HMS Polyphemus – The original of H.G. Wells’ Thunder Child

      Martian Fighting Machine in 1906 Edition

H.G. Wells’ “The War of the Worlds” first appeared in 1897 and described in terrifying detail how late-Victorian Britain was powerless to resist the devastation wreaked by huge Martian “walking machine” tripods armed with heat-days and “black smoke” poison gas. The most dramatic and memorable incident involves frantic efforts of refugees to escape in ships across the English Channel to France. The story is told from the viewpoint of the narrator’s brother, who is on one of the steamers. Just as this vessel draws away from the British coast three Martian tripods appear and begin to wade out after her. Let’s hear how Wells tells it:

“About a couple of miles out lay an ironclad, very low in the water, almost, to my brother’s perception, like a waterlogged ship. This was the ram Thunder Child. It was the only warship in sight, but far away to the right over the smooth surface of the sea – for that day there was a dead calm –lay a serpent of black smoke to mark the next ironclads of the Channel Fleet, which hovered in an extended line, steam up and ready for action, across the Thames estuary during the course of the Martian conquest, vigilant and yet powerless to prevent it…”

The Thunder Child drives towards the Martians…

“…. Big iron upperworks rose out of this headlong structure, and from that twin funnels projected and spat a smoking blast shot with fire. It was the torpedo ram, Thunder Child, steaming headlong, coming to the rescue of the threatened shipping.

Keeping his footing on the heaving deck by clutching the bulwarks, my brother looked past this charging leviathan at the Martians again, and he saw the three of them now close together, and standing so far out to sea that their tripod supports were almost entirely submerged. Thus sunken, and seen in remote perspective, they appeared far less formidable than the huge iron bulk in whose wake the steamer was pitching so helplessly. It would seem they were regarding this new antagonist with astonishment. To their intelligence, it may be, the giant was even such another as themselves. The Thunder Child fired no gun, but simply drove full speed towards them. It was probably her not firing that enabled her to get so near the enemy as she did. They did not know what to make of her. One shell, and they would have sent her to the bottom forthwith with the Heat-Ray.

Suddenly the foremost Martian lowered his tube and discharged a canister of the black gas at the ironclad. It hit her larboard side and glanced off in an inky jet that rolled away to seaward, an unfolding torrent of Black Smoke, from which the ironclad drove clear. To the watchers from the steamer, low in the water and with the sun in their eyes, it seemed as though she were already among the Martians.

They saw the gaunt figures separating and rising out of the water as they retreated shoreward, and one of them raised the camera-like generator of the Heat-Ray. He held it pointing obliquely downward, and a bank of steam sprang from the water at its touch. It must have driven through the iron of the ship’s side like a white-hot iron rod through paper.

           Thunder Child’s attack – by Henrique Alvim Corréa  in 1906 edition

A flicker of flame went up through the rising steam, and then the Martian reeled and staggered. In another moment he was cut down, and a great body of water and steam shot high in the air. The guns of the Thunder Child sounded through the reek, going off one after the other, and one shot splashed the water high close by the steamer … but no one heeded that very much. At the sight of the Martian’s collapse the captain on the bridge yelled inarticulately, and all the crowding passengers on the steamer’s stern shouted together. And then they yelled again. For, surging out beyond the white tumult, drove something long and black, the flames streaming from its middle parts, its ventilators and funnels spouting fire.

She was alive still; the steering gear, it seems, was intact and her engines working. She headed straight for a second Martian, and was within a hundred yards of him when the Heat-Ray came to bear. Then with a violent thud, a blinding flash, her decks, her funnels, leaped upward. The Martian staggered with the violence of her explosion, and in another moment the flaming wreckage, still driving forward with the impetus of its pace, had struck him and crumpled him up like a thing of cardboard. My brother shouted involuntarily. A boiling tumult of steam hid everything again…

… The steam hung upon the water for many minutes, hiding the third Martian and the coast altogether… and when at last the confusion cleared, the drifting bank of black vapour intervened, and nothing of the Thunder Child could be made out, nor could the third Martian be seen.”

