Night Action in the Strait of Dover

Steam Gun Boat, MGB S309, under the command of Lieutenant Commander Peter Scott underway at sea. S.309 was also known as 'Grey Goose'
Steam Gun Boat, MGB S309, under the command of Lieutenant Commander Peter Scott underway at sea. S.309 was also known as ‘Grey Goose’

While RAF Fighter Command was constantly harassing the the Germans in the air over Northern France the Royal Navy was engaged in a similar scheme at sea. The principal means of attack, which was to become increasingly important in the attempt to dominate the seaways before the invasion of Europe, was by Motor Torpedo Boat and by Steam Gun Boat.

There were only six Steam Gun Boats (S.G.B.) in operation. On the night of the 4th September 1943 four were out on patrol as usual close to the French coast, hoping to be in the position to ambush some German ships with a torpedo attack.

Commanding them was Lt. Commander Peter Scott. This is his account of the early stages of the engagement:

Soon after 9 p.m. an enemy force left Boulogne and steamed southward along the coast of France. Four S.G.Bs. (again under my command) were at sea on the way to their hunting-ground when wireless signals reporting the enemy’s position began to come through. As soon as the high-pitched Morse messages were received they were passed to the chart table on the bridge of Grey Goose, where the Navigating Officer worked feverishly, with roller ruler and dividers, plotting the enerny’s course and speed and laying off a course to intercept.

The speed necessary to make a successful approach produced too brilliant a phosphorescent wake, while the speed at which the wake would not be sighted was too slow to make a good approach, for the enemy was hurrying along at little less than 15 knots.

Time and the phosphorescence conspired against us; and so it was that when we were still a mile and a half from the enemy, and trying to manoeuvre into an attacking position, we heard the sound of distant gunre. . “ Damn and blast,” I said, “ that’ll be starshell ”; and a moment later, hopelessly, “ It is! ”

Suddenly a brilliant light burst overhead, and then another and another. We were bathed in a dazzling white glare while the starshells floated lazily down on their parachutes. Tracers and the heavy shells followed, streams of green and white shimmering out across the calm sea and great shell splashes spouting up all round. The tracer seemed to be a barrage, for it criss-crossed about in a tangled network of flying sparks. Very little of it came directly towards us. Nevertheless the tactics had to be changed, and as the German force hurried down the coast we yapped round its heels like terriers waiting for a chance to bite.

Once we passed through the enemy’s wake in order to try to gain bearing for an attack on the landward side in the mouth of the River Somme. There was a strong smell of smoke as we passed astern, and we pitched and rolled for a moment as we met the waves thrown up by the enemy formation. Three times we closed in to attack, but each time the starshells went up, followed by cascades of tracer and the leaping waterspouts of heavy shells.

Once a single white flare went up far away over the coast, and by its light the enemy force was perfectly silhouetted — seven ‘M’ Class minesweepers in line ahead.

“Two of the middle ones,” to quote from the account I wrote a few days after the action, “ were old-type sweepers with tall, thin Woodbine funnels, the others seemed to be of the squat-funnelled kind.” They were all smoking like hell and obviously legging it as fast as ever they could go.

Seven ‘M ’ Class minesweepers-solid great ships of six or seven hundred tons with 4 inch guns and a large number of automatic weapons – were fairly formidable opposition for four S.G.Bs., but the night was still young and we decided to keep on trying.

Next time their starshell went up when we were still 3,500 yards away, and the explosive arrived shortly after, but we soldiered on in at 20 knots. I remember looking astern and seeing the rest of the force snaking after us amongst the tall pillars of the shell splashes.

All round it was as bright as day, or brighter, and it was an extraordinarily beautiful spectacle. The sea was a brilliant unreal green under the starshells; some of them burned through their parachute strings and fell into the water, where they went on burning as they sank, with a wonderful luminous greenish glow.

Above, the sky was full of curling question-marks of smoke left by the flares as they floated down. I thought one flare was going to land on the fo’c’sle, but it fell just clear ahead. There were still torrents of tracer trickling and streaming away from the enemy ships, and our boats were occasionally hit. The Huns were using a multiple 20-mm. gun, which put down a strip of bursts in the water that would have been most unhealthy to be in.

This was just the opening episode in a series of engagements that night. The whole battle is described in Peter Scott: The Battle of the Narrow Seas: The History of the Light Coastal Forces in the Channel and North Sea 1939-1945.

Scott’s boat was badly damaged by hits from 88mm guns but managed to limp back to England, the other three boats suffering only ‘liberal’ bullet and splinter marks. One man was killed in the exchange of fire, another later died of wounds and eleven men were wounded.

Gun-boats off Le Tréport, 4th September 1943.  War Artists Advisory Committee commission: Peter Scott 1945
Gun-boats off Le Tréport, 4th September 1943.
War Artists Advisory Committee commission: Peter Scott 1945

The German account of the battle was rather different:

D.N.B. in German for Europe.

10.47 a.m. 5th September, 1943.

Berlin: The International Information Bureau reports that during last night German coastal covering forces engaged two British motor torpedo boat formations off the west coast of France. During the first action about midnight, two of the enemy boats were sunk by direct shell hits. One hour later a second engagement took place in the waters off Le Treport, in which another two motor torpedo boats were sunk and a third one was set on fire. Thus the British light surface fleet lost four of its boats and probably lost a fifth within a few hours, in an attack against the German convoy routes off the coast of Western Europe. This was the first attack for a considerable time. The German vessels suffered only a few casualties in wounded. There was some superficial damage which did not affect the manoeuvrability of the boats.

After the war Peter Scott was to become internationally renowned as a nature artist and conservationist.


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