I had a fascinating day last week down at Millport, near Plymouth, where the world’s last S-Boat is housed and where it is, thankfully, being painstakingly restored. I’m making a film about the Battle of Britain at the moment for the BBC and so we were down them filming it and getting the expert views of local naval historian, Dr Harry Bennett. All I can say is that it is an absolutely awesome beast of a vessel. Harry put it rather well. He said that if the Spitfire aeronautical perfection in terms of design and appearance, then the S-Boat was nautical perfection. Certainly, its curves were very handsome, and although a pretty big 36 metres long, it really did look a thing of feline beauty.
When I began work on my book about the Battle of Britain, I was struck by just how much activity was going on around the British Isles throughout that long summer. Obviously, there was the evacuation of Dunkirk, but there were also trans-Atlantic convoys, and even more local convoys. Shipping across the Atlantic soon stopped passing through the narrow Straits of Dover, but the East Coast coal convoys never let up at all. This was because Britain simply did not have the inland infrastructure to cope with delivering the levels of coal needed by the power stations. And without it, there would be no electricity, and without that there could be no factories making Spitfires and Hurricanes and everything else that made her war effort happen.
There were many risks involved for the crews of these colliers, not least from what the British called E-Boats, but the Germans knew as S-Boote, for Schnellboot – ‘Fast Boat.’ And boy, were these boats fast. They could do 43 knots – more than 50mph – powered by three huge Daimler-Benz engines-, so powerful that the boat had to slow down in order to fire its six torpedoes. These it could do in rapid succession, but it also had a rapid-firing 20mm cannon and a mounted MG34 making it truly a lean, mean killing machine. S-Boats tended to operate at night, pouncing on unsuspecting coastal convoys a wreaking rapid deadly destruction. Not for nothing were the convoys nervous of encountering these machines.
Their hulls were also made entirely of wood, which meant they could move over magnetic minefields without any problems at all. Certainly, they were a considerable menace to Britain in 1940, yet interestingly there were only ever three flotillas operating during the Battle of Britain, which meant a maximum of around just eighteen or so out on operations at any one time. And that was not very many.
I had wondered why, but of course, like so much of Germany’s war material, the S-Boat was massively over-engineered. It was too good, too perfect. On S 130, you can see some of the exposed timber work, and it’s immediately clear that this kind of workmanship could only be achieved by a highly skilled and experience craftsman. And then you look at the DB 518 engines – three of them, each the size of a mini. They are simply enormous, but, of course, require a heck of a lot of maintenance, and had a life of only around 500 hours. These vessels were bespoke bits of kit, like a Formula 1 racing car – they were not something that could be mass-produced. It’s something the Germans did time and time again – from the intricate tailoring on a soldier’s M40 field jacket, to the 150 man-hours required to make an MG34, to the complexities of the Tiger tank, the men behind Nazi Germany’s war procurement were never in it for the long haul. The S-Boat, for all its beauty and brilliance, could never be made in the kind of numbers that would make it a really effective arm of the German Navy. As such, it was really a leitmotif for all that was fundamentally wrong about Germany’s war effort.
Nonetheless, it was still a fabulous boat. The team working on S 130 reckon it will be another five years before she’s on the water, but what an amazing site that will be. I can’t wait.
If anyone wants to know more, have a look at the website: www.s130.co.uk They’re doing an amazing job, but I also know they need as much help as possible.