Coastal Forces of World War II

The Coastal Forces of World War II were to make a major and vital contribution to the naval successes of the war. Manned largely by peacetime volunteer reserves and wartime sailors, the Motor Torpedo Boats (MTBs), Motor Gun Boats (MGBs) and Motor Launches (MLs) could be found increasingly at the forefront of naval engagements as the war developed. However, Britain entered the war with just a handful of Coastal Forces boats, mostly as a result of private enterprise and with very little planning or input from the Admiralty. Coastal Motor Boats (CMBs) and Motor Launches were of course not new to the Second World War. These craft had operated in the First World War and had made a significant name for themselves. Lieutenant AGAR, who later as a Captain RN was to contribute greatly to Coastal Forces in World War II, achieved fame in dramatic style shortly after the First World War. Awarded the Victoria Cross for his successful attack in his CMB on a Russian cruiser off Kronstadt in 1919 in the Bolshevik War, his action gave Coastal Forces additional prominence. Regrettably, the success of the boats in these early days was not sufficient to stave off the sense of complacency which persisted between the wars and which resulted in this branch of the Navy being gradually run down. The expertise, which had been so carefully developed and the valuable lessons learnt were to quickly disappear so that the Royal Navy was ill prepared in this sphere of naval warfare as the Second World War approached.

However, by 1941 the increase in the number, type and capability of boat was dramatic and they were increasingly at sea harassing the enemy and performing a range of aggresive operations around the English Coast and North Sea. The MGBs, MTBs and MLs developed in the Second World War performed a wide range of tasks, frequently operating close to enemy occupied coasts, attacking enemy shipping in the Channel and protecting our own convoys on their passage around our coasts. When they did meet the enemy, engagements were fought at very close quarters in conditions which are very difficult to envisage in our modern day Navy. They were small wooden craft, heavily laden with high-octane fuel, carrying a large quantity of ammunition and invariably operating at night without radar and with very few navigational aids. The average age of the crews in Coastal Forces was barely 20 years and these people were to conduct nearly 1000 close fought engagements and to gain a high concentration of bravery and distinguished service awards throughout the war.

In addition to the handful of assorted Coastal Forces craft based in home waters at the start of the war, there was an MTB flotilla based at Malta, working on occasions with the Mediterranean Fleet. These 12 boats were built to a design by Hubert Scott-Paine at his British Power Boat Company at Hythe, on the Southampton Water. However the true value of these craft was not greatly appreciated by the senior officers running the Fleet, who remained convinced that future naval requirements lay in its heavily armed battleships, battle cruisers and destroyers. Following a frustrating period for the men of this flotilla in the early days of the war, they received orders in November 1939 to return the boats to England. What followed was a traumatic journey through the Mediterranean to Marseille in treacherous weather, with the loss of one boat. The most seaworthy of the boats then made the passage through the French canals, with 9 boats arriving back in the UK shortly before Christmas 1939. The re-call of the 1st Flotilla, 10 weeks after the outbreak of war, in many respects signalled the start of the build up of Coastal Forces and the start of a quite amazing story of innovation in design and production, combined with operational courage and skill.

In the early months of the war the British Government recognised the vulnerability of our shipping from German attacks and particularly from enemy submarines. The Admiralty came to the view that a fleet of fast surface craft, armed with torpedoes, depth charges and guns, should be built without delay and this started a most dramatic chain of events. By the end of the war the number of Coastal Forces craft built for the Royal and Commonwealth Navies was over 1,850 and a continuous programme of improvement and development was maintained throughout the war. Hard chined wooden hull craft were built to the designs of a number of firms, notably those of Vosper, The British Power Boat Company, Thornycroft and The Fairmile Company. Dozens of shipyards and boat builders around the country were put to the task and further production was undertaken in the United States. This intense boat building activity produced its own dominant personalities capable of meeting this national challenge and it also produced intense rivalry. Hubert Scott-Paine, already mentioned, was an entrepreneur who had been involved in the production of light aircraft and motor craft since 1927 and this had brought him both experience and considerable wealth. It was Scott-Paine’s passion for speed on water, which led to his conviction that the Royal Navy should have flotillas of fast motorboats carrying torpedoes. He was able to put his ideas into action at his British Power Boat Company at Hythe, on the Southampton Water, although his flamboyant personality did not always impress those at the Admiralty. Scott Paine assisted by his brilliant Chief Designer, George Selman, were to produce various designs of British Power Boat, which performed most effectively as MTBs and MGBs in Home Waters. For ease of production and the supply of engines, he took his design skills to the USA where he contributed to the massive boat production programme in both Canada and the USA from 1939 to 1943.

