In the summer of 1943 the allies had invaded Sicily. At first the German and Italian troops on the island stoutly resisted the invasion and supplies flowed westward across the narrow 3-mile gap of the straits of Messina. Then when the allies permanently regained the upper hand in the fighting for the island, huge amounts of German troops, equipment and supplies flowed east from Sicily to the Italian mainland. In this evacuation of the islands the German army was extremely successful. In an effort to stem this flow of water transportation across the straits, American PT boat and British MTB squadrons were employed. On the night of July 26-27 off the island of Stromboli, 1943 three PTs commanded by LT J.B. Mutty encountered a new German naval craft, which the allies called f-lighters. In this first engagement the PTs fired six torpedoes and reported two hits. However, German records reported no hits. In the following gunfight, either side scored little damage.
The Germans called the new design Marine-fahrprahme (MFP), which means naval perambulators. The design used a beaching craft with a very shallow draft. Drawing only four feet of water, these modified landing barges could get in very close to the beach. They were 163 feet long so they were slightly over twice the length of the PT boats. In spite of their ungainly design, they were capable of 10 knots with their diesel engines. What put them in a different league from normal cargo barges was their armament. Not only were they partly armored but they were heavily armed with guns up to 75mm to 88mm in size. "An MFP could hold its own with a destroyer, let alone a PT which had nothing more powerful than a 20-mm machine gun to shoot with." (History of United States Naval Operations of World War II, Vol. IX Sicily-Salerno-Anzio, 1954, Samuel Eliot Morison, at page 189)
Torpedoes from the PTs were normally ineffective because of the very shallow draft of the f-lighter. The torpedoes used by the PTs were generally erratic if they ran at a depth shallower than 8 feet, twice the depth of the bottom of the MFP. Therefore, action between a PT and a MFP became a gun duel and in this arena the MFP held an extensive edge. Initial orders to the PTs were to avoid engaging f-lighters. At this time there were only six MFP in operation and they were moved to the Straits of Messina to use their barge capabilities to move troops and equipment. The first success against a MFP came at 22:15 on August 3, 1943 when two destroyers, Gherardi and Rhind, encountered a small German convoy of a f-lighter and two German motor torpedo boats off of Cape Calava. The f-lighter, loaded down with land mines, blew up and the two escorting boats were also sunk.
However, this was an isolated success at the time because the f-lighters were concentrated in the Straits in August to be used to evacuate Sicily. Organized under the command of Commander von Liebenstein, a German reserve officer, the evacuation operations were an outstanding success for the German armed forces. Von Liebenstein varied embarkation and debarkation points and times of operation to minimize German losses. Now there seven MFPs in this operation, along with other craft. British MTBs tried to sortie against the evacuation in nighttime raids but every time they closed with the narrow strait, they were illuminated, taken under fire from ground batteries and forced to withdraw. Multiple aerial attacks only resulted in sinking one MFP and two Siebel ferries. The Germans were able to evacuate 39,569 troops, 9,605 vehicles, 47 tanks, 94 guns, over 2,000 tons of ammunition and fuel, and 15,000 tons of other gear.
When allied efforts began to interfere with f-lighter operations, the Germans upped the ante by designing a new variant of the f-lighter. A standard f-lighter was taken as the starting base and then greatly strengthened. Part of this was in the form of additional armor but the real bulk-up came in the form of armament. Wherever space could be found additional ordnance was mounted on the decks of the f-lighter. In effect, this new design sacrificed cargo carrying capacity to become a heavily armed escort. This new design was called the flak-lighter and proved to be an extremely tough antagonist.
The answer to the heavily armed flak-lighter came in the form of the British LCG, (Landing Craft Gun) basically a LCT equipped with two 4.7-inch guns and two 40mm Bofors. Royal Marine crews, who were crack shots, manned the guns. On the night of March 27-28, 1944 the new LCG proved its worth against the f-lighter. In a mixed force of American PTs and British MTBs and LCGs, commanded by Commander Robert A. Allan RNVR, f-lighters were encountered north of the island of Elba. The American PTs were used for scouting while the LCGs were the engagement force, screened by one MTB and three MGBs and more PTs. Commander Allan commanded from American PT-218. Six f-lighters were engaged by the force. Initially the German crews thought that they were under aerial attack and they fired wildly skywards. The allied forces closed and sank all six German craft.
"Within thirty seconds one of the F-lighters exploded with such force that even Allan was taken somewhat aback. A few minutes more, and three more of the lighters were ablaze. The two remaining F-lighters turned in an attempt to retreat from the battle but were pinned against the beach by the LCGs and pounded to very small pieces by 4.7 in. shells. ‘Of the six (F-lighters) destroyed’, Commander Allan reported, ‘two, judging by the impressive explosions, were carrying petrol, two ammunition, and one a mixed cargo of both.’ He then added almost wistfully, ‘The sixth sank without exploding." (United States PT Boats of World War II in Action, 1980, Frank D. Johnson, at page 118)
On the night of April 24-25, Allan’s force split into two groups to engage two different German convoys. One group, LCGs 14, 19 & 20; MTBs 640, 633, & 655; MGBs 657, 660 & 662 and PTs 209 & 218 (flag) was under Allan and the other with PTs 212, 213 (flag) & 213 was under LT E.A. Dubose USNR, who normally commanded the scouting PT force for Allen. As the large force under Allan finished with a force of four F-lighters and a tug a new German force was picked up to the north. "As Allen gave the order to open fire on the new arrivals, three Flak-lighters were illuminated. Two of the craft never had a chance to return fire, luckily, for they were both hit on the first salvo from the three LCGs and were immediately cast in a grand fireworks display of exploding ammunition. But these escort lighters were not to be taken lightly, as was soon discovered when the third craft began to pour a tremendous volume of fire in the direction of the attack group. Shells of 20mm, 40mm and 88 mm rained about the LCGs, at which point Commander Allan ordered PT-218 to make a run on the Flak-lighter in order to draw its fire away from the slower LCGs. Before the PT boat could move in, the lighter took a serious hit and retired into the heavy smoke created by the first two victims of the Royal Marine gunners. The accompanying control boat, PT-209, was then ordered to pursue the damaged lighter and headed off into the smoke accompanied by several of the British MGBs. Charging through the night, the 209 soon spotted the enemy vessel. Lt Bill Eldredge at the helm ordered one torpedo fired, turned away and watched the enemy craft take a direct hit which split it in two." (United States PT Boats of World War II in Action, 1980, Frank D. Johnson, at pages 119-121) In total the force sank four flak-lighters, five f-lighters and a tug.
