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Spar Torpedo Boats

Considered as a ‘doubtful and less than successful defence system’ the Spar Torpedo Boat was introduced by the British into New Zealand in the early 1880s to ensure protection against the Russians.

Ship details:

Crew: 5

Dimensions: 63 x 7.5ft

Armament: 1 x Torpedo Spar – 30-40 feet

Displacement: 12.2

Machinery: steam powered, 17 knots (150-170 horsepower)

Background:

The use of torpedo as a name for mines comes from the French word Torpilles.  Spar torpedo boats first came into use during the American civil war when the Union & Confederate navies equipped steam boats with spar torpedoes. The most notable was the sinking of the CSS Albemarle in 1864.[1]  The explosives could be set off manually set off using a percussion cap fired by pulling a wire, or a chemical detonator which was activated when it hit the hull of the target ship.[2] This was successfully done when the Confederate vessel Squib attacked the frigate USS Minnesota in Newport News and caused serious damage.

Mines after testing in the 1870s were divided into two classes – Class I the ground or buoyant observation mine – these were fired from observation stations on shore, laid in deep water so as not to obstruct friendly ships, placed in lines of 3, 6 or more and the charge varied from 500lbs to 1500lb of guncotton fired by an electric current through a low tension fuze or detonator. Power is supplied by dry cells; the detonator is usually fulminate of mercury.[3] The mines could be fired by a single observer or two observers from different positions using line of sight and detonated when the ship is judged to be near to a mine for effective deployment. [4]

Advantages of observation [observed] mines

  • laid in main channel
  • too deep to be swept
  • perfectly safe with battery disengaged
  • cannot be seen owing to depth laid
  • no danger from counter mining

Disadvantages

  • cannot be used in fog
  • observer necessary – threat of attack by landing parties[5]

During the Russo-Turkish war of 1877, several spar torpedo boat attacks made on the fleets. Another method was torpedo boats towing torpedoes – this failed.[6] At Batoum, four Russian spar torpedo boats attacked the Turkish monitor Duke Saife, one exploded under the port quarter but did not cause any damage, the second attack was successful and the monitor sank taking many of its ship’s company.[7] The mechanism for setting depth on a contact mine was invented by Lieutenant Ottley RN and was subsequently improved on by other nations.[8] At Port Arthur during the Russo-Japanese war, the Russians laid three lines of observations mines, about 304 kilometres from the entrance and in the other anchorage, spaced about 150-200 metres. No record of Japanese ships passing over these mines.[9]

Early 1900s the Esher Committee looked at the handling of mining defences. Eventually decided that the mining activity be undertaken by the RN rather than Royal Engineers. “Approval was ultimately given for abolition of fixed mining defences in all naval and commercial ports of the Empire.” “The whole system of a purely defensive controlled mine-field has been abolished in favour of a the more mobile defence of submarine boats.”[10] Torpedoes meant that small craft could deliver them and work in and near harbours.[11]

Development:

In 1877 Thornycroft built a small torpedo boat, in 1880 it was armed with a tube for firing a Whitehead torpedo.[12] It is supposed that the example in the Army Museum was mounted on the Spar Torpedo Boats supplied in the 1880s. There is no evidence that this was the case given that the gun would have been useless on such a small vessel and all the issues stemming from the design would have been magnified in the conditions these vessels were designed to operate in. However, one five-barrelled gun was fitted to the Dryad/Halcyon-class torpedo gunboats built 1893-1895.[13] The intent of this weapon was to clear the gun crews from their guns to enable the torpedo boat close in to launch its torpedoes. Yet the Royal Navy Torpedo Committee concluded in 1876 that the Whitehead torpedo had far more potential than the spar torpedoes.[14]

