PT Boats, or Patrol Torpedo Boats, were a secondary element in World War 2 navies, but an essential one. They dominated a specific part of naval warfare, that of night warfare in coastal waters, but in that part they were essential because neither other vessels nor aircraft could perform as they did.
The PT Boats were faster and smaller than all other vessels. For example, the ELCO PT boat type had a speed of 40 knots, displacement of 38 tons, and length of 24m/80ft, a midget warship. They were armed with torpedoes, mines, and depth charges against targets much larger than themselves, and with rapid fire guns and machine guns against their counterparts and other small targets. The PT boats went out almost night after night to raid the enemy's coastal shipping or to protect their side's shipping from the enemy's night raiders.
Their deadly encounters with the enemy were usually short, and often sudden to both sides. They often used stealth to silently search for and ambush the enemy along its shipping routes, and then used their powerful engines only once they were detected, to attack a much larger enemy and then escape at top speed.
PT boats crewsFighting in the small PT boats required highly capable crews, due to the unique characteristics of their type of warfare, which somewhat resembles that of airmen. First, in a warship with a crew of about a dozen sailors (depending on the type), each man is very important to the ship's success and survival. The intensity and the speed of events in PT boat warfare often required their commanders to very quick tactical decision-making, where a mistake was often fatal, or failed the mission. It also almost always demanded courage and initiative, of both commanders and sailors. Many were decorated for their combat actions, both in successful missions and in desperate attempts to survive.
PT boat gunners had to be very fast and accurate in operating their weapons in those fierce and brief battles, and the difficulty of constant exposure to the strong wind and water on the open deck of a fast tiny vessel, especially in the North Sea, while having to be in constant readiness for a sudden encounter, was so physically exhausting that to some missions they had to take a replacement crew even for a one night mission. One American commander tried to overcome this by gathering as many athletes to his unit as he could. The British solution was to have many crews of volunteers with previous civilian experience in operating yachts and other small vessels.
PT boat engineers were often required to be technical wizards, as their ability to urgently repair battle-damaged engines and other damages, often in extreme conditions of fire, smoke, etc, meant the difference between limping back to base or being sunk or exploded. Many engineers were decorated for their performance in such conditions. For example, the engineer of PT boat 191 that was badly hit by Japanese aircraft, received the Navy Cross for fixing the damaged engine, preventing fire, and saving the lives of injured crew members, all while still under Japanese fire.
PT boats tactics and operationsPT boats operated mainly at night for two reasons:
First, with their small size, low profile, and high speed, they could use the night to get very close to the enemy without being detected (which larger surface vessels could not), and could quickly maneuver and escape once detected (which submarines could not). They could also operate very close to the beach in shallow waters (which both larger surface vessels and submarines could not) and used this ability to ambush or hide, perform intelligence missions, commando team landings, rescue missions (mostly of downed airmen), and even attack targets ashore with gunfire, including daring penetrations into protected enemy harbors.
Second, in daylight, attack aircraft and torpedo bombers could do a better job in attacking enemy shipping and with less risk, and the PT boats themselves were in danger of being detected and attacked in daytime. So the PT boats naturally concentrated most of their activity in night operations in coastal waters, in which they had advantage over other vessels and aircraft, but where there was a lower risk in daylight operations, they did that too.
The PT boats operated during the entire war in three main areas:
- The North Sea, between Britain and German-occupied Western Europe, where British, and later also American PT boats, clashed intensively with their elusive and faster German counterparts, the German S-boats (S for speed, in both German and English). Each side tried to attack the other's coastal shipping routes and protect his from the enemy's attacks.
- The Mediterranean Sea, where British, American, Italian, and German PT boats participated intensively in the naval warfare which mostly supported the ground war effort in North Africa and later in Italy, but also included activity to support resistance to the Nazi occupation of the Balkans and Greece.
- The South Pacific islands and the Philippines, where American PT boats operated intensively in attacking the Japanese coastal shipping traffic of troops and supplies among the many islands, and also attacked larger Japanese warships and coastal ground targets and directly supported amphibious landings.
American PT Boats and other torpedo boat typesSince before World War 2 the military development of torpedo boats was quite neglected by the western naval powers, the basic technologies of civilian fast motor boat construction were openly shared internationally by export contracts, and as a result, when the war started both sides generally had a similar technological starting point, with some advantage to The Axis thanks to more powerful engines and the military emphasis of development.
