An Alphabet Soup of Confusion: Torpedo Craft in World War Two (Part 1 of 2)

PT Boats, MTBs, E-Boats, S-Boots, Torpedo boats all blend together as generic terms for a type of small, fast torpedo boat. US Navy Patrol Torpedo boats were only deployed in the Pacific and never used in the European Theater of Operations but the image of the PT boat often sticks in our minds as the image of any other fast torpedo craft.

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USS PT-105 running at high speed, during exercises off the U.S. East Coast with other units of Motor Torpedo Boat Squadron Five, 12 July 1942

In the decades prior to the First World War, inventors were able to make turbine engines small enough and reliable enough to fit into small boats. This enabled these boats to obtain speeds of 30 plus knots. This was much faster than most warships of the era. These boats were armed with torpedoes and lots of them were built – or plans were made to build lots of them. Admirals had nightmares of swarms of these small craft attacking their battleships and sinking them.

 

 

So a class of ships had to be designed to counter torpedo boats. These ships had to be as fast or faster than the torpedo boats, heavily armed so they could sink a lot of torpedo boats and big enough to screen the heavy battle fleet from this fearful swarm.

The type of ship built to counter the torpedo boats was known as the “torpedo boat destroyer.” As time went on, the Royal Navy and US Navy simply called these ships “destroyers.” The Germans dropped the word “destroyers” and their smaller destroyers were known as “Torpedo Boats” and named T-1, T-2, etc. or given names, particularly if they had been captured from the enemy. So in the nomenclature of the Kriegsmarine, a Torpedo boat was actually a small ship, similar in size and function to a Royal Navy frigate or American destroyer escort of the era.

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Former T35 as DD 935 in US seas, August 1945

Before World War Two, the Germans built a number of ruggedly constructed, very large, and very fast torpedo craft which could make speeds between 32 and 38 knots. At least five different classes were constructed, most of them equipped with very reliable engines from Daimler Benz. Each was armed with two torpedoes and two spares to reload if possible. The Germans called these “S-Boots” for “Schnell Boots” which simply translates as “fast boats.”

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The American version of the S-Boot was the PT boat and the British version the S-boot was the MTB, or motor torpedo boat. Neither were as large as the German S-Boot. After the fall of France in June of 1940, the Germans seized all French Channel ports and assigned S-Boots to most of the ports. Most nights from then till the Normandy invasion, the British and the Germans fought it out in the English Channel. The British called the German S-Boots they fought – “E-Boats” for “enemy boats.” When reading naval history about World War Two in Europe, one will often see these terms and it is well to know that an “E-Boat” and an “S-Boat” are the same thing. I have a book about S-Boots titled The E-Boat Threat (2 stars because its outdated).

For a good summation of the S-Boots, I recommend German E-Boats 1939-45 by Gordon Williamson (3 stars). I realize this is confusing. The author is English and the publisher, Osprey, which publishes a number of very good short books on highly specific subjects of WW II, is also English. What is amusing is that the author says that E-Boat has come to be used by most historians as the standard term to refer to an “S-Boot” while I think it’s the opposite. Not to worry, the book was published in 2002 and is up to date and worth the read. The book is 48 pages and you can probably find a used one for cheap.

Another good book on this subject is German S-Boats In Action In The Second World War by Hans Frank (3 stars). The book is a translation of the original book in German which was published in 2006 in Germany. The author, Hans Frank served in the German Navy from 1961 to 1999 and eventually commanded the entire S-Boot flotilla of the German Navy.

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Charles McCain

Charles McCain is a Washington DC based freelance journalist and novelist. He is the author of "An Honorable German," a World War Two naval epic. You can read more of his work on his website: http://charlesmccain.com/

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