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Big day for small ships as new £1m Coastal Forces gallery opens

7 October 2021
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Small boats which were the scourge of Britain’s enemies from the Baltic to the Adriatic are celebrated with a £1m new exhibition from Saturday.

The Coastal Forces gallery in Gosport gives a home to two historic ‘Spitfires of the Seas’ – celebrates the men who crewed them and the women who helped repair them.

A mine warehouse at the former armaments depot in Priddy’s Hard has been turned into a large exhibition space for WW1 Coastal Motor Boat 331 and WW2 vintage Motor Torpedo Boat 71 with the remaining space used to tell the story of a force which was involved in some of the key naval actions of World War 2 in particular.

At its peak towards the end of the 1939-45 Coastal Forces operated around 2,000 boats, operated by 25,000 sailors who risked life and limb on a daily basis.
Crew members earned more than 3,000 decorations – including four Victoria Crosses – on more than 900 clandestine and overt missions, during which they sank over 500 enemy craft.

The price was high – one in 12 boats was lost in action. Crew were exposed to the elements and enemy fire, with little protection. 

Able Seaman George Chandler is one of the dwindling band of brothers left from wartime Coastal Forces. He served extensively in the Channel and Adriatic in Motor Torpedo Boat 710, including providing protection for the D-Day landings, and was invited to see the new gallery.

“I’m flabbergasted – this is marvellous. And well deserved,” said the 96-year-old former able seaman gunner.

You would do anything for the guys you served with. You were a family.

Able Seaman George Chandler

He loved the camaraderie of Coastal Forces – a dozen men who lived and worked in close proximity, who relied on each other. “You would do anything for the guys you served with. You were a family.” And he rather plays down the dangers he and his comrades faced - “You went on patrol and if you met the enemy, you had a fight with them.”

Nick Hewitt, the curator from the National Museum of the Royal Navy who’s overseen the creation of The Night Hunters: The Royal Navy’s Coastal Forces at War in conjunction with the Coastal Forces Heritage Trust, believes it is high time the small craft enjoyed their day in the sun.

“Once the Navy realised the potential of Coastal Forces, it became a very effective, very professional force. It was very different from the ‘big ship Navy’ – much more informal, but imbued with a spirit, strong team cohesion. It attracted a certain type of person.

“The boats are built of wood and filled with petrol – if you’re hit, you’re going to explode. The only protection is speed. The risks and dangers crews faced were tremendous.”

The exhibition tells the story from the birth of the force in WW1, through their exploits in the Baltic in encounters with the Bolsheviks in the Russian Civil War, celebrated actions such as the St Nazaire raid, dropping off/recovering spies from occupied Europe, to the post-war decline… and rebirth with the RN’s new Coastal Forces Squadron.

Entry to the gallery is free with a ticket to Explosion or with an ‘ultimate explorer’ ticket to the Historic Dockyard.

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