In the early 1870s when the Torpedoman was brought into being, the Royal Navy was at the threshold of the Steam Age. Although many wooden hulled warships were still in commission most ships were built of iron or steel and battleships were armoured. All had engines, yet most were fully rigged and sail remained a preferred method of propulsion. The first breech loading big guns had proved a failure and battleships were armed with rifled muzzle-loaders. The broadside battery was still in vogue, but with fewer and heavier guns. A few experimental turreted ships existed and more were on the drawing board but the turret would be short-lived in the RN.
Conditions for the sailors had never been better. Pay was comparable to that of the civilian workforce and all health and dental needs were looked after. Uniform dress regulations and patterns had been in use for a decade and although considerable individuality was evident, uniformity of dress was being accepted as the norm. Every man or boy received a free issue of kit upon joining and this clothing could be replaced cheaply when needed. All men received a monthly ration of free soap and tobacco and those over 20 were entitled to a daily tot of rum. The Navy provided basic food rations and an allowance was given with which to purchase additional provisions. By means of the 12-year Continuous Service engagement, which could be renewed for a further 10 years, the professional sailor could now make a career in the navy and work towards a pension. However, discipline was harsh and punishments such as confinement and caning and flogging were still commonplace. Although conditions aboard ship and ashore gradually improved over the following forty years pay and allowances fell far behind the civilian sector.
For manning purposes every position in a ship was identified, numbered and "rated" according to the skills required to fulfil the duties associated with the position, hence a man fulfilling those duties became a "rating". Identical positions in different ships were given the same number so as to provide some continuity throughout the navy. The position number determined what mess the man lived in, on which side of the ship he lived (even numbered messes to port, odd to starboard), where his hammock was slung and stowed, what watch he was assigned to, port or starboard, and where his stations were for the various evolutions. Any equipment carried by the ship and assigned to that position (such as special tools, rifle and webbing, cutlass etc) carried the position number. This is the origin of a man referring to his job aboard ship as a "number". It is also the origin of the old sailorís term "oppo", or opposite number, which originally meant the man in the other watch who did the same job, i.e. someone with whom he had a lot in common. Although they have lost much of their formal meaning, these terms are still in use today.
There were two levels of rating, substantive, which was based on a manís rank, and non-substantive which was his naval occupation or trade. The Pay Scale considered these separately, a manís basic wage being dependent on his substantive rating to which was added additional pay for his level of non-substantive rating. As well, a man could earn extra allowances by undertaking additional duties and by improving his non-substantive standing through training and the passing of examinations. Frequently a man occupying a particular position in the crew was also assigned a certain range of additional duties which were his perquisites, or "perks". For the most part, promotion up the substantive "ladder" was achieved through character assessments, demonstrated ability on the job and time in the service. If a man was promoted in rank or in occupational qualifications to a rating exceeding that required by the ship he was serving in, he was sent to his home port manning depot for reassignment and a man with the appropriate qualifications was drafted aboard to take his place. It was the practise when manning ships for deployment overseas to assign junior men to billets in the expectation that they would be promoted into the position during the commission. This saved having to transfer men over long distances in order to keep the ship manned according to the scale and helped to maintain a steady progression of promotions within the branches.
For most branches, time in service was rewarded by the granting of Good Conduct badges, which also earned the recipient a few pennies per day. For Petty Officers 1st Class and below these were chevrons worn with the point downwards on the left sleeve below the rank badge, or midway between shoulder seam and elbow. CPOs did not display the chevrons but they were entitled to the allowances.
Under the Naval Discipline Act a man could be punished for misdemeanours by being reduced in rank, i.e. "disrated", which meant a reduction in employment and social status and a reduction in basic pay. Alternatively, a man could lose his Good Conduct badges and the allowance that went with them or for really serious violations he could lose both rate and badges and very often his leave priviliges as well. Any punishment often meant the curtailment of leave priviliges for the duration of that punishment and "stoppage of leave" was often used as a punishment on its own. Usually a manís standing was restored after a set length of time and the demonstration of good conduct. A manís non-substantive rating could only be revoked if he were shown to be technically incompetent.
At the time personnel of the lower deck were divided into branches. These were:
In the modern navy it has become commonplace to describe any closely connected group of naval tradespersons as a "branch" and for most practical purposes this describes the situation in a way that is easily understood. Hence, the Gunners and the Torpedomen etc. are described here as belonging to the Gunnery and Torpedo Branches while in fact both of these groups were an integral part of the Military Branch.
