Claude Holloway: MTB commander who became a hero during the Bari harbour disaster


Claude Holloway, one of the most successful motor torpedo boat commanders in the Mediterranean in the Second World War, also became through grievous injury custodian of one of Winston Churchill's closest-kept secrets. Holloway won a Distinguished Service Cross for his part in the Caorle Point action of April 1945, in which the 28th MTB Flotilla sank five enemy ships with six torpedoes, but the night fixed deepest in his memory was the Bari Harbour catastrophe of 2 December 1943, the true story of which both the American and British governments tried to suppress.

In this Holloway played a heroic part as rescuer of dozens of men, and almost lost his life. The Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve officer was one of the skippers of the night-attack MTB flotillas which hampered enemy shipping from the time of the Allied landings on Sicily in July 1943 until the end of the war in Europe. The 70ft, lightly armed, fast and highly manoeuvrable craft dispatched supply vessels to the bottom in close-engagement, Nelsonian manner off the very places of romantic British maritime memory: Palermo, Naples, Taranto, Malta, and Alexandria.

Holloway's command, MTB 242 of the 24th Flotilla, was moored at Bari when Luftwaffe aircraft roared low at dusk over the crowded harbour. There, from brightly lit open holds, supplies were being unloaded for the Eighth Army's invasion of Italy, and for the American Fifteenth Air Force.

The scene became an inferno; 17 ships sank, many exploding, with a huge fountain of sparks spewing skywards from a Case Petrol Carrier that covered all in blazing 100-octane fuel. Deadlier still, and unknown to anyone caught in the mess, one of the vessels that blew up, the American SS John Harvey, was carrying liquid mustard gas.

So secret was the cargo of 2,000 M47A1 gas bombs that the captain either did not know he had it, say some accounts, or if he did, say others, he was forbidden to warn the British harbour authorities about it or seek priority for unloading. The gas, though banned internationally under the 1925 Geneva Protocol, was the Allied chiefs' secret precaution in case the enemy resorted to chemicals.

All the John Harvey's crew were killed, including the chemical munitions supervisor from Baltimore who could have forewarned medical staff what they were dealing with. The explosion sprayed the poison all over the harbour, where it mixed with oil from damaged vessels. Holloway, ashore in the officers' club, gathered four men – half his crew – and took his boat, one engine out of action and the steering equipment jammed by the raid, in zig-zags to pull men from the water. "It was a day which has been in my mind ever since," Holloway said. "The raid was brilliantly executed – full marks to them. It was the worst air raid in any harbour since Pearl Harbour. I can't help thinking that adequate precautions were not taken to prevent that raid."

The attack, in which 1,000 military were killed, and many more civilians, caused Bari harbour to be closed and delayed the invasion of Italy. Of Holloway's heroism a witness recalled: "The MTB skipper took her alongside a mass of flames that had been a tanker, and leapt with half his crew into the blazing sea to rescue a dozen Norwegian seamen." Holloway's own account was that the "little floozie ladder" he was obliged to use gave way, and he fell in. Covered in oil and the chemical, he carried on till after midnight, when the MTB came alongside the flotilla's depot ship Vienna and he took the opportunity to wash. "If it hadn't been for those showers in the Vienna I think I would have been dead, frankly," he said. "I was covered in the muck." The yellow saucers of suppuration covering his skin had to be dressed every four hours after he was rushed to hospital at Bari and then to Malta, where he needed three months to recover.

Back in action, Holloway distinguished himself when on 16 April 1945, as flotilla commanding officer of the 28th in HM MTB 409, he attacked a convoy of German E-boats ("Enemy war motor boats") and barges, sinking one of them. He had to take special care since he had under his command two Royal Yugoslav Navy motor gunboats and was under orders not to let their crews be captured by their opponents, the partisans of Marshal Tito. The MTBs worked with both these factions, Tito's men often serving as ship's pilots. In the same week, on 11 April, Holloway had been one of the skippers, in three MTBs under Charles Jerram, who sank five heavily armoured Flak lighters (cargo and troop-carriers with anti-aircraft guns) with six torpedoes, each MTB having only two. The 28th Flotilla accounted for 21 enemy ships along the rugged Dalmatian coast, making 26 hits with 51 torpedoes. Flak lighters were particularly difficult to hit as their draught was shallow and torpedoes would run harmlessly underneath.

As with Nelson, operations in the Med brought reward. Holloway met Anne, a blonde Wren officer, on the island of Ischia, and the couple married in the English church at Naples.

Claude Raymond Holloway was educated at Aldenham, Elstree, and started work with the stockbroking firm John Prust & Co of Moorgate, London, before joining the RNVR and serving in HMS Warspite as an ordinary seaman off Norway and in the Mediterranean. He was commissioned as a Lieutenant in Coastal Forces, escorting convoys through "E-boat alley" off Great Yarmouth up to Humberside; his first command was MTB 54 at Weymouth.

After the war he returned to John Prust, which merged with Laurence, Keene & Gardner to become Laurence Prust, and rose to be a partner, making his home at Wadhurst in Kent. He helped bring up his daughter's three young children following her death at the age of 36 after a sudden brief illness, and the family would go sailing off Rye in a dinghy. He was at the helm of an MTB again during the celebrations in the Solent of the 200th anniversary of Trafalgar in 2005.

Claude Raymond Holloway, MTB skipper: born Streatham, London 14 May 1919; DSC; married 1945 Anne (died 1996; one daughter deceased, two sons); died Pembury, Kent 25 March 2012.

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