The torpedo – the original nightmare weapon

Ever since the first simple muzzle-loading cannons began to be used on ships in the 14th century, artillery had grown in importance to become to be the most important element in naval warfare from the end of the 16th century. It was always the largest and most heavily armed vessels that formed the core of every fleet. Any fleet that lacked what came to be known as ships of the line could not hope to challenge another fleet comprised of anything resembling those. The budding American fleet, at the end of the 18th century had invested in using a number of fast and for their class heavily armed frigates to annoy the British fleet by attacking convoys, destroy lone British frigates, etc., but they could not overwhelm the Royal Navy’s ultimate maritime supremacy. Whoever had the most and largest cannons usually won. Certainly there were occasions when smaller vessels managed to sink individual ships of the line in battle, but this was the exception rather than the rule. It was the ships with the heavy cannons that ultimately ruled the waves.

When armoured vessels began to appear, it briefly seemed as if the situation would change, but soon enough it would be the heaviest gunned ships once again, this time with armour plating for protection, which would be at the core of every major fleet. During the periods when gunfire seemed to have difficulty in piercing the latest armour, there took place experiments with reintroducing the tactic from antiquity of ramming the opposition.

At the beginning of the 19th century early types of mine had begun to appear, often at that time called torpedoes, and they presented a certain threat to the dominance of the largest warships. Early types of submarine, such as the Confederate’s Hunley used spar torpedoes, consisting of an explosive charge at the end of a long pole, to be used to attack major warships, although this type of weapon was almost as dangerous for the user as for the proposed victim.

The self-propelled torpedo

The weapon that would really set the cat among the Navy’s pigeons was the self-propelled torpedo. Today this is what we mean when speaking of the torpedo, an underwater projectile that independently moves towards the intended target. The creator of the first successful self-propelled torpedo was the British engineer Robert Whitehead who started in 1866 to promote his Whitehead torpedo, the predecessor of all of today’s torpedoes. Whitehead’s torpedoes, along with the French and German equivalents that quickly came on the scene, were, just like today’s model, a long cylinder driven by a rear-mounted propeller and with an explosive charge at the front.

It was however not the British fleet which was the first to employ the new weapon. Whitehead had worked for Austria-Hungary, certainly a major power in Central Europe, but in naval terms a minor actor. It is therefore not so strange that the Austrian fleet was more receptive to testing new weapons that could give them an advantage and increased power at sea. But even the more traditionalist British fleet could not afford to ignore the new weapon; in 1869 they were given a demonstration during a visit, and the next year bought its first torpedoes.

The first torpedoes were not completely technically reliable, nor fast, but they did make it possible to arm smaller ships and boats with torpedoes and give them a weapon that actually presented a real threat to even the largest warship. This weapon was developed, of course, and eventually struck its first victim, which proved that the threat was real. The arrival of the first high speed torpedo boats led to fleets all over the world feeling they were forced to acquire fast ships that could prevent the torpedo boats from getting to the battleships and cruisers. These were called “Torpedo boat destroyers” which over time became just “destroyers”. In Sweden the term was torpedo boat hunters which led to the term “jagare” which is an adaption from the swedish term for hunter, “jägare” as an equivalent to the English language destroyer and the German zerstörer. However destroyers gradually also became equipped with torpedoes and over time the vessel types merged.

Apart from torpedo boats and destroyers, the torpedo also became the perfect weapon for the early submarines, and even small vessels, called motor torpedo boats, began to appear. During the First World War the heavy armoured battleship arrived, the modern successor to the sailing ship of the line, to meet and also co-operate with destroyers, submarines and motor torpedo boats. Properly used, the torpedo showed itself to be truly a deadly threat to traditional warships. Although it is usually the German submarines that stole the limelight, one of the most spectacular episodes was when a lone Italian motor torpedo boat hit and sank the Austro-Hungarian battleship Szent Istvan (Saint Stephen) in the Adriatic. A skilled and cold-blooded Italian captain steered his little vessel to a perfect firing position and hit the battleship with both his torpedoes. Afterwards he used his small size and speed to quickly escape out of reach.

