Battle Squadron – the Aegean and Adriatic

The expansion of Coastal Forces activity into the Aegean and Adriatic made it necessary for boats to be transferred to these areas from Malta and Messina, with an inevitable falling off in the number of operations that could be carried out along the west coast of Italy.

After the landings in Italy, Commander Robert Allan had moved his mobile base up from Messina to Maddalena, the former Italian naval base in Sardinia. From here the 20th MGB Flotilla began operations by the end of September 1943, patrolling the north-western waters particularly round Elba; they were soon followed by the 7th MTB Flotilla and the American PTs under Lieutenant Commander Barnes. Except when they were withdrawn for special operations with American forces, such as the invasions of Sicily, Italy and later Southern France, the PTs operated throughout as part of British Coastal Forces. In mid-October an advance base was established at Bastia, in Corsica, and from here the entire Gulf of Genoa came within patrolling distance.

As the Germans were driven slowly towards Rome during the winter of 1943, their supply lines by road and rail from Genoa came under continual attack and they had to rely increasingly on waterborne transport from the north. This mainly took the form of F-lighters and cargo ships that made the run down the coast by night, behind protective minefields and under cover of shore batteries, making it too risky to send in destroyers to stop the traffic. And so the job was left to the MTBs, MGBs and PTs, which with their shallow draft could usually pass safely over the minefields.

Experience had shown that the strongly built F-lighters could only be effectively sunk by torpedo as they were virtually invulnerable to the gunpower the small boats carried at that time. The F-lighters on the other hand were heavily armed with 6-inch and 8-inch guns, which made it necessary for the MTBs to get their torpedoes away quickly before coming under fire themselves. This led to the development of a technique for tracking a target by radar to assess its course and speed, then sneaking quietly in from the most favourable angle of approach and firing torpedoes before the enemy knew they were being attacked.

The PTs were the best craft for tracking the enemy, equipped as they were with a much more effective kind of radar. But the MTBs carried better torpedoes than the Americans – faster, more reliable and of higher explosive power – and the MGBs carried heavier firepower with their 6-pounders. And so joint patrols were instituted, in which a PT acted as scout and tracker while the MGBs held off any attack that was being made, and the MTBs came in to fire their torpedoes.

The technique of using MTBs and MGBs together on operations was not new, having orginally been developed during the early days in the English Channel. But Coastal Forces in the Mediterranean went one step further by reorganizing the ‘Dog’ flotillas to include four each of MTBs and MGBs. In one of these flotillas, the 56th, every commanding officer was a Canadian, with another Canadian, Lieutenant Commander Douglas Maitland, as Senior Officer. This flotilla became something of a legend in the Mediterranean. Soon after its formation it took part with other Coastal Force units in the Anzio landings on 21 January. In conjunction with the PTs under Stanley Barnes, the Canadian boats made a ‘dummy landing’ further along the coast as a diversion, using the usual techniques of record-playing the sounds of a landing over loudspeakers and setting off fireworks to simulate a battle. It was while this was in progress that an F-lighter and two S-boats passed by, further offshore. The six ‘Dogs’ set off in pursuit, MGBs 657 (Maitland), 658 (Cornelius Burke), 633 (Tommy Ladner), 640 (Campbell McLachlan), 659 (Peter Barlow), and MTB 655 (Pickard). Coming up fast in line ahead in the wake of the enemy, the MGBs delivered a fierce broadside which soon silenced the German gunners, and set the F-lighter and one of the S-boats on fire. Pickard’s MTB which should then have made a torpedo attack had been hit and had fallen out of line. But just as Maitland turned back to look for him, the F-lighter blew up with a tremendous explosion.

It was the first time one of these craft had been destroyed by gunfire and the significance was not lost on Commander Allan. German opposition had stiffened considerably, with the F-lighter convoys now being escorted by S-boats and large landing-craft mounting high-velocity 88mm, as well as 40mm and 20mm guns. The MTBs found it difficult to get near enough to make a torpedo attack, and even when they did the torpedoes usually passed underneath the shallow-draft lighters. But the Canadians had shown that an attack by gunfire could be successful, pointing to a new method of approaching the problem. Allan began devising plans which led to the formation of Coastal Forces’ ‘Battle Squadron’, one of the most spectacular and successful small-boat units of the war.

This force was built around three British LCGs (Landing Craft Gun), each mounting two 4.7-inch and two 40mm guns manned by Royal Marine crews. These formed the Battle Group (the actual craft used were LCGs 14,19 and 20). They were screened from possible S-boat attack by an Escort Group, comprising the Canadian-commanded ‘Dogs’, MTB 634 and MGBs 662, 660 and 659. A Scouting Group of PTs 212 and 214, under the command of Lieutenant Edwin A. Du Bose in 272, was to search ahead for targets and also act as a screen against any enemy destroyers in the vicinity. And finally there was the Control Group of PTs 218 and 208, with Commander Allan in 275 commanding the entire operation. He was virtually in the position of admiral of a battle fleet – a battle fleet in miniature – going into action against a somewhat similar opposing force but in which events would move a great deal faster than if they had been big ships.

