One morning I was called for by loudhailer throughout the Base. Commander Brind wanted me. The last couple of weeks have been quiet, with nothing at all in the way of action and we were all starting to get restive. When I entered the office he looked and said “There is a job going — a boat is required for DNI (Department of Naval Intelligence) work and you must be able to carry a small boat on deck”.
The whole thing sounded interesting, in fact highly intriguing, so somewhat naturally I nominated my own boat 617.
A couple of days later the small boat, a motor dhory, arrived complete with its owners, a section of very spruce looking Commandos, under a young Captain with the VC ribbon on his chest. There were also several Naval Officers, specialist in preparing and organising that kind of job. They told me what was required of me — which was to transport the dhory and the landing party across the North Sea to a particular spot on the enemy held coast of Holland and just put the men ashore, hang around for about three hours and then pick them up again and bring them back. Quite simple and peaceful — providing everything went according to plan — the operative word being ‘providing’.
We spent a week or so doing exercises and trials at night around our own coastline and very quickly the drill took shape. It was now only a question of waiting for the right night. Everything had to be right, no moon, calmish weather, wind blowing from certain direction.
After several days of false starts, we sailed early one afternoon. Everything was in our favour. We had had many discussions about the best method of protecting ourselves whilst the actual landing was taking place and keeping the area clear of any chance enemy shipping, and at last it had been decided to cover ourselves by posting a small unit of MTBs several miles away on each flank ready to attack anything coming up or down the coast, so I had an escort of six of my Flotilla sailing with me. There was a Major from Combined Operations HQ as Observing Officer on board my boat. He was wearing kilts — but more of him anon.
We arrived at the dispersal point near the coast dead on time, to find a slight sea mist coming up. This was even better than we had hoped for. My navigator took a final check position by the QH and gave me a course to steer and a distance to travel. I crept slowly as possible. We were taking the depth of water continuously — we had to be accurate. Our margin of error only allowed us to be 200 yards out in our landfall and I just did not fancy either running on to the beach putting the chaps ashore in front of either of the rather formidable enemy posts that were known to be either side of us. At last John said “We are here”, so I stopped and we started the drill. The anchor, on an easily ‘cuttable’ rope went noiselessly over the side and the dhory was in the water in a matter of seconds already to go, with the men in their seats and the silenced motor ticking over.
We could not see the coastline — the mist had thickened quite considerably, but we could hear the slight swell breaking on the bridge. The navigator gave the leader a course to steer to bring him to the spot they wanted to land, and with a whispered “Good Luck” away they went. We settled to our nervous wait. We were in contact with them by radio telephony — actually we were using ‘walkie-talkies’, a small American set, but we wished to keep off the air as long as possible. They would report progress to us in stages, so that if anything happened we would know how far they had got and what tripped them up.
Nothing came in; we waited until long after the time when the first report of landing should have been sent back to us and the Major was getting anxious, so after a further delay we called them up on the air and were answered immediately. They were steering the course but had not touched land yet. There was something very seriously wrong. We could hear the waves washing on the beach and just caught a glimpse of the sand dunes through a slight break in the mist. We were only about 200 yards from the beach, far too close for comfort or safety. We asked for a repeat on their compass course. They had reported the correct one. The only thing possible was that their compass was wrong, but that had been checked before they left.
It was going to be a very devil of a job to find them in this mist, although it had started to thin a little.
Just at that moment the dhory reported that they could see stars. We told them to disregard the compass and steer west for forty-five minutes, and then stop and fire ‘Very Llights‘ at five-minute intervals. We then cut our anchor away and moved out from the coast slowly and quietly. When I estimated that we should roughly be about the same distance from the coast as the dhory, we stopped and awaited results. The mist had thickened again and things looked rather hopeless.
I called my support boats and gave them my position, telling them to join me, keeping a sharp lookout on the way. They arrived quite soon, having used their radar to contact us and then I decided to wait for ‘first light” as by that time we could not even hear the dhory party ‘on the air’.
Daylight came and the mist thinned. We could see clearly just over half a mile, so I spread the boats out to half a mile distance apart and we started sweeping the sea. We got no results at all and I was getting to be really worried by that time.
It was 9 o’clock in the morning, the visibility was getting better every minute and we were only 6 miles from the enemy coast. Perfect game for any fighter planes. However, I was instructed by radio from the Admiralty to continue the search, so off we went. Actually, it was discovered later that the Germans recalled their patrols into harbour as soon as they discovered we were so close in at that unprecedented time of the day — they even feared a trap.
At last, after fruitless searching, we withdrew at 2 o’clock in the afternoon, a very glum crowd of chaps indeed as we knew the dhory had not enough petrol for the trip home. I made a full report to Naval Intelligence Department on arrival at our Base and that was that — as we thought.
Next day, we got the news. The dhory had just been picked up 5 miles off the Norfolk coast by an Air-Sea rescue craft, making very good time under paddles and by no means perturbed. I met them on the quayside as they came in and heard their story. The petrol had lasted until the previous evening and then they had paddled the rest of the way. They were quite unconcerned about it — to them it was ‘just one of those things’.