The Whitehead "automobile" torpedo was introduced into the Royal Navy in 1871. The new weapon called for a specialised range of skills and, beginning in 1874, Seaman Gunners (SGs) were being selected to undertake special training in torpedoes in addition to their normal gunnery duties. For this they received an extra allowance of 1d a day. By 1879 the Artisan rates of Chief Torpedo Artificer and Torpedo Artificer had been created to provide technical expertise. The Chief Torpedo Artificer was one of the highest paid ratings in the navy, second only to the Chief Engine Room Artificer 1st Class. In recognition of their status only these two senior ratings wore the three large gilt buttons in a horizontal row just above the cuff on their sleeves. At the same time the position of Torpedo Instructor was established which earned a qualified Gunnery Instructor who had taken torpedo training an extra 8d per day. Although torpedomen were very much part of the Gunnery branch they were becoming a distinctive group.
By 1879 torpedo equipment was being installed aboard ships throughout the fleet. To accommodate the new weapon torpedoes were added to the gunnery training syllabus and all junior SGs were given basic training in torpedo work. At the same time Seaman Gunner Torpedoman (SGT) non-substantive ratings were brought into being. In 1879 these rates and badges were:
All of the badges were produced in the large size for wear on the right sleeves of ratings below the rank of CPO and the applicable ones in small size for wearing on the CPOís jacket lapels. Badges were made in gold wire on a navy blue patch for best uniforms, in red thread on a navy blue patch for second best and navy blue working uniforms and in blue thread on white patches for working dress and tropical rigs.
This was not an hierarchical structure. A man could aspire to the rank of CPO with only his SGT 1st Class qualifications provided his leadership abilities and experience were considered adequate. CPO and PO Gunner Torpedomen wore the SGT 1st Class badge, the Chief wearing the small size on the points of his lapels.
The only visible distinction on the badges between those who specialised in gunnery or torpedoes was the relative position of the gun and torpedo on the badge of the Leading Torpedo Man and the Torpedo Instructor. Presumably, a gunner wishing to advance in his trade standing had to become proficient at torpedo work as well.
The Regulations for 1879 make the first mention of the non-substantive rate of "Leading Torpedo Man" and his origins are rather curious. This rate should not be confused with the substantive rank of Leading Seaman. The Leading Torpedo Man, which is abbreviated "LTO", was in reality a practical electrician as well as a gunner-torpedoman.
Even before electricity became commonplace aboard ship, SGTs were being trained in the practical application of electrics because of the sea-mine. In the event of hostilities British war plans called for the use of controlled minefields. These were laid using electrically detonated moored mines (originally called "torpedoes") set to "float" just below the surface in all tides. Electrical "control" cables from the mines were led ashore to a master switchboard located inside a concealed observation station. From there the circuits could be tested for continuity and power applied for detonation. The position of each mine was plotted on a master chart and the minefields were monitored from the observation station where ranges and bearings of attacking ships could be taken. In the event of an assault on a protected anchorage or port, the movements of the enemy ships were plotted and when they were in the right spot a selected group of mines was detonated to blow out their bottoms. As the mines were electrically detonated and and because these installations could be very complex, the SGTs had to take a basic course in electricity. Those who showed an aptitude were encouraged to take a more advanced course to qualify as LTO. In those days this included electrical theory and power distribution including wiring, switches, circuitry, circuit testing and batteries.
In the major UK ports the laying and maintenance of controlled minefields was normally the responsibility of the Royal Engineersí Corps of Submarine Miners. However, there was a requirement for the navy to be able to lay and maintain temporary controlled minefields both at home and abroad. As a result, mining and electricity became a significant part of the training given at the gunnery schools, even before electricity was available aboard ship. When electricity was first introduced into British warships with the commissioning of HMS Inflexible in 1881 it fell to the LTOs, to look after the new facilities on board.
The men of the Military Branch were seamen first and gunners and torpedomen second. Their primary duties were in the rigging, on the upper deck, at the helm and in the shipís boats. In action they manned and operated the guns and torpedo launchers. LTOs manned the searchlights and switchboards and assisted the Carpenterís with damage control from an electrical perspective. Maintenance and repair of guns and torpedo launchers was the responsibility of the Amourerís while the maintenance and preparation of torpedoes fell to the Torpedo Artificers. When these were phased out beginning in the late 1890s, the Armourers took over their duties. When the Ordnance Artificers were introduced in 1919, they in turn took over the care and maintenance of torpedoes from the Armourers.
Beginning in the early 1880s, the need arose to man the small, steam driven, 2nd class torpedo boats (TBs) then being carried by most battleships and the purpose-built torpedo boat carrier HMS Vulcan. These TBs carried a crew of from four to nine men divided between Engineering personnel and SGTs. The coxswain, either a Leading Seamen or PO 2nd Class, was given a special course in TB handling, which involved high speed manoeuvring and night-time work. Traditionally, being the coxswain also meant being in charge of and responsible for all ratings carried in the boat. Consequently the position of Torpedo Boat Coxswain was recognized as a speciality worthy of an allowance of 2d per diem.
