- Contributed by
- Robert Falkner
- People in story:
- Lt Comm. R I T Falkner
- Location of story:
- English Channel
- Background to story:
- Royal Navy
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 10 December 2003
The story below was written by my father, Lt. Commander R I T (Pip) Falkner RN in 1972. He died three years later in May 1975. I now have the two precious books mentioned in the story.
The name of the German Salvage Officer was Captain Hans Hankow. Although he and my father never met face to face, they used to correspond after the war when my parents sent him food parcels to Germany. We do not know when he died, but he must have been quite elderly during the war, when he saved "The Flower of the Field", having mentioned in his letters that he had fought for The German Imperial Navy during the Falklands and Coronels battles.
We do not have a record of name of the Dutch aviator friend that father took with him on that fateful day, but understand from my mother, that she recalls that he became Comptroller of the Royal Dutch Household after the war.
The Story as father wrote it is as follows:
This is a true story about the long and charmed life of a book which was destroyed by enemy action, but which was returned to its owner in almost its original state many years later. What is fascinating is how this book brought out the brotherhood of the sea between a German and a British Naval Officer who, at the time, were enemies.
I was that Royal Naval Officer. And in the afternoon of
8th September 1940, I and the other M.T B. Commanding
Officers were all sitting peacefully on the lawn of the M.T.B. Shore Base, H.M.S. BEEHIVE. Suddenly, we were all recalled to our boats and, as the sun began to set, M.T.B.’s 14, 15 and 17 roared out of Felixstowe Harbour towards the Belgian coast, under my command in M.T.B. 17, with orders to sink enemy merchant vessels using Dutch and Belgian coastal waters.
It always took us about four hours to make landfall on the enemy coast and when we did, it was usually around 11p.m. By now, it had begun to rain hard and, at 30 knots, the visibility was reduced to almost nil, so much so that one of the boats lost me in a squall. Up and down the Belgian coast the remaining two of us patrolled, peering painfully into the driving rain for the enemy. We saw nothing but on a hunch, I turned back and told the other boat we'd have another look at Ostend.
This time, I went right into the anchorage and as the rain cleared, there appeared the magnificent sight of about twenty German Merchant ships. At that moment, all hell broke loose as the R.A.F. started to bomb Ostend, and a "Brocks Benefit" over the town only served to give us an even better view of our targets. The other boat was still in his appointed station half a cable on my starboard quarter, so I made him the naval signal for "Disregard my movements — act independently” and myself went in to attack.
This was the first time either boat had been face to face with surface enemy ships and I found myself so taut with expectations, not completely void of fear, that it is difficult to describe. Out of one eye, I watched the other boat gather speed as he selected his first target, then seeing him clear, I increased speed myself and set about the business of destroying the enemy.
“1400 revs”, “1800 revs”, “starboard a bit”, “Can you see the ship dead ahead, Coxswain?” “That’s our first target”, “Slow down 1400 revs”, “Standby to fire port torpedo", "Nil deflection ", “steady as you go”, “FIRE PORT", then that awful pause of five seconds while the torpedo gets clear and the boat increases speed to maximum, the target all the time drawing nearer and nearer. At last, Jacky, the torpedo-man's welcome cry of “Torpedo clear”.
"Hard a starboard", "Open fire with all guns", I order, and the boat skids round like a skier only 300 yards from the enemy.
As we opened the range again, we all looked back, then “Woosh", up went the target and a muffled cheer could just be heard above the roar of the engines as we all saw our first ever torpedo hit. Then back round again to fire the starboard torpedo at another ship with the same tense quiet excitement as we went through it all again, this time a little easier in the knowledge that all went well the first time. By now, the enemy was wise to the fact that this wasn’t just another air raid on Ostend and there was shooting from seaward. So we did not wait this time to see where our second and last torpedo went.
The other boat, meanwhile, seemed to be having just as much success as we were, for out of the corner of my eye, I'd had to watch him all the time to see we didn't get too close and collide.
Now it was time to take the other boat under my command again as we had no more torpedoes, and off we
set over the North Sea for home and breakfast. Next day, one of our aircraft reported three new wrecks at Ostend and we knew that at least two were ours, which were later confirmed. Congratulations all round followed and the rest of the day, after fuelling, was spent as usual in writing the official report of the night’s proceedings.
This time, my report was different — we’d made the
first successful M.T.B. torpedo attack of the War.
Not long before this first successful M.T.B. operation, members of the Press had been allowed to visit the 1st M.T.B. Flotilla based at Felixstowe and one of the War Correspondents who came to sea with me in M.T.B. 17, was the late J.L.Hodson. In his book “Through the Dark Night”, he wrote —
The ship's library had character - "The Bible To Be Read As Literature", Shakespeare, Tolstoi’s “War and Peace”, Southey’s "Nelson”, the manuals of Navigation and Seamanship, books on Wild Fowling, “My Mystery Ship" and a crowd of others".
Among the other books, all of which I always carried
in M.T.B.17, was a prize which I had won at the Royal
Naval College, Dartmouth, 10 years before, suitably inscribed with my name as a Naval Cadet and dated 1930. It was a beautiful book with coloured plates, entitled "Flowers of the Field" by C.A. Johns.
All these books had been used quite a bit during the dull early part of the "phoney" war but from Dunkirk onwards, we were usually too busy or too tired to do much reading.
And so, we continued patrolling across the North Sea nearly every night for the next six weeks after our initial success but found nothing. So at least we knew we were achieving our purpose in keeping the enemy's coastal ships immobile. During this period, I had made friends with a Dutch Naval aviator who kept his seaplane at our M.T.B. base. He had been pestering me for a long time to take him out on one of our sorties when he wasn't flying, so that he could see the shores of his home country again.
