Terrifying Torpedo Boats and Torpedo Boat Destroyers

US PT boats in Pacific

The confusion begins. These are Patrol Torpedo boats or “PT Boats” used by the US Navy mainly in the Pacific. In this instance, the photograph above from the US National Archives shows PT boats returning to base after operations off Leyte in December 1944. Note twin mounted .50 cal. machine guns.

The boats were made of plywood and while they look sturdy, they really weren’t. If someone volunteered to serve on a PT boat, then he was a brave man. There was very little armor on the boat, just a bit around the bridge. So when people were shooting at you, if there was anything between you and the bullets, then it was plywood. Plywood has many useful qualities but stopping bullets isn’t one of them.

RN  HM Torpedo boat 4   WW 1

British Royal Navy in World War One: HM Torpedo Boat 4

(photo courtesy Imperial War Museum)

HM Torpedo Boat No. 41 WW One

British Royal Navy in World War One: HM Torpedo Boat 41

(photo courtesy Imperial War Museum)

The two boats pictured above are Royal Navy torpedo boats in World War One. These small, coal-fired boats were of a type which terrified naval admirals. 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. A number of these boats were built and deployed by the major navies of the era. Admirals had nightmares of swarms of these small craft attacking their battleships and sinking them.

Large numbers of swarming boats operated by remote control are on the US Navy’s radar screen as a significant threat and I will write about this later.

Once a technology is introduced and people discover it can be used to construct a superior class of weapon, then it spreads quickly. The very useful Global Positioning System (GPS) was originally built for the US military. Theoretically, they can turn it off or so I have read. And,of course, the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA) invented the internet itself. The original intent of the internet was to allow decision makers to communicate in the event a nuclear blast interrupted normal channels of communications.

Given the way military technology spreads, once torpedo boats were introduced, a new class of small, fast warships had to be designed and built to defend capital ships from torpedo boats. In addition to being relatively small and swift, these new warships had to be heavily armed so they could sink a lot of torpedo boats and big enough to screen the heavy battle fleet from this fearful swarm.

 

BRITISH T.B. DESTROYER ZUBIAN WW1

British torpedo boat destroyer HMS Zubian

(photo courtesy Imperial War Museum)

Hence, the general class of ship built to counter torpedo boats was known as the “torpedo boat destroyer.” As time went on the Royal Navy, the French Navy, and other western navies including the US Navy dropped “torpedo boat” and simply called these ships “destroyers.” (In World War Two even smaller ships of this type were built which the US Navy named “destroyer escorts” and the Royal Navy, bringing a term out of mothballs, called them “frigates.”)

To the everlasting confusion of naval historians as well as those who enjoy reading naval history, after World War One, the German Navy dropped the word “destroyer” and kept the words “torpedo boat.” Thus smaller German destroyers came to be referred to as “torpedo boats.”

 

german torpedo boat destroyer ww1

 German torpedo boat destroyer in the Heligoland Harbour during World War One. (Official German Navy photograph from the collection of the Imperial War Museum).

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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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