Notes on the Royal Navyís Torpedo schools


© By J. David Perkins




A Brief History of the Portsmouth Torpedo School.

The HMS VERNON that was to give its name to the Royal Navyís torpedo training establishment was a 50-gun fourth rate. Built at Woolwich Dockyard she was launched on the 1st of May, 1832. In 1867 she was stripped and relegated to the status of a coaling jetty at Portland. In 1872, one year after the introduction of the Whitehead torpedo in the Royal Navy, the hulk was taken in hand at Portsmouth dockyard for conversion to a torpedo and mining school. On completion of the conversion she was attached to HMS EXCELLENT, the floating gunnery school then moored at Fountain Lake in Portsmouth harbour.

In 1876 VERNON became an independent command and was joined by HMS ARIADNE (a 26-gun steam frigate launched 1859) which acted as an accommodation ship. A small lighter, the FLORENCE NIGHTENGALE had joined VERNON in 1872 to act as a running stage for torpedoes, she now became a floating workshop.

In 1884 the experimental torpedo boat HMS VESUVIUS was allocated to VERNON as a tender where she remained in reserve until 1923. In 1879 HMS ACTAEON, formerly a 26-gun wooden frigate launched in 1831, joined the establishment.

In 1886 HMS DONEGAL, a hulked two-decked ship-of-the-line, joined the establishment. She took on the VERNON name and the function of Torpedo Training Ship. At the same time, ACTAEON was withdrawn and scrapped and the original VERNON then took the name of ACTAEON.

In 1895 the VERNON hulks were moved to Porchester Creek. A three-decker, HMS MARLBOROUGH, of 1855, replaced ARIADNE and became VERNON II. The renamed DONEGAL assumed the name of VERNON I.

The ironclad WARRIOR of 1860, joined the VERNON group in 1904 as VERNON III. ACTAEON now became VERNON IV (having been the original VERNON). At about the same time WARRIOR became the W/T school under her new name of VERNON III.

Sometime between 1895 and 1905 ARIADNE went to Sheerness to form the nucleus of a new torpedo school and in 1905 was renamed ACTAEON. She was joined by the wooden screw corvette DIDO in 1906 which became ACTAEON II. Both ships were sold in in 1922 and the school closed.

The VERNON establishment went ashore in 1923 at the old Gunwharf. VERNON II (ex-MARLBOROUGH) was sold in 1924 while VERNON I (ex-DONEGAL) and VERNON IV (the original VERNON renamed ACTAEON) were sold in 1925. VERNON III (WARRIOR) was paid off in 1924 to become a coal hulk and later a fueling jetty. She was rescued, reconstructed and is now preserved in the form of the original Warrior of ca 1860.

During the Second World War various satellite units were established as part of VERNON but these were discarded after the war. VERNON was closed altogether in 1986. Currently (2003) the property is pending transfer or sale to the civil authority for disposal as devopment real estate.


A More Detailed Outline of the History of the Torpedo and Mining Training Establishment at Devonport

The Torpedo and Mining Training Establishment known as HMS DEFIANCE was set up as an independent command at Devonport on 3 December 1884. The original establishment consisted of two, sometimes three, hulks moored in the Hamoaze at the mouth of the St. Germanís River opposite a small promontory known locally as Wearde Quay. The principal hulk was that of the 5,271-ton, 81-gun, 2nd Rate, screw ship of the line HMS DEFIANCE. Built at Pembroke Dock she was completed in 1861 but was never armed nor commissioned as a warship. With a length of 255 feet she was one of the longest wooden warships ever built. She lay in reserve in the Tamar until being stripped of machinery and commissioned as a school ship. The wooden sloop PERSEUS of 1861 joined the establishment in 1886 and the composite screw gunboat FLAMINGO of 1876 shortly afterwards. The two smaller vessels were moored stern to bow facing East ahead of DEFIANCE and were connected by gangways.

PERSEUS had originally provided facilities for training in mining work as part of HMS CAMBRIDGE, the floating gunnery school at Devonport. In the meantime HMS VERNON, the original torpedo and mining school, was established at Portsmouth. When the time came to set up another similar school at Devonport many of the lessons learned with VERNON were applied to the new establishment. Significantly, DEFIANCE was electrically lit throughout from the outset.

