This was just another piece of military mail (figure 1) and Signalman Robert Lovelock (figure 2) was just another sailor among the thirty-six thousand personnel that made up the Royal Canadian Navy during World War II, until the mail room personnel at “H.M.C.S. Niobe”, located in Greenock, the land base to which all Canadian naval personnel located in the United Kingdom were attached, crossed out that portion of the address and inscribed in green M.T.B. 459.His Majesty’s Canadian Motor Torpedo Boat 459. What it did was to reduce the navy down to a crew of seventeen and with a little research provided us with a story.
Figure 1 Cover addressed to R.E. Lovelock from P.J. McCarthy collection
The 29th and 65th Canadian Motor Torpedo Boat Flotillas were formed in March of 1944 and made up entirely of Canadians including their flotilla commanders. After extensive training out of H.M.S. BEE in Holyhead, Anglesey, the 65th was assigned to Brixham under Plymouth Coastal Command while the 29th, under the command of Lieut. Cmdr. C. Anthony (Tony) Law, who was also the commanding officer of M.T.B. 459, went to Ramsgate under the Portsmouth Command. It was a part of the pre-invasion operations build-up, Operation Neptune, the Navy’s phase of Operation Overlord. The eight boat flotilla which became known as “The Fighting Sea Fleas” was later augmented by three RN boats 485, 486 and 491. (insert figure 2)
Built by British Power Boat Co., M.T.B. 459 was commissioned in early March of 1944 along with seven other M.T.B.s, 460 to 466. The G class boat was seventy-one feet six inches long including three rudders, twenty feet seven inches in breadth with a draught of five feet eight inches weighing fifty-five tons with full armament and equipment. Driven by three Packard or Rolls-Royce V-12 super charged 1250-HP engines, (later 1500 HP) they had a speed of up to forty-one knots. Originally armed with two eighteen inch torpedo tubes, these were exchanged for depth charges for a short while. Other armament included a six pound gun or a 40mm Pom Pom, .5 inch Vickers machine guns capable of firing 700 rounds of armour piercing incendiary and tracer ammunition per minute, 303 Vickers Machine guns and the after armament was twin 20mm Oerlikon guns capable of firing 450 rounds of armour piercing high explosive and tracer ammunition per minute.
Figure 2, Signalman Lovelock at the flag locker, courtesy of Naval Museum of Manitoba
Signalman Lovelock must have spent time in the hospital in Weymouth for a cover dated March 30, 1944 (see fig 4)was sent to the hospital and re-directed to H.M.S. Athol in Portland and finally to H.M.S. Bee for M.T.B. 459. It was discovered through conversation with one of Robert Lovelock’s sons that prior to his becoming a part of the 29th Flotilla he and his crew mates had a boat shot out from under them while engaging in a battle against E boats. The German E boat in question picked them out of the sea and rather than take the crew prisoner, dumped them back on English soil. They no doubt would have been sent to hospital for observation. This explains the routing of the cover addressed to R.E. Lovelock dated March 30, 1944
Figure 4, cover addressed to the hospital in Weymouth then forwarded to H.M.S. Athol and on to H.M.S. Bee for M.T.B. 459. Courtesy Colin Pomfret collection
Figure 5, A hurried card sent during work-ups. Nothing on back except “from M.T.B. 459” courtesy Colin Pomfret collection
Shortly thereafter Signalman Lovelock sent a lettercard to his parents dated April 10, 1944 (figure 5) presumably in reply to that received which was dated March 30, 1944. There is no attached message except from M.T.B. 459
The M.T.B.s’ mission was to assist in keeping the sea lanes open. They went out on nightly patrols or when weather permitted and took on enemy R-boats, E-boats, torpedoed merchant ships and lured enemy destroyers out to where heavier warships could deal with them, or any other mission they may have been called on to do. They weren’t called “The Fighting Sea Fleas” for nothing. The following is an account of two successive nights of action.
On the night of July 15, 1944 M.T.B. 459 in company with 464 and 466 sustained damage in a fierce fight with three German E-boats, A below the waterline hole was repaired and the same three boats went back on patrol the next night. They were spotted and illuminated by enemy aircraft and shelled by the shore batteries near Le Havre. A shell crashed through the sides of 459 and exploded in the engine room killing two and wounding one. 459 was taken in tow by 466 with 464 laying a protective smoke screen. M.T.B. 459 was beached, later repaired and saw action again until disposed of on February 14, 1945. Killed in action were Petty Officer Motor Mechanic M. Edward Dawson seen at the far right of the front row and Stoker M. Jackson McMahon, fourth from left front row. Wounded was Able Seaman William Dublack, far right second row next to the recipient of this cover, Signalman Robert Lovelock.
