With the M.L.'s in the Eastern Mediterranean - Lieut. C. Noel Luker, RNVR

The Yachting Monthly, April, 1919

[Note: this article appeared without any illustrations - but various paintings and illustrations by Donald Maxwell in his books The Last Crusade and The Naval Front seem appropriate for inclusion here. -JLC]

NOW that the censor's restrictions have been removed, perhaps a short account of the M.L.'s in this part of the world may be of interest. Though we cannot claim to have done anything brilliant, such as our confrères at Zeebrugge and Ostend, yet our work has been of importance.

I think I am right in saying that the first M.L.'s to be sent on foreign service were those sent to the Suez Canal in January and February of 1916, and all numbered under 50. But though they were the first M.L.'s to arrive, they were not the first representatives of the R.N.V.R., for in the previous July six motor boats were sent out in response to an urgent signal for patrol boats for the canal. These were the Nina d'Asty, Puffin, Lady Molly, Minnehaha, Eothen and Memphis. I had command of the last-named, a well-built craft with quite an interesting career in the service, having served in France on the canals round Armentières, and bearing scars of war. (I believe Memphis was lost in a torpedoed ship in the Mediterranean). I have forgotten who she belonged to, but I do not think her owner would have recognised her on our arrival at Port Said, for we were fitted with steel protection plates round the wheel and carried a Maxim in our bows.
The "movies" in the Mediterranean
The Cinderellas of the Fleet
Patrolling the Canal in a motor boat in these days (1915) was not the dull affair it sounds. Spies were caught almost nightly,swimming the Canal, and they were not alone or unarmed. One or two of their number would remain on the Turkish side of the Canal and open fire should the one crossing the Canal be discovered. The advantage was entirely with them, as they chose a spot where the banks are high and afford plenty of cover. However, the spy trouble was eventually overcome. We were based at Osmailia, in Lake Timsah, a pretty little spot, hardly more than a village, built by the Canal Co., and the home of most of the canal pilots.

In the first attack on the Canal in February, 1915, a few of the Turkish shells dropped in Ismailia and created quite a panic amongst the inhabitants, the natives fleeing to the surrounding desert. The Canal pilots deserve a word of praise, as they never hesitated to take ships through the Canal, one old hero having both legs shot off while on the bridge and refusing to be taken below until he had got his ship safely through. He received some sort of decoration and was pensioned off from the Canal service, and now owns the Belair and Sinai Hotels at Port Tewfik and Suez. Should any readers be passing through the Canal at any time he is well worth a visit. Ships at that time were well "sand-bagged" before making the passage through the Canal, as they were frequently sniped at from the desert.

After a month or so of patrolling the actual Canal, I was sent to the Great Bitter Lake, to be attached to H.M.S. Minerva. There we patrolled nightly the eastern side of the lake. Occasionally we had some excitement and would surprise a Turkish reconnaissance party. The usual procedure was to drift, as the current sets along the shore, and in the early hours of the morning we would "fetch up " somewhere near Kabret, the station at the entrance to the Canal on the southern side. Some mines were laid in the Great Bitter Lake and a Holt steamer was damaged but able to proceed to Suez.

I had six months of patrolling the Lake, and although I have seen a good deal of the world and its beauties, nothing in nature so impressed me as the beauty and atmosphere of the desert. It would require an artist in words to describe it, and even then the description would fail. It has to be seen and lived in to be understood. There is something about it that is supernatural. The sunsets and sunrises are magnificent, and I do not think the most unemotional of mortals could view them without pausing to think of the wonders of creation and the insignificance of an individual in the universe.

