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THE EMPLOYMENT OF TORPEDOES IN STEAM LAUNCHES AGAINST MEN OF WAR.
By LIEUT. CHARLES CHABAUD ARNAULT.”
Translated by Lieut. T. B. M. MASON, U.S. N.,
In May, 1874, the author published an article entitled “Heavy Guns, Armor, and the Ram in Naval Actions,” in which it was stated that the discussion of the torpedo was omitted, as it had hitherto played such an unimportant part in actual warfare. Since that date the TurcoRussian war has at least given several instances of the value of torpedoes when used by steam launches, although their necessity as an arm for sea going vessels is still one of theory. Commander Chardonneau has published; an interesting account—collected from official documents—of the operations of the Russian steam launches, and while it is greatly to be regretted that the Turkish authorities have not given us some facts concerning the torpedo attacks against their ships, I have been able to gain a certain amount of information from the latter source, which has materially assisted me in the compilation of the following pages. These later engagements, united to the earlier and crude attempts made by the steam launches of both parties during the American civil War will perhaps give us enough data from which to draw a few practical lessons for future use.
The subject may be divided into two heads. First, a list of the various attacks in which the launch and torpedoes have been used as a means of attack. Second, the inferences which may be drawn from those attacks.
The following are detailed accounts of the most important engagements in which launches and torpedoes have been used.
I. DESTRUCTION OF THE HOUSAToNIC, night of February 17th, 1864.—During the year 1863, the Confederates constructed several launches having the exterior form of a cigar, and known in America by the name of “davids.” These boats were intended to attack the Federal vessels by means of spar-torpedoes. One of these, constructed at Charleston, could be entirely immersed at the moment of attack. She was propelled by a screw worked by hand, her crew consisting of eight men. On the occasion of her first trial, under Lieutenant Payne, one of the enemy's vessels passed close to her without discovering her, and the swell caused by the paddles of the ship sent her to the bottom; Lieutenant Payne alone escaped. This intrepid officer did not lose courage, but induced eight men to accompany him again in his boat, which had been raised. A squall caused a similar accident to the first. Payne and two sailors escaped death. The sub-marine vessel was again raised, and during some further trials she plunged and did not re-appear. Payne perished this time with all his crew. After these three similar catastrophies Lieutenant Dixon found eight men sufficiently courageous to man this same boat which had again been raised from the bottom of Cooper river. “On the 17th of February”, writes the author of a very interesting study on the war of secession, “the Federal Corvette Housatonic was anchored off Charleston on the outer line of the blockade. At about 8.45 P.M., it being dark, the officer of the watch saw a black object approaching the vessel at a distance of about one hundred yards; it appeared like a plank sliding through the water, came directly for the corvette, and in two minutes was alongside. In the meantime the chain had been slipped, the engine backed, and the crew called to quarters. About a minute afterwards, an explosion took place, and the ship, settling by the stern, careened to port and went down. Fortunately the weather was fine and the depth of water not very great; the crew, with the exception of two officers and some few men, took to the rigging and were taken off by the boats of the Canandaigua.” Dixon was, therefore, the first to use a spar torpedo. His sub-marine boat disappeared however, with all on board, never to rise again. II. UNSUCCESSFUL NIGHT ATTACK AGAINST SEVERAL FEDERAL FRIGATEs.-‘‘ Other unsuccessful attacks,” continues the author already quoted, “were made against the Union ships. The first was directed against the ironclad frigate New Ironsides by a Secessionist lieutenant, who attacked her at night off Charleston in a small cigar boat. Although he got alongside without being seen and exploded his torpedo, the only losses were the death of the officer of the watch of the Ironsides, and the sinking of the boat by the column of water which her torpedo raised. The frigates Minnesota, Wabash and Memphis
* Revue Maritime et Coloniale Vol. 62, No. 214, f Revue Maritime et Coloniale, April and November, 1878.
