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The aerial torpedo, airborne torpedo or air-dropped torpedo is a naval weapon, the torpedo, designed to be dropped into water from an aircraft (fixed-wing aircraft or helicopter) after which it propels itself to the target. First used in World War I, air-dropped torpedoes were used extensively in World War II, and remain in limited use today. Aerial torpedoes are generally smaller and lighter in weight than submarine- and surface-launched torpedoes.

Historically, the term "aerial torpedo" was used to describe flying bombs and pilotless drone aircraft intended as weapons, the precursor to modern cruise missiles. Today, the term refers primarily to water-borne torpedoes launched from the air.

Tactics and usage

The idea of dropping lightweight torpedoes from aircraft was conceived in the early 1910s by Bradley A. Fiske, an officer in the United States Navy. Awarded a patent in 1912,
Fiske worked out the mechanics of carrying and releasing the torpedo from a bomber, and defined tactics that included a night-time approach so that the target ship would be less able to defend itself. Fiske determined that the notional torpedo bomber should descend rapidly in a sharp spiral to evade enemy guns, then when about   above the water the aircraft would straighten its flight long enough to line up with the torpedo's intended path. The aircraft would release the torpedo at a distance of   from the target. Fiske reported in 1915 that, using this method, enemy fleets could be attacked within their own harbors if there were enough room for the torpedo track.

World War I

In July 1914, the first British aerial torpedo was dropped in trials performed in a Short "Folder" by Lieutenant (later Air Chief Marshall Sir) Arthur Longmore. In November 1914, Germans were reportedly experimenting at Lake Constancemarker with the tactic of dropping torpedoes from a Zeppelin. In December 1914, Squadron Commander Cecil L'Estrange Malone commented following his participation in the Cuxhaven Raid that "One can well imagine what might have been done had our seaplanes, or those which were sent out to attack us, carried torpedoes or light guns."

On August 12, 1915, a Short Type 184 piloted by Flight Commander Charles H. K. Edmonds from operating in the Aegean Seamarker took off with a 14-inch diameter, torpedo to fly over land and sink a Turkish supply ship in the Sea of Marmaramarker. Five days later, a Turkish steamship was sunk by a torpedo aimed again by Edmonds. His formation mate Flight Lieutenant G. B. Dacre sank a Turkish tugboat after being forced to land on the water with engine trouble. Dacre taxied toward the tugboat, released his torpedo and was then able to take off and return to Ben-My-Chree. A limitation to using the Short more widely as a torpedo bomber was that it could only take off carrying a torpedo in conditions of perfect flying weather and calm seas, and, with that load, could only fly for a little more than 45 minutes before running out of fuel.

On May 1, 1917 a German seaplane loosed a torpedo and sank the British steamship Gena off Suffolk. A second German seaplane was downed by gunfire from the sinking Gena. German torpedo bomber squadrons were subsequently assembled at Ostendmarker and Zeebruggemarker for further action in the North Seamarker. Later in 1917, the U.S. Navy began to perform trials using a dummy torpedo which, in its first air drop, porpoised from the water back up in the air and almost hit the aircraft. Several British torpedo bombers were built, including the Sopwith Cuckoo, the Short Shirl and the Blackburn Blackburd, but a squadron was assembled so late in the war that it achieved no successes.

Interwar years

The United States bought its first 10 torpedo bombers in 1921, variants of the Martin MB-1. The squadron of U.S. Navy and Marine fliers was based at Naval Weapons Station Yorktownmarker. General Billy Mitchell suggested arming the torpedo bombers with live warheads as part of Project B (the anti-ship bombing demonstration) but the Navy was only curious about aerial bomb damage effects. Instead, a trial using dummy heads on the torpedoes was carried out against a foursome of battleships steaming at 17 knots. The torpedo bombers scored well.

