When I retired a while ago, after 40 odd years in the RCN, a newspaper commenting on my service career wrote that I had once ridden a torpedo like a cowboy around the deck of a destroyer. The story arose from an incident during World War 2 aboard the Canadian destroyer St. Laurent, affectionately called by her crew, the "Sally Rand". I was the skipper with the rank of Lcdr.
On July 1, 1940, the St. Laurent, together with three British destroyers, was escorting the battleship HMS Nelson toward the UK. That day, as was customary in both the British and Canadian navies, the semi-annual promotion list was broadcast. I was promoted to Commander and ordered to report to Halifax for new assignment. My relief was to be Lcdr H.S. Rayner, a torpedo specialist. In the busy workweek that followed, the men of our torpedo department had no time to spruce up their weapons for their newcoming skipper's inspection. And who could suspect, that when they did, one lad in an excess of zeal would loose a torpedo against the ship itself? Early on July 2, the St. Laurent was detached on a successful search for survivors from a liner torpedoed that morning west of Ireland. We landed 859 survivors at South Greenock on the West coast of Scotland, and were then ordered to Rosyth, a naval base on the East coast.
On a fine Sunday afternoon, in company with another Canadian destroyer, HMCS Skeena, we were steaming up the west coast en route to Rosyth by way of the Minches and Pentland Firth. Skeena followed on our starboard quarter, about 300 yards distant. Sailing north inside the western isles, in somewhat protected waters, we were relatively safe from the enemy - if not from ourselves. The torpedomen on watch were cleaning, polishing and painting the torpedo tubes. All tubes were loaded, but they had safety devices to prevent accidental firing, one being a simple hand operated latch. A battery of four tubes is normally trained fore and aft, and is pivoted outboard before a torpedo is aimed and fired. An explosive charge then catapults the greased, 24 foot long, ton and a half steel fish out of its tube and safely clear of the launching ship's side, the torpedo's engine starts as the missile makes this leap.
At the tail two counter-rotating propellers, powered by gas and compressed air at 200 atmospheres of pressure, drive the deadly thing toward its target at speeds up to 45 knots. As the nose courses through the water, its dormant 600 pound warhead of TNT is alerted by a device called a pistol. The rushing sea water spins a four bladed propeller down a threaded stem inside the nose to unwind a safety device. Now the torpedo is armed and will explode at the slightest contact with any of the four blades. It was on such a carefully designed infernal machine, at 1805 hours that July afternoon, that a young seaman torpedoman, intent only on his painting, and finding the firing lever in his way, lifted the safety catch and pulled back the firing lever. The lad's brush never reached its mark. With an explosive WHOOMP, the torpedo leaped free. I was in my sea cabin on the starboard side of the bridge when I was aroused by a terrific clatter. I rushed out, looked aft, and was greeted by an unusual sight. A torpedo was loose on the steel deck, and its propellers were beating a noisy tattoo as it bumped along.
Since the torpedo had been fired toward the stern, its first rush down the deck tore loose some heavy ammunition boxes and carried away the starboard ladder (a substantial, rigidly mounted, plated-steel staircase). It mounted the three inch gun platform to butt an anti-aircraft gun a glancing blow, then crashed into the superstructure head on. From there it rebounded to the starboard side of the deck. When I first sighted the frenzied machine from the bridge, it was charging the superstructure for the second time. It had not yet become armed - but it might at any moment.
A glance showed me Skeena of our starboard quarter. I ordered a message: I HAVE A TORPEDO LOOSE ON MY STARBOARD DECK. Skeena immediately shifted over smartly to our port quarter, keeping on the lee side of the St. Laurent and its problem. She might well have been needed by survivors. Another sight greeted us: a stream of sailors racing forward, on the opposite side of the ship, at top speed. They were headed sensibly for the forecastle - as far forward as they could get. But a torpedo that could crush a battleship's hull as if it were a beer can made any spot on St. Laurent unattractive. I headed for the scene of action astern, although I had no idea what I might do when I reached there. Fortunately, the torpedo's gunner mate, CPO Sam Ridge, a man who did know what to do, arrived at the same time. St. Laurent had just a gentle roll on, or we could have done nothing. The torpedo, its propeller blades clawing madly for purchase on the overlapping, rivetted-steel deck plates, was rolling with each motion of the ship. It would lurch forward with each heave of the deck; then, as the deck came level, the torpedo would stop, like a bull in the ring, undecided in which direction to make its next charge. When it rolled against the guardrails, we advanced and held it there momentarily by bracing our legs against its flank and holding onto the top guardrail. Ridge ran to get a key to turn off the compressed air that was driving the propellers.
St. Laurent's next roll was sufficient to make the torpedo roll away from the guardrail. At this point, I straddled it, and grabbed hold of the guardrail. The deadly 24 foot cylinder, though only 21 inches in diameter, seemed broader that a horse's back to me. It was covered with a preservative grease, and slippery as the greased pole we boys used to try to ride during summer regattas back home in Nova Scotia. Now I could feel the propeller blades rattling on the steel deck start to drive it forward. As the torpedo advanced, I resisted as much as I could, while going forward hand over hand along the guardrail with my legs locked on to the maverick. Unless I kept my place astride, the propellers could make mincemeat of one end of me - and free the mechanical beast to blow up a good destroyer. These antics, no doubt, led to the story of "riding the torpedo". After Ridge returned with the key, he and the torpedo gunner, R.L. Ellis, who had arrived at the scene, were able to wrestle the torpedo steady until we could turn off the air. Once the nose of the propellers was stopped, the situation became a bit less tense, more help arrived, and the torpedo was securely lashed in place against the guardrails.
Now the curious began to gather. The crash against the after deckhouse had pushed the torpedo's pistol back into the warhead, and so damaged the whole from end that it could not be safely touched. We were able to remove the warhead from the torpedo, but even so the warhead and its pistol remained a touchy problem, a quarter ton of sensitive explosive. There was no help readily available at dockside when we arrived in Rosyth the next day. I went directly to the local headquarters to report for orders and also to note that I had a damaged torpedo and wanted a replacement. I received instructions to sail at once with a convoy to its dispersal point in the North Atlantic. My torpedo problem, I was told, would be taken care of by another department.
When I returned to the ship, I found that my crew had managed to hoist the torpedo and the damaged warhead onto the jetty without dockyard help. I reported by signal, briefly, how the torpedo had been damaged and where it had been left, and so to sea with the convoy. On my return to the UK - fortunately not to Rosyth, but to Liverpool - I was met by Lcdr Rayner, who took over the ship. I was safely back in Canada by the time the very angry Rosyth dockyard authorities caught up with the "Sally Rand", which had been left them holding such an awkward baby. I had in the meantime written a full report of the incident to Commander in Chief, Western Approaches. In this report I suggested that a court of inquiry would be unnecessary, because there was nothing to be learned. The young torpedoman freely admitted what he had done and that was that. The Rosyth dockyard was understandably put out because nobody wanted to touch the damaged warhead, let alone move it. Lcdr Rayner was able to fend off their furious inquiries by referring to my written report, which answered everything except what to do with the remains. In the end, we learned, they secured it to ground mine and laid it in a North Sea minefield.