were in turn attacked by cigar boats carrying spar-torpedoes but they escaped injury on account of their extreme vigilance. Thus we see that the “davids” used by the Secessionists in these different attacks were no longer sub-marine vessels like that of lieutenant Dixon, but very small fusiform steam launches. III. DESTRUCTION OF THE ALBEMARLE, night of October 27th, 1864.—Towards the end of 1864, the town of Plymouth, situated on the banks of the river Roanoke, was in possession of the Secessionists and besieged by the Federal forces. A Confederate ram, the Albemarle, protected it from all attacks from the river. This vessel was made fast to a wharf, doubly protected by a battery and a stockade of floating timbers which formed a circle round her at a distance of ten yards. A young officer of the Union Navy, Lieutenant Cushing, volunteered to destroy the Albemarle in a steam launch fitted with a spar-torpedo. During the night of October 27th, 1864, he steamed up the Roanoke, and on approaching the ram, a heavy small arm fire was opened upon him; his launch, which has going at full speed, slid up on the stockade. Lieutenant Cushing working with his own hands the spar of the torpedo pushed it under the counter of the Albemarle, and fired it by means of a friction primer. The explosion of the torpedo, or more probably the shot fired from the ram, sank the Federal launch ; but the Albemarle went down almost at the same time. Lieutenant Cushing, who saved himself by swimming, succeeded in forcing his way through the Woods and rejoined the Union army. Such were the remarkable actions in which, during the American war, torpedoes were used as offensive weapons in boats. We will now cite similar events which marked the late struggle between Russia and the Ottoman empire. At the outbreak of hostilities the Turks had, on the Danube, three monitors, five iron clad and six unarmored gunboats; in the Black sea, two frigates and eight corvettes, all ironclad, besides a number of wooden vessels. The Russians had not a single formidable vessel to oppose this numerous fleet, but they had in their Black sea ports about fifteen torpedo boats, mostly on the Thorneycroft system, silent engines, very lightly built, fast, and fitted with water-tight bulkheads. A screw steamer, the Constantine, ceded to the government by the Maritime company of Odessa, was fitted with strong davits to carry and hoist rapidly four of these launches. The Russians also placed upon the Danube a flotilla of torpedo boats, the greater part of which were ordinary steam-launches fitted with a bow torpedo spar.
IV. FIRST ACTION OFF BATOUM, night of May 12th, 1877–At ten o'clock at night, the Constantine, being seven miles from Batoum, lowered her four launches, which started immediately for the port. At the time of their arrival there, the Tchesme, commanded by Lieutenant Zatrarevni, led the other boats by about three cables lengths; she was fitted with a divergent torpedo. Zatrarevni, seeing a Turkish ironclad anchored at the mouth of the bay, handled his boat with great ability, and succeeded in striking the stern of the vessel with his torpedo. The torpedo did not explode. I am not certain what class of divergent torpedo was used by the Russians, but it seems that the towing conductor fouled for a moment the screw of the Tchesme, and was stripped, to a small extent, of its non-conducting covering, which prevented the current from passing and exploding the primer. The Turks had been alarmed however; their shore batteries and ships opened on the flotilla with such a heavy fire of great guns and small arms that it was deemed prudent to put to sea at full speed ; the Tchesme and the Sinope fortunately succeeded in reaching the neighboring port; the other two were picked up by the Constantine.
V. DESTRUCTION OF THE SEFI, night of May 25th, 1877–There were three Turkish vessels lying at anchor, under steam, in the arm of the Danube on which the city of Matchin is situated, the double turreted monitor Seifi, an iron clad gun boat and a wooden vessel. No chain of obstructions surrounded them, but two picket boats were stationed, one near the Seifi, and one near the iron clad gun-boat. Four Russian torpedo-boats, started from Braíla, and came up the Matchin arm to attack the Turkish squadron; they were ordinary steam launches, with crews of about ten seamen each. A bullet-proof plate protected the machinery and men, except the helmsman; each was armed with a bow spar torpedo, carrying a heavy exploding charge of gunpowder which could be submerged to a depth of three metres, and was fired by an electric apparatus which could be worked either automatically on contact, or by hand, at will. The sky was cloudy, a light mist was over the river, but the night was not very dark. The Russian boats advanced, hugging close under the banks, and, as they were not provided with silent engines, ran slowly, in order to make the least possible noise. The officer who commanded the Seifi's picket boat saw them, but became demoralized, and fled without giving the alarm. It was then 2.30 A. M. Having arrived, at less than a cable's length from the Seifi, Lieutenant Doubasoff, commanding the expedition, headed his launch, the Czarewitch, at full speed for the Seifi.