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His Majesties Motor Gun Boat No. 21 Part 3

by BBC Southern Counties Radio

Contributed by 
BBC Southern Counties Radio
People in story: 
J E Quinlan
Location of story: 
English Channel
Background to story: 
Royal Navy
Article ID: 
A4328741
Contributed on: 
02 July 2005

This story was submitted to the Peoples War site by Jas from Global Information Centre Eastbourne and has been added to the website on behalf of J E Quinlan With his permission and he fully understands the site’s terms and conditions

His Majesties Motor Gun Boat No. 21

The first cut was good, very good, but when the second cut was made the whole of the inside started to slither out off the plate like an erupting volcano, the birthday boy, now the worse for drink, stared at it in disbelief and the other gunner who had burst into laughter, asked him if he wanted a straw.

The reaction was swift, he picked up the sizzling seven eighths of the pudding and hurled it at his tormentor who ducked, causing the heavy missile to land on the back of a seaman’s neck behind him, he in turn let out a yelp like a scalded dog, and went for his mate although twice his size and it all ended up with the rest of us restraining them until the atmosphere cooled (with the pudding) down a bit.

I vowed on the spot to myself, that when my eighteenth birthday anniversary came round it would be my secret, I would celebrate the occasion by keeping quiet.

I noticed that the coxswain wisely refrained from attending these jovial mess deck social events, and who could blame him, he must have heard all that was going on from his cabin, I think that he just wanted a quiet life.

At Portland, which apparently everyone but me seemed to know, had been a naval base for many years, we were subject to the usual round of air raids by the Luftwaffe and when the aircraft came over, usually jut a couple at a time, sometimes without an air raid siren warning sounding due to the short distance from their airfields in France, all hell broke loose, with every large naval ship in the harbour (not motor torpedo or gunboats) and the shore based anti aircraft guns opening up on the low flying aircraft, these German reconnaissance flights occurred usually during the night, but in the next few weeks we were at sea usually on all-night patrols out in the English Channel near to the Normandy coast, so missing it all, and had to try and get some sleep during the day when we could, on standby.

Normally our commonwealth captain would be briefed by a Royal Navy Commander at the naval headquarters H.M.S. Attack ashore, sometimes returning with charts and courses to be followed in the English channel with details of enemy ships that were around or likely to be in the area, plus where the Germans had recently laid mines by boat or dropped them from the air, and he went into a huddle with the midshipman and coxswain in the chart room just before we put to sea, after we had re-fuelled.

By now, of course, I had learned that the Portland naval radio station, broadcast its Morse messages to the area over the air (and probably relayed them at the same time to Portsmouth by land line) and these were repeated back a few minutes after completion, by Portsmouth, so this not only covered a larger radio reception area for Portland and Portsmouth based boats but if you missed any part of the message the first time, you could still try to pick it up on the repetition, although the transmitter at Portsmouth being some distance away gave a somewhat weaker signal if the boat was working at the extreme edge of our own area. Some of the hand sending was poor, lacking in style and rhythm.

I was once told by an old long service veteran telegraphist at the training centre in Scotland that it was possible to differentiate between operators after a week or so of listening constantly to a particular Morse telegraph station, but at this stage n my career I was only too happy to get all the signal down on the message pad, without trying to guess which operator was which,.

I was told that some of the navy telegraphists based at Portland naval base were WRENS but never got to check that out.

The messages sent to us were transmitted using a two letter cipher, groups of letters which had different meanings, for instance a code group “FG” when decoded might mean turn ninety degrees to starboard, the next group of two letters may give a time to do the turn, so the whole of essential information was coded up, most of the messages that I received, consisted of around twelve groups and were decoded by me in a few minutes from the code book supplied prior to each trip by the mid shipman.

A new meaning was given to that particular pair of letters every twenty-four hours, to prevent the Germans from code breaking, and just after midnight one had to be careful to decode the message according to the time that the message was originated, not the time received.

I asked the navigator to supply the boats exact position to the radio room at regular intervals and the list of identity codes being used by other boats with us, so by reference to these it would be easy for me to know in a message, how near or far from us other vessels referred to, actually were. For instance, I would look stupid advising the captain of a sinking ship that was three hundred miles away, we would never be able to reach it with our fuel limitations, so the de-coded information contained in all incoming messages, had to be checked carefully in detail before passing it on.

We went on many patrols at night off the Normandy coastline and I was told that sometimes we carried a “passenger” and during the very early hours of the morning had a camera fitted with a powerful telephoto lens mounted on the boat to take photos of the shoreline in France, no one asked questions or talked about it.

We used the Jenny engine to cruise inshore quietly and during these periods one could hear the slurp of waves on the sides of the boat, sometimes the peace suddenly being shattered by the crash of all three Rolls Royce engines starting up and the boat heeling over in a turn indicating to me in the radio cabin that we had been spotted.

Most of the crew thought that I knew exactly where we were going but I knew nothing until the messages were decoded, and in fact they knew much more than me as I was literally confined to my seat from the time we shot out of our moorings at the jetty to the time we returned, I never knew what was taking place above me and never even thought about it as concentration was the main thing in the radio room.

When the shore station called us on the air and waited for a response it had to be immediate, but normally we had to maintain a condition known as “radio silence” as German radio detection operators from stations along the French coast could determine our exact position in a matter of seconds by rotating their aerials to get the strongest signal from us when we used the transmitter, and in collaboration with other similar plotting posts on the coast doing the same thing, it only needed a chart of the area to draw a line from these shore stations to wherever the signal emanated from and where the lines crossed, that was where we were in the channel.

