Back in the mid 1970s we had a boat at Brundall marina on the Norfolk Broads. It was a standard marina, nothing fancy, but functional. I was around seven or eight, and before I was put on Skarsten duties I went for a wander one day. Past the line of boats on hard standing, past tinnies man with his big old metal boat, past his excitable tan and white spaniel, past two silent goats laying on the path, and around the corner towards the river and slipway.
The ground at this point turned grassy with trees to the right making a small shaded area. I went further in to the treed area, past a sign that said ‘Sea Scouts’ and discovered a huge dark grey boat, like nothing else on the marina and more than twice the length of most of the other boats. It had a silent presence, nobody around it. It sat, watchman like, and had ‘102’ painted on the side, but was a bit unkempt. I took a terrible photo and couldn’t even fit it all in the frame.
Sometimes the boat was there, sometimes its mooring was empty. I was told not to go near it, so all my questions remained unanswered and we left the marina a year or so later.
40+ years later I asked on this very blog if anyone recognised the boat in my picture, and three people identified her as MTB102 (feel free to remind me who you were, I owe you a thank you). She is an important wartime boat, as will become clear.
Better than that she still exists and is now looked after by a trust at a different marina. I wrote to the trust with a membership fee, my terrible 70s picture and asked if it might be possible to visit her. I received a letter back that my picture is from the time she had just come back from filming “The Eagle has Landed” and that yes it is possible to see her.
Visiting is by appointment only, so a winter visit was arranged while the boat was in her shed for refurbishment. I and a fellow GP member drove there on the coldest day of the year, arriving an hour before dusk to be met by Richard Basey, the gentleman who looks after MTB102.
We walked in to the big shed on her port side. She was long and plainer than I remembered. The additions from the 1970s, now removed, were from a series of private owners and adaptations for the filming. But she now has torpedo tube replicas which were previously missing. The view from her starboard side though hit me full in the face, dragging me back into my childhood. I expected that, but not the force of it, like a hurricane threatening to knock me to the ground. I’ll do here what I did then and put that reaction in a locked box at the back of my mind and get on with the job in hand. Problem is it has a habit of seeping out of the box like a mist for some time afterwards.
So on to some facts. MTB102 is 68 feet long, and has a 14’ 9” beam. The top part of her hull (bulkhead) is made from diagonal mahogany planking, double layered, making it 2½” thick. The bottom planking, from memory, is 3” thick.
She was 80 years old last year, having been built and launched in 1937 by Vosper as a prototype designed for the needs of the Admiralty. She had three 18 cylinder 57 litre Italian Isotta Fraschini engines of 1100 bhp each. These produced, apparently very loudly, a top speed of 47.8 knots (55mph) although unofficially 50 knots. When loaded her speed was slightly less, around 43 knots. The fuel tank for each engine could carry 330 Imperial Gallons. She also had two silenced 75bhp V8 engines which gave her a stealthy speed of 9 knots.
After trials at sea she was bought by the Admiralty and commissioned into the Royal Navy in 1938. She was the fastest British Navy vessel in WWII.
We pressed on and walked up a tall set of wooden steps and stood on the deck. It was a weird trespassy feeling, standing on a boat I wasn’t allowed near. There were no rails and the deck bowed slightly downwards towards the edges. Hazardous when the sea was rough, explained Richard.
The open hatch in the foreground goes down to the engine room. Both the steering wheels pictured work. We went forward and down a small ladder just in front of the housed wheel, and next to that was the desk used in wartime by the radio operator, now with modern equipment. To the right a further set of steps led into the main body of the boat. A thinnish rope dangled to hold onto on the way down.
The interior was not what I expected. And her history wiped out my own memories. Our knowledgeable host filled out the details. MTB102 had a crew of 8 and 2 officers, and during the war she patrolled mainly the English Channel at night, armed with her two torpedoes. The crew had to be accurate with their aim, as once the two torpedoes were fired there were no more and she returned to shore.
Back at her mooring, the nighttime sea crew disembarked and slept ashore, while the engineering crew attended to her and reloaded the torpedoes. Nobody slept on the boat.
This view above looks into a seating area. MTB102 was one of the Royal Navy boats that rescued soldiers from Dunkirk in 1940. She was recently filmed to feature in the 2017 film Dunkirk, but I believe the scenes were edited out which is a shame. She was critically important during that wartime operation, crossing the channel eight times.
