Torpedo Boats

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Torpedo Boats. Functionally descended from Federico Gianibelli's sixteenth‐century fireships, torpedo boats first emerged in the United States as semisubmersible bearers of “infernal machines,” directed by David Bushnell's Turtle and Robert Fulton's Mute against British blockaders during the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812. Advances in spar torpedo technology during the Civil War spawned additional craft. Their capabilities were demonstrated in the historic attack by the Confederate submersible H. L. Hunley against the USS Housatonic off Charleston, and by Lt. W. B. Cushing's sinking of CSS Albemarle with a picket boat carrying a spar torpedo.

Commercial introduction of the Whitehead self‐propelled torpedo in 1875 triggered rapid development of coastal and seagoing torpedo boats in Europe. “Jeune Ecole” enthusiasts in France hailed growing squadrons of torpilleurs as effective counters to British naval superiority; yet by 1890, Britain, Germany, and Japan had acquired comparable flotillas. The U.S. Navy, amid post–Civil War doldrums, engaged yacht designer Nathaniel Herreshoff to construct swift torpedo craft, including the spar torpedo boat Lightning (1876); the Stilletto (1887), armed with John Howell's automotive torpedo; and finally the USS Cushing (1890), the navy's first steel‐hulled torpedo boat.

Britain's introduction in 1893 of the torpedo boat destroyer, direct antecedent of the more seaworthy destroyer, dimmed prospects for the torpedo boat, whose influence on fleet operations during the Spanish‐American War proved less impressive than at Tsushima in the Russo‐Japanese War. During World War I, German torpedo boats, torpedo‐armed destroyers, U‐boats, and naval mines combined to inhibit British Grand Fleet operations severely, but postwar naval designers showed little interest in the prevailing torpedo boat configuration. Torpedo attacks by surfaced U‐boats accounted significantly for Allied merchant ship losses. Torpedo boats also reappeared during World War II in a smaller configuration, as wooden‐hulled motor torpedo boats, swift launches active notably in the English Channel, Mediterranean, and (against Japanese supply barges) the Southwest Pacific. In postwar years, these short‐lived craft were rapidly replaced by missile launches, terminating a century of torpedo boat development.
[See also World War I: Military and Diplomatic Course.]


Larry R. Smart , Evolution of the Torpedo Boat, Military Affairs, vol. 22, no. 2 (Summer 1959), pp. 97–101.
Alex Roland , Underwater Warfare in the Age of Sail, 1978.
E. W. Jolie , A Brief History of U.S. Navy Torpedo Development, 1978.

Philip K. Lundeberg

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