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The Loss of MTB 345

Written by Kevin Costello: Published 27th July 2017

MTB 345 was an experimental craft built by Thornycroft to a design that echoed the earlier Coastal Motor Boat (CMB) which first saw service during the Great War of 1914–18. Thornycroft had continued building these CMB types after the war, but for export only. In total, some twenty-three of the type, which were of various lengths, were either requisitioned from foreign navies or purchased for the Royal Navy, on commencement of the Second World War. MTB 345 was commissioned in 1942, and assigned to the 30th MTB Flotilla based at Lerwick, which comprised Norwegian naval units running operations to the coast of occupied Norway.

Thornycroft MTB 345 © IWM FL 25735

MTB 345 was 55ft in length and designed to be carried on the davits of larger warships. Her size gave her a limited range, and she had either to be towed across the North Sea, or else supported by another boat carrying additional fuel. However, her shallower draught made the task of hiding in small coastal inlets easier than was the case with the larger D-Type MTBs, while her lower silhouette allowed for a stealthier approach to targets.

An earlier patrol mounted by MTB 345 in June 1943 in Norwegian waters, had lasted twelve days, during which time they had managed to remain undetected. However, they had not on that occasion found any enemy shipping to target, and when she set off from Lerwick again on 24th June, 1943, accompanied by MTB 620 as her support vessel, frustration at that earlier lack of success may have played a part in a decision that was to lead to their capture. Finn Christensen Stumoen DSM, a Norwegian member of Coastal Forces, takes up the story.

On the evening of 25th July 1943, MTB 345 in company MTB 620 entered Norwegian waters at Ulvaer light, 61 degrees north. Here MTB 345 took on 700 litres of petrol from MTB 620, which was to return to Shetland.

Unfortunately while this fuelling was carried out, the two MTB's were spotted by German planes which immediately attacked with guns and bombs. The Coastal Craft returned fire and were seen to score some hits on the planes, one of which flew south, leaving a trail of smoke from its starboard engine which was on fire.

Rather than return with MTB 620 to Lerwick once more, 345 took the fateful decision to stay on in Norwegian waters, and attempt to complete her mission there.

As the MTBs parted company 345 went on to Aspøy, where she hid under camouflage netting. She was still there the next day when during the morning the area was surrounded by German ships. German soldiers went ashore on the opposite side of the island while several planes circled over head. Before long, the small MTB was discovered and a fight began. Right from the start this was a hopeless affair for the Coastal craft, more so when three of her crew were wounded. Before they surrendered, they set fire to their boat. The Germans, however, quickly extinguished this, and then took their prisoners, six Norwegians and one British Telegraphist, all wearing their uniform, to Bergen.

A War Crime: Coastal Forces Veterans Association Newsletter: No. 211, Summer 2002, p.25
The site at Aspøy where MTB 345 had been hiding when the Germans discovered them, and the memorial at Ulven for the crew members who were executed by firing squad
The memorial at Aspøy is in three parts and fastened to the wall of the cliff

What happened next was to prove highly controversial, and to end in a war crimes trial held by the Allies at Oslo in November 1945, in which those responsible for the events which occurred at Bergen, were to be held to account.

The six members of the Royal Norwegian Navy, and one British member of the Royal Navy, were subjected to interrogation and mistreatment, and regarded not as prisoners of war, but as 'pirates' and saboteurs, and shot by firing squad on the 30th July, 1943.

Hitler had earlier issued a Fuehrer order of the 18th October 1942 – only rescinded in March or April 1945 – which dealt with "classes of persons who were to be excluded from the protection of the Geneva Convention and were not to be treated as prisoners of war, but when captured were to be handed over to the SD."

The German authorities had been aware of the existence of Norwegian naval units, and were determined it seems to make an example of them. Egon Drascher, Korvettenkapitan in the German Naval Intelligence Service, who had overseen the crew's original interrogation, and who gave evidence at the trial, described the situation thus:

The particular order to which I refer above was to this effect. All saboteurs who did not fall in battle were to be handed over to the SD. As it had been established that men belonging to the Royal Norwegian MTB Flotilla were in fact nothing more than saboteurs they were to be dealt with under the Order. Die Abwehrstelle (The defence agency) were to have the opportunity of examining prisoners before they were handed over to the SD. The Order was quite clear and I am certain that the Royal Norwegian MTB Flotilla was alone mentioned by name.

Leif Utne, a former Lieutenant in the Royal Norwegian Naval Reserve (54th MTB Flotilla) testified at the trial that the crew of MTB 345 were clearly wearing uniform on their departure from Lerwick, and that their mission was a routine naval operation.

The German naval intelligence officers found nothing to support the claim that the crew of MTB 345 were anything other than prisoners of war, yet it was the Senior Naval Officer at Bergen who passed the crew across to the SD.

The interrogation by the Naval Intelligence Branch was concluded in the early hours of 29th July, and almost immediately all the members of the crew were handed over on the immediate orders of the Sea Commander, Bergen, to Obersturmbannfuehrer of the SD, Hans Wilhelm Blomberg, who was at that time Kommandeur of the Sicherheitspolizeiat Bergen. This followed a meeting between Blomberg and Admiral vonSchrader, at which a copy of the Fuehrer order of 18th October 1942 was shown to Blomberg...Admiral von Schrader told Blomberg that the crew of this Torpedo Boat were to be handed over in accordance with the Fuehrer order, to the SD.

Twelve officials from the German Police and Intelligence Services stood trial at Oslo, chief of whom was Obersturmbannfuehrer Hans Wilhelm Blomberg, Commander of the Sicherheitspolizei (SIPO), the Security Police.

The accused were charged with committing a war crime, in that they at Ulven, Norway, in or about the month of July, 1943, in violation of the laws and usages of war, were concerned in the killing of Lt. A. H. Andresen, Petty Officer B. Kleppe, Leading Stoker A. Bigseth, Able Seaman J. Klipper, Able Seaman G. B. Hansen, and Able Seaman K. Hals, Royal Norwegian Navy, and Leading Telegraphist R. Hull, Royal Navy, prisoners of war

Blomberg had gone into hiding at the end of the war but was caught, transported to the court at Oslo, and found guilty of ordering the execution of prisoners of war. He was sentenced to death and executed on January 10, 1946.