I though members would be interested in one particularly nasty encounter that ML 207
, and other ships of the 1st ML Flotila
, had with E-Boats whilst escorting a convoy in the Channel. The incident involved convoy CW 243 and occurred in the early hours of the 31st of January 1944, a matter of weeks after my father joined the ship.
The convoy formed up off Southend on the morning of the 30th of January and departed around mid-day heading westbound for the Atlantic via the Channel. The admiralty always tried to ensure that Channel Convoys passed through the Straights of Dover during the hours of darkness to reduce the chance of becoming easy targets for the massive German guns stationed across the water near Calais. So, with the convoy sailing at a speed of around 7 knots, the noon departure was designed to achieve this.
Although it was mid-winter, my father said that, on the day in question, the weather was calm and clear. Soon after passing Dover, having finished his watch, he was crossing the deck and describes the scene he witnessed.
When I next emerged from the engine room we were between Dover and Folkstone; night had descended. It was incredibly calm, amazingly so for the time of year. On deck, the din of the engines below was replaced by the deep throbbing drone of their exhaust gases exiting the funnel; the rhythmic sound of the ML’s props cutting up the water providing an accompaniment. The cold night air was refreshingly bracing after the heat of the engine room; the briny aroma of sea and the night breeze buffeting my face, equally so. Although it was dark, I could see the churning surface that we were leaving in our wake glinting in the soft moonlight and, although the blackout was in force in the coastal towns, easily make out the famous chalk cliffs of Samphire Hoe to starboard. The ships of the convoy loomed off to our port side, appearing as a series of black shadowy hulks; the sea making a distinctive sloshing sound as it washed against their bows.
Later, having completed his next watch, my father was in the mess deck when the call for action stations went up. It turned out that the escorts had detected what was thought to be an enemy U-Boat and ML 207
joined others in a search for the assailant. Depth charges were released but, not for the first time during similar pursuits, no sub was found, although the 207s
own ASDIC operator was convinced there had been one.
Some hours later off Beachy Head, while back in the mess deck once again, a bright star flare lit up the sky and, as my father and his crewmates looked on, more were dropped from a plane flying above on what as if it was carrying out some sort of search and rescue mission. Immediately the ship when to action stations and there was another rush for the companion ladder. This time slightly less frantic than the last and the mess deck emptied quicker as a result. My father took no more than a couple of steps on deck, as he headed for the engine room hatch, when there was a bright flash from the head of the convoy followed soon after by the sound of an enormous explosion – the convoy was under attack!
Here is how my father describes the scene:
I could see enemy vessels travelling at high speed, lit up by the flares from the plane, weaving and making smoke as they went. Another bright flash lit up the sky and a second massive explosion erupted, this this time to port. I made a final run for the engine room hatch and threw myself down the ladder. Mac was at the controls having been on watch when the mayhem broke out. Our guns were already in action, their recoil vibrating through the hull and the noise of their fire reaching us despite the roar of our engines at full throttle.’
Guns still blazing, we made a high-speed sweeping turn to port, eventually slowing as the guns fell silent. After what seemed an age, but couldn’t have been more than ten minutes, the telegraphs rang for dead slow and all hands were called to the deck, leaving just Mac, Ping, and Sparks below. We began a search pattern looking for survivors with every available man scanning the sea. As we did so, we passed one of the Navy trawlers stationary in the water, its bows wrecked and clearly sinking. ML 206 was by her side. One of the destroyers was also damaged and at least two of the merchantmen sunk.
was soon instructed to return to its escort role alongside the remainder of the convoy as it continued west. ML 206
ferried the survivors of the stricken navy tug, the Pine
, to Newhaven, plying them with rum on the way. Ten of the Pine’s
crew had been killed. Two merchantmen, SS Emerald
and SS Caleb Sprague
, were also hit by torpedoes and the destroyer HMS Albrighton
was badly damaged. Both merchant ships sank in seconds. The first taking all fifteen crew members with her. Twenty-two died on the second vessel. Incredibly, the Pine
hadn’t sunk immediately but had been take in tow, eventually succumbing to her fate the next day. She went down off Selsey Bill as they tried to get her to Portsmouth. In all, some fifty men had lost their lives with more injured.
The attack had been carefully planned. Well before the convoy passed, E-boats had managed to get close inshore undetected. Then, using a navigation buoy as cover, launched a surprise attack from our starboard side. At the same time, another group of E-boats attacked the convoy’s port quarter, their gunfire and torpedo strikes made all the more accurate by the bright flares dropped by the plane. The crew couldn’t understand how the E-Boats hadn’t been spotted on coastal radar. Obviously, the buoy masked their radar signature once they were next to it, but that didn’t explain how the enemy got there without being detected. Nor did it explain why the E-boats that attacked from the port side hadn’t been spotted either. Many years later my father discovered that the E-Boats had been detected but an appalling communications mix-up meant the convoy’s escorts hadn’t been informed.
Willian Gosling, a gunner abord ML 206
, described the attack in his 1980 interview with Ted Haley for the the Imperial War Museum. One of his stand-out memories of the incident was the discipline of the men abord HMT Pine
. He says, ‘I will always admire those men,’ explaining that, despite many of their crew mates lying dead or badly injured, and with their ship clearly sinking, when ML 206
drew alongside, not a single man attempted to scramble to safety. Instead, one of them shouted out to ML 206's
commanding officer, ‘Permission to come abord sir’, and only after permission was granted did they start moving to safety.
Over the last decade or so, the wrecks of the Pine
and the two merchant ships have become dive sites. All are, of course, protected war graves and those diving have been very mindful of this. One diving club, Guildford Branch of the British Sub Aqua Club, adopted the Pine as a research project and produced an excellent and detailed report covering both the current state of the wreck and the background to the sinking. For those interested the report can be found VIA the following web link:
https://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q ... i=89978449
The report explains that ML 206
rescued those on board HMT Pine
, taking off 20 survivors. Then again going alongside the sinking Pine
a boarding party took further 7 survivors from below decks onto the ML. The Pine’s
skipper had broken his legs and been swept from the bridge to the deck by the falling mast. The sub-lieutenant had broken his jaw, the ASDIC rating was badly concussed and the signalman had what looked like broken ribs.’
It's interesting to note that the report, produced using official records, says that the convoy was ordered not to slow down and make best speed towards the safety of Portsmouth, leaving the crippled HMT Pine
adrift behind them. It goes on to say that it was Lt-Commander Leslie close by in Motor Launch 206
who quickly came to save those still on-board HMT Pine
. Elsewhere, the report refers to the escorts assigned to convoy CW 243 but dosen’t mention the four motor launches of the 1st ML Flotilla
giving the impression that ML 206
simply happened to be in the vicinity when the attack happened. Not for the first time the smaller ships of Coastal Forces, and their vital role, appear to have been omitted from the official records.