MTB 757 Minesweeping Operations at Le Havre

Published 20th April 2024

This is not a story involving contact with the enemy. It is a story of a job that needed doing.

In the days following the Normandy landing in June 1944, advances by British and American forces began freeing up ports large and small along the French Coast.

Major ports were especially needed as links in supply lines serving forces inland. One such port was Le Havre. But there was a snag. Before departing the German forces had mined the approaches to Le Havre with a relatively new type of mine - the so called ‘Oyster Mine’. Designed for shallow waters, when in place, the mines were difficult to sweep using conventional methods, as they lay directly on the seabed.

As a quick fix, someone somewhere, had a brilliant idea – why not drop depth charges on them? All that was needed were fast craft equipped with depth charge facilities. Did we have anything like that? Well, yes we did.

HMS Attack, a coastal forces shore base situated in Portland, Dorset was home to a Flotilla (eight boats) of Fairmile D’s fitted out for anti-submarine work in the Channel.

Although designated as MTB’s, torpedo armament had never been installed. Instead, two lines of depth charges, one port and one starboard, ran the length of the upper deck, with facilities for stern dropping. The Le Havre job seemed to be right up their street. With immediate effect, it was decided that four of the boats would be sent to Le Havre to tackle the mines. Bearing in mind the nature of the task, only skeleton crews would be used. The writer of this article was the radar operator on MTB 757, one of the first four boats to go. Once the supply of depth charges was exhausted the other four boats would be in position to take over. This pattern was to be repeated and followed until the mines were cleared, and the port was open to shipping.

One or two of the more vocal crew members were quick to point out that with the depth charges on shallow water settings, the time lapse between the drop and detonation would be rather short. You didn’t need to be a mathematician to work out that there wasn’t going to be much time to get out of the way, and so it transpired.

Before departing the skeleton crew were instructed to bring up from below anything made of cushionable material. These items would be laid out forward of the bridge in the hope that they would absorb any close encounters with the mines if we were sitting on them.

We were not convinced but it seemed like a good idea at the time!

On the approaches to the Le Havre we saw ahead of us a lone merchant vessel. It was the only one that we had encountered since leaving the UK and it seemed questionable whether the Commanding Officer was aware of the dangers posed by the mines that lay ahead, or whether he had decided to take a chance. It would have been the wrong decision if he had. The oyster mines were very efficient. The vessel was sinking and we had arrived to witness just how effective they were. The order to abandon ship had almost certainly been given.

The stricken vessel was carrying a number of U.S. Army personnel. In the absence of any lifeboats being launched many of them had already entered the water rather than risk being taken down with the vessel as she sank. On low engine revs we gently moved to the swimmers and willing hands lifted them from the sea. They were covered head to foot in the black oil slick that had escaped from the sinking vessel. It was a nasty business. As soon as the situation allowed they were transferred to another vessel which enabled us to continue with our original plan to reach the port of Le Havre, mines permitting. Thankfully they did.

On arrival we saw that the port area had been reduced to rubble by Allied bombing. It was a scene of utter devastation. Silence reigned. Nothing moved, human or otherwise. Even the sea birds and gulls had flown away to quieter places for survival. Only one structure had resisted the bombing – the heavily reinforced German built E Boat pens.

No further time was spent and our main task began. The depth charge runs were carried out by three of the four boats in line abreast, on open throttles, releasing a depth charge at pre-determined intervals. The fourth boat stood by in case one of the other three got knocked out. It was a successful technique that stayed with us through our part of the operation until all the depth charges had been released.

We left Le Havre and returned to the U.K. boatyards for damage assessment and more depth charges. Until the boats were ready again, the skeleton crews were returned to their respective Coastal Forces bases.

At this juncture for two of us, myself and my opposite number on 752, Doug Hart, it meant that our service with Coastal Forces, sadly, very sadly came to an end. Our papers were still held at R. N. Barracks (RNB) Portsmouth, the main base for general service personnel.

Following our arrival at RNB we were soon drafted on to a Hunt class destroyer that was leaving for the Pacific and the war with Japan. No more MTB’s for Doug and I.

Sometime after the end of the European and Pacific wars, the former Commanding Officer (CO) of MTB 752 arranged a re-union for former shipmates, and he was able to give some information on the state of 752 when she went upon the slips in the boatyard at Poole, in Dorset. Damage to the boat caused by the exploding mines was extensive.

Planking on both port and starboard sides of the hull had been fractured and would have to be replaced. The two integral watertight bulkheads that separated the engine room, the petrol storage tanks and the crew’s living quarters had been breached and were no longer watertight. As the boatyard report rather quaintly put it “due caution” had had to be observed when it was “noted” that quantities of the high octane petrol destined for the MTB’s U.S. made Packard engines was now circulating freely in the bilges.

The boatyard report ended after two or more closely typed foolscap sheets listing further defects were added. It did appear that 752 and her depleted crew had been quite fortunate in making it back to the U.K. still in one piece. How the other boats fared was not known as they would have been taken to other boatyards. If anyone is still around who may have taken part in the subsequent phases of the operation, Doug and I would be very pleased to hear from them. A contact number can be found in the Branch Members List.

Many, many years have passed since the end of WW2 but even now, sight of the Navy’s flag, the White Ensign flying from a masthead causes you to straighten up, add an inch or so to your height as the memories come flooding back. There is nothing you can do about it the Navy is like that.

And the way we were

Some of the crew of MTB 757 (including the writer) This picture was taken in 1944 and it captures the comradeship that existed in those wartime days.

The crew of MTB 757
Eddie and the crew of MTB 757