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Uncle Sam's First Torpedo Boats

 

 - THE RUDDER 1950 By STEVEN POPE

THE story of the PT or torpedo boat has seldom been traced back to its source. Instead the launching of a new boat is apt to be hailed as the starting point of a new idea. This, of course, is not true since various types of torpedo craft have been used since the advent of steam driven boats. Like all manmade things, a PT is simply a product of past research and development combined to fit a new situation. As such we will briefly consider the basic function of the torpedo boat and then the problems that brought it into use by the United States Navy.

First of all a torpedo boat, usually referred to simply as a PT boat, is a craft which carries torpedoes as its major offensive weapon. A quick look through Jane's Fighting Ships will acquaint the reader with the many types employed at present by various navies. These boats are built for the purpose of allowing an inferior force to attack a superior one with minimum loss to itself and with the possibility of doing major damage to the enemy. The PT boats are not a decisive weapon, but their presence must always be taken into account and provisions made for protection against them before it is entirely safe to move against a nation possessing them. They could be called poor men's battle-ships as they have formed the best potential striking force in some small navies.

The boat illustrated with this article came into our Navy to perform a definite function in the pattern of naval warfare as it was fought during the Civil War. I believe that as a class these can be considered to be our first PT boats. They were definitely patrol and torpedo boats. It should be noted that various small and large vessels were fitted to carry torpedoes, especially in the Confederate Navy which also built small numbers of similar vessels that could be said to have constituted a class or type.

One of these boats made the first torpedo boat attack of the war against the U.S.S. Ironsides off Charleston on October 5, 1863, but failed to sink her. These Confederate craft were constructed of iron and generally cigar shaped, with a speed of about seven knots, and were known as Davids. On February 17, 1864, the U.S.S. Housatonic was sunk by a David off Charleston. She apparently holds the distinction of being the first craft sunk in action by a submarine, which her attacker was. Some of these early torpedo boats were called "plunging" torpedo boats, which meant that they were either semi or fully submersible. The Confederates also used launches, probably quite similar to the one illustrated.

The event that brought these boats into being stemmed mainly from the fact that the Union Navy was a superior force placed in opposition to an inferior one and some method of attack was needed by their opponents to reverse the situation. The Union squadrons blockading various Southern ports, being made up largely of wooden seagoing ships, found themselves at the mercy of attacks from Confederate ironclads. These wooden ships could stand and fight but had little chance of victory. If they retired to deeper water, where their maneuverability served to protect them, they left the inshore passages open to fast shallow draft blockade runners. As the ironclads could seek shelter in shallow rivers behind land batteries, it was almost impossible to bring superior vessels into action against them. It became evident that some method must be found by which the ironclads could be sunk or discouraged from attacking the blockading fleets. A small, fast, maneuver-able, spar torpedo carrying boat such as those used by the Confederates appeared to be the solution.

The art of submarine warfare was in its infancy but it had already become a serious menace to vessels trying to force an enemy held port or river. The use of spar torpedoes was known to both sides and if carried to the enemy, as shown by the Confederates, they could do great damage.

Because of this the Navy in 1864 called for the design of a torpedo carrying craft to be assigned to the various squadrons. Both surface and plunging (submarine) boats were submitted. The Navy approved two types of boats, both presented by Chief Engineer Wood and Engineer Lay of the Navy Department. The boat that became our operational torpedo boat was as illustrated. It was an adaption of the steam picket boat fitted to carry a spar torpedo and had an armored raised bulwark for the crew's protection. These boats were a success, as the exploit of Lieutenant Cushing in sinking the ironclad Albemarle soon proved. (The second type adopted apparently were not in action during the war.)

Being a general all around boat, these early PT's were in no way radical, but their method of torpedoing an enemy craft was. At first glance it might appear that with its spar extended like a lance it rushed at its foe in the manner of a mounted knight of old. Actually this was not so. The boat annrnached its target as stealthily as possible. then the spar with its torpedo was run out. Next the spar was depressed below the surface to place the charges lower than the armor belt and under the bottom of its intended victim.

When the spar was forced far enough under its victim the boat was stopped. The twelve pound howitzer was used at this point to discourage sharpshooters. A lanyard was pulled to release the torpedo from the end of the spar. Being buoyant, the torpedo floated up to make contact with the ship's hull. The torpedo boat was now backed clear and the spar shipped. When at a safe distance a line to the torpedo's firing pin was pulled and the charge detonated. (It should be noted that more than once the early torpedo boats went down with their victims.)

This type of spar torpedo existed in various navies until the adoption of the self propelled torpedo some years after our Civil War. The American Navy, which saw the birth of the torpedo boat and revealed to others its potential power of destruction, lost interest in this method of attack after the Civil War and it was some years before the rapid advancement of this type abroad caused them to launch another torpedo boat program.

For those who might be interested, the small plan from which I drew the accompanying illustration had a scale and showed these boats to be 42 feet overall, 41 feet 6 inches load waterline, 10 feet beam, 3 feet 6 inches draft. I make no claim for the accuracy of these figures and if anyone is interested in building a model of one of these boats I recommend more research into Civil War records.

As to speed, the boat used by Lieutenant Cushing to sink the Albemarle was raised and used at the Naval Academy where an account credits her with a speed of ten to twelve knots, but the account also states that this was very high so in service probably eight or nine knots was about top. The boat used by Lieutenant Cushing was rigged as an auxiliary brig while at the academy and was reported to have been a handsome little craft.

 

 

Este sitio es publicado por la Fundacion Histarmar - Argentina

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