One of the most successful operations by the ‘Battle Squadron’ took place on the night of 24 April. Allan led the Control Group in PT 218, with 209, and Du Bose the Scouting Group in PT 212, with 202 and 273. The LCGs were escorted by PTs 211 and 276, MTBs 640,633 and 655, and MGBs 657, 660 and 662. The MTBs were commanded by Tim Bligh and the MGBs by Douglas Maitland. The force left Bastia at various times in the afternoon, because of their different speeds, and made rendezvous in the vicinity of the Vada Rocks at 20.00.

At this same time, a German convoy of eight F-lighters and a tug was setting off from Leghorn to take supplies further down the coast to San Stefano, while a smaller convoy of two patrol trawlers, each towing a barge, left shortly afterwards from Porto Ferraio, northward bound for Leghorn.

The first radar contact was picked up by the Scouting Group at 22.05, just off Vada Rocks, and a few minutes later Allan picked up another contact off Piombino Point on his own radar screen. The first was the southbound convoy and the second appeared to Allan to be an escort group heading to make rendezvous with the convoy; it was in fact the northbound convoy. In any event, Allan decided to pass ahead of this and attack the main target.

The F-lighters were close inshore when Allan located them shortly after midnight. As starshells lit up the enemy craft, many of the first rounds fired by the LCGs landed on the cliffs. But others found their targets, and within minutes four lighters and the tug had been blown up and sunk. Then the Battle Group turned away to intercept further radar contacts which had appeared to seaward, leaving the MGBs to close the beach and search for any further targets. One F-lighter was found, undamaged but abandoned by most of her crew; this was set on fire by the MGBs and later blew up. After picking up survivors, the MGBs were ordered by Allan to return to Bastia.

In the meantime, the LCGs had located three more F-lighters, two of which were hit and sunk almost immediately, but the third returned a high rate of fire which narrowly missed the LCGs. PT 218, from which Allan was controlling the operation, pulled ahead and drew most of this fire, which also landed dangerously near but did not hit the boat; no damage or casualties were suffered by any of the Allied craft. Then the third F-lighter was hit and withdrew under a heavy smokescreen. Fearing she would escape, Allan detached the MTBs to finish her off. They did inflict further damage, but the craft did not sink and eventually beached south of San Vincenzo.

An hour later the Scouting Group made contact with the two patrol vessels towing barges that were the northward-bound convoy. As the LCGs were too far away to make an interception, Allan gave the PTs permission to attack with torpedoes. They came under fire from the enemy craft before manoeuvring into an attacking position, but one of them, PT 202, fired a five-star recognition cartridge which happened to be handy and the enemy stopped firing. The PTs made a final run-in unopposed, fired their torpedoes and one of the vessels blew up, sinking almost immediately. The second opened up heavy fire again, at which the PTs withdrew under a smokescreen.

The ‘Battle Squadron’ was then ordered to return to Bastia, but the operation was not yet over. At 04.00 on the morning of the 25th, Bastia reported that an unknown number of enemy boats was stopped in a position 3 miles due west of Capraia. Allan considered that it was probably an S-boat force lying in wait for his return. He warned the LCGs of the suspected presence of S-boats, giving them a lookout bearing to starboard, and at the same time altering course to port. The Scouting Group were also informed of the enemy position and ordered to proceed round the north of Capraia, while the Close Radar Screen (PTs 211 and 276) was ordered to intercept round the south of the island.

The enemy force was in fact made up of three German torpedo boats, small destroyers, which were laying mines off Capraia. They were engaged by the PTs of the Scouting Group which fired their remaining torpedoes. One of the enemy boats, TA 23, was damaged by an explosion. Whether it was the result of a torpedo hit or striking a mine was not known, but as she was in a sinking condition and could not be saved she was later torpedoed and sunk by one of the other German craft.

None of the MTBs or PTs managed to make further contact with the torpedo boats. But it was a fitting conclusion to what had been a brilliantly successful operation, in which eleven enemy vessels had been sunk without any corresponding damage or casualties to the Allied craft.

In May, Coastal Forces were stepped up by the arrival at Bastia of the 7th MTB Flotilla, made up of new Vospers and American-built Higgins, and the American PT Squadron 22. A further squadron, 29, started operating from a new base at Calvi, on the west coast of Corsica, from where they could move in closer to the French coast and the Italian coast west of Genoa, and the American PT Squadron 15 was divided up between Bastia and Calvi. Lieutenant Commander Barnes, who had been awarded the Navy Cross for his heroism and leadership during the Tunisian and Sicilian campaigns, was in operational command of all three American squadrons.

