I first became interested in Motor Launches in the course of my work for Historic England on the War Channels as a result of an intriguing title in the Naval Military Press catalogue: ‘Hounding the Hun from the Seas’. This is a ripping yarn published in 1919 about the origins and actions of the Motor Launches. It prompted me to search around the web and I quickly found Jeffrey Charles’ excellent website about the ‘Movies’, which provides a great deal of background information. This site also referenced the remains of a ML in a boatyard in Isleworth, noting that the vessel ‘was now a total wreck. At some point, during a housekeeping day, I expect her remains will be pulled out and hauled to the tip’. The accompanying photos had been taken in 2009. The question was, had this unique vessel been entirely lost?
A little more online searching suggested that if it still survived, the remains of the ML were located behind a covered pontoon. I dropped a line to colleagues at the Thames Discovery Programme (TDP) based at MOLA and asked if they could have a look if they happened to be passing.
The good news came back that ML 286 did still survive, though in poor condition. TDP arranged to carry out some recording with volunteers from their Foreshore Recording & Observation Group (aka FROGs) and I was able to visit myself on 5 June 2015. TDP has returned to carry out further recording by volunteers in 2016 and 2017 and are close to having a full record of the visible remains. I was again able to join them with Stephen Fisher of the Spitfires of the Sea website, which sets out the importance of the ML’s in the industrialisation of vessel manufacture in the First World War.
A further interesting dimension of the ML story is the imagery of them held in the collections of the Imperial War Museum. This includes many historic photographs of MLs in UK waters and in other theatres, but it also includes sketches and paintings of MLs by a range of war artists. I’ve collected some of these together on Pinterest here. I was especially taken by the sketches of day to day activity on an ML, including quite detailed portraits of the crew and their surroundings. As well as providing insight into the everyday conduct of the First World War at sea, these sketches show the identifiable – though unnamed – faces of ratings as well as officers. Typically, the imagery of the First World War at Sea focusses on vessels and officers – there seem to be relatively few images of ‘ordinary’ seamen, especially compared to images of solders: Jack is much less visible than Tommy in our histories of the First World War.
One of the war artists responsible for the imagery has a particularly close relationship to the MLs. Geoffrey Allfree commanded MLs as well as illustrated them; and sadly he died with almost all his crew while commanding ML 247 when it was caught in a storm off Clodgy Point, St. Ives on 29 September 1918. Remarkably, research by TDP volunteers has demonstrated that Geoffrey Allfree was the first commander
of ML 286, adding to the significance of its remains at Isleworth.
Although the term ‘Motor Launch’ might imply a utility or service craft for harbour work or as tenders to bigger ships, they were designed from the start as fighting vessels – specifically as ‘submarine chasers’. The intention was that numerous fast boats would be able to chase down and attack U-boats. 550 were made using new production line techniques in the United States and assembled in Canada before being shipped over to the UK. They were armed with a 3-pounder gun and were capable of 19 knots. They were subsequently equipped with depth charges and performed a very wide range of roles both in UK waters and further afield.
There are various references to MLs in the East Coast War Channels, including in the regular escorting of convoys. For example, a telegram in May 1918 reports a steamer in a southbound convoy being blown up off Roker Lighthouse, Sunderland, prompting the accompanying MLs to fire and drop depth charges in the vicinity. In August 1918, ML 403 was dispatched to make safe a spent German torpedo – presumably fired by a U-boat – that had been spotted in Runswick Bay, Yorkshire. Unfortunately, the torpedo exploded while being disarmed; there was just one survivor.
MLs also took part in some major actions, notably the raids on the German-held ports of Ostend and Zeebrugge in spring 1918. These audacious raids involved sinking blockships in the main shipping channels to prevent their use by U-boats; ML’s were used in the thick of the fighting to recover the men from the blockships. Victoria Crosses were awarded for actions aboard ML 282 in the Zeebrugge raid, and ML 254 and ML 276 in the second Ostend raid.
After the war, many MLs were stripped of their guns and fast engines and sold off to become motor yachts. ML 286 became Cordon Rouge and subsequently Eothen. As Eothen, ML 286 saw action once again, as one of the Little Ships at Dunkirk that transferred soldiers from the beaches to the waiting ships.
Although they were not used by the Royal Navy in the Second World War, there is a direct line between the MLs and the small fighting vessels of the Coastal Forces. Motor Anti-Submarine Boats (MASB or MA/SB) were introduced with a similar role to MLs, but U-boats did not prove to be a menace in UK coastal waters for most of the Second World War. Rather, it was Germany’s fast torpedo boats – E-boats or more properly S-boats – that had to be countered; and the MASBs evolved into increasingly powerful Motor Gun Boats (MGBs).
The remains of ML 286 in Isleworth are – as far as we know – all that remains of the First World War MLs. These remains are highly significant on several counts, yet they are clearly very degraded. Restoration of such decayed timber is unlikely to be practical, and conservation for the longer term of the remains in their current condition would be difficult and costly. Nonetheless, a variety of solutions can be contemplated that would help safeguard the history of this vessel and what it represents, and which could bring its story to a wider audience.
Lieutenant M P S (RNVR), 1919, Hounding the Hun from the Sea: a tale of the British MLs on the High Seas. Naval Military Press.
Maxwell, Gordon S., 1920, The Motor Launch Patrol. London: Dent.