From the mid-1880s the proliferation of larger torpedo craft created a huge demand for torpedomen of all kinds, including experienced Torpedo Boat Coxswains. Displacing around 100-tons these TBs were actually small ships and they carried a crew of up to 30 men. As a result the position of coxswain was elevated to a non-substantive rating. At the same time the "Torpedo Boat Destroyer", the precursor of the modern destroyer, was being built in numbers that would soon eclipse the smaller vessels.
LS and PO SGTs were eligible to take the course to become coxswains of these vessels. This was the origin of the practice of a seaman coxswain being the senior rating aboard small warships and performing duties that would traditionally have been the responsibility of a Master at Arms or other member of the Naval Police or Regulating Branch.
The SGTs and the LTOs would have been invaluable aboard the TBs and destroyers as they manned every position except those filled by the Signalmen the Engineering Branch and the very few billets allotted to cooks, stewards, and a few Artisans. SGTs manned all the weapons and provided the entire seaman complement of these vessels.
The 1891 Dress Regulations and Pay Scales reflect the changes that accommodated the separation of gunners and torpedomen altogether. The rates and badges described in the 1891 Uniform Regulations were:
Table 2 Seaman Gunner and Torpedoman Rates and Badges, 1891
By this time the two specialities had been separated and the Gunnery Branch was divided into two major groups, the Seaman Gunners (SGs), who were always the most numerous, and Seaman Torpedomen (STs). These badges and rates remained in effect until superseded in 1907.
Over the years floating schools were set up for the instruction of Seaman Gunners, Seaman Gunner Torpedomen and later, for Torpedomen. The earliest gunnery school was HMS Excellent at Portsmouth, which was followed some years later by Cambridge at Devonport. In due course Vernon was set up in Portsmouth and Defiance at Devonport for the Torpedomen. Originally these establishments utilized the hulks of retired warships for classroom, workshop and accommodations space. As the old hulks became unusable they were replaced by newer ones but retained the establishment name. Eventually the schools were moved ashore.
Prior to 1900 a boy or man who joined as a seaman was trained as either a Signalman or a Seaman Gunner depending on his character and academic abilities. To the detriment of the Gunnery Branch, those with the highest marks and best character references on joining were usually assigned to the Signals Branch.
All SGs received basic training in gunnery and torpedoes and then completed their qualification for Trained Man in the fleet, usually in the space of one to three years. When the time came for more advanced training, which was normally at the senior Able Seaman level, they all took the course at Excellent or Cambridge which included an introduction to electricity. Upon passing this course they were certified as Seaman Gunner Torpedomen 1st or 2nd Class depending on their marks. For many this was the highest non-substantive rating they would achieve and would allow them to reach CPO rank.
Those who made 1st Class marks were offered further training as Gunnery or Torpedo Instructors, which at that time could be attained as a Leading Seaman, or as LTO. LTOs, SGTs and SGs could all rise to the rank of CPO (Seaman Gunner Torpedo Instructor, Torpedo Boat Coxswain or Gunnery Instructor) on the strength of their non-substantive rating and leadership abilities.
By ca 1904 men and boys entered as either Gunners or Torpedomen. At the basic level they qualified in both gunnery and torpedoes like the old SGT. However, once they attained a "higher" level, such as Sightsetter in gunnery or LTO in torpedo work, they were required to specialise in that specialty of the trade from then onwards.
By this time the Torpedo Branch had become a separate administrative entity. There was still some cross training at the basic level and all Gunners, Torpedomen, Stokers and Blacksmithís Crew were required to attend the basic infantry field training given at Excellent and Cambridge.
Another change that took place was the refinement of the non-sub of TB Coxswain. This became simply Torpedo Coxswain (TC) with an increasing emphasis on performing the regulating duties normally associated with a Master at Arms, but in small warships. This speciality was open to both Gunner and Torpedoman POs and CPOs and in 1914 was worth an extra seven pence per day. Those competing for TC also had to have passed the appropriate courses for torpedo boats, torpedo boat destroyers or submarines.
In submarines the rate of TC was augmented by the introduction of a less formal non-sub of Submarine Coxswain, which could be attained by qualified Petty Officers through experience on the job. During World War One, and afterwards, Torpedo Coxswains were the senior ratings in all destroyers, navy-manned patrol craft, coastal motor boats and, along with Submarine Coxswains, in submarines. Members of the Shipís Police, or its successor, the Regulating Branch, were only found in ships of cruiser size and above and on large shore bases.
