We were some of the lucky ones

Hubert “Bertie” Beavis served as an Engine Room Stoker/Mechanic in the Second World War. On 14 February 1945 he was on board MTB 777 in Ostend, Belgium, when disaster struck.

The 63rd Flotilla was all tied up, with those boats due out that night on operations fully fueled up, with their ammunition lockers full. I had just come off generator watch, the shore lighting having been restored and returned to the engineer’s cabin aft on the port side.

A tremendous explosion

Except for those who were ashore on leave, all the crew were asleep on their bunks. I decided it was not worth climbing into my bunk as we would shortly have to be fed and watered before getting ready for sea.

So instead of going to bed, I filled up the electric kettle for a cup of tea and started to write a letter to my mother and father.

"Suddenly, there was a tremendous explosion that shook me to my core."

Just as I sat down, I started hearing a lot of shouting coming from somewhere in the base. Suddenly, there was a tremendous explosion that shook me to my core. I knew that something had gone seriously wrong.

In addition to this, I was sitting in a wooden boat containing, amongst other things, about 6,000 gallons of 100-octane petrol! I dived down into the engine room and went through the routine to start the outer port engines, of which there were four in total – two port, two starboard, 1,250 horsepower each.

World of fire

I was praying that the engine room telegraphs would come to life because that would tell me someone was on the bridge and had control of the boat. Fortunately this was exactly what happened, and another Stoker/Mechanic came tumbling down the hatch.

I pointed him in the direction of the outer starboard engine that he needed to start. But before we could get us to safety, there was another explosion – this one causing our boat to jump.

A model of the MTB 777

A model of the MTB 777 that Hubert served on. 

I was knocked clean off my feet, with my head colliding with the fan shafting that was at head height above my control position. When I opened my eyes, I was lying sprawled on the floor with my fellow Stoker/Mechanic on top of me, his nose an inch from my own – there always appears to be a comic side to most tragedies!

After brushing myself down, I leapt up onto the deck, only to be faced with a world of fire and smoke. It was a terrifying experience, with bits of wreckage raining down from above.

While attempting to flee, we were struck by another boat – I think it may have been the same boat whose skipper was killed instantly by falling flaming wreckage.

We did eventually get out, but we were some of the lucky ones. Sixty-two men weren’t as fortunate as us and died, with many others injured as a result of the explosions.

Chain reaction

This terrible accident appears to have started in the inner basin, which was occupied by the Canadian Short Boats. We had a consignment of petrol that was contaminated with water, leading to the pumping out of boat tanks.

This caused a quantity of petrol to gather on the surface of the inner basin among the closely packed short boats. What caused the ignition of this petrol is unknown – it could have been a discarded cigarette or someone starting a boat’s engine (you could get a flash from the six-inch exhaust pipe at the rear of some boats marginally above the water line).

"There were many acts of extreme bravery that afternoon."

Once the fire had sparked, it spread amongst the boats. After the first blew up, the resulting chain reaction led to the destruction of 12 boats in total.

There were many acts of extreme bravery that afternoon, such as the Petty Officer from the Torpedo Department who jumped from boat to boat releasing the compressed air from torpedoes. Without him, there could have been a lot more tragedies that day.

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