Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
The human torpedo (originally known in Italian as the Siluro a Lenta Corsa (SLC) – "Slow-running torpedo") was an electrically propelled torpedo with two crew sitting astride the device and provided with instruments to control and navigate. The warhead was detachable and was used as a limpet mine. The crew wore diving suits while operating the device.
In operation the torpedo was carried to the approximate location of the target by another vessel, typically a normal submarine and then launched. It made its way to the target and the crew attached the warhead to it. They then used the remainder of the chariot to escape.
The idea was first successfully applied by the Italian Regia Marina early in World War II. Its operators nicknamed it maiale ("pig") because its first model was difficult to steer. The British version received the name "Chariot". The idea was not new, a British inventor - Commander Godfrey Herbert - had patented a manned torpedo design in 1909. It had been rejected as dangerous and unworkable by the War Office during World War I.
Timeline of manned torpedo operations (Italian and British)
- 1909: The British designer Commander Godfrey Herbert received a patent for a manned torpedo, but the War Office rejected the idea during WWI as impracticable.
- 1918: 1 November - a piloted torpedo manned by Raffaele Paolucci and Raffaele Rossetti entered Pola harbour, where they sank the Austrian battleship Viribus Unitis and the freighter Wien using limpet mines.
- 1930-1939: Between these years an Italian swam under water with an industrial oxygen rebreather, probably to make his sporting spearfishing – an early example of scuba diving . The Italian Navy, the Regia Marina , formed a naval department called "Decima Flottiglia Mas" ("X-MAS") under the command of Ernesto Forza. They made manned torpedoes, and trained frogmen (called nautatori) in secret. The frogmen named the torpedo maiale (Italian - "pig") because it was so difficult to steer.
- 10th June: Mussolini declared war on Britain.
- 21st August : The Italian submarine '’Iride carrying four manned torpedoes left La Spezia to attack Alexandria but it was spotted in the Gulf of Bomba on the Libyan coast and sank by British aircraft from HMS ‘’Eagle’’.
- 21st September : The Italian submarine Gondar left La Spezia carrying three manned torpedoes and eight divers. On the evening of the 28th it reached Alexandria in Egypt, but was spotted by a British warship which attacked and sank it. The crew surrendered.
- 24th September: The Italian submarine Scirè commanded by Junio Valerio Borghese left La Spezia carrying three manned torpedoes and another eight divers, but as it neared the target at Gibralter on 29th September it was ordered back to La Maddalena, because the British fleet had left.
- 21st October: The Scirè repeated the attempt on Gibraltar, successfully entering the harbour, but without damaging any ships. Two divers were captured, the other six crossed into Spain and from there returned to Italy.
- 25th May: The Scirè left La Spezia carrying three manned torpedoes. At Cadiz in Spain secretly took on six divers for them. It proceeded to Gibraltar, but found no warships. They crews tried without success to sink a ship. Again the crews swam ashore in Spain and returned to Italy.
- 26th July: Two manned torpedoes and ten speedboats carrying explosives left Italy to attack Valletta Malta. No ships were damaged. They came under heavy fire from the land; 15 seamen were killed, and 18 captured.
- 10th September: The Scirè repeated the previous years attempt on Gibraltar, again taking crew on at Cadiz. Three ships were sunk and the crew returned to Italy via Spain.
- 3rd December3: The Scirè left La Spezia for an attack on Alexandria. This time the crews for the three torpedos were taken on at Leros island in the Aegean Sea. On *19th December: The torpedos entered Alexandria harbour and sank a tanker and badly damaged the British battleships Valiant and Queen Elizabeth. The ships settled on the shallow harbour floor. They were unavailable for months, but able to simulate battle-readiness. The six torpedo-riders were all captured.
- 29th April: The Ambra left La Spezia, again taking on crews at Leros.
14th May: Arrived at Alexandria and attempted to sink a floating dock. The Ambra was spotted, and all six torpedo-riders captured.
- April: The British Navy formed the "Experimental Submarine Flotilla", based at Portsmouth under Commander G.M.Sladen and Commander W.R. "Tiny" Fell to train their own frogmen. The Navy called their manned torpedoes Chariots.
- June: The Experimental Submarine Flotilla moved to "Port D" on Loch Erisort in Scotland. They received their first manned torpedo - the "Mark I Chariot". Based on a 21 inches diameter torpedo with a 600 pound explosive warhead, tt had a top speed of just 3 knots, and could dive safely to 20 feet. Training was hard. The dangers of diving with pure oxygen and the unfamiliarity with their craft led to several incidents: Unconsciousness or convulsions because of oxygen poisoning, burst eardrums and sinus problems. They were trained to ride and steer for a long time under water, and later to cut through harbour defence nets. The hardest part was learning to work with the chariots' warheads.
