You might be forgiven for thinking that Spitfires of the Sea is a ‘made up name’, one that is claimed in the modern era to have been a sobriquet for Coastal Forces, when in fact no such evidence exists.
It’s easy to understand this view; in recent years the term has gained popularity in news articles. However, such coverage of the name only goes back to a 2010 Daily Mail article, where the phrase was actually used to describe High Speed Launch 102, a Royal Air Force Air-Sea Rescue launch. Not long afterwards, in 2011, it was used by the BBC to describe Motor Gun Boat 81. Both of these vessels are in the care of Portsmouth Naval Base Property Trust, and the term has frequently since been applied to the pair of them — most recently in coverage of the 100th anniversary of Coastal Forces motor boats
Upon looking further into the name, you may be quite surprised by the lack of information online. With such an appealing moniker, you might expect there to be numerous hits and explanations on the web, but a search for the exact phrase ‘Spitfires of the sea’ produces only a few thousand Google hits. That in itself may sound like a lot, but in the context of online hits is virtually nothing and translates to only a few dozen websites that use the term. Variations of the phrase provide nothing new and no website provides any historical evidence for it.
Likewise, Coastal Forces officers do not appear to use the term in their memoirs. Peter Dickens’ excellent Night Action, Leonard Reynolds’ Motor Gunboat 658, Robert Hichens’ We Fought Them in Gunboats, Tony Law’s White Plumes Astern, Michael Bray’s One Young Man’s War and even John Wingate’s Last Ditch (not strictly a memoir but a collection of true stories bound together by a former Royal Navy officer) do not even mention the phrase. Similarly, a look through Leonard Reynold’s excellent series of books on Coastal Forces and David Jefferson’s Coastal Forces at War reveal nothing. When the term can be found, such as in Osprey’s 2010 publication British Motor Gun Boat 1939-45 by Angus Konstam, there is (like the internet) only a reference to gun boats being “… described – with some justification – as ‘Spitfires of the Seas’” with no explanation of the term itself.
Perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise that such a phrase is not an official name and more likely has its origins in the press. After extensive research, the farthest that the phrase can be traced back to is 1940, where three newspaper articles used the term. But there’s a catch. The Aberdeen Journal and Daily Record (15 November 1940) and Burnley Express (24 December 1940) all used the term to describe not boats, but aircraft. The Aberdeen Journal, under the heading “The Spitfires of the Sea” described several Fleet Air Arm (FAA) aircraft under this title, including the Blackburn Skua and the Fairy Fulmar, as well as others “about which details are at present, forbidden”. The article was duplicated under a different headline in the Daily Record, suggesting that this was a press release put out by the Admiralty. The Burnley article, titled “Spitfire of the Sea” is only about the Fairy Fulmar and states that it “had no sooner undergone its baptism of fire than it was aptly christened the Spitfire of the Sea.” Later in the war the Lincolnshire Echo also applied the term to the FAA, this time on 16 January 1943 with the title: “Aircraft Carrier’s Worth: Spitfires of the Sea” and a lengthy piece about the value of carriers and carrier borne aircraft.
The term does actually make sense in the context of Fleet Air Arm aircraft, these being the aviation branch of the Royal Navy, but it’s a far cry from the boats of the Coastal Forces. Could the term have been completely misappropriated since the war?
Fortunately the papers head for more expected ground in the Manchester Evening News, 4 June 1941, under the title “Big Rush to be in Sea ‘Spitfire’ Service”. Here, reference was made to how MTBs “have been described as Sea Spitfires”. The Daily Herald replicated this term on 25 September 1942 with the heading “The Spanner Girls Keep our Sea-Spitfires Fighting (and Iris Carpenter sees them on the job)”. There are numerous references to a WRNS with the nickname Toughie Topsides!
This is getting warmer, and the comparison to Spitfires in the early years of the war is supported by author Adrian Rance in his 1989 book Fast Boats and Flying Boats: A Biography of Hubert Scott-Paine. Here, Rance attributes a similar term to the work of Lieutenant Commander Hichens (a public hero during the war until he was killed in 1943) and states that his “exploits with the 6th Motor Gun Boat Flotilla at Fowey in February 1941 were to earn the motor gun boats the sobriquet ‘the Spitfires of coastal forces’.”
Hichens’ period at Fowey is described in the book Gunboat Command in some detail. The book is by Hichens’ son and borrows heavily from Hichen’s own book We fought them in Gunboats, but there is no reference to this term and there appears to have been little in the way of action that might have caused the phrase to be used. Nor could the term be found in local papers (although this doesn’t mean it isn’t there, just that it hasn’t been found yet).
Nonetheless, the papers come up trumps only the following year. “At ten times Nelson’s speed they fight – a naval battle every night” is the somewhat corny title of the Daily Herald article on 4 August 1942 by A. J. McWhinnie. “Our Coastal Forces are the Spitfires of the sea, manned by youngsters. Thirty is old in this service” he tells us. On 21 September 1942, the Manchester Evening News ran a piece, with a picture, under the title “Little ships are winning our biggest battle – and they have made the English Channel Ours Again”. The photo caption states that “Spitfires of the sea describes the role of these small motor torpedo boats”, although the picture is clearly of a seaman on a small ship’s boat or launch, rather than an MTB.
