Preparation for the Great Invasion I

Vital as the events taking place in the Mediterranean were, it was in Western Europe that the main Allied assault was now centred. The Normandy landings in June 1944 involved Coastal Forces in their greatest single operation of the war, and once again established the English Channel as the focal area for small-boat fighting, in which American PTs played their part together with British boats.

During the previous eighteen months, while the main activity had shifted temporarily to the Mediterranean, Coastal Forces in Home waters had continued to maintain their guard over coastal convoys in the narrow seas and off the English east coast. They had taken the fight against enemy shipping into an area which now extended from the Channel Islands right up the German-occupied coast to the Norwegian fjords, and had steadily built up their numbers, until by the time of the great invasion they constituted a formidable armada of twenty-eight flotillas of MTBs/MGBs, twenty of MLs, and eleven of HDMLs.

The end of 1942 had seen the tide turn against the enemy in the battle of the coastal convoys, with the little ships of Coastal Forces playing a major part in breaking the back of the S-boat menace. There could be no let-up, for the Germans continued to fight with a tenacity born of growing desperation. But from the beginning of 1943, the emphasis in Coastal Forces was on attack rather than defence. It became a major undertaking for the S-boats to make sorties into the North Sea for the purpose of mine-laying or attacking British convoys. When they did it was usually in large numbers, widely dispersed, in the hope that some might slip through the offshore patrol screen. They rarely did, but the resulting battles between the small boats were amongst the fiercest fought of the war.

For most of the time the S-boats were required for escort duties with their own convoys, so that by the spring of 1943 the British and German roles had become largely reversed, with the German craft in the same defensive position in which the British MTBs had been during the first two years of the war. These heavily escorted convoys proved as difficult to attack as the Germans had earlier found it was to attack British convoys. Allied to the fact that enemy shipping, particularly in the Dover Straits, was greatly reduced, this led to an inevitable falling off in the number of MTB and MGB actions in 1943.

Nevertheless, successes were achieved, due in large part to better boats coming into service to replace the old ones, especially the large ‘D’ boats and the improved Vosper and British Power Boat Company craft, and a greater degree of sophistication in Coastal Forces methods of operation. It had been realized as far back as 1941 that night fighting in small boats required new and specialized techniques – the training establishment at Fort William (HMS Christopher) in Scotland had been formed primarily with this in mind. But something more was required, to allow crews to train together and to benefit from instruction in the kind of tactics that the pioneers had learned the hard way in the days of trial and error. Accordingly, in mid-1942, a working-up base was established at Weymouth (HMS Bee) under Commander R.F.B. Swinley, and by 1943, not only were new crews being trained there but existing crews were seconded from operations to take part in the courses provided, where they found, perhaps to their surprise, that they still had much to learn about gunnery, signals, torpedo drills and general tactics. Among those posted to Weymouth at various times to give instruction, and to pass on their own knowledge and experience, were commanders whose exploits had already become famous, such as Peter Dickens, Ronald Barge, Philip Lee, Patrick Edge, Mark Arnold Foster and Peter Scott.

There were changes too in the organization of Coastal Forces, which although not ideal, went part of the way towards solving the problems that had hampered the work of Rear Admiral Kekewich in his difficult and somewhat anomalous position. Two Admiralty departments now became responsible for Coastal Forces. On the materials side, concerned with the development of boats and their equipment, Captain F.H.P. Maurice was appointed Director of Coastal Forces Material, while operations came under Captain D.M. Lees DSO, as Deputy Director Operations Division (Coastal). In Nore Command, which had responsibility for the three Coastal Force bases on the east coast at Great Yarmouth, Lowestoft and Felixstowe, a Captain of Coastal Forces (Captain H.T. Armstrong DSO and Bar, DSC and Bar) was appointed in February 1943, with a small staff, to coordinate operations and training.

All these appointments reflected the greater degree of importance that the Royal Navy had come to attach to Coastal Forces – a far cry from the early days when they were little understood and even dubbed ‘Costly Farces’ by some humorists. There was much greater coordination with other services concerned in coastal warfare, particularly with Fighter Command and Coastal Command’s Strike Wing, in which short-range aircraft worked with destroyers and MTBs from Nore and Dover Commands in operations against enemy convoys.