Scott-Paine’s great rival in the building of boats for the Admiralty was Commander Peter Du Cane, whose Vosper Company had built the prototype hard-chine MTB 102 which, to Scott-Paine’s annoyance, the Admiralty quickly decided to buy and which was to be the forerunner of the standard Vosper MTB design. There is little doubt that the rivalry between Scott-Paine and Du Cane produced that competitive edge which could only have benefited the development of Coastal Forces craft in both design development and in projecting this to the Admiralty. The third of many builders of Coastal Forces craft who cannot go without mention is Noel Macklin of the Fairmile Company. Here was another charismatic personality who was as well known for his motor car racing and flying, as he was for his car manufacturing. He had achieved success in the 1930s in building the Invicta and Railton cars at his Fairmile Engineering Company at Cobham and his background in the Royal Navy during World War I led him to believe that there was a need for a large number of anti-submarine vessels. He applied his vision and immense energy to the concept of assembling boats of his prefabricated design at the scores of boat yards around the country. His design was different from others in that his boats were considerably larger, somewhat slower and, for the first time with these small craft, were intended to accommodate the crew permanently onboard. From an initial Fairmile Marine Company design of a 110-foot Motor Launch, which was to become the Fairmile A, this led to the successful “maid of all work” the Fairmile B Motor Launch, an Admiralty design of which several hundred were to be built during the war. The extremely effective Admiralty designed Fairmile D followed and this was a larger, far more heavily armed MGB and MTB than anything previously produced. These powerful boats were designed to meet the threat of the faster German Navy E-Boats. With an overall length of 115 foot and powered by four Packard petrol engines, running on 100 octane fuel, the Fairmile D had a maximum speed of 30 knots and a maximum range of some 500 miles. The complement of three officers and 32 ratings were invariably young and inexperienced in the early part of 1942 when these boats came into service. Although the early British Power Boats and Vospers had initially been commanded by young RN officers, the increasing number of RNVR officers began to man and command Coastal Forces craft and particularly the Fairmile Ds. Many were thrust into Command with barely a handful of months as the Navigating Officer or First Lieutenant of a short boat. The Fairmile D “Dog Boat” was to serve with considerable distinction in home waters and, particularly, in the Mediterranean. The common thread in the story of the three brilliant men who pioneered the development of these Coastal Forces craft was their vision and conviction in the Royal Navy’s need for these high-speed Coastal Forces craft and their courage in risking large amounts of their own money to design and build the craft whilst confronting the inertia of the Admiralty.

The 1st MTB flotilla became operational from Felixstowe in January 1940, marking the defacto founding of Coastal Forces. It was not until September of that year, however, that 3 MTBs performed the first successful torpedo attack of the war, destroying an ammunition ship inside Ostend harbour. Boats available in the Dover Strait were few in number, slow and unreliable. In November 1940 Rear Admiral Piers Kekewich was appointed Flag Officer Coastal Forces to coordinate design and production of boats and to act as a go between for the Admiralty and the various commands. This was an important landmark and the admiral’s position was undoubtedly strengthened by the appointment of Captain A.W.S. Agar VC as his staff officer, bringing valuable experience to the role. Nevertheless, despite some marked successes, things were still slow to improve. Lessons were being learnt in the North Sea and English Channel and techniques of combined MTB and MGB operations against enemy shipping was becoming tried and proven. MTBs were driving home attacks on enemy shipping but repeated use of the combined open assault soon resulted in the element of surprise being lost. The German reaction was to strengthen their convoy escorts and increase their awareness, leading to mounting British losses.

