This book looks at the work of Britain's Light Coastal Forces in the North Sea and Channel during the Second World War, and was written by the famous conservationist Sir Peter Scott, the only son of Scott of the Antarctic, who during the war served reached the rank of Lieutenant-Commander, and commander of one of the Motor Torpedo Boats whose actions are described in the text.
The book was written very soon after the events it describes, coming out in time for the Christmas season of 1945. This has a number of effects on the nature of the work, the most obvious of which is that the German side of the story is almost entirely absent. This lack of access to German records also means that the fate of some of the boats was not know when the book was being written, even for events that took place relatively early in the war, such as the raid on St. Nazaire. The only source of information on the German side of the story comes from German POWs captured during the war or from official German press releases, introduced mainly to demonstrate how inaccurate they were. Perhaps the best sign of the short timescale involved in the original production of the book is that Scott didn't have time to integrate extra information provided by Allies prisoners of war returning home at the end of the war into the main text, instead including it in the footnotes.
As one might expect Scott's closeness to the events described in the book does rather reduce his objectivity, but this is more than made up for by the freshness and enthusiasm of the account. Scott successfully brings us into the small-scale and close-up world of the Light Coastal Forces (not least by including some of his own evocative paintings of battles at sea, where the darkness of the night is illuminated only by lines of tracer, flames and star shells).
Scott made a number of attempts to make sure that the reader didn't get carried away with the excitement of the events described, most successfully in the introduction, where he sets out his thoughts on the cost of war, and asks the reader to return to these words at the end of the book. His attempts within the text to make the reader realise how dull life in Coastal Forces could be are rather less successful, inevitably being overshadowed by the more exciting passages.
This is one of the most immediate and vibrant accounts of service during the Second World War that I have ever read. The freshness and immediacy of the text more than makes up for any flaws introduced because of its early date (work on the account actually began in 1944 when Scott joined the D-Day planning team).
I: Admiralty Communiqué. The M.T.Bs. set out. A new target.
II: The opposing forces. The evolution of the craft. The birth of the M.G.B. The crews and the maintenance staff. The Senior Officer of the flotilla. To know every detail of the plan. The battle is renewed.
III: The enemy was too far away. The last and the smallest. A scene of tragedy and desolation. A brush with trawlers. The answer was 'No'. Interception off Blanc Nex. The autumn of 1941 in the straits. Scharnhorst and Gneisenau. An impossible situation.
IV: The Motor Gunboats arrive. To lie in wait for E boats. They belonged to Bruno. The electric train became an electric hair. E boat alley
V: The raid on S. Nazaire. The approach. The storm breaks. Nearing the Old Mole. A murderous cross fire. The starboard column. Quite at home in the river. 'A silly thing to do'. The destroyers in action. 'We picked up the Lizard'. The aftermath.
VI: An introduction to Coastal Forces. Against fearful odds. 'Put away the coffee'. The active season. The Nelson touch. The pace increases. The menace from the air. From the Völkischer Beobacter. What really happened.
VII: Air/ Sea rescue. The battle spreads westward. Instruders at Cherbourg. The first of the 'D' boats. The passage of the Schwabenland. 'Gay laughter from below'. Decision by ramming. The attack on the enemy's van. The next night.
VIII: To implement the threat. Dieppe: the force sets out. The touch down. Maintaining a Smoke-screen. 'Can we help?'. The sinking of the Berkeley. The way home.
IX: 'Working-up' was a strenuous business. A master of the unhurried approach. Perfect in conception and execution. Unobserved attack. Ships that pass in the night. An important target. The Coup de Grâce. Great confusion amongst the enemy.
X: Fresh fields. They never knew what hit them. Co-operation in the Straits. Organisation ashore. Prowling up from behind. The M.G.B. did not succeed in passing the E boat. 'Indeed a misfortune of war'
XI: 'The Four Horseman', 'Down below two crumps were felt', 'This engagement lasted for three hours'. 'Hit in the small of the back'. 'Approach by bluff'. 'Having lots of fun, come and join us'. 'Watching an unsuspecting enemy'. Engage the enemy more closely.
XII: In the Baie de la Seine. They looked like a flock of widgeon. An exercise in towing. Time and the phosphorescence conspired against us. A willy-nilly turn to starboard. 'What ships?'
XIII: Extravagant claims. M.T.Bs. of the Royal Netherlands Navy. 'A bit of gumshoe work'. 'Buying a packet'. An E boat sortie. Another mass attack. With odds of six to one. 'In the spirit of the greatest sailor of all'.
XIV: The less lucky ones. The task of minelaying. On the inside of the turn. Amongst the Leads. An anti-salvage operation.
XV: Plans for an invasion. The Portsmouth Plot. Defence and offence. D-Day. The field of battle. The air-raid.
XVI: One flank secure. 'The night train'. The Western Area. The P.T. boats in action. The last weeks of Cap d'Antifer. La Combattante again.
XVII: Tormenting the patrols. Another winter. The attack pressed home. The last adventure of M.T.B. 347. The end in sight. 'The true glory'.
Author: Peter Scott
Year: 2009 edition, 1945 original