By the beginning of 1916 our troops and defences on the Canal had been more than doubled. The contemplated winter attack which the Turks were preparing never materialised. One or two small attempts were made, the chief being at Kantara, when the Turks were badly cut up and their commander captured. On the other hand we had somewhat of a disaster in April, 1916, at Romani, when a small British force was surprised and surrounded at night, few escaping. On the arrival of the M.L.'s we were relieved of our patrolling duties, as they were much more suitable for the work, being better armed and faster. The motor boats were then distributed in various parts of the Canal until the C.O.'s were recalled home to go through the M.L. course at Portsmouth or Southampton. It was my good fortune to be in the class at Portsmouth. I say good fortune as I feel that at Portsmouth there is a charm in receiving one's instruction within the walls and the ships commanded by known men whose names and reputations will live for ever as an example to their successors of what naval officers should be. Although the M.L. course is a strenuous one and much has to be learnt in little time, I think every M.L. officer will look back upon the period with pleasure. To be treated as a schoolboy again is quite refreshing, and for some be-whiskered gentleman of middle age to be told he must not order a whisky and soda owing to the fact that he is only a "one-striper" has its humorous side, particularly to those possessing two stripes but many years his junior in age. During one of these classes at "Pompey" a signal was received from the S.S.O. asking what members of the class would volunteer for service abroad. Some of us handed in our names, little thinking that our destination would again be the Egyptian Coast. Although we had not finished our course we were appointed in a few days to M.L.'s and learnt unofficially that we were destined for Egypt.

The first to leave were 206, 234, 240, 248, and in due course we were placed on board the ss. Bellview, and one very wet and dismal afternoon crept out of Portsmouth bound for Port Said. The voyage was uneventful until after leaving Gibraltar. Between there and Malta we sighted two submarines, one during the day and one at night. They did not attempt to close us, and were too far off to give fight to, possibly mistaking us for a neutral or else waiting for larger prey. We spent two days in Malta waiting for an escort which never arrived, and we finally left without it.

On the morning of the 17th September, 1916, at 10 am., a submarine was sighted on the starboard beam. M.L. gun crews were called to stations, extra hands sent to the stokehold, and the ship's gun got in readiness. The course was altered to bring the submarine astern, but she dived and apparently left us. At 12.10 p.m., however, she was seen coming up rapidly on the starboard quarter, evidently intending to close the steamer. The captain ordered fire to be opened on her by the ship's gun. The first shot seemed to fall about half-way, and the submarine replied by dropping one about twenty yards astern. The M.L.'s then commenced firing, and continued the action. The ship's gun was useless, something having gone wrong with the recoil arrangements. The action lasted about two hours, when the submarine suddenly turned broadside on and submerged. During this time we had provisioned the ship's boats and made all preparations in the event of having to abandon ship. The enemy was firing shrapnel and high explosive, and one of the latter, an 18-pounder, struck M.L. 234, passing through the after cabin and penetrating the deck into the hold. Fortunately it was a faulty shell, and the fuse broke off in the cabin, otherwise there would have been a different story to tell. We were hit three times, but did not suffer much damage, and it was extraordinarily lucky that no one was injured by the shrapnel, as pieces of shell and bullets were picked up in all parts of the ship.
Sunrise: Motor Launch off Gallipoli, Italy.
The Naval Front
Patrol boats off Sidon.
The Last Crusade
We then made for Suda Bay, Crete, to have the ship examined and undergo some small repairs. It was an unpleasant experience, feeling utterly helpless on an old collier whose best speed was about eight knots. It was never known exactly what happened to the submarine. A report went in to the Admiralty from the Captain, James Churchill, a Brixham man, with the result that he was presented to the King and awarded the D.S.C. But the M.L. representatives heard nothing more of the affair.

There were some amusing incidents during the scrap; one, in particular, when a certain member of the ship's company and a staunch teetotaller was discovered in the captain's cabin finishing his bottle of whisky! My "No. 1" and myself had quite a heated argument as to whether we should disguise ourselves as firemen in the event of capture. Another M.L. officer said he wasn't going to leave the ship until he had had his lunch, the scrap having commenced just when he had started this repast.

It was pleasant to see Crete. Most of us would have liked to stay there, but on our arrival at Port Said the M.L.'s quickly started work, and we joined the rest of the flotilla in patrol work and escorting ships off Port Said. We had a great deal of practice in manouvres under the direction of the S.N.O., an M.L. enthusiast.

