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It seems WWI and inter-war ship designers went a bit torpedo mad, both in their fear of them and in their use, finally coming to their senses in the harsh realities of WWII. I've seen many examples of capital ships using extensive space and machinery to mount multiple torpedo tubes. Given the long range of their guns (20,000m and up) compared to the short range of the torpedo (an optimistic 5,000m), this doesn't seem to make sense.

Did a torpedo fired from a capital ship (which I'm defining as a heavy cruiser, battlecruiser or battleship) ever hit anything? How many were ever fired in anger? Was it all just a costly boondoggle?

Some examples actually built...

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    Only largeish ship I could find documented to have actually even used (self-propelled) torpedoes in action is the HMS Shah. The intended target outran them. :-)
    – T.E.D.
    Jan 5, 2015 at 22:22
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    The Japanese type 93 "Long Lance" Torpedo had a range of up to 40,000m @ 36 kts, half that at 48 knots.
    – Oldcat
    Jan 5, 2015 at 22:29
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    That incident I think illustrates what was going on well. There was a time right after the introduction of ironclads where they were nearly impenetrable to canon fire, and torpedo attacks against their (less armored) underside was a promising counter-measure. Raising the power of the main guns turned out to be the winning idea there for capital ships, but both approaches were developed on frigates, and it had to be proven in action before the lesser idea was abandoned completely.
    – T.E.D.
    Jan 5, 2015 at 22:36
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    Even late in WWII, it was extremely hard to sink a major vessel with gunfire. You could wreck it, destroy its guns, kill its crew but it would sit there like a cork until you blew a hole in the bottom with a torpedo. With the awful firing mechanisms of early US torpedoes, this caused some embarrassing failures where they failed to scuttle their own dying ships and had to wait for a Japanese torpedo to do it for them.
    – Oldcat
    Jan 5, 2015 at 22:51
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    @JamesRyan A smaller ship with smaller guns won't survive a long range gunnery duel with a capital ship. They don't have a lot of choice but to close and use their torpedoes. The smaller ship has the great advantage of a smaller turning circle and better acceleration to dodge torpedoes and shells. The Battle off Samar and Battle of the River Plate both feature small ships desperately trying to close the range with capital ships that have torpedo tubes.
    – Schwern
    Jan 6, 2015 at 18:25

4 Answers 4

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In the Battle of Savo Island the Japanese cruisers repeatedly hit US and Australian ships with torpedoes. There was only 1 destroyer present versus 7 cruisers, and it is likely that most if not all of the torpedo hits that sunk 3 cruisers and led to another being scuttled were from the cruisers. Certainly the US Navy credited to them.

Also: The British heavy cruiser Dorsetshire is credited with torpedo hits on the German battleship Bismarck that provided the final damage that sunk the vessel.

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  • Excellent answer! I'll look into Japanese battles more. Torpedoes certainly were in the Japanese plan. '[Vice Admiral] Mikawa communicated the following battle plan to his warships: "On the rush-in we will go from S. (south) of Savo Island and torpedo the enemy main force in front of Guadalcanal anchorage; after which we will turn toward the Tulagi forward area to shell and torpedo the enemy."' Looks like many torpedoes were fired from Japanese cruisers (19 at HMAS Canberra alone). USS Quincy and USS Vincennes were hit and sunk. Canberra was probably the victim of friendly fire.
    – Schwern
    Jan 5, 2015 at 22:21
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    Yes - the Japanese are the force to look at for this. In the end, as gun ranges got larger and airplanes became more of a factor it became less likely that capital ships would be risked in a close action with torpedoes...but it did happen.
    – Oldcat
    Jan 5, 2015 at 22:25
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    @Oldcat - What it looked like when I was researching is that blasting away at things with the main guns was what capital ship captains felt was "their job". The smaller ships couldn't do that. If they hurt an opponent badly enough for it to be safely approached and dispatched with torpedoes, they'd leave that job to a lesser ship designed for it (destroyer or torpedo boat).
    – T.E.D.
    Jan 5, 2015 at 22:44
  • That fits Western ideas better than Japanese, and not so coincidentally the Japanese had a very superior torpedo to use which caused some painful losses early in WWII.
    – Oldcat
    Jan 5, 2015 at 22:47
  • @Oldcat - Perhaps that's why it was descriptions of the Japanese fighting that way that convinced me (see the link).
    – T.E.D.
    Jan 5, 2015 at 23:15
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In researching the HMS Dorsetshire I came across a reference to "The Ship That Sank Herself" which lead to an article on ships that torpedoed themselves which includes the British light cruiser HMS Trinidad.

HMS Trinidad was taking part in Arctic convoy duty in 1942 when she engaged the German destroyer Z-26. Although she sank the destroyer, one of the four torpedoes launched by Trinidad had a faulty gyro mechanism (possibly having been affected by the icy waters), causing that torpedo to make a circular run and strike the Trinidad. 32 men were killed.

It's not a capital ship under my definition, but I'm including it anyway because it's my question. :P

It also mentions a book I'll look into "Torpedo: The Complete History of the World's Most Revolutionary Weapon" whose title is a bit of forgivable hyperbole.

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    Lol. Upvoting because the question did say "anything". I guess theoretically an unlucky passing whale would count too.
    – T.E.D.
    Jan 6, 2015 at 3:18
  • Well torpedo propellers certainly do revolve a lot, so they are relatively revolutionary.
    – Dronz
    Jan 6, 2015 at 18:56
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The Rodney actually fired torpedoes at the Bismarck during their battle, but missed. The torpedoes carried by Rodney & Nelson (a very unusual class of BB - all 3 primary turrets were fore and none were aft, they were the first to be designed specifically for the Naval Treaty limitaations, and they were the last battleships to be armed with torpedoes at all) actually had a range of around 16,000 meters.

Most other examples will be Japanese. In addition to the aforementioned Savo Island, there is also the Battle of the Java Sea, where most of the torpedo damage was from the Japanese DDs & CLs while their 2 heavy cruisers used their 8 inch guns, but those 2 did launch a spread that sunk two Dutch light cruisers (including the Allied Admiral's flagship, killing Adm. Doorman) during the battle.

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    Here it is in page 230 (252 in the PDF) of "On His Majesty's Service", "Torpedo hit BISMARCK amidships starboard side." Also HMS Dorsetshire on 232. And later in a message from CnC, "The hits scored with your torpedoes must have much encouraged Bismarck's sinking feeling and I think it is the only case of effective use of torpedoes by a capital ship."
    – Schwern
    Jan 6, 2015 at 18:16
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US Cruisers used their Torpedos in many actions. Because they fought closer in ship to ship actions. Usually battleships were stationed for bombardment of beaches during landing operations.In a recent naval paper In fact, the US. Marine service as stated that unless the Navy comes up with a ship able to shell beaches the marines may not ever try another amphibious landing of a contested beach again as there are no ships that would be able to meet the requirements of artillery support of the Marines. Something to think about when the mission of the Marines is to put boots on the shore. We no longer have the ability to support that mission with current ships. One of the reasons that 2 of the Iowa class BB's were still on the Navy list until 2006!

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    Sources & citations would improve this answer. Could you reference the recent naval paper?
    – MCW
    Feb 4, 2016 at 9:39
  • I'm sure they did fire many torpedoes, the question is if they hit anything. If you have citations for a heavy cruiser (not a light cruiser) hitting something with a torpedo that would be great. The rest of the answer drifts away from the point (shore bombardment is about as far away from torpedoes as you can get) and should be edited out.
    – Schwern
    Feb 4, 2016 at 21:19

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