Several hundred torpedo boats of each of the following types were constructed:
- American PT Boats - there were two similar types of American PT boats, ELCO and Higgins. They were based on British designs, with American engines. Their speed was 40 knots, they carried four torpedoes and typically one 40mm gun, one 20mm gun, and two twin-barrel machine guns. Some boats were fitted with more guns instead of the torpedoes.
- British Motor Torpedo Boats (MTB) - the main British boat types were made by Vosper. They had a speed of 40 knots, produced by three gasoline engines. The original Italian engines were replaced in 1941 with American engines. They carried two torpedoes and 4 machine guns, but later, following night battles with the German S-boats, two machine guns were replaced with a 20mm gun and later even with a heavier gun. The 1944 Vosper type carried four torpedoes, a twin 20mm gun, and 3 machine guns. For greater firepower against the German S-boats, the British often used combinations of torpedo boats and gun boats, in which the torpedoes were replaced with heavier guns.
- German S-boats - S-boat is short for Schnellboot (fast boat). It was also nicknamed E-boat by the western allies during the war (E for Enemy). The German S-boats had a formidable image in the Royal Navy, especially in the first years of the war, and for several good reasons. While all other torpedo boats had gasoline engines, the German S-boats were powered by Diesel engines, which are much less flammable, a major advantage in gun fights. Their unique structural design, with the torpedo tubes just below deck, was a perfect combination of very low profile, and a higher ability to maintain very high speed in rough sea. Add to that a German force-preserving operating strategy which dictated avoiding unnecessary combat with allied torpedo boats, and the sum result is an elusive, stealthy, hard to catch and hard to sink enemy which British sailors could only vaguely and briefly see during short night encounters. The S-boat was also a formidable enemy since in addition to two torpedo tubes with four torpedoes (or 6-8 sea mines), it also was armed, initially with two 20mm guns, and later also with a 30mm or 40mm gun, and up to five 20mm guns. It also had a larger crew of 21-23 sailors, compared to about a dozen in allied boats, which meant more gunners. Their top speed rose during the war from 40 knots to 45 knots. Eventually the S-boats were outnumbered and defeated by the increasing numbers of allied boats, but it was a long battle, and until the end the S-boats were a capable enemy.
- Italian MAS Boats - the Italian boats were designed to operate in the quieter water of the Mediterranean. In 1940 they were the smallest and fastest (45 knots) torpedo boats, thanks to their excellent gasoline engines, but were not capable of sailing in rough sea. They were armed with two torpedoes and with machine guns. During the war they operated mainly along the North African coast and against the British in Malta and against British convoys in the central Mediterranean. Later the Italians built larger torpedo boats, armed with larger torpedoes, 20mm guns, and depth charges, but they were much slower, with a top speed of just 34 knots.
- Japanese boats - the Japanese developed their torpedo boat from a captured British boat. Their original lightly armed design reached 38 knots, and as heavier weapons were added, it became slower. They also suffered a severe shortage of good engines, and therefore were not able to deploy a large number of boats, although they needed them to counter the American boats.
- Russian boats - with a top speed of 48 knots, the Russian G5 torpedo boat was the fastest. It was designed by the famous aircraft designer Tupolev. In addition to two torpedoes it was lightly armed with two machine guns. In addition to operations at sea against German shipping, Russian boats saw a lot of combat activity in Russia's large rivers, where they often fought against German land forces. For this purpose, the Russians also built armored boats armed with tank gun turrets, which acted as floating tanks.
PT boat 109The most famous of the PT boats of World War 2 is PT boat 109, which became famous because its commander, LTJG John F. Kennedy, later became the 35th American president (1961-63).
In the night of August 1-2, 1943, during a battle between a group of American PT boats and four Japanese destroyers in the Solomon islands, PT boat 109 was rammed at full speed by a Japanese destroyer and was totally disabled, and sank after several hours. Eleven of the crew survived the ramming, and were able to swim to a small island a few miles away. During the next seven days, Lt. Kennedy demonstrated "heroism, courage, endurance and excellent leadership" which helped his crew survive, avoid being captured by the Japanese, and eventually succeed in making contact with American forces in order to be rescued. For this, Lt. Kennedy was decorated with the Navy Medal.
World War 2 submarines