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Admiralty planners of Operation Neptune had a big problem of how to cope with the German Coastal Forces ( E-Boats ), the German name for these fast Torpedo boats was S-Boats, but for some reason the British Navy always referred to them as E-Boats.
These craft could attain a speed of over 40 knots slightly superior to our MGB's (Motor Gun Boats) and MTB's (Motor Torpedo Boats) but in heavy sea conditions the E-Boats could reach 36 knots whereas our boats would be restricted to about 18 knots, due to their respective hull designs.
The E-Boats were vulnerable to attack from the air so they only operated at night, and had plenty of success in the early days of the war attacking convoys along the east coast and in the Channel, and spending days in concrete bunkers, safe from air attack.
The Germans had five flotillas of E-Boats operating out of Brest, Cherbourg, Le Harve, Boulogne and Ostend in 1944. Each consisted of nine boats, six of these would be operational and three under maintenance or on training duties.
The planners came up with the solution of using Frigates as control ships, as their radar could pick up the E-Boats almost as soon as they left their base, and could guide our Coastal Forces on to the enemy positions, which could then drive the enemy towards the heavier guns of the Frigates and hopefully between them destroy or stop attacks on the traffic across the Channel.
At first things did not quite work as well as expected as our MTB's And MGB's were used to operating as free agents, so being restricted to operational control by a Frigate did not go down well at all.The decision was taken to put an experienced Coastal Forces Officer in each of the Frigates, so they would be competent in directing our boats, and this solution did the trick.
As there were quite a number of Frigates still to come from the USA and with Western Approaches being well catered for in the form of four Escort Groups a total of 24 ships, the decision was made to allocate eight of the Buckley Class Frigates to the job of Control Frigates, these were chosen because of their superior speed compared with the Evart Class Frigates.They were nominally attached to the First Destroyer Flotilla (DF) based at Portsmouth, and help with the close quarter work it was expected the ships would experience, a 2pdr Pom Pom Gun was added as a bow chaser.
All these ships had to undergo the infamous Tobermory work up training, they then had to undergo intensive gun training at high speed splash targets towed by MTB's,which ended on 15th April 1944, after which they were inducted into the CFCF group at Portsmouth.
Their first operations in April were more in the nature of training exercises,But under actual war conditions, they had to absorb their training quickly, or become the victims of the E-Boats. There were only about nine nights when the weather was favourable for the E-Boats to operate, and on each occasion two or three of the German flotillas came out to hunt their prey but, the destroyers HMS Whitshed,La Combottante, Middleton, Stevenstone and Volunteer contacted the E-Boats and several of them were sunk or damaged, but there is no record of any of the CFCF's had any success during the month of April.
From the start of May 1944 the CFCF's settled down to their routine, when they would leave their day time mooring at Ryde pier on the Isle of Wight during the dog watches to rendezvous with their MTB's or MGB's and proceed to their designated patrol area before midnight, which seemed to be the favoured time the enemy boats put to sea. (Although they were based at Portsmouth, they only went there when they required maintenance or supplies).
Their patrols continued right through the hours of darkness, and once they reached their patrol line all hands were piped to action stations, which meant no sleep, and when daylight came they returned to their anchorage to start the routine of cleaning ship and carrying out maintenance on the guns and machinery, if it had been a very hard night with action lasting most of the night the two off duty watches were allowed an extra few hours sleep in the afternoon.
Although they did not spend weeks at sea like the Escort Groups, they were very short of sleep, and always looked forward to their one night stand down from patrol so they could have a run ashore followed by a full nights sleep.
Most of April and May were fairly quite there were only seven nights when the enemy put to sea mostly on mine laying, and managed to avoid contact with our forces, except fo the night of 12/13th May when a large group of E-Boats attacked a convoy off Selsey Bill but were driven off by the convoy escorts,and decided to retire but ran into the patrol line of Stayner, Trollope and the French destroyer La Combattante in company at 0100 hours. The MTB's were directed into action with the Frigates and the Destroyer providing starshell illumination and also gunfire support, the whole hectic affair lasting for only about 10 minutes.(Which was par for the course in these night actions) when the German boats broke off the action and retired, having had one E-Boat sunk and several others damaged, one of our MTB's was damaged.
Stayner picked up the survivors from the German boat, and Trollope went to the assistance of our boat and took off their casualties, this was the first action the young sailors experienced on board the Frigates, which came as a shock to see the damage done by cannon fire.
The rest of the month was pretty quiet, the most incident of note was when on two successive patrols HMS Riou and her MTB's were attacked with anti-personnel bombs dropped by USAAF Black Widow fighter bombers, which fortunately did not cause any British deaths, but from then on the USAAF were not the CFCF's favourite kind of people.
