We Fought Them in Gunboats: HMS Beehive Edition
By ROBERT HICHENS (ed: JULIA JONES)
(Golden Duck – £14.99)
Wartime censorship redacted a considerable part of the autobiographical Motor Gun Boat exploits penned by Lt Cdr Robert Hichens DSO* DSC** RNVR. First published in 1944, We Fought Them in Gunboats was heavily edited by the Admiralty to make it a boys-own tale of North Sea warfighting. This new edition benefits from an additional 33,000 words, previously expunged but which now further illuminate the raw and personal warfighting, both on and off the battlefield, that was 100-octane gunboat battle.
The original review for this book (the Admiralty censored edition) appears in NR Volume XXXII (1944) Issue 2 (pp169-170). Mindful of the different grading of hyperbolic adjectives as used at the time, it is described as “A fine book”, and is that issue’s lead review. ‘Hitch’ had been Killed in Action on 13 April 1943, and the wartime reviewer played along with his legendary status (even by 1943, he was and remained WWII’s most decorated Coastal Forces warrior). Whilst the original contains myriad tales of derring-do (14 enemy encounters, to be precise), it only hints at some of the redacted, often less flattering, but absolutely fascinating elements of the manuscript. Alongside tales of maintaining 30 knots for over seven hours whilst on operations in order to keep a sub-waterline hole in the hull from causing catastrophic flooding, the wartime NR daringly includes Hitch’s quip that “trying to get something [like a new gun] out of the Admiralty is like making love to an elephant”.
This new edition expands considerably across these themes. The additional content extends the original book by nearly 40% – perhaps testament either to the glib abandon with which the censor yielded their wartime red pen, or to the fact that ‘Hitch’ included far too many operational details in his script along with a few too many criticisms of his chain of Command. Julia Jones’ editing generates a valuable suite of endnotes that highlight exactly what was censored – ranging from names, places, boat numbers and even the precise amount of Turbo Boost used in action, through to entire blocks of text such as the wonderful description of HMS Beehive in Felixstowe between pages 46 and 57, which includes the delightful anecdotes of dressings down by the base CO (quoting the ‘principles’ in Base Standing Orders), followed by Hitch’s rather tentative but inwardly gleeful ripostes (quoting the precise wording of Base Standing Orders). Hitch was, after all, in peacetime a solicitor!
Throughout the book a recurrent theme dear to this reviewer’s heart is the tactical innovation required of wartime action. Of working up in February 1941 as a new CO in one of the first Motor Gun Boats, it is noted that “we had no idea of what our fighting would be like, and so our preparation was mostly wrong and we had to learn our correct tactics in the hard school of night actions at sea”. Hitch went on to use forenoon ‘gin sessions’ to build his band of brothers within his Flotilla, as well as to ensure he gleaned (and imparted) as much tactical and operational detail as was practicable. It was this operational analysis, tactical improvisation, trial (and error), and subsequent reports of success that stood Hitch above many of his peers when it came to defeating the enemy.
Delivering such consistent success in battle meant Hitch was often operating at the extreme edge of warfighting odds, which in many cases were stacked against him. On 13 April 1943 his luck ran out and he was killed by a stray German bullet fired as he was disengaging from another otherwise successful encounter. This means that Hitch’s original manuscript, as now published, is precisely as he wrote it – exceptionally raw. For this reviewer, this ability to read the unedited emotions and tribulations of a warfighting hero is the outstanding feature of this new edition.
Re-cycled versions and sequels of superb originals rarely satisfy the expectations of critics. This book bucks the trend. To return to the original NR book review, this “fine book” was highlighted as being of especial value “for youngsters of the future to carry them through the wave of flabbiness when it comes”. This new edition of ‘We Fought Them in Gunboats’is the perfect opportunity for all of us to be re-inspired by seagoing antics and to remind ourselves that commitment, courage, discipline, respect, integrity, and loyalty can truly deliver warfighting success. Thoroughly recommended.