Chapter 6

My wife met me at Plymouth and I went on to London, reported myself at the Admiralty, and the First Sea Lord (Admiral Sir Astley Cooper-Key) said he thought I would have gone as second in command of the Cape Flagship, in place of Commander Romilly who had been killed. However, Admiral Richards, Commander-in-Chief, Cape Station, selected another Commander, and Sir Astley Cooper-Key said that I must now go as second in command of a battleship. This was just what I wanted, and he told me the Monarch was to be commissioned by Captain Fairfax in three months, and not to accept an offer I had had from another Captain. Apparently he forgot all about it, because in the end he appointed Commander Hammil to the Monarch, and that was the first and only time, I think, that I lost my temper with the First Sea Lord. I met Admiral Lyons in the Admiralty, who was just going off to the Pacific Station, and I asked him if he would take me, he said that he would have been very glad to have done so, but that he had already selected his Commander.

The First Sea Lord told me he was appointing me to the Polyphemus. She was a ship of 2,400 tons displacement, and should have been commanded by a post-captain, but Sir Astley Cooper-Key said he thought I was the only officer with sufficient knowledge of the Whitehead Torpedo and submerged tubes to command the ship. The Polyphemus was designed from an idea of Admiral of the Fleet Sir Provo Wallis, which was to have vessels specially built to ram with high speed, and low visibility; the submerged torpedo tubes, two on each broadside and one ahead; also many other experimental fittings’ were added.

In order to obtain the invisibility, the Polyphemus had to be very low in the water and thus had only 500 tons of buoyancy, but in case of any of the compartments being filled, twelve weights of 20 tons each were fitted inside a hollow keel; these weights could be dropped, if necessary, either mechanically or by hydraulic pressure. We had a bow and a stern rudder, and experimental boilers of the locomotive type. When at sea, the ship had to be completely closed down and the system of ventilation was experimental, both in supplying air and exhausting it; in fact she was a bunch of tricks from beginning to end, and although it was very interesting, she caused me a great deal of trouble and anxiety.

H.M.S. Polyphemus
H.M.S. Polyphemus

First of all the locomotive boilers went wrong and then the submerged tubes. The boilers had eventually to be replaced, and the trials of the submerged tubes went on for a very long time. A committee was formed to carry out the experiments. The first experimental broadside submerged tube was fitted in the Acheron, an old wooden ship. In order to keep the torpedo straight in line with the tube, until the tail of the torpedo was clear of the outer end of the tube, a half shield, about 8 ft. long, was fitted outside in line with the tube, and a “T” bracket secured on to the torpedo, which ran in a guide on the inside of the shield; the bracket cleared the outer end of the shield when the tail of the torpedo was clear of the tube. The shield was a half circle, and perforated with a lot of holes to allow the water to have free access to the torpedo when the ship was moving. When the submerged tubes of the Polyphemus were designed, it was thought that the shield was not necessary, and a plain bar was fitted with the groove for carrying the bracket of the torpedo, which slipped out of the bar as soon as the tail was clear of the ship.

The bar having to be put out before firing, the torpedo set up vibrations, and the movement of the bar at the end (about 8 ft. from the ship’s side), at a high speed, was as much as 1 inch; the torpedo on being forced out by compressed air, also set up vibrations of the torpedo and the bar did not synchronize, consequently, the bracket of the torpedo was broken before the tail got clear of the ship’s side, and the torpedo was much damaged.

Two other designs were tried. One of these, proposed by a Mr. Philip Watts (who was afterwards Director of Naval Construction), was fitted in H.M.S. Mersey for trial; an embrasure port was built, the outer part of the tube being 3 or 4 ft. inside from the ship’s side, and the theory was that the water in this embrasure would be quite still, but such was not the case. We discharged two torpedoes from it, with the ship going about twelve knots, and one torpedo broke up into two pieces and the other into three.

Then another design was tried, which was mine, the idea was to push the bar and the torpedo out together and then release the torpedo and cushion the bar. We had quite good results with it, but the experiments with the original design, as altered, were going so well that the committee decided to adhere to it; and that is practically what we use in our ships at the present time. The experiments gave me a great deal of anxious work we were constantly under way and at sea. There was also a good deal of designing to be done, and almost all the arrangements at present in use throughout the Navy for opening, closing, and locking the tubes are of my design.

  • Go To Chapter 5. Chapter 7.