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Of all the sea battles fought by the British during the Second World War, the closest-fought were the fast little ships of the Coastal Forces and their Axis counterparts. These boats came in a variety of types: Motor Torpedo Boats, Motor Gun Boats, Motor Launches and several other variants. All shared the ability to move quickly - often silently, to hunt virtually unseen, and to strike quickly, then escape in the darkness. Too small and too numerous to warrant individual names, these craft were distinguished by their identifying pennant numbers. Of all these types, the Motor Torpedo Boats were the real hunters, harassing enemy coastal convoys in the English Channel, the North Sea, the Mediterranean and the Adriatic. While the battleships of the Home Fleet spent much of the war at anchor in Scapa Flow, these small craft were waging their own private war, lighting in craft that combined grace, vulnerability and menace. Veterans speak of the sheer exhilaration of cutting through the waves at speeds of 40 knots, then the sheer confusing terror of fighting actions that lasted seconds, but where a false move could lead to the instant destruction of boat and crew.

Motor Torpedo Boats were able to use speed or stealth, waiting in the dark for an enemy ship to emerge, firing their torpedoes at the target then roaring away at full speed. As the war progressed and both weapons and equipment improved, the rules of engagement remained the same, meaning that crews had to have strong nerves and the ability to respond instantly to any event. For years the exploits of these men and the craft they served in have been overshadowed by the larger elements of the fleet: the battleships, carriers, cruisers and destroyers. This book is an attempt to redress the balance.

MTB 376, a 72-foot 6-inch Vosper built in Annapolis, Maryland. Its design allowed the hard-chine hull to ride out of the sea at high speed, increasing its velocity through the water. While this produced a highly visible plume in its wake, it was thought that its top speed of just under 39 knots was enough to get it out of trouble when required. (Private collection, Christopher Henry)


Background: Pre-war development

Motor Torpedo Boats (MTBs) answered the need for a small, fast craft that could attack larger warships, but which could be built cheaply and in numbers. The development of the modern torpedo in 1877 provided naval strategists with the weapon, but they still needed to perfect a vessel to deliver the torpedo to its target. During the period from 1880 until 1914 the world's leading maritime powers developed torpedo boats, then enlarged them to create destroyers. These vessels were designed to fight each other as well as launch torpedo attacks, so that by the outbreak of the First World War the original design and purpose of the torpedo boat had been overlooked.

The development of British Motor Torpedo Boats (MTBs) can be traced back to the First World War, In mid-1915 three naval officers proposed an attack on German coastal shipping using shallow-draught motor boats to pass through the German minefields. The proposal was deemed worthy of further investigation, and preliminary specifications were drawn up calling for a craft that was capable of carrying an 18-inch torpedo, with a top speed of 33 knots. Finally it was hoped to carry these attack craft to the edge of the German minefields on the davits of a light cruiser, which limited their overall length to 40 feet and their displacement to 4.5 tons. The shipyard of John I. Thornycroft was known for producing fast pre-war luxury motor boats, so it was awarded the contract to build six of these craft, designated as Coastal Motor Boats (CMBs). These First 40-foot CMBs proved themselves in the Mediterranean theatre, but the first torpedo boat successes were achieved by the Italians, whose 50- and 70-foot Motoscarfo Armato Svan (MAS) boats sank an Austrian light cruiser in 1917 and a battleship in 1918, Thornycroft built 66 CMBs during the war, improving their design in 1917 by increasing their length to 55 feet. Although they achieved little during the war, in 1919 they sank the Soviet cruiser Oleg and damaged several other vessels during a raid on the Russian naval base of Kronstadt.

Although the Royal Navy abandoned its CMB programme after the war, other foreign navies were impressed by the success of the Kronstadt attack and continued to place orders for Thornycroft boats until after the outbreak of the Second World War. Having decommissioned or sold most of the CMB fleet, it was not until the mid-1930s that the Admiralty resurrected the idea of Motor Torpedo Boats. By 1932 the possibility of a new war led the Admiralty to investigate the question of high-speed torpedo boats, and consequently a recommendation was made that an experimental flotilla be created. In 1935 the Admiralty contracted for six experimental 50-foot boats from the British Power Boat Company. For the first time the official designation of Motor Torpedo Boat (MTB) was used. When the war began, the three flotillas of these boats comprised the total MTB strength of the navy. Each boat carried two 18-inch torpedoes carried in troughs, which were then dropped from its stern, with the boat quickly turning away to avoid being hit by its own torpedo. Despite the bizarre launching system, the boats proved rugged and effective. Above all, their hard-chine hulls allowed them to rise out of the water at speed, reducing their drag and greatly increasing their speed. This hull design became the basis for virtually all the British and American MTBs that succeeded these early craft

MTB 9, a pre-war 60-foot British Power Boat vessel, photographed off Hong Kong in 1941 while under the command of Lt, Kennedy RNVR. It was one of three boats forced to scuttle after the Japanese capture of Hong Kong, Its crew then marched across China to British-held Burma. (Private collection, Museum of Naval Firepower, Gosport)

Meanwhile, other British shipbuilders began to realise that there would be a demand for this type of craft, so they developed their own MTB designs. At the same time, the Admiralty were well aware that the Germans were pressing ahead with their own Schnelleboot (S-Boot) design, which became commonly known by the British as an E-Boat ('E' standing for enemy). The Italians were also producing their own MAS boats, which incorporated the role of torpedo boat and small anti-submarine hunter.

