Action off Catania on 11th July 1943

Discussions relating to actions or operations, including combined operations, involving Coastal Forces boats or flotillas
Platon Alexiades
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Action off Catania on 11th July 1943

Postby Platon Alexiades » Fri Jan 31, 2020 2:21 pm

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

justaveteran
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Re: Action off Catania on 11th July 1943

Postby justaveteran » Sun Feb 02, 2020 9:50 am

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

Platon Alexiades
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Re: Action off Catania on 11th July 1943

Postby Platon Alexiades » Sun Feb 02, 2020 3:02 pm

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

Rrsmith
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Re: Action off Catania on 11th July 1943

Postby Rrsmith » Tue Feb 04, 2020 5:12 pm

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

justaveteran
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Re: Action off Catania on 11th July 1943

Postby justaveteran » Wed Feb 05, 2020 9:30 am

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

Admin
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Re: Action off Catania on 11th July 1943

Postby Admin » Wed Feb 05, 2020 12:11 pm

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

Platon Alexiades
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Re: Action off Catania on 11th July 1943

Postby Platon Alexiades » Thu Feb 06, 2020 6:37 pm

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

Peter
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Re: Action off Catania on 11th July 1943

Postby Peter » Sun Feb 09, 2020 6:05 pm

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.

Platon Alexiades
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Re: Action off Catania on 11th July 1943

Postby Platon Alexiades » Mon Feb 10, 2020 9:57 pm

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

justaveteran
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Re: Action off Catania on 11th July 1943

Postby justaveteran » Wed Feb 12, 2020 10:47 am

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

Platon Alexiades
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Re: Action off Catania on 11th July 1943

Postby Platon Alexiades » Wed Feb 12, 2020 5:09 pm

Dear Ralph,

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

All the best,

Platon

Scobello11
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Re: Action off Catania on 11th July 1943

Postby Scobello11 » Sat Nov 21, 2020 11:21 pm


I have not read Bert Cooper's book. Is it still available?
You are still able to find a copy of the book by Bert Cooper
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Scobello11
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Re: Action off Catania on 11th July 1943

Postby Scobello11 » Sat Nov 21, 2020 11:24 pm

28th Flotilla at Cantania, Sicily
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GrahamWhite
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Re: Action off Catania on 11th July 1943

Postby GrahamWhite » Thu Nov 26, 2020 6:16 pm

Dear Ken and Richard

I have been on this forum for some time and posted some questions a few years ago about MTB 640. My interest is because my father's twin brother A.B./R.D.F. Cecil White, was killed on MTB 640 off Vada on the 27th June 1944 when the ship hit a mine.

Since, I have acquired substantial information about the actions and activities of 640 during her service including a crew photo, and after much research a photo of the ship (grainy but better than nothing).I also have private letters sent home from my Uncle and 2 letters from the Commanding Officer to my grandparents explaining the events around the sinking of the ship.

It is my intention to offer this information, when I have included my research, to the Forum and other Historical Societies who have a relevance to my Uncle's life and I will be pleased to send you anything specific, in advance, if you so wish.

In the meantime, If Ken can tell me anything he may recall of MTB 640 and if Richard has any other material regarding 640 I would be indebted to you both, if you are prepared to share.

In the present state of my research I think I may need another 3- 6 months of work before I will have completed my work.

Graham White

Rrsmith
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Re: Action off Catania on 11th July 1943

Postby Rrsmith » Sat Jan 30, 2021 1:31 pm

Hello Graham,

Sorry I missed your post from November but I am happy to hear about your research project on your uncle.

Much of the information I was able to locate on MTB 640 has come through this forum and a collection of books that have been published on coastal forces so I am not sure I can add very much to the data you've gathered.

Like you I have also researched and written a short history of my father's journey through WWII in an effort to identify when and where he served, and in which capacity. The service records I have indicate my father was CO of MTB 640 for only a short period from the beginning of April 1943 to the end of July 1943 when he was transferred to the 55th Flotilla back in the UK taking over MTB 629.

