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Action off Catania on 11th July 1943

Posted: Fri Jan 31, 2020 2:21 pm
by Platon Alexiades
Hello,

I am looking for a report about the action of MTB-640, MTB-651 and MTB-670 (32nd MTB Flotilla, Lt. R.R. Smith) on 11th July 1943. They attacked an enemy submarine (probably the Italian Flutto) off Catania and may have sunk it. The MTBs suffered seventeen casualties. Extensive search at the Kew archives have been unfruitful so far.

Many thanks,

Platon Alexiades

Re: Action off Catania on 11th July 1943

Posted: Sun Feb 02, 2020 9:50 am
by justaveteran
Dear Platon
My name is Ken Gadsdon. My memory is now not what it's was but I served as an AB on MTB 651 during that action. All I can recall is that my boat suffered one casualty (coxswain ) in that action.
We surprised a submarine as it surfaced, presumably returning to its base. In the subsequent tussle the gunner in the sub’s conning tower was very effective. But on 651 we suffered only one casualty. Our impression was that the submarine, after a brave resistance, sank slowly.
Ken

Re: Action off Catania on 11th July 1943

Posted: Sun Feb 02, 2020 3:02 pm
by Platon Alexiades
Dear Ken,

I am thrilled to hear from a participant in the action! I have done extensive research in the Italian archives and I am inclined to believe that the submarine was Flutto. She had sailed from Bonifacio at dawn on 10th July and was directed to attack the Allied invasion forces off Catania. She was reported crossing the Straits of Messina at 1700 hours on 11th July and this was the last she was heard from. Probably proceeding at a surface speed of about 10 knots, she could well have been in the area of the MTBs encounter.

Was your coxswain killed or wounded? You mention the gunner on the conning tower to be very effective, this type of submarine was armed with four Breda 13mm MG or two 20mm cannons. I am not certain if Flutto's armament had been upgraded to two 20mm at the time of her sinking. She was also armed with a 100mm deck gun. Did she use it during the action? It is strange that a report of the action cannot be found at Kew. This was one of the rare actions in which MTBs sank a submarine during WW2, perhaps the only one?

All the best,

Platon

Re: Action off Catania on 11th July 1943

Posted: Tue Feb 04, 2020 5:12 pm
by Rrsmith
Hello Platon

I am new to this forum but very interested in your post.

My father was Lt. R.R. Smith who was the CO of MTB 640 during the engagement you referred to. I didn't realize there had been so many casualties on board the MTBs.

My knowledge of any of the details of that particular encounter are rather limited and largely informed by LC Reynolds Dog Boats at War. I am very interested in the insights you provided based on your research and would appreciate having the chance to connect with you to learn more about the sources of information you have been able to tap into.

It is quite remarkable to have a personal account from a witness. What a great service this forum provides. Thanks,

Richard

Re: Action off Catania on 11th July 1943

Posted: Wed Feb 05, 2020 9:30 am
by justaveteran
Dear Platon

The coxswain was wounded (one bullet wound in his back, I was standing close by at the time and I replaced him at the wheel) and throughout the action I was not aware of any cannon fire. Our firing prevented the submarine crew using their deck gun. I think that my boat fired one torpedo that missed. The submarine seemed to be sinking and my boat then dropped a depth charge. I cannot remember if the other boats used depth charges as well.

After the action I was unaware of other casualties on the other boats. I do remember that my boat continued the patrol but I cannot remember what the other boats did, but with such heavy casualties (16) they may have withdrawn.

All the best

Ken

Re: Action off Catania on 11th July 1943

Posted: Wed Feb 05, 2020 12:11 pm
by Admin
Hello Platon

Just to add to what Ken has already written of the event, Kenneth Horlock in command of 651 wrote the following brief account of the incident:
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

Regards
Admin

Re: Action off Catania on 11th July 1943

Posted: Thu Feb 06, 2020 6:37 pm
by Platon Alexiades
Dear Ken, Richard and "Admin",

Many thanks for the testimony of Ken and for your input.

Ken: it is interesting to note that your boat fired a torpedo but missed. Did you notice if the other boats also fired torpedoes? How was the submarine sunk? By depth-charges? I have no precise information on the Flutto's antiaircraft armament. An Italian contact has provided a photo which shows her with just a twin 13mm MG mount, so this confirms your account that she was not armed with 20mm guns, though it is possible that armament was increased to four 13mm MG, a not uncommon armament in Italian submarines at this stage of the war. The C. in C. Med War Diaries (ADM199/640) mention only that MTB-640 damaged a U-boat. Your boat was based at Malta at the time?

Richard: I ought to correct my earlier statement: this was not the only time that MTBs sank a submarine as U-561 was sunk on the following night. Also, Santorre Di Santarosa was also finished off by MTB-261 on 20th January 1643. I have done research at various archives. My main focus was British and Allied Submarines operations but I have also done considerable work on Italian submarines activities in WW2 in the Rome archives and have a special interest in clandestine activities in Tunisia 1940-1943, some involving MTBs, which I will post separately.

"Admin": many thanks for the extracts from "The Lady of the Pirates". It is very much appreciated as it not easy to find a copy. It is also interesting to note that Horlock describes a shell bursting at the back of the bridge, so its possible that Flutto also used her main gun during the action.

All the best,

Platon

Re: Action off Catania on 11th July 1943

Posted: Sun Feb 09, 2020 6:05 pm
by Peter
I am delighted to add to the story of German U Boats off Catania.

I was a Member 24th Flotilla and I recall the action portrayed in the book History of the 24th Flotilla by 'Bert' Cooper (whom I knew well within the CFVA) of the activity by U-boats in the Messina Straights on the night of 13/7/43.

I served aboard MTB 243 of the 24th Flotilla and was operational on that night but took no part.
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.

Re: Action off Catania on 11th July 1943

Posted: Mon Feb 10, 2020 9:57 pm
by Platon Alexiades
Dear Peter,

I am equally delighted to hear from you! Many thanks for your comments. I have not read Bert Cooper's book. Is it still available?
I note a couple of minor errors in the account you quoted:

1. The action actually took place on the night of 12/13 July. Reports can be found in ADM199/541 and in ADM199/1785 (TNA) and Axis records also confirm the date. The number of survivors is given as four or five, including Oberleutnant z. See Fritz Henning the commanding officer.

2. Henning confirmed U 375 was in company but she never went to Valona (which would be odd anyway as, AFAIK, no U-boat ever went there and from her last signals and sailing orders she operated east of Sicily before proceeding to the Gela area. No indication she ever proceeded to the Adriatic during this patrol. I believe she was probably mined off Gela as US minelayers had laid a minefield to protect the beachhead.

All the best,

Platon

Re: Action off Catania on 11th July 1943

Posted: Wed Feb 12, 2020 10:47 am
by justaveteran
Dear Platon

As I remember the action the Coxswain collapsed with a wound to his back and I don’t recall an explosion behind the bridge. I am convinced that there was only one MG being fired from the conning tower and we admired the spirited resistance shown by the submarine’s gunner. I didn’t see if any other torpedos were fired by the other boats. We were based in Malta at the time.

Ralph

Re: Action off Catania on 11th July 1943

Posted: Wed Feb 12, 2020 5:09 pm
by Platon Alexiades
Dear Ralph,

Many thanks for these additional details. They are very much appreciated.

All the best,

Platon