HMS Thunder Child

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"Thunder Child" redirects here. For other uses, see Thunderchild.

HMS Thunder Child is the name of the fictional ironclad torpedo ram of the Royal Navy that is destroyed by Martian fighting-machines in H. G. Wells' The War of the Worlds. It sacrificed itself to allow the refugee vessels to escape.

Historical basis[edit]

Torpedo rams were constructed in the 1870s and 1880s after the ramming and sinking of the Re d'Italia at the Battle of Lissa in 1866 by the Austrian flagship, Ferdinand Max. Despite the Italian warship being stationary at the time, the successful attack influenced naval thinking for the next few decades.[1]

The result was specially-designed low profile, fast, armoured vessels that could attack with a ram and/or torpedoes—in practice one or other of these weapons might be absent. They were intended for use in situations where it was possible to approach an enemy ship without being sunk, for example at night or in poor visibility, or where the enemy ship was stationary, disabled or lacked fire support from nearby ships.[2] As late as 1896 the United States commissioned a ship whose only effective weapon was a ram, the harbour-defence ram USS Katahdin.[3]

But very few torpedo rams were built by the world's navies. The Royal Navy's only example was HMS Polyphemus which entered service in 1882. Its primary armament was torpedoes, with four side-firing tubes and one forward-firing tube in the centre of the bow-mounted ram, like the eye of a Cyclops — hence the ship's name, after Polyphemus. The ram was fitted in case the then-novel underwater torpedo tubes failed to operate properly. After the ship successfully destroyed a harbour defence boom with her ram in 1885, the Royal Navy ordered two further ships of this class. However, neither ship was built, probably because the development of quick-firing traversing guns made these vessels vulnerable as they closed for attack.[3]

Fictional description[edit]

In the novel, Wells gives only a rough description of the ship, describing her thus: “About a couple of miles out lay an ironclad, very low in the water, almost, to my brother's perception, like a water-logged ship. This was the ram Thunder Child.” A few paragraphs later, it is said that "It was the torpedo ram, Thunder Child, steaming headlong, coming to the rescue of the threatened shipping."

In Jeff Wayne's musical adaptation, the ship is described as an ironclad but not specifically a ram or a torpedo ram; the album cover illustration of Thunder Child clearly resembles a pre-dreadnought battleship such as the Canopus-class vessel HMS Ocean.[citation needed] The ship is also depicted in art in the Classics Illustrated comic book adaptation of the novel, also appearing as a typical pre-dreadnought battleship. The real torpedo ram HMS Polyphemus was a smaller type of ship (2,600 tons versus 13,000 tons for HMS Ocean) but fast, heavily armoured for her size and capable of operating in shallow coastal waters; her hull was low in the water with a raft-like superstructure mounting six 1-inch Nordenfelt guns, again very much unlike an ironclad battleship.


A Henrique Alvim Corrêa illustration from a 1906 edition of the book.

On a Wednesday evening, immediately after the Martians conquered London and the surrounding areas, a large number of refugees attempted to escape by sea from Tillingham Bay on the Essex coast. Included in the rag-tag fleet of ships was a paddle wheel steamer laden with the brother of the narrator of the novel, his two female companions and other refugees from London.

In Wells' original novel the battle takes place off the mouth of the River Blackwater, Essex.

Three Martian tripod fighting-machines then approach the vessels from the sea. HMS Thunder Child—a torpedo ram that had been patrolling about two miles away—signals to the main fleet by signal gun and flags, then raced to engage them but without firing. The novel states that since her guns remained quiet as she charged the tripods, she was probably not immediately seen as a threat, so she was not immediately destroyed by their Heat-Ray. In addition, the crowded and turbulent mass of refugee shipping stretching from Foulness to the Naze may have also influenced the captain's decision.

The Martians, whom the narrator suggests were unfamiliar with large warships, at first responded to Thunder Child's charge with only a gas attack, which was ineffective. After seeing the ship's continued advance, the Martians deployed their Heat-Ray, inflicting a great amount of damage upon Thunder Child. She was, however, able to ram one of the fighting-machines, destroying it.

In sinking condition but with steering and propulsion still functional, Thunder Child turned toward a second fighting-machine and began to use her guns. Although she appeared to score no significant hits and one of her misses sunk a nearby fishing smack, she was able to set a collision course with the second Martian tripod before its Heat-Ray found her. The resulting explosion of her boilers and ammunition magazines destroyed Thunder Child, but her flaming wreckage plowed into the second Martian machine and destroyed it. When the black smoke and superheated steambanks dissipate, the third Martian is no longer to be seen either. It is implied that all three are in fact destroyed.


