South African Military History 

P.O. BOX 12926


Our speaker on 14 September 2017 was Capt John Lamont LWM MMM (SAN Ret.), whose subject was a follow-on to his talk a couple of months ago on how submarines work. His topic on the 14th was submarine weapons. The principal weapon used by a submarine is the torpedo - self-propelled with an explosive warhead, launched above or below the surface, propelled underwater towards a target and designed to detonate either on contact with its target or in close proximity to it.

The weapon can be launched from a submarine or a surface vessel such as a torpedo boat, destroyer or cruiser. The idea of a torpedo existed many years before the weapon was successfully developed. In 1275AD a writer described an "egg which moves itself and burns". In 1626, Cornelius Drebbel, employed by King James 1 of England, unsuccessfully designed a spar torpedo attached to the front of a primitive submarine. "Torpedo" was also the name given to naval mines. An early submarine, the "Turtle", was used in an attempt to attach a bomb with a timed fuse to the hull of HMS Eagle during the American Revolutionary War, but failed.

In 1807, the American Robert Fulton, had the idea of floating mines under ships, using submarine boats to do this. The idea was demonstrated to the French, Dutch and British but no one was interested. During the War of 1812, he used "torpedoes" or floating mines in attempts to destroy British ships but not successfully. During the American Civil War, contact mines which floated on or under the surface were used to sink ships. Spar torpedoes were also used with some success. Admiral David Farragut's famous command during the Battle of Mobile Bay in 1864 "damn the torpedoes - full speed ahead", referred to a mine field laid in the bay.

In 1866 the British engineer Robert Whitehead invented the first effective self-propelled torpedo. The French and Germans followed closely and the term "torpedo" came to describe self-propelled projectiles that travelled on or under water. By 1900, navies had added submarines, torpedo boats and torpedo boat destroyers to their fleets and mines and booby traps were excluded from the definition. Whitehead, who had moved to Croatia, worked with the Austrians and produced the first modern torpedo, powered by compressed air with a range of 1,000 metres. He opened factories in Fiume and in England and produced torpedoes which were exported to many countries. His design was improved up to 1914 and was supplied to navies all round the world.

The arrival of big gun battleships created a need for small, fast torpedo-carrying ships which could attack the heavy ship with torpedoes. The first of these was HMS Lightning, completed in 1877. There was a need for a guided torpedo and this was invented by Louis Brennan, an Australian, in 1877. It was guided using two steel wires. It was tested by the Royal Navy, which declared it to be unsuitable for shipboard use. The Army however took the torpedo into use in 1886 as a coast defence weapon and used it for some 15 years thereafter.

The first use of a torpedo in anger was fired by HMS Shah at the Peruvian Ironclad Huascar on 29 May 1877 but failed to hit its target. In 1878, the Turkish Intibah was sunk by a torpedo from the Russian Vilikiy Knyaz Konstantin during the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78. The Chilean frigate Blanco Encalada was sunk on 23 April 1891 by the gunboat Almirante Lynch during the Chilean Civil War. A Chinese turret ship was disabled by a torpedo fired by a Japanese torpedo boat in 1894, during the First Sino-Japanese War. These attacks were all at very close range and very dangerous to the attackers. The Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905 saw heavy use of torpedoes but the loss of only a few ships, the other losses being from gunfire, mines and scuttling.

Torpedoes were widely used during WWI, against shipping and submarines, by all of the combatants. During the inter-war years after 1918, funds were tight and nearly all navies skimped on testing torpedoes and developing new types. The exception to this was the Japanese, who entered WWII with reliable and powerful torpedoes such as the Type 93 Long Lance.

Torpedoes were fitted to many classes of ship, aircraft and submarine during WWII and used against both warships and merchant navy vessels. Torpedoes were not very effective against heavily armoured warships and this was solved by detonating the torpedo underneath the keel of the ship, thus damaging its keel. It was designed to run below the surface of the sea and was exploded by use of a magnetic exploder. Many problems arose from the use of this technology. The British and Germans solved these but the Americans did not. Bad designs had entered service and much time was wasted as Congress and the US Navy argued about who was responsible. The problem took 21 months to sort out. The reader of WWII naval history will find numerous references to the use of torpedo usage in every campaign. Space does not permit a detailed account.