- July: Italian frogmen were hidden in the cargo ship Olterra at Algeciras near Gibraltar.
- 13th July: Twelve Italian frogmen swam from the Olterra into Gibraltar harbour and set explosives; four ships were sunk and all returned safely.
- August: The British charioteers returned to Base HHZ at Loch Cairnbawn in Scotland to train for attacks on bigger better-defended places. One died in training.
- Operation "Title". The Norwegian navy officer Leif Larsen led an attack on the German battleship Tirpitz at Asenfjord, a branch of Trondheimdfjord in Norway.
- 26th October: The Norwegian fishing boat Arthur crewed by Leif and two other Royal Norwegian Navy seamen left Britain for Norway with six British frogmen and two chariots hidden on board.
- 28th October: Arthur arrived at the Norwegian coast near Edøy .
- 30th October: Arthur unloaded the chariots and began to tow them to the target.
- 31st October: During a storm the chariots were lost, and the attack was called off.
- 1st November: The Arthur was scuttled at Breivik and two groups set off for Sweden. Nine of the ten reached Sweden, the Germans captured and shot one.
- Late November: Britain sent 26 Chariots to Malta, as part of the "Tenth Submarine Flotilla". Three submarines were adapted to carry the Chariots in containers on the deck.
- 28th November: Operation Principle. The British submarine P-311 carrying 3 chariots and their men left Marsamxett on Malta to attack Maddalena on Sardinia, but was lost with all hands when it hit a mine near Sardinia.
- 30th November: The British submarines Thunderbolt and Trooper carrying chariots and the Unruffled' left Malta.
- 4th December: The Ambra left La Spezia to attack Algiers carrying frogmen and two chariots. Ten frogmen carrying limpet mines swam with the chariots. Due to the long distance involved they did not reach the harbour, but attacked ships outside the harbour, sinking two and damaging two others.
- 17th December:, Three chariots from the Olterra attacked three British warships HMS Nelson, HMS Formidable and HMS Furious at Gibraltar. A British patrol boat killed one chariot's crew with a depth charge. Another British patrol boat saw another chariot, pursued it and captured its two men. One chariot returned to the Olterra but without its rear rider.
- 3rd January: The submarines of "Operation Principle" , ‘’Thunderbolt’’ and ‘’Trooper’’ carrying 4 chariots arrived at the coast of Sicily near Palermo in bad weather.
- One chariot attached its warhead to the Italian warship Ulpio Traiano , and smaller explosives on four other ships. The Ulpio Traiano was sunk.
- One chariot damaged the Italian cargo ship Viminale. Later a British submarine sank the Viminale when it was being towed out of the harbour.
- Two chariots did not reach the harbour because of the bad weather .
- All the chariots had to be left there, through malfunctions or human error. One man died, Unruffled(P-46) picked up two, and five were taken prisoner. Two of them escaped from guards in Rome and hid in the Vatican until the Americans arrived in 1944. Two escaped from their guards in Libya and met up with a British army unit in Tripoli and subsequently reached England. Although many mines were laid several did not explode. Eight charioteers and two chariots now remained on Malta
- 18th – 19th January: These two chariots attacked ships that the Germans were going to use to block Triploi’s harbour. The attackers arrived late. A blockship was sunk in the harbour mouth but none of the crew returned to Malta.
- January: Training began for more charioteers at Lochs Corrie and Cairnbawn.
- 16th April: 14 new charioteers were sent to Malta, and equipped with the new model Chariot Mk II, also called the Terry. The crew sat back to back on this model which was capable of 4.5 knots, and carried a 1100 pound Torpex explosive warhead.
- 1943 May 8: Three Italian chariots went from the Olterra to attack Gibraltar in bad weather and sank three British ships and all returned to the Olterra.
- June: The British submarine ‘’Unseen ’’ out of Malta took three chariots to Sicily often to examine the beaches in advance of the landings, surveying 100 miles of coast.
- 11th June: The other British charioteers returned to Loch Cairnbawn.
- Late June: Britain sent six more charioteers out to Malta, to attack Taranto.
- 25th June: Mussolini resigned, replaced by Marshal Badoglio. The attack on Taranto was called off and all British frogmen returned to Scotland. Afterwards there was only a single British chariot attack in the Mediterranean.
- July: A charioteer died by accident in training.
- 3rd August: Three Italian chariots from the Olterra attacked Gibraltar and sank three ships; one of their men was captured the others returning to the Olterra.
- 8th September: Italy surrendered and changed sides. From this point the Italians fought for the Allies.