In taking the war across the North Sea to the German-occupied coast of Europe, it was the longer-range ‘D’ boats that were the most successful, able as they were to hunt in areas where least expected. One such operation took place on 12 March off the Hook of Holland, where three nights earlier Yarmouth-based MTBs had sunk a 6,500-ton tanker and two of her escorts, but had also lost one MTB (commanded by Lieutenant F.W. Carr) in an action against destroyers. As on that occasion, the boats were led by Lieutenant Commander Kenneth Gemmel, who was later to take command of a British flotilla operating with the Norwegian flotilla already in the Shetlands, against the coast of Norway, and was to be awarded both the DSO and DSC.

The memory of what had happened on the previous mission was very much in the mind of Gemmel and his crews as the three MTBs approached the same spot and immediately sighted a convoy of three big merchant ships surrounded by smaller escorts. It was at a longer range than usual – some 3,000 yards – that they fired their torpedoes, although from a perfect firing position. Two ships were hit. One broke in half and sank quickly, the other caught fire first, then sank more slowly by the stern. The MTBs turned away and headed back for home. From start to finish the enemy was unaware of their presence. The Admiralty thought it best to keep the Germans guessing and so for some time Gemmel’s action was kept secret.

It was on that same night that Lieutenant Arnold Foster DSC, leading three MTBs from Dover and assisted by a force of MGBs from Ramsgate under Lieutenant G.D.K. Richards DSC (one of the greatest of the gunboat commanders who was killed in action later in the year), torpedoed and sank another heavily escorted German merchant ship which had left Boulogne on one of the enemy’s rare attempts to make a dash through the Straits.

At the original instigation of Robert Hichens, before he was killed, the decision was taken in the summer of 1943 to equip all the ‘D’ class Fairmiles and most of the newer MGBs as MTBs, by installing torpedo tubes. The wheel had thus turned full circle, for just as the early MTBs had found themselves hampered by a lack of guns, which led to the development of the MGB, now the gunboats sometimes found themselves in a position to make torpedo attacks but with no torpedoes to fire, while the MTBs they were escorting were unable to get into such satisfactory firing positions. The ideal appeared to be a combined MTB/MGB – which was exactly the type of craft with which the Germans had entered the war. As the boats were gradually converted, they proved the value of this arrangement by increasing the percentage of the successes against the enemy, particularly as the enemy convoys were now strongly escorted by S-boats, which often made it necessary for a single boat to fight a gun duel as well as make a torpedo attack.

But as in all the small-boat fighting, it was the men rather than the equipment on which the results finally depended. This had been amply proved by Peter Dickens’s successes of the previous year, even with unreliable and outdated boats whose performance had been gradually improved as a result of the heroic efforts of the base staffs. Now, as Senior Officer MTBs at Felixstowe, with mostly Vosper 72½-footers in his own 21st Flotilla, he continued to show that there was still a place for the smaller but faster craft, if handled in the right way. With the help of Lieutenant I.C. Trelawny DSC, who commanded the 11th MTB Flotilla, he perfected his tactics of stalking and the unobserved approach to achieve some of the most successful results of the year.

One such operation took place in the early hours of 14 May. It was a perfect night for MTBs – sea calm, visibility limited so that there was a good chance of getting close before being seen – when Dickens left harbour in MTB 234, accompanied by 244 (Lieutenant K. Hartley), 247 (Sub Lieutenant G.J. Macdonald DSC, RNZVR) and 252 (Sub Lieutenant V. Ohlenschlagar).

By 01.40 on the morning of the 14th, the boats had reached their position 3 miles off the Hook of Holland, stopped and cut engines, and set hydrophone and RDF watch for any convoy that might pass. Dickens later wrote:

My leading stoker then staggered onto the upper deck and reported that exhaust fumes had leaked into the engine room and that the motor mechanic and stoker had fainted. They were dragged out and all three laid out on the upper deck to recover. The motor mechanic and stoker did not regain consciousness for about three minutes, when they were violently sick and had splitting headaches. In view of this I decided to remain in my present position which covered the approaches to the Hook and any passing traffic so as to give time for the engine-room crew to recover properly.

