Adrian Rance, 1989. Fast Boats & Flying Boats. Ensign Publications.
In Fast Boats and Flying Boats, Adrian Rance has created an incredibly detailed biography of one of the most important men in the story of Coastal Forces. Scott-Paine played a vital part in the fields of aviation and marine technology in the first half of the 20th century, and this book fills an important gap in what might otherwise be a void of information about this colourful and forceful character.
The book follows Scott-Paine’s life from his childhood in Sussex to his eventual death in the USA. He moved to Southampton in his early twenties as an assistant to Noel Pemberton Billing and soon had a stake in the new Pemberton Billing Aviation Works built on the River Itchen at Woolston. When Pemberton Billing quit the works to concentrate on politics in 1916, Scott-Paine became sole owner and renamed it Supermarine. Before he sold his interest in 1923 (for considerably more than he had invested) he turned a small struggling firm into a successful business that would eventually go on to produce one of the most famous fighter planes in British history.
Less than four years later, Scott-Paine purchased Hythe Shipyard and founded the British Power Boat Company. Over the next decade he would become a leading light in the evolution of wooden hydroplane boats and a forceful proponent of the ‘mile a minute’ navy, pushing the Admiralty to accept his ideas on modern torpedo boats and other service vessels. His attitude did not always make him popular and although he had great success in convincing the RAF to purchase fast boats, the Royal Navy were less keen. It seems that the uncomfortable relationship between British Power Boat and the Admiralty may have cost him contracts later on.
As war descended on Britain, he moved to North America where US boat manufacturer Elco built several torpedo boats to his design. Anticipating further work he built a new boatyard in Canada, but the Admiralty didn’t bite and few orders were forthcoming. Nonetheless, British Power Boats continued to be built at Hythe, becoming some of the most successful Coastal Forces craft afloat. Unfortunately Scott-Paine saw little of this in the US and he died in 1954, never truly recognised for the contribution he had made to Britain’s War effort.
Rance worked for Southampton Museum Services in the 70s and 80s and later became the Head of Cultural Services for the council, so the evolution of Supermarine and British Power Boat will have been a well recognised part of the history he was curating. Rance has benefited from a rich legacy of archive material deposited in Southampton’s record offices, but even then he has gone much further in his research, obtaining high quality sources from the US, UK, military and commercial archives to create a highly detailed story of Scott-Paine’s life (as the seven pages of small font endnote references attests).
Scott-Paine’s story and that of his relationship with the Royal Navy is complex. He most certainly received a poor deal from politicians, and an intervention against him in the House of Commons in 1938 is the sort of event that might provoke a scandal today. Rance does not shy away from these issues, but perhaps he is a little too deferential to Scott-Paine in his analysis of them. Other books that tackle the evolution of the early MTBs in the Royal Navy paint a somewhat different picture.
Where this book truly succeeds however, is in being a biography of not just Scott-Paine, but of British Power Boat, a company that might otherwise have slipped unnoticed into history, overshadowed by the more famous name of Vosper. The many figures and personalities of the company are introduced and the evolution of the firm from its origins right through to its closure is well told. Even the seven years between 1939 and 1946 (when it closed), when Scott-Paine was in the US, are dealt with in more detail than any other publication. This book could quite easily have been titled “The story of British Power Boat and its founder, Hubert Scott-Paine”.
© Spitfires of the Sea