In 1916 the nearest Turkish base to Port Said was at El Arish, about 70 miles along the coast, where they had a large force under a German commander, with the latest aeroplanes, guns, etc. It was from here that the air raids were made on Port Said. Our flying men were outclassed in machines, but not in courage, for they regularly raided El Arish, and in these raids the M.L.'s were of great service. On the eve of a raid a signal would be sent from Kantara, the R.F.C. base, and about 10 p.m. one or two would leave for El Arish. Arriving at dawn, these would lie a mile or so off the coast awaiting the arrival of the bombing party. The trip took the flying men only an hour or so, and we knew when to expect them, but the first signs of their approach would be a puff of smoke in the clouds from the anti-aircraft guns, then one would hear the explosions of the dropping bombs. There were one or two thrilling combats in the air, and we lost some of our best flying men. When a machine was badly hit the pilot would make for the sea, and then the work of the M.L.'s began. It is not an easy matter picking up a couple of men from a sinking aeroplane in a choppy sea, for there was no time to launch the dinghy as Fritz would be out bombing the M.L. and safety lay in a speedy flight. On one occasion Lieut. Shillington, M.L. 38, was chased out to sea for many miles, Fritz circling overhead and dropping fifteen bombs, some of them falling very near, then having used up all his bombs he came down and opened fire with a machine gun. But the crew of the M.L. kept him off by rifle fire, and eventually getting further out to sea, the aviators thought better of it and gave up the chase. In bad weather a trawler provided with oil bags used to be sent to meet us half-way, the coast being very shallow and a nasty breaking sea rising quickly. Some of us experienced bad passages back to Port Said. The flying men were not always good sailors, and some said that the worst part of the whole thing was the trip back in the M.L.

Eventually El Arish was captured by our troops, and the M.L.'s took quite an important part in the naval side of the attack. They swept the shallow waters free of mines, enabling the lighters to get in with stores and a labour corps. We spent Christmas, 1916, at El Arish, and had a most interesting time. It is an open anchorage affording no shelter for M.L.'s, but fortunately the weather was fine.

On our return to Port Said we resumed our old routine until the first attack on Gaza, when the trawlers engaged on the deep sea patrol off Port Said were taken for duty at Gaza and we had to take over their work. We were told it would last about a week, but it lasted some four months, and was a most anxious and wearing time for C.O.'s and crews. For three days at a time we had to patrol the 100 fathom line some 40 to 60 miles off the coast. We were right in the track of shipping and had many exciting experiences. We patrolled in pairs, and as at a distance M.L.'s resemble a submarine, we kept away from shipping. On dark nights and with no lights this was not always easy. On two occasions we were nearly rammed, once by a sloop and once by a liner. Other boats had similar experiences. The trawlers eventually returned and resumed their old job, for which we were thankful.

The M.L.'s took part in the second and successful attack on Gaza in November, 1917, being used as a protection against submarines and to patrol round the larger ships that were bombarding the city. The shore batteries were too occupied to bother about the M.L.'s, but nevertheless we had some narrow escapes from shots intended for others. There were several submarines in the neighbourhood, and although the actual taking of Gaza was attended with no naval loss, some days later a destroyer and a monitor went down, being torpedoed at the same time. On the night when this occurred we were in company with M.L. 39 and M.L. 248, escorting a Store ship to Gaza. We arrived at dawn to see only the masts of the vessels showing above the water. The weather was bad arid the glass falling. M.L. 248 hung on to the stern of an anchored trawler and we chose a spot to leeward of the sunken monitor from which quantities of oil were rising, affording us unbroken water if a heavy swell.. We had not been there long when a signal was received that we were to return to Port Said at once owing to a bad weather report having been received. We had some difficulty in getting our anchor, the M.L. putting her bows under several times. All kinds of things were floating past us from the sunken monitor, signal pads, clothing, cabin furniture, and dead bodies. ML. 39 was compelled to "slip," and our passage back was a stormy one, the worst I have ever experienced in an M.L. Some seas broke over the bridge, carrying away the forward ventilators and all sorts of deck gear. However, we got back safely, and without serious mishap.