Equipped with modern Mark XIII torpedoes, which could be fired from light racks instead of the old heavy torpedo tubes, and mounting 40mm guns, these boats were much more effective than the previous PTs. There were fewer incidents of torpedoes running erratically – or even turning and heading back for the boat that had fired them, as had happened in the past. From May to July, the American boats operating alone claimed two corvettes, eleven F-lighters, one cargo ship and several small craft sunk, and one motor torpedo boat, MAS 562, captured. Further craft were sunk in joint operations with British craft. Then, on 1 August, the PTs were withdrawn from operations to prepare for the part they were to play in the invasion of Southern France, scheduled for 15 August.

Meanwhile, the effectiveness of the British MTBs was also improved by the arrival of the Mark VIII Two-Star torpedoes with magnetic pistols. This device exploded a torpedo without contact with the target being necessary, and was to revolutionize attacks on shallow-draft vessels like F-lighters. The 7th MTB Flotilla, under Lieutenant A.C.B. Blomfield, was the first to use the new torpedoes. On the night of 9 May three of these boats, MTBs 378, 377 and 376, with Lieutenant R. Varvill as Senior Officer, and PT 203, torpedoed and blew up two F-lighters. This was followed up by a further success the following night when Blomfield led MTBs 420 and 421, together with PT 214, against a merchant vessel and escort of five R-boats off Vada Rocks. One certain and one probable hit was scored against the merchant vessel, and one probable hit against one of the escorts. Then on 27 May, off Spezia, Varvill again led MTBs 421, 419 and 420, and PT 218, against a force of five F-lighters escorted by an S-boat. Three of the lighters were torpedoed and blown up – each of them hit by one of Varvill’s torpedoes fired both together, a remarkable feat, and the third by a single torpedo fired by 420 (Lieutenant E.S. Good) – and a fourth was forced to beach. Resuming patrol, an hour later the MTBs sighted a 1,500-ton merchant ship escorted by a sloop or small destroyer. MTB 419 (Lieutenant A.H. Moore) scored a hit with his one remaining torpedo against the merchant ship, which broke in half and sank. Good’s boat was hit by the escort, but he managed to bluff his way out by firing recognition cartridges. As a result of firing five Mark VIII torpedoes – the four Mark XIIIs fired by the PT all missed – the bag for the night was three F-lighters and one merchant ship.

While the 7th MTB Flotilla continued to maintain these successes, other coastal craft, including the PTs and the four ML Flotillas now based in the area, joined the 56th MTB/MGB Flotilla in Operation Brassard, the landing on Elba. This was planned for 17 June, thirteen days after units of Fifth Army had entered Rome following nine months of hard fighting up from Salerno.

Because of the large number of mines laid off Elba by the Germans, it was considered too risky to use deep-draft vessels for the landing, so nearly all the surface support was provided by Coastal Forces. Again the PTs were out with their sound apparatus to simulate dummy landings on the night of 16/17 June, while the actual landing on the south coast was made by Senegalese troops of the French 9th Colonial Infantry Division. Then the MLs began the arduous task of minesweeping while the Canadian-commanded ‘Dogs’ patrolled the approaches to the island.

On the second night after the landing, while leading four boats on patrol between Elba and the mainland, Maitland ran into an enemy force of a destroyer, a torpedo boat and an F-lighter, standing off the island in preparation for making an evacuation. MTB 655 (commanded by Lieutenant Pickard with Maitland on board) made a run-in to fire her torpedoes, which missed and exploded on the shore. Almost simultaneously the destroyer turned and headed straight for the three MGBs, gathering speed as she came. There was a sharp interchange of fire, but the destroyer’s heavier guns won out. MGB 658 (Lieutenant W.O.J. Bate RCNVR) was badly damaged, with three men killed and Bate and another four men wounded. At one point in the action the steering jammed and the gunboat was almost rammed by the destroyer.

Elba was quickly overrun within two days. The subsequent establishment of heavy guns on the island denied the Germans use of the coastal waters to the south and was a great help to the Allied advance up the Italian coast.

Ever since the Adriatic had been opened up for Coastal Force operations, flotillas had been periodically transferred there from the Italian west coast area. Just before the Elba landing, the 57th MTB/MGB Flotilla had joined those which had already gone. Now with the Elba operation completed and with the remaining craft preparing for the next big operation, the invasion of Southern France on 15 August, the 56th MTB/MGB Flotilla was also transferred to the Adriatic.

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