Sub Corner 27: the Torpedo Scandal of 1941-1943

YOU WERE EXPECTING TAUTOG? IT IS I, DOLPHIN!

OKAY TADPOLES LISTEN UP! WE’RE PRETTY DAMN PRO-AMERICA HERE. BUT IT DOESN’T MEAN THAT WE HAVE TO BLINDLY SING HER PRAISES ALL THE TIME. THERE’S PLENTY OF TIMES WE’VE FKED UP AND FKED UP BAD.

SO K9 ASKED ME TO TELL YOU ABOUT THE MARK FOURTEEN TORPEDO DEBACLE.  YOU GO ON THE INTERNET AND YOU’LL FIND WEEBS WHINING ABOUT AMERICAN TORPEDOES.

WELL, HERE’S THE OTHER HALF OF THE STORY. THEY WERE PRETTY BAD, BUT THEY GOT BETTER.

FOR THE RECORD, THE MARK FOURTEEN SERVED ALL THE WAY THROUGHOUT THE WAR AND THEN SOME, BEING RETIRED ONLY IN THE EIGHTIES. FOR A “BAD” TORPEDO IT SURE HAD A LONG AND FULFILLING SERVICE LIFE!

Also, for readability purposes, I’m gonna drop the caps for the rest of this piece.

Now. This here. Standard issue American torpedo, Mark Fourteen. Carries a five-hundred pound warhead. Can be fired at two speeds. At high speed it goes up to forty-six knots for four thousand five hundred yards. At low speed, it goes thirty one and a half knots, for nine thousand yards.

You see where it says “”exploder mechanism?” That there is a secret MAGNETIC EXPLODER.

(Tautog’s note: It’s actually called the Type 6 Detonator)

Can it girl I’m talking! I say it’s a SECRET magnetic explorer and that’s what it’ll be in this piece. Now. Secret magnetic exploder is designed to explode under a ship.

When said explosion happens, BAM! It breaks the ship’s back. This was supposed to be the Navy’s secret weapon. It was gonna give us a big edge over the bad guys, because we were pretty sure that this will do a lot more damage than the torpedoes we’ve had.

Turns out, that didn’t happen in the early parts of the war! In general, most historians now realize there were at least three big problems with American torpedoes.

One, they ran too deep. The depth control wasn’t properly calibrated.

Two, the secret magnetic exploder didn’t work.

Three, the actual contact exploder didn’t work well either.

Let me back up and tell you what happened. The blame lies squarely with bureaucratic incompetence. You’d think that with such an important weapon, SOMEONE, somewhere, would have thought, LET’S test this damn thing properly before we give it to our submarines, right?

Never happened.

Here’s what the deal is. Unlike a car or a plane, the torpedo was a very intricate weapon. At the time, the torpedoes were built almost entirely by hand, with many intricate parts that were secret or classified. During the Great Depression, Congress was in no mood to allow the Navy to run proper tests.

When a batch of ten secret exploders went for THIRTY THOUSAND dollars, you’d think that you would have them tested properly BECAUSE they were so expensive. However, as it turned out, it wasn’t the case.

In 1923, Congress granted a monopoly to NTS Newport. For many years they were the only designer, developer, builder, and tester of all American torpedoes. There were no other group, competitors or otherwise, assigned to verify any of their results.

Were the torpedoes tested? Yes. They were shot at the Indianapolis a few hundred times WITHOUT a warhead. This resulted in a lighter head than actual warheads, the result of which meant that the torpedoes ran too deep. It’s the source of that first issue.

(Tautog’s Note: In order to fix this, submarine crews would set the Torpedoes to the shallowest setting and would aim to hit ships at an angle, softening the blow on the contact exploders somewhat.

HEY! IS THIS MY SPOTLIGHT OR YOURS?

…Sorry!)

Now, if you go to wikipedia or just google the topic, you’ll find that most people say that “inexplicably,” “puzzlingly” or “for reasons unknown” NO LIVE FIRE TRIALS were ever conducted using torpedoes housing the secret magnetic exploder prior to the war.

Bah! The reason is obvious. It’s politics. NTS was under the authority of the powerful Bureau of Ordinance. How powerful was the “BuOrd?”

Put it this way. Admiral King, Commander in Chief, U.S. Fleet. Chief of Naval Operations. The highest ranking naval officer in all of America.

No direct authority over BuOrd.

Getting the picture yet? BuOrd was so powerful that most naval officers had to chum up with it. Its prestige was extraordinary, and most would have to think very carefully about speaking up or criticizing it – especially when it seems to be creating success after success.

So, when the officer in charge of torpedo testing asked for a live fire test target, the Navy agreed under one condition. If a loaded warhead was to “accidentally” be fired at the derelict hulk that was given to be tested, NTS Newport was responsible for the funds needed to raise, repair, and restore that hulk.

Now scroll up and look and remember this is the time where Congress was so stingy with money that they wouldn’t even assign proper tests for a torpedo. Where the hell is Newport supposed to come up with the money for live repairs?

The test was canned. Newport couldn’t pay. The secret magnetic exploder was never tested live. The officer in charge of testing became convinced that the non-live fire tests were reliable enough and spent the latter half of his career obstructing investigations into the matter. I only wonder what made him change his tune.


 

Let’s fast forward a few years. World War II. The Silent Service was out there against Japan. The torpedoes didn’t work. They ran too deep. They exploded prematurely. They didn’t detonate. The submariners lodge a complaint.

BuOrd’s response? No way. The torpedoes worked fine. It must be your own incompetence. You aren’t using the torpedoes correctly. You just have to learn to use it properly.

Everyone on the battlefield knew this was bullsh*t, but the complaints went on deaf ears. The reason? BuOrd did their own tests. Of course they did. They were more interested in covering their own asses than to seriously consider potential flaws in the weapons they sent our submariners to war with.

“If the Bureau of Ordnance can’t provide us with torpedoes that will hit and explode, then for God’s sake, get the Bureau of Ships to design a boat hook with which we can rip the plates off a target’s side!”

What would happen next would become a back-and-forth between BuOrd and Admiral Charles Lockwood. It became heated. The stakes were high. In every sense of the word, it was a scandal brewing.

Spoilers: Lockwood won. The torpedoes got fixed in 1943.

The number of sinkings skyrocketed after that.

 

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