SMS Tegetthoff Otranto

The battleship SMS Szent Istvan heeled over and about to sink. Her sister ship, SMS Tegetthoff at the right is trying to rescue the survivors.

During the First World War (1914-1918) aircraft were developed to become a valuable weapon platform so that even they were eventually equipped with torpedoes. During the Second World War (1939-1945) aircraft carriers took over the battleship’s role as the core of major fleets and after that war no more battleships were built. Torpedo-equipped aircraft scored major successes and were instrumental in several important episodes, such as the attacks on Taranto and Pearl Harbor, the chase and sinking of the battleship Bismarck and many other events.

The torpedo is still a highly relevant weapon system that still has advantages over anti-ship missiles. One of these is that torpedoes cannot be jammed in the same way as target-seeking missiles, except in the case of certain target seeking torpedoes, that is. But a torpedo that is fired to a pre-programmed position or that receives its steering signals through a wire from its firing vessel, cannot be jammed by electronic or other countermeasures. All the target can do is to try to perform evasive manoeuvres and hope for the best.

Anti-ship glide bombs and aerial torpedoes

The War also saw the first attempts to have unmanned remotely steered flying weapons. The first to produce an effective weapon was Germany, when in 1943 it brought out the Fritz X and Henschel Hs 293. Both of these would today be called glide bombs, although the Henschel Hs 293 was equipped with a small rocket engine to give the weapon longer range, and allow it to be released from a lower altitude. The Fritz X was a pure glide bomb and was intended for use against armoured ships, whilst the Henschel Hs 293 was intended for use against unarmoured ships.

Both were radio-controlled and steered towards the target by the bomb aimer in the aircraft that released the weapon. This meant that the controlling aircraft could stay away from the target and beyond anti-aircraft fire range. During 1943 and 1944 several successful attacks were carried out with both weapons. The first was the sinking of the Italian battleship Roma in 1943 when that ship was on its way to be handed over to the allies after the Italian surrender. The Roma was sunk by a German bomber aircraft using a Fritz X. There was however only one aircraft unit that used the Fritz X, Kampfgeschwader (KG) 100, as it was a weapon that required special instruction and training in order to be used effectively. The Henschel Hs 293 was used by both KG 100 and KG 40.

Fritz X

American cutaway drawing of the German Fritz X anti-ship glide bomb. Image: US Air Force

While the aircraft controlling the bomb could of course keep out of range of anti-aircraft fire, it was more vulnerable to defending fighter aircraft, since its pilot had as much as possible to fly straight and level in parallel with the target to enable the bomb aimer to steer the bomb straight to the target. If the pilot was forced to take evasive action the bomb aimer could lose control and perhaps not be able to regain it. Nevertheless this weapon did, however, give the Luftwaffe the ability to carry out effective attacks despite the Allies gaining air supremacy. In order to counteract the glide bombs the Allies, with increasing effect, used jammers to interfere with the control signals between the control aircraft and the bomb, even though the Germans in turn tried to counteract the Allied jammers. There were also plans for a TV-controlled missile, and even a built-in target seeker, but they never came to fruition.

One interesting detail is that the British military started to use the term “aerial torpedo” for the German glider bombs. A similar term was also used in Sweden at the same time , although this included not just glide bombs but also the early V1 and V2 German missiles, along with possible future weapons that are today called anti-ship missiles that could be fired from aircraft, ships or land bases.

It was instead the USA that in 1945 brought into service the glide bomb Type ASM-N-2 Bat. This was, just like the Fritz X, a purely glide bomb. Although equipped with its own radar target seeker. This weapon damaged and sank several Japanese ships, but was not the breakthrough that was anticipated, since there were relatively few Japanese ships left available to attack.

