Action on the Atlantic: Motor Torpedo Boats to the Rescue, 1942

by Rob Fisher 1992

When first contemplating the acquisition of Motor Torpedo Boats, Canadian naval authorities envisaged a wide range of roles for these fast attack craft - almost everything but convoy escort. Thus it is surprising that one of the first, and least well known, Canadian MTB actions occurred with a German U-boat. The Canadian-manned MTB-332, although not equipped for anti-submarine warfare, scored a dramatic success against U-123 off Cape Hatteras, North Carolina during April 1942.

In July 1940, after months of investigation, the RCN awarded a contract to the Canadian subsidiary of the British Power Boat Company to build twelve seventy-foot MTBs in Montreal. Plans called for each MTB to have two eighteen-inch torpedo tubes, two twin .50 calibre machine guns, and a top speed of 38 knots. The prototype, dubbed "CMTB-1", was shipped from Britain to Montreal in July 1940 and later served at Halifax as a training vessel. Before the remaining boats were completed, however, the Commander-in-Chief, Mediterranean, requested the flotilla's services (with or without crews) in the Mediterranean theatre. The RCN, not having a definite role for the MTBs, acceded to his request. As a result the Admiralty assumed the MTB contracts. Because of the winter freeze-up at Montreal, Canadian Power Boat Company transferred the MTBs to Connecticut boat yards in late 1941 for completion.(1)

Two of the first Canadian MTBs completed were commissioned in the Royal Navy as MTB-332 and MTB-335. Manned by Canadian steaming parties, the two boats set out from Staten Island, New York, in March 1942 under the command of Lieutenant-Commander Robert M. Powell, RCNVR, for Port-of-Spain, Trinidad, where the British would take possession. When the MTBs arrived at Norfolk, Virginia the US Navy outfitted them each with six depth charges to prepare them for their passage through the perilous waters off Cape Hatteras, North Carolina.(2) During the preceding months U-boats had slaughtered merchant shipping in this area and the US Atlantic fleet, stripped of warships for the Pacific war, had been powerless to stop the carnage. During March 1942 alone, Axis submarines sank twenty-eight merchant vessels on the eastern seaboard.(3)

American authorities routed the two MTBs "through the known areas of greatest enemy submarine activity" in the hope of surprising a U-boat on the surface. On the afternoon of 1 April they departed Norfolk for Charleston, South Carolina, cruising at 27 knots until darkness fell. The bright moonlit night offered good opportunities for hunting, so when the MTBs approached Cape Hatteras Powell ordered them to darken ship and slowed to 16 knots to reduce engine noise. At 0130/2 lookouts on the bridge of MTB-332 glimpsed flashes of gunfire on the horizon. Powell warned MTB-335 and increased to 32 knots to investigate. MTB-335 missed his signal, however, and was quickly left behind as her partner accelerated into the night. When Powell arrived at the scene of the fireworks sixteen miles distant he saw a large tanker being shelled by an invisible enemy.(4)

The unseen attacker was U-123, a large type IXB submarine, commanded by Kapitänleutnant Reinhard Hardegen, one of the most successful German U-boat aces. During his first North American patrol he had destroyed nine merchant ships of 53,000 tons; he had torpedoed four of these ships off Cape Hatteras in a single night.(5) Now on his second American patrol, he had returned to his favourite hunting ground. Shortly after midnight, 2 April, he sighted the silhouette of the American-flag tanker Liebre and closed to attack. His first torpedo went astray because of an incorrect estimate of the tanker's course and speed. Frustrated, Hardegen surfaced and opened fire with U-123's 105mm calibre deck gun from 2,500 metres. One of his first shots struck the bridge and he continued to shell Liebre for another forty minutes. Fifteen shells battered the stricken tanker. According to Hardegen's log, the "target was hit hard" and "burning with bright flames".(6) A hit in the engine room killed two men and forced the crew to stop the engines. Two lifeboats took to the water with twenty-five men.(7)

The blazing tanker lit the night sky. Hardegen had decided to submerge to fire a coup de grâce when he glimpsed the bright bow wave of the rapidly approaching MTB. Powell's sudden appearance forced the U-boat to crash dive to escape attack. Even though U-123 outgunned the MTB, Hardegen could not risk damage so far from home. Still hoping to finish off the tanker, he raised the periscope to fire a torpedo. Through the scope, he incorrectly identified the MTB as a 165-foot Coast Guard cutter.(8) From the bridge of MTB-332, Powell sighted the periscope 50 yards on the starboard beam and manoeuvred to drop a string of depth charges in the path of the U-boat. But because of poor communications only one charge was released. Powell estimated that it exploded 30 yards from the submarine - too far for lethal results.(9)

Below the surface in 30 metres of water, U-123 felt the impact of the poorly-aimed depth charge but did not sustain serious damage. Hardegen retracted his periscope: in his preoccupation with the MTB he had forgotten to torpedo Liebre.(10) MTB-332 ran over the position again but without sonar equipment could not detect U-123, nor did Powell wish to waste depth charges by dropping them randomly. Correctly guessing that the MTB did not have sonar but fearing the arrival of larger warships, Hardegen made his escape below the surface, hoping he had caused enough damage to sink the tanker. SS Liebre stayed afloat, however, and Powell sent two ratings on board to attempt to extinguish the fire. When he learned that the ship had been abandoned, he recovered his men and notified American authorities at Morehead City, North Carolina.(11)

The US Coast Guard and Navy rescued the tanker's crew and the tug Resolute towed her to Morehead City. After basic repairs Liebre was rebuilt at Baltimore and re-entered service in July 1942. Nine of the tanker's crew were killed during the action.(12) U-123 escaped unscathed to the south. The MTBs continued on their voyage to Trinidad and Naval Service Headquarters subsequently commended Lieutenant-Commander Robert Powell, RCNVR for his part in saving the stricken SS Liebre.


1. Donald Graves, "Hellboats of the RCN", The Northern Mariner (forthcoming).

2. MTB-332, Report of Anti-Submarine Activity on the Night of 1-2 April 1942.

3. Samuel Morison, The Battle of the Atlantic, 1939-1943, (Boston, 1947), 413.

4. MTB-332, Report of A/S Activity on 1-2 April 1942.

5. Michael Gannon, Operation Drumbeat, (New York, 1990), 254-65, 296.

6. U-123, Log, 2 April 1942.

7. Arthur Moore, A Careless Word...A Needless Sinking, (Kings Point, NY, 1984), 369.

8. U-123, Log, 2 April 1942.

9. MTB-332, Report of A/S Activity on 1-2 April 1942.

10. U-123, Log, 2 April 1942.

11. MTB-332, Report of A/S Activity on 1-2 April 1942.

12. Arthur Moore, A Careless Word... A Needless Sinking, 369.

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Copyright © Robert C. Fisher 1992