In January or February it became our turn to go over to Italy to be patched up. Consequently we suffered the usual indignity of having practically everything that worked ripped out of 651’s vitals before she set off for the mainland on one engine. This sort of cannibalisation was necessary in order to provide spares that would enable the Advance Base staff at Komiza to keep the boats that were in the islands going for as long as possible. It was indeed amazing what they could achieve in that direction. They got help for timber repairs from a small local boatyard whose craftsmen working by eye could reproduce and replace any wooden part of a boat with the help of no more than an adze and one of those biblical type frame saws.
Even the human body could receive attention. We had suffered two serious casualties during our brush with the Hunts, but they had already received the most professional of treatment from a marvellous surgeon, a Harley Street specialist in peacetime, who had established himself on the Island.
A rough shack was commandeered and turned into an operating theatre. For this purpose all the boats were asked to produce all the electric light bulbs they could spare, together with clean new tins. These had their bottoms cut out so that they could be mounted in a cluster above the scrubbed kitchen table that was to be used foroperations, thereby reflecting the brightest possible light upon the subject. Around the cottage a tented encampment sprang up where the patients could be accommodated. The Doctor gave emergency treatment and then the patients were ferried over to Italy for more formal attention as and when a boat was crossing, if the Doctor considered the weather was sufficiently calm.
The coxswain of 651 was one of our casualties, and I think the good surgeon undoubtedly saved his life. He had been hit in the chest, and his spleen had to be removed; it was all done on that kitchen table...
The coxswain we lost from 651 on that occasion was a replacement of the regular service man who had formed one of the original crew. He had left us after getting wounded during a gun action against a submarine off the Messina Straits.
I cannot now remember the name of the second man, but the first coxswain, Lumsdon, was a small man, and very formal in manner at all times; even when he got his wound.
The shell from the Italian submarine that burst at the back of our bridge was one of the last of the group from that crew of her gun, for our pom-pom gunner, Crumpling, accounted for them in the same exchange of fire.
Splinters cut out the coxswain’s back. ‘Pusser’ to the last, I would swear he turned to me and saluted. and said: “Sir, I've been bit!” before collapsing.
I took a piece of shrapnel in my back at the same time, though it was no more than a scratch. But an irritant.
Our Lady of the Pirates by Kenneth Horlock
As soon as Augusta was in Allied possession, the Coastal Force Mobile Maintenance unit under the command of Lt Commander Bobby Allen RNVR, arrived at the port and within 24 hours they were providing fuel, maintenance and supplies for the Vospers and Dogboats, who were carrying out night patrols to the north.
Before that shortened journey became available however the 24th flotilla was part of a major success on the night of 13/7/43 when three Vospers on night patrol in the Straits of Messina sank a German U-boat. MTBs 81 (Lt. L Strong RNVR), 77 (Lt. B Sturgeon DSC RNVR) and 84 (S/Lt GR Smith RNVR) left Malta at 1245 with the senior officer, Lt C. W. S Dreyer DSC* RN, embarked on 81. Both 77 and 84 were from the 7th flotilla. Crossing latitude 38 deg.N at 2100, they reduced to speed 11 knots until 2145 when Reggio was abeam to starboard and speed was further reduced to 8 knots. At 2205 the unit stopped off Raineri Point. They had not long to wait, when at 2215 a surfaced enemy submarine was sighted entering the Straits from the north. The U-boat was sailing too close to MTB 81, and Strong reversed on all three engines in order to try to get into a firing position. Meanwhile Lt Dreyer sent a signal to C in C “Nuts to starboard” indicating enemy units were approaching the Straits of Messina. Strong could not go astern enough to achieve a good position, but the S.O. had himself observed a second U-boat sailing behind the first. As he was still going astern, he attacked the second submarine and fired one torpedo. This manoeuvre was successful, the U-boat blew up scattering debris all over MTB 81. In the meantime 77 and 84 chased after the first submarine, both firing their torpedoes as the U-boat crash dived. Unfortunately 77 had two misfires and 84 missed, her target altered course and speed which was enough to evade the missiles. Depth charges were then dropped ahead of the swirl where the U-boat had dived, and although no decisive result was claimed for the attack on the second enemy submarine, it was adjudged at the time that the enemy had been badly shaken up.
After this action, the unit searched the area where they had sunk the submarine, looking for survivors. Whilst they were carrying out the search, with negative results MTB 81 sighted a vessel moving south along the Italian shore, and it was thought to be a U-boat moving on the surface at 15 knots. A second vessel then became visible travelling astern, and Lt Dreyer then altered course to get into a firing position on the leading vessel, sending an enemy report, as he manoeuvred. Strong's remaining port torpedo was fired from 800 yards, and it was seen to miss astern by a distance. It was realised at this stage, that the enemy craft were in fact two E-boats cruising at 25 knots. They were followed to the end of their patrol area by 81, and then the ‘D’ boats were informed that the two E-boats were sailing into their territory. The three Vospers then made contact with each other, and carried on with their patrol orders.
At about 0350, the unit, still in the patrol area, were caught in the searchlight beams from the shore, and coastal batteries from south of Messina opened fire with 4" and 5" H.E.. Having observed the recognition signals used by enemy aircraft in the area, the same combination was displayed, and the shelling stopped.
During the patrol, the three boats witnessed from afar a clash between the patrol of ‘D’ boats to the south with the two E-boats. It was later learnt to be very successful, when the E-boats were set ablaze and beached. The ‘Ds’ belonging to the 33rd flotilla.
As dawn approached the three Vospers (MTBs 81,77,84) left the Messina area and began the long seven to eight hour passage to Malta. 0n the way, the unit exchanged fire with a group of E-boats and MAS boats going in the opposite direction, northwards. But the exchange was ineffective, and both sides continued on their way unharmed. The unit secured back at GREGALE just after 1330 on 14/7/43.
The outcome of the patrol was that the U-boat 561 was hit and sunk in the straits of Messina. Only the captain and one of the crew survived. They were no doubt in the conning tower, and managed to swim ashore. The second U-boat 375, was later revealed to have put into the Adriatic port of Valona, Albania, for urgent repairs. She sailed from there later, but never returned to her home operating port at Toulon, France. She was eventually posted "missing and presumed lost at sea" with all hands.
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