Created: 27 May 2005

Coastal Command - Motor Launch 150

Walter Woods was an engine mechanic on board ML 150 which formed part of Peter Scott's flotilla command. To survive in these perilous times and in such hostile waters requires not only good training but one hell of a dose of lady luck. Walker had his share when, in the thick of the action and with "holes appearing right left and centre in the engine room" one German bullet passed within 3 inches of his head. On May 27th 2005 I had a marvellous telephone conversation with Walter Woods, who served in Lt Comdr Peter Scott's flotilla on board ML150. Walter was an engine mechanic. He told me of how he was working hell for leather in the engine room during action in which they sank 3 E Boats - by ramming in at least one case. See image below. We British called them E Boats, their correct name was Schnellboot hence the "S" prefix on their numbers. When he finally got on deck and was offered a tin of mixed fruit - he found a bullet in it! I hope that Walter can put his story into words so that I can share them with you, his memory is clarity itself! Walter was awarded the DSM for his heroic work that night but as he so aptly put it "all I wanted to do was get the damaged boat home safely". The story of the engagement is in Peter Scott's book on pages 168 - 170. I am hoping to expand this with Walters own story in the near future. Extracts from the book which mention ML 150 are as follows:

Page 42: On three successive trips, 25th and 29th November, and 2nd December, 1941, ML 150 under the command of Fanner, picked up the crews of four ships. "The first two,” he writes, went up just after midnight near Hearty Knoll. One was a large tanker with a crew of over 50, of which only 17 got away alive, the second was carrying timber; there was no loss of life and she was eventually towed into Yarmouth. ‘I learnt several things that night,” he continues, some unpleasant, like the awful timbre in human voices when they are in agony and danger, the terrific draught caused by a big fire, how slippery fuel oil, mixed with water, makes everything, including human bodies, how tired and exhausted one soon becomes doing that kind of work; and some pleasant, like the astonishing guts of the ordinary matelot.’ I learnt, too, the extraordinary distance a cigarette end shows in the dark. The crew of the second ship had taken to the lifeboats and were found entirely by this means.”

ML150 Showing damage inflicted when ramming an E Boat (S96).

Page 168 - 170: On the evening of 2 September, 1943, six E boats of the 4 Flotilla, under the command of Korvettenkapitan Werner Lutzow, set out from Rotterdam on a minelaying and torpedo sortie against the British east-coast convoy route. Outside the harbour two further flotillas joined company, and the combined force proceeded westward.’ At about the same time a number of Coastal Force craft, as well as destroyers and trawlers, were taking up their anti E boat dispositions on the Z lines, the standing patrol positions which protected our shipping lane. Amongst them were two “B” Class MLs, 150 commanded by Lt. J. 0. Thomas, RNVR, and 145 commanded by Lt. R. F. Seddon, RNVR. For nearly two years these MLs had been carrying out monotonous anti E boat patrols, and had listened with envy to the tales of their more fortunate comrades in the gunboats and torpedo boats, who appeared to be having all the fun. “All we seemed to get was lots of sea time and more than our share of bad weather.” But to-night their triumph was at hand. Their luck was about to turn. Even to-night, however, the wind was beginning to freshen, with promise of dirty weather before dawn.

The freshening wind was a source of anxiety to the E boats, too, as they approached our coast. At one time it seemed likely that they would have to abandon the operation, but they decided to carry on, and finally divided up into groups in order to lay their mines. At about 1 a.m. one group, consisting of three E boats, came suddenly upon a patrol of two trawlers. Their presence was almost immediately detected by the trawlers, one of which, as she turned towards, saw a torpedo passing down her port side, no more than 6 feet clear. Another torpedo was on its way, however, and this time the aim was true. HM Trawler Franc Tireur was hit amidships and sank within a few seconds. The first torpedo had been fired by the E boat S.88, in which the Senior Officer, Korvettenkapitan (Lieutenant Commander) Lutzow was himself embarked. The second and successful attack had been made by S. commanded by Leutnant-zur-see Wilhelm Sander. Sander was new to E boats, but he had with him a more experienced officer, Oberleutnant Wilhelm Ritter Von Georg, the Commanding Officer of an E boat that was refitting at the time. S99, the third boat of the group, did not get into position in time and did not fire torpedoes at all.