Mainly however, the messages were usually all broadcast without the shore station requesting an acknowledgement of receipt, the ships coded identity call sign being in the address of the message.

It was quite possible that if we were instructed to “break radio silence” at any time and use the transmitter, it was a deliberately calculated attempt to get the German forces out of their continental harbour moorings to see what we were up to, they of course knew the danger of a possible trap, this ploy being used by all.

Considering that the whole crew were thrown together in such a small space, especially when everyone was aboard, they got on reasonably well as a team, so it was a mild shock to find that a new captain just turned up in charge of the boat, we never even saw the Canadian lieutenant leave or heard from him again, he never said goodbye and no one spoke of him or asked questions, to me this seemed strange, the crew were friendly but not friends and never spoke of previous naval experience or civilian work, the coxswain must have known something about the change of captain, but said nothing.

I often wondered why we never had any crew meetings held by the captain, or why we were not given an insight into the duties of others in the crew when it was quiet, particularly in the use of the weapons aboard which would have increased the overall efficiency of the entire crew and may have become useful in an emergency, instruction on these things would have been far better than waiting on board in harbour for something to happen.

The day after the new captains arrival he immediately banned the carrying of excess personal items and naval kit, which now, according to him, should be kept ashore in an individual locker at the Coastal Forces base, this new instruction which I was unaware of at the time he made it, made things very awkward for going on and off shore leave, changing clothing etc as we would all have to wash and change in the naval barracks, where we washed our underclothes.

The captain and midshipman had sleeping quarters in the double cabin, the coxswain had his adjoining the radio cabin and I had mine. I however, kept my gear where it was, in the radio room operators sleeping extension, as advised by the coxswain on my arrival, which ultimately turned out to be a misguided decision for which I later paid dearly.

Three or four days after the new captains arrival a large mobile naval crane came trundling along the jetty, stopped, towering above us, and fitters started to unbolt and remove all the steel armour plating from around the bridge.

When I asked the lieutenant why he was allowing the removal of protective armour from the wheelhouse he said that it would lighten the boat and enable it to go slightly faster, adding that if any German shells came our way he would stop them.

I now considered him thick enough but not bullet proof and in a friendly chat with the coxswain about it later on, he said that he never liked the idea of the removal of the armour plate as it afforded him some protection; the very nature of his job tied him to the wheelhouse in front of the bridge, the main target, of any enemy vessel or aircraft, so the armour would have covered him from behind, and both sides, without it, a one hundred millimetre shell from a German E-boat or larger one from a shore battery would have taken out the bridge, wheelhouse and him.

There was a rumour circulating round the gunboat crews on our jetty that a flotilla of American P.T. boats (patrol/torpedo) had been sent over to help us clear the English Channel of German small surface craft and that some of these boats might be based at Portland Harbour. U.S. troops had already started to appear in Weymouth pubs, confirming the fact that Americans were around, mostly based just outside Weymouth, and then a couple of platoons of their engineers appeared inside the naval harbour and started to assemble two boat maintenance sheds on the shore line, with winches and heavy machinery initially cemented in the concrete foundations to pull the boat cradles in for maintenance etc, and to cut timber where necessary.

The speed at which they put the pre-fabricated units together was an eye opener and showed that they had been well trained, the buildings just sprung up in front of you, this was obviously a specialist team of engineers, showing the Brits how efficient they were.

A few mornings later the captain turned up again and jumped onto the upper deck of the boat from the jetty, around a three foot drop, on the way down he jettisoned his thick wallet, keys etc into the sea, so in the afternoon there was more local entertainment on board as a navy diver turned up in full diving gear and was lowered to the “sea” bed, some three fathoms down to see if he could retrieve the items.

This reminded me of the physical training course taken at Gosport as a naval cadet and the deep diving pool there for training divers.

After about ten minutes he gave a tug on the lifeline indicating that he wanted to be pulled up and on surfacing, in his raised hand was the wallet intact, it must have been worth a lot to go to all that trouble, I had a feeling that it was not only money that was the most valuable item in the wallet, and surely if just paper it would have floated for a while? The diver said that in a couple of hours time when the tides changed it would have been practically impossible to find anything down there as the sea bed had a layer of cans and bottles covering it and the wallet would have filtered through these.

Later that evening I considered what had been involved in this latest event, can an ordinary lieutenant remove armour plating from a boat without very senior officers permission, can he use the services of the naval diving branch to solve a personal problem? To my thinking, it all seemed a bit odd but no one else appeared to think it unusual or raise a query.

It seemed that our new captain certainly had some pull with someone higher up, unless it was all part of an officers only “club”, but he certainly never appeared to be having much luck so far.

Things started to hot up with continuous all night missions, returning at dawn, mostly we were patrolling on our own in the general area of Portland to Normandy and on a few other occasions a complete flotilla of nine of us would leave harbour together sounding like a squadron of bombers flying overhead, but as I stated previously nearly all of the visual action was missed by me working alone in the confines of the radio cabin, and in addition, to keeping a listen out for the call sign of our boat, and the general code for the flotilla, messages for other vessels in the immediate area all had to be intercepted and decoded so that we knew what was happening around us.

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