- 1943 September 24: Britain sent 4 chariots and 12 charioteers from Scotland to Lunna Voe in the Shetlands for training in operations among Norway's islands.
- 1943 October 2: A larger Italian frogman-carrier called Siluro San Bartolomeo or SSB was going to attack Gibraltar, and it carried four frogmen, and it was 33 feet long, but through Italy's surrender this attack was called off.
- 1943 October 14: A British torpedo boat carrying two chariots and four charioteers left Lunna Voe for Tevik Bay in Norway and landed a man called Job to wait until a German ship came, but German aircraft found the torpedo boat and attacked it. The badly damaged boat had to flee to Britain, landing at Dunbar in Scotland. Four days later another torpedo boat brought Job back to Shetland.
- 1943 October or November: A British torpedo boat carrying two chariots and four charioteers went from Lunna Voe to Nordfjord in Norway and set on land a man to wait until a German ship came, but in two days no German ship came, and they went back to Shetland.
- 1943 November 11: A British torpedo boat carrying two chariots and four charioteers went from Lunna Voe to Tevik Bay in Norway and set on land a man to wait until a German ship came to Askvoll harbor, but in two days no German ship came, and it snowed, and they thought that Askvoll harbor would be blocked with ice. As the torpedo boat went back to Shetland it ditched the chariots because of bad weather, and it brought the charioteers back.
- 1943 October 31: On this day or earlier British and American forces took Naples.
- 1943 October or November: To Brindisi in Italy went British frogmen, and those Italian frogmen who were in lands not held by Germany, and the Italian frogmen who were prisoners in Britain, and they all became one frogman organization.
- 1944: As part of the preparatiosn for the Normandy landings British Chariots were used to survey the coast and beaches.
- 1944 June 6: D-day, and British frogmen demolished many beach obstacles that One charioteer drove an army tank onto land.
- 1944 June 21: The Italian warship [[Grecale]] went from Bastia in Corsica carrying three fast boats and Italian frogmen and two British chariots, to attack the Italian warships Bolzano and Gorizia which Germans had in La Spezia. The Grecale carried them and the boats, and afterwards the boats carried them and released them three miles from La Spezia harbor. One chariot began to leak from its float tank and had to be abandoned. One chariot sank the Bolzano, which weighed 10000 tons. All four charioteers had to go on land there: one got back to the Allies and three were captured.
- 1944 October 27-28: The British submarine Trenchant carrying two chariots went to attack Phuket harbor in Thailand. The chariots, "Tiny" and "Slasher", were launched six miles out from the harbour. They sank two cargo ships and six hours later, on the only occasion this happened, British charioteers rode back to their mothership. A Japanese MTB was reported in the area and Trenchant jettisoned the chariots. Trenchant carried the four charioteers back to Trincomalee. This was the last Chariot operation of the war.
1945 and after
The British chariots were used in the immediate post war period for clearing mines and wrecks in harbours.
Some nations including Italy have continued to make and keep human torpedos after 1945.
- One is a captured Italian maiale.
- One is an original British Mark II which was found derelict in a scrapyard in Portsmouth and restored. In that make its two riders sat back to back.
- One is a working chariot that was made in 1992 in Milton Keynes with the outside appearance of a British wartime Mark I, but its internal working parts are different. It has been filmed in action for the television. It has a dummy warhead.
Original SLC are displayed at the Italian naval museum in Venice.
The three chariots seen in the movie The Silent Enemy (see below), representing Italian maiali, were crudely-made film props.
At least two makes of chariot-like diver-riders for sport divers have been in the diving gear trade since 1960. One of those makes was tradenamed "Dolphin" and was made on the Isle of Wight in the 1960s or 1970s: both its ends tapered to a point. Another make was USA-made and was like a naval chariot but its hull was thinner.
- C. Warren and J. Benson - Above Us The Waves (Harrap 1953)
- Junio Valerio Borghese - Sea Devils (1954)
- Robert W. Hobson - "Chariots of War" (Ulric Publishing 2004) ISBN 0954199715
- Jack Greene and Alessandro Massignani - The Black Prince and the Sea Devils: The Story of Prince Valerio Borghese and the Elite Units of the Decima Mas (2004) ISBN 0306813114
- A film, Above Us the Waves , was released in 1955; it concentrates on the midget submarine attack on Tirpitz
- The film The Silent Enemy (released in 1958) does not represent real events accurately. In particular, in the real world there was no attack on the Olterra, and no underwater hand-to-hand battle between Italian and British frogmen. The breathing sets used by the film actors representing the Italian frogmen seem to be British naval type rebreathers and not authentic Italian rebreathers.
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