September 9 – Belfast lawyer was outstanding MTB Flotilla Commander


George Lennox Cotton began his Solicitor’s Apprenticeship in Belfast before the Second World War. During the War he served with distinction in the Royal Navy and was awarded the DSC in 1942. He commanded the 50th MTB Flotilla. He was wounded during battle with E boats.

Mobilised before outbreak of war in July 1939, he was appointed to HMS Hermes. He served as First Lieutenant of the MTB base at Great Yarmouth (HMS Midge). In May 1940 he was posted to Motor Torpedo Boats and served at Crete and Alexandria. Subsequently he was appointed to command 50th MTB Flotilla where he was wounded in an action with E-boats. In August 1942 as a Lt. Commander he was placed in command of MTB 502. Sea Training Officer in HMS Bee at Holyhead. From January 1945 to November 1945 served in HMS Mull of Galloway in the Pacific and was present at the Japanese surrender at Singapore.

The action in which Cotton was wounded whilst commanding 50th MTB Flotilla in the English Channel was described by Lieutenant-Commander Peter Scott, MBE, DSC, in his book, “The Battle of the Narrow Seas – A history of the Light Coastal Forces in the Channel and North Sea” :

“A week later came a night when there was great activity in the Dover Strait. Two groups of E Boats were laying mines one off Folkestone, the other off Rye; there was a friendly convoy eastbound and another westbound through the Narrows, and a friendly destroyer bound for Portsmouth, which was ordered to turn about because of further enemy mine-laying off Selsey Bill.

“Meanwhile, at about 2 a.m. the M.T.Bs under Lt.GL Cotton, RNVR [Spinks’ skipper in M.T.B. 201], were making their interception, though unfortunately it was detected before the attack could be completed. At once the air was full of starshell and tracer, but Cotton, with magnificent determination, went straight on in, closely followed by Lt. EH Larive, Royal Netherlands Navy. Which of the two boats fired the torpedo which is believed to have hit will probably never be known, but both MTBs passed through the screen of some seven or eight E Boats and a number of flak trawlers. In the action which followed the result was inconclusive. It was less successful than many MTB battles, but, as an example of human fortitude and determination in adversity, the story must take a high place.

“Cotton describes in his report how, because of the blinding glare, he was not at first certain whether a ship ahead of him was a merchant vessel or a trawler, so he fired one torpedo at a range of 300-400 yards. Too late, as the torpedo left the tube, he realised that it was only a trawler.

“At this juncture,” he writes, “we were hit on the bridge by an E Boat firing from astern of us. I was wounded and the coxswain was temporarily knocked out; the wheel was taken by the Canadian spare officer, Sub.-Lt. ID Moore, RCNVR.

“A large vessel was sighted immediately ahead which appeared to be the tanker, extremely light, as she was high in the water. She engaged us with very heavy gunfire. The remaining torpedo was fired at a range of 300 yards or less, and we turned to starboard, passing approximately 50 yards from the target’s port quarter.
“Shortly after the second torpedo was fired, the spare officer and the gunner clearly saw and heard an explosion, while others felt the concussion; the gunner maintains that he saw smoke rising from the fore hold of the ship. I personally did not see any explosion, as my attention was occupied elsewhere.

“By this time one engine had been put out of action by a hit on the salt-water pump. In turning away from the tanker we passed an E Boat at fairly close quarters, but it did not open fire. Two trawlers, however, engaged us as we were still turning, with extremely heavy and accurate fire, hitting us so often that the remaining engines and the guns were put out of action, a small fire was started, and many of the crew became casualties. So bad was the damage that the boat stopped, disabled, about three-quarters of a mile from the nearest trawler. Both trawlers continued shelling intermittently, so that finally the order had to be given to jettison the confidential books, and destroy all secret equipment.

“The state of the personnel at this time was as follows:
Commanding Officer .. Wounded.
First Lieutenant .. Wounded.
 Spare Officer .. Badly wounded (Died before reaching Base).
 Telegraphist .. Slightly wounded.
Gunner .. Wounded.
Signalman .. Killed.
 Motor Mechanic .. Very seriously wounded. 
Coxswain .. Wounded.
 Leading Stoker .. Killed.
 Stoker .. Badly wounded.
“Only the Seaman Torpedoman and the’ Trained Man’ were unwounded.

“At 0220 I gave the order to abandon ship, intending to lie off in the raft while the trawlers continued shelling, and this was carried out during a lull in the firing. One trawler then trained a searchlight on the boat and the firing continued intermittently for about half an hour, after which both trawlers disappeared.

“I then ordered the boat to be re-boarded and an endeavour to be made to get her under way. This was successful, and at 0340, proceeding on one auxiliary engine and hand-steering, course was set for Dover. The boat was making water rapidly, though the few still capable were endeavouring to their utmost to keep the level down by bailing and operating the hand bilge pump. At 0745 two High-speed Launches of the R.A.F. closed us and took off the badly wounded. An attempt was made to tow, but by this time the bilge pump was out of action and at 0848 she turned over and sank.

“Forwarding Cotton’s report to Admiralty, the Commodore Commanding, Dover, Rear-Admiral R. L. B. Cunliffe, after remarking on the ‘valiant efforts to save their vessel’ made by ‘her gallant and much tried crew,’ goes on to say that there is no conclusive evidence of the damage inflicted on the enemy, but although three weeks had elapsed since the attack, ‘the tanker, it is observed, still remains in the docks at Dunkirk.’”

As a result of being wounded in this action in the Channel, Cotton was invalided to shore service for a time.

Lennox Cotton qualified as a Solicitor in 1946 and became a partner, as did his brother Bertrand ‘Ber’ (Colonel, Royal Artillery), in his father Dawson Cotton’s firm of Crawford & Lockhart Martin H. Turnbull & Co., one of the oldest firms of Solicitors in Ireland. He retired from private practice in 1985 but remained as a Consultant for many years and until his death remained in close and regular contact with the firm.

Lennox Cotton served for many years as a Council Member of the Law Society of Northern Ireland becoming President in 1977. He held a number of company directorships, was Chairman of the Royal Victoria Hospital Trust Committee and had many charitable interests.

Lennox Cotton had a wide range of hobbies amongst them were hunting, horse breeding and racing, sailing, shooting, gardening and he was a very enthusiastic golf member at Royal County Down and took part in many Law Society matches.

Born 25/10/1915. Educated at Castle Park School, Dalkey, County Dublin and Wrekin College, Shropshire. He was appointed Deputy Lieutenant for County Down 24/10/1969. He was devoted to his family and was survived by his wife Eileen, to whom he was married for over sixty years, his daughters Caroline, Grania and Anne and several grandchildren. Died 09/09/2000. Clontagh House, Crossgar.

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