The attack by Thunder Child occupied the Martians long enough for three Royal Navy ironclads of the main Channel Fleet to arrive. The fate of the third Martian fighting machine is not revealed by Wells, but the battle did enable the civilian shipping to escape.

As depicted in the book, Thunder Child is the only human artifact which can compete with the Martian fighting-machines on anything like equal terms, the battle clearly giving a morale boost to hard-pressed humanity.

In the novel the episode concerning HMS Thunder Child is in "Chapter Seventeen: The "Thunder Child"" ending Book One: The Coming of the Martians.


HMS Thunder Child is commonly omitted from adaptations, or replaced with technology more appropriate to the updated setting.

In Orson Welles's famous 1938 radio adaptation of The War of the Worlds, a Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress heavy bomber replaces the Thunder Child. It crashes into a fighting-machine after being critically damaged by its Heat-Ray.

In the 1953 film the last-ditch defence is an atomic bomb which, despite being man's most incredible weapon, is as useless as every other physical attack against the invaders.

The first adaptation to feature the Thunder Child itself was Jeff Wayne's Musical Version of The War of the Worlds, which was released in 1978 and retains the Victorian setting of the novel. The album features a song entitled "Thunder Child", dedicated to the drama of this scene. The cover art of the album depicts a Canopus-class battleship in combat with a Martian tripod. This version of the Thunder Child appears to be based on an artist's impression of the Battle of Coronel (1 November 1914), in which the two outdated British armoured cruisers, Good Hope and Monmouth, were sunk with all hands off the coast of Chile by a German fleet of five somewhat more modern cruisers commanded by Vizeadmiral Maximilian von Spee.

The 1999 video game Jeff Wayne's The War of the Worlds features a level revolving around the Thunder Child. The player is placed in control of the ironclad itself, and must sail it down a river while using its cannons to destroy Martian units and settlements. The level ends in a climactic confrontation with the Tempest, a powerful Martian war machine.

The only film to feature the Thunder Child directly is the Pendragon adaptation, released in 2005. This version uses CGI to portray the Thunder Child as the 1893 Royal Navy destroyer prototype HMS Havock, and reverses the order of the ship's attack; it uses guns first, before ramming, in both cases successfully. The vessel eventually sinks from damage sustained in the battle. It should be noted that this reversed order of attack mirrors that from Jeff Wayne's Musical Version of The War of the Worlds.

In Steven Spielberg's 2005 film adaptation, War of the Worlds, contemporary American military forces use tanks and helicopters to try to hold back the alien tripods, again without success. Earlier in the film, civilian transport ships trying to escape from the Tripods are trapped and sunk easily, with no intervention by any military warship.

Further uses[edit]

In the comic book Scarlet Traces, a sequel set a decade after the events of the story, the ship (spelt erroneously as Thunderchild) and its efforts are remembered. One of the supporting characters is a survivor of the ship's destruction, presumably the only one who did so. There is also a monument dedicated to the ship's fight against the Martians.

In Sherlock Holmes's War of the Worlds, the first mate of the Thunder Child is said to have been the husband of Violet Hunter, from The Adventure of the Copper Beeches.

In the fictional universe of Star Trek, a Federation Akira-class starship is named USS Thunderchild in honor of Wells' fictional ship, and fights against the Borg in Star Trek: First Contact. Due to fan recognition, a physical model of the Akira-class USS Thunderchild is planned for release in an issue of the Eaglemoss collection "Star Trek: The Starship Collection".

In the computer game, MechWarrior 4: Vengeance, the player faces a pair of destroyers during a mission, one of which is named the Thunderchild.

In the science fiction roleplaying game Traveller: the New Era (TNE), a Reformation Coalition "clipper"-class starship was named RCS Thunderchild in honor of the War of the Worlds vessel. The ship's patch, presented in the TNE sourcebook Star Vikings, shows the influence of the Jeff Wayne image of the ironclad, combined with a 19th-century image of the Martian war machine. Details also appear in the TNE products Path of Tears and Reformation Coalition Equipment Guide.

A novel by Nick Pope concerning UFOs is named Operation: Thunder Child. The reference is apt, as the novel concerns a British military response to an alien threat.

In the Mindstar Trilogy of books by Peter F. Hamilton, the central character, Greg Mandel, operated under the military callsign "Thunderchild". It seems probable that this was chosen by the author as a deliberate reference to H.G. Wells The War of the Worlds.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Fred T. Jane (1915). The British Battle Fleet—Its inception and growth through the centuries to the present day. p. 300. 
  2. ^ "Torpedo Ram". Retrieved 2009-01-29. 
  3. ^ a b David Lyon (1980). The Ship, Volume 8: Steam, steel and torpedoes—The Warship of the 19th Century. Her Majesty’s Stationery Office. pp. 45–50. ISBN 0-11-290318-5. 

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