At the start of the invasion all the CFCF's except Seymour which was sent to Sheerness were in the Portsmouth area, and as the great day dawned Stayner,Thornborough, Trollope, Duff, Torrington, Retalick and the 1st Destroyer Flotilla set out as part of the screening force for the eastern flank of the assault force, Seymour's role was to join the Nore Command Frigates as part of the escort of four troop ships from Southend to Normandy after the first wave had landed.
It is hard to report on every one of the many actions of the CFCF's as a lot of the reports have been destroyed before they got to the Public Records Office, and the reports they do poses have not been indexed, but the following accounts we hope will give you an idea of what life was like during the period of the CFCF's opertations during those momentous days.
HMS Riou was at Greenock before D-Day and had not been converted to a CFCF, her orders were to escort HMS Warspite and HMS Rodney the battleships through the Irish Sea to their bombardment positions off Normandy, she remained and watched the way their huge guns battered away at the shore defences, but was not allowed to join in with her main armament of 3 inch guns.
When HMS Rodney ran out of her 16inch shells Riou escorted her back to Milford Haven for the replenishment of her magazines, then back to the bombardment area.
Riou was in the area for about six weeks taking part in A/S patrols with other groups and some convoy escort duties, but there was no sign of any CFCF duties.
No E-Boats put out to sea until night time on 6th June when the 5th and 9th Flotillas from Cherbourg and Le Havre made every effort to get at the masses of ships off Normandy. The 2nd and 8th Flotillas put out from Ostend and only made sweeps into the North Sea, the 4th Flotilla at Boulogne only carried out sweeps in their own area, it seems a source of amazement that three Flotillas of E-Boats were sent out into their normal areas instead of attacking all the targets that were available to them.
The CFCF's formed very tight patrol lines and awaited the enemy, two of the E-Boats intent on attacking the shipping ran into a mine field and sank, the rest of the flotilla ran into Stayner and her brood of MTB's and were driven off after a sharp exchange, they retired and regrouped and attacked again this time they ran into Trollope, she illuminated the targets and opened fire at 3,000 yards which with a closing speed of 55 knots, the distance very quickly reduced to 1,000 yards and then point blank range, all of Trollope's guns were now firing, and just for a few moments all hell broke loose until the enemy whizzed past.
Trollope had her first triumph, the first two E-Boats were repeatedly hit and one of them caught fire and sank, so ended the first night of the invasion, but there were many more battles the CFCF's would have to fight in the future. On the second night of the invasion E-Boats from Cherbourg and Le Havre again attempted to attack the beach area but ran into Stayner and Retalick with their MTB's and were forced to retire after a brief battle and three of them were seen to have taken a lot of hits.
The E-Boats the following night tried to break through the US Navy Dixie patrols on the west flank of the invasion area, but had no luck there either.
The E-Boats in the British sector returned to the fray on the nights of 10th to 15th June, about 12 E-Boats put to sea from Cherbourg and action was spread over a wide area, Stayner and MTB's of the 35th flotilla were once again right in the middle of the action, one E-Boat and one MTB were sunk.
West of Le Havre the 4th E-Boat flotilla had been busy laying mines, then ran into Duff she was unable to close with them, so sent in her MTB's one of which was damaged and the E-Bo ats managed to escape, but now Duff made a radar contact on another group of E-Boats and turned towards them at full speed and had to take evasive action when a spread of torpedoes were aimed at her, but due to her swift reaction they missed, the weather was rather bad at this time and Duff for once outstripped her MTB's and fought a solo brisk action and one of the E-Boat veered away and sank.
Some little time later Duff's MTB's were again able to contact the enemy, and after two more E-Boats were sunk, they turned and headed for home behind a smoke screen, which put paid to the nights action.
The next night Duff expected more action when some E-Boats broke through the US Navy defences and sank the USS Nelson and as they were returning towards Cherbourg they crossed Duff's patrol line at very high speed, not even Duff's MTB's could intercept them, and Duff followed at full speed hoping they would turn to give fight, but no such luck and Duff had to turn away when she came under gun fire from shore batteries.
From the 19th to the 27th of June one of the fiercest storms ever known raged in the English Channel, wrecking the Mulberry Harbour and causing horrendous damage to the shipping in it.
On the same date 27th Cherbourg fell to the Allied troops and on the night of the same day when Trollope was on patrol off Cap D'Antifer the Cherbourg E-Boat flotilla left their pens to retreat to Le Havre . Trollope made contact with them at 0100 Hrs, but she could not get at them as they stuck to close inshore, only the MGB's were able to engage them and give two of them a severe mauling, then had to break off as they gained the safety of the Le Havre defences. Trollope had then to have her three monthly boiler clean so was out of action for a week.