However, even for Allan, everything did not always go as planned. As German controlled coastline shrank, fewer German coastal convoys were encountered. On the night of December 16-17, 1944, Allan with five British armed trawlers, seven PTs and eight MTBs found a f-lighter convoy near Spezia. They attacked but encountered ferocious f-lighter fire. Although the trawlers claimed to have sunk two f-lighters, the fact remained that f-lighter fire forced them to retire under a smoke screen furnished by the MTBs. (History from History of United States Naval Operations of World War II, Vol. IX Sicily-Salerno-Anzio, 1954, Samuel Eliot Morison; United States PT Boats of World War II in Action, 1980, Frank D. Johnson)
Mad Pete’s Flak-Lighter
There are only three resin parts included in the kit. Of course the one-piece hull/superstructure dominates the model as almost every detail is cast integral to the hull. The other two resin pieces are two shielded 88mm mounts. This WEM Flak-Lighter has a considerable superstructure on top of the standard F-Lighter barge. True to its heritage, it is loaded down with firepower. The full is one-piece full hull with a detailed bottom stern. Since this craft was based on a flat-bottomed, shallow draft barge, the under water portion is not too deep and should pose no problem for those who wish to model the Flak-Lighter in waterline. Basically the underwater detail amounts to three skegs and a small rudder as part of the hull casting. The upper portion of the hull contains all of the detail. The multi-level superstructure presents a satisfying, if somewhat boxy appearance. The Flak-Lighter is definitely not a pretty face as her origin as a powered barge is readily apparent.
Of course WEM adds layers of detail onto the superstructure. Up front you’ll find nicely done life rafts as well the circular overhanging position for the forward 88mm. The splinter shield for this position as well as for the rest of the model is very finely done and thin. Other detail includes twin bitt fittings, small breakwater, detailed metal treadway for the forward quad 20mm mount and wood plank treadway for the forward 88mm. Then you come to the bulk of the superstructure with the 37mm position on the 01 level and with single 20mm positions at the rear corners. The WEM casting has the support pillars and gun cradles for the single 20mm cast as part of the hull and they and exceptionally well done. Also present in the superstructure detail are vertical ladders, pilothouse windows, diesel exhausts, and doors in different styles. The stern detail concludes with another wood plank deck for the aft 88mm, round metal mount for the aft quad 20mm mount, more twin bitt fittings and the deck access hatches, which are concentrated in the stern. You can even count the bolts holding down the round base plate for the quad 20mm.
With almost any model from White Ensign Models, you can anticipate that it will come fully equipped with a full brass ensemble. The WEM Flak-Lighter comes so clothed. In typical beautiful fashion, a full relief etched brass fret is provided that adds the majority of the parts to the kit. The most complex are the two quad 20mm positions. The mounts and floor plates are designed to be folded around a resin or plastic body scratch made from scrap. Try your hand at forming this center mass first before starting on the brass. At little work with a hobby knife and sanding paper and you should have it. When it comes to the single 20mm guns WEM supplies four on the fret, although it appears that only two are needed for the kit. With this ordnance, the modeler must make a choice of mounting pintle or pillar. As mentioned earlier these are provided in resin as part of the hull casting. They are also provided in brass. Either you should remove the resin mounts from the upper superstructure or you should remove the brass mounts from the gun. I have a very strong preference to keep the resin mounts. First, it is three dimensional as compared to the two dimensional brass version. Second, it is easier to get a clean gun assembly by simply clipping away the brass mounts, as opposed to removing the resin parts and sanding. The third type of ordnance is the single 37mm gun. Bending brass parts to the correct shape and adding a circular plastic base also form this piece.
The fret also contains a great deal of solid splinter shielding. The shield around the aft 88mm position is completely new but the other shielding provides optional parts to replace cast resin splinter shielding. The positions comprise those around the pilothouse and 37mm position. I personally like the resin splinter shields already present at those locations but the brass replacement parts are nominally thinner. Other brass parts include doors, small mast, forward loading derrick, radio mast, propellers, inclined ladder, vertical ladder, railing in various styles and pilothouse deck fittings. WEM provides a length of brass rod to be cut into the three lengths of propeller shafts.
With only three resin parts, the instructions are simple and obviously concentrate on placement of the brass parts. Read the comprehensive text in these instructions as they explain optional steps in the construction of the kit. White Ensign Models supplies more gorgeous artwork for the painting instructions in three different schemes. The two-tone gray scheme might be OK for your grandma’s flak-lighter but is a little too tame for my tastes. I personally like the wet and wild green coastal splotch camouflage scheme, just perfect for these jungle cats. However, for those modelers inclined to Snow Leopards or Siberian tigers, the Norwegian/northern operations multiple blue camouflage has an icy beauty to it.