Figure 6, courtesy of the Naval Museum of Manitoba
Lieut. Cdr. (Tony) Law, senior flotilla officer transferred his command to M.T.B. 486, one of the three boats that augmented the original eight. Robert Lovelock at least went with him as indicated by the address on the cover shown as figure 7 dated September 16, 1944. There had to have been some correspondence between the incident in July and September because this cover is addressed directly to M.T.B. 486. More than likely the whole crew transferred.
Figure 7, Sent directly to M.T.B. 486 after the transfer from M.T.B. 459. courtesy of the Colin Pomfret collection
In January of 1945 the 29th was transferred to Coastal Forces Immobile Unit No. one at Ostend, Belgium. On February 14th with several flotillas berthed in the harbour preparing for a patrol that night, many of the sailors had been given an afternoon off or a “make and mend”. Earlier in the day a fuel discharge had taken place and the water surface was covered with high octane gasoline. Somehow it ignited and within minutes the water was a sheet of flame engulfing all in its path. Men were burned alive as they slept below decks. Others were killed or wounded by flying debris and exploding ammunition. When the fires were finally extinguished it was discovered that twenty-six Canadian and thirty-five British sailors had lost their lives that devastating afternoon. The 29th flotilla had lost five of its boats; M.T.B.s 459, 461, 462, 465 and 466. Being near the end of the war it was decided not to reform the 29th Flotilla. The three surviving boats were placed among British flotillas and the 29th ceased to exist.
Another cover shown here courtesy of the Douglas Lingard collection figure 8 is addressed to a Lieut. J.R. Cunninghan, H.M.C.M.T.B. 461 from somewhere in Idaho with a U.S. Navy cancel and dated March 8, 1945. It was received by the Canadian Fleet Mail Office, Leigh House, London, E.C.2, on April 18th. The back stamp figure 8a is a previously unreported marking. Lieut. Cunningham was the commander of M.T.B. 461 from February 4th to February 9th. Therefore the fleet mail office crossed out both Niobe and 461 with no further forwarding address. Research has not discovered any further postings for Lieut. Cunningham. Nor is he listed as having been wounded, missing in action or killed. Lieut. C.V. Barlow was the commanding officer of M.T.B. 461 from February 10th to February 25th. (insert figures 8 and 8a)
A memorial was erected at Ostend, Belgium by the Royal Canadian Naval Association in honor of those of the 29th M.T.B. flotilla who died in that tragic accident. The Naval Museum of Manitoba also has a memorial listing those who served in both M.T.B. flotillas, the 29th and the 65th
figure 9a, The full memorial listing those killed at Ostend, Belgium. Courtesy of “The Atlantic Wall Museum”
The following poem was written by Signalman Andrew Cleeland of M.T.B. 461 (figure 11) and can be found in Tony Law’s book “White Plumes Astern” and on the Naval Museum of Manitoba’s website.
The raging of the treacherous seas,
Long the arch enemy of the MTBs,
Now ceases to hold us in its spell
As we bear the tale of the Ostend bell.
The truth of cause will be remote,
And intrigue will lend its tragic note;
Here today and gone tomorrow,
As mothers and sweethearts shrink in sorrow;
But above it all is heard the cry -
Oh God, the everlasting question, why?
figure 11, Signalman Andrew Cleeland of M.T.B. 461
As for Robert Lovelock; he survived having a couple of boats shot out from under him, the Normandy assault, the nightly patrols and fierce battles of the English Channel and the fire at Ostend to come home and become an insurance agent and raise a family of two sons and a daughter. Both sons served in the Royal Canadian Navy for more than twenty years and a grandson is presently serving in the navy. Robert E. Lovelock passed away in 1993 after a lengthy illness. All this from a cover inscribed in green “M.T.B. 459”
The author wishes to thank Colin Pomfret and Douglas Lingard for permission to use covers from their collections. The Naval Museum of Manitoba for permission to use illustrations from their website www.naval-museum.mb.ca. To Ross and Peter Lovelock, sons of Robert Lovelock for providing information and some insight into their father's life To Mike Street, for assistance in providing the “Atlantic Wall Memorial” illustrations and for his encouragement.
This account of M.T.B. 459 was first published in BNA Topics, the magazine of the British North America Philatelic Society, Volume 67, Number 3, July – September 2010. Since this article was published, the items given credit to Colin Pomfret and Douglas Lingard are now the property of Peter McCarthy
The Far Distant Ships by Joseph Schull; Queen’s Printer, Ottawa, Ontario
Cat. No. DB3-1161
White Plumes Astern by C. Anthony Law, RCN; Nimbus Publishing Ltd., Halifax, NS