Both Britain and to a lesser extent Germany, depended on Merchant Shipping to feed and provide for their populations. Behind defensive mine fields, supply convoys followed cleared channels along the opposing coasts. German convoys were generally smaller than British ones but were very heavily guarded by Destroyers, Torpedo Boats, armed Trawlers, E boats and Raumboote, Motor Minesweeping and Patrol Boats (R boats). This was the challenge that the British MGBs and MTBs faced. Once Germany had invaded the Low Countries and France, Britain’s East Coast Convoys came within range of German MTBs the Schnellboote, christened E-boats by the British. So great were the dangers of the E-boats that the waters off East Anglia became known as ‘E-boat Alley’. By waylaying the E- boats at the start or the end of their nightly forays into the Channel, British MGBs gradually curbed surface attacks on Allied coastal shipping, at the same time MTB activity increasingly deterred German convoys from making the perilous passage of the Dover Strait. Also, clandestine operations took the boats close into the shores of enemy occupied France, Holland and Norway. The introduction from 1942 of the Fairmile D craft, 115-foot long and of 90 tons displacement, lent a decided edge to the activities of Coastal Forces. Both as a torpedo boat and as a gunboat it played a major part in the ‘battle of the narrow seas’, at a time when German light naval forces were already stretched by commitments in the Black Sea, the Baltic and the Mediterranean. As the war progressed, the sphere of operations of Coastal Forces increased from the English Channel and North Sea to the Mediterranean, Adriatic and Aegean and on to Burma.

The history of Coastal Forces in the Mediterranean started with the return of the 1st MTB Flotilla through the French canals and, after a short break, resumed in October 1940 with the forming of the 10th Flotilla of MTBs at Alexandria. These Thornycroft boats suffered badly from constant engineering problems, a lack of support and the absence of radar but, nevertheless, undertook sterling work. The arrival of more advanced Vosper craft, with more effective armament, was a help but a major turning point was undoubtedly the arrival of the 115 foot, heavily armed, Fairmile D “Dog Boats” in 1943 which considerably enhanced the effectiveness. This was the start of a Coastal Forces presence that was to increase dramatically as the war progressed. Their operations were to stretch the length of the Mediterranean to the Adriatic and Aegean Seas. By the end of the war the number of MTBs alone operating in these areas had increased to over 150 and 40 of these would be lost by the end of the war.

Coastal Forces contributed greatly to many naval events of the war. When the German battle cruisers Scharnhorst, Gneisenau and the heavy cruiser Prince Eugen, left Brest harbour after sheltering there for nearly a year, heading for Germany by means of a dash through the Dover Strait in broad daylight, Coastal Forces boats made a gallant albeit unsuccessful attempt to stop them. Through a series of communication errors on the British side, the 3 ships with heavy air and surface support were off Boulogne before Dover MTBs were alerted. Also, the aircraft intended for stopping such a breakout, 6 Royal Navy Fairey Swordfish torpedo bombers based at Manston, were not available. On that morning of the 12 February 1942, 5 MTBs went to sea to press an attack on the battle cruisers although the dense screen of escort vessels prevented all but the most optimistic of torpedo attempts. The arrival of help from Motor Gunboats diverted some of the German escorts attention, allowing torpedo bomber crews to press home the attack with hopeless determination,. Operation Chariot, the Combined Operations raid on St Nazaire in 1942 was another event with involvement of Coastal Forces. The intention of this raid, one of the most daring of World War II, was to breach the caisson in the entrance to the massive dock, which was an integral part of the St Nazaire port. Success would remove the docking facility for the German Battleship Tirpitz. Coastal Forces were to play a major role in this action but at a great cost. Of the 16 Coastal Forces craft which took part in the operation, one turned back with engine trouble, 10 were sunk by the enemy, three had to be scuttled and only two returned safely. Of the seven VCs which were awarded for the action that night a posthumous award was made to Able Seaman Savage of Coastal Forces and his citation added the fact that the award was also in recognition of, “the valour shown by many other unnamed in MLs, MGBs, MTBs who gallantly carried out their duty in extremely exposed positions against enemy fire at close range”.

