Damn the torpedoes...
May 7, 2007 9:32 PM   Subscribe

Sunk by their own torpedo? Apparently a few U-boats or subs may have been lost due to a "circular run" of their own swim bomb.
posted by Brian B. (36 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
The submarine surfaced and, with the aid of grapnel hooks and Thompson submachine guns, rescued a survivor who had been clinging to an overturned lifeboat.

Guns DO save people, after all.
posted by stavrogin at 9:42 PM on May 7, 2007

Tang is credited with sinking 31 ships in her five patrols, totaling 227,800 tons, and damaging two for 4,100 tons.

Does that count the own goal?

It's almost ironic. In the early war, US Mark 14 torpedoes had this annoying habit of going "thunk" against enemy ships. Figures that this one worked just fine.
posted by eriko at 9:44 PM on May 7, 2007

Yeah, that is ironic, eriko. I recall more than a few stories written by Edward L. Beach in which the submarine would launch a full spread of torpedos and they'd be lucky if just one of the damn things would go off.

According to Beach, this was the reason behind launching torpedos from the forward tubes and then quickly turning the boat to fire a spread from the aft tubes as well. The odds were best with all the fish in the water.
posted by Kikkoman at 10:03 PM on May 7, 2007

Some speculate that the Scorpion was targeted by one of her own torpedos. Wikipedia entry and photos of the wreckage.
posted by rotifer at 10:10 PM on May 7, 2007

The Mark XIV torpedo is the canonical example of bureaucratic pigheadedness. It had no less than three bugs, each of which was enough to render it nearly useless.

First was the magnetic exploder. It was supposed to detect the magnetic field of an enemy ship's hull, and permit the torpedo to detonate under the keel of the enemy ship. But all the tests on the magnetic exploder were done on a small number of target hulls all in the same location. What they didn't realize at the time was that there was enormous variation from ship to ship, and from latitude to latitude (because of interaction with the magnetic field of the planet). One effect of the magnetic exploder was to make the torpedoes explode too soon, scaring the heck out of the men on the target ship but otherwise doing no damage.

Second was the depth control. It had been calibrated using a dummy warhead made of concrete. The real warhead was heavier, so the torpedoes ran 8 feet deeper than they were supposed to. In some cases that was enough for the torpedoes to run right under the target ship.

Third was the contact fuze. It was a bump plate on the front of the torpedo, which connected by a lever to a push rod passing through a tube to the middle of the warhead, to set off the primer. Problem was that if the torpedo made a solid hit, the force was too great and the rod would buckle and jam inside the tube.

It took direct orders from Admiral Nimitz to find and fix the first two problems, but the third one continued to be a plague for a long time. Finally, USS Tinosa found the Japanese oil tanker Tonan Maru No.3 and ended up firing fifteen torpedoes at it, seeing strong evidence (splashes) that they were strinking the enemy ship. Not one of the detonated.

Again, it took direct involvement by Admiral Nimitz to get the situation resolved. By his direct order, every Mark XIV torpedo was rebuilt in Hawaii before being put onto a submarine. It turned out that the reason the push rods had buckled was that they were made out of an inferior grade of steel. The shop in Hawaii used the best steel available to them to make replacement push rods: propellors from Japanese planes that had been shot down during the Pearl Harbor attack.

More details here.

Every time I read about this it makes me angry. I personally think that some of the incompetents at the Bureau of Ordnance who denied that their precious torpedoes could be faulty should have been court-martialed and hung. To send those brave men out in their itty bitty tin cans to hunt enemy ships with weapons that didn't work is beyond criminal.

And the ones carried by torpedo planes were even worse.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 10:17 PM on May 7, 2007 [22 favorites]

Regarding three (3) lousy bugs in the Mark XIV Torp... Too bad that Phil Crosby didn't pick up steam until well after WWII. Quality, is, after all, free.
posted by stonesy at 10:50 PM on May 7, 2007

SCDB, your comment brings to mind how little has changed 60 years and six trillion dollars later...
posted by kid ichorous at 11:25 PM on May 7, 2007

your "details" link is contrary to Cmdr Layton's "And I Was There", scdb.

He lists Apr 10, 1943 as the initial incident that raised eyebrows at CINC HQ, since our codebreakers both vectored a sub [the Tunny] to a TF we knew was coming into Truk and then receive Truk's port director stating all ships of the TF made it in.

He also lists a June 11 incident in Tokyo Bay where the Trigger got a spread at the Hiryu, and decoding Hiryu's message that it was only slightly damaged.

