One of the long-standing complaints among the E-boat crews was that although their craft were faster than most of the British, they suffered from being less heavily armed. This was certainly true as far as the new D-type MGBs were concerned, armed as they were with 2-pounders (either a Vickers Pom-Pom or a Rolls-Royce type) in addition to twin 20mm cannon and twin .5inch machine-guns. Again this was a complete turnabout from the early years of the war when it was the British boats which carried inferior armament. However, during the winter of 1943–44, most of the German boats were re-armed with 40mm or 37mm AA guns in addition to the 20mm Oerlikons, and this brought about a new aggressive spirit among the German forces, to the point where they actually began to seek out and pursue MTBs rather than avoiding action as before. A change of tactics was also called for in view of the greatly improved British defensive measures, which now included the installation of radar equipment in destroyers and MGBs as well as the shore-based radar network. Instead of continuing the previous method of lying in wait on convoy routes, where there was now every chance of their presence being detected by radar, the E-boats developed hit-and-run tactics, without trying to disguise their intentions but making use of their superior speed to attack and then retire out of range of the destroyers. If any British boats pursued them, they would lead them towards their own coast, then turn abruptly and the hunters would become the hunted. It was in such a way that one of the most brilliant MTB commanders, Lt Derek Leaf DSC, was killed in the early hours of 15 February 1944.
The action that led to Leaf’s death began on the evening of 14 February when a group of six E-boats crossed the North Sea with the intention of laying mines off the east coast. They were detected by shore radar, however, and driven off by the Harwich-based corvettes Mallard and Shearwater which were on patrol. Meanwhile, five MTBs under Leaf’s command were sent to the southern end of Brown Ridge to intercept the E-boats on their return home. But the British boats were too late; the enemy were already ahead of them. So Leaf decided to pursue them to Ijmuiden.
On approaching the Dutch coast, although they did not realise it at the time, the MTBs were themselves being hunted by the E-boats which had turned back, having expected to be followed. Before contact was made, the MTBs came upon an enemy flak ship and two trawlers. Leafs MTB.444, together with MTB.455 commanded by the New Zealander Lt M.V. Round, made a combined attack in which the flak ship was torpedoed and one of the trawlers repeatedly hit by gunfire and left burning. However, the second trawler managed to hit 444 heavily both above and below the water line. Its fire raked the bridge and Leaf was killed instantly, together with his Petty Officer and two ratings. Meanwhile, the other three MTBs had regrouped and in Leaf’s absence, although it was not then realised what had happened, the Canadian Lt C.A. Burk took over as Senior Officer. As he set off to search for the two missing boats he had the shock of discovering by radar that six E-boats were shadowing his unit 1,000 yards off on the port quarter. Further radar contacts picked up more E-boats ahead. Burk decided to attack the shadowing boats first. He altered course to port and, followed by the rest of his unit, crossed the bows of the leading E-boat at full speed, no more than 100 yards off. Fire was exchanged between all the craft, and then general confusion developed in which the three MTBs were outnumbered by an estimated 17 E-boats, but it became difficult for either side to distinguish between friend and foe. In such actions, it was almost impossible for one small craft to sink another unless by an extremely lucky shot. Eventually the three MTBs broke off the engagement and returned to base, where they found that the other two MTBs had already arrived and learned for the first time that Leaf had been killed. In spite of the fire that had been exchanged with the E-boats, the only other casualties were three men slightly wounded in Burk’s boat.
By early 1944 the Luftwaffe was practically non-existent over the narrow seas, not only failing to protect its own coastal shipping but doing little to hinder the enormous forces being assembled for the Allied invasion of Europe. The German offensive in these waters was left almost entirely to the E-boats. Although the flotillas operating in the western area were joined by one more – the 9th (Kapitänleutnant von Mirbach) – this advantage was lost when the 6th was withdrawn for service in the Baltic. The five flotillas were seriously depleted with no more than about 30 craft operational at any one time as against a nominal strength of 60; the advantage in equipment was also undoubtedly with the Allied flotillas, especially in radar. Nevertheless, the E-boat crews were experienced and stubborn fighters and had no intention of slackening off, in spite of being let down by the Luftwaffe. German coastal shipping had declined at this time; whereas that of the British had increased considerably, added to which there was a large-scale movement of Allied forces along the southern coasts in preparation for D-Day. All this gave the E-boats ample opportunity to choose targets from among half-a-dozen convoys moving slowly along the east and south coasts at any one time. By switching rapidly from one area of attack to another, they were occasionally able to achieve some unpleasant surprises. Operating out of Cherbourg, together with the 9th Flotilla, units of the 5th Flotilla sank three freighters and the trawler Wallasey out of Convoy WP457 in the western Channel on the night of 5–6 January, and repeated this success on the 31st of the month by sinking two freighters and a trawler out of Convoy CW243 off Beachy Head. An even more dramatic achievement came on the night of 28 April when the two flotillas operated together to attack a convoy of American landing ships (LSTs) in Lyme Bay, sinking three with the loss of nearly 200 naval personnel and 441 soldiers.