So by the end of the War there existed an embryo of what would become the anti-ship missile, and the target seeking glide bombs had shown that correctly used they were an effective weapon. However they also had limitations; in the case of the German weapon needed to stay quite close to make sure it stayed in control, and also had to keep to a certain height to glide downwards. This did not apply to the Henschel Hs 293 which had a rocket motor to assist.

After the War the development of missiles mainly focused on other types than anti-ship missiles, with the exception of Sweden. The USA concentrated on anti-aircraft (surface to air) guided and unguided missiles. That country’s first unguided anti-aircraft missiles entered service in 1954, followed by guided missiles in 1956.

The Soviet Union changes strategy

By the end of the 1940s the USA had the world’s most powerful navy and together with the British Royal Navy dominated the oceans. The Soviet Union chose therefore to focus on a strategy called “Sea denial”, which meant that they tried to make it difficult for any other Power to operate in a certain maritime area without having to face up to an opposing fleet.. The USSR saw ant-ship missiles as a weapon of the future. Such a weapon would give aviation and ship-borne forces the ability to attack stronger American naval units from a long distance without them having to expose themselves to any great risk. They began therefore to develop a missile that would be small enough to be able to be carried on so-called motor torpedo boats as well as on larger ships. The first missile was however the air-launched KS-1 Komet (NATO reporting name Kennel), that was based on the scaled down aerodynamics of the Mig-15 fighter aircraft. These entered service in 1955 at the same time as the larger ship-borne Shchuka anti-ship missile (NATO reporting name SS-N-1 Scrubber), which could carry a nuclear warhead.

The Soviet Union also anticipated being forced to fight an opponent who at least to some extent could achieve air supremacy, and this was perhaps what drove the development of weapons with long range. Central to each American fleet was the aircraft carrier, and their aircraft were their most important attack weapon, so the driving force to develop anti-ship missiles on the part of the Americans was not so great. Aircraft could do the same job. Even Sweden believed it would have to fight against an attacker with dominance in the air, so Sweden was also interested in producing a weapon that could be fired a long way from the aggressor and then find its own way to the target. Even France had come a long way towards developing anti-ship missiles, so it is not surprising that this was the direction taken by Sweden.

In 1958 the Soviet anti-ship missile P-15 Termit entered service. It later received the NATO reporting name SS-N-2 Styx and was for a long time most familiar under that name. Unlike the Missile Type RB 08 and the Shchuka, even relatively small vessels could be armed with this missile, which gave the Warsaw Pact’s naval attack forces a real advance in capability.

Sweden followed in 1962 with the air-launched Missile Type RB 04 and in 1966 with the ship-launched Missile Type RB 08. It was not until the 1970s that other Western countries seriously brought ship borne anti-ship missiles into service, with France in the lead.

It took until 1967 that the modern anti-ship missile would make its debut with a bang. This took place some months after the Six-Day War between Israel and the Arab countries, when Egyptian missile boats of the Soviet Komar class would show precisely how effective the new weapon was in a confrontation of a David and Goliath character. Israel had actually won the Six-Day War by a surprise attack on the Egyptian, Jordanian and Syrian Air Force bases. But the fighting did not end completely because there ensued a low-intensity conflict between mainly Egypt and Israel, known as the War of Attrition.


Komar class missile boat firing a P-15 Termit (Styx) anti-ship missile.

The end of the Eilat

On October 21st 1967 the Israeli destroyer INS Eilat (formerly the British HMS Zealous) was patrolling in international waters off the Egyptian port of Port Said. Some moths previously Eilat, together with two Israeli motor torpedo boats, had encountered two Egyptian motor torpedo boats and sunk them, so her crew was prepared for action. No suspicious movements were seen on radar or visually, and this may have given the crew a false sense of security. But the Egyptians had been watching the destroyer’s movements and a Komar class missile boat fired two P-15 Termit (Styx) missiles, which started a new era in naval warfare.

