Gunboat Command, the Biography of Lieutenant Commander Robert Hichens DSO DSC RNVR

B2206

The capital ships often collared the headlines and in peace and war they were a very visible statement of power, but the coastal craft were the frequent stars of WWII and were key to some of the most important activities during the conflict. The subject of this biography is in many ways typical of the buccaneering skippers of Coastal Forces, recommended for the Victoria Cross before his death and recipient of the DSO and DSC, mentions in despatches and the respect of his peers and superiors. This is one of those books that reaches out beyond a traditional readership of naval warfare enthusiasts. It is not the easiest task for a son to write about a dead father, but this is an example of how it can be done and done well. It is more than a factual account of a very brave young man and his comrades, displaying affection, respect, love, and a deep understanding. Highly recommended – page turner!!

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NAME: Gunboat Command, the Biography of Lieutenant Commander Robert Hichens DSO DSC RNVR
DATE: 140815
FILE: R2206
AUTHOR: Anthony Hichens
PUBLISHER: Pen & Sword
BINDING: soft back
PAGES: 348
PRICE: £16.99
GENRE: Non Fiction
SUBJECT: WWII, Second World War, World War Two, blockade, coastal forces, mosquito craft, gunboats, torpedo boats, MGB, MTB, fast attack craft, fast patrol boats, floating bombs
ISBN: 1-47382-296-3
IMAGE: B2206.jpg
BUYNOW: http://tinyurl.com/py4f62k
LINKS:
DESCRIPTION: The capital ships often collared the headlines and in peace and war they were a very visible statement of power, but the coastal craft were the frequent stars of WWII and were key to some of the most important activities during the conflict. The subject of this biography is in many ways typical of the buccaneering skippers of Coastal Forces, recommended for the Victoria Cross before his death and recipient of the DSO and DSC, mentions in despatches and the respect of his peers and superiors. This is one of those books that reaches out beyond a traditional readership of naval warfare enthusiasts. It is not the easiest task for a son to write about a dead father, but this is an example of how it can be done and done well. It is more than a factual account of a very brave young man and his comrades, displaying affection, respect, love, and a deep understanding. Highly recommended – page turner.

When Vospers built MTB 102 as a private venture, they were producing something as important as the Spitfires and Hurricanes, carrying British arms forward from the position of gross neglect by politicians. The Royal Navy immediately recognized the potential of MTB 102 and bought her into service. She was equipped with Italian aircraft engines because the British equivalents were starting into urgent production to meet the demand of warplanes. Her internal torpedo tube and single deck mounted reload may have been a dead-end, but she was to be equipped with twin deck mounted tubes and multi-purpose gun armament, providing an experimental and training platform, with her skipper Chris Dryer writing the manuals for tactics and operations. When he took her across to Dunkirk to see if there was anything useful to do, he was to provide for her becoming the smallest vessel to fly an Admiral’s flag, as a battle flagship, when Adm Wake-Walker transferred to her the destroyer he was on was sinking. It is a story that has been much under-told, but the real importance of MTB 102 was that she gave experience and impetuous to the building program that was to see thousands of similar vessels built, often in a small boatyards, inland up a river that had previously built and maintained small yachts, saving naval shipyards for the larger steel warships.

The two main groups of vessels were MTBs and MGBs, mostly around seventy feet in length and powered by two or three high performance marinized aircraft engines, with two Ford V8s for stealth power, or to maneuver in harbour. They were built with a diagonal teak planking on wood frames, fuelled by petrol and equipped with, for their size, a very heavy armament including torpedo tubes, depth charges, machine guns, canon and heavier guns. They were the fastest warships in good sea conditions but forced to slow down in a seaway to avoid pounding. There were also close cousins, notably the Fairmile designs which were up to 120 feet in length and equipped with an amazingly powerful armament that allowed them to punch well above their weight and to operate beyond coastal waters, representing a real threat to submarines.

These high performance vessels attracted high performance crews. There was a strong buccaneering spirit and a requirement for steady nerves. Charging through the sea at forty knots required skill and courage, but a different level of courage was required when the boats lay in wait for the enemy, drifting silently in banks of fog, or moving slowly under the small V8 engines that gave very low noise before the powerful aircraft engines were cut in to provide high performance. There was also the knowledge that the combination of petrol and wood could have unfortunate consequences when a lucky shot could turn a boat into a blazing inferno in seconds.

Some night actions were at very close quarters with Tommy gun and grenade being the weapons of choice. Other actions were conducted in clear conditions at full speed. Enemy fast patrol vessels were generally larger, heavier, well-armed and diesel fuelled, giving a strong technical and operational advantage.

Gunboats became versatile performers. They were used to escort convoys, attack enemy convoys, fight similar enemy craft, provide reconnaissance for heavier vessels and perform a range of covert services, dropping and collecting agents, resistance fighters and commandos. It was an exciting and high risk occupation for young men. Casualties could be high and many were not to survive the war.

The fast Coastal Forces warships deserve many battle honours, but the greatest contribution may have been by those MTB and MGB units based in Malta who regularly saled against large German supply convoys that were vital to the Afrika Korps. Working in conjunction with aircraft and submarines from Malta, these tiny warships cut Rommel’s supply lines and made his defeat inevitable.

The author has given a compelling account of the life of one Coastal Forces skipper. The text reads well and there is good illustration in support. As with all good biographies the book starts the story with the description of youth, family and education, followed by the extreme life that was war at sea. The author has been ably assisted by the diary kept by his father.

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