Motor Gun Boats during the Second World War, 1939-1945


Motor Gun Boats during the Second World War, 1939-1945
Steam Gun Boat, MGB S309, under the command of Lieutenant Commander Peter Scott underway at sea. S.309 was also known as ‘Grey Goose’ Photo courtesy of Imperial War Museum

THE ROYAL NAVY DURING THE SECOND WORLD WAR (A 25313) 71.5ft British Power Boat MTB 447 based at the coastal forces base HMS BEEHIVE. The boat was not fitted with tubes and was really a Motor Gun Boat. Powered by three Packard engines, it had a complement of two officers and 14 ratings. The armament included a 2pdr pom-pom and three 20mm Oerlikons. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source:


THE ROYAL NAVY DURING THE SECOND WORLD WAR (A 4262) Motor Gun Boat Flotilla, including MGB 62 and MGB 64, manoeuvring at sea. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source:


THE ROYAL NAVY DURING THE SECOND WORLD WAR (A 4263) Motor Gun Boat Flotilla manoeuvring at sea in line ahead formation, with a close up shot of MGB 62. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source:


THE ROYAL NAVY DURING THE SECOND WORLD WAR (A 4259) Motor gun boats in line abreast at speed. Nearest is MGB 60 with MGB 62 and MGB 65 further back. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source:


THE ROYAL NAVY DURING THE SECOND WORLD WAR (A 6960) The machine gunner of Motor Anti-Submarine Boat MASB 37 on the alert with his pair of Lewis Guns, in the Firth of Forth. These vessels are known as the mosquitos of the Navy and help keep the channels clear of enemy submarines. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source:


THE ROYAL NAVY DURING THE SECOND WORLD WAR (A 4251) Some of the crew on the bridge of an MTB as the flotilla goes to sea from Felixstowe. One of the men is fitting a magazine to a Lewis Gun. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source:


THE ROYAL NAVY DURING THE SECOND WORLD WAR (A 25309) A 21-inch torpedo being fired from the port tube of a 70ft Vosper MTB based at the coastal forces base HMS BEEHIVE, Felixstowe. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source:

US PT Boats WW2

PT was the US Navy abbreviation of “patrol torpedo” boats in World War Two.



Navy Gunners firing their 50 caliber guns, send their bright stream of tracers aloft at a Zero as another Zero dives in flames into the lagoon.

Numerous prototypes for patrol torpedo boats were designed and built with each one having its on flaws. Nonetheless, they were easy and quick to build but were hell to be on in a heavy seaway. Their hulls had a very difficult time taking the pounding they received in rough weather. While the plywood they were made of was itself made from mahogany and braced with solid mahogany, PT boats could exceed a speed of 40 knots.

(Drawing, Charcoal on Board; by Griffith Baily Coale; 1942. Courtesy of the US Navy History and Heritage Command)

PT boats underway off Attu Island during occupation.

US Navy PT boats underway off Attu Island during the Japanese occupation.

Japanese troops landed on Attu and Kiska 3 June 1942. These are part of the Aleutian Islands which came into possession of the United States after we bought Alaska from the Tsar of Russia in 1867. We bought the entire state for $7.2mm. Secretary of State Seward was ridiculed over paying such a ridiculously large amount of money for what was assumed to be nothing more than a frozen wilderness. I think we got the better of the deal.

Given the remoteness of the islands and the forbidding climate, it took more than a year of planning and transporting supplies before US and Canadian troops re-took the islands from the Japanese.


Photograph above from the US National Archives shows PT boats returning to base after operations off Leyte Island in the Philippines in December 1944. Note twin mounted .50 cal. machine guns. On 20 October 1944, US troops had landed on Leyte. This commenced the American campaign to drive the Japanese out of the Philippines. The fighting was intense and and US troops took heavy casualties.


US Navy PT Boats make high speed runs, during maneuvers off The Panama Canal Zone, circa 1943.

(photo and caption courtesy of US Navy History and Heritage Command)


Admiralties Operations, March-April 1944. PT boats bombarding Pityilu Island, Seeadler Harbor, prior to landings there by the Army’s First Cavalry Division, 30 March 1944. Note 37mm & 20mm guns on these boats. (Photo and caption courtesy of US Navy History and Heritage Command)

“Admiralties Operations” above is a reference to part of the larger New Guinea campaign to regain control of these islands from the Japanese. The Admiralty Islands had originally been a colony of Imperial Germany. After Germany’s defeat in World War One, the League of Nations gave Australia a mandate to rule the islands. The Admiralty Islands are an archipelago group of 18 islands in the Bismarck Archipelago, to the north of New Guinea in the South Pacific Ocean.