I am attaching an excerpt from the story I wrote that covers the period my father was on MTB 640. It is not a significant piece of research rather a general collection of stories and historical events that I compiled and shared with my family, but given your research you may find some of it of interest. Similarily I would be interested in any research you are able to share on the history of MTB 640. Kind regards,

Richard

Excerpt from a personal history written about Lt. RR Smith DSC RNVR

After three years with the 10th Flotilla, the time had come for Smith to leave the ‘short’ boats and make the transition to the larger ‘Dog’ boats as he joined the 32nd MTB Flotilla as C.O. of MTB 640 on April 9th, 1943. The introduction of the larger Fairmile D MTBs marked a turning point for Coastal Forces. The boats, which were starting to be delivered in increasing numbers from the small boatyards around Britain, were much longer (115’), had a crew of 35, were equipped with much heavier armaments, had four reliable engines and a redesigned hull that could handle rougher seas. The S.O. of the 32nd MTB Flotilla was Lt. Stewart Gould, one of the most gallant, aggressive and experienced MTB officers in Coast Forces.

The boats travelled under their own power from England to the Mediterranean (over 1,000 nautical miles) and had to take a circuitous route to avoid U boats, which were at the peak of their activity in the Atlantic. Arriving in Gibraltar on March 16, 1943, the Flotilla quickly moved on to the Coastal Forces Advanced Base in Bone in early April. Records show that MTB 640 was assigned to Smith and Gould. This suggests that Smith would have been C.O. responsible for MTB 640 and Gould would travelled on board as the Flotillas S.O., responsible for directing all of the eight boats under his command.

The first operation in MTB 640 for Smith was on April 18th, 1943, off of Bizerta, when they attacked three E boats and damaged one badly. At this point the C-in-C Med. was determined to prevent any Axis supply ships from reaching North Africa, or any ships being allowed to evacuate enemy troops. The signal from C-in-C Med was unambiguous: ‘Sink, burn and destroy. Let nothing pass.’ Operation Retribution was under way.

A decision was made to send four boats from the 32nd Flotilla to Souse, south of Tunis, on April 26,1943 to gather intelligence. As MTB 640 was unavailable, Gould went aboard 639 with 633 and 637. That night the MTBs, which were flying a German ensign to deceive observers, were able to cruise inshore to do reconnaissance and intelligence gathering near Hammamet and Kelibia Point, from where they expected a possible evacuation. Observing piers being constructed, they marked their positions as well as the location of gun placements on the shoreline and wrecks along the coast.

Encountering a convoy further off shore, the MTBs attacked. By then it was broad daylight and 639 came under heavy fire from the destroyer escort and fighter aircraft which tragically killed the C.O., the First Lieutenant and S.O. Lt. Stewart Gould. The loss of Stewart Gould, a true leader who did so much to make the Coastal Forces such an effective fighting force both in Home Waters and the Mediterranean, would have been a massive blow to all MTB officers and crew. (Lt. Rose of MTB 638 was promoted to S.O. and temporarily took over the 32nd Flotilla.)

Thanks to men like Stewart Gould, Coastal Forces had more than demonstrated their effectiveness and contribution to naval warfare in the Mediterranean. On January 12th, 1943, Cunningham was promoted to Admiral of the Fleet and oversaw the surrender of Italy in September 1943. With the death of the First Sea Lord Sir Dudley Pound in October, Cunningham had to relinquish his most coveted position as C in C Med (Commander in Chief, Mediterranean) and take his seat in the War Cabinet with Churchill and his fellow Chiefs of Staff. He went on to write in his memoirs, a Sailor’s Odyssey: “The months April and May (1943) will probably be chosen by historians as the period when the pendulum swung, and the offensive at sea finally passed into the hands of the Allies…”.

In June 1943, the Dog boats were sent out on nightly patrols, mainly to scout the eastern coast of Sicily to assess enemy positions and identify the location of searchlights and shore batteries. By July 1943, all attention was turned to Operation Husky - the invasion of Sicily which had been scheduled for July 9th, 1943. The main task assigned to the Dog boats was to conduct anti-E boat patrols and to protect the northern flank of what was then the largest invasion armada ever assembled. The landings in Sicily would mark the first point of entry for the Allied forces in the long and bloody battle to retake Europe.