He also says June 23 was the date where Nimitz and his sub commander, Lockwood met and surmised that their detonators were probably defective:

"I think we ought to deactivate the magnetic exploders", Nimitz proposed.

"I can't order that," Lockwood said, "but I wish you would."

"I can and will," Nimitz declared. [page 472 of the hardcover]

Peeps interested in important WW2 trivia are highly encouraged to get "Dirty Little Secrets of WW2", authored by Jim Dunnigan and a partner. He also has a similar volume on Vietnam that is also highly worthwhile to read.
posted by Heywood Mogroot at 11:30 PM on May 7, 2007

[oh, but oddly, Layton probably meant the Hiyo. since the Hiryu had become a permanent feature of the seafloor by then, and the Japanese weren't too big on reusing sunk ships' names, unlike the USN]
posted by Heywood Mogroot at 11:32 PM on May 7, 2007

hmm, Hiyo's TROM certainly confirms my surmise about the confusion in Layton's book and the actual damage does in fact look like a premature detonation of the two torpedoes that Trigger successfully targeted at Hiyo.
posted by Heywood Mogroot at 11:41 PM on May 7, 2007

Shot themselves in the 0.16 fathom.
posted by pracowity at 11:55 PM on May 7, 2007 [3 favorites]

One of the reasons that it took as long as it did to recognize that the magnetic exploder was faulty was that the daddy of the unit, the guy primarily responsible for designing it, ended up as one of the admirals in charge of one of the submarine groups based in Australia.

His captains apparently had long since decided the thing was crap, and had been disconnecting it after they left on a mission. And because of that they were getting sinkings. (Even with the problems, the Mark XIV wasn't completely useless.) But they'd come back after a mission and get met at dockside by this particular admiral who would ask them how well his baby had worked. Of course, they couldn't tell him the truth (especially since disconnecting the magnetic exploder was directly in contradiction of orders they'd received) so they'd lie and say that it had worked well.

And he sent in all kinds of glowing reports about how well it worked.

I don't remember the guy's name. It wasn't Lockwood, who had been writing increasingly emphatic reports claiming that the magnetic exploder was a piece of shit.

It turns out that the concept of a magnetic exploder was a good one. But in WWII they didn't have the data, and more importantly they didn't have the technology, to make it work. Modern torpedoes do use something like that, but the new ones are computerized.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 12:06 AM on May 8, 2007

USS Sea Devil (SS-400)
Just after Japan's surrender:
"For another two weeks, Sea Devil remained in the area, looking for and sinking naval mines. On 27 August, she sighted a fishing vessel near a mine. Closer inspection showed that the fisherman was using the mine as a buoy and had secured his net to the mine horns. On 28 August, the submarine was ordered to Guam, then diverted to Subic Bay, where she arrived on 3 September."

Maybe the mine needed a little informative plaque, indicating "do not do this".
posted by sebastienbailard at 12:08 AM on May 8, 2007

Mr. Mogroot, I haven't read Layton's book. What I read was "Silent Victory", by Clay Blair. (But I no longer have my copy, so I can't consult it.)
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 12:12 AM on May 8, 2007

Maybe the mine needed a little informative plaque, indicating "do not do this".

posted by TheOnlyCoolTim at 12:40 AM on May 8, 2007

While not quite the same thing, it's thought that the Russian boomer Kursk was also brought low by one of her own hydrogen peroxide fueled torpedoes.
posted by moonbiter at 1:17 AM on May 8, 2007

magnetic exploder

I love that name (and I just had to Google it to confirm, yes, that really is what they called it!) Is "exploder" a technical ordnance term or does it mean more or less the same thing as "fuze?"

That word, "exploder," to my non-naval-history-knowledgeable ears it sounds like a Judas Priest, or maybe Scorpions, album title or what a six-year-old would call the part that makes the warhead blow up if you told him he couldn't use "boom thingy."

I am going to be saying "exploder" all day.
posted by Opposite George at 1:33 AM on May 8, 2007

[the Konovalov's own torpedo is about to strike the Konovalov]

Andrei Bonovia: You arrogant ass. You've killed us!
posted by bwg at 4:00 AM on May 8, 2007 [2 favorites]

Apparently no too many MeFites have seen Run Silent Run Deep with Burt Lancaster, Clark Gable and a very young Don Rickles.
posted by Pollomacho at 5:06 AM on May 8, 2007

Am I the only one who is wondering if the USS Tang was orange?
posted by MtDewd at 5:09 AM on May 8, 2007

They used to make XIVs at The Torpedo Factory (now an art center) in Alexandria VA. I heard they tested torpedos by firing them across the Potomac.
posted by MtDewd at 5:20 AM on May 8, 2007

Am I the only one who is wondering if the USS Tang was orange?