In 1931, the Japanese Navy developed the Type 91 torpedo, intended to be dropped by a torpedo bomber from a height of and a speed of . In 1936, the torpedo was given wooden attachments to the tail to increase its aerodynamic qualities—these attachments were shed upon hitting the water. By 1937, with the addition of a breakaway wooden damper at the nose, the torpedo could be dropped from and a speed of . Tactical doctrine determined in 1938 that the Type 91 aerial torpedo should be released at a distance of from the target. As well, the Japanese Navy developed night attack and massed day attack doctrine, and coordinated aerial torpedo attacks between land- and carrier-based torpedo bombers.

The Japanese divided their bomber squadrons into two groups so as to attack an enemy battleship from both frontal quarters and make it extremely unlikely for it to be able to avoid the torpedoes by maneuvering, and more difficult for it to direct anti-aircraft fire at the bombers. Even so, Japanese tactical experts predicted that, against a battleship, the attacking force would be able to score hits at a rate of only one-third that observed during peacetime exercises.

Beginning in 1925, the United States began designing a special torpedo for purely aerial operations. The project was discontinued and revived several times, and finally resulted in the Mark 13 torpedo which went into service in 1935. The Mark 13 differed from aerial torpedoes used by other nations in that it was fat and short rather than long and thin. It was slower than its competitors but it had longer range. The weapon was released by an aircraft traveling lower and slower ( high, ) than its Japanese contemporary.

World War II

On the night of November 11–12, 1940, Swordfish biplane torpedo bombers of the British Fleet Air Arm sank three Italian battleships at the Battle of Tarantomarker using a combination of torpedoes and bombs. A torpedo from a British torpedo bomber damaged the rudder of the German battleship Bismarckmarker allowing the British fleet to catch her. The standard British airborne torpedo for the first half of World War II was the Mark XII, an 18-inch diameter model weighing with an explosive charge of of trinitrotoluene (TNT).

German aerial torpedo development lagged behind other belligerents—a continuation of neglect of the category during the 1930s. At the beginning of World War II, Germany was making only five aerial torpedoes per month, and half were failing in air-drop exercises. Instead, Italian aerial torpedoes made by Fiumemarker were purchased, with 1,000 eventually delivered.

In August 1941, Japanese aviators were practicing dropping torpedoes in the shallow waters of Kagoshima Bay, testing improvements in the Type 91 torpedo and developing tactics for the attack of ships in harbor. They discovered that the Nakajima B5N torpedo bomber could fly , faster than expected, without the torpedoes striking the bottom of the bay down. On December 7, 1941, the leading wave—40 B5N torpedo bombers—used the tactic to score more than 15 hits during the attack on Pearl Harbormarker.

In April 1942, Adolf Hitler made the production of aerial torpedoes a German priority, and the Luftwaffe took the task over from the Kriegsmarine. The quantity of available aerial torpedoes outstripped usage within a year, and an excess of aerial torpedoes were on hand at the end of the war. From 1942 to late 1944, about 4000 aerial torpedoes were used, but some 10,000 were manufactured during the whole war. Torpedo bombers were modified Heinkel He 111 and Junkers Ju 88 aircraft, but the Focke-Wulf Fw 190 fighter aircraft was successfully tested as a delivery system.

The Mark 13 torpedo was the main American aerial torpedo, yet it was not perfected until after 1943 when tests showed that it performed satisfactorily in only 33 of 105 drops made from aircraft traveling faster than . Like the Japanese Type 91, the Mark 13 was subsequently fitted with a wooden nose covering and a wooden tail ring, both of which sheared off when it struck the water. The wooden shrouds slowed it and helped it retain its targeting direction through the duration of the air drop. The nose covering absorbed enough of the kinetic energy from the torpedo hitting the water that recommended aircraft height and speed were greatly increased to high at .

In 1941, development began in the United States on the FIDO, an electric-powered air-dropped acoustic homing torpedo intended for anti-submarine use. In the United Kingdom, the standard airborne torpedo was strengthened for higher aircraft speeds to become the the Mark XV, followed by the Mark XVII. For carrier aircraft, the explosive charge remained of TNT until later in the war when it was increased to of the more powerful Torpex.

During World War II, U.S. carrier-based torpedo bombers made 1,287 attacks against ships, 65% against warships, and scored hits 40% of the time. However, the low, slow approach required for torpedo bombing made the bombers easy targets for defended ships; during the Battle of Midwaymarker, for example, virtually all of the American torpedo bombers were shot down.