The successful landings were aided by an elaborate deception plan known as ‘Operation Mincemeat’, that involved dropping a body dressed as a Major in the Royal Marines and carrying seemingly official correspondence between two Allied Generals, with a view to misleading the enemy. The documents outlined an Anglo-American plan for an invasion of Greece and Sardinia, rather than Sicily, which led the Germans to spread their defensive forces over a much wider area. The plan emerged from the ‘Trout memo’ written on September 29, 1939 by the Director Naval Intelligence, Rear Admiral John Godfrey, who compared the deception of the enemy in wartime to trout fishing. Godfrey’s executive assistant was Lt. Cmd. Ian Fleming, who went on to distinguish himself after the war as the writer and creator behind James Bond, Agent 007.

On July 11th, after most of the invasion force had landed, Lt. Smith in MTB 640 was involved in the first surface action of the campaign. Having sailed from Malta, where the 32nd Flotilla had recently been moved, MTB 640 was patrolling off Catania with MTBs 651 and 670 when they met a southbound U-boat on the surface. They immediately attacked with torpedoes, gunfire and depth charges and the U-boat responded with its deck gun, causing several casualties on board the MTBs and forcing them to disengage. While the Dog boats could not claim they sunk the sub, there were no reports of further U boat attacks that night. In recognition of MTB 640’s contribution to this engagement, Lt. R.R. Smith was ‘Mentioned in Despatch’ for distinguished service, which was published in the gazette on May 14th, 1946.

Shortly afterwards, a Coastal Forces forward operating base was established at Augusta, Sicily, which saved the boats a long voyage back to Malta after night patrols in the Straits of Messina. On the night of August 15/16th, MTBs 640 (Smith), 665 (Lt. Thompson RCNVR) and 670 were in one of the narrowest parts of the Straits less than a mile south of Messina with orders to seek out and torpedo the Messina ferry, which intelligence had indicated was operating at night.

The MTBs were caught up in searchlights from both shores and the shore battery quickly found their range. The battery in Reggio scored a direct hit on MTB 665 with its 88mm gun. The MTB caught fire, causing Lt. Thompson and crew to abandon ship. Attempts from 640 and 670 to rescue their colleagues were repelled by the accurate fire from shore and they were forced to disengage, which left the surviving MTBs with an enormous sense of loss.

Lt. Thompson later recounted that they were picked up by a German flak lighter and taken into Reggio, where he reported seeing the Messina ferry the next morning “…steaming in to port as large as life. So much for military intelligence!”. The crew were taken prisoner by an elite infantry group and given food and cigarettes but after that their treatment deteriorated. The crew were sent north to PoW camps around Munich and Thompson was brought for interrogation in Berlin. He was surprised to see a full set of drawings of the Dog boat up on the wall and was then questioned on how they sank the U-boat in the Straits of Messina. Having not participated in that operation they didn’t get anything out of him. He spent the rest of the war at Marlag, a German PoW camp housing officers of the Royal Navy near Bremen.

On August 17th, two nights after the sinking of MTB 665, all resistance on Sicily ceased, 38 days after the landings. The MTBs were placed on a rotation to allow boats to return to Malta for maintenance and repairs, as they had been in relentless operations since they came into service at the beginning of the year. By September 1943, the MTBs were among the 600 strong fleet of Allied ships mobilized for the landings at Salerno on September 9th, the day after Italian forces surrendered, which included the entire Italian fleet. As the Allies moved north, the Coastal Forces Advanced Base was relocated, first to the Italian naval port of La Maddalena on an island off the north of Sardinia and then to Bastia on the East coast of Corsica.


Note on MTB 640: Fairmile 115' D-Type Motor Torpedo Boat. Builder's Yard: Wallasea Bay Yacht Yard, Rochford, Essex. Completion: 1st November 1942 Loss or Disposal: 27th June 1944. History: MTB 640 was mined off Vada, Italy on 26/27 June 1944.


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