PT boats in New Guinea. Zero hour nears as darkness descends on New Guinea. Boats of the PT squadron warm up as they prepare to roar out on another dangerous mission.

In the beginning of the naval war in the Pacific, the US Navy had not achieved the mastery of fighting at night which had been achieved by the Imperial Japanese Navy and until new fighting doctrines were developed, the US Navy suffered significant losses in night battles with the Japanese especially in a series of engagements off Guadalcanal.



U.S. Navy PT boats crossing the English Channel on D-Day, 6 June 1944  during the Normandy Invasion, as twelve B-17 bombers pass overhead. Note the twin .50 caliber machine guns on the boat from which the photograph was taken.

(caption and photo courtesy of U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command)

Although the vast majority of US Navy PT boats were deployed in the Pacific, a handful were sent to Europe as seen in the photo above. I have never understood why the US Navy felt the need to do this. We must have felt we just wanted a handful of our own PT boats instead of having a squadron of Royal Navy Motor Torpedo Boats assigned to the US fleet.


 A ship in New York Harbor loaded with Elco 80 foot Patrol Torpedo Boats (PT Boats). 

Photo taken in 1942 and courtesy of Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library & Museum

Approximately 600 PT boats were built for the US Navy, almost all of them either built by the Elco Company or Higgins in New Orleans.

Terrifying Torpedo Boats and Torpedo Boat Destroyers

US PT boats in Pacific

The confusion begins. These are Patrol Torpedo boats or “PT Boats” used by the US Navy mainly in the Pacific. In this instance, the photograph above from the US National Archives shows PT boats returning to base after operations off Leyte in December 1944. Note twin mounted .50 cal. machine guns.

The boats were made of plywood and while they look sturdy, they really weren’t. If someone volunteered to serve on a PT boat, then he was a brave man. There was very little armor on the boat, just a bit around the bridge. So when people were shooting at you, if there was anything between you and the bullets, then it was plywood. Plywood has many useful qualities but stopping bullets isn’t one of them.

RN  HM Torpedo boat 4   WW 1

British Royal Navy in World War One: HM Torpedo Boat 4

(photo courtesy Imperial War Museum)

HM Torpedo Boat No. 41 WW One

British Royal Navy in World War One: HM Torpedo Boat 41

(photo courtesy Imperial War Museum)

The two boats pictured above are Royal Navy torpedo boats in World War One. These small, coal-fired boats were of a type which terrified naval admirals. In the decades prior to the First World War, inventors were able to make turbine engines small enough and reliable enough to fit into small boats. This enabled these boats to obtain speeds of 30 plus knots. This was much faster than most warships of the era. These boats were armed with torpedoes. A number of these boats were built and deployed by the major navies of the era. Admirals had nightmares of swarms of these small craft attacking their battleships and sinking them.

Large numbers of swarming boats operated by remote control are on the US Navy’s radar screen as a significant threat and I will write about this later.

Once a technology is introduced and people discover it can be used to construct a superior class of weapon, then it spreads quickly. The very useful Global Positioning System (GPS) was originally built for the US military. Theoretically, they can turn it off or so I have read. And,of course, the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA) invented the internet itself. The original intent of the internet was to allow decision makers to communicate in the event a nuclear blast interrupted normal channels of communications.

Given the way military technology spreads, once torpedo boats were introduced, a new class of small, fast warships had to be designed and built to defend capital ships from torpedo boats. In addition to being relatively small and swift, these new warships had to be heavily armed so they could sink a lot of torpedo boats and big enough to screen the heavy battle fleet from this fearful swarm.



British torpedo boat destroyer HMS Zubian

(photo courtesy Imperial War Museum)

Hence, the general class of ship built to counter torpedo boats was known as the “torpedo boat destroyer.” As time went on the Royal Navy, the French Navy, and other western navies including the US Navy dropped “torpedo boat” and simply called these ships “destroyers.” (In World War Two even smaller ships of this type were built which the US Navy named “destroyer escorts” and the Royal Navy, bringing a term out of mothballs, called them “frigates.”)

To the everlasting confusion of naval historians as well as those who enjoy reading naval history, after World War One, the German Navy dropped the word “destroyer” and kept the words “torpedo boat.” Thus smaller German destroyers came to be referred to as “torpedo boats.”


german torpedo boat destroyer ww1

 German torpedo boat destroyer in the Heligoland Harbour during World War One. (Official German Navy photograph from the collection of the Imperial War Museum).