This was strictly against the rules, as the Admiralty rightly assumed that it was dangerous enough for ourselves without risking another life unnecessarily. But as he was such a pleasant fellow and we hadn't seen the enemy on the sea since that night, I thought we could break the rule and chance it. Little did I know!
On the night of the 20th October 1940, I was ordered by Fleet Officer-in-Command Harwich to take two other boats out with me. I also took the Dutchman, embarked as our unofficial temporary duty ammunitions supply man! It was a perfect night with hardly a ripple and the usual four-hour trip in close formation brought us over the other side to the enemy coast.
Nothing in sight for miles - nothing in Dunkirk — up past that old wreck that looks so like a real live ship that you almost attack it. On we went, close inshore as silently as possible on one engine - Is that a dog barking onshore? Phew! so it is, we must be close - there are shore batteries along here - and search lights, too - they must be blind not to see us - getting near Ostend again - better pullout from shore a bit or they'll hear our three engines when I start up — “Start both other engines, ahead all three, 1400 revs".
Then it was that we sighted him, a small trawler-type guardship off the harbour entrance. I lead the three boats round to a good attacking position to seaward and told the other two to wait while I attacked - she was only worth one torpedo if it hit! But, before I let go my "fish", the shore batteries opened up with 6-inch shells and machineguns and let us have it.
The other two boats crash-started and cruised around at high speed to make a difficult target, while I went on in to attack. Same old routine this time, we were experts now. "FIRE PORT", then the five seconds pause and "Hard a starb—--“. CRASH! We'd been hit astern and from 30 knots, suddenly the boat was stopped and flooding by the stern.
Both gunners had been shot into the air and were,
by now, in the water fifty yards astern. The coxswain had
picked himself up from the deck of the conning tower and I was conscious of a pain in my back, but soon forgot it when we discovered that Nobby, the stoker, was trapped half way
in and half way out of the Engine Room with the ship's dinghy flooded with water pinning him down on his neck.
It was then, as we clung to the bow still above water, that I can clearly remember saying to myself “Damn, now I’ll be a prisoner-of-war and it's only just started", but just
as I thought it, one of my other two boats, seeing our plight, came up alongside and we were saved!
But, M.T.B. 17 hated to go down and it wasn’t until we'd rammed, several times, the 6-ft of the bow which still stuck out of the water, had shot at it and had thrown hand grenades at it, that she finally slid below the water. Those last few minutes were not pleasant. I'd been present when her keel was laid in 1938, I’d stood by her while she was built and I'd been her only captain for over two years, but as the enemy kept hammering at us with his shore batteries, we finally had to leave. The other boat had picked up my two gunners and had sent the target ship, now on fire, scurrying into Ostend Harbour.
As the two boats returned home, my Coxswain turned to me in the wardroom of our rescuer’s boat and said “You know, Sir, I didn't think we'd have a trip tonight. So I was all dressed up to go ashore and now my best uniform, which was hanging up forward with £5 in the pocket, is at the bottom of the sea!” I, too, was thinking of all my things - silver cigarette case, binoculars, books and so on - which were down there, too.
We were all glad to see Felixstowe Harbour next morning, particularly my Dutch aviator friend who, poor chap, was never able to tell anyone of his trip, because he was not supposed to be there. One of my cherished possessions is a book he gave me inscribed "Thanks for the exciting trip, better luck next time". It is called “Skin and Bones!” by Thorne Smith.
And, so the War went on and we all went our different ways to different new ships. Some were unlucky and never
lived to see peace and others, like myself, celebrated V.E.
and V.J. Days.
The real point of this story is perhaps best told
by the following letter received seven years after the event
in 1947, from a German I had been advised to contact, for he had found my name in the flyleaf of "Flowers of the Field" and had reached me through the Royal Naval College, Dartmouth.
“I am sure you will like to know how I came by "Flowers of the Field". Well, I was, at the time in the German Navy, in Ostende on the Belgian Coast. On that night, your boat had been attacked and sunk near Ostende Port. The sinking had been observed and on the morning that followed, the place was marked by two ropes and a diver. When the tide went down, the upper parts of the boat appeared above the surface. I was ordered to move the boat to Ostende and to examine it. I found large holes on the stern and on the stem, but I managed to get the boat into dock. The hits had caused considerable damage
on board. What was left was finally removed and handed over to the shipyard. Of your private things, there was hardly anything that was not ruined, but I found your book, absolutely soaked and quite soft. When I found your name on the slip of paper reading “Field Club Prize awarded
to Naval Cadet R. I. T. Falkner”, I immediately decided to save the book and to return it to you later on. On the next day, already I was sent to Boulogne Sur Mer, in order to supervise the placing of salvage buoys, but I wrapped the wet
book in a towel and took it with me. I then dried it, page by page, on the pipes of the radiator in my hotel room, which was somewhat difficult, as the pages and coloured plates had a tendency to stick together, but finally I was fairly successful, as you will be able to see for yourself when you
get the book. Unfortunately, it was not possible to save the cover and I had the book re-bound in Berlin later on. I think it looks quite decent now”.
In due course, my German friend sent the book back to England, beautifully re-bound in leather in Berlin. It was possible to buy new books to replace the others lost at sea, but never that one which was a prize. So M.T.B.17's small library was once again complete. Now, 25 years later, in 1972, it is still complete on board my 32ft.260 h.p. 27 knot Project 31 motor yacht. The name of the motor yacht? — “SEVENTEEN II”
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