Channel Battles I

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1942 – HM Motor Gun Boat MGB.81

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1942 – HM Motor Torpedo Boat MTB.234, Vosper-type
The Vosper MTB crews had confidence in their boats, which were known for good sea keeping abilities, high speed and sound construction. As the war progressed, radar and heavier weapons made the Vosper boats even more formidable. The boats and crews had a sterling record while enduring incredible hardships.

During the period mid-1941 until early 1942, the Germans were successful in getting a substantial number of convoys and warships through the English Channel, usually at night by moving in short stages from one port to another, and taking full advantage of bad weather. The traffic was considerably less than on the British side – for example, between April and June 1941 some 29 merchant ships of over 1,000 tons and 11 destroyers were known to have made the passage – and this meant that considerable escort forces could be made available as well as the cover provided by aircraft and coastal guns.

The boats of Coastal Forces were primarily engaged at this time against German minelayers and E-boats, and even when attempts were made to take the war to the enemy coast, the MTBs found it difficult to locate targets. When they did so, it was even harder to penetrate the screening escorts to attack the larger ships. However, a few successes were achieved which, apart from their value in boosting morale, pointed the way for the future. The MTB and MGB flotillas based at Dover found that instead of operating independently, it was beneficial for both types of craft to work together. Thus the MGBs would take on enemy escorts, especially E-boats, and drive them away in a series of running battles, while the MTBs slipped through the defence screen to attack the ships being escorted. A noteworthy example of this technique occurred on the night of 3 November.

While two MGBs led by Stewart Gould (with Lt M. Fowke commanding the second boat) engaged the escorts of a convoy sailing through the Dover Strait, two MTBs commanded by Lt-Cdr Pumphrey (with Lt P.A. Berthon commanding the second) torpedoed and sank a 5,000-ton merchant ship and got away before their presence had even been detected. Gould’s MGBs did sustain considerable damage and casualties, but not before they had shot up a trawler escort and severely damaged a German ‘T’ Class torpedo boat, equivalent to a small destroyer. The teamwork developed by Pumphrey and Gould had a great influence on the tactics later adopted more generally by Coastal Forces. It also showed the value of having one boat that could combine the dual role of gunboat and torpedo boat, and hastened the development of the larger Fairmile ‘D’ class boats.

Another technique tried out during this period also had a profound effect on later tactics, both offensive and defensive. This was the method of using MTBs or MGBs in conjunction with a destroyer which, through its more sophisticated radar and VHF devices, could locate enemy craft and vector the smaller boats towards them. This was not the original intention, however, when the first of these combined operations took place. Among the Coastal Force flotillas that had been formed at this time were those manned by Dutch, Norwegian, Free French and Polish crews (later in the war, American PT-boat flotillas were brought over to operate in the English Channel during the Normandy invasion). A Norwegian MTB flotilla was based at Scapa Flow and the decision was taken to carry out an attack off the Norwegian coast. The MTBs did not have sufficient range to make the two-way passage under their own power, and as an experiment, on 1 October, it was agreed that one would be towed across by a destroyer. The boat in question was MTB.56, commanded by Lt Per Danielsen, towed by the Norwegian destroyer Draug. Some thirty miles from the Norwegian coast, the MTB slipped away from the destroyer and quietly entered a fjord south of Bergen. The Germans had not expected such an attack and were sending a fully laden tanker northbound with only a light escort. Lt Danielsen torpedoed and sank the tanker, together with one of the escorts, and then sped away to rejoin the destroyer and be taken in tow once again for the return journey. Both got home safely without damage or casualties.

This attack and other Commando raids on the Norwegian coast convinced Hitler, wrongly as it happened, that Britain was about to invade Norway. It was for that reason he decided to bring three powerful warships back into German waters from their base at Brest, involving a spectacular run through the Dover Strait during the hours of daylight. The three ships were, of course, the battlecruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau and the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen. They made the run on 12 February 1942, escorted by no less than ten torpedo boats and a large number of smaller escorts including E-boats, with 16 aircraft providing continuous air cover. Among the attempts made to prevent this convoy getting through was an attack by five MTBs from Dover, led by Pumphrey, but the escort screen was too concentrated for them to get through. Equally unsuccessful but more tragic was a later hopeless attack against overwhelming odds by six Swordfish of the Fleet Air Arm, led by Lt-Cdr E. Esmonde. All the planes were shot down, with only five survivors being picked up (Esmonde was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross).

Further attacks by aircraft and destroyers were also beaten off, and by the morning of 13 February the warships arrived safely in German waters. The fact that both the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau had been damaged by mines while off the Dutch coast could not disguise the German success in running the gauntlet through the Channel, almost within sight of the English shore. It was yet another example – although the most dramatic one to be sure – of a situation in which too many German ships were able to make the coastal voyage unscathed During the following month another large ship, the disguised raider Michel, also made a successful run down-Channel, from Kiel to La Pallice, in spite of attacks by destroyers, MTBs and MGBs. By May, however, when a second disguised raider Stier also made the voyage from Rotterdam to the Gironde, the British forces had become more experienced. Although Stier got through undamaged, two escorting torpedo boats – Iltis and Seadler – were sunk by MTBs with heavy loss of life, for the loss of MTB.220, in which the Senior Officer Lt E.A.E. Cornish and most of his crew were killed. Taking also into account the increased efforts of RAF Coastal and Bomber Commands to disrupt the enemy’s coastwise shipping, especially by minelaying, the summer of 1942 began to prove very hazardous for German convoys in the Dover Strait. It was for this reason that the Germans made a major effort to lay defensive minefields in mid-Channel to protect their shipping lanes, work that was mostly carried out by E- and R-boats with the results described in the previous chapter.