When first commissioned DEFIANCE carried a reduced three masted rig but this was soon discarded leaving only a pole mizzen mast. The empty hulk provided the lecture rooms, accommodations and recreational facilities for her students and instructional staff. The main classrooms and a gymnasium were set up on the upper deck and these were housed in a high, airy, well lit superstructure. The officerís mess and cabins were situated aft on the main deck, while the galleys and a large drying room for the menís waterproof working gear were located forward. The after part of the lower deck provided accommodations for the Warrant Officers while the menís accommodations occupied the forward spaces. The orlop deck was equipped with torpedo discharge equipment pointing to the mud flats across the mouth of the St. Germanís River. Below this deck the hold had been provided with glazed ports and was fitted out as a recreation space with billiards tables and a reading room.

During the late 1890ís, when Captain Henry Bradwardine Jackson was in command of the school he took an interest in the work of Marconi and began experimenting with radio telegraphy on his own. For this he utilised the workshops and laboratories aboard DEFIANCE. In 1911 when it was decided to install radio sets in British submarines DEFIANCE was tasked with designing and installing these early radio telegraphy sets as a direct result of Jacksonís early work.

PERSEUS was used primarily for storing the harbour defence mines and associated equipment used in laying the practise minefields. She also provided stores and support for hard hat diver training, an essential activity connected with minefield laying and maintenance. In 1904 PERSEUS was renamed DEFIANCE II.

FLAMINGO was not an actual member of the establishment but was a harbour service vessel. She was fitted with fresh water tanks for supplying the establishment. She was also used for storing the electrical cables used for the practise minelaying. How long FLAMINGO remained is uncertain, but she was not in the group for the 1921 renaming. FLAMINGO, however, remained in harbour service until 1931.

Throughout the existence of the school a number of torpedo boats were assigned to Defiance to provide training at sea. In 1896 these consisted of the gunboat HMS SCOURGE which boasted an aluminium 14-inch torpedo tube, two torpedo boats and a destroyer. Torpedo firing was conducted on the Whitehead range in Cawsand Bay. A strip of land opposite the ships was acquired and some basic shore facilities installed. These consisted of a landing stage and a quay to handle boat traffic between ship and shore and a shed to house torpedo launchers and torpedoes. Defiance, like Vernon in Portsmouth, conducted ongoing experimental work on torpedoes, torpedo launchers and tubes and on all aspects of mining as well as the important work being carried out in the wireless and electrical shops and laboratories.

The first big change to the original DEFIANCE establishment came in 1907 when the hulked 3,600-ton 2nd class cruiser HMS SPARTAN of 1891 joined the establishment. She was renamed DEFIANCE II in 1921.

This was the establishment that served the needs of the Devonport-based ships throughout World War One and afterwards. Little change took place other than converting the launching sheds ashore into boat houses and improving the area around the quay. Prior to the war the Great Western Railway, whose West Country main line ran in a cutting just beyond the shore facilities, gave the navy permission to build a wooden platform and waiting room to service the establishment. It was built by the sailors and was known as "Defiance Halt".

In October, 1920, the hulked 4,000-ton iron screw frigate INCONSTANT of 1868 joined the group and it was probably at this time that the old PERSEUS was retired and towed away. In August, 1921, an overall renaming of the ships took place: DEFIANCE retained her own name; SPARTAN became DEFIANCE II; in January 1922 the corvette CLEOPATRA of 1878 joined the group to become Defiance III while INCONSTANT became DEFIANCE IV. However, near the end of January, 1931, CLEOPATRA was replaced by the 11,000-ton 1st class cruiser ANDROMEDA of 1897 which, in turn, became the new DEFIANCE III.

In February 1931 the entire establishment was reorganized and moved a mile or so downriver to a sheltered position off Wilcove. At this time the old hulk DEFIANCE was retired to be replaced by the ANDROMEDA which then assumed the name DEFIANCE. SPARTAN was retired and INCONSTANT assumed the title DEFIANCE II. The one-time cruiser-torpedo boat carrier turned submarine depot ship, HMS VULCAN, joined the group and took the name of DEFIANCE III. These three vessels formed the floating Torpedo-Electrical and Mining School at Devonport for the next 23 years. The establishment was closed on 14 July 1954 and the training moved ashore. Two years later all three ships were sold for scrapping.

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