Due to the missile’s longer range, its launching boat did not need to leave the harbour, which would certainly have warned the crew of INS Eilat that something was afoot. It was only when the radar detected the two missiles on their way that the destroyer tried to evade them, but at 17:32 the first missile struck the Eilat. Two minutes later the second missile hit. Initially the Israelis fought to keep the destroyer afloat while waiting for assistance, but two more Styx missiles were fired. One of these missed, but the other hit amidships and two minutes later the destroyer sank, taking 47 sailors down into the deep.

This sinking alarmed the world’s navies. The Israelis were quick to learn their lesson and began immediately to design their own missile boats and develop their own anti-ship missile. During the following years anti-ship robots would claim more victims, including the time when Israeli missile boats successfully went into battle against the Egyptians in 1973. New weapons were developed to shoot down incoming missiles, not least those which like the Styx flew quite high. In reply to this, new missiles were developed that flew just above the sea’s surface and were therefore more difficult to detect with radar. Internationally such missiles were often called “sea-skimmers”.


In 1982 a new anti-ship missile made the headlines all over the world and its name soon became known even to the general public. It was during the Falklands War between Great Britain and Argentina that a new French anti-ship missile would come on to the scene. A British naval task force had sailed to the South Atlantic in order to land British forces and retrieve the Falkland Islands, which had been unexpectedly invaded by Argentine forces. One of the British ships was HMS Sheffield, which had the task of, among other things, protecting the two British aircraft carriers and freighters against Argentinian air attacks. Argentina had recently purchased French Super Etendard aircraft, which could be armed with the new Exocet anti-ship missile, which is a so-called low sea skimmer. Argentina had however only a few Exocet missiles, so the extent of the threat was not completely clear.

Two Argentine Super Etendards, flown by pilots Augusto Bedacarratz and Armando Mayora, carried out a skilful attack against HMS Sheffield. Other British ships observed the aircraft from time to time, but they stayed at the extreme limit of the ships’ radar until they made their final attack. While other British ships reacted to the threat, by going to action stations and firing decoy targets, it was only when a lookout on the Sheffield saw the smoke from the rapidly approaching missiles that action was taken. Instead of immediately taking countermeasures, the anti-air warfare officer was recalled to the operations room from having coffee in the wardroom. He did not believe the Sheffield was within range of Argentina’s Super Étendard aircraft that carried the missiles. This was just one of several damning factors affecting defence that were only revealed many years later. When the incoming missiles came into view, officers on the bridge were “mesmerised” by the sight and did not broadcast a warning to the ship’s company.

Sheffield had earlier considered that the Exocet threat was exaggerated. Now they paid the price. The missiles were flying so low that they were already very close before the lookout saw them. One of them missed, but the other hit the Sheffield and caused such severe damage that in the end she sank. The fact that a single missile could sink a modern destroyer specialising in anti-aircraft warfare, was a major wake-up call.

destructor HMS Sheffield

HMS Sheffield on fire after being hit by an Exocet missile. Source:Argentina.gob.arCC BY-SA 4.0

The sinking of HMS Sheffield also led to the Royal Navy removing from its ships all fittings that were in any way inflammable. The missile’s effect in the ship’s gunroom (junior officers’ mess) was to set off an explosive fire due to the room being clad in wooden panels, curtains and wall-to-wall carpeting that quickly lit.

Even the USA’s fleet often encountered Iranian anti-ship missiles in the Persian Gulf, but efficient firefighting and other emergency measures saved them from disaster. However many other ships, above all tankers, have been sunk, either by Exocet or P-15 Styx missiles fired from Iraq or Iran. More defences, even against sea skimming missiles, have appeared, in the form of both jamming transmitters and multi-barrel fast-firing anti-aircraft guns. Over time it has appeared that anti-ship missiles have joined the great variety of existing weapons. It is assessed that to sink a modern warship it would require many missiles to overcome the ship’s anti-aircraft weapons.

