February 14th sees the anniversary of an incident that occurred three months prior to the end of the Second World War in Europe; one which saw the greatest single loss of men and boats of Coastal Forces in a catastrophic accident which took place at Ostend in Belgium. Sixty-two sailors were killed, and others injured, when twelve boats were destroyed in a fire and explosion.
By early 1945 the Allied advance into mainland Europe extended across France, Belgium, and Luxembourg, and had pushed into the southern most part of the Netherlands. The men and boats of Coastal Forces who had spearheaded the D-Day invasion, and thereafter helped guard the flanks of the mighty armada, had steadily worked their way northwards over the following months, using liberated ports in France and Belgium as their bases. Ostend had recently become home to the battle hardened 55th MTB Flotilla and the Canadian 29th MTB Flotilla, along with a mobile base unit for servicing the boats.
Most of the Netherlands was still under occupation by the Germans at this time, allowing naval bases in the north at Ijmuiden and Den Helder to remain in operation, and the E-boats based there, to continue mounting attacks on allied shipping in the southern North Sea and English Channel. The two flotillas had been working alongside one another since June 1944, protecting the D-Day invasion fleet from attack by E-Boats, and were now mounting patrols northwards to the Scheldt estuary, to defend against any night time incursions by the remaining German forces.
The 29th MTB Flotilla1, had been formed in March 1944 using Canadian crews, with Royal Navy supplied 72′ 6″ British Power Boats, and comprised MTBs 459, 460, 461, 462, 463, 464, 465, 466, 485, 486, and 491. The 55th MTB Flotilla, which had worked out of HMS Midge at Great Yarmouth prior to the lead up to D-Day, comprised the larger, more heavily-armed, Fairmile D-type boats, commonly known as ‘Dog Boats’, and included MTBs 617, 621, 624, 628, 629, 630, 632, 650, 652, 668, 682, 741, 759, 771 and 773.
On that fateful day, some thirty-one MTBs along with other assorted craft, were moored alongside one another in the harbour at Ostend. Some of the boat crews had been granted shore leave, whilst others were preparing for patrols scheduled for that evening. The following account derived from eyewitness testimony given to the subsequent Board of Inquiry into the incident, provides an insight into the events that led up to the catastrophe.
On the afternoon of 14 February, four of the 29th’s MTBs were preparing for that night’s operations. MTB 464 was carrying out its armament check at sea when one of its engines cut out because of water in the fuel system. This had become an all too common problem, apparently because fuel pumped ashore from a tanker was contaminated with water. Base maintenance staff claimed it was too busy to handle the problem and instructed motor mechanics to pump the water out of their fuel tanks into buckets and then throw the contents over the side.2
A strong smell of petrol had begun to pervade the harbour as this operation was carried out; something that a number of naval personnel had noted but saw fit to ignore, including some senior officers. Although the precise cause of the fire is unknown, one eyewitness to the day’s events has provided a vivid account of what happened next.
Ken Forrester, who had served with the 55th since its inception, was not only in Ostend harbour that day as part of the crew of MTB 771, he was the first to spot the fire, and then raise the alarm.
It was a rest day, and half the crew had been taken on a sightseeing trip to Brugge for the afternoon. It was around 3 o’clock in the afternoon. I had volunteered to make the tea and went up on deck to go to the potato locker which was just below the bridge. Before I got there I saw flames and smoke rising from the middle of a group of Tony Laws’ 72′ 6″ [British] Power Boats that were berthed in a large lock entrance some 30 yards away. Our boat was tied up to the wall with two others of our flotilla tied alongside us. The tide was low which meant that our torpedoes were below the level of the seawall. There was a raised gangway over the torpedoes bypassing the .5 turret. This gangway was level with the top of the wall. On seeing the fire I ran to the forward hatch — the crews quarters — and yelled out Fire! ran to the stern of the boat, took hold of a fire hose that was permanently rigged and ran unreeling it as I went. I was just passing over the gangway that was level with the wall when the boat that was on fire blew up with a huge WOOMPH! like noise. There was a rush of seething hot air which blew me over. The next thing I remember was picking myself up on the dockside with burning debris everywhere covering the quayside and all of our boats. Our own boat had been protected somewhat with being shielded by the dockside. I was still dazed, realised I’d lost my shoes and beard mostly singed off. I had blood running down my face by that time. Someone was running past me, so I ran while pandemonium was going on. Ammunition was exploding, torpedoes going off, pieces of flaming boats everywhere.3
The combined explosive power of so much fuel and ammunition — including torpedoes — on boats held in such close proximity to one another, was to prove devastating to the crews onboard them at the time, as well as to personnel in the surrounding dockside area. Ken Forrester charts the aftermath of the deadly incident in his account of the day’s events.
The final outcome was twenty-six sailors of the Royal Canadian Navy were killed and five of their boats destroyed, and thirty-six British sailors were killed and the Royal Navy lost seven boats. In all twelve boats blew up and sixty-two sailors died. The boats were: Canadian [British] Power Boat MTBs, numbers 459, 461, 462, 465 and 466; the British Fairmile D MTBs 776, 789, 791 and 798; the Royal Navy [British] Power Boats 438 and 444 and White type MTB 255.4
In recent years, the Royal Canadian Naval Association mounted a campaign to have a permanent memorial sited on the waterfront at Ostend, close to the scene of the disaster. The unveiling ceremony for the granite monument took place on 8 May 2003, on the anniversary of VE Day. The memorial bears the names and boat numbers of the Canadian sailors who perished.