After about two hours, a confused sound was heard on the hydrophone. The MTBs started up at 9 knots, and at 03.41 four large ships with S-boat escorts were sighted fine on the starboard bow. They were not merchant vessels as expected but warships that were thought at first to be torpedo boats but later turned out to be minesweepers.

Macdonald and Ohlenschlagar were ordered to make an attack after Dickens and Hartley had separated and come in from different angles to create a diversion. But as the MTBs began to move into position, they suddenly found that the range which was thought to be 2 miles was only 500 yards – they were right on top of the convoy. An S-boat challenged Macdonald with the letter ‘P’. Macdonald replied with ‘R’, which confused the enemy and made him hold his fire for a vital few moments.

This gave a chance for Dickens and Hartley to come in to make a torpedo attack, reversing the roles originally planned, but all according to the tactics Dickens had devised. Unfortunately the two MTBs had not yet had time to separate and in the confusion of the moment, for they had just been seen and were coming under heavy fire, both fired their torpedoes at the same target, which was the second ship in line. As this blew up with a vivid red flash, the MTBs made smoke and disengaged. It was at this point that one of those incidents occurred which could have been serious but which in fact had its lighter side, as Dickens now recalls:

Having fired our torpedoes, Hartley and I disengaged to the east and had turned 90 degrees so that we were going parallel to the enemy, pretty close, and straight towards the shore at full speed. I was between Hartley and the enemy. I wanted to turn right away and get behind the smoke for we were being hit, but could not because Hartley for some unaccountable reason was holding his course. I waved and shouted madly to no effect, and it only came out afterwards that the strap of his binoculars had caught in the spokes of the wheel so that the coxswain could not turn it. Not knowing the reason why and reasonably assuming the steering had been hit, he exerted all the pressure he could, thus half strangling Hartley until, thank goodness, the strap finally broke.

Shortly before 04.00 Dickens made contact with the other two boats of Macdonald and Ohlenschlagar, which had also disengaged after knocking out the S-boat’s after gun. Having found out that they had not yet fired their torpedoes, Dickens took them back to the attack. They came across the wreck of the ship that had been torpedoed and by then was sinking by the stern. Her bows had been blown clean off. But what was more important was that another of the big minesweepers was slowly circling the wreck. Macdonald went in alone to make an attack, but both his torpedoes missed. Then Ohlenschlagar had a go. Although he was sighted and came under heavy tracer fire, he kept going and fired at 400 yards. One torpedo misfired, but the other found its mark. The second target blew up in a sheet of flame and appeared to break in two.

At that moment a third ship appeared, but with no torpedoes left, Dickens had to break off and head back for base. Two German minesweepers had been sunk, compared to only superficial damage to three of the MTBs (241 was not hit at all) and one casualty, Ordinary Seaman J. Pollard on Hartley’s boat, who was slightly wounded by shrapnel in the arm.

The claims at first made by Dickens were for two torpedo boats, which were much the same size as the minesweepers they were later found to be. The German propaganda machine made use of this misidentification in the following broadcast from Berlin two days later:

Yesterday the British Admiralty spread the false report that during an engagement between German and British naval forces off the coast of Holland, two German torpedo boats had been sunk. It is declared officially that on the night of 13/14 May no German torpedo boats were either attacked or damaged, and certainly not sunk.

This is what actually occurred off Scheveningen: a formation consisting of six British MTBs attempted to operate on the German sea routes off the Dutch coast and was, before reaching their destination, spotted by forces of the German naval coastguard and engaged. During this short-distance engagement the British MTBs, whose gunnery was inferior, received several direct hits. Two boats caught fire which soon spread over the entire length of the British boats. A third capsized owing to heavy damage received below the waterline after having been fired at heavily by both sides. In clear moonlight it could be seen that she sank. Apart from a number of losses of personnel, the German boats suffered no damage and were able to remain in position until daybreak. They have reached their base at dawn on 15 May in full numbers.