Before, during and after the Normandy Landings, Coastal Forces were involved in a variety of both offensive and defensive operations designed to facilitate the invasion. Before the invasion, they defended home harbours to prevent the invasion fleet being bottled up by mines laid by E boats, whilst also mining continental ports to restrict enemy shipping movements. They also were heavily involved in the laying of protective minefields to flank the invasion passage and they escorted the invasion armada on its crossing to Normandy. Once the invasion was underway, they engaged E-Boats based in Cherbourg and Le Havre often in cooperation with frigates. They assisted the defence of frigates and destroyers against torpedo attack and intercepted hostile craft from outside the invasion area.

No account of wartime Coastal Forces would be complete without a mention of the contribution made by allied navies. The Free-French Navy manned 11 heavily armed 125 foot chasseurs and operated a number of B-Class MLs from Portland and Vosper boats from Dartmouth. The Royal Netherlands Navy had experience of CMBs prior to the war and had commissioned the build of twenty 70-foot MTBs just prior to the start of the Second World War. This build programme was interrupted by the German invasion of Holland and, in the event, only TM 51 actually sailed under the Dutch flag, but to great effect. The Polish Navy operated an increasing number of boats from British shores as the war progressed, eventually forming two flotillas. The Royal Norwegian Navy also formed the Norwegian manned 54th MTB Flotilla under the command of Pers Danielsen operating from Lerwick in the Shetland Islands. Their “Dog Boats” were regular commuters to the Norwegian fjords where they harassed the enemy and supported commando operations. The US made a major contribution with their PT boats in the Mediterranean and the Canadians operated wholly manned national flotillas in Home Waters towards the end of the war. There were, however, many Canadians who had come to the UK at the outbreak of war and who served as RNVR, totally integrated in the Royal Naval crews. The Canadians were to serve with great distinction in both Home Waters and the Mediterranean and, regrettably, the Canadian 29th Flotilla was involved in perhaps the worst disaster of Coastal Forces craft in the war. An explosion in one of the Canadian boats while the 29th Flotilla was lying in Ostend harbour resulted in the loss of 60 lives along with seven British and five Canadian MTBs, all in the space of 7 minutes. Major contributions were also made from the Royal New Zealand Navy (RNZNVR), the Royal Australian Navy and the South African Navy.

The end of World War II saw a massive reduction in Coastal Forces although the Royal Navy continued to use various types of fast patrol boats until the late 1970s. Coastal Forces bases around the British coast closed with cessation of hostilities although HMS Hornet, at Gosport, continued in commission until 1957 and the base, after a long period of uncertainity over its future, then developed into the Hornet Sailing Centre. Some World War II Vosper, British Power Boats, Fairmile Bs and Camper and Nicholsons craft were retained until the mid1950s. Nine ex short British Powerboat MTBs were modified as the “Proud Class” and a large number of Harbour Defence Motor Launches were redesignated as Seaward Defence MLs and used for a wide range of coastal tasks. These were joined by the Gay Class, twelve interchangeable MTB / MGBs which entered service during 1953 and 1954 at the start of the Korean War. These Gay Class, a 71’ 6” craft with a displacement of 50 tons and of wood construction and with 3 Packard engines, proved to be the last of the traditional high octane petrol craft to enter service. These boats were largely a repeat of wartime designs, which served an interim purpose until the diesel machinery was available for a totally new design to be known as the Dark Class. Entering service at the same time in 1953 were two Bold Class 140 ton, 116 foot craft, Bold Pioneer and Bold Path Finder. These larger craft with two 4.5” guns and four 21” torpedoes, were powered by novel machinery for the time. Although initially fitted with captured Mercedes diesel engines, each was eventually fitted with two Metropolitan Vickers gas turbine engines and with the two Diesels, giving a speed of 40 knots. Nineteen Dark Class were eventually ordered, built with metal frames with wooden hulls, and each powered with two Napier Deltic engines; eventually eighteen were commissioned.

Following the Admiralty decision in 1957 to take nearly all fast patrol boats out of commission, nine of these new Dark class were to be laid-up. But on 20 December 1960 the Admiralty stated that the Coastal Forces were not being completely abandoned and a nucleus were to be kept alive so that the art would not be lost and in order to provide the foundations on which the Coastal Forces could be rapidly expanded if needed. A special boat squadron was nominated with two new Brave class and one Bold class, with nine of the Bold class being nominated to be in operational reserve. The Admiralty therefore considered that this preserved the foundations on which the focus could be rapidly expanded if needed.actually.

