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MTB 219: What MTB stands for, its History & the Reason for its Arrival in Bridgwater Docks, Somerset
Map of Bridgwater
An Unusual Visitor
Walk down to Bridgwater Docks, the marina area of the town ‘twixt canal and river, and you will be surprised. No, not by the narrow boats and small pleasure craft moored at the jetties. No, not by any remarkable new building or on-going festivities; not even by the charming surroundings. You will be surprised because there is an unusual visitor.
MTB 219 is moored by the jetty close to the canal end of the Marina. What does MTB stand for? Some of you will know but for those who don’t, it’s Motor Torpedo Boat. Incongruous, modestly majestic, never before has it been seen in our peaceful dock-side from where colourful craft chug slowly up and down the 12 mile long canal, to and from Taunton on a soporific Sunday afternoon, shooshing the swans and disgruntling the ducks.
In the past, you could have seen merchant craft making their way upriver then being winched into the docks to offload cargo. Seafaring ships can no longer access the marina; warring gun-boats certainly never did.
219's Origins & Specification
MTB 219 was built by Vosper in Portsmouth in 1940, as a 70ft long, 16ft wide, 38 ton, wooden torpedo boat. It was built for speed, to defend Britain in the English Channel against any threat of German invasion during World War II.
Launched in 1941, it was used by the Royal Navy Coastal Forces out of the port of Dover. They had the impressive name of ‘Iron Men in Wooden Boats’. Doesn’t that say it all?
219 in the English Channel 1941
In February 1942 MTB219 was one of a pack of five MTBs which tried to attack the German battle cruisers, Scharnhorst, Gneisenau and Prinz Eugen as they ‘dashed’ through the English Channel, protected by destroyers, E-boats and the Luftwaffe. It was known as the Channel Dash.
The attack was unsuccessful as the battle cruisers managed to get through; however, none of them was able to return to attack allied shipping in the Atlantic again.
219 also rescued some of the crew from the Fairey Swordfish bomber aircraft which were shot down, as well as helping sink two German Raptor Class Torpedo Boats, including the Seeadler in 1942.
She was paid off in December 1945.
MTB 219 is the only surviving vessel of its type. It still has the scars of war damage; bullet holes can be seen in the forward saloon.
Since being decommissioned, MTB219 has led an interesting life. She’s been used by the Sea Scouts, for filming and, as a houseboat in Chelsea, was lived on for nearly 65 years (1948-2013). Its claim to fame as a film location was in the 1970s series 'The Professionals' and the 1980s' 'Dempsey & Makepeace'.
In 2012, the hull of MTB 219 was condemned and in 2013 was passed on to Paul Childs, the present owner, as a donation. Mr Childs wants to turn her into a floating museum in Bridgwater. He is a master restorer of antique military vehicles and has started the Community Interest Company "Militaryboats CIC" to fulfil this aim.
The first stage of restoration was towing 219 under Tower Bridge from Chelsea to Tilbury Docks, where it was taken out of the water. During the second stage she was ashore at Durleigh Displays in Bridgwater for a year, where her hull was restored. This third stage brings us to its arrival in Bridgwater Docks, to fit out the interior and the engine room.
It has been totally restored by Paul Childs and the Militaryboats CIC team of volunteers, who live in Bridgwater, at considerable cost and with the help of various sponsors. Further restoration is necessary before it is then opened to the public as a museum.
The plan is to restore MTB219 to full wartime authenticity, so she is on the National Historic Ships Register. Once fully restored she will be eligible to join the UK Historic Fleet.
Wreath & FlagClick thumbnail to view full-size
A Wreath & a Flag
A wreath has been placed on the bridge, to commemorate those who died on the vessel whilst in service and the hundreds who died in the campaign.
A flag flies from the bows reminding us of 219’s membership of the Coastal Forces.
Stage three of the restoration should take it to completion when it's hoped that 219 will be joined by the four other vessels of Militaryboats CIC.
How do you get an MTB into the Docks?
It’s not currently possible to sail in from the river; the lock gates are set in concrete (though apparently this can be moved). Nor is it possible to bring an MTB down the canal. So how come it’s sitting in the marina?
On Saturday 31st January 2015, Bridgwater’s most unusual visitor was brought to the Docks on a low-loader which slowly backed up to the canal-side end of the marina by Bowerings Animal Feeds warehouse. A huge crane was already waiting dock-side, a crane familiar to local residents in its role of adding or removing narrow boats to and from the marina.
A large crowd had been gathering in the sunshine since 11am, waiting patiently despite the cold wind. Albeit a little late, a ceremony was conducted in honour of MTB 219, as she sat patiently atop the lorry. The Mayor of Bridgwater and various dignitaries said their pieces relating to its history, its crew’s bravery and praising the efforts of Paul Childs. Skilful placement of cradling straps and manipulation of levers and hydraulics saw the craft lowered into the water. I was in awe of the expertise of the crane driver; it took a matter of seconds to manoeuvre the craft from low-loader to water.