During the Dunkirk evacuation, on 1st June 1940, the B class destroyer HMS Keith was sunk by German aircraft with many crew lost. Rear Admiral Frederic Wake-Walker transferred to MTB102 and used her as the flagship while he continued the evacuation. However there was no Rear Admiral flag on board, so one was created with an Admiralty dishcloth and red paint. We were shown this wind-battered flag, pictured. The horizontal stripe was already on the dishcloth but the vertical stripe was painted. The wiggle in the bottom part of the stripe makes me think a wave passed at that moment. The two red dots represent the two Rear Admirals that were on board. MTB102 was the third last vessel to leave Dunkirk. It is believed that she is now the only surviving Royal Navy boat from the Dunkirk rescue operation.
Later in WWII, in 1944 while preparing for the invasion of Normandy, MTB102 carried Winston Churchill and General Eisenhower for an overview of the D-Day landing craft assembled on the south coast.
The Duke of Edinburgh and Prince Charles have also visited and there is a picture of the Queen and Prince Phillip on the wall by the seat.
Turning around, this picture looks towards the bow. The curved ceiling centre is from the original design to launch one torpedo from the bow before it was changed to two 21” deck-mounted torpedo tubes. Those fenders were rock hard, I thought they’d be a bit bouncy.
The two tables front of picture were lipped to stop pens rolling off. This would be the officer’s area and presumably maps. The mahogany floor boards are over the bilge. We saw inside, and being on land in the shed they were dry but rust stained. She has electric bilge pumps as sadly being a wooden boat of her age she now takes in some water.
We returned to the deck, and climbed down a wooden ladder through the hatch to the engine room, thick with the smell of oil. The engines send out a puff of black smoke before the turbo kicks in. The exhaust pipes are wide, perhaps 8” diameter each.
The engines are not original. She now runs on two Cummins 600 bhp engines, but still produces just over half her original speed. She has two new fuel tanks, and two new propellers with four blades of a shallower pitch angle than the original three propellers with three blades.
Leaving the engine room I smelled the familiar combination of fuel and wood. It reminded me of happy boatyard memories and I was back at Brundall for a second.
After the war, MTB102 was sold into private ownership and partially converted to a houseboat. The land, including her on her mooring, was later bought by the First Blofield and Brundall Sea Scout Group in 1973. She was in poor condition so the Sea Scouts began what became a very long restoration. They negotiated some refurbishment in return for her featuring in the film “The Eagle has Landed” in 1976, around the time when I first saw her.
Funds were, and still are, difficult to come by, and MTB102 was handed over to the MTB102 Trust in 1996 under the leadership of Chief Engineer Richard Basey. One year later she was fully seaworthy again. Even today there is still much to do to restore her to her original condition, and she is transferred to her shed each winter for reparation work.
MTB102 participated in both the Queen’s Silver Jubilee in 1977, the Diamond Jubilee in 2012, Portsmouth Navy days, and also returns to Dunkirk every five years for the Association of Dunkirk Little Ships anniversary crossing. She is listed as a National Historic Fleet vessel.
The rudders here are original, bronze according to the spec. The Roman numeral painted on the back indicates the depth from that point to the bottom of the rudders: four foot. To the right in the above picture you can just see another small boat, also involved the the Dunkirk rescue and currently being repaired.
There was one difficult to get to part we didn’t see, which was inside the hull behind the bow. This I think would be where the machinery for launching the torpedoes was situated.
Having been built in 1937, when they knew the war was coming, MTB102 was designed and built at the same time as the Spitfire and other worthy planes. ‘We were good back then,’ said I. ‘Exceptional,’ said our host.
And so ended our visit to the remarkable prototype Motor Torpedo Boat 102. I also learnt something, about our industrious war efforts, boat craftsmanship, our history, and a part of my own from the 1970s has been answered.
All those who work on MTB102 do so for free. With thanks to the MTB102 Trust and Richard Basey for his time and the information. It was truly an enjoyable and information-packed visit. Thanks also to my fellow GP companion, not least for remembering facts my misted brain forgot.
There is a Pathé video, no. 955.55, of MTB102 running in Portsmouth. It has no sound unfortunately, but is from 1938 when she was newly built:
© Polar Opposite 2018
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