The Night Hunters: The Royal Navy’s Coastal Forces at War
Open 10am-4.30pm Wednesday to Sunday
Explosion Museum, Priddy’s Hard, Heritage Way, Gosport, Hampshire, P012 4LE
+44 (0) 23 9250 5600
Britain’s wartime coastal forces have at last been properly commemorated in a new exhibition on the Hampshire coast. Entitled ‘The Night Hunters’, it is located within Gosport’s Explosion Museum, which opened 20 years ago to chronicle the history of naval firepower from the age of sail up until the last century.
The admission fee gives access to the exhibition and the rest of the museum, which features displays about naval gunnery, mines, missiles, and much more. The 18th-century buildings, which were part of a naval armament depot until the 1980s, are themselves of great historical interest.
To see everything properly takes a good half day. For visitors with the necessary stamina, a day ticket also allows admission to the Royal Navy Submarine Museum, ten minutes’ drive away.
The imaginatively designed coastal forces gallery is located in a former mine store. The short walk from the main museum building, incidentally, affords excellent views of Portsmouth Naval Base across the water.
The gallery tells the story of the boats that patrolled the waters around the British Isles in both world wars. Theirs is a neglected aspect of naval history, much less well known than the warships that duelled with the German fleet and protected the vital Atlantic convoys.
Yet coastal forces crews were awarded some 3,000 decorations, including four Victoria Crosses – more than any other branch of the Royal Navy. Their story deserves to be told.
Coastal forces were the brainchild of three young naval officers in World War I: Lieutenants Hampden, Bremner, and Anson. They proposed the building of small, fast motor boats that could attack enemy targets. These Coastal Motor Boats (CMBs) saw action in the second half of the war, notably in the daring raid on Zeebrugge in April 1918, when they laid smokescreens to cover the attackers’ exit from the heavily defended harbour.
The exhibition also relates the story of Lieutenant Augustus Agar, who won the Victoria Cross for a mission during the Allied intervention in Soviet Russia in June 1919. The CMB’s shallow draught and speed – it was capable of 35 knots – made it ideal for a close-range assault on the Bolshevik fleet, resulting in the sinking of the heavy cruiser Oleg.
This led, two months later, to an attack by a motor-boat flotilla inside Kronstadt Harbour, which effectively confined the Russian fleet to base for the rest of the campaign. These early motor boats released their single torpedo from the stern, a dangerous manoeuvre which entailed making a sharp turn to escape the path of the projectile.
Neglected in peacetime, it was in World War II that coastal forces came into their own. Suddenly the Admiralty needed large numbers of fast, armed boats. A map in the gallery shows the dispersal of the task among numerous boatyards, scattered around the British coast, to meet the targets as quickly as possible.
Small firms with woodworking expertise were engaged to manufacture parts – just as, in the aviation industry, construction of the ‘wooden wonder’ de Havilland Mosquito fighter bomber was subcontracted to furniture-makers and coach-builders. A total of 1,850 boats were built before the end of hostilities.
Under cover of darkness, relying on their speed to get them out of range, these vessels undertook hit-and-run attacks on German shipping. They also performed a variety of other roles. They took part in raids, laid mines, rescued ditched Allied pilots, and landed and collected secret agents from the enemy coast.
Built of wood, heavily armed, and packed with fuel and ammunition, they were extraordinarily vulnerable as they carried out their missions in the Channel and North Sea. Their courageous crews consisted mainly of volunteer reservists with an average age of 19.
Two boats from World War II form the centrepiece of the gallery. A bare handful of these craft survive – most were sold off at the end of the war and it was only decades later that attention was given to restoring any of them. Striking in the simplicity of their design, these two can be viewed up close from an overhead gantry.
The smaller of the two is the 55ft Coastal Motor Boat CMB331. The last of its kind in existence, its design was based on that of the earliest World War I boats. CMB331 was built at the Thornycroft yard at Woolston near Southampton in 1941, and based at HMS Hornet at Gosport. It has been restored to perfect condition after being discovered in the 1980s in use as a houseboat – the fate of many of the craft after the war ended.
Behind CMB331 is the slightly longer Motor Torpedo Boat MTB71, laid down at the Vosper yard at nearby Portchester in 1939. It was armed with twin 18-inch torpedoes and machine-guns.
More is known about the history of the former, however. CMB331 was part of a flotilla operating from Dover. Its main tasks were patrolling at night to look for enemy E-boats – Germany’s own fast-attack vessel – and picking up downed Allied air crew and torpedoed merchant sailors from the water. Damaged several times in combat, CMB331 took part in several actions, including the pursuit of the Scharnhorst, Gneisenau, and Prinz Eugen in the February 1942 Channel Dash.
In the gallery below, visitors can learn about the dramatic history of coastal forces, from their origins to final decommissioning in the 1950s. Attractively illustrated information panels tell the story with the aid of a variety of memorabilia, including photographs, sketchbooks and uniforms. Key episodes in which the boats took part, including Operation Chariot, the March 1942 raid on the dry dock at St Nazaire, are described.
Among the armaments on display are a 20mm Oerlikon anti-aircraft gun and its predecessor, the much less effective Holman Projector. Crews are reported to have staved off boredom and tension by using this stop-gap device to launch potatoes at each other!
Spitfires of the seas
As so often, of course, it is the human stories that draw the attention. Several notable individuals who went on to enjoy fame in other fields served with the coastal forces. The conservationist Peter Scott, founder of the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, led a squadron of Steam Gun Boats against E-boats in the Channel.
Motor Gun Boat crew members included the second Doctor Who, Patrick Troughton, while Avengers star Patrick Macnee was a navigator aboard a Motor Torpedo Boat.
The exhibition highlights a variety of figures from the history of the service. They include Lieutenant Commander Robert Hichens, the Motor Gun Boat flotilla leader who became the most highly decorated Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve officer before his death in 1943.
Representing the Wrens, who maintained the weaponry on the boats, is a profile of Patricia Jeffreys. Her biography is a reminder of the part played by women, confined to shore-based roles by convention but still making a crucial contribution to victory.
At each end of the gallery, short audiovisual presentations bring the story vividly to life. Perhaps the most engaging is the reconstruction of life onboard a Motor Torpedo Boat. We see the crew waiting anxiously in dim light for action on the open sea, before they spot an enemy convoy and move in rapidly for the kill, before returning to their home base before dawn.
I came away not only better informed about the role of British coastal forces but with renewed respect and admiration for the young men who risked their lives in these ‘Spitfires of the seas’. Anyone with an interest in naval history will find a visit here immensely rewarding. •