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44 Warship World Pictorial Review

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A Dangerous Enterprise - Secret War at Sea

Tim Spicer

Between 1942 and 1944 a very small, very secret, very successful clandestine unit of the Royal Navy, operated between Dartmouth in Devon, and the Brittany Coast in France. It was a crossing of about 100 miles, every yard of it dangerous. The unit was called the 15th Motor Gunboat Flotilla: crewed by 125 officers and men, it became the most highly decorated Royal Naval unit of the Second World War. The 15th MGBF was an extraordinary group of men thrown together in the most secret of adventures. Without the Flotilla, such intelligence gathering networks as Jade Fitzroy and Alliance would never have developed, and SOE's VAR Line and MI9's Shelburne Escape Line would never have been realised. Drawing on a huge amount of research on both sides of the Channel, including private archives of many of the families involved, A Dangerous Enterprise brings the story of this most clandestine of operations brilliantly to life.
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Between 1942 and 1944 a very small, very secret, very successful clandestine unit of the Royal Navy, operated between Dartmouth in Devon, and the Brittany Coast in France. It was a crossing of about 100 miles, every yard of it dangerous. The unit was called the 15th Motor Gunboat Flotilla: crewed by 125 officers and men, it became the most highly decorated Royal Naval unit of the Second World War. The 15th MGBF was an extraordinary group of men thrown together in the most secret of adventures. Very few were regular Royal Naval officers: instead the unit was made up of mostly Royal Naval Volunteer Officers and 'duration only' sailors. Their home was a converted paddle steamer and luxury yacht, but their work could not have been more serious. Their mission was to ferry agents of SIS and SOE to pinpoint landing sites on the Brittany coast in Occupied France. Once they had landed their agents, together with stores for the Resistance, they picked up evaders, escaped POWs who had had the good fortune to be collected by escape lines run by M19, as well as returning SIS and SOE agents. It is a story that is inextricably entwined with that of the many agents they were responsible for - Pierre Hentic, Yves Le Tac, Virginia Hall, Albert Hue, Jeannie Rousseau, Suzanne Warengham, Francois Mitterrand and Mathilde Carre, as well as many others. Without the Flotilla, such intelligence gathering networks as Jade Fitzroy and Alliance would never have developed, and SOE's VAR Line and MI9's Shelburne Escape Line would never have been realised. Drawing on a huge amount of research on both sides of the Channel, including private archives of many of the families involved, A Dangerous Enterprise brings the story of this most clandestine of operations brilliantly to life.

ISBN: 9781999589134
Format: Hardback
Author(s): Tim Spicer
First Publishment Date: 07 September 2021
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Author(s) Tim Spicer
Customer Reviews
  1. Highly Recommended
    As someone who has spent many years sailing around the North Brittany coast enjoying the challenges of navigating with very strong tides with large rise and fall and numerous rocky outcrops, I have always been able to rely on good charts, chartplotter and GPS. I can only imagine the difficulties of navigating the same waters at night, with no lighthouses or lit marks, no GPS, minefields, an alert enemy and only an early version of Decca - but that is what the brave RNVR officers and men of 15th MGB Flotilla did during WW2. Established in 1942 and based at Dartmouth, their tasks were to act as a taxi service for SOE, SIS and MI9, delivering and collecting agents, weapons and stores, and bringing back downed airmen who had evaded capture and documents provided by agents. The base at Dartmouth comprised an 1894 paddle steamer called Westward Ho as depot ship, and the Royal Dart hotel, with additional offices at the naval college. By 1943 the force comprised 4 craft - one Fairmile C, a Fairmile D and 2 MGBs originally destined for the Turkish Navy. With an operating area from St Cast to L’Aber-Wrac’h, navigation was critical, and the most reliable form of navigation was dead reckoning, based on accurate course steered, tides and currents, and log distance. Landing passengers at night in surf required a specialist surf boat, steered by an oar as opposed to rudder, which was seen as more vulnerable and difficult to stop in a hurry. Weather was a major limiting factor. An operation in late 1943 to bring off airmen took 5 attempts before successful completion on Christmas Day, resulting in the repatriation of 32 airmen and a large quantity of mail, including details of V weapon sites. Of the 57 operations carried out by the Flotilla, 36 took place between January and September 1944; amongst those landed by MGB was Francois Mitterand in February 1944. One of the most successful escape lines was the Shelburne line, which used beaches close to the village of Plouha; 130 airmen were successfully passed down this line which was never detected by the Germans. After D-Day, the focus of operations shifted to the North with trips to Norway. The book also covers the comprehensive SOE network in Northern France manned by brave French men and women, backed up by British agents. Whilst the book is not specifically about the work of the SOE, the way that they were able to move around escorting Allied airmen to safety, despite German security, is amazing. However, their activities were fraught with danger, not least from betrayal, and sadly many were captured and tortured before being summarily executed. The 15th MGB Flotilla was the most highly decorated unit of WWII, with memorials at the Lower ferry at Kingswear and Bonaparte beach near Plouha. The title of the book is a classic understatement – a dangerous enterprise hardly describes their exploits. This book is now going to sit alongside my chart table on my boat so I can properly explore the landing sites when next across the Channel in somewhat easier circumstances than the 15th MGB Flotilla. Highly recommended.

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