Story of Navy’s ‘Spitfires of the Seas’ brought to life in museum exhibition
The story of the stealth Coastal Forces which carried out daring night-time raids on enemy navy ships in small high-speed attack boats is being told for the first time in a new permanent exhibition.
The display, entitled The Night Hunters: The Royal Navy’s Coastal Forces at War, tells the history of the small band of young, courageous men who took part in the “closest thing to hand-to-hand fighting” experienced within the Royal Navy.
Among those who manned the attack craft were the future Avengers star Patrick Macnee, the second Doctor Who, Patrick Troughton, renowned conservationist Sir Peter Scott and James Bond director Guy Hamilton.
The Coastal Forces were established in 1916 with the aim of carrying out torpedo raids and during the First World War they were involved in anti-submarine operations, intercepting suspect merchant ships, rescue work and the destruction of floating mines.
They were deployed at the Zeebrugge raid in 1918, laying smoke screens to cover the cruiser HMS Vindictive and block ships while they entered the heavily defended harbour.
By the end of the Second World War, 1,850 vessels had been built for the Coastal Forces which had fired more torpedoes than the submarine service and laid more mines than the Navy’s dedicated minelayers.
They took part in more than 900 operations all over the world, including the St Nazaire Raid, the Dieppe Raid and D-Day and sank more than 500 enemy vessels.
And more gallantry awards were presented to the Coastal Forces than any other branch of the service.
Veteran George Chandler, 96, from Haywards Heath, West Sussex, served as an able seaman with the Coastal Forces between 1943 and 1946.
His boat, MTB (motor torpedo boat) 710, was blown up by a mine in the Adriatic 10 days before the end of the war killing 19 of the 31 crew.
Mr Chandler, who served as a gunner, told the PA news agency: “Someone must have been looking after me, I look back with pride and some of that pride is in the men who surrounded you whilst you were on active service.
“Sometimes when I look back it brings a tear.”
He also described how he was deployed to Omaha beach on D-Day where his boat provided security to American forces as they landed.
Mr Chandler said: “I was 19 and we watched those young Americans being slaughtered before they could get off their own assault craft. They faced cliffs with Germans using Americans as target practice.”
Of the new exhibition, he said: “I’m flabbergasted, it’s absolutely marvellous, I think it’s well-deserved.”
At the centre of the gallery in the Explosion Museum of Naval Firepower in Gosport, Hampshire, are two of the Second World War historic boats, Coastal Motor Boat CMB331 and Motor Torpedo Boat MTB71.
Immortalised as “Spitfires of the Seas”, they were often deployed in the dark, at speeds up to 35 knots.
Professor Dominic Tweddle, director general of the National Museum of the Royal Navy which operates the Explosion Museum, said: “Their service has all the elements of an incredible story, but sadly they often paid with the ultimate sacrifice.
“They were incredibly brave young men onboard what were really quite basic boats, loaded with fuel and ammunition, working at high speed, often under the cloak of darkness.
“Their service and sense of duty send a shiver down the spine and we are truly grateful to be working with the Coastal Forces Heritage Trust to open a gallery, so that their story can be shared.”