HC Deb 19 March 1877 vol 233 cc128-33

, in rising to speak to a Notice on the Paper calling attention to the increasing power of torpedoes, especially the "Whitehead," and to move— That no economical consideration should tie the hands of the First Lord of the Admiralty and so prevent exhaustive experiments being carried out as to the best means of applying or resisting these terrible weapons; also, that it is expedient that a large number of torpedo vessels and boats be added to the Navy without delay, said, that he had no intention of passing any criticism on the conduct of the Admiralty, but the subject was one of so much importance in naval warfare that it deserved to be thoroughly ventilated. They had all heard of, and no doubt most hon. Members had read, the pamphlet called The Battle of Dorking, the writer of which began by assuming that the whole or a great part of our Fleet had in the first place been disabled and diminished by infernal machines or torpedoes. He was not himself an alarmist; but he thought such an event, although not very probable, was at all events possible, and it could not be denied that the invention of torpedoes had entirely changed the system of naval warfare. There were four torpedoes at present in use in Her Majesty's Navy. First, there was the "Hervey's," or "towing" torpedo, which was towed from a derrick-end, or the yard-arm, over or against the enemy, and which exploded on striking. Then there was the "Ground torpedo," which was a mine torpedo, intended for the defence of harbours or to close the mouth of a canal, or to protect our ships. It exploded by electricity, communicated either from the shore or a ship, or by an enemy striking a floating and partly buoyant body connected with the torpedo. Next there was the "Spar torpedo," which was carried in a boat, no matter how small, and which exploded either on touching the side of a vessel, or by electricity used by wire from the beat. But by far the most formidable—he might even call it the most awful—weapon of maritime war was the "Whitehead torpedo;" and it was this which threatened to change the character of naval warfare. It was made in three pieces—the head, which contained a bursting charge of 360lb. of gun-cotton; the balance chamber, which contained a contrivance for setting it so as to remain at any depth it was wished to travel under the water-line; and, lastly, the air chamber which contained the engines and the compressed air to drive them. Their length was 19ft., the diameter 18in., the appearance being exactly that of a cigar pointed at both ends. The head or foremost end contained the pistol or detonator which exploded the charge. The after-end supported the screws—a right and a left-handed screw — which propelled the torpedo and were made of the finest steel. The air chamber was tested up to 1,200lb. on the square inch, although for service it was only loaded to 800lb. The "Whitehead torpedo" could be made to go at the rate of 20 knots for 1,000 yards, and at any depth that was wished from 1ft. to 30ft. It could be set to explode either on striking an object or at any particular distance under 1,000 yards. It could also be set so that if it missed the object aimed at, it would go to the bottom and explode on half-cock, or come to the top on half-cock so as to be recovered, as it had buoyancy enough just to float on the surface of the water when not in motion. It was fired by what was called an "impulse tube," which, out of a frame fitted to a port, discharged the torpedo into the water. It could be fired above the water, but would at once go to the depth it was set for, and then go straight to the object, no matter how fast the ship from which it was discharged was going, or how fast the object aimed at might be sailing or steaming. In fact, it could do anything but speak. It was calculated to make a hole on bursting upon any vessel of 75ft. area, and there was no doubt that if one of them hit a ship of any sort or description at present on the water she must at once proceed to the bottom. He would now state what he believed to be the only way of resisting the attack from these infernal machines. He did not think that with ordinary vigilance a ship was likely to be hit with the outrigger, or by the "Hervey torpedo," as in the one case the Gatling gun would destroy the boat, and in the other, in these days of accuracy of artillery fire, the torpedo itself could be destroyed, or the yard or derrick from which it was towed could be accounted for. A "Whitehead torpedo" was, however, a totally different weapon, and the first intimation you would get of it was by going to the bottom. The torpedo vessel or boat need not be nearer than 1,000 yards, and, premising that the first three shots did not take effect, she could still deliver more, as at night time the vessel's position at that distance was absolutely safe, and the vessel fired against would be positively unaware of the attack until she was blown up. The newly-invented electric light from the tops was a great help to the party attacked, but it was his firm belief that if three or four beats of great speed attacked a vessel from different points of the compass, and if they were commanded by smart officers, nothing that she could do would save her from being hit by one or more of them. He had, therefore, in his Motion asserted the expediency of adding torpedo boats and vessels to the Fleet without delay. In his opinion—and he was confirmed in it by a number of Naval officers whom he had consulted—the only manner in which the "Whitehead torpedo" was to be combated was by having attached, not only to the Fleet, but to each line-of-battle ship or heavy iron-clad two or three satellites—namely, very fast schooner-rigged steam vessels, like the steam yachts or launches of the present day, to be fitted as torpedo vessels, and also armed with light guns capable of destroying any vessel of their own description which they might approach, besides being able to destroy any big vessel, if they could come near enough to discharge their own Whitehead. torpedo. In build they should be as near