Both Stayner and Thornborough made contact during 3rd to 4th July but the enemy did not come to close contact, their commanders must have realised the over riding power of the CFCF's patrols, the following night Trollope was back on patrol off Cap D'Antifer and intercepted E-Boats which were attempting to get to Le Havre, non were sunk but they were chased back to Dieppe, the following night Trollope was in the area of North Tunney in the Seine Bay in company with two of the 1st DF Destroyers Stevenstone and La Combattante, when there was quite a lot of E-Boat activity after midnight, Stevenstone had been in action after 0100 when the E-Boats retired out of range, she turned back and joined Trollope when after an explosion Trollope's bow section was blown off, Stevenstone immediately started to pick up survivors, and wounded, Trollope's bow section was still afloat upside down, La Combattante sailed in and sunk it with gunfire, some of Trollope's survivors swore they could hear shouts of some of their shipmates still alive trapped inside the floating section, 65 of HMS Trollope's crew were killed and about 30 wounded.
Trollope was towed back to harbour and after inspection was written off as CTL.
The unattached HMS Riou was now seconded to be a CFCF, but before she could join she had to undergo repairs for damage she sustained after collision with a liberty ship, which took a few weeks to complete.
The Germans around this time introduced new weapons, the two man "Neger" piloted torpedoes and the "Lentil" explosive motor boats along with a new type of mine called an "Oyster". This mine was exploded by a pressure device which detected a ship passing over it and proved very effective in shallow waters.
To combat the twin threats from the Neger and Lentils a defence line was put in place around the Normandy anchorage known as the Trout Line, this consisted of a number of landing craft formed up in a continuous double line at half mile intervals each night, with the CFCF's patrolling outside of this Trout line but at slow speed so that they did not build up any pressure which would in turn trigger the Oyster mines, not very assuring to the CFCF's if they were to be attacked and had to respond at speed.
The E-Boats were however still a menace and on 7th to 8th July nine of them ventured out and a fierce battle took place in Seine Bay, in which Thornborough, along with the destroyers Cattistock and La Combattante drove them back into Le Havre having severely damaged several and caused quite a few casualties.
On the 17th to 18th July E-Boats from the 6th Le Havre flotilla ran into Duff's patrol, but did not come to close action the only casualty being MTB361.
On the following night Stayner with the destroyer Forester were patrolling further along the channel when Stayner's radar picked up the 8th E-Boat flotilla which were escorting the German Destroyer T28 from Boulogne to the Hook of Holland, a stern chase started but the enemy kept well inshore behind their mine fields and the MTB's could not catch up with them due to the heavy sea conditions.
Stayner was now taken out of the firing line, due to the fall of Cherbourg the US Navy had some spare patrol boats which had been working on the Dixie line patrols, and were now seconded to work with the RN CFCF's and Stayner was to exercise with them to train them in the ways of the CFCF's, it still involved night work, but the relief from the stress of battle was reward enough. On the 26th to 27th July five E-Boats put out from Le Havre in a determined attack on the CFCF line led by Retalick, and a fierce dog fight took place at close quarters with MTB 430 being rammed by S182 and MTB 412 collided with the wreck of MTB430, with the result all three boats sank. Retalick was unable to fire in case she hit her own MTB's but managed to get a few shots off as the E-Boats retired in haste.
Thornborough was on patrol north west of Cap d' Antifer on the 30th July, when she came across a group of E-Boats which she engaged in a sharp encounter and damaged one of them, as they retreated in haste.
Stayner now having fully trained her US Navy patrol boats, was heading with them out of Newhaven on the 4th August for their first real patrol when her asdic operator got a strong contact off Beachy Head, after many and prolonged and unsuccessful depth charge attacks, but at last they spotted three survivors appear on the surface in the position of their last attack, when they were picked up they turned out to be the Commander, Engineer and Coxswain of U 671 which had been destroyed. Stayner was the only CFCF to claim the sinking of a U-Boat, but in doing so some of her depth charges had very shallow settings, and had shaken the covering plates off one of her rudders, which accounted for her poor steering, this defect was soon put right on her next boiler clean at Chatham.
Seymour had a frightening experience after having patrolled the Trout Line for fifteen nights without any problems, when on the sixteenth night the whole ship was shaken by a huge explosion which cut all her power and came to a standstill dead in the water, it was clear that they had triggered an Oyster mine, but after examination, there was no sign of any damage the explosion had caused the electrical breaker switches to fall out,( a fairly common occurrence on these ships which got the title of "Breakeritis"), these were put back in position and she was soon under way again. This proved the sturdy construction of these ships.
