A REAL sea story ..


War Hero
Book Reviewer
From the public library, Antony Hichens 2007 ‘Gunboat Command’, the biography of his father Lt Cdr Robert Hichens DSO* DSC** RNVR, 1909-1943, largely quoting from the subject’s own diaries and accounts in a minesweeper on the east coast and during the Dunkirk evacuation, and then in continually unreliable, undergunned, always outnumbered and often tactically misdeployed MGBs operating out of Harwich and in the Channel against E-boats.

Hichens senior was a dinghy sailor from the age of six, stroke of his college boat, a yachtsman and racing driver in a 2 litre Aston Martin whose engine he stripped down and cleaned every winter. In between he was a country solicitor in Falmouth. In 1939 he joined up and was commissioned, within a year was CO of MGB 64 and a year later squadron CO as a Lt Cdr. His insights into the want of organisation on the Dunkirk beaches (where he voluntarily spent time ashore trying to sort things out), and then the difficulty of someone at the sharp end who thoroughly understood the business trying to persuade senior officers and the Admiralty machinery of necessary improvements to the MGBs and their tactics are illuminating.

His accounts of the MGBs’ night battles, intercut with reminiscences of his surviving contemporaries, are riveting. The only method to be sure of destroying an E-boat was to cut across its bows at nearly forty knots and drop a depth charge in its grain ten feet ahead of it, while your little wooden boat was being brassed up with 37mm, firing back with .303. Hichens knew he wouldn’t survive the war and was proved right.

Some insights into real leadership in this book, both from Hichens and from his boss ashore in Harwich, Tommy Kerr, a dug-out commander who had commanded the submarine E8 in the Baltic in 1917 (my RNR great uncle was his navigator).

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