The chief rivals of the British Power Boat Company (BPB) were Vosper and Thornycroft. The latter had produced, and were still building, the somewhat antiquated CMBs. For their part Vosper had begun life as an engineering firm, and Herbert E. Vosper developed a name for building marine propulsion systems. Clients included the Admiralty, who used Vosper engines for launches and tenders. By the early 20th century they were producing their own small boats, but the firm remained a small family-run company, incapable of fulfilling large maritime orders. In 1931 Commander Peter du Cane joined Vosper to develop a line of fast pleasure craft. Inevitably his designs would influence the production of MTBs. The award of the BPB contract in 1935 prompted du Cane to work on Vosper's own design, and at du Cane's personal expense an experimental prototype was produced in 1937. The Admiralty bought the design, dubbing it the MTB 102, and suddenly BPB had a rival. In fact they had two, as Thornycroft were still building 55-foot CMBs for foreign clients, but they also introduced their own improvements to the design, building a group of MTBs as another private venture in an attempt to solicit government funding. Therefore when the war began, although the navy only had three small flotillas of MTBs at its disposal, several companies were developing their own plans for boats, each with their own characteristics. The task of the Admiralty's naval planners was therefore made easier, as private designers had already produced the plans and prototypes of the boats that would soon contest the coastal waters of Europe during the war. All they had to do was choose the best design, then issue contracts for the construction of an MTB fleet.

Two 70-foot Vosper boats (MTB 20 in the foreground and MTB 22 behind it) photographed in port during the summer of 1940. MTB 20 was sold to Rumania, where it became the Viforul, serving against the Allies during 1941-42. (Imperial War Museum)

An experimental Thornycroft vessel, MTB 104 was one of four 45-foot craft built during 1940, designed to be carried as an attack launch by larger warships. Based on the pre-war CMB design, these experimental craft were deemed too small for operational use. (Imperial War Museum)

Thornycroft arid British Power Boat

Hubert Scott-Paine was one of those larger-than-life characters who combined his entrepreneurial skills with a flair for publicity In 1916 he founded the Supmarine Aviation Company, and hired the designer R.J. Mitchell who went on to develop the Supmarine Spitfire, one of the most successful fighter aircraft of the war. Scott-Paine sold his company in 1924 in order to concentrate on his new venture, the British Power Boat Company (BPB), based at Hythe on the Kent coast. He hired the best marine designers available, concentrating on the production of high-speed pleasure craft. In 1929 the BPB speedboat Miss England won the World Powerboat Championship, its hard-chine hull design placing it well ahead of American and British rivals. The Napier engine used to power this craft was modified by Scott-Paine, and in 1933 he produced the Sea Lion engine, winning a contract to produce a 37-foot high-speed tender for the RAF. Public attention was assured by having it tested by Aircraftsman T.E. Shaw, better known as 'Lawrence of Arabia'. Two years later the publicity generated by the RAF contract resulted in the award of an Admiralty contract to produce two 60-foot MTBs for the Royal Navy. The Abyssinian Crisis prompted the Admiralty to increase its order to six boats, designated MTBs 01 to 06. MTBs 01 and 02 were commissioned in June 1936, and the following year four of these boats escorted King Edward VIII down the River Thames when he opened the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich, Designated the 1st MTB Flotilla, these six boats were sent to the Mediterranean in the summer of 1937.

In 1936 another three boats were ordered, and nine more the following year, forming the 2nd and 3rd MTB Flotillas. After some renumbering of the boats to ensure all flotillas had boats with consecutive numbers, and to avoid unlucky '13', the 2nd Flotilla (MTBs 07 to 12) was sent to Hong Kong, while the 3rd Flotilla (MTBs 14 to 19) joined the 1st MTB Flotilla in Malta. These 18 boats comprised the sum total of Britain's MTB force in September 1939, when the country found itself at war with Germany. Although Scott-Paine developed plans for a 70-foot MTB in 1938, powered by a 1,100hp Rolls-Royce Power-Merlin engine, no contract had been awarded before the war began, and Rolls-Royce concentrated on aircraft engine production from October 1939 onwards.

The stern of MTB 213, a 55-foot Thornycroft CMB, photographed off the Egyptian coast in early 1941. Its two 18-inch torpedoes were stern-launched, a manoeuvre requiring considerable dexterity by the boat's helmsman. MTB 213 was one of four boats of this class sunk off Suda Bay in Crete in May 1941. (Private collection, Museum of Naval Firepower, Go sport)

At the same time, it was becoming clear that Scott-Paine had enemies in Whitehall. His high-profile publicity stunts had upset some of the senior officials at the Admiralty, and despite the clear merit of BPB designs the Admiralty awarded contracts to BPB rivals, Thornycroft and Vosper. Although BPB would be awarded further contracts, friction with the navy led to the loss of its most influential designer.