The trouble has been caused by a mine detector lying in the boat which had accidentally switched on completely offset the compass. On learning the facts, it was decided to try again as soon as possible.
A week later, everything was again considered to be suitable for another attempt. We sailed as before, seven boats in line, and made our way across the North Sea. It was a completely uneventful passage until we approached the enemy coast, when suddenly we encountered for E-boats lying in wait for us. There was a short sharp engagement during which my Oerlikon turret was hit and knocked out and my gunner killed. Two of the E-boats were hit and damaged and one was silenced before they disengaged at high speed towards the coast and left us to consider the situation. As it was apparent that the enemy was expecting us, and therefore the operation was altogether too risky, I decided to abandon the idea of attempting a landing and I transferred to MTB 606, which was the next senior boat and was commanded by my old friend Don Dowling, sending MTB 617 back to Base as she was damaged and had the Commandos aboard.
I decided to ‘make hay whilst the sun shone’ by doing a convoy sweep up the coast and we closed the Hook of Holland intending to sweep northwards. Visibility was only approximately 700 or 800 yards. We got quite close to the convoy route and were proceeding at a slow speed, when we detected a group of ships apparently lying stopped. From their position on the convoy route I judged them to be a patrol force so decided to stalk them and attack. We closed at slow speed in line ahead until I could see two shapes ahead at about 700 yards. I altered course to starboard to lead round and bring all the ship’s guns to bear. Reaching a favourable position, the order to fire a star shell and engage with guns was given to all boats. In the light of the star shell burst, I was amazed to see a large merchant vessel. It was a convoy forming up at the fairway buoy. Before going into torpedo it, we concentrated on the nearest trawler and raked it with pom-pom and Oerlikon shells, slicing it and turning it into a shambles in a few seconds, having caught it completely by surprise. I then ordered fire to be shifted to the merchant ship as I still did not think the run was clear enough for a torpedo attack and three other escort ships could now be seen outlined in the glare of the star shell. Half the unit concentrated their fire on the escort ships and the three leading boats attacked the merchant vessel, scoring hits with pom-pom and the heavy stuff and starting a merry blaze just abaft the bridge.
At that moment the bridge of 606 was hit by a large calibre shell which penetrated the armour plate and burst inside, killing the Vickers machine gunner and wrecking the whole of the controls, voice pipe and steering gear, and depositing the remainder of us in a confused and rather dazed heap in one corner. We had just picked ourselves up and discovered that Dowling and I were bleeding profusely from shrapnel wounds when the boat was hit again four times in rapid succession, twice in the engine room and once in the petrol tanks and again in the tiller flats. Completely out of control, she careered round in a circle with the helm jammed hard over until the remaining two engines were ordered to be stopped. The other boats in the unit had shot past, successfully avoiding ramming us.
Hurriedly taking stock of the situation I then noticed that we were surrounded by ten or twelve escort ships at a range of about 1000 yards and we were rather hopelessly lying in the middle of this distinctly annoyed bunch of trouble with a sinking trawler, a blazing merchant ship and two more slightly damaged trawlers for bedfellows, with the remaining five of my boats roaring round inside the circle engaging each angry Hun in turn.
MTB 621 with John Whitby in command had also received quite a bad pasting in the initial scrap and becoming separated from the merry-go-round of the remaining boats, was pounced upon by an ‘M’ or ‘T’ class escort ship and was last seen making a rapid getaway in a westerly direction with a very irate German sitting on his tail devoting his entire energies to John’s destruction. In fact, he was so intent on his self-imposed task that the pair nipped smartly past as about 100 yards away, much to our relief — as we were lying completely helpless, with all engines stopped, a nasty fire in the after petrol compartment and the First Lieutenant trying to rig the hand steering gear on the Quarter Deck.
I despatched Dowling to take charge after he sent his First Lieutenant below to sum up the situation. It was not very bright. Two engines completely wrecked and the remaining two with all the cooling pipes shot away. They would possibly run for five minutes before seizing up — a prospect that had nothing to recommend it.
Just to keep things lively, the Leading Motor Mechanic had a large sized fire on his hands, between the engines where an incendiary shell had landed. The Chief Motor Mechanic had been killed.
Lieutenant Commander Freddie Dunlop RN had come up with was that night for the ‘fun’. He was absolutely tremendous in his coolness and helpfulness. Our bridge R/T controls were shot away, so he took charge of the W/T cabin below deck and pumped out reports to keep us in touch with the remainder of the unit. Don Dowling had just reported to me that the steering was temporarily repaired when to our increased horror I saw a trawler, steaming in small circles bearing down on us, going slowly and heeled over to port. Its guns were silent but it appeared likely to ram us — by the Grace of God it missed us by 30 feet, passing under our stern and in the light of our star shell we could see no one in sight on its deck or bridge.
The Oerlikon guns had been cleared and reloaded by this time, and, as it went past, the gunner poured two pans into its deck, bridge and engine room, and to our delight it suddenly burst into flames along its entire length. At least we still had a few teeth left with which to bite.
