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The Night Hunters: The Royal Navy's Coastal Forces at War

Date published 05/10/2021

Little-known story of the Royal Navy’s heroic coastal forces in both World Wars told for the first time in major new gallery at Explosion Museum of Naval Firepower.

  • Major new permanent gallery The Night Hunters: The Royal Navy’s Coastal Forces at War pay tribute to the high-risk, high-octane operations of the coastal forces in both world wars. 
  • Two remarkable surviving historic boats take centre stage in the fascinating permanent gallery, the first of its kind, at Gosport’s Explosion Museum of Naval Firepower 
  • A total of over 3,000 decorations won, including four Victoria Crosses pay testimony to the dangerous operations undertaken, often at night and at high speed 

Coastal Forces craft were used to attack German convoys, defend allied shipping, carry out clandestine raids and landings, and pick up secret agents. They took part in over 900 operations all over the world, including the St Nazaire Raid, the Dieppe Raid and D-Day and sank over 500 enemy vessels.  

The remarkable and little-known story of the Royal Navy’s Coastal Forces which made such an extraordinary contribution to both world wars is to be told for the first time in a major new permanent gallery opening on Saturday 9 October 2021.

New permanent gallery in Hampshire

The Night Hunters: The Royal Navy’s Coastal Forces at War opens at The National Museum of the Royal Navy’s Explosion Museum of Naval Firepower, Gosport and pays tribute to the small band of young, courageous men, often reservist volunteers, who manned the wooden craft which were heavily armed, carrying ammunition, explosives and high-octane fuel as they went in to attack enemy naval forces at close range. It is said it was the nearest thing to hand-to-hand fighting experienced within the Royal Navy in the Second World War and their service was recognised with an unprecedented 3,000 decorations, including four Victoria Crosses.  

The National Museum of the Royal Navy (NMRN) has worked in partnership with the Coastal Forces Heritage Trust (CFHT), to fund and develop the new gallery which is located in the historic former mine store built in 1899 at Priddy’s Hard, the armament depot that supplied weapons, ammunition and equipment to the Royal Navy which is now home to Explosion Museum. CFHT was in receipt of funding from fines levied on the banking industry for manipulating the LIBOR rate. Lockheed Martin is also a corporate partner in the project. 

Historic boats on display

Taking centre stage in the gallery are two of the Second World War historic boats, Coastal Motor Boat CMB331 and Motor Torpedo Boat MTB71, that made such an extraordinary contribution to naval warfare. Immortalised as “Spitfires of the Seas” they were often deployed in the dark, at incredibly high speeds as small but fast attack craft travelling at speeds up to 35 knots.  

CMB 331 was commanded by Commander Derek ‘Jake’ Wright who quickly gained a reputation for bringing his crew back alive. He was one of only 44 to be awarded three Distinguished Service Crosses during the Second World War and post-war he became Director of the tea company Brooke Bond. The gallery features some of his personal artefacts including uniform which by modern standards would barely have managed to protect the crew from the elements.  

See rare artefacts

Rare photographs capture the intensity of serving in the coastal forces and the off-duty antics of the crews. Because of the stealthy nature of their operations, few photographs exist of them in action. Sketches, note books and some of the more personal ephemera gives a fascinating insight into the lives of these everyday heroes.  

Larger objects on display include a Holman Projector, a relatively crude anti-aircraft weapon operated by compressed air that was an effective stop-gap measure to deter German aircraft; a Mark 11 Oerlikon anti-aircraft gun and a buoyant acoustic mine, representative of the many thousands laid by the boats.  

A gripping audio-visual display vividly recreates the drama and adrenaline of a motor torpedo boat (MTB) night attack on a convoy.  

The Coastal Forces crew

The crew, although very young with an average age of just 21-years-old, were highly trained and exhibited an exceptionally high esprit de corps in a theatre of war punctuated by high risks, incredible danger and challenging working conditions. Among them was the future Avenger Patrick Macnee, who became a household name in the 1960s, the second Dr Who, Patrick Troughton, renowned conservationist Sir Peter Scott and James Bond director Guy Hamilton.  

The Night Hunters also highlights the essential role played by the Womens’ Royal Naval Service (WRNS) who managed and worked the 23 shore bases all around the UK coast from which the boats operated. Shore bases were also located across the globe from Iceland to the Far East. 

Comments from the Director General and Chairman

Professor Dominic Tweddle, Director General of the National Museum of the Royal Navy said:   

“The Night Hunters is an extraordinary opportunity to highlight a hitherto little-known part of the Royal Navy story. Their service has all the elements of an incredible story, but sadly they often paid with the ultimate sacrifice. They were incredibly brave young men onboard what were really quite basic boats, loaded with fuel and ammunition, working at high speed, often under the cloak of darkness. Their service and sense of duty send a shiver down the spine and we are truly grateful to be working with the Coastal Forces Heritage Trust to open a gallery, so that their story can be shared.” 