In 1940 Scott-Paine sailed to the United States, taking one of his 70-foot designs (PT 9) with him, where it performed to perfection in front of US Naval observers. On the basis of this performance Scott-Paine encouraged the Packard Motor Company to build a 1,000hp marine engine based on the Rolls-Royce Merlin design, then agreed to work with the Electric Boat Company (Elco) of New Jersey to produce Scott-Paine-designed boats for the US Navy. He duly left BPB, then remained in the United States throughout the war, working both with Elco and with his own Canadian Power Boat Company. Although several of his Elco-produced MTBs saw sender in the Royal Navy, the British maritime industry lost the skills of one of its greatest designers.

The firm of John I. Thornycroft had continued to produce Coastal Motor Boats (CMBs) since the end of the First World War The company, based at Hampton on the River Thames, had produced marine engines since 1859, and its move into the power boat business resulted in the award of a contract to build Britain's First World War CMBs. By 1939 Thornycroft was busy producing several craft for various navies, and gradually these were seized by the British government and brought into service as British MTBs. For example MTBs 67 and 68 were being built for the Philippine Navy, but in 1959 they were transferred into Finnish service. When Finland signed a peace treaty with Russia in March 1940, the export of the boats was halted, and the craft found themselves in Royal Naval service. MTBs 26 and 27 were acquired from the Chinese Navy, MTBs 67 and 68 from the Finnish Navy, and MTBs 327 to 331 were being built for the Philippine Navy when they were impounded. In addition Thornycroft had five more craft (MTBs 213 to 217) which were being built as a speculative venture, and were duly purchased by the Admiralty. Although it was widely recognised that these boats were obsolete compared with the fast craft produced by the Germans, Italians and even the British Power Boat Company, the navy was desperate for ships of any type. The only real improvement made in the inter-war years was the increase of propulsive power by the use of two Thornycroft RY12 engines of 650hp each. Like the early BPB designs, their torpedoes were fired by sliding them out of troughs in the stern, then veering away to avoid contact with the torpedo as it burst into life. By May 1940 all available Thornycroft boats were in service.

60-foot British Power Boat MTBs at Harwich, 1940, with the escort destroyer HMS Wyvern in the background. Lewis guns were mounted fore and aft, but later, the armament was reconfigured, and the guns were mounted in twin bins on either side of the bridge. (Imperial War Museum)

As the war progressed, both Thornycroft and BPB produced new designs, and these were duly approved by the navy, and contracts were issued. Of these Thornycroft produced four experimental boats (MTBs 104 to 107) which were 45-foot versions of their larger counterparts, designed to ride 'piggy back' in the davits of larger warships. These proved to have poor sea-keeping qualities and were never used in action. A far better design was the Thornycroft 75-foot MTB, of which ten were built (MTBs 24, 25, and 49 to 56). MTBs 24 and 25 were 74-foot prototypes ordered by the Admiralty in 1938, both of which entered service as soon as the war began. Unlike the later boats of the same class, MTBs 24 and 25 were powered by three Isotta-Fraschini engines, capable of speeds of up to 47 knots. Although MTBs 49 to 56 were solid, well-built craft, their heavy displacement and under-powered engines (four Thornycroft RY12s) meant that they were considered too slow for operational use and were withdrawn from service in December 1942 when it was discovered that their frames were cracked. They were eventually converted into target-towing launches.

A British Power Boat Company 72-foot vessel (MTB 494) under way in British waters during April 1944. A year later it was rammed and sunk by a German S-boat (called E-boats by the Allies) in the North Sea during one of the final actions of the war. (Imperial War Museum)

The British Power Boat Company also prospered, as the plans developed by Scott-Paine for a 70-foot MTB were further developed to create a 72-foot (actually 71-foot 9-inch) vessel, which was capable of being completed as either a Motor Torpedo Boat or a Motor Gun Boat. The design was superb: the vessel was an excellent sea boat, well constructed, and capable of carrying a far heavier armament tham previous BPB, Thornycroft or Vosper designs. Its vague similarity to Elco boats is proof of its shared design heritage, being first conceived on Scott-Paines drawing board. First contracted in 1941 as an MOB design, these boats entered service from mid-1942 onwards, and a year later work began on their conversion to MTBs. In all, 78 MGBs were built, but were later converted into MTBs. MGBs 74 to 81 became MTBs 412 to 418, while MGBs 107 to 176 became MTBs 430 to 432, and 434 to 500. Although their conversion involved an increase in displacement (die addition of two 18-inch torpedo tubes, and the replacement of the main gun on most boats by a power-operated 6-pounder Mark II gun added 10 tons to the displacement), the consequent loss of speed was compensated for by the substantial increase in firepower. Even with the added weight, the supercharged Packard engines gave the BPB MTB a top speed of 39 knots. With the possible exception of the Elco 77-foot boat, this craft was probably the best all-round British Motor Torpedo Boat of the war.

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