The monitoring officer of this German news broadcast added his own wry question: ‘As Lieutenant Dickens and his team presumably returned to base by swimming, has any consideration been given to granting them survivors’ leave and applying for the long-distance record?’

Dickens and his flotilla continued to achieve such successes and in the summer he was awarded the DSO. Then, in the autumn, after a brief spell at Weymouth to instruct others in the tactics that had become his hallmark, he was given command of a Hunt-class destroyer. But the tradition he had established at Felixstowe was ably continued by Trelawny’s 11th Flotilla.

Coastal Force activities in the English Channel showed a marked decline in the summer and autumn, not only because of the fewer ships that the Germans put to sea, but also because of unfavourable weather conditions. Three Newhaven-based flotillas of SGBs, ‘D’ Type MGBs, and 70-foot MTBs, had begun to operate in a new area off the Normandy coast, but the German radar-controlled batteries mounted high up on the cliffs made this a difficult and very dangerous hunting ground.

As regards the enemy’s offensive tactics, the S-boats were now rarely able to achieve success. But the Germans were well aware of their value in holding down large British defensive forces and in the autumn they decided to step up their operations in the North Sea with a number of well-planned mass attacks. The first of these on the night of 24/25 September resulted in the loss of one British trawler by torpedo, and in two ramming incidents in which S96 was sunk and two MLs, 145 and 150, were very badly damaged. Honours were fairly even. Then, on 24 October, three S-boat flotillas set out again on another mass attack against a northbound convoy off the Norfolk coast. This became a major battle, spread out over many hours and a large area of the North Sea, with as many as sixteen separate encounters between the German boats and the British patrols of destroyers and coastal craft.

The convoy of merchant vessels and trawlers was sailing towards the Humber and escorted by five destroyers, Pytchley, Worcester, Eglington, Campbell and Mackay. Coastal Force dispositions for the night had been made with an eye to a possible attack. On anti-S-boat patrol in units some 10 miles offshore were MGBs 609 and 610 under Lieutenant P. Edge, MGBs 607 and 603 under Lieutenant R.M. Marshall, MGBs 315 and 327 under Lieutenant J.A. Caulfield, and ML 250 and RML 517, under Lieutenant Commander Robert Elford. MTBs 439 and 442, under Lieutenant C.A. Burk RCNVR, were on stand-by in Lowestoft.

The S-boats, up to thirty of them, left their bases on the Dutch coast at nightfall and just before midnight, when about 12 miles off the convoy route, broke up into divisions of four or six boats each. By this time their presence had been detected by RAF bombers returning from a raid and the convoy was alerted. The S-boats had apparently used the direct route from Ijmuiden north of the Ower Bank, and as they would probably return that way, Nore Command plans were laid accordingly to cut off their line of retreat.

Pytchley was the first to make contact with the enemy. From her position guarding the seaward flank of the convoy the destroyer picked up a unit of six S-boats by radar at 23.18 and went into action against them 4 miles north of 56B buoy. She drove them off to the north-east, severely damaging one in a ‘well-fought action which undoubtedly saved the convoy from being accurately located’.

When the report of Pytchley’s contact had been received, MGBs 609 and 610 (Unit R) were ordered towards the vicinity of the S-boats, while MGBs 607 and 603 (Unit Y) went to intercept their line of retirement to Ijmuiden, together with the two fast MTBs which left Lowestoft to cover the northern end of Brown Ridge. Eglington was ordered to remain with the convoy while the remaining three destroyers were ‘fleeted’ north to help the MGBs.

It soon became clear that the S-boats had split into numerous groups which were approaching the outer war channel at a number of points east of 57F buoy. This would have posed a dangerous threat were it not for the fact that by good fortune the convoy was two hours ahead of its timetable. When the S-boats reached the shipping route, therefore, they were well astern of the convoy and the only anxiety was for the trawler William Stephen, which was straggling some miles behind.