Korean War

After World War II, anti-aircraft defenses were sufficiently improved to render aerial torpedo attacks suicidal. Lightweight aerial torpedoes were disposed or adapted to small attack boat usage. The only significant employment of aerial torpedoes was in anti-submarine warfare.

During the Korean War the United States Navy successfully attacked a dam with torpedoes launched from airplanes.

Modern weapons

See also


  1. Hughes, 2000, p. 162.
  2. aerial torpedo. Retrieved on September 24, 2009.
  3. Hughes, Thomas Parke. American genesis: a century of invention and technological enthusiasm, 1870–1970, p. 127. University of Chicago Press, 2004. ISBN 0226359271
  4. Hopkins, Albert Allis. The Scientific American War Book: The Mechanism and Technique of War, Chapter XLV: Aerial Torpedoes and Torpedo Mines. Munn & Company, Incorporated, 1915
  5. Hart, Albert Bushnell. Harper's pictorial library of the world war, Volume 4. Harper, 1920, p. 335.
  6. The New York Times, July 23, 1915. "Torpedo Boat That Flies. Admiral Fiske Invents a Craft to Attack Fleets in Harbors" Retrieved on September 29, 2009.
  7. Military. TB Torpedo Bomber. T Torpedo and bombing. Retrieved on September 29, 2009.
  8. The Stansead Journal, February 14, 1915. "Now Aerial Torpedo: Deadly Weapon Offered Navy Department." Retrieved on September 29, 2009.
  9. Gardiner, Ian. The Flatpack Bombers: The Royal Navy and the Zeppelin Menace, Pen and Sword, 2009. ISBN 1848840713
  10. Hart, Albert Bushnell. Harper's pictorial library of the world war, Volume 4. Harper, 1920, p. 335.
  11. Spaight, J. M. Air Power in the Next War, pp. 25–27. London, Geoffrey Bles, 1938.
  12. Johnson, Vice Admiral Alfred W., Retired. (1959) The Naval Bombing Experiments, Off the Virginia Capes, June and July 1921. Navy Department Library.
  13. Peattie, 2007, pp. 143–144.
  14. United States of America: Torpedoes of World War II. 22.4" (56.9 cm) Mark 13. Retrieved on September 29, 2009.
  15. Campbell, 2002, p. 87.
  16. Campbell, 2002, pp. 260–262.
  17. Blair, Clay, Jr., Silent Victory: The U.S. Submarine War Against Japan. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott, 1975, p.238.
  18. Zabecki, David T. World War II in Europe: an encyclopedia, Part 740, Volume 2, p. 1123. Taylor & Francis, 1998. ISBN 0824070291
  • Blair, Clay. Silent Victory. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1975.
  • Campbell, N. J. M.; John Campbell. Naval Weapons of World War Two. Naval Institute Press, 1986. ISBN 0-87021-459-4
  • Emmott, Norman W. "Airborne Torpedoes". United States Naval Institute Proceedings, August 1977.
  • Hughes, Wayne P. Fleet Tactics and Coastal Combat, Volume 167. Naval Institute Press, 2000. ISBN 1557503923
  • Milford, Frederick J. "U.S. Navy Torpedoes: Part One—Torpedoes through the Thirties". The Submarine Review, April 1996. (quarterly publication of the Naval Submarine League, P.O. Box 1146, Annandale, VA 22003)
  • Milford, Frederick J. "U.S. Navy Torpedoes: Part Two—The Great Torpedo Scandal, 1941-43". The Submarine Review, October 1996.
  • Milford, Frederick J. "U.S. Navy Torpedoes: Part Three—WW II development of conventional torpedoes 1940–1946". The Submarine Review, January 1997.
  • Peattie, Mark R. Sunburst: The Rise of Japanese Naval Air Power, 1909–1941, Naval Institute Press, 2007. ISBN 159114664X
  • Thiele, Harold. Luftwaffe aerial torpedo aircraft & operations in World War Two. Hikoki, 2005. ISBN 1902109422

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