Michigan War Studies Review
Reviews, surveys, original essays, and commentary in the field of military studies.
18 July 2011
Review by Jonathan Beard, New York City
Ship Killer: A History of the American Torpedo
By Thomas Wildenberg and Norman Polmar
Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2010. Pp. xvi, 268. ISBN 978–1–59114–688–9.
Descriptors: Volume 2011, 19th Century, 20th Century, 21st Century, Civil War, World War I, World War II, Cold War, Weaponry Print Version

There are many books about torpedoes and submarine warfare, but no comprehensive history of the American torpedo. Ship Killer fills this gap by tracing the course of undersea weapons from the first crude attack on British warships during the Revolutionary War to the state of the art in 2010. Wildenberg and Polmar begin their story with a Yale student named David Bushnell, who built a tiny submarine and then propelled it himself out across New York harbor to try to attach an explosive charge to the hull of a British warship. He failed, but neither underwater charges nor submarines would be forgotten. Rounding out chapter 1 are excellent descriptions of the use of spar torpedoes in the Civil War. The Union managed to sink a Confederate ironclad with such a device, while the Confederates made the first successful submarine attack—unfortunately resulting in the destruction of both target and submarine.

The real story of what we now think of as torpedoes, however, begins with a British engineer, Robert Whitehead, working in Austria, who created the first "automobile torpedo," a device that swam through the water to hit an enemy ship. The inventor had to surmount a series of technological challenges that in 1867—the date of his first successful torpedo—were at the cutting edge of naval engineering. Years before submarines were incorporated into the world's navies, Whitehead built miniature subs that, in cylinders less than two feet in diameter, carried engines, fuel supplies, a warhead, and, most difficult of all, mechanisms to ensure the torpedo would steer a straight course at a set depth. In the early years of torpedo development, the US Navy [USN] experimented with an array of propulsion systems: some ran on compressed air, others had engines powered by gas from carbonic acid decomposition, while one model incorporated a flywheel that was spun-up just before launching. The authors clarify the operation of the new technologies that Whitehead worked on and illustrate them with some two hundred photographs and drawings. The publisher is to be congratulated on producing a book so lavishly illustrated and, by and large, error-free.

Although Ship Killer includes a chapter on World War I, when the submarine came of age as a strategic weapon, American submarines and destroyers, and their torpedoes, played an insignificant role in that conflict. The heart of this book is its seven chapters on the (Newport, RI) Torpedo Station's development of new models in the 20s and 30s, their performance in World War II, and the engineers' handling of challenges that emerged only during the fighting. The engineers and scientists—both in the Navy and in industry—had to do far more than their counterparts twenty years before. In addition to conventional torpedoes for submarines and destroyers, they had to create airborne models as well as weapons for the new PT boats and then more exotic devices that had not existed when the war began. The story this section tells is, with one exception, that of the war in the Pacific. Except for the acoustic models developed to kill German U-boats, almost all Navy torpedoes were fired in the Pacific.

The war against Japan can be divided into two periods: the first, from 7 December 1941 until summer 1943, was a hard-fought battle between two evenly matched opponents; during the second period, from mid-1943 until the end of the war in August 1945, US forces, increasingly superior in manpower, ships, and technology, destroyed the Imperial Japanese Navy and ground forces on island after island.

The performance of American torpedoes in the first period was dismal. To begin, as the book does, with aerial torpedoes, the Navy went to war with the Mark 13, which needed to be dropped at very low altitude, had a top speed of just thirty knots, and neither ran reliably nor always detonated when it did hit a target. In the two famous carrier battles of this period—Coral Sea and Midway—Japanese carriers evaded Mark 13s by simply turning and steaming off faster than the torpedoes. Dive bombers won Midway for the USN.

By the second part of the war, better torpedo planes and modifications to the Mark 13 made it an effective, though still slow, weapon. The story of torpedoes fired by USN destroyers and PT boats is much sadder: during the first part of the war, they failed most of the time. The nadir for destroyer torpedoes came at the battle of Santa Cruz (October 1942). Eighteen were launched at abandoned American ships that were dead in the water. Neither of two Mark 15s hit the destroyer Porter, and it had to be sunk by gunfire. Of sixteen fired at the carrier Hornet at close range, only nine hit the ship, which the Japanese sank the next day. Destroyer-launched torpedoes rarely worked right and those fired by PT boats almost never hit their target and detonated. American submarines had an even worse time, because they had no other effective weapons.

Wildenberg and Polmar devote a chapter—"Torpedoes That Didn't Work"—to explaining why American subs, the only vessels able to take the war to the shores of Japan, sank so few ships in 1941-43. The torpedoes ran much deeper than they were set to, and neither the over-complicated magnetic exploders nor the simpler contact-type exploders worked reliably. Making matters worse, officials at the Torpedo Station consistently lied to submarine officers about the depth-setting problem, and rejected their complaints about torpedoes hitting Japanese ships but not detonating. Not till admirals in the field conducted their own tests were such problems finally addressed. In the second part of the war, American submarines destroyed Japan's merchant fleet and dozens of its warships. Unfortunately, the authors misstep at this point.

The so-called "Great Torpedo Scandal" of 1941-1943 has created a small cottage industry of observers who have been very vocal in their criticism of the Bureau of Ordnance and the Newport Torpedo Station. Although most of the torpedo problems experienced by the Navy during this period were directly attributable to "bureaucratic inertia," there were other factors involved. The torpedo was in many respects the most complex naval weapon of World War II. The steam torpedo is a highly sophisticated piece of ordnance that contained an intricate propulsion system, an on-board power supply, a guidance and control system, and two different warheads: one for practice runs and proofing, and one for war shots. Torpedoes required careful handling and regular maintenance to achieve reliable performance. Erratic torpedo runs, "coldshots," depth-keeping problems and premature detonations were not uncommon occurrences even with "perfect" torpedoes (114).

This is special pleading for the Bureau of Ordnance and Torpedo Station, and excludes other viewpoints. All the explanations in this excerpt are true, but every other navy that used torpedoes faced the same problems. The book would have benefited from more cross-national comparisons: how did the British and Japanese manage to make their aerial, destroyer, and submarine torpedoes reliable? How did the Germans correct virtually identical problems of depth-keeping and dud exploders? In addition, it is unfair to denigrate the "small cottage industry" of writers without citing their publications. Although the book's bibliography lists Frederick J. Milford's articles on "US Navy Torpedoes"—including the best single overview of the Great Torpedo Scandal[1]—and a recent doctoral thesis on the topic, neither appears in this chapter's footnotes. Readers wanting more information on this controversy learn nothing here of the extensive literature devoted to it.

Ship Killer ends with an excellent history of the torpedoes deployed in the Cold War and today. American torpedoes are covered thoroughly, and there is a fair amount of information on Soviet technology. This section obviously benefits from Norman Polmar's years of covering developments in both the United States and the USSR. The book, with its combination of historical overview, technical details, and photos and illustrations, belongs in libraries containing Norman Friedman's series of Illustrated Design Histories.[2]

[1] Milford's article appeared first in The Submarine Review (Oct 1996)--now available online. Anthony Newpower's Iron Men and Tin Fish: The Race to Build a Better Torpedo during World War II (Annapolis, MD: Naval Inst Pr, 2010), although flawed, contains additional information about torpedo problems during the war.

[2] Published by the US Naval Institute Press: see, e.g., U.S. Aircraft Carriers (1983), U.S. Battleships (1986), U.S. Submarines through 1945 (1995).

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