Flat-Pack Warships


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Fairmile B Western Lady IV after fifty years service as a ferry

The Fairmile B was a 112ft prefabricated wooden warship assembled at small boatyards. Many enjoyed a post-war afterlife as houseboats and ferries, but few now survive.

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Lines of the Fairmile B

Desperate times call for innovative solutions and one brilliantly innovative solution was the Fairmile B Motor Launch. Over 700 Fairmile Bs were built during World War Two in the UK, USA, Canada, Egypt and India.

The Fairmile Marine company of Cobham Surrey, UK, is credited with the concept of the wooden mass-produced minor warship. The company produced a series of designs that were to be manufactured as flat-pack kits, and supplied to small boatyards that were unsuitable for building larger warships. This promised to deliver large numbers of vitally-needed warships with the minimum use of strategic materials and without taking capacity from specialist builders like Vosper, or larger yards that were urgently needed to expand the fleet and maintain it.


Fairmile B bows on showing the steel shoe in the bow to protect the wooden stem

Fairmile produced seven designs: A, B, C, D, F, H, and HDML, all successful warships produced in volume, but the Fairmile B takes pride of place in the portfolio. The design was based on a fleet destroyer, scaled down to 112ft (34m) for construction in wood. At the time, with MTB/MGBs of 70ft (21m) or less, this was a very large wooden warship, with more graceful lines and a rounded bilge keel, potentially capable of more than 30 knots as originally planned. It also differed from the typical planning hull designs in that it was intended from the start as a multi-role vessel that could convert very rapidly from one role to another, employing an innovative track system for mounting weapons on deck.


The open bridge with tabernacle to allow the mast to be lowered for shooting low bridges


With equipment and wheel refitted for the staart of a new ferry season


Second steering position below the bridge

Originally, the Fairmile B was to be fitted with three diesel engines of 800hp each but, as these were not expected to be available in time for the start of full production, it was decided to use three American Hall-Scott Defender petrol engines of 600hp each (the use of petrol was to have unpleasant consequences in several commando actions fought by Fairmile Bs, as at Dieppe). Then someone pointed out that, with engines being shipped across the Atlantic, half as many boats again could be built by using only two engines per vessel, bringing the maximum speed down to 20knots, still a very respectable performance for the time. It was not until late 1943 that the experimental Perkins high-speed diesels were tried in ML 570 in place of her two Hall-Scott engines, but only three of the engines, to a German design for an aircraft engine, were built.

The first Fairmile Bs were completed in August 1940; ML113, built by Tough Brothers, Teddington, beating ML 116 from Dickie of Bangor and Tarbert, by two days. Something of a competition developed between the assembly yards for the fastest assembly time, the average being 24 weeks per vessel, the fastest being 14 weeks. To achieve this rapid assembly time, there was a considerable logistics challenge, as components were made by blacksmiths, small engineering companies, furniture manufacturers, and a diverse selection of small businesses previously producing small domestic products. As all theses hundreds of suppliers completed the parts, they were collected together and taken to depots, to then be issued to selected assembly yards, many of which were located some way up river from the sea, requiring, in at least one case, for the superstructure to be constructed and moved by road or rail, while the hull was floated down to a seaport and the superstructure added at the quayside. Another difficulty was that the imported mahogany planks, used for the double diagonal ply hull, sat in dockyards during bombing raids and collected shrapnel that damaged saws in the shipyards. When repairs were made after combat, the RN and dockyard workers often discovered some of this shrapnel mixed with recent shrapnel from the action that resulted in battle damage.

The result of this distributed industry was a vessel of elegant lines with a ‘funnel’, carrying the petrol engine exhausts, that suggested in profile a larger warship observed from a great distance. The B punched well above its weight visually and physically. It carried sonar and, eventually, radar, with a choice of torpedo tubes in various sizes, anti-aircraft guns, depth charges, minesweeping equipment, and even 4.5in naval guns and the infamous Holman projector, an airgun that fired Mills bombs. The ability to rapidly change weapons to suit different roles meant that the B was always in great demand, often sailing out to take over convoy escort of inbound Atlantic convoys as the exhausted corvette and destroyer escorts ran short of fuel and ammunition after vicious battles with U-Boat wolf packs. Coastal convoy escort became an important and familiar task for the B, which also carried commandoes, as at Saint Nazaire, the combination of wood and petrol often proving fatal under the heavy gunfire from coast and port defences.

