Just as aircraft carriers and cruisers of the second half of the 20th century are threatened by small, missile-firing craft, so the giant capital ships of the world’s navies at the beginning of the century faced a deadly enemy in the form of small, fast, nimble torpedo boats.
Most European navies had some type of motor torpedo boat (MTB) by the outbreak of war on July 29, 1914, but it was the Italian navy, with the Adriatic Sea as a proving ground, that did the most to advance the design and tactics of this formidable weapon system.
The idea of small, mobile boats carrying torpedoes goes back to 1864, when a retired Italian army officer, Capitano Giovanni Luppis, developed a small ‘mobile spar torpedo’ or explosive charge that could be steered by two wires. It was a great improvement over the spar torpedo that was used in the American Civil War, which had the great drawback of usually destroying the attacker as well as the attacked.
A British engineer, Robert Whitehead, was so impressed by Luppis’ invention that he worked on the design and came up with ‘an automobile torpedo’ that could be detonated below a ship’s waterline. The Whitehead torpedo was further refined, and, in 1877, British boatbuilder John Thornycroft adapted it to his fast steam launches. The first boat of that design was accepted by the Royal Navy as HMS Lightning, the first seagoing vessel to be armed with an explosive cylinder driven by a compressed air engine. Lightning was still no more than a steam launch–fast by the standards of the day, but still not a very effective weapon. In 1900, however, a boat with a gasoline engine won the International Motor Boat Show Race in Paris.
Naval weapons experts were impressed with the idea of marrying the design of those fast gasoline-powered boats with some type of armament, such as an explosive torpedo. As a naval craft, however, the type had serious drawbacks. First, there was the thin steel hull, often too fragile to be much use in pounding seas. Then there was the gasoline-powered engine. To achieve the high speeds necessary to overtake massive–and very fast–capital ships, the boats’ engines had to run at maximum revolutions per minute. That meant that the engine often broke down and usually at the wrong time–like in the middle of a torpedo run. The already thin hull had to be kept narrow, for speed, and the boat’s silhouette had to be low, to make it hard to see at night.
Other small torpedo craft designs quickly followed Lightning‘s example, especially those of the British, French and German navies. In 1906, the Italian Fiat company built a multipurpose motorboat armed with a 47mm gun, two machine guns and two 14-inch torpedoes. Twin 80-hp gasoline engines drove the boat at 16 knots.
As the design improved, the use of MTBs began to be incorporated into strategic and tactical military planning. In March 1915, the Italian navy placed an order with the Societa Veneziana Automobili Navali (SVAN) for two 15-meter boats powered by gasoline engines and capable of 30 knots. Armament consisted of two 18-inch torpedoes launched over the stern. They were named Motorbarca Armata SVAN and numbered MAS.1 and MAS.2. The two boats were not great successes, however, and in November 1915, they were rearmed with guns and confined to submarine chasing.
Twenty more boats were ordered from SVAN, MAS.3 through MAS.22. Built with additional weight to compensate for the fragile hull, their speed dropped to 21 knots, and the method of firing torpedoes over the stern was found to be clumsy. Nevertheless, the Italian navy pushed ahead with plans to use them as an offensive weapon in the Adriatic Sea. Each MAS boat had a crew of eight, and MAS.5 and MAS.7 were the first of the group to be fitted with 14-inch torpedoes and dropping gear.
On the night of September 6, 1916, the two boats, escorted by some French destroyers, attacked Austrian shipping anchored near Durazzo (now called Dubrovnik) Harbor. Despite the noise from the roaring gasoline engines, the Austrians were taken by surprise, and the attack was a success. Both MAS boats escaped unharmed after sinking the 924-ton steamer Lokrum. A few weeks later, the MAS boats, this time escorted by Italian destroyers, sank the steamer Sarajevo (1,100 tons).
To solve noise problems reported in the early MAS boats, electric motors were fitted to MAS.20 and MAS.21, and on November 1, MAS.20 was launched on a daring attack against an Austrian battleship lying at anchor in the port of Pola (now called Pula) on Cape Kamenjak, south of Trieste. Finding a gap in the net guarding the approaches to the battleship, the tiny torpedo boat slipped inside and advanced toward the anchorage. But the battleship had left, and the boat spent two hours looking for the giant ship without success. With daylight approaching, the crew members of MAS.20 consoled themselves by sinking the old harbor defense ship Mars before slipping away.
