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For more information and background relating to the ships of Coastal Forces, see -cfv.org.uk

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The 'Little Ships'

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The term 'Little Ships' was coined in 1943, by journalist Gordon Holman who travelled to Saint-Nazaire on board MGB 314. It's a rather sympathetic term for vessels which could hardly have been less well-suited to the job they were asked to do. Constructed of wood, fuelled by high-octane petrol, slow and poorly-armed, the Motor Launches stood little chance against either enemy ships or well-protected shore-defences. Given the distance to be travelled, extra fuel tanks had to be mounted on deck, and in an attempt to improve the anti-aircraft defences of the 20th and 28th Flotilla boats, a single 20mm Oerlikon cannon was mounted forward of the bridge, and a second on the after deck. Ammunition for these was in short supply and had to be shared between the various ships. Supplementing these light cannon were an assortment of Lewis and Vickers light machine-guns mounted either amidships and/or on the bridge structure. Steering was hydraulic, which meant that shrapnel or shot piercing the pipes could leave the boats reliant on only their clumsy tiller-steering. In the case of the single gunboat, although similarly constructed, there was more speed, but less range which meant she had to be towed. She was also much better armed, with a Vickers 2-pounder forward, and a Rolls-Royce 2-pounder aft. Amidships she was equipped with two power-operated .5" turrets. Failures and hydraulic leaks, however, soon reduced her firepower to the forward gun only. While a second MGB would have been most welcome, the fleet instead also towed a 70' MTB which had been adapted, but not used, to attack the battle-cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, in Brest. She carried two motorless torpedoes high on the foredeck, each packed with 1,800 pounds of delayed-action explosives, but had to be almost upon her target before these could be used effectively. Added at the last moment, the four MLs of the 7th Flotilla, armed with twin torpedo tubes abaft the bridge, retained their antiquated Hotchkiss 3-pounder forward.

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MGB 314: Headquarters ship. Damaged in action: scuttled later

MTB 74: Sunk post-action with heavy loss of life

ML 298: Sunk while manoeuvring off the Old Entrance

ML 306: Captured following action with German destroyer

ML 307: Failed to land at the Old Mole: returned to UK

ML 341: Forced to return early due to engine-problems

ML 443: Failed to land at the Old Mole; returned to UK

ML 446: Failed to land at the Old Mole; scuttled later

ML 447: Sunk while attempting to land at the Old Mole

ML 457: Landed troops at the Old Mole: sunk by enemy action

ML 192: Badly damaged; burned out south of the Old Mole

ML 262: Sunk while attempting to withdraw

ML 267: Sunk between the Old Entrance and the Old Mole

ML 268: Blown up, astern of HMS Campbeltown

ML 156: Damaged in action: scuttled later

ML 160: Rescued crew of ML 447: returned to UK

ML 177: Sunk post-action with heavy loss of life

ML 270: Damaged in action: scuttled later

The Fairmile 'B' Motor Launch

The Vosper Thornycroft 70' Motor Torpedo Boat

The Fairmile 'C' Gunboat

Construction and Armament

In Action during 'Chariot'

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Top left, Commander Robert Ryder, VC, RN, commander of the Raid's Naval component. Top right, Able Seaman Bill Savage, VC, RN, awarded his country's highest honour in recognition not only of his own exploits at MGB 314's forward gun, but also of the courage and fortitude of all the small ships' crews. Bill, sadly, was killed at his gun almost within sight of safety. Bob Ryder, along with the gunboat's captain Lieutenant Dunstan Curtis, DSC, RNVR, survived the Raid and went on to become part of Commander Ian Fleming's secret Intelligence-gathering organisation, 30 Assault Unit.

(For Curtis, operations related to Intelligence were nothing new: prior to Saint-Nazaire his gunboat had been heavily involved in running agents into, and out of, northern Brittany for SOE and MI6.)

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