Seeing is believing

Whereas the First World War at sea is best remembered for the actions of the larger warships, a large proportion of the everyday duties of the Royal Navy was performed by smaller motor launches. An example of this is the actions of ML 357 which attacked three German submarines in the final months of 1917. These attacks formed the contents of a letter, revealed by Rick Mayall, which was written by the commander of the motor launch in January 1918.

On 9 April 1915, the British Admiralty placed an order througn Canadian Vickers for fifty anti-submarine boats to be built by Elco of Bayonne, New Jersey, USA. These boats were seventy-five feet long, powered by a petrol engine capable of driving the boat at nineteen knots and were armed with a single 13-pounder gun ana, in most cases, also carried depth charges. Each had a crew of eight.

Though they performed well over the years, these motor launches, or «MLs», of which 580 were ordered in total (though their specifications changed in later models), were found to be difficult boats to operate. To enable them to achieve the required speed, every possible measure was undertaken to reduce weight. This included adopting a very small rudder which made it difficult to maintain course in a following sea, and the sharp bow and cut-away stern meant that the boat dipped severely in heavy seas.

ML 357 was part of the second batch of boats ordered by the Admiralty. She was eleven feet longer than the original motor launches and a 3-pounder replaced the bigger gun of earlier models.

She operated out of Falmouth, in the Auxiliary Patrol’s Zone XIV area, from the parent ship HMS Dreel Castle.

On 15 October 1917, Lieutenant James Buller Kitson DSO, RNVR became her new skipper and that same night the boat was detailed to help safeguard a convoy of French ships.

«Sometime after dark a torpedo crossed my bow about 10 yards off and hit a ship about / mile inside of me,» Kitson subsequently wrote, describing the events of that night to his brother. «I immediately followed that wake of the submarine which must have just dived and its wake was clearly visible. I went ahead of it and dropped 2 [depth charges] and after the second one had exploded a large explosion was heard well under the water and which shook up us to the extent that I thought at first we had been torpedoed. However when we went about and came back we came through quantities of oil etc. but it was so dark and so rough we did not see any wreckage.»

ML357 then went to the rescue of the men from the stricken ship, which was firing distress rockets. Kitson and his crew was able to save all twenty-six French crewmen.

Nothing more was seen of the submarine and Kitson presumed it had gone down. Though the Admiralty told Kitson that, judging from the report he submitted, the German vessel may not have sunk, he was informed that Naval Intelligence believed the submarine lost. This, according to Kitson, was his first victim.

ML 357’s, and Kitson’s second victim, was on 15 November 1917. This time the motor launch was on a hydrophone patrol with another ML, searching for submarines.

«We heard a submarine and depth charged it and afterwards heard it again and saw its periscope break water,» ran the words of Kitson’s personal account. «So we depth charged it again. Then there was silence for three hours then we heard it again and saw its periscope again so I waltzed in and pipped him all round. Nothing was heard again; we remained hydrophoning for 3 days the weather being dead calm. Tons of oil and 15 fathoms of water. We had the whole area swept and divers down but nothing found.»

Once again Kitson was informed by his friend in Naval Intelligence that it was believed that a German submarine had been lost. Two up.

The third incident was on 12 December and was, as Kitson remarked, much more thrilling.

This time ML 357 was on duty screening a French Coal Trade Convoy which had left Penzance around the middle of the afternoon, sailing for Ushant. The ships in such convoys were usually organised in pairs or three abreast, all of which was led by a wireless-equipped trawler. Another Auxiliary Patrol trawler was stationed on each beam and finally a fourth brought up the rear. Outside the convoy, beyond the port and starboard trawlers, two MLs on each side kept station.

After the incident on 15 October when the torpedo had ran across him, Kitson had decided that rather than just potter along at eight knots to keep pace with the convoy, it would be far safer if he travelled faster and zigzagged. Furthermore, the speed of the motor launches was not being fully utilized. If the MLs were allowed to search beyond the convoy they stood a better chance of detecting waiting enemy submarines. He put his views to the Admiralty, remarking that ships were being torpedoed after dark on pitch black nights. This could only be achieved by a submarine that was on the surface or at least with the conning tower above the surface so that the crew could keep a look out for shipping. The way that Kitson saw the situation was that U-boats would wait on the surface using their hydrophones to pick up passing convoys. Once a convoy had been detected the submarines would keep out of sight until the ships had passed and then steam up behind and attack a ship by aiming for its stern light, which all the ships carried. To add weight to his argument, Kitson pointed out that in all the convoys which had lost a ship, it was one of the last ships that was the victim.

Despite his reasoning, his idea that the motor launches should zigzag in search of the enemy was not approved by the Admiralty and the MLs continued to travel along sedately at the speed of the convoy. The Admiralty’s rejection of his idea, though, did not stop Kitson. After dark he would disobey orders and go off on his own and zigzag around looking for submarines.

This was the case on the night of 12 December 1917. The sea was absolutely calm with no moon and a very clear, frosty sky. ML 357 was operating on her own on the port side of a convoy with two other MLs on the starboard side. Patches of fog began to develop which gradually became more widespread and denser.

The Falmouth patrol boats normally travelled with each convoy for fifty or sixty miles before handing over responsibility to the adjacent patrol and ML 357, being about fifty miles from Penzance, had approximately one hour more to travel that night before it could turn for home.

