Allied Coastal Forces of World War Two

Allied Coastal Forces of World War Two: Volume 2 Vosper MTBs and US Elcos. By John Lambert and Al Ross. Seaforth Publishing, Barnsley, 2019.

Reviewed by Tim Coyle

VOLUME 1 of ‘Allied Coastal Forces’ (previously reviewed) covered the British Fairmile Motor Torpedo Boat (MTB) designs and US Submarine Chasers. Volume 2 is devoted to the products of the British Vosper and the US Elco (Electric Launch and Navigation Company) companies. The Vosper section comprises a myriad of Vosper and Packard (engine) drawings and photographs from Vosper-Thornycroft archives while the Elco Patrol Torpedo (PT) boats are detailed through the contributions of many well-known naval illustrators and historians and the resources of the PT Boat Museum of Fall River, Massachusetts and Memphis, Tennessee.

Fast attack naval craft originated in the development of the planing hull and high-speed petrol engines of early 20th century racing sports boats. The British Thornycroft company patented a stepped hydroplane 1872 and, combined with that company’s reciprocating engines and Charles Parsons early steam turbines with high power to weight ratios, developed easily driven hulls of narrow beam and rounded sections. This was demonstrated by Thornycroft’s pioneering torpedo boat HMS LIGHTNING of 1876 and the forerunner of the destroyer (which was originally designated a ‘torpedo-boat destroyer’). 

Motorboat racing at the turn of the 20th century stimulated high speed boat design. The hard chine planing hull type emerged in 1909 which were used in the British Coastal Motor Boats (CMBs) of World War I.

Post-war retrenchment saw a lull in fast boat development; however, improvements in aero engines and a revival of boat racing in the 1930s attracted Vosper to this technology. This company had specialised in small boat design and construction for naval and civilian applications since 1870. Innovative and flexible, it had built a multi-skilled workforce over its existence. From 1931 Vosper turned to fast boat development through the initiative of Commander Du Cane, RN. Du Cane, a speed enthusiast on land, sea and air, drove Vosper to look seriously at the fast attack boat concept. The following years saw some frustrations as the company competed with rival British Power Boats for Royal Navy favour to design a practical MTB. The Vosper private venture, MTB 102, was a development of the company’s hard chine semi-planing naval craft used as captains’ pinnaces and related high-speed fleet work. MTB 102 displaced 32 tons, had a length of 68 feet and could achieve a maximum speed of 41 kts. Submitted to the Admiralty for extensive gun and torpedo trials, MTB 102 is regarded as the prototype of Royal Navy MTBs.

Elco, an established private yacht constructor by the beginning of  WWI, built over 700 motor launches for the British, French and Italian navies during that war. Interwar construction of fast boats for private owners stood the company in good stead to design and build a total of 385 PT boats in World War II.

Vosper’s history and move into MTBs, through the innovative MTB 102, is very well documented and is followed by a full coverage of the company’s designs and construction details from 1938 to 1945. As with Allied Coastal Forces Volume 1, the range and scale of drawings, data and photographs are superb. Every possible aspect of Vosper MTBs is covered – hull construction, engineering, weapons configurations, wheelhouse arrangements – the topics are so extensive that it is difficult to identify a particularly outstanding example.

Perhaps one such example of those brave little ships is MTB 74. Through the initiative of its commanding officer, Sub-Lieutenant R Wynn, this boat was modified to enable torpedo firing over a net defence system protecting major warships. The plan was to attack the German battle cruiser SCHARNHORST lying in Brest. The boat’s superstructure was cut down and the two torpedo tubes were sited right forward and elevated to allow clearance for the torpedoes to be fired at close range over the net. SCHARNHORST’s ‘Channel Dash’ robbed Wynn of this opportunity; however, MTB 74 was diverted to the St Nazaire raid where the boat distinguished itself under Wynn’s command but was destroyed in action and the heroic Wynn captured. 

Equal space in the book is devoted to the magnificent Elco 70, 77- and 80-foot PT boats. The 70- and 77-foot PTs are typically American with the pilot houses styled in the streamlined mode of the late 1930s. 

Originally published in 1993, this is a re-issued edition by Seaforth Publishing. As such the chapter devoted to MTB and PT survivors is dated, but even in 1993 few boats remained; several ex- MTB houseboat conversions in Britain and one Elco preserved in the US. This is unsurprising given the mass extinction of the types post-war. We have however, these highly detailed studies of the Vospers and Elcos which, through the many photographs of the boats at high speed and at rest, give us of later generations an impression of the dash and spirit of these craft.

While essentially a technical work, one chapter gives a taste of operational life in Coastal Forces entitled ‘Free French Vosper MTBs: Free French naval forces involvement in Coastal Forces craft in home waters’. Details of service and the operational adventures in the French unit are absorbing, not the least of which was the alcohol issue. While the MTBs were crewed by French personnel, Royal Navy telegraphists and radar operators were carried. The RN ratings could not receive the daily rum tot; however, they were compensated by the twice-daily French wine issue of a quarter litre of vin ordinaire with main meals (vive la difference!).

For modellers, boat construction historians and those who simply like big fast boats in action ‘Allied Coastal Forces’ Volume 2 is a must have book. 

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