In the context of total coastal shipping and movements, of course, these losses could well have been greater. Also, the Germans had to pay an increasingly heavy penalty for such operations. As British Coastal Forces had found, it was extremely difficult to control a force of fast-moving craft at night; on occasion, shots were exchanged between friendly craft, and collisions were frequent, the latter being responsible for the loss of two E-boats early in the year, S.94 and S.128. Bombing raids on enemy ports, now being carried out mainly by the heavy bombers of the Eighth US Army Air Force, were responsible for further losses, such as the destruction of S.93 and S. 129 during an attack by Marauders on Ijmuiden on 29 March. During actions at sea, the French destroyer La Combattante sank two E-boats, S.147 on 26 April and S.141 on 13 May, which were among boats sent out from Boulogne on reconnaissance to discover where the Allied landing craft were concentrating for the forthcoming invasion. Included among those lost on the latter boat was one of Admiral Dönitz’s two sons, a German naval lieutenant. In the Channel, it was one of the main functions of Fighter Command to harass the E-boats on their missions to lay minefields as a defence against invasion. Night patrols were instituted, using the slow Albacores which were ideally suited to the purpose, together with Swordfish and Avengers which were also lent by the Fleet Air Arm. In this way, on 19 May, S.87 was sunk off Orfordness by Swordfish of 819 Squadron.
Meanwhile, MTBs and MGBs were stepping up their offensive sweeps against German shipping, from the Norwegian coast in the north, down along the Dutch coast, through the Dover Strait and English Channel, and westwards as far as the Channel Islands and off the coast of Brittany. The results were not always so successful as those claimed at the time, and a number of MTBs were lost – about the same, in fact, as E-boat losses in British waters. But Coastal Forces played a vital role in achieving that degree of maritime control over the narrow seas which was essential for when the great invasion fleets set sail for France.
Throughout the four years of fighting by Coastal Forces, most of the action had been in the North Sea. Now it was the English Channel which came into prominence with the biggest invasion the world had ever seen, the Normandy landings, in which small fighting craft had many important tasks assigned to them. Since the invasion was to be launched principally by Portsmouth Command, a Captain of Coastal Forces in the Channel was appointed (Capt P.V. McLaughlin) to take charge of all MTB and ML operations within the Command. (From this point on, MGBs were no longer designated separately.) Included among his small staff to make detailed plans were such experienced flotilla commanders as Christopher Dreyer and Peter Scott. In addition, American PT-boats made their first appearance in British waters, brought over in the first instance at the urgent request of the Office of Strategic Services to land and pick up agents on the French coast. This led to the re-commissioning of Squadron 2 which had previously been wound up in the Solomons at the end of 1943. The first of the Higgins boats, under Lt-Cdr John Bulkeley, arrived at Dartmouth in April, fitted with special navigational equipment to help them in their cloak-and-dagger operations. The first of these took place on the night of 19 May, when PT.71 landed a party of agents within 500 yards of German sentries, and similar missions continued up until November; the crews never knew the identity of their passengers and never once made contact with the enemy, which was exactly as intended. Meanwhile, further PT squadrons were shipped across from the United States to take part in the invasion itself- Squadron 34 (Lt Allen H. Harris), Squadron 35 (Lt-Cdr Richard Davis Jr) and Squadron 30 (Lt Robert L. Searles). Bulkeley was appointed as task group commander of all PT operations.
The main job of the British and American craft was to help guard the flanks of the spearhead attack on the shores of the Baie de la Seine, and then to protect the subsequent flow of cross-Channel traffic. The most likely attacks were expected to come from destroyers, torpedo boats, and minesweepers, of which the Germans still had large forces based in the Low Countries and on the Atlantic coast of France, and from E-boats based along the coast from Cherbourg to Ijmuiden.
In the meantime, knowing that the invasion was imminent, the Germans were preparing their own plans, in which E-boats were also to play an important part.
Petersen, as commander of all E-boats in the Channel and North Sea, with his headquarters at Scheveningen, strove desperately to get as many boats as he could into operational order. At the time the invasion began on 6 June, he had 34 boats available, with five more under repair; it was not until later in June that the 6th Flotilla was brought back from the Baltic to aid his efforts. Against these were some 76 British MTBs and 36 American PTs included in a total Allied force of more than 1,200 warships and over 4,000 landing craft. The E-boat crews, as tenacious as always, did what they could to stem this mighty tide, but they had little chance. Thus began a period which saw their most severe losses of the war.