At 00.27, Worcester, reaching the eastern end of her patrol, engaged four S-boats and drove them off with Oerlikon fire, scoring hits on one. Less than an hour later the same destroyer engaged another group of three boats and this time scored a direct hit with a 4.7-inch shell. The boat blew up and the blazing wreckage was passed as Worcester chased the others northwards. Returning to the channel half an hour later, Worcester sighted several more S-boats stopped at the scene of the action, picking up survivors. These were engaged and driven off.

Mackay meanwhile had also been engaged in two actions against different groups of S-boats at 00.40 and 01.48. While driving them off, the enemy made smoke and dropped a number of delayed-action depth charges, which the destroyer easily avoided.

The trawler William Stephen had dropped back 5 miles by the time these actions developed. With S-boats both ahead and astern of her, she ran into a group shortly before 01.00, was torpedoed and sunk. Fifteen survivors were picked up and made prisoner.

It was now time for the Coastal Forces craft to intercept the enemy boats which had been driven northwards by the destroyers. Caulfield’s MGBs, Unit V, had seen the first actions of Worcester and Mackay from a distance to the south and had also felt the underwater explosion of the torpedoed trawler. At 01.20 they made contact with three S-boats leaving Worcester’s second action and scored hits on these. An hour later three more were sighted on a north-easterly course at high speed, but owing to their large turning circle, the MGBs were unable to manoeuvre quickly enough to engage these.

In spite of their one success in sinking the William Stephen, the S-boats failed to make any contact with the main convoy, and what was more, they had had a rude surprise in the fierce reception that greeted them. But the most dramatic incident was yet to come. The MGBs under Lieutenant Marshall, Unit Y, made contact with the S-boats chased away by Mackay soon after 02.00. They were only doing 15 knots as one, S63, had been badly damaged, and were taken completely by surprise when the MGBs came for them at high speed with all guns firing. S88 took terrible punishment from this concentrated fire and was soon ablaze from stem to stern. It happened that Korvettenkapitän Lützow, commander of the 4th S-boat Flotilla, was on board this craft and was killed by a direct hit on the bridge.

The remaining boats increased speed and made smoke in an attempt to escape. The MGBs turned to port to cut them off and Marshall in 607 found an S-boat close on his port bow. He increased speed to engage, but the enemy boat suddenly turned to starboard and came towards him with the apparent intention of ramming. Not to be outdone, Marshall put his helm hard to port so that it was he who rammed the enemy, striking him full amidships at full speed. The force of the collision bounced both boats clear of one another. Marshall stopped to take stock of the situation and found, somewhat to his surprise, that his boat was not badly damaged. His casualties were heavy however – five dead and six wounded – caused by a blast of gunfire from the S-boat just before ramming. And most of his guns were out of action.

The S-boat on the other hand was already on fire and as the second MGB, 603, commanded by Lieutenant F.R. Lightoller, came up to see if Marshall needed help, the enemy boat was seen to sink. Shortly afterwards, the burning S88 blew up with an explosion that sent debris hurtling 200 feet into the air. Nineteen survivors were picked up and made prisoner. While this was being done, the explosion of another boat going up was seen about a mile off.

In the meantime, all the other Coastal Force craft had been engaged in running battles with further groups of S-boats, in which heavy damage was suffered on both sides. The two MGBs of Unit R, under Lieutenant Edge, were involved in a cat-and-mouse game of stalking one group to prevent them breaking through the cordon. When they did turn north to make a run for it, the two forces converged and in the brief but concentrated action that followed one of the S-boats was severely hit and seen to disappear in a cloud of smoke. The MTBs of Lieutenant Burk, Unit J, had a more difficult time and his own boat was badly damaged by a hit on the bridge which killed the first lieutenant.

As the boats returned to their bases, some of them crippled and only able to move slowly, the events of the night were gradually pieced together. It seemed that the damage inflicted by either side in sixteen separate actions was probably about even. But none of the British craft were lost, as against at least four of the German. As an Admiralty report stated:

This major E-Boat operation was frustrated with considerable loss to the enemy and the results were a triumph for the Nore organization. Nevertheless it was lucky the convoy was early; it would appear that after Pytchley had prevented the first group locating it, the only E-boats which had a chance of finding it and making an attack were those driven off by Unit R.