When the E boats had disengaged they stopped to discuss the battle. “Who hit the trawler?” shouted Lfltzow. “It was us, sir,” replied von Georg.
Nice work—congratulations! We’ll keep together now.”

The three boats formed up in line ahead and retired to the eastward at 30 knots. At the same time MLs 150 and 145 were steering south from their patrol line at full speed to cut off the enemy’s retreat. It was a very dark night, but at 1.20 a.m. the MLs sighted phosphorescent bow waves 500 yards away on the starboard bow. Thomas knew at once what he was going to do. His maximum speed was so low that the E boats would outrange his guns in a few seconds. They might be damaged during that time, but they were not likely to be destroyed. The only way to sink an E boat was to ram it, so Thomas held his course for S.96, the second E boat in the line. He writes: “My immediate reaction, and there was only time for reaction, not for reasoned thinking, was this is the moment I been waiting for for a very long time.’ We’d been putting in a lot of hard training, and my actions from then on were almost instinctive. Something like ‘This is it’ flashed through my mind, and I just made straight for him. We hit him with a terrific crash just for’ard of his bridge, and there was an awful rending crunch. It threw my crew flat on the deck, and bits of wood and metal flew round our heads on the bridge.

The E boat bounced clear with a lot of smoke coming from it, and my port gunner got in a crack at him. He vanished in a cloud of smoke; and I stopped my engines because my bows by then were not all that they should have been.” When two fast boats are approaching each other at right angles, split seconds make the difference between ramming and being rammed. Thomas had judged it well but, in spite of that, at this stage the ML had received greater damage than the E boat. Her bows had been carried away to the forward side of the wheelhouse, and she was in some danger of sinking. But the E boat’s speed had been reduced. As it rebounded dear of the ML and went off slowly into the darkness, S.99 overtook it and dashed on after the leader, being subjected to a flood of abuse from everyone on S96s upper deck for leaving them in the lurch. Meanwhile ML 145 had plunged into the engagement, firing with all guns that would bear. The sea was too rough for accurate gunnery, however, and Seddon had also decided that the only way to make certain of the E boat’s destruction was to ram it. “When I saw him breaking away from Jimmy Thomas’s possessive embrace, I thought I might be able to ram him again before he knew what it was all about” At the first attempt, Seddon missed narrowly, but, firing all the while, he gained bearing for a second attempt.

The E boat was returning the fire fiercely, but she was too badly damaged to escape. It was some twelve minutes after the initial contact that ML 145 turned in again to ram. The enemy seemed to anticipate the manoeuvre and also altered course, towards the ML. The two boats met almost head on with terrific impact at a relative speed of approach of more than 25 knots. “We seemed to climb on top of him,” writes Seddon, “then heeled over to port as we slid off again and scraped right down his starboard side. Our speed was too great for the boarding party to get away, but all the guns opened fire at a range of approximately yard. As we rubbed alongside we could see several fires, but little sign of activity on his upper deck.” The ML was badly holed forward and making water rapidly in the forepeak and mess-deck, but the watertight door and the bulkhead were holding, and she was still manoeverable with difficulty.

“At 0140", continues Seddon in his report, “the enemy was stopped about half a mile away and burning fiercely. I tried to close him, steering by engines, but the wind and the heavy sea made this extremely difficult, and I had to approach stem first.” S96 had been trying feverishly to make radio contact with her SO, to inform him that the two British boats were damaged and to summon aid, but it was of no avail. Korvettenkapitan Lutzow had turned back to the rescue, but it appears that his look-out reported the presence of four British boats and against such odds the attempt was abandoned. Oberleutnant von Georg finally seized one of the machine guns on the bridge and fired a burst of tracer vertically into the air as a last effort to obtain assistance. Seddon, wrongly interpreting this distress signal as an indication of surrender, sounded the cease fire and began to close in, but von Georg, who by now had taken command of the situation, was still determined to fight, and a burst of fire greeted the ML as she closed. “Not quite cricket,” was how one of Seddon’s crew described it afterwards, though, in fairness, it must be said that there was no reason whatever for supposing that a burst of vertical tracer was the equivalent of a white flag.

