Two of the last remaining fully operational high-speed World War II motor boats have been saved for the nation by Portsmouth Naval Base Property Trust*, with the help of a £580,000 grant from the National Heritage Memorial Fund (NHMF).
When built, they were among the fastest boats of their type in the world. One of the boats, MGB 81, received the battle honour ‘Normandy 1944’. The other, HSL 102, is the only surviving example of the 100 class high speed launch and was stationed at RAF Calshot during the Battle of Britain, retrieving shot down airmen from the sea. Throughout the duration of the war, HSL vessels saved a total of 10,000 airmen of many nationalities.
The money has enabled Portsmouth Naval Base Property Trust (PNBPT) to purchase the gunboats. Although both were outstanding examples of British naval engineering, they only had a life expectancy of 20 years. They have now been restored to original working condition and are on display at Gunwharf Quays Marina in Portsmouth. It is hoped people will get the opportunity to charter the boats and experience what it was like for the crews driving at full speed 70 years ago.
Peter Goodship, Chief Executive of the PNBPT, said: “These unique craft are a legacy to the heroism of those who crewed them during World War II. Both boats made significant contributions to the War effort and saved the lives of many sailors and airmen. The Trust is grateful to all those who contributed, especially the National Heritage Memorial Fund, without which this would not have been possible.”
Having got them, PNBPT are now keen to bring their story alive by making at least one of them available for charter, so that people can experience something of their breathtaking power and speed - a ride not for the faint-hearted.
We also hope to use them once in a while to take people across to Priddy’s Hard and the revamped Explosion museum, where boats like 102 were based during World War II.
The boats represented pioneering technology when they were built just down the coast at Hythe near Southampton. They were known as the Spitfires of the Seas and effectively it was like riding on a massive petrol bomb. With 3,000 gallons of fuel on board, if they were hit in the fuel tank they simply exploded. And as they were only made of plywood and had no real armament they were extremely vulnerable.
The young men who crewed these boats, many of whom were just teenagers, were responsible for life-saving work, often in appalling conditions. Some of these heroes paid the ultimate sacrifice and in telling the story of the boats, PNBPT hope people will remember their bravery and their dedication to duty.
Lt. James Shadbolt MBE and a veteran of Royal Navy's 8th Motor Gunboat Flotilla, said: “I’m delighted these two motorboats will now be safe-guarded. Organisations like NHMF and other generous donors play such a vital role in protecting our precious heritage and those of us who particularly cherish these boats are very grateful. It’s wonderful to know that future generations will be able to experience first-hand these extremely exciting machines just as we did as young men during the war."
Bob Bewley, Director of Operations at NHMF, said: “The purchase of these boats is an important part of a continuing success story and just what the NHMF was set up to do - to defend the most outstanding parts of our national heritage at risk as a memorial to those who have died for the UK. These gunboats are so integral to our rich seafaring history. They can now join other great British naval achievements, such as Nelson’s HMS Victory and the Mary Rose, which have been saved thanks to the unique ability of the NHMF to act quickly as the ‘fund of last resort’ over the past 30 years.”
To learn more about these motor boats, download our information sheets on HSL 102
and MGB 81