By the following year the term had much wider coverage. On 6 May 1943, Australian paper Army News carried a report by William Barr, an Australian journalist who had been on patrol with Coastal Forces, under the headline “Britain’s Spitfires of the Sea”. In October, Hodder and Stoughton published The Little Ships by journalist Gordon Holman. This is perhaps the first real book about Coastal Forces and describes a number of officers, actions and boats, as well as the general campaign in coastal waters up until that period of the war. Chapter 3 is titled “Sea Spitfires” and describes the roles of the three principal craft of Coastal Forces (the MGBs, the MTBs and the MLs) in some detail. When describing the armament commonly found on MGBs, Holman observes that:
When all these are firing in close action from a little vessel of about a hundred feet in length it can be well understood why the gunboats have been called the “Spitfires of the sea”.
Two years later, Peter Scott, one of the heroes of Coastal Forces and well known during the war, had his book The Battle of the Narrow Seas published by Country Life. On page 66 (first edition) he says that “The tracer bullets and the flying spray, the torpedo attacks and the high-speed gun battles – these are the spectacular aspects of Coastal Forces, the Spitfires of the sea; but in the Channel and North Sea they made up much less than one-tenth of the work of our light craft.”
So the phrase can definitely trace its origins back to the Second World War, albeit with a slightly surprising heritage. It’s interesting that the term was still used to describe FAA aircraft in 1943, even after it had been associated with Coastal Forces. But perhaps that just shows that it wasn’t necessarily a close association with either service – at least not then. Certainly the association with FAA aircraft is not well known and it does not appear to have been used as such after the war.
A more interesting consideration is whether the term was specifically applied to particular Coastal Forces’ boats. Holman explicitly linked the term to MGBs and Hichens only ever commanded Motor Gun Boats, so it’s certainly possible that the term originated from MGBs in particular, whose role was more akin to Spitfire fighters than the MTBs or MLs. It might seem unlikely that such a distinction would have been made at the time, but Scott does actually liken MTBs to bomber aircraft and MGBs to fighters on page 4 of The Battle of the Narrow Seas. He also describes the MLs as the “maids-of-all-work”, a description also used by Holman who compares MGBs to destroyers. In this sense it may appear that ‘Spitfires of the sea’ has its origins in the MGBs.
But on the other hand, both the 1941 and the 1942 Manchester Evening News stories name MTBs as ‘Sea Spitfires’ and ‘Spitfires of the sea’ respectively, before Holman uses it to describe MGBs in 1943. And even he uses the general term ‘Sea Spitfires’ to describe all the Coastal Forces craft. Scott certainly uses ‘Spitfires of the sea’ to describe all Coastal Forces on page 66, so even if the term had originated with one type of boat it may have become generalised by 1945.
It seems most likely that the term grew sporadically throughout the war and did not have a special application to any particular vessel – rather different people applied the phrase differently. This is most evident in the use of the term to describe FAA aircraft. That said, it’s worth noting the lack of any evidence that the term was applied to any other service’s small boats – particularly RAF rescue launches. On the other hand, it should be remembered that a lot of the Coastal Forces MLs were engaged in rescue work, so it wouldn’t be a massive leap for the term to become even more generalised across services. This would mean the ‘Spitfires of the sea’ phrase had started to have less to do with the actual role of the boat but, was more of a reflection of its speed and image. But this is pure speculation.
However, it’s easy to over emphasise the handful of appearances in the press shown here. It’s perhaps worth noting that the phrase appears to be wholly absent from The Times newspaper, which prefers the much more formal term ‘Light Coastal Forces’. Even Churchill, who appreciated a snappy moniker, did not seem to be aware of the phrase. In a minute regarding the expansion of Coastal Forces in the Mediterranean, that he sent to the First Lord of the Admiralty and the First Sea Lord in May 1943, he said:
I should be willing to send a message to the MTBs, who seem to be putting up an extremely sporting fight.
There is a question whether all these fast small craft should not have a name. I have thought of them as the “Mosquito Fleet”, but would it not be more dignified to call them the “Hornet Fleet”? Or, again, perhaps the “Shark Fleet” — Sharks for short.
In fact, when he sent his congratulatory letter to Coastal Forces later that month, he used none of these names, sticking instead with the simpler ‘light coastal forces’. Perhaps the reason for this, and the phrase’s near total absence from Coastal Forces histories (save those above) is that in wartime the term never had quite the popularity that it enjoys in a more casual and buzzword happy media today.
- Aberdeen Journal, 15th November 1940, page 2.
- Army News, 6th May 1943, page 2.
- Burnley Express, 24th December 1940, page 4.
- Daily Herald, 4th August 1942, page 2 and 25th September 1942 page 2.
- Daily Record, 15th November 1940, page 7.
- Lincolnshire Echo, 16th January 1943, page 5.
- Manchester Evening News, 4th June 1941, page 4 and 21st September 1942, page 2.
- Robert Hichens, 1944. We Fought Them in Gunboats. Michael Joseph Limited.
- Anthony Hichens, 2007. Gunboat Command. Pen & Sword.
- Gordon Holman, 1943. The Little Ships. Hodder & Stoughton.
- Adrian Rance, 1989. Fast Boats & Flying Boats: A Biography of Hubert Scott-Paine. Ensign Publications.
- Peter Scott, 1945. The Battle of the Narrow Seas. Country Life.
© Spitfires of the Sea