Pro-Gaddafi forces feel the full strength of the Royal Navy

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THIS is the moment HMS Liverpool let rip on Colonel Gaddafi’s forces, blasting a gunboat to smithereens off the coast of Libya.

The Portsmouth-based destroyer came within range of Gaddafi rockets to take on three gunboats near Zlitan harbour – 100 miles from the Libyan capital Tripoli.

STRIKE HMS Liverpool firing at pro-Gaddafi vessels off Libya

STRIKE HMS Liverpool firing at pro-Gaddafi vessels off Libya

Liverpool was alerted to the three boats by a US Navy patrol aircraft on Friday and went in eight miles from the coast to investigate.

‘We don’t know what they were up to,’ Liverpool’s captain, Commander Colin Williams told The News yesterday.

‘But we do know they were manned by pro-Gaddafi forces and may have posed a threat to the Libyan people.’

The boats have been used by Gaddafi to transport weapons and lay mines. But there could have been an ulterior motive on Friday, Cdr Williams said.

SKIRMISH HMS Liverpool is in waters off the coast of Libya

SKIRMISH HMS Liverpool is in waters off the coast of Libya

‘There was the worry that we were actually the target,’ he admitted. ‘It was possible they were trying to tempt us closer into the coast into a killing field.

‘The closer we get to the shore the higher the danger is we may come under fire. But we do take extreme caution before we go into something like this.’

In position eight miles out to sea, Liverpool sent radio warnings in an attempt to scare the boats away.

But when no response came, she opened fire with the big gun, raining down shells at twice the speed of sound.

‘Two of the vessels took heed of the warning shots,’ said Cdr Williams who was in the operations room at the time.

‘But the third vessel beached itself and the crew ran off on to the beach.’

Satisfied there was no-one left in the boat, Cdr Williams was instructed to destroy the vessel.

‘There wasn’t a great deal left of it once we’d finished,’ he said.

It’s the second time in a fortnight that Liverpool has forced Gaddafi’s forces back to port by firing her main gun.

It comes after repeated attempts by Gaddafi forces to sortie along the coast from Zlitan to the rebel-held city of Misrata 40 miles to the east.

The Type 42 destroyer left Portsmouth Naval Base at the end of March to relieve the Type 22 frigate HMS Cumberland and has been on a war footing since April 8.

But in testing conditions, the 31-year-old warship is holding her own, Cdr Williams said.

‘The ship is performing absolutely brilliantly.

‘We’re doing extremely long hours, the temperature is rising all the time and we’re commonly operating under threat of attack from the shore but we just keep on going.

‘My ship’s company are second to none. They are just doing the job with a big smile on their face and in a calm and controlled manner.

‘They are everything a commanding officer could hope for.’

Liverpool is one of 17 allied warships committed off Libya as part of the United Nations operation to enforce an embargo against Col Gaddafi’s regime and a no-fly zone to protect civilians.

Minehunter HMS Bangor is helping to keep the sea lanes open and flat-top HMS Ocean is on patrol with her Apache and Sea King helicopters taking to the skies.