HMS Thunder Child

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HMS Thunder Child is a fictional ironclad torpedo ram of the Royal Navy, destroyed by Martian fighting-machines in H. G. Wells' The War of the Worlds whilst protecting a refugee rescue fleet of civilian vessels.

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 equipped with a ram or torpedoes, or both, intended for use 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 or disabled, or lacked support by 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]

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 of 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; but neither ship was built, probably because the deployment of quick-firing traversing guns made these vessels vulnerable.[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 art illustration of Thunder Child is of a pre-dreadnought battleship such as the Canopus-class in combat with a Martian tripod. 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 of the era. The real torpedo ram HMS Polyphemus was 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 a pre-dreadnought battleship.


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

In Wells' original novel the battle takes place off the mouth of the River Blackwater, Essex, where people from London are escaping the Martian offensive. Three Martian fighting-machines having approached the vessels from the seaward side, HMS Thunder Child signals to the main fleet and steams at full speed towards the Martians without firing. The Martians, whom the narrator suggests are unfamiliar with large warships, at first use only a gas attack, which fails, and thereafter using their Heat-Ray, inflicting a great amount of damage upon Thunder Child, which rams one of the fighting-machines, fires on a second, and attacks a third before being destroyed by the Heat-Ray, whereupon she collides with the second Martian. When the black smoke and superheated steam banks dissipate, the third fighting-machine is no longer visible.


The attack by Thunder Child occupies 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 artefact competing with the Martian fighting-machines on anything like equal terms.

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 collides with a fighting-machine after being critically damaged by its Heat-Ray.

In the George Pal 1953 film the last-ditch defence against the Martians is an atomic bomb dropped by a Northrop YB-49 Flying Wing bomber; the weapon proves useless because of each fighting-machine's protective force fields.

The first adaptation to feature 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 this scene. The cover art of the album depicts a Canopus-class battleship in combat with a Martian tripod. This version of 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 version to feature Thunder Child directly is the low-budget, direct-to-DVD Pendragon adaptation, released in 2005. This version uses poorly executed CGI to portray Thunder Child as a Havock-class destroyer; it reverses the order of the ship's attack, using its guns first before successfully ramming in both cases. The vessel eventually sinks from heat ray battle damage. This reversed order of attack mirrors that of 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 against the alien Tripods, again without success. Earlier in the film, civilian ferries trying to escape from the Tripods are trapped and easily sunk, with no intervention by a military warship.

In the BBC's 2019 TV miniseries, the main characters join up again on the Essex coast, where many small boats are collecting civilians to take them to the ships. One warship is much closer to the coast than the others, firing its main guns at the tripod. The tripod is hit on one of the legs and in the cabin, and shot down. A second Martian tripod appears on the beach, chasing the protagonists, but before it can use its heat-beam, it is hit and destroyed by the guns of the nearest warship. The tripod falls forward narrowly missing crushing the protagonists.

As in the original novel the refugees manage to escape although none of the warships are shown being sunk.

Further uses[edit]

In the comic book, Scarlet Traces, a sequel set a decade after the events of the novel, the ship (spelled 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 Thunder Child is said to have been the husband of Violet Hunter, a character from the Sherlock Holmes story The Adventure of the Copper Beeches.

In the fictional universe of Star Trek a Federation Akira-class starship is named USS Thunderchild in honour 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 was announced 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 Thunderchild.

In the novel StarCraft: Liberty's Crusade, one of the fleeing starships from the Zerg invasion is named Thunder Child.[4]

In the science fiction role-playing game, Traveller: the New Era (TNE), a Reformation Coalition "clipper"-class starship was named RCS Thunderchild in honour 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 the UK's response to UFOs, is named Operation: Thunder Child.

There is an adaptation novel set in the Victorian UK of 1898. It is called, The Last Days of Thunder Child by C.A. Powell.[5]

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 29 January 2009.
  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.
  4. ^ Grubb, Jeff (27 February 2001). StarCraft: Liberty's Crusade. Pocket Books. ISBN 0-671-04148-7.
  5. ^ ISBN 978-1484088265

External links[edit]