Von Georg called for hand grenades and was bitterly disappointed when they could not be found. In his own boat he would have known where to look for them, but in S96 everything was stowed differently. The E boat was heavily on fire aft, and for a short period complete confusion reigned. Von Georg left the bridge and tried to bring one of the forward guns into action, but they were all jammed and by this time most of the crew were casualties. Turning to Sander, he shouted, “We must scuttle.” The order was given to abandon ship, and the scuttling charges were fired in the engine room. Then the crew jumped overboard and were kept as far as possible in one group by von Georg. “Shortly afterwards,” says Seddon, “there were some minor explosions and the E boat disappeared amid a shower of sparks.”

Meanwhile ML 150 was in a bad way, and indeed Thomas’s chief concern was the safety of his ship in the rising sea. A quarter of the ship had gone altogether, but the bulkhead was shored up and the pumps were controlling the water in the galley flat. The rudders had jammed hard a-starboard, so that under way the ship could only make circles. Finally, however, Thomas found he could steer west by engines alone, stern first at about knots. “By then,” he continues, “we could hear the E boat survivors shouting in the water. It took us at least an hour to pick them up, because of the sea that ‘was running. I was able to manoevre close to a raft, and then to drift down on to it. There were three ratings on the raft, one of whom was laid out, having swallowed a lot of oil. When the raft was fairly near me the two Germans who were up and doing jumped into the water and swam towards us, leaving the third man to his fate: but the yells of my infuriated crew sent them back for him, and eventually the three were hauled inboard. I could not leave the bridge, but ordered an armed guard to take them down into the wardroom for medical attention. A few hours later, when I was able to visit them, I found the Germans turned in, in my blankets, with the armed guard playing them my records on my gramophone.

“M.L. 145 rescued thirteen Germans, including two officers. One of these attracted attention to himself in the water by blowing steadily on a referee’s whistle. When the search light beam found him he was seen still to be wearing his cap at a very rakish angle, and it appears that he kept it so until he was landed at our base. Soon after 6 a.m. two MGBs arrived on the scene. ML 145 proceeded homeward under her own power, but ML 150 was taken in tow stem first and finally reached harbour at 2 p.m. On the way, Thomas describes “a very tricky piece of seamanship carried out by the gunboat that was towing us. We had had to extinguish the galley stove because of the petrol which had leaked into the bilges. in that sea it was impossible for him to come along side, and we were all badly in need of a hot drink. So tea, gallons of it, was floated down to us in ‘safari jars’ lashed to a small Carleyfloat. The float was secured to a grass line and by slight alterations of course they were able to manoevre it alongside us so that we could haul it inboard with boat hooks. Never has tea tasted better.”

POSTSCRIPT

German Telegraph Service (DNB European), 1130 a.m., 26tñ Sep 1943. Berlin (International Information Bureau. Midday): “Yesterday morning German E boats attacked British patrol vessels with torpedoes off the English coast and- sank one of the British vessels. Visibility deteriorated. British MTBs came to the aid of the hard-pressed British patrol vessels, but were unable to make a successful attack. There was a heavy fog, and a German E boat tore off the bows of a British MTB near the bridge so that the vessel sank at once. The German E boat also sustained considerable damage, so that her crew was no longer able to keep her afloat and scuttled her.”

The account of the action from the German perspective is taken from interviews with those taken prisoner and compiled into the scene from their point of view.

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Lt Cdr Peter Scott MBE, DSC, RNVR

Footnote: Sir Peter Scott, famous naturalist, was a Commander of the S309 Gunboat during WW2.
July 15th 04: just obtained a first edition copy of Peter's book "The Battle of the Narrow Seas" published in 1945.

"That when war comes to a country there is only one course for its people to take, and that is to fight as hard as they can until it is won.. . or lost. That it is necessary for the sacrifice, the unselfish and continuing effort and the heroism of deliberate courage to be recorded so that it cannot ever be forgotten. That the strain, discomfort and boredom which are the three predominant factors in modern warfare cannot be brought into their true perspective in a book of this kind, or it would be so long and dull that nobody would read it. That there is no glory to be had out of war that cannot be had out of some greater and more creative enterprise. That nothing will ever compensate us for the men we have lost, not even the way so many of them died. They were ready to die because they wanted to save their children and their children’s children from future wars. The least and the most that any of us can do is to devote ourselves to finding a complete and lasting peace, and then to maintaining it with all our energy." Peter Scott.

 

Further Information:

The Project Director
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