Throughout the late fifties and early sixties the Bold class, Gay class and the remainder of the Darks were steadily decommissioned. The Brave Class, Brave Borderer, launched 7 January 1958 and Brave Swordsman, launched 22 May 1958, ran from HMS Vernon, wih the decommissioning of HMS Hornet in 1957. These Brave class were equipped to operate as either Motor Gunboats or Motor Torpedo Boats, with an impressive armament of two 40mm Bofors and two 21” side-launched torpedoes. Their three Bristol Marine Proteus gas turbine engines, originally manufactured for use with aircraft, and three shafts gave the boats gave the boats an impressive speed of 50 knots. The boats were designed for offensive operations against enemy warships and merchant ships in coastal waters during the Cold War. However, by 1962 both boats were playing a vital role in the Fishery Protection Squadron where their speed gave a greater degree of surprise where poaching was taking place.

HMS Hornet decommissioned in 1957, thus ending a long tradition on that site. There had been a base for CMBs in Haslar Creek during World War I and until 1921. HMS Hornet was named in 1925 and initially commissioned in January 1926, temporarily closing in 1934 to be re-commissioned for World War II on the 20 December 1939. During the war years, HMS Hornet and the adjacent Haslar Gunboat Yard, provided maintenance and logistic support for Coastal Forces craft and it became familiar territory to many who served in Coastal Forces.

Dark Aggressor

Although in essence Coastal Forces ceased in the late 1950s small numbers of this type of craft continued both with the Braves and then Fast Patrol Boats, termed FPBs, FTBs, HMS Cutlass, Sabre and Scimitar, were introduced into service in late 1969 and early 1970 to operate as training craft under the command of Flag Officer Sea Training at Portland. A development of the Brave class, FPBs went into commission in early 1971, with no armament, and were specifically designed for giving fleet practice in countering fast missile carrying vessels during the cold war period. These boats, manned by two officers and ten ratings, were 100 foot in length with a beam of 26 foot and a displacement of 100tons. Their two Gas Turbine engines gave a speed of 40 Knots and space was left for a third engine, which although never fitted, would have given an increased speed of 50 knots.

What was lost from the service with the cessation of Coastal Forces was aurguably the finest vehicle for giving both officers and men early responsibility and the chance to develop their personal attributes and skills without undue or oppressive oversight. This was not just an opportunity for young men to do as they wished without supervision. Ample evidence exists to indicate that the sense of responsibility which they felt towards each other and to their small unit as a whole, produced an early maturity which was visible both during and after the war. This opportunity for self development existed equally for the most junior member of the crew through to the Commanding Officer. In alternative circumstances, which the vast number of their contempories would find themselves throughout the service, these Coastal Forces officers and men would have been relatively small cogs in a much larger, less personal organisations. It is easy to see why those in Coastal Forces were largely volunteers for this form of service and, once there, most reluctant to revert to main stream naval activity. A comparison can be drawn to the submarine service in today's Navy. This service is largely manned by volunteers and is reknowned for having a very professional environment in which men mature and develop quickly. Alas, the loss of diesel submarines and the diminishing size of the submarine fleet reduces these opportunities within the modern Navy.

However, with almost a degree of acknowledgement to the role of the small craft in the development of the individual, the Royal Navy currently operates a squadron of Archer class, P2000 craft. These small craft of 49 Tons displacement and 68’ length, achieve a sedate 22 to 25 knots with their two diesel engines. They were ordered in 1985 and the 16 craft steadily entered service through the late 1980s. Their purpose was initially for the training of Royal Naval Reserve personnel but it quickly became apparent that they were to be greatly underused. Since the early 1990s they have been put to very effective use in the training of the many students undertaking degrees on naval sponsorships at the Universities through the UK, principally those that are suitably located close to the coast.

Bringing the story of the Royal Navy's Coastal Forces to present and future generations through a permanent exhibition  


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