Greatest World War II Weapons : Human Torpedo

A torpedo is an underwater missile that is used to attack ships and submarines. But what is this human torpedo? How can an underwater missile be manned? Well, the credit goes to those who came up with this idea of putting a man in a torpedo. Their intention was not to create a suicide vessel as it might sound, but to create a cheap vessel in which they could fit one man. And this man or ‘pilot’ would attack the enemy from his weird contraption. Torpedoes of that time didn’t have seekers like their modern equivalents and needed some sort of guidance system. So here the pilot was the guidance system till the last step. The Germans were the only ones who built a genuine extreme form of a human torpedo. It was invented by Richard Mohr. But the first human torpedo was the Italian Maiale which was used during WWII. The British copied the design and named them as Chariots.


So how exactly did this work? The nose of the torpedo which contained the explosive was hollowed out and fitted with a seat and controls to steer the torpedo. The pilot would sit in this cramped space and drive the torpedo. And another torpedo would be slung to the underside of this human torpedo. When the pilot was able to drive his torpedo close to enemy vessels, he released the torpedo which was slung underneath his vehicle .This sounds extremely dangerous, and it was. Over 80% of the human torpedoes used by the Germans were lost in accidents than to enemy fire. It was highly inaccurate and unreliable. The pilot could not get a clear shot of the enemy ship unless he was very close to it and the enemy was stationary. The sights used by the pilot were similar to rifle sights and he had to aim and fire. The human torpedo also couldn’t submerge, it had a very low speed of just about 4 knots and had to travel along the surface, thus exposing itself to the enemy. This took away the element of surprise. But nevertheless, they were used during the war and succeeded in damaging several enemy vessels.

The German Neger human torpedo

The human torpedoes developed by other countries had different designs. The Italian ones used a detachable warhead which was used as a limpet mine (magnetic mine which was attached to the hull of a ship). Two men in diving suits steered the torpedo at a slow speed at the enemy ship and then on releasing the warhead, rode away in the torpedo. This was successfully employed several times during the war. The British Chariot was used in a different way. Two frogmen rode in the torpedo, they then attached an explosive charge beneath an enemy ship and returned. The advantage of the Chariot was that it could be launched and recovered safely from a submarine, unlike others which needed to be deployed from surface ships.

A ship under attack by human torpedoes
The British chariot

Frogmen attaching a ship with explosives

The German human torpedo, wasn’t a suicide weapon, but, the Japanese developed a similar concept called Kaiten and used it exclusively as a suicide weapon. Unlike the German ones, this one was a high speed torpedo with the torpedo engine compartment attached to a cylinder that would form the pilot’s compartment. The warhead was replaced with adequate guidance instruments and ballast. Early examples were designed so that the pilot could escape once he had accelerated and guided his torpedo towards the topic, but later models had this feature removed as it proved useless with no record of any pilot escaping. The torpedo was also fitted with a self-destructing timer which came into use if the impact fuse failed to detonate the torpedo. These Kaiten could be launched from submarines, cruisers or shore bases as a form of defense.

A model of Kaiten on board a Japanese sub
A line drawing of Kaiten


A modern SEAL delivery vehicle

The concept of human torpedo was gradually refined over the years. It evolved into a highly sophisticated Special Forces vehicle called the swimmer delivery vehicle. These are about the same size as conventional heavyweight torpedoes, but they have compartments for 2 frogmen to sit. Unlike their older versions which were at most equipped with a compass and periscope at most, the modern versions have Sonar, GPS, modulated ultrasound communication gear and oxygen tanks. They also have flotation tanks which can be flooded or blown empty to adjust buoyancy and altitude which enables smooth transition from underwater to the surface. They are capable of travelling underwater and on the surface but at low speeds. Their modern day use is to insert Special Forces into heavily guarded and hostile enemy territory for recon, rescue or sabotage missions. Their small size allows them to be fitted to submarines and sometimes they can be launched from the torpedo tubes of the submarines itself, thus adding to their flexibility. Their unique ability makes them indispensable for covert operations.

Launched from a submarine hanger the SUB SEAL can carry divers. Photo
SEAL Pod                                                            

Note: The credits for the photos are not mentioned as the copyright isn’t mentioned. Almost all the photos are in public domain. If the photo is your copyrighted property, contact us and due credits will be given.

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6 Replies to “Greatest World War II Weapons : Human Torpedo”

  1. All that blabbering on and all I wanted to know is did people did on human torpedos , they all wasted their time dis loyal white English have let others take over , our kind died for nothing .


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