With ‘The ‘Plywood Navy’ – duel with plane in the Med

From the bridge of an MTB showing the aft Bofors gun and MTB 378 at speed astern in the Mediterranean. These vessels were part of a small force of British MTBs which, together with American patrol boats, turned the 45 mile stretch of enemy held coast between Sezi and Genoa into their hunting ground.

From the bridge of an MTB showing the aft Bofors gun and MTB 378 at speed astern in the Mediterranean. These vessels were part of a small force of British MTBs which, together with American patrol boats, turned the 45 mile stretch of enemy held coast between Sezi and Genoa into their hunting ground.

MTB 511, underway at speed, coastal waters.

MTB 511, underway at speed, coastal waters.

In the Mediterranean the Allies were increasingly asserting themselves at sea. The days of struggling to get convoys through were past. Even with the Italian Navy out of the fight, they were still not dominant. In the east the Royal Navy was still having a bad time in the Dodecanese islands. But gradually they were pushing the Germans back. An important contribution was made by the Royal Navy Motor Torpedo Boats and the American ‘Patrol Torpedo’ boats, whose role was to go out looking for trouble, just as they did in the Pacific or the English Channel.

John Steinbeck was covering as many diverse aspects of the war as possible, avoiding the conventional material, looking for the experiences of the common man. After covering the war in England and Africa, one of the last pieces in his memoir is about a night action somewhere off the coast of Italy:

November 15, 1943

The orders were simple. The naval task force was to destroy or drive German shipping out of the sea in the whole area north of Rome. German convoys were moving out of various ports, possibly evacuating heavy equipment from Italy to the south of France. The task force was ordered to break up this traffic.

It is not permitted to say what units comprised the force but a part of it at least was a group of torpedo boats, some British MTBs and some American PTs. The British were not quite so fast as the Americans but they were more heavily armed.

The spray came over the bow in long, swishing spurts as the PT put her nose down into the easy swells and the light wind picked up the splash. Their faces were dripping. Now and then the First stepped the three steps down to the tiny chart room, where a hooded light glimmered on the chart. (One line deleted by censor.) The First checked the course and put his head through and climbed back to the bridge.

A call came from aft – “Aircraft at nine o’clock! ”

The men at the turrets and at the after gun swung their weapons sharp to the left and elevated the muzzles, and the gunners peered uneasily into the milky moonlit sky. Unless they come out of the moon, and they never do, they are very hard to see. But above the engines of the boat could be heard the hum of aircraft engines.

“Ours or theirs? ” the First asked.

“Ours have orders not to come close. It must be theirs,” the master said. Then off to the port side in the sky there was the dark shape of a plane and not flying very high. The gunners stirred and followed the shape with the muzzles. It was too far off to fire. The master picked up his megaphone and called, “He’ll come in from the side if he’s coming. Watch for him.”

The drone of the plane disappeared.

“Maybe he didn’t see us,” the First said.

“With our wake? Sure he saw us. Maybe he was one of ours.”

He must have cut his motors. Suddenly he is overhead and his bomb lands and explodes just after he has passed over. The roar of the explosion and the battering of the machine guns come at once. A wall of spray comes over the side from the explosion, and the boat seems to leap out of the sea.

The lines of the tracers reach for the disappearing plane and the lines seem to curve the way the stream from a hose does when you move the hose. Then the guns are silent. The master calls, “Watch out for him. He may be back. Watch for him from the same side.” The gunners obediently swing their guns about.

This time he didn’t cut his motors. Maybe he needed altitude. You could hear him coming.

The guns started on him before he was overhead and the curving lines of tracers followed him over and each line was a little bit behind him. And then one line jumped ahead. A little blue light showed on him then. For a moment he seemed to hover and then he fell, end over end, but slowly, and the blue light on him got larger and larger as he came down. The rest of the guns were after him as he came down.

He landed about five hundred yards away and the moment he struck the water he broke into a great yellow flame, and then a second later he exploded with a dull boom and the fire was sucked down under the sea and he was gone.

“He must have been crazy,” the captain said, “to come in like that. Who got him?” No one answered.
The captain called to the port turret, “Did you get him, Ernest?”

“Yes, sir,” said Ernest. “I think so.”

“Good shooting,” said the captain.

See John Steinbeck: Once there was a War.

USS PT-105 running at high speed, during exercises off the U.S. East Coast with other units of Motor Torpedo Boat Squadron Five, 12 July 1942

USS PT-105 running at high speed, during exercises off the U.S. East Coast with other units of Motor Torpedo Boat Squadron Five, 12 July 1942

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Steve Andrews November 16, 2013 at 1:15 pm

My father in law was on the MTB’s around Greece and Yugoslavia in the 2nd World War I would love to know more about the campaigns and try to find out about him but he has sadly passed and I don’t recall the boat number or what squadron he was in. Is there a web site I can access to give me more info on the MTB’s and their crew.
Thanks

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