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Cowpe, E.
The Royal Navy and the Whitehead Torpedo
Technical change and British Naval policy 1860-1933
Ranft, B.
Hodder and Stoughton, London, 1997, pp. 23-36

Accession No.1083


"It is a curious irony that the Whitehead torpedo, the weapon which became the scourge of the Royal Navy and effectively paralysed British naval strategy in the First World War, was created by an Englishman. Robert Whitehead was an expatriate who managed an engineering factory in Fiume, and his torpedo, the brainchild of his partner, an Austrian called Johann Lupis, was developed over a number of years. By 1868 the prototype was ready, and it was natural that after Austria his adoptive country that Robert Whitehead should approach the largest and most influential navy in the world i.e. The Royal Navy.

The novel weapon posed considerable problems, for, failing as it did to fit into the normal pattern of naval weaponry, it necessitated decisions both about its employment by the Royal Navy and the steps necessary to counter the dangers it posed.

Only one man appears to have thought the matter through and considered the likely impact of the torpedo on naval warfare logically. In a memo dated September 1884 Captain W. H. Hall of the Foreign Intelligence Committee (the forerunner of the Naval Intelligence Department) investigated the likely course of a war with France. He assumed that a blockade would be instituted and concluded that 'torpedo boats constitute the chief danger to a blockading squadron…unless it is accompanied by an adequate number of torpedo vessels sufficient to protect the squadron.'

The invention of the locomotive torpedo had introduced a feature into naval warfare which rendered it madness for fleets to move in narrow waters or remain at anchor in exposed positions after nightfall when in the vicinity of torpedo flotilla organizations.

These inadequacies stemmed essentially from a tendency at all levels not to look beyond immediate issues and think problems through in any depth. At an operational level this was not unreasonable, for officers were concerned with the immediate problems of administration, and neither their training and education, nor their function and duties, disposed them to do much else. At board level, however, it was a noticeable failing, reflecting on the organization and workings of the higher echelons of naval administration. Initiatives here were almost entirely individual. Given the pressures of everyday administration, however, it was inevitable that only a limited amount of time could be spent on these longer-term considerations, and sources of support, ideas and information were equally limited. The Naval Intelligence Department was the only department with any function of analysis, but its conclusions invariably reflected the opinions and energies if the individual director and were seen as the conclusion rather than the starting-point of any discussion process.
In any event, these analyses never led to anything in the way of guidance to the fleet, where individual flag officers drew their own varied conclusions about the new and untried weapon."