Due to the Russian scare, the Royal Navy ordered 125-foot [38m] torpedo boats initially to act as ‘torpedo catchers’ for the fleet but were then upgraded to torpedo boats. They were initially armed with twin-barrelled Nordenfelts but these were replaced with a five-barrelled .45in calibre guns. They were known as Thornycroft TB 25-29, 41-60 built 1885-1886.[15] Yarrow also built torpedo boats in 1882-1885 fitted with two twin-barrelled guns. These were refitted with five-barrelled guns around 1900.[16] In 1892 the Royal Navy took over torpedo boats ordered for the Royal Indian Marine. These were slightly larger than the 125-footers and were fitted with two twin-barrelled guns.[17] Yarrow built four 2nd-class torpedo boats 1881-1883 and they were equipped with one machinegun. It is not known if it was the Nordenfelt or Gardners.[18] White built 2nd-class torpedo boats armed with one or two Nordenfelts or Gardners. They were a very seaworthy boat and were the model for the 56ft picket boats. They were designed to be carried on major warships and were the largest steam boats carried aboard warships.[19] Yarrow built four torpedo boats in 1888 and 1889 equipped with one Nordenfelt gun.[20] One Thornycroft Spar Torpedo Boat was built for the Tasmanian colony in 1884 and was identical to the four supplied to New Zealand. She was equipped with one Nordenfelt gun although the New Zealand boats were not.[21] Before 1914 Yarrow and Thornycroft almost exclusively supplied torpedo boats to the world including New Zealand.[22]

Considered as a ‘doubtful and less than successful defence system’ the Spar Torpedo Boat was introduced by the British into New Zealand as a reply from the British to ensure that New Zealand were protected against the Russians in the early 1880s. It seems that the spar torpedo boat we got was obsolete even as it was built until such time as it got a torpedo. They were the transition to torpedo boats. Costing a hefty £12,660 for the four 2nd class spar torpedo boats with additional costs including penalties to the contractors of £10 per week for late delivery and £50 per ¼ knot below 17 knots if they were unable to go at this speed. However, these significant costs prevailed over the quality and success of these torpedo boats as there was speculation that if they were ever used they would blow themselves up with the enemy ship they were meant to be disposing of. The concerns were made a lot more understandable once people were told how the boats were meant to function.  The weapon used on the boat was 30-40 foot torpedo spar with a charge (torpedo) fitted at the front. Its main purpose was to attach this charge to the enemy’s vessel and then turn around and leave, which was done by slowing down to 4 or 5 knots when within 300 feet of the enemy vessel to prevent damage to the spar on impact. However it was not well into the 1880s that naval guns fired too slowly to hit a small boat approaching at high speed given some room for the spar torpedo boats to operate.[23]

References:

[1] Commander Murray F. Sueter, The Evolution of the Submarine Boat, Mine and Torpedo: From the Sixteenth Century to the Present Time, Portsmouth: J. Griffin and Co., 1907, p. 271.

[2] ibid., p. 272.

[3] ibid., p. 274.

[4] ibid., p. 275.

[5] ibid., p. 276.

[6] ibid.

[7] ibid., p. 278.

[8] ibid., p. 280.

[9] ibid., p. 282.

[10] ibid., p. 288.

[11] Norman Friedman, British Destroyers: From Earliest Days to the Second World War, Barnsley: Seaforth Publishing, 2009, p. 10.

[12] Commander Murray F. Sueter, The Evolution of the Submarine Boat, Mine and Torpedo: From the Sixteenth Century to the Present Time, Portsmouth: J. Griffin and Co., 1907, pp. 325-326.

[13] Roger Chesneau, Eugene M. Kolesnik (eds.), Conway’s All The World’s Fighting Ships 1860-1905, New York: Mayflower Books, 1979, p. 90.

[14] Norman Friedman, British Destroyers: From Earliest Days to the Second World War, Barnsley: Seaforth Publishing, 2009, p. 21.

[15] Roger Chesneau, Eugene M. Kolesnik (eds.), Conway’s All The World’s Fighting Ships 1860-1905, New York: Mayflower Books, 1979,  p. 102.

[16] ibid., p. 103.

[17] ibid., p. 104.

[18] ibid., p. 105.

[19] ibid.

[20] ibid.

[21] ibid., p. 106.

[22] Norman Friedman, British Destroyers: From Earliest Days to the Second World War, Barnsley: Seaforth Publishing, 2009, p. 9.

[23] ibid., p.21.

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