PT Boats, Torpedo Boats

The fast night raiders of the sea

7 minutes read.

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 crews

Fighting 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 operations

PT 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:

American PT Boats and other torpedo boat types

Since 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:

PT boat 109

The 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.

Related essays:
World War 2 submarines (6 minutes read)

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