped weapon with an explosive charge and powered by a small engine—became standard in all major navies by the 1870s. Torpedoes increased rapidly in speed, range, and explosive power. By the eve of World War I, torpedoes effectively ranged near 7,000 yards with top speeds over 40 knots. The largest torpedoes had bursting charges of 700 pounds of explosive.

Until about 1900 torpedo boats—small, very fast vessels designed for torpedo attacks—were the principle torpedo carriers. As protection against such vessels large warships acquired batteries of quick-firing guns, and in the 1890s began to rely on a new type of warship, the torpedo boat destroyer, for protection. By the outbreak of World War I, the destroyer, grown to about 1,000 tons, had largely usurped the torpedo boat.

Submarines, however, have made the greatest use of torpedoes. During World War I, German submarines sank more than 11 million tons of British shipping, forced the British fleet to operate with extraordinary precaution, and nearly won the war for the Central Powers.

Between the wars, airplanes added a new dimension to torpedo warfare. In World War II a small force of British "swordfish" torpedo planes put half the Italian battle fleet out of action at Taranto harbor in 1940, and in 1941 Japanese torpedo planes helped cripple the American fleet at Pearl Harbor.

In World War II, German U-boats sank millions of tons of Allied shipping before the Allies finally won the long Battle of the Atlantic. In the Pacific, American submarines devastated the Japanese merchant marine, accounting for 28 percent of all Japanese naval shipping sunk during the war.


Gannon, Robert. Hellions of the Deep: The Development of American Torpedoes in World War II. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1996.

Gray, Edwyn. The Devil's Device: Robert Whitehead and the History of the Torpedo. Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 1991.

RonaldSpector/c. w.

See alsoMunitions ; Ordnance ; Submarines .

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