The successful beating-off of such a large enemy force kept the S-boats well clear of the east coast for a while. As the year ended, Coastal Forces were very much on the attack, harrying enemy shipping from the north – where the Norwegian 54th and now the British 58th MTB Flotilla under Gemmel operated from Lerwick against the Norwegian coast, to encourage the Germans in their belief that the Allies were planning a large-scale invasion of Norway – to the south where the MTBs and MGBs of Plymouth Command were now fighting regularly in the Channel Islands and off the coast of Brittany.
One of the long-standing complaints of the German S-boat crews had been that although their boats were faster than most of those of the British, they suffered from inferior armament. During the winter of 1943/4, however, a number of S-boats were rearmed with 40mm in place of their 20mm guns, which brought an aggressive new spirit amongst the German forces. In the past they had always avoided contact with their opposite numbers whenever possible, not from any lack of bravery or determination, but acting on German Naval Command policy. Unless they were defending their own convoys as escorts, their primary targets were Allied merchant ships, using either torpedoes or mines, and not the small craft of Coastal Forces which they usually hoped to avoid by their superior speed. These tactics had become less and less successful as Coastal Forces developed interception techniques to force the S-boats into combat, and on such occasions the German craft usually found themselves outgunned and at a distinct disadvantage.
Now, with heavier guns, the S-boats showed less reluctance to engage in a direct confrontation and the time came, on the night of 14/15 February 1944, when they actually sought out and hunted a group of British MTBs.
The events of the night began when a group of six S-boats crossed the North Sea with the intention of laying mines off the east coast. They were picked up by shore radar at 23.07 and driven off by the Harwich-based corvettes Mallard and Shearwater, which were on patrol. As they sped away, the S-boats were seen to jettison their mines. Meanwhile, five MTBs under Lieutenant Derek Leaf DSC had been sent earlier to the south end of Brown Ridge to try to intercept the enemy boats on their home run. The MTBs were 71½-foot BPB craft, able to stand up to long spells at high speed, but even so, they were too late: the enemy were already ahead of them. So Leaf decided to make for Ijmuiden, to be waiting on their doorstep when they returned to base.
Approaching the Dutch coast, however, the MTBs came upon an enemy flak ship and two trawlers. A combined attack was made, in which the flak ship was torpedoed and sunk by MTB 455 (Lieutenant M.V. Round RNZNVR), while Leaf’s boat, MTB 444, repeatedly hit one of the trawlers with gunfire and left it burning. In coming in to make another attack, Leaf ran straight towards another enemy ship which he did not see until the last minute. The MTB was heavily hit both above and below the waterline. Leaf, his Petty Officer and two ratings were killed and two others wounded.
This was not realized at the time by the other boats, however, and when three of them regrouped and 444 and 455 could not be seen, Lieutenant C.A. Burk RCNVR, commanding 439, took over as Senior Officer of the unit and set off to search for the missing boats. Almost immediately, Burk had the nasty shock of discovering by radar that six S-boats were shadowing his unit 1,000 yards off on the port quarter, an almost unheard of occurrence. The enemy craft were allowed to close to 600 yards, at which point further radar contacts, probably more S-boats, were picked up ahead. Burk decided to attack the shadowing boats first, rather than all groups at once. The unit altered course to port, increased to full speed and crossed the bows of the leading S-boat at 100 yards. Fire was opened at this and the second boat in line. Both were hit and the leader silenced and left stopped with a fire burning aft. During this engagement the MTBs were repeatedly hit by small-arms fire.
Burk then turned to attack the second group of six S-boats, but during this manoeuvre MTB 441 (Lieutenant W. Fesq RANVR) lost contact with the others. While trying to rejoin them he came across two boats which he thought were MTBs but which, after challenges were flashed, turned out to be S-boats. Fire was exchanged and 441 broke away. There were so many radar echoes at this time that Fesq had no means of telling which were friendly and which were enemy craft, so he turned and headed back to base.
The other two boats meanwhile found themselves outnumbered by no less than seventeen S-boats. Fire was exchanged while running at high speed, but the MTBs sustained little damage and only three men were slightly wounded. Eventually they broke off and set off for base, having already established W/T contact with 441 and 455, which were also returning and not in need of help. No contact could be made with 444 as the wireless on Leaf’s boat had been put out of action.
What happened after Leaf was mortally wounded was described by Sub Lieutenant P.P. Bains, the first officer of 444 who took over command:
As all the electrical equipment had been put out of action, I decided it was useless to try to regain contact with the remainder of the unit and so steered a north-westerly course to avoid further enemy boats until 04.15, when I altered for base and increased speed to 30 knots. Smoke and a distinct smell of burning was coming from the W/T compartment (where the telegraphist had been one of those killed; the others were the helmsman and Oerlikon and pom-pom gunners). This was drenched with Pyrene as the source could not be discovered but the smell and smoke persisted all the way back to Lowestoft. A serious leak in the forward mess-deck was discovered, and as soon as the hands could be spared, a chain of buckets was formed. This managed to keep the water down below danger level. There had also been a fire in the engine room which had been put out by the motor mechanic and stokers.
