Torpedoes, Tea and Medals: book review

Torpedoes, Tea and Medals is a fascinating account into the life of the highly decorated Second World War RNVR officer, Jake Wright, says Julia Jones

Torpedoes, Tea and Medals
Captain Chris O’Flaherty RN
Casemate Publishing, £17.99

There are interesting reasons for the title of this biography.

Its subject – the highly decorated Second World War RNVR officer Derek ‘Jake’ Wright – was working as a tea merchant for Brooke Bond before he was called up for war service aged 24.

In the course of his successful career in Coastal Forces, he was mentioned in despatches and awarded a Distinguished Service Cross (DSC) with two bars.

He then returned to Brooke Bond to achieve similar success. If there were medals in the tea industry, he would no doubt have received them.

The opening chapter of Torpedoes, Tea and Medals includes a detailed account of a night-time action off the Dutch coast on July 28th 1942.

A small force of three MGBs (Motor Gun Boats) and two MTBs (Motor Torpedo Boats) attack a cargo vessel protected by two armed trawlers.

The description of teamwork, courage and determination together with high-level boat handling is gripping.

All the officers in charge were volunteers and most of the crew members were ‘Hostilities Only’.

Wright and three members of his crew were subsequently given bravery awards.

To the peacetime reader 80 years on, it’s hard to differentiate why some merited this recognition above others but these were recommendations made by peers, rather than ‘gongs’ handed out by remote departments. They’re correspondingly meaningful.

Many ordinary people achieve extraordinary things in time of crisis.

In Wright’s case, service with coastal forces offered him fast track development of his analytical abilities and people management skills, as well a structured world within which he could achieve individual respect and public marks of esteem.

Author Chris O’Flaherty is a Royal Navy Commander who has strongly developed academic insight as well as impressive practical experience.

He’s interested in exploring the benefits wartime volunteers brought to the Navy.

In this case (unlike O’Flaherty’s previous biography Crash Start) it seems obvious that wartime service in the Navy also benefitted ‘Jake’ Wright.

Wright was not one of the ‘Yachtsmen Volunteers’, the RNVSR, who achieved immediate commissions as officers although he had family sailing experience as a young child and was a keen club rower on the upper Thames.

His father had died when he was not quite 14; his mother had a full-time career and it was the influence of other family members that sent the teenager to the not-especially-distinguished Framlingham college, and then, aged 16, into the tea trade.

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Wright had gained his pre-war naval experience the hard way, joining the RNVR London Division in 1937 as an Ordinary Seaman, attending compulsory weekly drills, giving up his Saturday afternoons and summer holiday.

When his personal qualities were noticed he was sent for additional training at HMS King Alfred to achieve appropriate qualifications as an officer.

His first operational experience was in the final phase of the Dunkirk evacuation when he was towed across by a tug in an open boat for what Admiral Ramsey described as ‘a final hopeful fling’ to collect any stragglers.

When he was finally qualified as a sub-lieutenant RNVR, he took the initiative in applying for a posting in coastal forces before this was a volunteer-friendly option.

He spent several months at HMS Beehive in Felixstowe as a ‘spare officer’.

O’Flaherty explains how the sheer number of small-scale engagements undertaken by the MTBs and MGBs of coastal forces added up to a significant contribution to the overall war effort.

Often these missions took place in such a relatively brief time frame that participants could joke that they’d be back ‘in time for tea and medals’.

Their small ship fighting was usually up close and personal.

It’s not a coincidence that officers and men of coastal forces earned proportionately more awards for bravery than any other branch of the service.

Jake Wright was also involved in some of the earliest mine laying sorties from Felixstowe to Oostende, Flushing and Dunkirk.

The author’s direct understanding of ‘unmanned warfare’ made this a vivid and interesting section despite its unattractive purpose.

Torpedoes Tea and Medals has an intriguing string of facts highlighting the special status of tea in wartime as an essential ingredient of national morale.

It’s a well-researched, undeniably expert volume and is sold in aid of the Coastal Forces Heritage Trust.

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Source: Yachting Monthly

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