In the CMB the Royal Navy had a unique offensive weapon. But attack alone does not win maritime wars and, by early 1915, the Admiralty realised that they lacked sufficient small vessels for coastal patrol and escort work. It was time to look to mass production and the Elco Motor Launch.
Shortly before the war the Royal Navy had formed reserve units of vessels – civilian craft that might be able to serve in the event of conflict. As a maritime nation, Britain had all manner of craft to offer for a variety of tasks around the coast. Fishing trawlers, which had formed into the Trawler Reserve in 1911 and later evolved into the Royal Navy Patrol Service, were such well equipped vessels for minesweeping (on account of their ability to go out in all weathers and the equipment on board to run out sweeps instead of fishing nets) that the Royal Navy even built their own. In order to counter the enemy vessels laying mines, the navy quickly turned to The Royal Navy Motor Boat Reserve (RNMBR). Formed in 1914, the boats that had been accepted into this service were often crewed by their owners, who had been commissioned into the RNVR. The RNMBR was quickly joined by the hastily formed Yacht Patrol, made up of hundreds of requisitioned private vessels of all sizes. Soon these boats, often with volunteer crews, were patrolling the coast and providing vital escorts or guarding harbours. Ad-hoc little units such as these were the genesis of the Auxiliary Patrol, which would safeguard Britain’s coast throughout the First World War.1
But these vessels were not built for daily patrols and soon the number of motor boats suitable and available for coastal work had been severely depleted. Large numbers of suitable craft were needed quickly, but Britain lacked the facilities that were needed to mass produce the numbers necessary in the limited time available.1
It was convenient then, that in February 1915 Sir Trevor Dawson, managing director of Vickers armament works and representative of the Admiralty, found himself in New York. The story goes that he was there on other business, but happened to be met in his hotel by Henry Sutphen, managing director of Elco, the Electric Launch Company (a small part of the much larger Electric Boat Company, which would eventually morph into General Dynamics in 1952). As the two discussed the U-boat menace around Britain’s shores, Sutphen proposed “the use of a number of small speedy motor launches for use in attacking and destroying submarines.” Two months later, an order for fifty Motor Launches was placed with Elco.2
The more credible facts are that Dawson led a commission of engineers who visited the Standard Motor Construction Company on the same day that they arrived in New York, and subsequently visited Elco to obtain boats to go with their engines. Dawson almost certainly already knew what he wanted and, with his high standing contacts in the industry, knew where to get it.3
What he and the Royal Navy wanted, was a fleet of standardised launches capable of patrol, escort, picket, anti-submarine, minelaying and minesweeping duties. After brisk negotiations, an order for fifty 75ft motor launches was placed on the 9th April. By the 1st May a pattern boat was under construction at Elco’s yard in Bayonne, New Jersey. Designed by Irwin Chase, the boat would need to fulfil a number of Admiralty requirements. A speed of 19 knots was considered essential for its mixed roles, although it was anticipated that the boat would need to be able to carry some 14 tonnes of fuel, equipment and ammunition. It would need to be seaworthy and capable of working in all weathers, but it would be limited to 75ft so that it could be carried on ship’s decks.4
Despite these complex requirements, the sample boat was quickly ready and impressed the Admiralty enough that exactly three months after the first order, they ordered 500 additional boats. The new boats were to be modified slightly — to 80ft — and all 550 boats needed to be delivered by the 15th November 1916. This presented a minor problem for the US companies: the States were still officially neutral and the supply of so many weapons of war to a belligerent would be more than just embarrassing for the government. A little subterfuge would need to be employed instead.2
The original fifty Motor Launches were already under construction in Bayonne and (unlike the following 500) were completed there. In an effort to avoid controversy, their decks were painted white instead of military grey. Suitably ‘disguised’ as civilian vessels, they were sailed round to Halifax to be handed over to Britain.3 The additional order was far too big to use this trick, so instead, the boat’s parts would be built in the US and assembly would take place over the border in Canada. Sutphen found a willing partner in the Davie Shipbuilding and Repairing Company Ltd in Quebec and, doubtless thanks to Dawson’s influence, the yard of Canadian Vickers Ltd at Montreal was also hired.2 To tidy everything up, the order was actually made through Vickers, who sub-contracted Elco. At least on paper.
Elco and their Canadian partners would need to complete a Motor Launch almost daily and the standardised design and prefabrication technique was essential to achieving this. Every single keel, frame, knee, deck, fitting and piece of machinery was made in New Jersey.1 Every single item needed to be perfectly cut to size, and not only for the assembly: the pieces were moved by train direct to the shipyards, so they needed to meet railway clearances in both countries.2 Whole freight trains carried entire flotillas of boats 380 and 580 miles to Montreal and Quebec respectively, where the boats were assembled and launched. The equivalent in Britain would be to make the boat parts in London and send them to Aberdeen, 540 miles away, to be built.
Sutphen recorded that even Elco’s own suppliers could not meet demand and extra companies were recruited in order to produce the various fixtures and fittings for the boats. Even Tiffany studios, makers of ornaments and decoration, produced bronze components. Most of the men who assembled the boats were woodworkers, not boat builders, and only 3% spoke English. But the experts from Elco and the simple ‘flat-pack’ nature of the boats overcame these problems and by the winter the first order order of fifty had been delivered.2 But in Canada, the St Lawrence river was beginning to freeze over. Soon it became un-navigable, but the need for the launches was so desperate that the Admiralty suggested transporting them by rail to Halifax. After Elco had transported a mock up boat to ensure there was sufficient clearance along the 700 miles of railway, 84 completed launches were transported from Quebec to Halifax over the 1915/1916 winter.1
Normal service resumed in the spring and, somewhat incredibly, all 550 boats had been delivered to Britain by the autumn of 1916. After handover to British authorities the Motor Launches were stored at Halifax awaiting transport to Britain. Sutphen records that 130 separate voyages conveyed all 550 boats over to Britain (usually four to a ship) and that not a single one was lost en-route.2 Once in Britain the boats were armed, commissioned, worked up in Portsmouth, and despatched to the various Auxiliary Patrol Bases around the UK.
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- Keiran Phelan & Martin Brice, 1977. Fast Attack Craft. McDonald & Janes Ltd. pp.59-61.
- Gordon Maxwell, 1920. The Motor Launch Patrol. J. M. Dent and Sons, Limited. pp. 1-9.
- Jeffrey Charles, 2013. The Movies: Design & Construction. Accessed December 2016.
- William Washburn Nutting, 1920. The Cinderellas of the Fleet. Standard Motor Construction Company. pp.15-18.
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