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.

Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and the Dalek meet
tvReview: Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Arts and Entertainment
books
Sport
Diego Costa
footballEverton 3 Chelsea 6: Diego Costa double has manager purring
Life and Style
3D printed bump keys can access almost any lock
gadgets + techSoftware needs photo of lock and not much more
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Inside the gallery at Frederick Bremer School in Walthamstow
tvSimon Usborne goes behind the scenes to watch the latest series
Life and Style
Silvia says of her famous creation: 'I never stopped wearing it. Because I like to wear things when they are off the radar'
fashionThe fashion house celebrated fifteen years of the punchy pouch with a weighty tome
Arts and Entertainment
Gregg Wallace in Summer's Supermarket Secrets
tv All of this year's 15 contestants have now been named
News
i100Steve Carell selling chicken, Tina Fey selling saving accounts and Steve Colbert selling, um...
Life and Style
A picture taken on January 12, 2011 shows sex shops at the Paris district of Pigalle.
newsThe industry's trade body issued the moratorium on Friday
Arts and Entertainment
Could we see Iain back in the Bake Off tent next week?
tv Contestant teased Newsnight viewers on potential reappearance
News
i100
News
The slice of Prince Charles and Princess Diana's wedding cake and the original box from 29 July 1981
newsPiece of Charles and Diana's wedding cake sold at auction in US
Voices
The Ukip leader has consistently refused to be drawn on where he would mount an attempt to secure a parliamentary seat
voicesNigel Farage: Those who predicted we would lose momentum heading into the 2015 election are going to have to think again
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012
film Cara Delevingne 'in talks' to star in Zoolander sequel
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Law Costs

Highly Attractive Salary: Austen Lloyd: BRISTOL - This is a very unusual law c...

Junior VB.NET Application Developer (ASP.NET, SQL, Graduate)

£28000 - £30000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Junior VB.NET ...

C# .NET Web Developer (ASP.NET, JavaScript, jQuery, XML, XLST)

£40000 - £50000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# .NET Web De...

Clinical Negligence Solicitor

Highly Competitive Salary: Austen Lloyd: HAMPSHIRE MARKET TOWN - A highly attr...

Day In a Page

Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

A fresh take on an old foe

Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

The phoney war is over

Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

Salomé: A head for seduction

Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

British Library celebrates all things Gothic

Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

In search of Caribbean soul food

Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
11 best face powders

11 best face powders

Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference