Three flotillas of Vospers which had originally been intended for Australia to operate in the Pacific were diverted to India instead, with one flotilla, the 18th, being lost in transit after the ship carrying them was torpedoed. Though the India-based Vospers of the 16th & 17th Flotillas never saw action, the reason for their being stationed in India was to act as a deterrent to the Japanese fleet, should it have encroached at any point into the Bay of Bengal, and at the time, they were the only craft in the region, bar submarines, that were armed with torpedoes and capable of performing this task. As Lieutenant Commander K Cradock Hartopp, SO of the 16th MTB Flotilla, recalled:Owing to their limited operational range and absence of targets for their torpedoes, it was decided by the Admiralty that M.T.Bs were of no practical value in the South-East Asia Command and therefore in July 1944 both flotillas were paid off and placed in care and maintenance."
They trained to total operational fitness, by which time there were no targets within 2000 miles for them to attack with torpedoes. Nevertheless they would have presented a significant deterrent to the Japanese had the 14th Army not been able to prevent invasion of India by land, which would have provided many good targets in the Bay of Bengal.
Some additional information has come from "Digger' Lee-Smith (Lt R M Lee-Smith RN).
What is known is that in 1942/43 the only ships of any allied navy in the whole of the Bay of Bengal capable of sinking Japanese battleships and aircraft carriers were two flotillas of 72" Vospers. After their arrival the Japanese never strayed much west of Singapore and never attacked again or invaded the east coast of India. This is the story of those two flotillas.
Three flotillas of 72" Vospers (22 boats total) were built at New Jersey in 1941/42; their PO Motor Mechs stood by during building and were intended to be shipped as deck cargo to Townsville, Australia, with a forward operating base at Thursday Island. By the time they were ready, the Americans had taken over the defence of the region, which is only 350 miles from the site of the Battle of the Coral Sea.
Thus the three RN flotillas with RN crews were sent to India. One of the ships carrying them was sunk and the PO Motor Mech of one MTB was saved, the other could not swim and was last seen climbing up the freighter's funnel. Thus 22 MTBs reached India, but one of the three SOs became ill and was sent back to the UK, so that the 18th flotilla was never formed and the 16th and 17th flotillas were of 11 MTBs each.
During 1942 and 1943 they were the only ships of any navy armed with torpedoes (except possibly a submarine or two including a German one) in the whole of the Bay of Bengal. They were also possibly the finest MTB flotillas, with Canadians, Americans, Australians and British hand-picked to exact revenge for the sinking of the Prince of Wales and Repulse. The whole point is that these two flotillas were all that we could muster to prevent an invasion of the east coast of India, Lt. Cmdr. K. A Cradock-Hartop RN, SO of the 16th MTB Flotilla in Trinco and Lt E. F. Hamilton-Meikle RN, SO of the 17th flotilla at Madras were ready, willing and able to tackle the Japanese fleet if it had attempted to repeat its dominance of the Bay of Bengal in 1942.
An example of the capability of these two flotillas occurred in 1942 when a design weakness was covered by AF0161/42 calling for hull strengthening. UK boats were just returned to their builders' yards. 16th and 17th flotillas had to set about the job themselves. They took on 4 or 5 Chinese shipwrights (Lt (E) Vincent came from Thornycrofts at Singapore and spoke Chinese). According to 'Digger' they ordered up the timber and fastenings — the deck stiffening was a mahogany plank 22' long × 12" × ¼" and the gunwale stiffening was 30' × 11" × ⅞" (he still has the sketch).
However, John Benson, who was Lt. Cmdr on the staff of Captain Coastal Forces at Trombay, had been a planter in South India and always got the job of solving impossible problems. Mahogany is a tropical wood from the New World. The experts all said that no other wood will marry with mahogany and there was none in the East. John Benson had a vague recollection of an avenue of large mahogany trees growing at Nilambur, about 60 miles inland from the west coast above Calicut. He contacted a chum in the Indian forestry service at Madras. H. P. Ward went into action and a few trees were felled, planked, seasoned and sent down to Madras. This is a good example of the cooperation between planters in India before the war who knew the languages and knew the ropes.
CFVA News: No 55: September 1988
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