Thornborough and Retalick whilst on their way to their patrol area off Cap d'Antifer were attacked eight times by German torpedo bombers, but non scored a hit, this was on the 5th to 6th August with their three US Navy PT boats (equivalent to our MTB) and came to action with three E-Boats, who retired under cover of a smoke screen towards Le Havre.
On the morning of the 11th August Thornborough whilst on patrol off Cap d' Antifer made a radar contact on six enemy R-Boats and a trawler, she controlled her three PT boats into the action.
Retalick and her PT Boats ran into units of the 14th German minesweeping flotilla on the 7th to 8th August and had another inconclusive action in which two of the PT Boats were damaged.
With the advance of the ground troops eastwards towards Le Havre a lot of German small units left heading for Boulogne and Dieppe on the 23rd to 24th when Thornborough and Retalick could only engage them at long range as they were hugging the coast line, and the exodus continued nightly until the end of August, and were continuously harried by Seymour, Retalick and Thornborough who claimed between them that they had destroyed E-Boat S91, a KFK Assault Barge, and two Minesweepers and causing damage to many more.
On 29th to 30th a group of E-Boats set out to cover the last of the retreating German units, and were engaged by Retalick and the Destroyer Cattistock and chased them until they came under fire from coastal batteries, Retalick escaped without any damage but Cattistock was badly damaged and her Captain was killed before both ships retired.
By the 4th September the E-Boats had retired to bases at Rotterdam and Ijmuiden due to the rapid advance of our ground forces, and after they had time to re organise themselves their main aim was to disrupt the convoys heading up the Scheldt Estuary to the captured port of Antwerp.
The CFCF's had also to relocate to bases of the Nore Command at Sheerness and Harwich. One of the last actions in the Channel was on 18th to 19th September when Stayner intercepted a group of E-Boats escorting a supply force on its way to the surrounded Dunkirk, bad weather hampered the MTB's speed but one of the enemy was damaged and Stayner made short work of it, two of the other E-Boats collided and Stayner caught up with them and sank both boats.
E-Boats successfully laid mines on the night of 28th to 29th September, and Duff returning to Harwich from a nights patrol struck one of the mines at 0750 hrs; the explosion was under her forward boiler room which unfortunately resulted in Three of her stokers being killed. Duff managed to limp into Harwich with her bows almost under water, and as there were no facilities at Harwich most of her crew were paid off before Christmas. She was towed down to Chatham in the new year and was written off as CTL.
On the 29th to 30th November Thornborough and Retalick with two MTB's were in action against E-Boats, which as usual beat a hurried retreat.
The E-Boats had during December 1944 become organised in their bases and started to harry the convoys going into the Scheldt Estuary but became more wary of the CFCF patrols, they preferred not to come to close action.
One of the fierce combats took place two days before Christmas 1944, some of our MTB's were off the Hook of Holland when they encountered a group of E-Boats and claimed one sunk and two damaged, the rest of the E-Boats turned away and made for the Scheldt where Torrington was running the CFCF patrol with HMS Curzon and the Destroyer HMS Walpole of the Nore command in company.
The CFCF group brought the E-Boats to action and sank two and damaged a further three, A good nights tally three sunk and five badly damaged.
On the following night two groups of E-Boats put out to sea, one group were spotted by Wellington bombers and herded towards a Nore Command patrol which included HMS Rutherford, and in a fierce action two of the enemy were sunk and several others damaged.
The other group ran into Torrington's patrol line, with the result two were severely damaged and the whole group retired behind a smoke screen.
To celebrate Christmas the E-Boats came out again on 24th to 25th December and ran into Thornborough and her MTB's, but they managed to escape the CFCF's attentions.
On Christmas day as Torrington was going to anchor for the crews Christmas lunch, the Asdic operator got a contact, after carrying out depth charge attack, two survivors appeared on the surface, a midget submarine (Neger) had been destroyed.
Seymour was on patrol in the Sheldt on 14th to 15th January 1945 when her radar contacted six E-Boats at a range of 51/2 miles at 0135 Hrs; after about ten minutes one of the MTB's illuminated the enemy who took violent evasive action, and as the sea conditions stopped the MTB's from catching up with them, Seymours Captain told the MTB's to clear out of the way so that his guns could have a shot at them which he did at 0151 Hrs; but B gun had a premature fire (which was not a rare happening with the 3 inch guns) and contact with the enemy was lost.
The E-Boats now also started to foray out as far as their old areas of attack on our East Coast, which in the early days of the war was known as E-Boat Alley.