Torpedoes were given improved warheads and better motors and submarines had become faster and sturdier as time went on. There have been a number of instances where torpedoes have been launched in anger since 1945, e g HMS Conqueror which sank the Argentinean General Belgrano off the Falklands in 1982.

The first successful torpedoes used compressed air as an energy source. Then it was decided to inject a liquid fuel into the air and igniting this. The air is heated more and the burning propellant adds more gas to drive the engine. Then it was discovered that water could be used to cool the combustion chamber of the torpedo. More fuel could be burnt and the resulting steam fed into the engine created more power. Most of the torpedoes used in WWI and WWII were of this type, which were known as wet heaters. A modification of this was to use compressed oxygen and not compressed air. This was a very dangerous process and many ships/submarines were lost as a result. Hydrogen Peroxide (H2O2) could be used in place of pure oxygen but this was even more dangerous. It is rumoured that the Russian submarine Kursk was carrying Hydrogen Peroxide powered torpedoes when she sank.

There were experiments with wire driven and electric battery-driven torpedoes but these were not very successful. Modern torpedoes use a variety of drive mechanisms including gas turbines (the UK Spearfish), monopropellants and sulphur hexafluoride gas.

Torpedoes originally had a single propeller with a vane to stop it spinning along its longitudinal axis. This was replaced by contra-rotating propellers which did not need a vane. Nowadays, pump jets may be used to minimise noise. Torpedoes can travel at up to 190 kph, but, if propelled by super cavitation, they may move through the water at 300kph. However, these would be very noisy.

Torpedoes may be aimed at the target and fired unguided, or they may be guided. They could also be set with a course prior to launching. This was done by providing a firing solution, either by using an electro-mechanical calculator or by using a "Brain, Human, and Mark1" (the captain's). To improve the chances of hitting the target, a spread of torpedoes could be fired. This used up a submarine's supply of torpedoes very quickly so often a single torpedo would be fired.

A torpedo can be wire-guided. A homing fire and forget torpedo can use active or passive guidance or both. Passive acoustic torpedoes home in on an emission from the target. Active acoustic torpedoes home in on a reflection of a signal from the torpedo or the ship that launched it. In semi-active mode, it can be fired to the last known position of the target, at which point it begins to acoustically home in on the target. Other forms of guidance include pattern following and wake homing acoustic systems. The Russians developed wake-homing guidance systems to attack American super-carriers. The Americans have developed a special countermeasure against this guidance system.

The warhead of torpedoes is usually some form of aluminised explosive because this is particularly destructive against underwater targets. Nowadays, PBX compositions are used in place of the once-popular Torpex.1 When the torpedo with a contact fuse hits the target, the explosion creates a bubble of expanding gas which creates a shock wave strong enough to rip away external plating. The bubble collapses in on itself and a high speed jet of water is forced into the hull, destroying the target. When a proximity fuse is used, the charge will explode under the keel of the target, creating a bubble of gas which may damage the keel of the target but will also lift the hull in the water causing severe strain to the hull. When the gas bubble collapses, the hull will fall into the void in the water. The up-rush of water from the collapsing bubble will cause structural failure.

Torpedoes are designed to maintain their course and depth and must be able to outmaneuver their target. It must be able to maintain high speed and have long range so it will need to have good hydro dynamics. Torpedoes can be launched from submarines, ships, fixed wing aircraft and helicopters and can be used in conjunction with other weapons. The ASROC was used by the USN - this was rocket-launched from a ship with a torpedo attached as a warhead. It was fired and, when it reached the target area, the torpedo was released and floated down into the sea where it commenced its acoustic search for the submarine.

Multiple tube mountings are used on ships to launch torpedoes. Submarines carry tubes in their bows or sterns and use a pulse of water to launch the torpedoes. The large nuclear submarines can carry a number of reload torpedoes. The latest development is to launch torpedoes from ships using tubes in the same way as missiles are launched. They can also be air launched, from aircraft or helicopters. Our speaker referred to the many types of torpedo used by the world's leading navies but space does not permit any discussion of these.