                       HMS Polyphemus – illustrations at time of her launch 

Contemporary readers would have recognised the Thunder Child as being based on HMS Polyphemus, the only torpedo-ram ever built for the Royal Navy, a bizarre but impressive experiment that was never repeated. Commissioned in 1881, she was designed as a fast, low-profile vessel of shallow-draft, with torpedoes as its main offensive weapons, with her ram as a back-up. A “stealth ship” of her time, she was designed for attack by night and for penetrating enemy anchorages.

              Polyphemus in drydock

The automotive “fish” torpedo was a new weapon in the 1870s and its ability to inflict damage to a ship’s hull below the waterline was clearly its main advantage. Opinions differed on how best it could be employed and through the 1870s various solutions were considered. One of these was the torpedo-ram concept and it was to find its embodiment in the Polyphemus, a partly armoured cigar-shaped vessel that would run almost awash and carry five submerged 14-inch torpedo tubes, one of them – quite surprisingly – running down the centre of the ram.  As completed in 1881 she was 240 feet long and of 2640 tons. Her twin-shaft steam engines gave her at maximum speed of 17.8 knots.

She was innovative in several ways. Her armoured turtle-deck ran almost awash and her low superstructure – which included six cylindrical shields in each of which a 1-inch semi-automatic Nordenvelt gun was mounted – sat on top and was designed to float free in the event of sinking. The hull-shape had been optimised for minimum resistance – as can be seen from diagrams – and a retractable rudder was built into the bows to facilitate movement astern, and to decrease her  turning circle when going ahead. Polyphemus was also equipped with a separate 250-ton cast iron keel which could be dropped in an emergency The drill and the mechanism for doing so was tested every two weeks. She was the first Royal Navy ship to be fitted with an 80-volt direct current electrical system – this lower-voltage system reflecting experience of the dangers of the 800-volt system used on the navy’s first “electric ship” HMS Inflexible.

                                      HMS Polyphemus, seen here at Malta

The Polyphemus spent much of her career, until she was relegated to secondary duties in 1900, in the Mediterranean. Given the low hull profile, and the need to minimise deck openings, working conditions in the boiler and machinery spaces must have been uncomfortable in the extreme. It was soon recognised that the design concept was a dead-end, as the arrival of quick-firing weapons was likely to make her very vulnerable since, due to her size, she would never have the nimbleness and “survivability” of a much smaller torpedo-boat. Launching of her 14-inch torpedoes, which had a range of 600 yards only, demanded almost suicidal closing with an enemy ship.

           HMS Polyphemus ramming the boom at Berehaven 30th June 1885

Polyphemus was to have one brief moment of glory, not in combat with Martians, but when a war scare in 1885 raised the possibility of action against the Russian Navy. Penetration of the Russian base at Kronstadt was considered, with Polyphemus using her ram to smash through protective floating booms and open the way for other ships to follow. A trial was accordingly arranged at Berehaven, the Royal Navy anchorage in South-West Ireland. A boom, similar to one the Russians might employ was constructed, the floating obstacles linked by 5-inch steel cables and with nets attached to entangle propellers. Six small torpedo boats were assigned to patrolling the approaches. On 30th June the Polyphemus mounted her attack, building up speed on a two-mile run towards the boom and evading some ten practice-torpedoes launched by the opposing patrol boats. She smashed her way through the boom – unfortunately the only existing photograph was taken from a distance and the full drama is not conveyed by it – and she proved that in this one very special scenario she could prove her worth.

             Contemporary artist’s impression show the boom being breached
Thumbnail at top-left shows Polyphemus steaming away unharmed
Note cylindrical shields for Nordenveldts

And that was the end of her spell in the limelight. War with Russia was averted and she returned to routine – and probably very uncomfortable – service. When the Royal Navy finally attacked Kronstadt, in 1919, against Bolshevik forces, it was with light motor-torpedo boats with a turn of speed – some 40 knots – inconceivable when Polyphemus was designed. The only other scenario in which she might have proved of value was that described by H.G. Wells.

And that was fictional.

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