Old Wood & Rusty Iron – by Mike creasy
Coastal Forces – E Boats – MTBs – MGBs – some of the better known players of WW 2. But where did Fairmiles fit into this picture? What were they? And how did they fit into Canada’s naval history?
Canadian-built Fairmiles were a modest wooden boat with few redeeming features; they weren’t very fast, they didn’t carry much armament, and didn’t figure in any major sea battles of WW 2.
But, they were cheap and easy to build, and they performed many of the “gopher” tasks of inshore patrol, rescue, courier duty etc, thereby releasing larger ships – and smaller, faster boats - for the glory jobs.
Developed in pre-war England, the early Fairmile A model had three Hall Scott Defender gas engines, but difficulties with supply led to the twin-engine installations found on the model Bs. The Fairmile name came from the country estate of the designer, Sir Noel Macklin, in Surrey England near the shipyard of the same name.
Eighty-eight Fairmile Bs were built in Canada during the war; hundreds more in other Commonwealth countries. Eighty went into RCN service, while eight went south to the US Navy. Average cost was around $81,000. The ship itself had a plywood sheathed, 112 foot hull with a round-bilge shape as opposed to the hard-chine, planing hulls found on most of the faster boats. The difference, of course, is that the slower displacement hulls are better able to handle rough seas, while the fast planing hulls are often forced to slow down in large waves.
Canadian pennant numbers Q 050 to Q 111 were powered by two 635 hp Hall Scott Defenders, giving a speed of just over 20 knots. Numbers Q 112 to Q 125 had 850 hp Stirling Admiral engines, and one boat – Q 095 – was fitted with a pair of V12 Packards.
Don’t forget that today, the military is often seen as an innovator, using new technologies in new ways to reduce risk and improve efficiency of attack. But this is a new role for land and sea based powers, pushed by the speed of change in the 20th century. Prior to that, most military command structures were steeped in time-honoured traditions, ever aware of precedent and chain of command. New ways of doing things, especially in peacetime periods, were often dismissed either as lunatic ideas or as dangerous measures that could render entire fleets obsolete.
And so it was in early 20th century navies, when battleship Admirals faced such strange new concepts as boats that went under water and bombs that fell from the sky.
The huge small-boat Navies of WW2 had their beginnings in the “spar-torpedo” boats of the 1870s, when problems with torpedo propulsion were overcome by a fixed mounting on the bows of a small steam-powered launch. These early Yarrows boats were made obsolete by 1877, when Robert Whitehead found a way to use compressed air to drive the torpedo on its own.
Presumably, steam launch crews were grateful to Mr. Whitehead, as they no longer had to swim home!
Small boats soon became the preferred launch platform for these self-propelled torpedoes, and because these were minor items on big naval budgets, championed by officers well down the food chain, it was possible to develop both technology and tactics.
Boats and torpedoes saw much experimentation in WW1, but the boats soon began to grow, morphing into the new “torpedo boat destroyer” and eventually the large, fast and deadly destroyers of WW2. Military small boat design (and the tactics of their use) really got going once WW2 began. In the period between wars, most Admiralties had little interest in small boats despite the lessons to be learned from their use in the first world war.
By the 1930s, some countries were building a few small boats for naval applications, but with limited interest. Small boats were generally left behind as the focus remained on big ships and big guns. One notable exception to this trend was Germany - forced to look closely at small boats by the limitations of the Treaty of Versailles. The German Navy began serious development of the Schnellboote (fast boat) in 1928, and had a clear edge in numbers and tactical applications at the start of WW 2. Another important advantage held by the Germans was the new Daimler-Benz diesel engine, powerful and reliable, using a fuel that didn’t tend to explode when the shooting started.
The Royal Navy ordered some new-fangled Motor Torpedo Boats from the British Power Boat Company in 1935. These 60 footers had three Napier gas engines giving up to 33 knots. Other builders saw the potential, and came up with their own designs. Vosper built a 68 foot craft, and Thornycroft and Fairmile both hit the drawing boards.
Hundreds of 68 foot Vosper MTBs were built, as well as a longer 73 foot version. These boats and their derivative Motor Gun Boats formed the backbone of the Allies’ famous Coastal Forces in WW2.
Fairmile also produced the C model; 110 feet with three Hall Scott engines giving a speed of about 27 knots. 24 of these boats were produced before modifications led to development of the Fairmile D.
The D model could carry torpedoes, go fast and operate further afield in miserable weather. Over 220 of this combined MTB/MGB model were built; 115 feet with four 1,250 hp Packards, able to make about 30 knots.
The RCN didn’t buy any of the later model Fairmiles, but Canadian crews manned the 29th and 65th Coastal Forces Flotillas using surplus Royal Navy D models and other types. These Flotillas were in the thick of the battle much of the time – a story for another day. Meanwhile, Canada’s B models sailed on between Newfoundland and Bermuda, fighting heavy weather and ice instead of E-boats and Stukas.
Fairmile hulls were used for a variety of things after the war as well – everything from island ferries to luxury yachts, and some are still around, no doubt waiting for the chance to show their stuff again.
The Far Distant Ships, Joseph Schull, Queen’s Printer, 1961
The Battle of the Torpedo Boats, Bryan Cooper, Stein and Day, 1970
RCN in Retrospect, James Boutilier, Hignell Printing, 1982
The Sea Is At Our Gates, Tony German, McClelland & Stewart, 1990
Manitoba Naval Museum online archives