Vice Admiral Sir Paul Haddacks KCB, Chairman of the Coastal Forces Heritage Trust said:

"I am delighted that the Coastal Forces Museum will open in the Autumn and that the Trust will therefore have realised its core objective. This is a significant milestone, the culmination of about ten years of planning, fundraising, lobbying and publicity. I want to take this opportunity to thank all our loyal and generous supporters who have continued to back the Trust over long periods of uncertainty and often with little obvious progress. I also want to thank and pay tribute to our principal partners, The National Museum of the Royal Navy and the Portsmouth Naval Base Property Trust."

Robert Hichens Memorial Exhibition

The gallery is named the Robert Hichens Memorial Exhibition. Lieutenant Commander Robert Hichens was a legendary figure, pioneering successes against German fast attack E-boats in the North Sea and English Channel. He became the most highly decorated RNVR (Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve) Officer with two Distinguished Service Orders, three Distinguished Service Cross and three Mentions in Dispatches. His death in 1943 sent shockwaves through the coastal forces. 

Visit the new gallery

Entry to The Night Hunters and Explosion Museum of Naval Firepower is included in a ticket for Portsmouth Historic Dockyard which is jointly operated by the National Museum for the Royal Navy and Mary Rose Museum. The joint ticket gives extraordinary access to world-class attractions based across the Portsmouth and Gosport sites including the Royal Navy Submarine Museum, Gosport, HMS Victory, the Mary Rose Museum and HMS Warrior. 

For further details about tickets, including the Ultimate Explorer Ticket which gives 12-month entry to all attractions, visit The Portsmouth Harbour and Explosion Museum sites are supported by the Portsmouth Naval Base Property Trust who are landlords and custodians for the historic estate and have worked with NMRN to bring the Coastal Forces Gallery to life through the repurposing of the building and surrounding area

A brief history of the Coastal Forces

Coastal forces’ first serious operation took place in late 1916 and the permanent gallery charts their service up until the 1950s when they were decommissioned. In 1915, three young officers - Lieutenants Hampden, Bremner and Anson - approached the Admiralty with their idea of using small motor vessels to attack German naval bases with torpedoes.  

During the First World War, coastal motor boats (CMBs) were initially involved in anti-submarine operations, offensive operations and intercepting suspect merchant ships, rescue work and the destruction of floating mines.  They were deployed at the Zeebrugge Raid in 1918 laying smoke screens to cover the cruiser HMS Vindictive and block ships whilst they entered the heavily defended harbour. 

Post the First World War and during the ensuing Baltic Campaign they excelled at carrying out attacks against the Bolshevik Fleet, which other craft stood little chance of approaching. In June 1919, Lieutenant Augustus Agar RN in CMB 4 penetrated a screen of four destroyers to torpedo and sink the Bolshevik heavy cruiser Oleg off Kronstadt. He was awarded the Victoria Cross and two of his crew were awarded gallantry medals.  The gallery features part of his uniform and writings.  

As a direct result of the Oleg raid, in August 1919 a flotilla of eight 55-foot CMBs attacked the Russian Fleet inside Kronstadt Harbour. This action became known as the ‘Kronstadt Raid’ and a pennant, flown at the time, can be seen on display. The raid was successful and the  Bolshevik Baltic Fleet did not put to sea again for the remainder of the campaign.  

In 1939, the Admiralty came to the view that a fleet of fast surface craft armed with torpedoes, depth charges and guns should be built without delay. This started a programme of sustained expansion, design improvements and new faster build techniques. This was largely encouraged by rivalry between the boat building companies’ directors – Noel Macklin of the Fairmile Company, Hubert Scott Paine of the British Power Boat Company and Peter Du Cane of Vosper Company. 

Dozens of shipyards and boat builders around the UK, plus some abroad, were put to the task of boat building. Any companies and firms with wood-working expertise, including furniture manufacturers, were enlisted to produce prefabricated wooden parts. By the end of the war, 1850 vessels had been built for Coastal Forces.  

By the end of the war, they had fired more torpedoes than the submarine service and laid more mines than the navy’s dedicated minelayers. There were more Coastal Forces gallantry awards than any other branch of the service. In all of these activities the Royal Navy was supported by the countries of the Commonwealth and from the USA, France, Holland, Norway, Poland and Yugoslavia.  

The Royal Navy paid tribute to their legacy with the launch of today’s Coastal Forces Squadron featuring Royal Navy Archer-class P2000 Patrol Boats.  

After the war, the majority of Coastal Forces craft were de-fuelled and de-ammunitioned and taken to one of the many anchorages or moorings and simply left, often with all the fittings and stores intact. Some craft were sold off for small sums of money, some became pleasure craft, many ended up as houseboats, including the museum’s MTB 71. Only a small number remain.