After a distinguished war service, the Bs were collected in port and their engines removed for return to the US under the Lend-Lease Agreements. Some Bs were sold and converted into houseboats, but many were bought and re-engined for commercial and leisure use. A number were converted into motor yachts, particularly in the Mediterranean and in New Zealand waters. The low price and the high capacity of the hull made these boats very attractive for use as luxury yachts and as ferries, where steel and GRP motor vessels began to replace them from the 1970s. Today only a handful of Bs survive, even fewer in sailing condition.

As wooden vessels, they were very easy to cut about to suit the needs of new owners. Those converted to yachts featured new superstructures that significantly changed their shape. Ex-RNZML 406 was converted as Motonui with a new superstructure from just forward of the old wheelhouse, back almost to the transom. She looked superb, but no longer like a Fairmile B.

The Gardner diesel became the favoured replacement for the returned Hall-Scott petrol engines, although a number of Bs were fitted with war-surplus GM diesels originally fitted to tanks and trucks before being marinised. Several GM-engined Bs appear to have been re-engined again, when loaned to European navies in 1946-1947. While the yacht conversions usually removed the trademark funnel, most ferries retained this distinctive feature, which often provided a convenient place to store small items of gear, the exhaust pipes requiring very little space.


Golden Galleon in happier times on the River Yare


Golden Galleon on Oulton Broad


Golden Galleon, AKA ML 162, at Great Yarmouth in sinking condition. A previous owner had removed the bilge manifold system and created an open boat by cutting holes in all bulkhead to pump bilges with a single submersible pump. Water leaking in through a prop tube had built up. A prospective buyer noticed the problem (missed by the naval architect conducting a survey) and called the owners engineer to set up emergency pumps which started just before the mooring lines parted. At that point the transom was a metre clear of the water. Some extravagant claims were made for the war record including the sinking of submarines and the shooting down of aircraft. This was part of the competition between the Galleon and the Fairmiles operated from Great Yarmouth under the names of Eastern Princess. One Eastern Princess was indeed responsible for shooting down a Ju 88 while on coastal convoy escort, apparently using a Lewis gun mounted in the bridge area, rather than the 20mm cannon she was also equipped with.




Two images of ML 162 just before the Broads Authority called in the chain saws

Between 1970 and 1975, the number of survivors rapidly shrank. By 1990 fewer than 18 were known to exist, of which only 8 were known to be operational for river and coastal sailing. There may be as many as 30 that could either be restored as a major project or provide the basis of a reconstruction that includes some genuine components. Sadly, one potential major project, ML 162, familiar on the Norfolk Broads as a cruise ship Golden Galleon, was recently broken up on the orders of the Broads Authority quango that has little interest in ships, being primarily interested in being a “not-a-National-Park-but-a-member-of-the-National-Parks-Family”, where its navigation responsibilities play minor second part to its ‘green’ agenda.


Two Western Lady survivors photographed in 2001

Credit: SQIL

The main hope for preservation of the Fairmile B ended up with the three Western Ladies. Built as RMLs for casualty evacuation, they were operated by the Torbay Boat Construction Company as ferries from shortly after the end of the war. Western Lady IV was bought from the Admiralty after she was arrested for smuggling which was the common use of functioning MTBs and Fairmiles in the late 1940s, several also being used in the Eastern Mediterranean running guns to Israel. The ferry company eventually put their three Bs up for sale at an asking price of £43,000 in 2007. One had been mothballed for several years before and the current fate of these rare survivors is unknown. It is very sad that out of more than 700 Fairmile B Motor Launches there has been no example fully restored as a heritage example.

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