"Coastal Forces Recollections"

by

Leslie J. Sprigg ex: Leading Telegraphist. RN.

The 63rd MTB Flotilla at Great Yarmouth on VE Day

 

During the war I served in the Royal Navy Coastal Forces, which consisted of various small craft including Motor Torpedo Boats, Motor Gunboats, etc. My first boat was ML 108, an ‘A’ Class boat some 110ft, long and initially only armed with .5 Lewis Guns and an old 3 pounder. Only about 12 of these were built. They had 3 Hall-Scott petrol engines which gave a speed of nearly 30 knots. All were adapted for minelaying of which we carried any of three main types. There were ground mines (magnetic), moored mines which we sank to a pre-determined depth and were activated by a ship striking any one of the numerous prongs, and magnetic mines which were activated by the rise and fall of a ship’s engine. As the ship approached, a clapper would start to rise and continue until maximum. As soon as the ship’s engine started to fall, the clapper would fall and detonate the mine.

Our task was to lay mines in the coastal shipping supply lanes close to the shores of France, Belgium and Holland. Leaving Dover at dusk, we would zig-zag through our own known minefields and other hazards and head for the coast of France. The engine would be slowed and silenced (by baffles) as we crept along the coast to our laying areas. The flotilla would consist of about 6 boats, each carrying between 5 and 9 mines, according to the type. When in position, the mines would be laid in 20 second intervals. My job was to call up to the bridge “Out pins No. 1. Lay No. 1” and so on, until we moved out of line and the next boat continued the lay. Regarding the mines, “Out Pins” was the process of activating the mines and disengaging the straps. Once activated and entering the water, it took about 20 minutes for the soluble plug to dissolve.

 

A similiar boat to MTB 753

On completion of our mission, we would move away from the area and either return to port or look for small enemy craft to attack. On some occasions, we carried out diversionary attacks to draw some of the enemy away from a gun battle that was causing them problems. Our task then was to head in the general direction of the skirmish andmake a lot of noise (gunfire) to try to draw some of the enemy away.

ML108 at speed

Safely back in Dover, we would tie-up alongside, wash the decks and clean ship before turning in.

Each month we were issued with “comforts” which I had to collect from a store in the centre of town. These consisted of a free cigarette and chocolate ration and various knitted items donated by wellwishers. On one occasion, I borrowed a bike from a lady dockyard worker, to save the walk into town, and duly collected our allotment. On the return trip, I was cycling along quite happily, when as I headed across the main square towards the dockyard, a rather large policeman on traffic duty, held his hand high. I put the brakes on but nothing happened. I dropped my feet to the ground and skidded along, but too late. I hit him amidships. He sat down rather abruptly! I decided not to hang about so pulled the bike away and pedalled fi.iriously for the dockyard. Unfortunately, in my hurry, I got caught in the railway track alongside the jetty. Off I came and the bike and “comforts” disappeared over the side, into the drink. The dockyard worker proved to be not such a lady after all although we rescued her bike, and my shipmates were less than pleased at the loss of their month’s comforts. I was in fear and trepidation of a large policeman seeking me out.

ML 108 and indeed the rest of the florilla, were versatile boats. On several occasions we took passengers, (special agents) to row ashore at a designated spot and some days later, returned to collect them. This did not always prove successful, either they did not get to the pick-up area on time, although we always waited as long as we dare, for the signal, or they had been captured. We would also take special forces over to one of the harbours, row them in, where they would select a suitable-sized ship. Having decided on their target, they would plant limpet mines beneath the hull, swim back to the dinghy, be rowed back to 108 and off home again. Sounds straightforward, doesn't it.

I was in my cabin on one minelaying sortie, and about to lay, when we had a violent crash just behind my cabin. I came off my seat and turned in time to see the bows of some vessel withdrawing from the starboard side. There was a heavy mist at the time and we had no idea what had hit us. They disappeared very quickly. We had to ditch the mines, and stuff the damaged side with mattresses etc., to stem the water. We took in a large amount but managed to return to Dover where we were patched up then sent to Tough Bros. Yard in Teddington for repairs. On our way up the Thames the skipper misjudged the tide, and we lost half the bridge structure passing under one of the river bridges. We had leave of course whilst repairs were carried out, and then it was back to Dover.