Heh, you said Tang. *insert obligatory seamen joke*
posted by Pollomacho at 5:27 AM on May 8, 2007

SCDB, the modern ones get guided in by acoustic data -- you can spoof a magnetic homer, as is done for mine countermeasures.

The Mk 48 ADCAP is a good example of a modern submarine wep -- usually it's "wire guided" from the sub that launches it. When the torp's close to its target (for certain values of "close" it can autonomously use onboard sonar ("range gating") for terminal guidance.
posted by pax digita at 5:27 AM on May 8, 2007

Oh, and...moonbiter, one theory about USS Scorpion is somewhat similar to the cause for the Kursk sinking.
posted by pax digita at 5:33 AM on May 8, 2007

Thanks for this thread, very interesting.
posted by vito90 at 6:32 AM on May 8, 2007

heh, you said "hoisted by your own petard."
posted by StickyCarpet at 7:35 AM on May 8, 2007

insert obligatory seamen joke

Submarines are long, hard, and full of seamen.


Maybe this is a stupid question, but which side is the front?

Damn the torpedoes
Which referred to what are called mines now.

posted by kirkaracha at 8:34 AM on May 8, 2007

It works better with a full stop.

Toward Enemy.
posted by TheOnlyCoolTim at 8:38 AM on May 8, 2007

Pollomacho, I bet even fewer have read Ned Beach's novel.

As for the undoing of the Konovalov in the movie, well, I remember a lengthy discussion on sci.military.naval about how torps typically have a minimum run-to-enable safety engineered into them, and you'd actually have to do some stuff with tools to them to override it physically -- not a simple turning of a dial or entering a value into a fire-control panel. But then, watching a bunch of bubbleheads pick apart that movie and this one is enjoyable stuff to some.
posted by pax digita at 8:47 AM on May 8, 2007


Maybe this is a stupid question, but which side is the front?

Schools these days focus way too much on firearms, obviously.

The body of a claymore mine is a gently curved steel sheet. The outer convex curve of the steel sheet has a layer of 1.5 lb of C4 explosive, with a layer of 700 steel balls over that. The steel balls are the front side, and indeed the plastic housing reads "FRONT TOWARD ENEMY" on this (convex) side. The whole thing is about the same size as a calculus textbook, I guess.

When the device detonates, much of the energy from the explosive goes into propelling the steel balls off the front, comparatively less goes off the the sides through the back of the steel plate, The steel balls perforate whoever (hopefully "ENEMY") is standing in a 60 degree arc, 50-100 m radius of the ball bearing side. The concave side is comparatively safer, but you don't want to be standing right next to it.

Oh, and while the US isn't planting any more land mines, it and other coutries still use claymore mines. Wonderful world, 'eh? You can probably buy them over the counter in Texas or something.
posted by sebastienbailard at 9:40 AM on May 8, 2007 [1 favorite]

MtDewd writes "Am I the only one who is wondering if the USS Tang was orange?"

The sub was developed to replace the out of date USS OJ.
posted by brundlefly at 10:06 AM on May 8, 2007

"Am I the only one who is wondering if the USS Tang was orange?"

I guess you haven't heard of her illustrious fleetmates, the USS Space Pen and USS Astronaut Ice Cream.
posted by oneirodynia at 10:52 AM on May 8, 2007 [1 favorite]

You can still visit the USS Velcro. She's the only ship of her class that stuck around.

posted by brundlefly at 1:23 PM on May 8, 2007

"Circular runs" seem to have been a problem with torpedoes since their very inception. According to Geoffrey Regan's Guinness Book of Naval Blunders, when in 1879 the Chilean ironclad "Huascar" tried to torpedo the corvette "Abtao", the torpedo, after first travelling straight for 100 yards, suddenly made an about-turn and headed for "Huascar". The Chilean ironclad was saved by Lieutenant Diaz Canseco (who must have had balls of titanium-clad steel), who jumped overboard, swam towards the torpedo and forced it to change direction with his hands. "Huascar"s Admiral Grau was so disgusted with torpedoes that he buried his remaining supply in a cemetery...
posted by Skeptic at 1:46 PM on May 8, 2007

"Am I the only one who is wondering if the USS Tang was orange?"

On extended patrols, some submarines' black paint succumbed to the vagaries of tropical sun and salt-water corrosion, turning their hull and superstructere a bright shade of rust.
posted by pax digita at 5:10 AM on May 9, 2007

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