Moskva on April 13th 2022

In connection with the recent Russian invasion of the Ukraine the flagship of the Russian Black Sea Fleet, the missile cruiser Moskva was patrolling off the coast of Ukraine. Moskva was mainly equipped to defend the rest of the fleet against all forms of air attack. She had three layers of air protection, namely long range and short range anti-aircraft missiles along with multi-barrel anti-aircraft cannons specially designed to shoot down incoming anti-ship missiles. Exactly what happened is not clear, but on April 13th came information from Ukraine that Moskva had been hit by two Type R-360 Neptune anti-ship missiles. To start with Russia refused to admit that anything was wrong, but finally it was obvious that the Moskva had sunk, so the story maintained that she had suffered a severe fire of unknown origin. This was elaborated by further information that an ammunition store had exploded and that the ship sank while being towed on April 14th.

Project 1164 Moskva 2009

The missile cruiser Moskva in 2009. Photo: George Chernilevsky

However Ukraine continued to assert that they had fired two missiles, both of which hit. A Turkish Type TB-2 Bayraktar UAV may have been used to guide the attack. The fact that two missiles could sink such a large ship as the 12,000 tons Moskva seemed to many to be almost impossible. In fact many found it hard to believe that it would be enough for only two missiles to achieve a hit, as the anti-aircraft defences of the Moskva should have easily shot them down. One alternative was that it was a question of an attack using many more missiles, more than six, as these would theoretically suffice to overwhelm Moskva’s defensive system and her crew’s ability to handle them. Weather conditions, for example rain, could hinder detection, as could the height of the waves. There seem to have been higher waves than normal at that particular time, perhaps enough to make it difficult for anti-aircraft guns to hit the missiles. Also the Neptune missiles, just like Exocet, are sea skimmers. This meant that before Moskva’s radar could detect them they would be too close to be vulnerable to the long distance anti-aircraft missiles on the ship. Although the short distance missiles could have been used, the waves could equally well have disturbed their radar and masked the oncoming sea skimming missiles to a greater extent than normal.

Certain parallels can be drawn with the sinking of HMS Sheffield where a combination of a well planned and skilfully performed attack and what amounted to almost arrogance on the part of the captain of Sheffield had a fatal result. In the case of the INS Eilat where the missiles were fired from land and no sign of an attack could be seen by the victim until the missiles were sighted, this was a similar problem.

The Moskva’s task was to defend the Black Sea Fleet from airborne attacks. The knowledge that the ship had powerful anti-aircraft protection may have given the crew a false sense of security. The logic for Ukraine should have been to focus on the weaker units of the Black Sea Fleet, because it would be too difficult and demand too many resources to be able to perform a successful attack on a modern missile cruiser. But Ukraine chose to do the opposite and aim at knocking out the warship that comprised the major part of the Black Sea Fleet’s air defence capability.

But two missile hits should not have been able to sink such a large ship. The implication is that the routines for firefighting and emergency repairs were not what they should have been. The American warships that were hit by missiles managed better, above all because their crews were well trained in fighting fires and in reducing damage on board their ships, and due to the ships’ design features.. Not least the ammunition magazines are well protected, which appears not to have been the case for the Moskva.

The Moskva on fire and apparently abandoned by its crew. Photographer unknown.

A smal effort with large consequences

The Moskva is the largest warship to have been sunk since the Second World War. What seems to have happened was that she was hit by one or two type Neptune anti-ship missiles that managed to get through the cruiser’s various defensive layers. Fire then broke out, which due to inadequate firefighting and also because of the ship’s design, reached an ammunition magazine which exploded. This damaged the ship to such an extent that she later sank, despite the presence of several tugboats equipped with firefighting equipment that managed to reach her.

The loss of the Moskva led to Ukraine’s air force having the possibility of being able to dominate the Black Sea, and the threat of an amphibious landing against Odessa being reduced. It has also led to Russia being forced to evacuate the strategically important Snake Island in the Black Sea after the Ukraine carried out air raids against the island and attacked ships that were transporting supplies and equipment to the Russian troops on the island, including anti-aircraft systems.

At the time of writing it appears that seldom have two missile strikes had so great and direct consequences.