Historical Notes: Dog boats in the battle of the narrow seas

THERE SEEMS of late to have been an increase of interest in the events of the Second World War. But most people born after 1945 are unlikely to recognise the acronym MTB - and the letters MGB probably conjure up only a distant memory of a sporty car.

Things were very different in 1942, at Britain's lowest ebb in that war. At that time, Motor Torpedo Boats and Motor Gun Boats were household words, and their activities, described frequently and colourfully in the press, helped to uplift the morale of the nation. In much the same way as the fighter aircraft of the RAF who had saved Britain in September 1940, the MTBs caught the imagination as these tiny boats attacked the enemy convoys creeping close inshore along the coasts of France and the Low Countries.

The knowledgeable could perhaps picture a 70-foot plywood hull powered by giant engines surrounded by thousands of gallons of highly volatile petrol, and capable or 40 knots. On deck, 10 men, often all under 23, with their two torpedoes and small- calibre guns, closed in to attack much larger enemy targets which poured heavy fire at them. At ridiculously short range, casualties were common, and engines were not difficult to disable - but time after time they disengaged to limp back to base after wreaking their own havoc. In the eyes of the admirals they seemed expendable, but the effect of their attacks on supply convoys was out at all proportion to their size and cost.

They alone could venture into the shallow, mine- infested waters close to the enemy shores, often illuminated by search- lights and braving shore batteries.

With hindsight, it is surprising that this came about at all. A reactionary Admiralty had shown no interest in small craft after the First World War. When, in the mid-1930s, war again seemed probable, the first moves came from speed-boat designers, who risked their capital to build experimental boats, and forced the Admiralty's hand.

By 1936 a few were ordered and built, but most were sent to bases overseas, and only a handful were available in Home Waters. These early boats were primitive and vulnerable, but much was learned from them.

By 1942 the new boats were benefiting from the technical improvements driven faster by the impetus of war. The harsh experience of operations brought its rewards, honing the skills of officers and men and throwing up leaders with remarkable tactical expertise and proved aggression.

At much the same time, a new breed of boats came into service greatly increasing the flexibility of the force. Whereas all the boats had hitherto been short, the "Dog Boats" were long (115 feet). They were slower, but had a greatly increased gun armament, and four powerful engines which enabled them to operate in more adverse sea conditions. The balance in the "battle of the narrow seas" began to tilt strongly in their favour, so that in Home and Norwegian waters and the Mediterranean their impact on operations increased dramatically.

The development of radar, of non-contact pistols for their torpedoes, and ever more powerful armaments, led to more and more success. The boats played a major part in the Normandy landings, preventing attacks on the constant flow of shipping supplying the Allied armies across the Channel by blockading Le Havre and Cherbourg. The boats were particularly suited to clandestine operations, and one flotilla was employed solely in landing agents, often returning with aircrew forced down in France.

Above all, their war was a triumph of human endeavour. The crews of these boats were young and resilient and most had no previous sea-going experience - but their spirit saw them through as they demonstrated the instincts of Britain's inborn maritime heritage. Truly this was a throw-back to the deeds of the men of Nelson's Navy: like them, they "engaged the enemy more closely".

Leonard Reynolds is the author of `Dog Boats at War' (Sutton Publishing pounds 25)