Rarely have we found an instance in which a McIlhagga's exploits are put into context, but this book provides us with such an occasion. The section is entitled Decision by Ramming.
The laying was, in itself, a hazardous operation, and led to several brushes with our M.G.Bs., so the enemy tried various methods to catch us off our guard. On the evening of 16th August, for example, they came out some time before dusk, hoping to complete their lay before our night patrols would be likely to be in position. They chose an evening of poor visibility, so that they would not be spotted by aircraft, and they came out in great force - between twenty and thirty of them.
Two of our small gunboats, led by Lt. G.D.K. Richards, R.N., were just setting out when the alarm was raised, and three other M.G.Bs., under the command of Lt. Sidebottom were still in Dover harbour, but preparing for a normal anti-E boat patrol. The message came through just as the crews were getting into their seagoing clothes, and four minutes later the three M.G.Bs. were passing out of harbour on their way to intercept the enemy. Thus, two separate forces were closing in on the German minelaying R boats in mid-Channel. Their combined numerical strength was less than a quarter of the enemy's.
During the preceding week the German minelayers had managed to elude our forces and complete their lay on several occasions. Once, when our boats were about to intercept them, engine trouble combined with a signal error spoiled the chance, and the E boats escaped again. On this account, our boats were all the more determined that this new opportunity should not be lost. They did not know, however, that they were about to fight one of the classic Coastal Force actions of the war.
In the dark automatic guns are very difficult to sight, so that quite a long action can be fought at close range without any decisive result. But on this summer evening the sun had only just set and it was far from dark. It was 9.25 p.m. when Sidebottom's gunboats sighted a line of six ships, about the same size as themselves, steaming across their bows on a south-westerly course. The main enemy force had evidently split, but this part of it still outnumbered, by two to one, the M.G.Bs. that were now sweeping in to attack them.
"We closed them fast", writes Sidebottom, "challenging them with a signal lamp to identify themselves. They did not reply. They were clearly the enemy. When we were within 400 yards of their line they had neither opened fire on us nor increased speed to escape, and as we closed still further we could see that they were R boats, and we knew that their maximum speed were no more than 20 knots. We therefore decided to attack the rear of their line, as they were double our strength, and we thought that by throwing their rear into confusion we should make it difficult for their leader to distinguish friend from foe, and so prevent him from coming to their assistance.
"When separated by no more than one cable, we turned to starboard to steam on a parallel course. Our three boats were now in close order in line ahead, with the enemy also in line ahead, but with greater intervals between his boats, 200 yards to port.
"Just as we manoeuvered into this position to attack, the other force of two gunboats was sighted away to starboard approaching at high speed, and we flashed them an identification signal so that they would know who was who.
"We were now in a perfect position to make our chosen form of attack, and still without any interference from the enemy. It seemed almost uncanny to be allowed to come nearly alongside them without being fired on, but they either mistook us for another of their own units or they hoped we should mistake them for one of our and let them pass. They soon had their doubts resolved. At 9.27 p.m., two minutes after first sighting, I pressed the button. The open-fire signal blared at each gun position and a simultaneous broadside of all weapons swept from our three boats into the last two in the enemy line.
"Their reply was instantaneous, not only from the boats we had engaged, but from every gun which could be brought to bear from up their line. In that light and at that range, neither side could easily miss. The air was filled with bright tracer as though all the neon signs in Picadilly Circus were flying to and fro. Our 2-pounder shells were bursting all over the enemy's hulls, showering sparks like a hammer on an anvil. In a matter of a minute all the guns on our engaged side were out of action after direct hits, and the guns' crews were casualties.
"If the leading boat turned away to disengage, those astern would probably follow her, for the action was too intense for a signal to be passed to them, and the opportunity for them, as yet comparatively undamaged, to finish off the two badly hit enemy vessels would be lost. If she continued as she was, she would be a sitting target and would almost surely be sunk. The other alternative was to turn towards the enemy and try to sink the last boat in his line by ramming. We turned hard a-port and swung out of the line towards our target."
This is Sidebottom's reasoned explanation of a most gallant decision. With nearly all his guns out of action he had one remaining weapon - the stout stem of his ship - and he determined to go in and use it.
"It was only a short distance to cover, but to do so we had to turn at right angles to the enemy line, presenting almost a broadside target to his four leading boats, and we were raked by a concentrated fire. Just before the moment of impact, two shells hit the bridge, bursting and wounding everyone on it. The coxswain collapsed, the wheel spun round, the ship's head swung to port and we passed under the R boat's stern, missing her by a few feet.
"As I was the only one on the bridge still standing, I took the wheel and put it hard to starboard. The boat swung round again, partly helped by the force of the enemy's wash, and her bows crashed into the R boat's port quarter some 20 feet from her stern. My First Lieutenant was thrown across the bridge and stunned by the impact, and the enemy's fire ceased immediately. She heeled well over to starboard, and both boats, locked together, swung to port out of the line. The starboard point-five gunner fired most effectively at the next ahead in the enemy's line, who was already under fire from the other two gunboats.
"Our engines were still running at high speed, keeping our bows forced into the R boat, and as we had too many casualties to make boarding a possibility the only thing to do was to pull our bows out and let the water pour into the large hole we had made, which would, we hoped, sink her. I moved the engine-room telegraphs to stop, but she continued to go ahead; evidently the line had been shot away. An unwounded member of a gun's crew was sent with a message to the engine-room to stop engines. As we slowed, the R boat, whose engines were still running, wrenched herself clear and staggered off into the gathering darkness with smoke billowing out of her."
As soon as the leading boat had turned, with the obvious intention of ramming, the second M.G.B. had moved up into her place and continued to engage the remaining R boats with undiminished vigour. The last of these had been badly damaged in the first few moments of intense fire, but the enemy force was still powerful and the second M.G.B. suffered heavily. Two of the crew were killed and two more were mortally wounded. Her Commanding Officer (Lt. A.D. McIlwraith, R.N.V.R.), her Canadian First Lieutenant (Sub-Lt. L.B. McIlhagga, R.C.N.V.R.), her Navigating Officer and eight of the crew were wounded. But she fought on until the engine-room was hit and she was forced to disengage. As she did so, she struck some underwater wreckage which damaged the rudders and the propeller of the one engine which was still working.
The third gunboat then carried on the fight alone until her guns were put out of action and her Commanding Officer (Lt. N.R. Weekes, R.N.V.R.) was wounded; then she also disengaged.