Written by: Eric H Whitehead
In 1943, member Eric Whitehead was first Lieutenant of ML 150 (Lieutenant James Owen-Thomas) belonging to the 6th ML Flotilla based at Lowestoft. The flotilla was engaged particularly on escorting coastal convoys and down the East Coast through ‘E-boat Alley’. The MLs also manned the ‘Z-Line’, going out in pairs some 15-20 miles beyond the swept channel, keeping hydrophone watch with the object of intercepting any approaching E-boats before they reached the swept channel. The following is Eric’s first-hand account of his last patrol ML 150:-
I have no record of the number of convoys we escorted, or the number of ‘Z-Line’ nights we spent. Without all the variations of the English weather, they would have become boring by sheer repetition. We had other duties from time to time, but they were few and far between.
My last patrol with ML 150 was certainly not boring. It has already been written up in Peter Scott's book “Battle of the Narrow Seas” and some other books.
The date was 24th of September 1943. We were on the most southerly of the ‘Z patrol’ positions. The weather was fine, the sea was reasonably calm, and we were keeping hydrophone watch. Jimmy was off watch, which meant that he would be lying on his bunk fully dressed in seagoing gear, and trying to sleep. I was on the bridge taking the middle watch, trying to keep awake!
Our telegraphist picked up a message that E-boats had sunk a minesweeper on the swept channel somewhat south of where we were. It was clearly our duty to make an attempt to intercept them on their way back to base. My sounding Action Stations brought Jimmy up to the bridge, and the rest of the crew to their stations. In the interval of no more than a minute before Jimmy arrived to take over, I was drawing in my mind’s eye, lines on the chart, so that I could suggest a course for him to steer. I came up with South 10W, which was nothing more or less than a straight line down the chart, allowing for the magnetic variation.
He set off on that course when I disappeared into the wheelhouse, intending to work out a better suggestion. I was still doing that when we rammed the middle one of the three E-boats travelling across our bows from starboard to port. I only learned the details later, because part of the wheelhouse disintegrated round me, and knocked me unconscious. When I came to I was lying on the deck with a gash on my head. I could not have been out for too long, because when I went back to the bridge, I found that our partner on the patrol ML 145 (Lieutenant Ronald Seddon), was still engaging the sinking E-boat.
Our bows were completely missing right back to the wheelhouse, which meant that only three quarters of the boat was left. The anchor, 3pdr gun with its ammunition, the whole of the messdeck with washbasins and lavatories, had all gone. I had been on the right side by only two yards. Mercifully I was the only casualty, and I was on my feet and able to do my bit in getting the boat back to harbour.
Jimmy had always been strict about keeping the watertight door between the messdeck and the galley flat closed when we were at sea. This watertight door held, so that despite all the damage, we were still on an even keel. It would however have been tempting fate to drive the boat ahead, so we decided that from then on we would only go astern, though we did give one engine, or the other, and occasional burst ahead to help the rudder.
All boats were fitted with scrambling nets, which we unleashed and let go down the side of the board as a means of getting things or people out of the water. We use these to pick up survivors from the E-boat. We picked up three, and ML 145 picked up thirteen. I never heard how many went down with the boat, but we understood that they carried a crew of about 30.
Neither Jimmy nor I knew much about the Geneva Convention for the treatment of prisoners, but felt sure we would be acting in the spirit of the thing if we treated them like our own crew. The only living quarters left usable was the wardroom (officers quarters), so they were installed down there.
Two of our crew, suitably armed, were present to keep an eye on them. There was no shortage of volunteers for that job, especially when Jimmy gave permission for his portable gramophone to be used for a musical recital on the way back to harbour!
The damage to ML 150 was such that I have always thought that we must have been across the bows of the E-boat at impact, rather than the E-boat being across our bows, as Jimmy has always maintained. Whichever way it happened, it is quite certain that without the impact, the E-boat would have escaped. E-boats had a reputed speed in excess of 30 knots. What is also quite certain, if the other two E-boats had put up a fight, we would have been in big trouble! German radio reported the action as three E-boats in action with two English destroyers. There were no doubt misled by the ML’s impressive funnels. I am not at all sorry that they were misled! Limping back to harbour took some 11 hours. We had engines at slow astern, and when necessary we stopped one engine, or ran it ahead to help the helmsman.
We had a royal reception back at Lowestoft. All the base seemed to have turned out to applaud, including my wife Ann. The press were also there. The prisoners, who had been blindfolded, were turned over to the base staff. I was dispatched to the sick bay where a doctor picked some shattered glass out of my head, and turned me over to Ann, with instructions to see that I had a good night’s sleep. We had a bed/sit ashore, so I was independent of ML 150. More bits of glass came to the surface of my head over the next few months.
ML 150 was paid off, which meant the crew was dispersed. I did hear she was repaired and recommissioned, but I’m unable to confirm this. Jimmy was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross and appointed to the command of another ML.
CFVA News: Edition: June 2005 Volume: 122 Page: 20