The loss of Derek Leaf, one of the most brilliant of the MTB leaders, was a serious blow to Coastal Forces. It had been he, as Senior Officer of the 3rd MTB Flotilla, who had devised the successful tactics of attacking trawlers from astern as a means of avoiding detection by their hydrophones, which appeared to operate best forward of the beam. Indeed, it was these tactics that had resulted in success on his last attack.
During the three years of night fighting by Coastal Forces, it had been the North Sea which commanded the lion’s share of operations. Now it was the turn of the English Channel to come into prominence with the greatest operation of them all, the Normandy landings, in which Coastal Forces had many important roles to play.
As the invasion was to be launched principally by Portsmouth Command, in March a Captain, Coastal Forces, Channel, was appointed (Captain P.V. McLaughlin) to the staff of the Commander-in-Chief, Portsmouth, to take charge of all MTB and ML operations (MGBs were no longer designated separately). Such an appointment was long overdue and came more than a year after the similar appointment in Nore Command which had achieved such good results.
While Captain McLaughlin and his small staff, which included such experienced flotilla commanders as Christopher Dreyer and Peter Scott, made detailed plans for the part that Coastal Forces were to play in the invasion, American PT boats made their first appearance in the Channel, brought over originally 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 Lieutenant Commander John Bulkeley, arrived at Dartmouth in April. They were fitted with special navigational equipment to aid them in locating specific points on the French coast, and their officers and men trained in launching and rowing special four-oared boats, constructed with padded sides and muffled rowlocks, so that they could land men and equipment on a beach swiftly and silently on the darkest nights. The first of these cloak-and-dagger operations took place on the night of 19 May, when PT 71 landed agents with equipment on a beach within 500 yards of German sentries. They continued up until November. The crews never knew the identity of their passengers and never once made contact with the enemy, which was as intended.
To take part in the invasion itself, further PTs were shipped across: Squadron 34 (Lieutenant Allen H. Harris), Squadron 35 (Lieutenant Commander Richard Davis Jr) and Squadron 30 (Lieutenant 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 defend the flanks of the spearhead attack on the shores of the Baie de la Seine and maintain guard over 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 S-boats based along the coast from Cherbourg to Holland. In the weeks before the invasion, ten flotillas of MTBs and MLs laid nearly 3,000 mines unobtrusively in areas close to the French coast, while at the same time other MTBs carried out their usual anti-S-boat patrols, and the MLs prepared for their wide range of tasks which were to include minesweeping, duties as escorts and navigational leaders, and shepherding in the landing craft.
Knowing that an invasion was imminent, although not its date or location, the Germans were preparing their own plans. The S-boats played an important part in these and Petersen, as commander of all S-boats in the Channel and North Sea, with his headquarters at Scheveningen, Holland, was involved in a direct battle of wits with McLaughlin and his staff at Portsmouth. In order to hamper the Allied preparations, Petersen increased his patrols until large numbers of S-boats were at sea every night.
Their biggest success came in the early hours of 28 April. A force of six S-boats from the 5th and 9th Flotillas had set sail from Cherbourg the evening before to attack an Allied convoy reported to be in the vicinity of Portland Bill. By the time the S-boats arrived they found they had missed the convoy, which had passed out of the danger area. The German craft were preparing to return home when, to their amazement, they came across a convoy of eight American tank landing ships sailing sedately at only 3½ knots in line ahead across Lyme Bay, off the Dorset coast, with only a corvette as escort, way ahead of the convoy and not guarding its flank. It seemed too good to be true. The S-boats raced into the attack before the Americans knew what had hit them. As the LSTs, packed with men and equipment, scattered in confusion, the S-boats sank two of them with torpedoes and severely damaged a third. The gunners on the other landing craft began wildly firing their machine-guns, often hitting friendly craft. By the time the corvette Azalea realized something was wrong and had turned about, the S-boats had sped away, completely unscathed, leaving a death toll of 441 military and 197 naval servicemen, which increased to a total of 749 over the following weeks as more bodies were recovered from the water or floated on to the shore.
News of the disaster came as a shock to General Eisenhower and his commanders who were planning for the great invasion of Europe only five weeks away. The American landing craft were in fact taking part in an exercise to practise amphibious landings on the beach at nearby Slapton Sands, chosen because of its similarity to the beaches of Normandy. If a few small German boats could slip through at night, apparently undetected, and create such havoc amongst just eight landing craft, what might they not do against a target of thousands when the real invasion took place?
If nothing else, the event once again proved the vital importance of coastal waters, both in offence and defence, and the value of small, well-armed boats which were difficult to detect at night. It was a lesson the Royal Navy had learned the hard way earlier in the North Sea and English Channel but a danger underestimated by the Americans – although the US Navy in the Pacific would have told a different story. Plans were put in hand to strengthen the forces defending the Normandy invasion fleet, including the deployment of more British and American motor gunboats. The Royal Air Force began a series of bombing raids against S-boat bases which severely reduced their numbers. And a news blackout was imposed on the fiasco to avoid a loss of morale among the American troops waiting to take part in the invasion, many of them as inexperienced in combat as those who had tragically lost their lives in Lyme Bay.