The MAS boats scored the first major success for torpedo boats on the night of December 9, 1917. The two old Austro-Hungarian battleships Wien and Budapest had been bombarding Italian shore positions when MAS.9 and MAS.13, under the command of Commander Luigi Rizzo, crept into the Trieste roadstead where the two capital ships were anchored. This time everything went perfectly. Both MAS boats got within 200 meters of the Austrian ships without being detected, after using hydraulic shears to cut through three protective 21Ž2-inch hawsers. Maneuvering into position, MAS.9 fired two torpedoes. Both hit Wien amidships, and in a few minutes the old battleship rolled over and sank. Although MAS.13‘s torpedoes missed their target, both Italian boats were able to escape unseen.
By then, the MAS crews had perfected their operations. Two or three boats would be towed by larger boats and destroyers to the starting point, thereby saving fuel and avoiding premature engine breakdowns. The destroyers could also provide covering fire and smoke to aid in the getaway.
Convinced of the value of MAS boats, the Italian navy launched into a program to build literally hundreds, and by the end of the war would have over 400 of them.
In January 1917, Orlando of Liverno produced an interchangeable motor torpedo boat/gunboat. MAS.91 could be armed either with two 18-inch torpedoes or a 47mm quick-firing gun. Most important, speed was increased to 27 knots.
The MAS.204217 series was capable of conversion from a torpedo boat to a gunboat with the addition of a 57mm gun, and in 1918 the Italian navy acquired the Baglietto-built ‘D’ type MAS.397400 series boats, which were 28-knot strike craft of formidable capability.
It was two of the older designs, however, that gave the MAS boats their finest hour. In the spring of 1918, the new Austro-Hungarian naval chief, Admiral Miklos Horthy, conceived a daring plan to transfer two mighty Austrian dreadnoughts, Szent István and Tegetthoff, escorted by seven destroyers, to the lower Adriatic. There, the fleet would force its way through the Allied minefields across the Strait of Otranto and sail out into the Mediterranean, where it would catch Allied ships by surprise.
On June 9, the Austro-Hungarian fleet set out. The next day, just after dawn, the dreadnoughts were seen by two MAS boats, 15 and 21, again commanded by the indomitable Luigi Rizzo. As the Austrian ships neared Premuda Island, the two MAS boats roared into attack, cut through the Austrian destroyer screen and fired a salvo of torpedoes. The torpedoes missed Tegetthoff, first in line, but two of those fired by MAS.15 struck Szent István, which listed to starboard. Her smaller consorts made frantic efforts to take her in tow, but after a 21Ž2 -hour struggle, the ship capsized. Hundreds of sailors scrambled over the keel, providing one of the most dramatic scenes — captured on motion picture film–of World War I. Incredibly, only 89 lives were lost on the Austro-Hungarian ship.
The two MAS boats got clean away. The disaster forced the Austrians to give up all hope of mastery of the Adriatic Sea.
Four months later, another raid was planned against the port of Pola. The old Italian battleship Re Umberto would push a large raft equipped with net cutters and paravanes through the nets and minefields guarding the port. As many as 40 MAS boats would then sweep in and strike at will at the assembled Austro-Hungarian ships. But it was October 1918; the Hapsburg Empire was in chaos, with mutinies rending its navy. Nothing came of the plan to attack Pola.
By the end of World War I, thanks to the pioneering work of the Italian navy, most developed nations considered small attack craft–whether armed with torpedoes or guns–an important part of their fleets. The Italians went on to develop 4750-knot MAS boats in the 1930s, which were formidable opponents of the Allied navies in the Mediterranean during World War II.
The Austrians themselves designed an air-cushion hydroplane back in 1915, a craft way ahead of its time. Armed with 18-inch torpedoes and able to achieve 32 knots, it would have been an impressive weapon but for shortsighted senior naval officers who decided it had no use.
The British Thornycroft models continued to be improved until the Royal Navy was operating coastal motor boats (CMBs) at speeds of over 30 knots. Boats of that type operated in the Baltic against the Bolsheviks during the Russian Civil War, in 191920. CMBs were also the forerunners of the Royal Navy’s efficient motor torpedo boats (MTBs) of World War II. The Germans, meanwhile, striving to beat the restrictions of the Treaty of Versailles, launched a number of Schnellboote–the deadly E-boats, as they were known to the Allies during World War II. The U.S. Navy, with its need for larger vessels able to show the flag across the oceans, had been slow to introduce small torpedo boats, but as World War II approached, it quickly made up for its initial neglect by purchasing 23 70-foot boats of a new British design in 1937. Those fast, powerful patrol torpedo (PT) boats were soon to make a name for themselves from New Caledonia to Sicily.
Today, most advanced navies have small craft, often hydrofoils, powered by gas turbines and efficient diesels and armed with a variety of wire-guided torpedoes and missiles. All are the direct descendants of those noisy, gasoline-powered, fragile boats that roared into action against the mighty battleships of the Austro-Hungarian Empire more than 75 years ago.
This article was written by Barry Taylor and originally published in the April 1996 issue of Military History magazine.
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