What happened to all the torpedoes that missed


During the wars especially WW II lots of torpedoes were fired from submarines and ships and dropped from aircraft.

A good percentage of these missed their targets – What happened to them, are they still out there?

From my understanding torpedoes are set to run at a certain depth to either hit a ship or explode underneath it. Well if a torpedo missed it would presumably keep running till the fuel gave out then what?

Would it then drift aimlessly around at its preset depth or because of the expended fuel float to the surface or were they set to sink. Either way are there hundreds or maybe thousands of live torpedoes floating around out there or sitting on the oceans floor just waiting for something to nudge it into exploding.

Thanks :slight_smile:

I have an answer to a somewhat related question:

A friend of mine lived in Dresden, Germany for a few years (from late 90’s to early 2000’s). Apparently about 3 times a year on average they find a live bomb from WWII somewhere in the city; they evacuate that area while they remove the bomb.

Of course, there was a high density of bombs dropped in that area, but based on that I would expect that throughout the world there are still many live bombs/torpedoes from WWII waiting to be found.

I don’t know how this is implemented technologically, but according to the VIIIth Hague Convention of 1907 torpedoes must “become harmless when they have missed their mark”.

I would hazard a guess that the fuse deactivates or detonates after a set amount of time. However bearing in mind that the contact pistols on WWII torpedoes failed to go off when they should in some horrendous proportion of instances, the chances of the safeties working properly was probably even less.
So I would suppose that there are indeed thousands of old torpedoes littering the oceans, with anything up to a tonne of explosive in each. They would sink when not under power and end up on the bottom.

However, the oceans are BIIIG so the chance of encountering one remain remote.

Generally, they sink.

In deep water, 2 effects are fairly common:

  • the increased pressure will often result in setting off the explosive, either from compressing & activating the trigger mechanism, or from pressure on the explosive itselt.
  • the pressure can also damage the trigger mechanism, rendering it nonfunctional. The explosive is still there, but with no working trigger to set it off.

In later models, they were built to automatically explode when the fuel was exhausted. US submarine commanders speak of hearing ‘end-or-run’ explosions which told them their torpedo had missed.

At the USS Arizona they have on display a torpedo from the Pearl Harbor attack that was found many years after the war. It had sunk into the mud of the harbor.

Sometimes on nautical charts there will be areas marked as “unexploded munitions” or “unexploded torpedos” or similar descriptions.

Dredging in those areas is contraidicated.

Unexploded ordenance is routinely discovered all over Europe. In France the farmers just pile the shells up on the edge of the road and special teams routinely drive the country roads recovering them. The frost/thaw cycle slowly brings them up to the surface where they are uncovered during spring plowing.

I understand that when they find a poison gas shell, they take extra precautions. :eek:

Thanks for your informed replies. I have heard of bombs even now being discovered during construction work and even the odd mine washed up on the beach though not recently, but have never come across any mention of torpedoes.

I knew this was the place for SD information. This MB is amazing for the information available.

:slight_smile: :slight_smile:

Unexploded bombs make appearances around here pretty regularly as well.

As for torpedoes, remember also that salt water is very corrosive, so the odds that an old torpedo would still be intact and dangerous is probably lower than for a bomb dropped on land. Of course, “less probable” doesn’t mean “impossible”, hence the chart markings Billdo mentioned.

I’ve seen references to the “torpedo scandal” at the beginning of WW2. From what I have gleaned reading between the lines, most if not all of the torpedos that the US fired during the first year of the war failed to explode. It was hushed up at the time because it was felt that if the general population knew how inept the Navy testing process was, we would lose confidence in the Navy. Especialy after Peral Harbor.

Anyone ever seen anyhting more detailed on this?

US torpedoes are the start of the war were abysmal. A very high percentage failed to explode. This is very well documented in both US and Japanese records. A number of sub skippers ordered the magnetic detonaters deactivated and relied on contact exploders, which also weren’t that reliable. It wasn’t until the middle of 1942 that we started getting consistant detonation in our torpedoes. A second problem was “deep-running.” Torpedoes wouldn’t stay at a set depth. Numerous US servicemen died because of these failures. See here for details.

Bingo! That’s what I was after. My Dad worked at Portsmouth, NH shipyard after the war and passed on some of the stories but there were large gaps that weren’t known yet.


Excellent link Silenus
At the start of the war, the Navy brass had what was supposed to be the answer to a sub skipper’s prayer. A torpedo that would sink a ship with a single shot. Too bad it didn’t work.
The theroy was that the magnetic exploder would detonate under the ship and break its back. On shot, one boom, one sunken ship.
As Silenus’s link shows there were problems with the depth keeping of the torpedo, the magnetic exploder, and the mechanical exploder.
What made the problem worse was that the brass incharge of the developing these torpedos did not like having their baby called ugly. They blamed the sub skipper’s aim, the maintence, and even the courage of the crews.
I recall reading one account where a sub shot a spread at a merchant ship, got one detonaton which stopped the ship. The sub then surfaced and shot torpedo after torpedo at the staionary ship and photographed dud after dud hitting the side of the merchant ship. IIRC they finally sank it with their deck gun.

11 years later most of you are probably not even online here anymore, but here goes…

Several T5 torpedoes were scuttled in American waters by a u-boat before surrender in 1945. How did they scuttle them without setting them off?

If found today, would there be any danger or protocol to recovering them?

I am not familiar with the torpedoes in question, nor am I particularly familiar with modern munitions, but I imagine that most military munitions are designed with some fusing mechanism which needs to be installed and/or activated for the explosive to go off without quite a bit of extra work. This might include some separate component to be inserted like the “pit” of a atomic bomb, or some kind of safety device which needs to be removed like the pin on a hand grenade.

At the very least, that’d probably help minimize the chance of an immediate detonation from dropping them overboard. As for them being explosive now, I’m not sure what results the aforementioned corrosion would have. Fairly likely that nautical charts were simply updated with a warning about UXOs in the area. So I think one way or the other, the danger of zombie submariners launching these old torpedoes is minimal.

On the years-old topic of WWII ordance, when I was stationed in Japan, we found some old bit of WWII-era explosive kit on average of about once a year, including a mortar round across the street from my office and a bomb located across the street from the base gym. IIRC, every time they dug something up while I was there, it was actually abandoned Imperial Japanese stuff, rather than misfired American stuff (same difference when you hit it with a plow blade, of course)

WWII era US torpedos used a mercury fulminate detonator. It was stored in a “safety chamber” inside the warhead of the assembled torpedo. There was a small impeller on the front of the torpedo. Propelling the torpedo through water would clause the impeller to turn and physically lift the detonator out of the safety chamber. The “fish” would have to travel 400’ for the exploder to be fully armed.

I think that should be 400 yards. The T5’s arming distance was a similar 400 meters.

Incidentally, here is the manual for the Mark 14, complete with cool images and diagrams of the internals.

In 1991, a fisherman dragged up a WW II torpedo in his nets. Realising the danger he abandoned the trawler , leaving the torpedo aboard. The Navy decided it was too risky to save the fishermans boat…

Torpedoes aren’t mentioned in this writeup of dangerous of the unexploded ammunition in the sea… http://www.spiegel.de/international/germany/dangers-of-unexploded-wwii-munitions-in-north-and-baltic-seas-a-893113.html … One thing it does mention is the occurrence of phosphorous , white phosphorous being used for flares tracers and incendiaries. With Phosphorous being stable in the water… it can float around until found on the shore, where it looks like amber or strange rock . Once dried out and warmed up… it explodes, and anyway its poisonous.

Did the US fire anything in Japan except the atomic bombs?