But in reality, such S-boat successes as Lyme Bay were exceptional. As Kapitänleutnant Rudolph Petersen summed up at the time: ‘Owing to the superior radar, strong escorts and air patrols of the enemy, and the German dependence on good visibility (for their boats still lacked radar), each success must be paid for by many fruitless attacks.’
And as the Allies pieced together the events of that night, it became apparent that it was not so much a German success as a chapter of Allied errors. The destroyer Scimitar should have been part of the escort, but had been in a collision with one of the landing craft the night before and had put in to Plymouth for repairs. The destroyer Saladin was intended to replace her, but through an oversight had not reached the convoy. Shore radar contact with the S-boats had in fact been made and Azalea warned two hours before the attack took place, but still the corvette allowed the convoy to proceed slowly right into the enemy’s path without any evasive action. Although the Azalea was under the orders of US Navy officers, it was her British captain who was censured for not taking more effective measures to defend the convoy. The heavy loss of life included men who had jumped from their sinking or damaged craft and drowned because there were too few life rafts, they had not been instructed properly in the use of life vests, and, in the case of the troops, they were encumbered by their heavy equipment and the helmets they were still wearing.
As stated in Captain Roskill’s Official History of the War at Sea:
The first five months of 1944 marked a very important stage in the development of our maritime control over the narrow waters; for it was then that we gradually established a sufficient ascendancy to ensure that, when the invasion fleets set sail for France, the Germans would not be in a position to molest them seriously. The degree of success accomplished could not, of course, be judged until the expedition actually sailed; but by the end of May there were solid grounds for believing that, even though the passage would undoubtedly be contested with all the means available to the enemy, his worst efforts would not suffice to frustrate our purpose. Such was the measure of the accomplishment of the astonishingly varied forces of little ships and aircraft which had so long fought to gain control of our coastal waters, and to deny a similar measure of control to the enemy.
As D-Day approached, so the work of Coastal Forces increased. Now it was not only a matter of laying mines to protect the flanks of the 15-mile-wide path of the invasion fleet across the Channel, but every effort had to be made to prevent S-boats from mining this path or the convoy routes of the invasion forces gathering in harbours along the south coast. There was a momentary alarm when, during an exercise on the night of 18/19 May in which MTBs were to act the part of S-boats to test the defences against these, two real S-boats approached the outer patrols. They were chased off, however, by two SGBs.
It is outside the scope of this book to describe the complex plans for D-Day in detail. Very briefly, Operation Neptune, which was the naval part of the overall invasion, Operation Overlord, called for two great task forces to make landings on either side of a line dividing Seine Bay. To the east was the British area, under Rear Admiral Sir Philip Vian, where three divisions of the British Second Army were to land at three points, ‘Sword’, ‘Juno’ and ‘Gold’, on a 30-mile front between the River Orne and the harbour of Port-en-Bessin. To the west was the American area under Rear Admiral A.G. Kirk, where the US First Army was to make two landings, ‘Omaha’ and ‘Utah’, on a 20-mile front. Two follow-up forces were to come in immediately behind the main assaults: Force L, commanded by Rear Admiral W.E. Parry, and Force B, commanded by Commodore C. D. Edgar.
Out of the total of 1,213 warships allocated to the assault phase of the operation, 495 were coastal craft, including SGBs, MTBs, PTs, MLs and HDMLs. With the Eastern Task Force there were ninety craft, including thirty American. With the Western Task Force there were 113, including eighty-one American. It was in the latter area that the SGBs and most of the PTs were to operate. A further 292 craft came under Home Commands, amongst which were thirteen Dutch, eight French and three Norwegian. The landing craft of various types which were to take part in the initial phase totalled 4,126.
D-Day was originally scheduled for 5 June. As instructed, a group of three PTs, which were to be among the spearhead forces, set out on the 4th to rendezvous with minesweepers off the Isle of Wight and began the crossing towards Seine Bay. Only after they left was the belated notice received that D-Day had been postponed until the 6th because of the bad weather forecast. The PTs were all set to make a landing on their own, a day ahead of time, with consequences in revealing to the Germans the location of the invasion that hardly bear imagining. Luckily they were intercepted by a patrolling destroyer when halfway across the Channel and sent back to Portland.
There was great anxiety and tension throughout that day, 5 June. It seemed impossible that the enemy could still be unaware of the Allied plans, considering the sheer size of the operation and the fact that the concentration of shipping of every kind imaginable in the Solent and Spithead was so great that scarcely an empty berth remained in those wide stretches of sheltered water. But there was no sign of enemy activity. As darkness fell on the waiting, darkened ships it seemed, incredible as it was, that the greatest invasion armada the world had ever seen might after all achieve that element of surprise that counted for so much.