On the morning of the invasion, both the 4th Flotilla at Boulogne and the 5th at Le Havre tried to leave their concrete-sheltered bases to attack the invasion fleet, but they were beaten back by the tremendous Allied air attack by bombers and fighter-bombers. Only Mirbach’s 9th Flotilla at Cherbourg managed to put to sea, but was immediately repelled by a curtain of defensive fire from the escorting warships. The E-boats were forced to return to harbour and there they remained throughout the first day, anxiously following the news of the battles taking place on the beaches. With the Luftwaffe entirely absent there was little the German Navy could do to prevent the Allied landings in Normandy. The only warships that approached the invasion fleet at all that morning were three ‘Möwe’ class torpedo boats from Le Harvre, which attacked one of the exposed flanks of, and managed to sink the Norwegian destroyer Svenner. From the naval point of view the invasion went precisely according to plan, with the enemy first taken by surprise and then demoralized by the sheer weight and strength of Allied forces; it was only when the assault troops reached the obstacle-covered beaches that the fighting began. By the end of the first day it was clear that the landings themselves had gone better than almost anyone would have dared hope.
However, such a situation could not last for long, and as the initial surprise wore off, the Germans began to counter-attack the vital Allied supply route across the Channel. The E-boats played an important part in this, based as they were at Cherbourg and Le Havre on either side of the bridgehead. They were out in the early hours of 7 June, when no fewer than seven clashes with MTBs occurred. The 55th Flotilla under Lt-Cdr Bradford and the Canadian 29th Flotilla under Lt-Cdr Anthony Law bore the brunt of that night’s fighting, in which one German R-boat blew up after hitting a mine, two MTBs were damaged, and the E-boats succeeded in sinking a landing ship in Seine Bay. And thus began a series of nightly battles that grew in intensity, with the Germans concentrating their main attack against the British eastern flank. This was primarily because most of the German destroyers and light craft were based at Le Havre, the more heavily defended port. In fact, losses amongst the Cherbourg-based E-boats were so high during the first week of the invasion that the remainder were transferred to Le Havre, where the fight in the Channel centred after the fall of Cherbourg to American troops on 26 June. On the strongly defended American western flank of the supply route, where it was seldom possible for enemy craft to penetrate the defensive screen, the PT-boats had no contact at all with E-boats from the start of the invasion up until August when they were withdrawn from the Normandy area, some to be transferred to operate in the vicinity of the Channel Islands while others were attached to Portsmouth to work with British Coastal Forces patrolling the eastern flank.
Considering the enormous number of targets available to them, the E-boats achieved only a moderate success. During the first week, out of the great mass of Allied shipping in Seine Bay, they sank only two American landing ships, six smaller British landing craft, two tugs, two MTBs, the frigate Halstead whose bows were blown off by a torpedo, and three small freighters of a convoy south of the Isle of Wight. Three boats of the 5th Flotilla were lost –S.136 in action and 139 and 140 sunk by mines – but even worse was to come. On 13 June, Beaufighters scored a notable success by sinking four boats of the 2nd Flotilla in an attack off Le Touquet. Shortly after dusk of the following day, the E-boats suffered their heaviest-ever single loss when eleven were destroyed and three damaged in a massive air raid on Le Havre by Lancasters of Bomber Command. Among those killed was Kurt Johannsen, commander of the 5th Flotilla. The 6th Flotilla was moved back from the Baltic to make up for these disastrous losses, but the E-boats caused no further damage to Allied craft during June. In his appreciation for the work of Coastal Forces, meanwhile, the naval commander of the Eastern Task Force stated that it was largely due to their efforts that the invasion area had been kept virtually free from surface attack.
When the Germans began their final evacuation of Cherbourg at the end of the month, the MTBs had a chance to renew their offensive after so many days of defensive patrols. Two groups of the 14th MTB Flotilla were waiting outside the harbour for the departure of the last convoy. The first group of three boats, under Lt G.H. Baker, caught the convoy as it was forming up and sank by torpedo two coasters, a trawler and a tug. Then the second group came in, led by the Senior Officer of the flotilla, Lt D.A. Shaw, and sank at least two more vessels.
With the help of reinforcements the number of E-boats operating from Le Havre, Dieppe and Boulogne totalled 20 by the beginning of July, and these continued to make nightly forays against the cross-Channel convoys. Patrols of destroyers, frigates and coastal craft were kept constantly on the alert, with aircraft of Coastal Command and the Fleet Air Arm watching the enemy’s bases and attacking whenever a target appeared. However, the E-boats operated only in small groups now, having too few boats to risk a mass attack as before, and then only during the hours of darkness. They remained elusive targets, and in spite of the encounters that took place, it was seldom that an E-boat was sunk at sea. The battles fought between the fast-moving craft were generally confused and inconclusive, typified by the actions that took place in the Baie de la Seine on the night of 26–27 July in which a succession of collisions resulted in the loss of two British MTBs and one E-boat (S.182). On the other hand, Coastal Forces managed to prevent the E-boats breaking through to attack the shipping that was bringing over some 17,000 tons of supplies a day to the British assault alone. The enemy had better success against the less heavily guarded coastal convoys that were continuing to move to and fro along the south coast; on the last day of July, E-boats sank a steamer off Beachy Head and torpedoed and damaged four other ships including the frigate Trollope.