On 22nd to 23rd January 1945 5 E-Boats made their way close inshore off the North Foreland, but ran into Seymour's group and in desperation fired their whole armoury of 10 torpedoes and Seymour and the sloop HMS Guillemot had their work cut out to avoid being hit, and while our ships were carrying out their avoidance change of course the E-Boats slipped away but in so doing they ran into range of the Royal Artillery guns on the Tounge Sands Fort, which sank one S199, and when Seymour's group caught up with them a short time later the MTB's got into close contact and MTB495 collided with E-Boat S701 which was a write off.
During the same night Riou and Stayner further south along the coast, engaged in a fierce action with an enemy group two more E-Boats were sunk, and an unconfirmed number severely damaged, one E-Boat tried to ram Riou and came so close it tore off some of Riou's stern guard rails.
Torrington was successful in disposing of another of the two man midget(Neger) submarines, but incurred Captain D displeasure for expending 40 depth charges to finish it off.
On the 17th to 18th February a large force of E-Boats managed to dodge the CFCF patrol lines and laid mines off the river Humber, and one of their old enemy the Free French Destroyer La Combattante struck one of the mines and sank. Another group also managed to break through the patrol lines, and laid mines off the North Foreland.
Three nights later the mine laying switched back to the Sheldt estuary, Riou made contact with four of these boats at 2330 Hrs; and after a short encounter forced them to retire at speed, at 0031 Hrs; the same group tried again but this time ran into Thornborough's patrol, the frigate could only fire from distance, and once again they retired in haste, a little later another E-Boat group started an attack on a convoy in Riou's area but were thwarted by Riou firing her three 3inch guns at about a mile range, the enemy broke off and circled around and tried to attack twice more at 0050 and 0111hrs; but got the same treatment from Riou which put and end to their attempts.
The last recorded sinking of an E-Boat by the original CFCF's was by Seymour who on the 1st to 2nd March after a swift and decisive action sank S220 one of the new design 1944 Class of E-Boats.
Patrols went on right up to the end of the war but most of the action was centred on the Nore Command area, which we will look at later.
The E-Boats stayed at their bases in Holland as it was the last country to be liberated by our land forces. Between them the CFCF's accounted for about 20 E-Boats sunk, and the number damaged and casualties were not recorded by the German E-Boat units, it seems they were not noted for their record keeping. Riou was at Portsmouth for minor repairs on VE Day but she sailed on the 9th May for Hamburgh to collect a number of U-Boats which had surrendered, and it is thought she was the first Allied ship to pass through the Kiel Canal after the war, and whilst there she was inspected by Field Marshall Montgomery, who after his inspection ordered the Captain to "Splice the Main Brace" which went down very well with the crew.
Riou was sent into Liverpool for conversion to a torpedo recovery ship, on arrival in Liverpool her crew were very disappointed to find they were to be transferred to HMS Curzon whose crew had been paid off. Riou completed her refit but after a short time it was thought her job as a torpedo recovery ship did not come up to scratch, and after hanging around for some time she was sent back to the USA in February 1946. Seymour was transferred to Rosyth Flotilla in August 1945 and completed trips to German ports to bring back 40 German merchant ships as war reparations, she then spent a month at Christiansands as headquarters ship for Lord Tennyson who was Acting Admiral, Coast of Norway, after that she was sent to Devonport and then visited Barry Island and Barrow-in-Furness, she then went to Birkenhead for repairs to a propeller shaft A bracket, but remained there until she was sent back to USA on 5th January 1946.
Stayner and Retalick left Harwich at the end of the Pacific War and were sent to Rosyth where they did very little. Retalick went back to the USA on 25th October, and was followed by Stayner on the 24th November 1945.
Torrington de-commissioned and was sent to the reserve fleet in Londonderry, and after a long wait was sent back to USA on 11th June 1946, Thornborough was transferred in March 1945 to Plymouth for A/S duties, and on 15th May she left Plymouth in company with HMS Holmes for St Peter Port, Guernsey to act under orders of the Naval Officer in Charge (NOIC) Channel Islands for A/S patrol and escort duties.
The following day the two frigates formed part of the escort for a number of landing ships carrying troops for the reinforcement and reoccupation of the Channel Islands.
On 20th May Thornborough suffered underwater damage, through striking an unknown submerged object, she was taken in hand for repairs at Devonport on 14th June, but later in the month she was sent into reserve category "B" at four months notice for service, and was accordingly accepted into reserve at West Hartlepool on the 25th July 1945. The Thornborough remained here, utilized as a living ship, until her return to the US Navy at the end of January 1947.