At this point our speaker turned to the weapons used to destroy submarines. This is as extensive a subject as that of torpedoes. The first weapon used was the depth charge, a large, heavy dustbin-like object. Escort vessels carried throwers which could fire these out from the ship to port and starboard. They also two rails at the stern of the ship from which a number of charges could be rolled into the sea. The submarine was detected by use of a hydrophone which picked up the sound of the submarine's engine. This was replaced by ASDIC or sonar, devices which sent out acoustic waves to detect submarines. The ship then had to work out the submarine's course and speed and the depth at which it was operating. When this was done, the ship would steam along the submarine's course and drop its depth charges. This had the disadvantage that it sailed over the submarine and lost contact with it. The submarine could the change course and/or speed and avoid the attack.

The boffins then invented the Hedgehog, a launcher for 24 small rocket-propelled depth charges which, when the submarine is picked up by sonar, will be fired ahead of the ship which still has contact with its target. A good idea but it needed a direct hit if it was to destroy the submarine. Calculating the depth at which it was operating was the problem.

An additional weapon was then added. This was the Limbo, a three barrelled depth thrower which could fire large projectiles at the submarine while the ship was still in sonar contact. This was a hard hitting weapon which did not require a direct hit to damage or destroy the submarine. An improved version was the Squid, a multi-barrel launcher which operated like the Limbo. Both of these were set to explode at the depth at which the target was operating and could be staggered to detonate at, above and below the position of the submarine. This was the weapon carried by our Type15 frigates.

The latest development is the anti-submarine torpedo which can be launched from tubes or attached to a guided rocket to enable an attack on a distant submarine. These can also be carried by fixed wing aircraft or helicopters. The old maxim "invent a new weapon. The opposition will invent a counter measure" applies to this aspect of warfare.

A further weapon is the nuclear depth charge. This will most surely destroy any submarine but will almost certainly blow up the attacking frigate as well. The Royal Navy frigates lost in the Falklands were carrying some of these and the RN was involved in an arduous salvage operation to recover these so that they could be returned to their rightful owners - the US Navy.

A long question and answer session followed and the Chairman thanked Capt Lamont for a most interesting and well-informed talk before presenting him with the customary gift.



Special Battlefield Tour - The Battle of Blaauwberg, 1806

A group of 24 joined the Cape Town Branch of the SA Military History Society on a special and private guided tour of the key points surrounding the Battle of Blaauwberg 1806. This tour initiated by the SA Military History Society and expanded with the assistance of Cape Town Biodiversity Management Branch and the Friends of the Blaauwberg Conservancy Area (FoBCA), will be used as a pilot project for future tours. Our tour guide for the day was Ian van Oordt, committee member of the Cape Town branch of the SAMHS. Ian has done detailed research on the battlefield for more than a decade and is therefore well-equipped to interpret the battlefield.

The tour started at Melkbosstrand at the site of British landings on the 6 & 7 January 1806. Although 65 ships had departed from Cork on the 1st September 1805 only 58 ships arrived here on the 4 January 1806. Attempts were immediately made to land troops with a feint of a projected landing at Camps Bay, this was foiled by poor winds.

The following morning a further attempt was made at Big Bay in Blaauwberg which was cancelled due to the high surf. Baird then decided to split his forces and a contingent force consisting of the 38th Regiment, 21 Dragoons and an Artillery battery was sent to Saldanha.

On the morning of the 6th January the wind and surf had died down and Baird and Ferguson made the decision to land the troops at Losperd's Bay (Melkbosstrand). They were just completing the final arrangements when they were joined by HMS Protector.

Four naval ships (from north to south, Encounter, Diadem, Leda and Protector) provided cover for the landings, with Diadem directing the operations and Leda in support. The 2 gun brigs (Encounter and Protector) provided direct fire support for the initial first wave landings of the 71st Light Company. They successfully drove off a small contingent of Burghers and Javanese artillery with minimal losses.

