H. M. MOTOR LAUNCH 130

Author:  Joseph-Stephen Bonanno,B.A.(Hons)(Melit.)

By 1942 the western Mediterranean had become an extremely dangerous place for even the most powerful British warships. For the small, wooden, lightly armed Fairmile B Motor Launches, it was death trap which made cunning and deception a vital recipe for survival. 1 Although they lacked the speed of the Motor Torpedo Boats and Motor Gun Boats, they proved their worth time and again with their versality and ability to operate in heavy weather. Also, although they lacked the speed to deal decisively with the faster S-boote, the Fairmiles packed heavy firepower and provided a significant deterrent to the German convoy raiders. 2 The following pages are the story of one of these motor launches: H.M.M.L. 130 or simply, ML 130.

ML 130

ML 130

 

From the Order to Gibraltar

ML 130 was ordered on the 8 January 1940 for the Royal Navy. She was built by Frank Curtis Ltd., Looe in Cornwall, England and commissioned on the 9 October of that same year. ML 130 was equipped with 3-pounder MKI Hotchkiss gun, Holman Projector and 12 depth charges. Her speed was that of 20 knots. She became part of the elite 3rd Motor Launch Flotilla which was stationed at Portsmouth. Normally, the complement was that of 15: two officers, two petty officers – the coxswain and the motor mechanic – a telegraphist/signalman, two stokers (engine room ratings), and the rest seamen, some trained in gunnery and others in asdic. 3 Her first Commander was Lieutenant Edric Guy Philip Bromfield Knapton, who served from the 28 October 1940 to September 1941.

Lieutenant Edric Knapton

Lieutenant Edric Knapton

Eight launches, which formed the 3rd Motor Launch Flotilla, (ML 121, ML 126, ML 129, ML 130, ML 132, ML 134, ML 135, and ML 168) departed the United Kingdom on 12 April 1941, escorted by Lord Mountbatten’s 5th Destroyer Flotilla and arrived at Gibraltar five days later. This made them the first Royal Navy flotilla of motor launches to operate away from Britain. They were later joined by ML 459 and ML 462. At the Rock, the motor launches were assigned to do patrol escort work. For example, when the Light cruiser HMS Manchester ended up with three out of four engines inoperative, ML 130, among other motor launches, departed Gibraltar to sweep ahead of the cruiser.

A week later, ML 130 together with ML 129 and ML 168, departed Gibraltar to conduct an anti-submarine search north of the Alboran Island. On 13 November, she was called to go with other vessels and assist the damaged HMS Ark Royal.

They operated from Gibraltar until early 1942, when the Navy decided to send the 3rd Flotilla to Tobruk. The first plan was to send two boats to Malta, to be followed shortly by an additional two. If all went well, the last four would go in company. From Malta the reunited flotilla would make the further dash together to Tobruk. But the situation brought about a change of plans and the decision was taken to retain them at Malta where there was a growing need for minesweepers. 4

Voyage to Malta

The first little coastal crafts to lead the long and hazardous voyage were ML 130 with Lieutenant David Robert Hamilton Jolly in command, and ML 126 under Lieutenant Gordon
W. Stead who, after the War, wrote his fascinating memoir A Leaf Upon the Sea: A Small Ship in the Mediterranean, 1941-1943.

Among those who joined ML 130 were Sub-Lieutenant Frederick Roy Price-Fox, who was transferred from the Flower-class corvette HMS Azalea at Gibraltar to become her second in command. 5 Price-Fox left a short account of what followed.

Sub-Lieutenant Frederick Roy Price-Fox.

Sub-Lieutenant Frederick Roy Price-Fox.

The two boats were each fitted with a modern anti-aircraft gun and extra fuel tanks; their silhouettes were modified with hardwood, plywood and canvas to resemble that of an Italian motor torpedo boat. Also, they were repainted in dark Italian grey. They had to carry Italian naval ensign and the French tricolor. 6 With these alterations ML 130 and ML 126 were prepared for their seven day journey. 7 “Under cover of darkness on the 12 March, we and the rest of the flotilla headed east at roughly two-hour intervals,” said Price-Fox. “The leading couple were ourselves […] and we were the only boats to complete the trip first time.” 8

Two days into their journey (14 March), both boats encountered trouble with their hydraulic steering. ML 126 had a leak which completely drained the system and caused a small fire in the engine room. ML 130 came to her aid and then had her own troubles with low pressure in her steering system as well as an electrical problem. 9

Even during the voyage, action was taken on board both vessels so as to camouflage their true identity.

“Meanwhile, proceeding eastwards, in daylight off French-held land we flew the Spanish ensign. Off Italian ground we flew the French flag, and during the last couple of days when Italian aircraft appeared we hoisted the German ensign and had air escort for about two hours.” 10

One ruse was found particularly effective: when investigated by potentially hostile aircraft, a burly members of the crew would don a beret, sit on the deck and pretend to smoke a large cigar – actually, a rolled up piece of brown paper – to complete the “Gallic” picture. 11

On the last day, as they approached Malta at daybreak, they were joined by an escort of fighter aircraft and, under their air “umbrella” made a dash for the St Elmo Breakwater. It was only later that they discovered their flying protectors were Germans. 12 They arrived in Malta at 0720 in the morning of the 17th March 1942. 13The two motor launches swept sedately through the boom defense and were led to the submarine base.