During this time, the German escort had continue to heave all the ‘bricks’ that they could muster in our general direction and the shooting was unpleasantly accurate. I decided it was time to move — having visions of sausage and sauerkraut for breakfast — so sent Hewitt, the Number One, below to get the two remaining engine started, having determined to charge through the ring of escorts, as it seemed to be the only chance of getting away.
I called aft to Don to steer west and we lumbered off with the engines coughing and wheezing making a good 5 knots, with the Mechanic hovering over them like an anxious mother whilst he kept a concerned eye on the the remaining fire in one corner of the engine room where petrol was pouring from a severed pipe. We charged the ring and burst out, passing between two escort ships lying about 300 yards apart and receiving a good measure of hits on the way.
The ship was in a terrible state. All the guns had been hit and knocked out, both petrol compartments were blazing furiously and the remaining engines going slower and slower as they seized up. It was obvious from the smoke and flames that she was on the point of blowing up, so I ordered the engines to be stopped and the engine room cleared and pull the gas extinction plugs for the petrol compartment and the engine room. They worked like a charm and the fire died down.
We had succeeded in calling the remaining boats by this time and I instructed Kirkpatrick in 630 to come alongside an attempt to tow us, ordering the others to make smoke between us and the escort. We could see the merchant vessel surrounded by some trawlers steamng off to the north, still on fire and obviously making all speed to get out of it, but five or six ships stay behind to deal with us and were still firing all they could contrive in a most accurate and unpleasant barrage, though keeping their distance as yet.
Kirk came alongside and took our rope, though it was a faint hope that we would keep floating. Whilst he was alongside we were hit by another salvo of heavy shells and the fire broke out again in the after petrol compartment and the whole bridge collapsed having been hit again.
Kirk got underway and took the strain but she was too badly riddled and she commenced to sink even faster than before. It was no use, we had to abandon ship if we were to save the crew.
I told Dowling and gave orders to destroy the secret gear and collect the secret and confidential papers and charts. The crew were dreadfully disappointed at leaving their boat and several of them begged to try again at getting her under tow, but I could see was hopeless. She was well alight aft and the foredeck was sinking lower and lower. I was expecting an explosion any second so we got them across to 630 and Hewitt lit the demolition charge before the three of us jumped for it. Kirk quickly got away and roared off at full speed, as the German craft were closing in by this time to attempt to finish us off. We then joined up with the three other boats. John Whitby had already set off to return on his own, in very bad shape after shaking off his pursuers.
The net result of the night’s entertainment after comparison of notes was two trawlers sunk, towo severely damaged, one ‘T’ class escort ship damaged, one merchant vessel on fire and two E-boats damaged. The debit side being MTB 606 lost, MTB 621 severely damaged and most of the others with damage of one kind or another.
We were not a particularly happy crowd of people whilst returning to Base. I went down into the wardroom of 630 to have a look at the badly wounded. Kirkpatrick’s navigator and Coxswain were attending to them, giving morphia and putting on tourniquets. Don Dowling was already down there having been temporarily patched up, and was helping to cut away clothes. I did not feel too good. A couple of pieces of shrapnel had gone through my left arm and just into my chest. I sat down, a message listing our total casualties had just been given to me – it came as a shock — we had lost ten killed and twenty-one wounded, some very seriously. Previously I had been lucky enough to have cheap actions – cheap from the point of view of killed and wounded; I wondered if our luck had changed and above all I wondered if I had made any real tactical errors. I had always believed that the best way of getting to a really killing range against the German Coast convoys was to try and penetrate their outlying screen on a narrow front, either by stealth or by fighting through. We had done it this time – by accident rather than design in the first place, although the main target had not been sunk — we had damaged it and taken a heavy toll of the escorts. At least we got there, which was becoming increasingly difficult to do, as the Germans stepped up the strength of their convoy escorts. It was by no means uncommon at that time to meet a German convoy of twelve ships, two of which were merchant ships. The remainder were escorts of various kinds.
Later I came to realise that my personal kind of reaction after an action was intense depression which lasted for a couple of days and that during that time I invariably suffered agonies of self-reproach for my self supposed blunders and errors. In point of fact, the method of attacking a convoy in which the MTBs approached in ‘line ahead’ at slow speed and only deployed for the attack when almost, or if possible, through the escort screen having gained that position by stealth, was almost inevitably a dangerous one for the leading boat. It was the main target for the defenders, as soon as the deployment commenced and the presence of MTBs became known, and on talking it over with Commander Brind a week or so later when I left hospital, it was obvious that if that method of attack was attempted the possible loss of the leading boat had to be accepted. It was imperative at that time that we should hold up the German seaborne supply line to Russia, and accept that we did.
Commander Brind had another idea of attack which I consider very feasible and would like to try – but unfortunately the ‘Powers’ decided against it. The idea was to position single boats along the German convoy route and let them attempt to penetrate the convoy by stealth and fire their torpedoes and then fight their way out. We both considered it to be a practically certain method of sinking ships — enemy ships – but it would inevitably result in heavy losses in personnel and probably MTBs also.
In a few weeks I was able to prove that this idea could have been most successfully employed, but even so we could never obtain approval for it to be used.