For security reasons the boat was moved across from the bank to the opposite jetty; safely out of harm’s way as the only access is by coded entry via the marina gate, another boat or swimming!
Follow the Flight from Lowloader to Water!Click thumbnail to view full-size
It Nearly Sank!
Overnight it leaked! Apparently the normal process for ensuring the wood is watertight isn't possible in Bridgwater Docks so four electrical pumps were installed to pump out incoming water. The overnight generator failed and water flooded in. MTB 219 listed over and nearly sank! Fortunately firefighters from Bridgwater Red Watch rushed over to the docks on the morning of Sunday 1st February, pumped her out and re-floated her. The pumps were then put onto shore electric and the generator went off for repair.
On Saturday 7th February, we saw 219 go flying once more. The effects of being flooded were nearly disastrous, water pressure pushing out some of the corking completely, creating gaps that could have caused her to sink again.
It had taken on about 6 tons of water, so weighed around 18 tons when taken out of the water! A deluge poured from the hull as it rested precariously on crates, supported all the time by the cradling straps.
The search for precise locations of the gaps was made whilst MTB 219 was hanging above the quayside for most of the day. One of the sponsors supplied CT1, a specialist sealant (meant for buildings!) that cures in water, and even came on site to help with repairs. The leaks were sealed and the craft regained its dignity when returned to its berth.
Another local resident told us a story about one wartime crew member who crossed the channel in an MTB to pick up Resistance fighters who were in danger. There he met a Jewish girl who was frightened that she was going to be taken to the gas chambers. When he went back later, he looked for her. He found her and she came back to Britain with him where they were married!
Are such renovation projects glorifying war? I don’t think so and it seems that the renovators have other motives too. Remembering those who fought and died for their country, the dangers and restrictions they had to endure and the efforts they made to help others, soldiers and civilians alike, is important. History not only recounts facts and events, it should also give us warnings, teach us lessons, so that the same mistakes are not repeated, so that we deal differently with disputes if possible.
As with our Armistice Day, remembering by wearing our poppies (bought to support the care of ex-soldiers), we should not forget. ‘Lest we Forget’ adorns our war memorials. Lest we forget that war is senseless, war is cruel, that it solves nothing and that peace should be sought after wherever possible.
Yes, there are times when defending and protecting a nation is necessary, against a ruthless enemy who knows no mercy, no negotiation and no compromise.
I believe it’s important not to lose sight of what our soldiers went through, for the very reason that these mistakes should not be repeated. Apart from that, I find the history fascinating. The old cliché, ‘Necessity is the mother of invention’, is well-proven during hard times, during conflict when it’s necessary to stay a step ahead of the enemy. Such ingenuity helped us fly high, break codes and out-play the opponent in that ridiculous game of chess which is war.
The Legacy of MTB 219
This restoration and the launch at Bridgwater brought like-minded people together. On a beautiful, crisp winter's day a couple of hundred people gathered to watch; they chatted and some possibly made new friends. It was a spectacle. Everyone learned a little about the past, experienced a slice of history and most will follow the progress of MTB 219 until it reaches its status of museum. They met the restorers, realised how much time and effort had gone into their project and marveled at their expertise, along with the skill of the crane driver. Many children will be telling that story for a while, if not longer.
Seeing MTB 219 sitting in the waters of Bridgwater marina gives me a sense of pride, a feeling of sadness but most of all it brings a smile to my lips because it’s now a weapon of peace, a lesson to all who look at her, to all who search her history, that yes we fight for right but we do it only when pushed to such an extreme where no other option exists.
Copyright annart/AFC Feb 2015
I would like to thank Rhian Childs for drawing my attention to the facts and for providing me with incidental information for this article. I much appreciate her help.
History & Leisure
Sources, Sponsors & Further Information
http://www.fleetairarm.com/history-of-channel-dash.aspx ref Channel Dash
http://www.fleetairarm.com/exhibit/fairey-swordfish-ii-hs618/2-38-20.aspx ref Fairey Swordfish
http://www.durleigh.com/file/durleigh-mtb-219.pdf - used their yard during part of restoration
http://www.ct1ltd.com/en - C.T.1 being used to seal MTB 219 on 7th Feb 2015
South West Crane Hire - Plymouth & Exeter: http://www.sw-crane-hire.co.uk/
'Historic Ships Register'
The restoration of HMS Gay Archer was completely self-funded by Mr Childs and his wife, Rhian, who bought her for just £1, but then sold their house and possessions to fund her restoration.
Militaryboats CIC registered as a Community Interest Company no: 08975176, 39 Bayford Road, Bridgwater, Somerset, TA6 3QW