The next two launches ML 129 (Lieutenant B. Strang) and ML 132, left Gibraltar at nightfall on March 17. However, they never reached Malta and after being four days overdue they were given up as lost. It was later found out that, after covering 1000 miles, they were detected off the Tunisian coast by Italian bombers CR12s which attacked them. ML 129 was hit in the patrol tank and a fire enveloped the whole craft. She sank in the early hours of the next day (March 22). ML 132 too was damaged; but managed to rescue the survivors of the ML 129 which lost eight of its sailors. She went to Bone, which was in Vichy French hands. They requested, under International law, to berth for 24 hours to effect repairs. The French refused and the crew were all interned. 14

With the loss of the two boats, the Admiralty decided to temporarily suspend the transfer of the rest of the 3rd Flotilla to Malta. 15 The launches at Gibraltar, now in all numbered six: ML 121 (Lt. Cdr. E.J. Strowlger, Squadron Commandant), ML 134, ML 135, ML 168, ML 459 and ML 462. Few months later (on 12 June), they all departed Gibraltar to join Convoy WS19Z (Operation Harpoon) as escorts to the oiler Kentucky which was also accompanied by Hebe, Speedy, Hythe, and Rye. Before leaving Gibraltar, the motor launches were fitted with mine sweeping gear (Oorpesa sweeps). They arrived safely at Malta on June 16. 16

The Tragic End of ML 130

Once the first two Motor Launches were operational in Malta, their duties, mainly at night, were to meet and escort British submarines in and out of harbour via the swept channel. After one such trip to shepherd two submarines out to sea, 17 ML 130 finally ran out of luck. 18

During the night of 6/7 May 1942, a mine barrier was laid by the German 3- Schnellbootflottille, few miles off the Grand Harbour of Malta. After laying the mines, the German E-boats encountered ML 130. Among those on board the latter were: David Hamilton Jolly, Frederick Roy Price-Fox, George Woreledge, Victor Fisher, John Brown, Albert Williams, James McNeill Wilson, Thomas Wilson Finlay, John Williams Middlemiss, and Leslie Norman Atherley. They were approximately a mile off St Elmo Breakwater when their boat was illuminated by shore searchlights attempting to find reported E-boats which had laid mines and which had followed ML 130 back up the swept channel. The Army were trying to draw their attention to the presence of the E-boats. 19 These vessels (among them S-31, S-34 and S-61) had tailed them in along the swept channel, and even though ML 130 did a zig-zag, all seven E-boats lay in a semi-circle around them from the beam to beam. 20

Furious night action ensued, in which, according to Price-Fox, the Germans lost three of their more powerful vessels. However, inevitably, ML 130 was overwhelmed just few miles from home: Four of her crew lost their lives, 21 eight were severely injured and one man unharmed. 22 The nine survivors were rescued by the German vessels, who also captured charts and secret material. Contrary to what Price-Fox had boasted, on the German side there was only one slightly wounded man on board the S-31. ML 130 sunk by gun fire and scuttling charges, in position 35.55N 14.37E. On the other hand, German flotilla commander Friedrich Kemnade reported that the following night, the same E-boats returned to lay mines off the coast of Malta.

Friedrich Kemnade commander of the German 3. Schnellbootflottille.

Friedrich Kemnade commander of the German 3. Schnellbootflottille.

Rescue

Coastal watch reported seeing vigorous exchanges of fire between vessels, around six miles off the Grand Harbour, which began at 0143 hours and lasted for some twenty minutes. Observers concluded that ML 130 must have disturbed enemy E-boats engaged in mine-laying activities. 23

One Beaufighter (Malta Night Fighter), while on patrol to intercept enemy aircraft, also observed an exchange of fire between E-boats and a speed boat rescue service craft. 24

At 0307 hours there was a loud explosion and a vessel which appeared to be ML 130 was seen burning continuously until 0500 hours. HSL 128 was called-out before dawn to search for ML 130 which was overdue from her patrol. At 0407 hours Pilot Officer George R. Crockett left base to investigate flames reported at sea nine miles north-east of Delimara Point. HSL 128 reached position at 0430 hours and the search commenced. There were two fires still burning furiously about a quarter of a mile apart and wreckage spread over an area of more than half a mile square. No survivors were found: only wreckage and part of a Carley Float were recouped, leading to the suspicion that ML 130 had exploded and was lost. HSL 128 was recalled to base at 0554 hours, after a trip of 33 miles. 25

HSL107 returns to Malta with ML 130’s Carley Float.

HSL107 returns to Malta with ML 130’s Carley Float.

