Image: German E-boat being restored at Millbrook, England
Paul Segner  /  msnbc.com
Known as S130, the last remaining German E-boat is being restored at a cost of $8.25 million in Millbrook, England.
By
msnbc.com
updated 6/5/2009 6:16:41 AM ET 2009-06-05T10:16:41

In a nondescript shed in a English seaside village, the remains of a Nazi torpedo boat behind one of worst U.S. catastrophes in World War II rests on cradle of lumber.

And almost 65 years to the day after this German vessel played its part in a D-Day dress rehearsal gone wrong that ended with 749 Americans servicemen dead, three survivors of the Exercise Tiger disaster garner their first glimpse of E-boat S130.

Ignoring his aching knees, one of the elderly veterans begins to climb a 20-foot ladder to get a better view of the ship. Another is overcome with emotion and becomes teary-eyed. But before long, the elderly trio end up wandering over its battered deck.

The last-known remaining craft of its type was bought about two years ago by British military vehicle collector Kevin Wheatcroft for 1 pound (about $1.60). He is now planning to spend about five million pounds ($8 million) to return the boat to its original condition.

Frank Derby, 83, of Fallston, Va., was aboard one of the landing craft in the U.S. convoy attacked by the German flotilla that included S130 on April 28, 1944.

"It was dark and you couldn't see it," he recalled. "We heard the engines roar by but we had no idea it was so big.

"For kids growing up to see something that was really used in World War Two is a good thing."

'Raging bull'
All three of the ex-servicemen said they were taken aback by the size of the E-boat during last month's visit to the boatyard, which sits at the end of a winding country road near Plymouth, England.

German authorities credited the S130's crew with half of a "kill" after it launched one of two torpedoes which struck LST 507 during Exercise Tiger. At least 175 American soldiers and sailors aboard the landing craft were later confirmed dead.

John Owles, of British firm Roving Commissions, has been tasked with returning the torpedo boat to the same state it would've been when it was built in 1943 — a "raging bull" with a top speed of about 43 knots (50 mph).

"These were the fastest things afloat then," said the chain-smoking Owles, 56. "They were miles ahead of us technologically. They could operate in much worse weather conditions than we could.

"They'd creep up silently, fire the 'fish' and then get out of there before the planes arrived. More than 200 were built but now this is it — she is the sole survivor."

With a range of up to 700 miles and a crew of 35, S130 was used as a fast-attack craft, for mine-laying, targeting submarines with depth charges and for covert operations. Built largely of lightweight wood and aluminum, it was powered by three 2,500-horsepower diesel engines.

Seized by the British
The E-boat was based at Cherbourg, France, when it earned notoriety as part of the flotilla that ravaged a U.S. convoy during Exercise Tiger.

After the invasion of Normandy, it was seized by Britain and then used by intelligence service MI6 — under the cover of the British Baltic Fishery Protection Service — to insert spies behind the Iron Curtain.

And then it was returned to the German navy and used to train sailors in underwater weaponry before being decommissioned in 1991. It later served as a houseboat before being brought to Britain and falling into disrepair.

Restoring the craft is a painstaking process that is expected to take about five years.

The ship's guts have been stripped out and its armored wheelhouse and bridge removed. The next step is for a 40ft keel weighing about two tons to be installed.

A team of divers has recovered some parts from three E-boats that were scuttled off the coast of Denmark.

"The idea is that you'll really step back in time," Owles said. "Finding the bits is some task — we're looking for mundane things things like sinks, wash basins, the galley cooker, knives, forks and plates."

Dr. Harry Bennett, a World War II expert based at Britain's University of Plymouth, compared the speedy S130 to an "ocean-going shark."

Image: John Owles
Paul Segner  /  msnbc.com
John Owles, a former fisherman and merchant mariner, is leading the British team restoring S130.
"There's a lot of history in those timbers," he said, looking out from atop a viewing platform in the tool-filled shed.

"The E-boats would go out into the English Channel looking for targets of opportunity. They would sit there in the dead of night with their engines idling, wait for the enemy, fire a torpedo and be gone before anybody even knew what was going on."

As owner the world's largest privately held collection of military vehicles, Wheatcroft said he envisions the restored vessel as being a "living memorial to all sailors who died during World War Two."

"It's the only example of its type left in the world," he said. "I want it to become like something brought back from the past."

Wheatcroft, whose family owns Britain's Donington Park auto-racing track, described E-boats as "without a doubt the most sinister, purpose-built killing machines."

Exercise Tiger survivor Paul Gerolstein, 88, from Port Charlotte, Fla., said he was left "breathless" by his most-recent encounter with S130.

"I was amazed by the size of that boat," the retired police lieutenant said. "I expected it to be like a PT boat but it's 115ft long — just mammoth. It's a beautiful boat."

Nathan Resnick, 85, a motor machinist's mate 2nd class aboard landing craft LST 511 during Exercise Tiger, said his visit left no doubt that S130 had been "really lethal."

"The E-boat could go 40 knots, we could only go 12 or 13 knots," said Resnick, of Van Nuys, Calif. "It was really a mismatch."

Owles, a former fisherman and merchant mariner, admitted he wasn't sure how the American ex-servicemen would react when confronted with a vessel that had been responsible for the deaths of so many colleagues.

"The guys just seemed overawed by it," he said. "They were crawling all over it. One of the veterans said, 'I'll be 90 in 5 years' time and I want a ride.' "

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