For some months we carried on various duties - patrolling, escorting, hydroplane work, etc. The most pleasant was escorting. We assisted in escorting outward bound convoys from fifty to a hundred miles, weather permitting, and meeting incoming convoys about forty miles out. Convoys usually consisted of about twenty ships and looked most impressive surrounded by destroyers, sloops, and other craft darting about in all directions.
ML 248 entering Tyre at dawn.
The Last Crusade
ML entering the ancient harbour of Tyre.
The Last Crusade
When the Army made a further advance in November, 1918, the M.L.'s were again called into service and were the first craft to enter the Bay of Haifa on the Palestine coast. This bay was extensively mined and the M.L.'s swept a passage in for the trawlers and other craft. Haifa was used as a base for the M.L.'s, and from there expeditions were made further up the coast as far as Tyre and Sidon, which were still occupied by the enemy; on one occasion M.L. 248 captured a Turkish trading schooner. While at Haifa we experienced bad weather and were continually crossing from one side of the bay to the other in search of shelter. The bay is six miles across to Akka, an ancient and historical city which has experienced many seiges. While sheltering there from an easterly gale, Sub-Lieutenant Hunt, of M.L. 206, had a most unpleasant experience. Leaving his M.L. to pay a visit to another boat at dusk, he was caught in a sudden squall and lost one of the rowlocks. He was quickly carried beyond the M.L.'s and out to sea, his absence not being discovered for about an hour. It was now dark and a bad sea running, but three M.L.'s got under way and went out, using their searchlights. But the spray from the sea and the heavy rains put up a mist so that it was impossible to see more than a few yards ahead, and we returned after a few hours' search. In the morning the search was resumed, trawlers and drifters going many miles, but all returned at night without having seen a trace of the dinghy. A signal was sent by the S.N.O. to the Admiral reporting the matter and Sub-Lieutenant Hunt was considered lost, when about 7 p.m. on the second day after, a signal was received from the army station about five miles south of Cape Carmel saying a small boat was off the shore and someone in it calling for help. At once two M.L.'s went out, but before they had gone more than a mile or so a second signal was received saying the boat had been recovered and Sub-Lieutenant Hunt was alive and in the Field Hospital. Next morning his C.O. went to see him, and although suffering much from exposure and the mental Strain, he was able to give an account of his experiences. He had been blown about forty miles out to sea, when the wind shifted to the N.W. and blew hard, carrying him back in the direction of the land. By hard rowing he had been able to make the shore south of Cape Carmel. He had seen the searchlights of the M.L.'s, but was too far out then for them to see him. On the next day he sighted a trawler and a hospital ship, but he remained unnoticed in spite of his efforts to attract attention. He used the floor boards as a sea anchor, and was able to quench his thirst by catching some rain in his cap, thirst being his greatest affliction.

As the Army advanced by land, so the Navy kept level with them on the coast until the evacuation of Beirut. It was not positively known whether the port was mined or whether there might be any surprise trap awaiting the first allied ships to enter, so a British armed yacht and M.L. 240 were sent ahead to investigate, while two French destroyers followed behind. No mines were found and the only guns fired were, guns of welcome. It was an impressive entry, for the breakwater and all parts of the harbour were crowded with people waiting to give their deliverers a hearty welcome. The poorer population were in a terrible condition, having been starving for many months. When we arrived some weeks later it was still a daily sight to see wrecks of humanity dead in the street, having died where they fell from exhaustion. The Germans made a hasty flight and commandeered all means of transport, leaving the Turks to manage as best they could. Fearing attack by the natives, large numbers of the latter returned to Beirut and surrendered rather than run the gauntlet. Two M.L.'s (234, 206) were based at Beirut, and from there we made many trips up and down the coast to Tripoli and further north. This was the quickest means of transport as the road was bad and frequently impassable. At times we carried distinguished passengers, one being the Prince of the Hedjaz (Emir Feisal), who eventually left Syria in H.M.S. Gloucester to attend the Peace Conference.

The first news of the Turkish armistice we picked up on our wireless about twenty miles from Beirut, when making a passage to Haifa. The armistice with Austria we celebrated in Tripoli, and we arrived in Beirut on the eve of the German armistice. However, celebrations in these parts of the world were of a modest nature, for there was too much poverty and distress surrounding the victors to allow of any open demonstration. Apart from the firing of a few Very's lights, everything went on as usual.

With the termination of hostilities the work of the M.L.'s became easier, and although work is still found for them it is not sufficiently interesting to be put on record. This has been a most interesting campaign for the M.L.'s, but although favoured with sunshine we have had many hardships to endure, not the least being the absence of news, monotonous patrols, and the loss of long expected mails. I have endeavoured to give hereby a résumé of our work; some of the incidents mentioned would make a more interesting article in themselves, but I leave the relation to other members of the R.N.V.R. who took part in the ceaseless vigil in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Palestine campaign.