A major contribution in tipping the scales in favour of Britain was a rapid increase in the number of boats being commissioned in Coastal Forces, including the new designs. In mid-June, for instance, the 1st SGB Flotilla was formed at Portsmouth and within a few days undertook its first successful operation. This was on the evening of 18 June when three of the gunboats, under the command of the flotilla’s Senior Officer Lt J.D. Ritchie, set out in company with the ‘Hunt’ class destroyer Allbrighton to intercept two German merchant ships which were known to have left Le Havre with an escort of E-boats. SGB.7 commanded by Lt R.L. Barnet, succeeded in sinking a 3,000-ton merchant ship by torpedo in the Baie de la Seine, but was herself sunk by an E-boat; Lt Barnet and most of his crew were taken prisoner. The main reason for this loss was the SGB’s lack of speed in withdrawing after the action, and as a consequence, no further craft of this type were ordered although the Admiralty had originally envisaged a force of 60. However, the remaining six continued to give excellent service in the Channel and later in operations from the Shetlands. What proved to be highly successful was for SGBs and destroyers to work together, the latter making up for the gunboats’ vulnerability when up against E-boats. This kind of combined attack, in which the larger ship could give covering fire and illuminate the target for the smaller boat to make a torpedo attack, had been suggested at the beginning of the war when the Admiralty was considering how Coastal Forces could best be employed. But until 1942 there were not sufficient destroyers available, in view of pressing demands elsewhere, especially as convoy escorts in the Atlantic.

Command of the SGB Flotilla was later taken over by Lt-Cdr Peter Scott, MBE, DSC and Bar, son of Captain Scott of the Antarctic and a distinguished artist and ornithologist. It was he who created one of the most successful ship’s camouflage schemes of the war, blending duck-egg blue, off-white and green to such effect that on one occasion two ships disguised in this way collided in mid-ocean before being aware of each other’s presence. This camouflage was designed primarily for invisibility at night and broke away from the seemingly logical but entirely false notion which had previously been accepted that because the night is dark, dark colours should therefore be used. The Germans, with the grey-white colouring of their E-boats, were the first to find the opposite to be true; that if a ship was visible at all at night it was in the form of a dark shape against a moonlit sea, so the purpose of camouflage should be to paint her in lighter colours.

The first of the larger but slower Fairmile D-boats to see action was MGB.601 (Lt A. Gotelee), which set out from Dover on the night of 20 July in company with two Fairmile ‘C’s to search for enemy patrols south of Boulogne. The force was led by Lt. H.P. Cobb, with Lt G.D.A. Price commanding the other boat. Gotelee’s boat was not in fact armed with torpedoes on this occasion, which proved to be a drawback when they encountered a German convoy, a few miles north of Gap Gris Nez, comprising a merchant ship escorted by a number of armed trawlers and R-boats. The sea was too rough for small MTBs from Dover to reach the location in time, and so Cobb led his force in an attack with guns only, intending to drop a depth charge in front of the merchant ship if he could get close enough. The MGBs met a murderous fire from the escorts which set Cobb’s boat ablaze and caused casualties in MGB.601. Several enemy vessels were also hit and burning, but then Cobb’s boat blew up; a few survivors were taken prisoner, but Cobb was among those killed. As a result of the action, some modifications were made to all the other D-boats still being built and it was not until the end of the year that they came widely into use with the opening up of a new theatre of operations off the Norwegian coast.

By the autumn of 1942 it had become a major operation for the Germans to send a large merchant ship or warship through the Channel. On those occasions when it was tried, a single vessel might be escorted by a dozen or more E-boats or armed trawlers. These usually succeeded in getting their charge through unscathed when attacked by small units of British craft, as witness the previously described action. But it was another matter when an equally strong force could be despatched against such a convoy. This was the situation in the Western Channel where, following Hitchens’ success earlier in the year, large numbers of destroyers, MTBs and MGBs had been based at Dartmouth, Plymouth and Portsmouth for the purpose of clearing those waters of enemy shiping

Early in October, following their success in despatching the raiders Michel and Stier down-Channel, the Germans decided to try the same with the 4,000-ton armed merchant raider Komet. This was a new and important ship, fast and heavily armed. She had returned to Flushing at the end of 1941 after her first cruise, and now it was intended to take her round the coast in the Western Channel from where she could set out to attack the Atlantic convoys. The first stage of the voyage began at midnight on 7 October when the Komet left Flushing with a strong escort of minesweepers and torpedo boats. Early in the morning of the 8th, however, four of the minesweepers were themselves mined and the warship had to put into Dunkirk. She left four days later and coasted in stages to Boulogne and Le Havre, finally passing Cherbourg in the early hours of the 14th.

Meanwhile, the Admiralty had become aware of an important movement on the other side of the Channel. Five destroyers from Portsmouth, under Lt-Cdr J.C.A. Ingram in the Cottesmore, four more from Plymouth, and eight MTBs from Dartmouth were sent out against the convoy. Contact was made off Cap de la Hague by the first destroyer group, which set fire to the raider and two of her escorts. The second group of destroyers then arrived and engaged the other escorts, every one of which was damaged. Komet was still making 15 knots and in the smoke and confusion of the battle there was some danger of her getting away. However, the MTBs had arrived by then and one of them, MTB-236 commanded by Sub Lt R.Q. Drayson, managed to slip unseen between the shore and the enemy ships. MTB.236 crept ahead of the raider on silent engines, then at a range of only 500 yards delivered the coup de grâce with two torpedoes. The explosion as Komet blew up was heard on the English coast, some 60 miles away.

CHANNEL BATTLES II

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