- Colonial navies, Ship design and development, History - pre-Federation
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- March 1981 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
ORIGINALLY THERE WERE THIRTY-THREE BUILT, comprising five classes in all. They were the torpedo gunboats of the Royal Navy, a smaller but faster variant of the traditional cruiser, but capable of mounting a powerful armament of guns and torpedoes. All ships entered service between 1887 and 1895, but by the dawn of the new century, active service proved performance beyond anything but satisfactory.
The five variants, Rattlesnake, Grasshopper, Sharpshooter, Alarm and Dryad classes, all experienced trouble with their boilers, curtailing their designed speeds. During the naval manoeuvres of 1893, one naval writer commented on the torpedo gunboats which participated. ‘The majority of these vessels are complete failures . . . They are increasingly breaking down and their speed at sea constantly falls short of their normal speed on paper by as much as 30-40 percent.’ Despite these failures the vessels proved to be excellent sea boats and by the mid 1890s were being employed as scouts in naval manoeuvres, as it had been realised that as catchers of torpedo boats they were practically useless.
Most were eventually re-engined to remedy the speed defect, and in the Alarm type, one vessel, HMS Speedy, was fitted for Thornycroft’s own water tube boilers from the outset. The survivors of the Sharpshooter, Alarm and Dryad classes eventually saw service during the Great War as minesweepers and in this new guise provided useful service to the fleet.
HMS Rattlesnake, the first torpedo gunboat accepted into service, was built by Laird and completed in May 1887. She was a 550 ton vessel mounting an armament of one 4 inch breech-loading and six 3 pdr. quickfiring guns, as well as four 14 inch torpedo tubes. The latter were mounted via bow and stern fixed tubes and one trainable tube on either beam. Four reloads were carried, one for each tube.
Rattlesnake was originally ordered in response to the Russian war scare and was not sold until 1910. Although she was the pioneer of this type of vessel, Rattlesnake proved to be about the best of the entire group. However, her designers imagined that a slight reduction in displacement coupled with the same 2,700 horsepower would give better results.
They therefore ordered the three-ship Grasshopper class which followed the prototype torpedo gunboat into service during the year 1888. This group proved to be very much like their predecessor, although sea performance attained was not as satisfactory. Each vessel carried 80 tons of coal, giving a range of action of 2,800 miles at 10 knots, economical speed. Yet although the three vessels had advantage over torpedo boats in the matter of seaworthiness and radius of action, the Grasshoppers were sadly deficient in speed. All three vessels were decommissioned during 1903-1905.
The failure of the three 1887 boats to go any faster than Rattlesnake had the immediate effect of rousing the Admiralty to solve the speed riddle. Accordingly in the autumn of that year the keel was laid of a new torpedo gunboat. This third group, known as the Sharpshooter class, numbered thirteen vessels in all, thus becoming the largest class numerically to be built. At 735 tons and mounting five 14 inch torpedo tubes, two 4 7 inch and four 3 pdr. guns, they displaced over 200 tons greater than the Grasshopper type. Despite the hopes of their designers the class could not achieve the designed 21 knots, with some boats reaching only 17 knots. During construction four vessels were allotted to the colonies, with Assaye and Plassey going to India and Whiting and Wizard to the Australian Station. The latter pair were renamed Boomerang and Karrakatta respectively on 2nd April 1890, and both completed by Armstrongs in February 1891.
The Australian pair arrived in Sydney during September 1891, with the five cruisers of the Auxiliary Squadron, HM Ships Katoomba, Mildura, Ringarooma, Tauranga and Wallaroo. Normal practice was to keep only one torpedo-gunboat in active service with regular rotation with the other. The total cost of Boomerang and Karrakatta and the five cruisers, including armament, was £853,977stg to the Australian colonies, with a further £120,000stg annual maintenance and wages. Boomerang and Karrakatta eventually returned to Great Britain and were sold on 11th July 1905.
During their initial years in commission, the Sharpshooter class suffered many mechanical failures, and as well their hulls were structurally weak, unable to stand the strain of rough weather. The failure of these boats to excel the Rattlesnake and Grasshopper types was a bitter disappointment to the Admiralty. During fleet manoeuvres of 1890 several of the vessels were outrun and in the case of Rattlesnake taken prisoner by the torpedo boats she was supposed to hunt down and destroy.