The landing now proceeded in force until in the early afternoon when one of the flat-bottomed boats struck a submerged rock with the loss of the entire crew of 36 soldiers from the 93rd Regiment, and 14 sailors. They were drowned in 4m/12 feet of water weighed down with 41/2 lbs. of lead musket balls, bayonets and equipment. They stood no chance.

A model of the landing craft was shown and the full detail of the tragedy was explained.

On the next day of the landing, the remaining soldiers and auxiliaries were landed safely. This was only possible after with proper precautions were taken, such as the rock being buoyed and the landing beach clearly marked, while during the late previous evening, a helio telegraph station was built allowing for better control and communication with the ships. The bridge-head being secured, the British camped that night on the alignment of the present-day Otto du Plessis drive.

We then moved to Jan Mostert's Farm, present-day Blaauwberg Farm, and changed vehicles to 4 x 4s for the journey to Baird's command post. This site later became the site of one of three meridian markers used to produce the first ordnance maps of the Cape. Arriving at the hill we were treated to a spectacle of a charge by a Black Wildebeest herd.

Some members of the tour group in front of the meridian marker
(with our tour guide, Ian van Oordt, to the right in light-blue shirt.

Here we had a clear view of the advance route taken by the British to reach the battle site, the English brigade taking the defile and the Scottish brigade the track leading to the main road to Cape Town.

We then moved into the Blaauwberg Nature Reserve and had a break for lunch. After lunch we moved to the site of the British howitzers and were shown the position of the Scottish Regiments, the position of the Batavian line about 1km distant and of Pelligrini's artillery unit. Of particular note was the sand dunes immediately in front of the English brigade which had a marked impact on the battle. The battle started with the 24th Regiment seizing Kleinberg and the Scottish brigade advancing forward. The Scottish brigade were subjected to heavy artillery fire as they approach within 410 metres of the Batavian line. Part of the Scottish brigade fired a volley at the Batavian army with little effect, and charged, the Waldeckers fled in panic. The Batavian line collapsed and Janssens ordered a general retreat to Rietvlei.

Currently a full-scale archaeology research project is in progress and we were shown artefacts recovered from the battlefield and a full-size model of a British 5 &frac1/2; inch howitzer shell and fuse.

After a short question and answer session the group move to the top of Blaauwberg Hill and were treated to a magnificent view of Cape Town, Robben Island and Table Mountain.

Tour guide Ian van Oordt (left),
with Roy Fuller Gee addressing the group.

The SA Military History Society thanked the volunteer 4 x 4 drivers, Roy Fuller Gee, Chair of FoBCA and Barbara George, who ably and diligently assisted our tour guide throughout the day. Jacques Küyler of Biodiversity Management Branch was thanked in a private communication.

We left the hill and returned to our cars at Blaauwberg farm and completed the tour - punctually at 15:00 as planned.


It is our sad duty and with a heavy heart that we have to announce that one of our longstanding members and loyal attendee of the monthly branch meetings, Mr Witold Jarmolowicz, has recently passed away. Our sincere condolences are extended to his family/loved ones.




Our July speaker will give us an overview of what happened during the recent Airshow Season in the UK. He visited the UK in July and attended the "Flying Legends" Airshow at Duxford and the "Royal International Air Tattoo" at Fairford, as well as paying visits to the aviation museums at Hendon and Duxford. Even if members are not interested in aviation per se, the outstanding quality of Mr Pullin's photography is enough to ensure not missing his presentation. At least six of our branch members, who were privy to this extravaganza prior to this overview, could attest to that.


Major Heitman's annual overview of the security situation in Africa has never failed in the past to draw a full-house as far as attendance is concerned - this year it certainly would be no less so, in view of the continuing unstable political situation and economic turmoil in many an African state. As with his previous lectures, he will probably start the evening with a short introductory talk on an as yet undisclosed subject.

This will be the final lecture in the year's programme. Make sure you don't miss it.

The lecture will be illustrated.

PLEASE NOTE: Because the availability of Major Heitman for the November meeting is not yet a foregone conclusion, the speaker and subject might change closer to the actual date.

BOB BUSER: Treasurer/Asst. Scribe
Phone: 021-689-1639 (Home)

Phone: 021-592-1279 (Office)

South African Military History Society /