By Malcolm Knox – Former Commanding Officer of MTB 743
I was commander of one of those Navy Motor Torpedo Boats, better known, I guess, as MTBs, which did such a tremendous job of keeping the supply lines open to Britain in the latter part of the war, especially after 1943. There were two flotillas of these Canadian MTBs, the 65th and the 29th, which operated in the English Channel.
Offensively, our job was to stalk the convoy lanes of Holland, Belgium, and France to intercept German coastal convoys. Then, because the German E-Boats were doing exactly the same thing down the coast of England, we were to intercept these E-Boats as they were coming to attack the U.K. convoys coming down with supplies for England. Most of them were colliers loaded with supplies of coal. It took 25 of these ships every day just to keep London in coal so that the power plants could keep going. The Germans’ purpose was to send these colliers to the bottom.
The Royal Navy had some MTBs that needed to be manned and there were many Canadians serving with the RN who had served with great courage and dash. So it was, that the Canadian navy decided to man these two flotillas and protect the shipping in the Channel. We were all Canadians. The direct Canadian participation in this was from 1943 to the war’s end and, of course, before we came in, all of the coastal forces were an integral part of the Royal Navy and they were in operation from the beginning of the war, doing the same kind of work.
There were nine of our MTBs in each of these two flotillas and I think you might say we did a respectable job. The majority of our COs received DSCs and, in fact, one of them is as decorated as any Canadian. He came up with three Distinguished Service Crosses, and two Mentions.
One of the biggest problems was trying to authenticate your results. You’d fire your torpedoes or get into a gun action, and of course you didn’t linger around to count the results because thy enemy was hot on your trail, especially if you were over on their coast. Your first purpose was to get in and strike them, and then get away safely to live for another day.
We were able to sink quite a few ships of varying sizes and types. There were some coastal craft, opposition E-Boats, and other defensive craft of the German navy. All in all, we managed to get rid of a pretty large number of their boats.
When I talk about their E-Boats, I’m talking about the German counterparts of our MTBs. If you were talking about American boats, the counterparts would be the PT-Boats. The three of them are in the same class. There were two types, one that ran 70 feet long and the others were 110 feet. The smaller ones were manned with 20 men and the bigger ones with about 35.
Before the war, we were just a bunch of Canadian kids from farms and small towns and cities across the country, most of whom would never expect to move in our lifetimes more than a couple of hundred miles from the places we were born. And yet here we were overseas, on boats in the English Channel shooting big guns and tiying to send German ships to the bottom. It was strange. The really odd thing was that in the Canadian navy we had such a big proportion of boys from central Canada and the Prairies. Aboard my craft, for example, the bulk of them came from the Prairie provinces and they made wonderful sailors. I don’t know why this should have been so, but when you look way back into their beginnings, their forefathers had had the courage and fortitude to set out to make a life in a new land and I guess these lads, their descendants, had some of that same determination and intestinal fortitude. Perhaps a little bit of that original salt water was still flowing in their veins.
Those of us in the coastal forces, although part of the larger navy, always looked at ourselves as a little bit separate. We weren’t a large group and we fit into a somewhat smaller niche, so as a result of that, the lot of us always felt very close to each other. We worked together, we stayed together, we played together and we were very interdependent. In our line of work, it was necessary to have complete co-operation and understanding of one another so that we could survive. The thing is, too, that you remain buddies for ever. Years can pass without seeing one another, but when you do you can just pick up where you left off.
It was a fairly dangerous line of work and there were many close calls for all of us. You know, when you’re sitting on top of 5,000 gallons of 100 octane gasoline, and when you get through with a gun fight and find that there are marks of tracer bullets that have passed into that area but didn’t cause an explosion, you know that your number wasn’t called. In battle we were on the edge of our seats all the time. As they say, there are no atheists in the foxholes, and to paraphrase that, there were no atheists in the MTBs either.
The one I was in charge of was 100 feet long, carried four torpedoes and was powered by four Packard engines that developed 5,000 horsepower. It had two automatic six-pounder guns, one fore and one aft, twin oerlicons, and two twin point-5 turrets plus four 303s dual mounting. They travelled in the vicinity of, supposedly, close to 40 miles an hour, but as time went on and they loaded us down with more equipment and more ammunition, it slowed us down a bit.
As you can imagine, there were no eight-hour days on the MTBs. We would leave just before sunset to reach the other coast of the channel under cover of darkness. and then we would try to get away from there with time enough so that the German air force didn’t catch you in mid-channel after the sun came up. Back on the coast of England. we would start right in to get the craft ready for another outing when the sun went down again. We’d catch a little sleep before that, of course. That was our drill all the time, and the only days we weren’t out was when there were engine repairs to do. or when the weather didn’t permit. If the seas were so high that you couldn’t have a stable base for a torpedo attack, there was no point in heading over.
In numbers of craft, the Canadian navy was the third-largest navy in the world at the end of the war, and it did a wonderful job in winning the Second World War. It’s rather a shame that it has been allowed to deteriorate the way it has since that time.