«I said to the man at the wheel, ‘keep her out a bit farther this trip’ and at the same time I rang down for a few more revs making our speed about 15 knots. We then ran into a thick patch of fog and I was just thinking of telling the man at the wheel to go right about and steer in for the convoy, when we came out of the fog, and there right in front of us, not more than 50 yards ahead, was the most enormous submarine I have ever seen or dreamt of, lying perfectly motionless on the surface, broadside to us, and I was certain she had men on the deck.

«She had 2 big guns (22-pounders I think), and I made sure in a flash it would be an action, and she would only have to fire at us to pip us altogether, so I put on a full speed to make it more difficult for her to hit us, and to make it easier for me to manoeuvre, at the same time we opened fire just like hell, but as you know a 3-pounder with common shell (we had no armour piercing) even at close range, as their conning towers are 3-inch armour and they have 2 or 11/2-inch belt covering them down to the water line except the bow and stern. It was a case of going hard to port or starboard to clear her as it was too late to stop.

«We had 18 knots by then, and whichever way I chose [it would] put our gun out of action, so I chose hard-a-port which would bring me across her bow, however, the submarine started to go ahead and dive … and as our boats won’t reverse engines direct and drop depth charges it was too late for me to avoid her I said, ‘here goes, we will ram the brute’, and I took the wheel, all the while we were firing and getting hits on him and went at her choosing a place as far forward to clear the armour belt and gun.

«She was submerging rapidly but I rammed her full bang right where I wanted; there was the most almighty crash and a loud funny sounding explosion and for a second we stuck then cleared him the other side of him. He was then semi-submerged [and] as our bows only draw 4.6 [feet] we did not hit him till just where our propeller shafts come out about under our ward room, so we really hit him in our strongest place; our propellers were bent all to blazes also the shafts and the rudder.»

After this there was silence. The gunner on the launch’s 3-pounder managed to get one shot off at the conning tower and the crew could hear the submarine racing off at speed, her wake clearly visible.

ML 357, on the other hand, was badly damaged. «We had immediately filled right up to the after engine room bulk head, and the stern went under water and the bows up.» The crew quickly switched the depth charges dropping gear to ‘safe’.

With the propeller and shafts bent the engines would not move and for a few «pretty awful» moments the crew thought the boat was going to sink immediately. Kitson ordered life belts and the life boat to be deployed whilst he fired off two red Very flares which was the warning signal to the convoy to scatter. Then what Kitson called a most marvellous thing occurred -the submarine reappeared almost alongside ML 357!

«You could have thrown a brick at her. She came up like a large cork and remained perfectly motionless and seemed to be starting to sink again, and we all noticed a most peculiar thing, she was broadside to us right on one side just a plain curved object with no conning tower or guns showing, so we immediately opened fire again (we were all still at the gun) and we simply plugged her, 6 shots in quick time and every one a hit. You couldn’t miss it, so close you could see the explosions; and all the time she sank and was quickly submerged, that was the end.»

ML357 was still afloat and the engine room bulkhead was holding. The crew was able to start the pumps and began dispelling the water she had taken on. Nevertheless the boat was immobile and still in danger of going down. Kitson fired off distress rockets and he ordered most of the crew into the dinghy. He then took up a position on the bows, shooting off rockets and Very lights with his leading deck hand.

Luckily the trawler that was escorting the convoy on the port side had seen the explosions from the engagement with the submarine and was already heading at full speed towards the sound of the gunfire. By this time ML 357 had listed to starboard and was low in the water and to the approaching trawler the motor launch appeared to be a submarine. She loaded her gun and aimed to ram ML 357. Kitson had just one white Very light left and when he realised that the trawler was aiming straight for him he fired this last flare. «It lit the whole sea up all round and showed them what we were and they went hard over but I can tell you they scraped by us at full speed and nearly rammed us, at any rate their wash nearly did for us.»

Kitson was able to pass a wire across and when secured the crew transferred to the trawler. The two MLs from the starboard side then appeared and Kitson, as senior officer, ordered them to sweep the area with their hydrophones for any sign of the U-boat. This they did for forty-eight hours without result.

ML 357 was towed back to shore and beached at high tide. This caused the last remaining bulkhead to burst and she sank. After several hours work ML 357 was sufficiently patched up for her to be taken back to dry dock where it was found that she had eight large holes in her stern bottom, both propellers were bent and the rudder damaged.

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Kitson was called before the Admiralty to give his report. They «laughed at me and said that it was impossible for such a tin pot little ship to damage a super submarine, much less turn it over on its side.» When Kitson insisted that he had the evidence of all the crew and his SubLieutenant, they conceded that «it might have been a fluke».

Kitson reasoned that whilst under normal circumstances the motor launch would not have been able to sink a submarine by ramming, when ML 357 struck the German boat she was semisubmerged with only about three feet of the conning tower showing. This would have meant that the U-boat’s tanks woulc still have been at least partially flooded, making her unstable and therefore more likely to be knocked over by the impact of the motor launch hitting her at speed. «To hell with the long-haired Admiralty experts,» said Kitson, dismissing the board’s findings. «I know I sank the submarine absolutely no doubt.»

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A post-war examination of German U-boat losses revealed that none were lost through the action of Kitson and ML 357. Nevertheless, Kitson firmly believed that his unorthodox tactics of zigzagging beyond convoys scared off enemy submarines on a number of occasions.

Though it is now evident that ML 357 did not sink any German submarines, Lieutenant James Buller Kitson was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross to add to his Distinguished Service Ordei Announced in The London Gazette on 22 February 1918, the award was made «for services in action with enemy submarines «.

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