A pair of Hurricanes were dispatched during the morning to search again for the missing ML 130; they were recalled early when two Messerschmitt fighter bombers were reported attacking Kalafrana. 26

An intelligence report which was later picked up suggested that the launch’s commander and nine other crew members, several of them injured, were taken prisoners by the German E-boats off the coast of Malta. Hence, four of the launch crew were unaccounted for.

In his testimony, Price-Fox described his injuries: he had shrapnel in his head, shoulder, arm and right leg. He was in hospital for eight weeks in Augusta, Sicily, before he and his fellow crew members were sent by train to a prisoners of war (POW) camp in Germany where they were held until the end of the war. 27

David Robert Hamilton Jolly, ML 130’s Commander, also recounted what took place in the early hours of 7 May 1942: ML 130 was attacked by half a dozen German E-boats. When the Germans thought ML 130 subdued, S-61 closed to demand surrender. Hamilton Jolly saw his chance: Replacing a wounded gunner, he and another seaman pumped shells from their 3- pounder at close range into the stopped E-boat. However, the other E-boats acted immediately; the Germans boarded the ML 130 and Hamilton Jolly and his men were taken as prisoners. The ML 130 was subsequently blown up and the damaged E-boat abandoned. 28 In Sicily, Hamilton Jolly, who had been wounded in the knee, was severely grilled: the Germans thought that his association with the Metropolitan Police – which they knew about
– had something to do with Intelligence. They also quizzed him about the new quick firing
gun he had used to put the S-61 out of action. 29

David Robert Hamilton Jolly and Frederick Roy Price-Fox were awarded the Distinguished Service Cross (DSC), for their stout defense. Victor J. Fisher, James McNeil Wilson and Leslie
N. Atherley received the Distinguished Service Medal (DSM). John Brown was mentioned in
despatches (MID) posthumously for his gallantry act.

Although ML 130 was seen from the shores and spotted from the sky, the help her crew desperately expected on the fateful morning of 7 May 1942, arrived too late. Tragically, for four of her members still in their prime years, their life was brought brutally to an end.

 

Grave of Thomas W. Finlay, at Syracuse War Cemetery, Sicily, Plot III. E. 12.

Grave of Thomas W. Finlay, at Syracuse War Cemetery, Sicily, Plot III. E. 12.

 

Notes:

  1. ‘They Sailed Under Enemy Protection’, in Naval News April 1996, p. 23.
  2. Edward Lambah-Stoate, Called to Arms: one family’s war, from the Battle of Britain to Burma, (2011), p. 139.
  3. Gordon W. Stead, A Leaf Upon the Sea: A Small Ship in the Mediterranean, 1941-1943, (1988), p. 17.
  4. John A. Mizzi, Malta at War, vol. V, p. 1439.
  5. ‘They Sailed Under Enemy Protection’, in Naval News April 1996, p. 23.
  6. Gordon W. Stead, A Leaf Upon the Sea: A Small Ship in the Mediterranean, 1941-1943, (1988), p. 40.
  7. They Sailed Under Enemy Protection’, in Naval News April 1996, p. 23.
  8. ibid.
  9. Gordon W. Stead, A Leaf Upon the Sea: A Small Ship in the Mediterranean, 1941-1943, (1988), p. 48.
  10. ‘They Sailed Under Enemy Protection’, in Naval News April 1996, p. 23.
  11. ibid
  12. ibid
  13. John A. Mizzi, Malta at War, vol. V, p. 1439.
  14. ibid
  15. John A. Mizzi, Malta at War, vol. V, p. 1439.
  16. ibid
  17. There are no reported submarines that left Malta on 7 May 1942, therefore, it is more likely that ML 130
    was on night patrol.
  18. ‘They Sailed Under Enemy Protection’, in Naval News April 1996, p. 23.
  19. ibid
  20. ibid
  21. Brown, Williams, Finlay, and Middlemiss. Finally was buried in Syracuse War Cemetery, Sicily III. E. 12.
  22. ‘They Sailed Under Enemy Protection’, in Naval News April 1996, p. 23.
  23. Peter Elliott, The Cross and the Ensign A Naval History of Malta 1798-1979, (1994), p. 161.
  24. Malta: War Diary, 6 May 1942.
  25. Frederick R. Galea, Call-Out A War Diary of air/sea rescue operations at Malta, (2002), p. 152.
  26. Frederick R. Galea, Call-Out A War Diary of air/sea rescue operations at Malta, (2002), p. 152.
  27. When he was liberated, Price-Fox returned home to be appointed Commanding Officer of the minesweeping trawler HMS Redwood, to be followed by two years’ service in the Far East. He retired from the RNR as a lieutenant commander. ‘They Sailed Under Enemy Protection’, in Naval News April 1996, p. 23.
  28. Gordon W. Stead, A Leaf Upon the Sea, A Small Ship in the Mediterranean 1941-1943, (1988), pp. 64-77.
  29. Gordon W. Stead, A Leaf Upon the Sea, A Small Ship in the Mediterranean 1941-1943, (1988), p. 64-77.

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