a yacht as possible, doing not less that 12 knots an hour, but with a lower freeboard, capable of remaining at sea and using sail power. The low freeboard was desirable as there was less likelihood of a shot hitting the boat. The idea of protecting a large iron-clad with wire nets he did not think at all possible for many reasons. It would reduce the speed of ships of the Devastation class by five or six knots an hour, and the Whitehead torpedo was fitted with sharp "guides" which would go clean through a half-inch wire netting. A spar torpedo, moreover, could reach over the nets and have full effect upon the vessel. The next point to which he wished to draw attention was equally important—namely, the want of an organized system in connection with our defensive coast torpedoes. The defensive operations were in the hands of about four companies of Royal Engineers. Now, what he would like to see was not only a large body of seamen instructed in the matter, but also all our boatmen, Coastguard men, and pilots. Of course, the actual firing of the torpedoes must always be done by trained electricians, but the laying down and taking up of them was essentially a seaman's work. It required a knowledge of the way of handling boats, of tides, soundings, position by bearings, coiling clear, paying out cables, and making bends, &c. For all these things the Navy was particularly qualified, but they must have the practice also. He thought all our squadrons ought to be exercised in this matter, as in the event of a war, what would now take weeks to accomplish could be done in a few days if the Fleet had practice. He would give an instance that was suggested to him the other day. Supposing, that while our Fleet had been anchored in Besika Bay, circumstances had led to a combination of other European Nations against us, and that we had found it necessary to hold the entrance of the Dardanelles, and also to protect our own shores from invasion—if the Fleet had been trained in torpedo work, a few ship-loads of ground torpedoes would, by being laid down in a few days, have rendered the passage perfectly impassable, two or three ships would have been left to fire them as occasion offered by electricity, or keep off vessels or boats which would have tried to countermine them, and the rest of the large Fleet would have been free to act elsewhere. The Germans, the French, and, he believed, the Americans, had begun this work with a system of divided responsibility, but had found it did not answer at all; and now they had all got a regular naval torpedo corps worked by blue-jackets and naval officers. He thought it was most important that we should not only have a regular naval coast defence, but also that our squadrons should be drilled in the work of laying down and taking up torpedoes. If we went to war the Navy must be called in for this duty, and there were places we should have to defend abroad by means of torpedoes, particularly our coaling stations, so that it was necessary to familiarize the men and officers to the use of these weapons, so as to get rid of that sort of dread, of an undefined nature, which must occur to any one, with the knowledge of an unseen danger. The First Lord of the Admiralty had thoroughly recognized the importance of this new warfare, as was apparent from the increased expenditure he was going to propose for torpedoes and experiments—namely, £80, 000 for torpedoes and £4,000 for experiments. Nothing he had said would, he hoped, be construed into criticism in any way whatever; but he had thought it right to bring the matter into public notice, as it had so completely changed maritime war. They might manufacture guns and build enormously powerful ships, but ramming and torpedoes must be the warfare of the day, and they might depend upon it that in the next naval war, the nation that had the best torpedo management must win. The Navy felt very strongly on the subject, because the invention of this terrible engine of destruction which he had described had, as he had said, entirely changed and revolutionized naval warfare within the last 12 months. He had, therefore, thought it his duty to bring the question forward, and he should be pleased if, by calling attention to it, he strengthened the hands of the First Lord of the Admiralty.


wished to say a word or two because he thought it would be a poor compliment to allow the important speech of the noble and gallant Lord opposite (Lord Charles Beresford) to pass without notice. At the same time he did not propose to anticipate what he would have to say on this subject in Committee. There were good reasons, no doubt, why the initiation of a system of torpedo defence should be left to the Royal Engineers; but once the principles and the methods were settled, it became of the utmost importance that the conduct of the operations should pass into the hands of the Royal Navy. In illustrating the importance of the torpedo by a reference to Besika Bay, the noble and gallant Lord had only shown what might happen at any part of the world. If the Navy were uninstructed in the use of torpedoes—ground torpedoes in particular — they certainly would be at a great disadvantage in a time of war, and he therefore hoped the Admiralty would seriously consider whether the time had not come for giving that instruction. The use of torpedoes from the decks of vessels was a most important stride in naval warfare. It was in the highest degree creditable to the Admiralty that they had favoured the introduction of the torpedo and its use from the deck, and he was much surprised at the extent the system had been carried out in the case of the Alexandra, because they had now given to ships the power of launching the torpedo, not by means of a complicated underwater arrangement, but from the upper parts of the vessel. The House owed a debt of gratitude to the noble and gallant Lord for bringing the matter forward, which he had done in a very proper manner. There could be no doubt that whilst they had been devoting so much care to the armour plating of their ships, they had too much neglected under-water fire.