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Acheron Class Torpedo Boat

HMCS Avernus

In 1877 the Government of the colony of New South Wales ordered the construction of two "outrigger" torpedo boats, in response to concerns about a possible threat from foreign warships.

The Acheron Class Torpedo Boat was designed to mount a single spar torpedo by John I. Thornycroft Company; and two boats were built by the Atlas Engineering Company at Sydney, for the New South Wales Naval Service in 1879.

They had a displacement of 16 tons, were 78 feet (23.77 m) long and had a beam of 10 feet 3 inches (3.12 m). They are capable of 15 knots (28 km/h) and had a complement of nine.

As originally designed and built, they carried one Spar Torpedo, but from 1887 they were upgraded to carry two 14-inch (360 mm) Whitehead Torpedoes.

Spar Torpedo

The spar torpedo was invented during the American Civil War by E. C. Singer, a private engineer who worked on secret projects for the benefit of the Confederate States of America (Singer was the nephew of Isaac Singer, inventor of the sewing machine).

A spar torpedo is a weapon consisting of a bomb placed at the end of a long pole, or spar, and attached to a boat. The weapon is used by ramming the end of the spar into the enemy ship. Spar torpedoes were often equipped with a barbed spear at the end, so it would stick to wooden hulls. The spar torpedo was detonated by means of a trigger mechanism adapted from a spring-loaded rifle lock. The trigger was detonated by means of a long cord attached to the attacking vessel. The attacking vessel rammed its target, embedding the barbed torpedo in its hull, then backed off. When the attacker backed-up far enough to reached the limit of the trigger cord, the mechanism was activated, and the torpedo was detonated.

Whitehead Torpedo

The Whitehead torpedo was the first self-propelled or "locomotive" torpedo ever developed. It was perfected in 1866 by Robert Whitehead from a design conceived by Giovanni Luppis of the Austro-Hungarian Navy. It was driven by a three-cylinder compressed air engine invented designed by Peter Brotherhood.

Many naval services procured the Whitehead Torpedo during the 1870's, including the US and Royal Navies. This early torpedo proved itself in combat during the Russo-Turkish War when, on January 16, 1878, the Turkish ship Intibah was sunk by Russian torpedo boats carrying Whitehead Torpedoes.

The term "torpedo" comes from the Torpedo Fish, which is a type of ray that delivers an electric shock to stun its prey.

The HMCS Acheron started her trials in Sydney Harbour on 1 March 1879.

The strange craft attracted much attention from the persons aboard the various yachts and steamers as she passed everything at a rate that made them seem to be comparatively standing still, even such boats and the Bellbird and Manly ferry steamers being relatively nowhere and being so small and low, the speed appears much greater than it would in a larger vessel” — Town and Country Journal, 8 March 1879

Operational History

Neither of the boats ever left the confines of Sydney Harbour, and they were never used in anger.

By 1885 they were in a state of disrepair and were docked at Cockatoo Island. In the late 1880's they were described as "Sydney’s third line of defence", after the naval artillery and the defensive mines. Both boats were refitted again in 1896.

On 1 March 1901 Acheron and Avernus became part of the Commonwealth Naval Forces. By this time they had become thoroughly outmoded and the Federal Government ordered their sale. In December 1902 Acheron was sold for £425 and Avernus for £502.

Acheron then became Sydney’s quarantine boat, renamed Jenner, and was paid off in the late 1950's. In the mid-1990's a workboat of the Royal Australian Navy detected a long thin hull with her side-scan sonar, which was thought to be the remains of Acheron.

On the other hand, some claim that the Avernus was simply abandoned on the shores of Rushcutters Bay, and that in the 1940's it was sunk to allow for the reclamation of land at Glebe.

However newspapers from 1922 and 1923 reported a different fate for Avernus; that after being sold in 1902, she was acquired by an illegal German immigrant residing at Darling Point Sydney, named Carl von Cosel Tanzler.

He winched it into a large shed, and in 1915 he was attempting to modify it into the likeness of a submarine.

Youths caught stealing from Tanzler's shed reported that Tanzler was hiding a submarine, when giving evidence at Paddington Courthouse; but Tanzler insisted that it was simply an old torpedo boat.

When he re-launched the ageing and now modified Avernus in Double Bay, he was arrested and spent the duration of WW1 at Trial Bay Gaol, and was then deported back to Europe.

The modified Avernus washed aground on Double Bay beach, and in 1923 it was loaded onto a barge and taken to the Datchett Street Balmain Wharf ship breakers where it was scrapped.

At Balmain the wreck was viewed by an old gentleman who was one of the original builders of Avernus. The newspaper article incorrectly spelled the name of the boat as Ibernus, but stated that he had positively identified it as either Acheron or her sister ship.

An absurdly high conning tower had been fitted to Avernus prior to her abandonment. The modified wreck was described at the time as a Jules Verne nightmare.

Twenty years later the eccentric Carl Von Cosel Tanzler had migrated to America and claimed to be an ex-submarine commander.