The minelaying etc., continued until 5th Septemher 1943. We were laying magnetic mines and had just completed our lay, when there was a huge explosion aft, whici lifted the back end out of the water. We started to fill quite quickly but at a high level it seemed to stabilize. We were taken in tow by one of our sister boats, and headed slowly back towards Dover. Unhappily a large sea swell developed and the boat gave up the struggle and sank by the stern. I well remember our First Lieutenant, Hugh Fordham, swimming round, asking each in turn “Are you all right’?” before shepherding us to the rescue boat. All the crew were saved and most of us ended up aboard ML 101.

The last moments of ML108 with ML101 picking up survivors, still a couple of heads bobbing about in the water.

We lost all our personal possessions of course, and at Dover we were given new clothes and sent to await a new posting. Not a long wait.

 

Leslie at Normandy 6th June 2004

Christopher Ashdown - the son of Lt. Cmdr. Ashdown (Leslie Sprigg's Commanding Officer) wrote to Leslie about his Father, this is his reply.

Dear Chris,

I have drawn up some facts and figures re ML104 which should be of interest to you.

ML104, an ‘A’ class, built by Dickie & Son, Bangor, Wales in 1940.

Only 12 were built, only 3 survived the war.

Of wood construction, weighing 57 tons, 110 feet long, they were powered by 3 Hall-Scott petrol engines giving a speed of around 30 knots. Converted to minelaying in 1942 they carried up to 9 moored mines or 6 ground mines. Armament 1 x 3 pounder, 1 x 20 mm oerlikon gun and 2 x .303 mgs.

Lt. Cdr. Ashdown was the S.O., 50th ML flotilla for the whole time I was with them, operating from Dover.

It was said that minelaying, from MLs in particular, was unspectacular, exciting and nerve racking, requiring a great deal of skill in station keeping and faultless navigation.

Mines were laid inshore along the enemy coast where stealth was the order of the day; loaded with high explosives we could not afford to be engaged by the enemy.

I quote; ‘ On one occasion a force led by Lt. Cdr.T. Ashdown D.S.O. R.N.R., ran into an enemy convoy on a very dark night, the convoy was challenged from shore, replied correctly allowing us to slip through and lay mines as planned, a daring bluff!’

There were occasions when trouble did arise, once in the form of 2 destroyers, which fired star shells and turned night into day, then commenced a crossfire, fortunately aiming high, from which we were lucky to escape with only slight damage. Having ditched our mines in a hurry and made smoke, we retired at full speed. The Norwegian flotilla, laying about 2 miles west, witnessed the proceedings but did not, fortunately, get involved.

One of the most effective lays was a double event, Ashdown’s MLs set out to lay a field about 2 miles off Calais. By 2300 hours they were back in Dover, reloaded with mines and sailed again at 0130. A second field was laid just West of the first. It had taken 12 hours and gained a special mention from Admiralty.

These are just some of the episodes in the continuing task of minelaying . I was on ML108 at this time, Lt. Jeffries and S/Lt. Fordham, and was with the flotilla on every occasion until my boat was lost on 5th Septermber 1943. Although the main task was minelaying, single boats would often go on special missions i.e. to drop or recover special agents or carry out other covert operations.

Your father, Lt. Cdr. Ashdown, was a quiet, dedicated skipper whose skill and leadership I am sure helped us to survive, as we did through these many long and arduous ventures along the enemy coast.

I have enclosed some pictures to help you, the only one of ML104 is on the ‘remnants’ photo.

Thank you for your interest, I hope I have been able to help with a brief glimpse into your father’s distinguished service.

 

Copyright Text and Images: Leslie J. Sprigg - Also thanks to Christopher Ashdown and Peter Cheshire.

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