The badges and non-substantive rates and badges described in the 1907 Dress Regulations were:
Table 3 Torpedoman Rates and Badges, 1907
Prior to 1914 qualified Leading Seaman Gunners and Torpedomen could offer themselves for promotion to Warrant Officer. However, the examination for promotion could not take place until they were rated up to PO and had been classed as 1st or 2nd Class for Gunnery or Torpedo work. They also had to be certified in seamanship, were required to attain a certain level of education and had to meet character and time-in-service and time-at-sea criteria. SGs and STs could be promoted to the Warrant Officer ranks of Gunner and Torpedo Gunner respectively and they could also become Boatswains if they so chose. Having achieved acting Warrant rank they all had to qualify in signalling before being confirmed. Confirmation in rank normally took place one year after promotion.
Upon the outbreak of World War One the RN was well supplied with trained Torpedomen and the infrastructure that would be necessary for keeping up with the wartime demands was firmly in place. On all ships the, TGMs, POLTOs and LTOs looked after the day-to-day needs of the Electrical Department and manned the switchboards and searchlights while the Torpedomen, Torpedo Instructors and Chief Torpedomen attended to the torpedo armament. As well, because of the cross training involved, the two groups of torpedomen were, at least at a basic level, mutually supportive.
The original hydrophone (or sonar) operators were Telegraphists (Tels), a subspecialty of the Signalman Branch. Submarines were being fitted with hydrophones as early as 1914, long before ships, primarily for sending and receiving shore station and submarine to submarine underwater transmissions, or "SST". Later it was realised that the same gear could be used for passive ship detection. Because the wireless office was set up in a lead-lined, soundproof, enclosure, the SST headphones and telegraph key were fitted there. The Telegraphists already knew Morse code and were accustomed to listening for sounds in the ether and, having "nothing" to do when the boat was dived, they won the job.
As the science developed and migrated to surface vessels it soon became obvious that the Tel already had enough to do so a new branch was created and they were called "Sound Detectors", or SDs. As everything about sonar involves low-power electrics, the new branch attracted cross-trained LTOs and ex-Telegraphists and was augmented by new hands taken in specifically as SDs. The advanced level of sonar operator was the "Higher Sound Detector", or HSD.
Because of their familiarity with mines, the STs had picked up the operation of depth charges (DCs) and their various launching devices during the First World War and this continued until DCs were phased out after the Second World War. Having always been involved with mines the STs also took on ship- and submarine-laid mines as well. Both the Gunnery and Torpedo branches took on demolitions, no doubt because of their familiarity with handling explosives.
During World War Two the STs also found themselves manning such weapons as the "Hedgehog" anti-submarine (A/S) spigot mortar and the "Squid" A/S mortar. These "ahead throwing weapons" effectively revolutionised A/S warfare.
In the re-organization of naval occupations and trades that followed World War Two, the SDs and STs were absorbed into the newly established Torpedo Anti-submarine (TAS) Branch to become Underwater Control (UC) and Underwater Weapons (UW) ratings. POs were generally Torpedo Instructors (TIs) and Underwater Controllers 1st Class (UC1s). Men could attain the rank of CPO in either speciality. There was also a provision for senior instructors to become proficient in both disciplines to become Torpedo Anti-submarine Instructors, or TASIs.
At the same time, those LTOs, POLTOs and TGMs who were not suitable or amenable to transferring to the TAS branch were transferred instead to the expanded Electrical branch and dropped all connection with torpedoes, mines, demolitions and the like. Likewise the UWs and UCs relinquished all interest in shipís electrical systems except where these directly affected their own equipment. TAS branch personnel also became "maintainer-operators" and were responsible for the care and maintenance of their own equipment as well as for its operation.
Prior to World War Two the Torpedo Coxswainís badge was altered to crossed torpedoes surmounted by a crown and with a shipís wheel below indicating the ever increasing emphasis on the disciplinary and administrative aspects of the position. In the re-organisation that followed the war the badge was again changed to just a shipís wheel and the rating became simply that of "Coxswain". The position was still only available to POs and CPOs of the Military Branch.
In 1948, there was a complete re-organization of branches and responsibilities in the RN (and most other Commonwealth navies) in which the Torpedo Anti-Submarine (TAS) and the Electrical branches were created. The TAS Branch included all torpedomen who then became Underwater Weaponsmen (UWs) and all Sound Detectors who became Underwater Controllers (UCs). The UWs were given responsibility for torpedoes and all other ASW weapons, demolitions and mines.The LTOs provided the foundation for the new Electrical Branch and dropped all involvement with weapons. The Torpedo Coxswain was changed to Coxswain. This organization continued into the 1970s and 80s when there was another re-alignment of Naval trades to accommodate the changes brought about by the new world of electronics and then computerization. In this change the dedicated Torpedoman disappeared and his duties and responsibilities were taken on by the Weapons Engineering Mechanics branch
© Dave Perkins
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