Reviewed by Charles H. Bogart
If small boat action is of any interest to you, this book is a must read. While thousands of books have been written about the fight to the death between the Royal Navy and the Kriegsmarine during World War II, almost all of these books have concentrated on the convoy battles in the waters of the North Atlantic. There was, however, another series of convoy battles fought between the Royal Navy and the Kriegsmarine. In these battles, it was the Royal Navy who was the attacker and the Kriegsmarine the defender. These battles were fought in the coastal waters of Europe. It is noted in the book’s preface that Royal Navy motor torpedo boats fired 1169 torpedoes during the war, in 782 separate engagements, that resulted in the sinking or damaging of 503 enemy ships. The various boats Cdr. Wright commanded fired 14 torpedoes, in 12 engagements, that sank or damaged 6 ships.
Cdr. Wright’s small boat actions against German supply convoys took place in the waters of the English Channel and the North Sea. The Germans, like the Allies, found transportation of supplies by ship to be far more efficient than transportation by land. While the English Channel and the North Sea are considerably smaller than the North Atlantic Ocean, they still encompass a considerable body of water. Thus, even when the Royal Navy knew that a German convoy was at sea, it was not a simple case of plotting a course to some location to intercept it. Many factors, some controllable and some not controllable, had to align to allow an interception of a German convoy. Then, once the convoy was located, the attacking motor torpedo boats had to maneuver into an attack position and overcome the convoy defenders to reach the merchant ships. The German convoys, while consisting of only one to three merchant ships, were heavily protected by various escort craft of the Kriegsmarine: minesweepers, schnellbootes, armed trawlers, and torpedo boats.
Cdr. Wright’s first command was HMMTB 32, armed with two side mounted torpedoes and attached to 1st MTB Flotilla. He first saw action on board her on July 29, 1942, during an attack on a German convoy off of Belgium. His next boat was HMMTB 238. He was then promoted to Senior Officer 22nd MTB Flotilla and took command of HMMTB 458. After the D-Day landings, Cdr. Wright assumed command of the 58th MTB Flotilla. On August 27, 1944, while captain of HMMTB 687, he fought his last action at sea.
The word “Tea” in the book’s title refers to the fact that, both prewar and postwar, Cdr. Wright’s occupation was that of tea merchant. How a tea merchant became one of the leading Royal Navy small boat commanders is the heart of this book’s story. Every war produces naval leaders who find in themselves some quality that allows them to become effective and fearless leaders. Cdr. Wright is such a person. Much of the book is concerned with the mundane effort of preparing for combat. The preparation includes not only training but evaluating after action reports and revising tactics to improve the odds of conducting a successful attack. These mundane accounts are punctuated by detailed descriptions of convoy attacks. The account of each attack covers the who, what, where, and when of the operation. Nicely drawn diagrams give the reader a visual understanding of each of the actions being described.
A substory carried on within the book is the importing of tea into Great Britain during the war. The early years of the war see ship after ship carrying tea succumbing to U-boat torpedoes, with just enough tea arriving so that a cup of tea can always be found. Overall, the book is an enthralling look at motor torpedo boat operations off the coast of France and Belgium during World War II.
Charles H. Bogart recently published A Kentucky Boy in the U.S. Navy: 1958-1961.
Torpedoes, Tea, and Medals: The Gallant Life of Commander D. G. H. ‘Jake’ Wright DSC** Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve. By Chris O’Flaherty (Philadelphia: Casemate, 2022).