The Fairmile Bs of the Royal Canadian Navy
When the Second World War began in September 1939, the Royal Canadian Navy had a fleet of only about ten warships. To make up for the lack of vessels, shipbuilding was expanded at dizzying speed, not only in Canadian yards, but also in the United Kingdom, thanks to the building programs of the British Admiralty. Just before the end of hostilities in April 1945, there were a total of 404 vessels in service in the Royal Canadian Navy; 80 of these vessels, or 20% of the total fleet, were Fairmile-type motor launches.
In Canada itself, as the German submarine threat intensified and the enemy ventured up the St. Lawrence River, it became necessary to set up a coastal defence and escort system. The first nine Fairmiles, commissioned in the autumn of 1941, were a strategic and effective contribution to this end.
The origins of the Fairmiles
During the First World War, in the face of successful attacks by German submarines on British ships, it became imperative to create an anti-submarine counterattack force. That is why the British Admiralty, among other measures, awarded the Elco company a contract to built 50 wooden motor launches. This order was followed by a second order for 500 units, to be delivered by November 1916.
The 80-foot-long motor launch was designed by Mr Irwin Chase. With a displacement of 42 tons and a speed of 19 knots, it was fitted with two Standard-brand 6-cylinder engines and with anti-submarine weaponry, including depth charges and, on the bow, a 3-pound gun.
The United States Navy also developed a subchaser in 1916. The naval architect Albert Swasey was mandated by Franklin D. Roosevelt to design an effective vessel for hunting down submarines. The vessels of this new class (SC-1), with a displacement of 85 tons, a length of 110 feet and a 16-foot beam, were equipped with three 200-HP (horsepower) Standard engines. They had a range of 1000 miles and a top speed of 17 knots. Each SC-1 was fitted with two 3-inch 23-caliber guns and two machine guns, and carried a crew of 27 persons, including two officers. By the end of the war, a total of 440 ships of this type had been commissioned.
Although fast and relatively effective for hunting submarines, the Elco motor launches and SC-1s were uncomfortable for the crew and ill-suited for rough seas.
But despite this, both types of motor launch, as the Second World War approached, gave inspiration to the designer of the Fairmiles.
Shortly before the Second World War, a document by Vice-Admiral C.V. Usborne on the need for a fleet of anti-submarine motor launches attracted the attention of a British industrialist by the name of Noel Macklin.
Mr Macklin had served as a reservist before holding the rank of lieutenant from 1916 to 1918. After 1918, he undertook various commercial yachting and auto-racing projects. His firm, the Fairmile Engineering Company, had also built the Railton, an English version of the American Hudson automobile.
Drawing on his experience in the field, he submitted to the British Admiralty a plan for series production of a motor launch, to be built of components prefabricated by furniture, piano and other manufacturers and assembled in shipyards.
He founded the Fairmile Marine Company, located in Fairmile, Cobham, in Kent, surrounding himself with a team of engineers and naval architects. As the initial order was delayed, he decided to have a prototype, the Fairmile A, ML 100, built by the Woodnut yard in Bembridge, on the Isle of Wight. In July 1939, two months before the outbreak of hostilities, the Admiralty awarded Macklin a contract to build 11 Type A Fairmiles.
The brilliant idea of turning to companies little involved in the war effort permitted quick series production of large quantities of vessel components such as keels, frames, bulkheads and stemposts, with assembly in the form of modules being assigned to designated shipyards.
Just before the war began, the Admiralty decided to develop a new version of the Fairmile A, based on the same construction method; it would become the Fairmile Class B.
The Class B was, naturally, to be an improved version of the A, with a length of 112 feet instead of 110, and a beam of 18 feet 3 inches instead of 17 feet 5 inches. The fuel-reserve capacity was raised from 1200 to 2305 gallons (89-octane aviation gas). Because of a limited supply of engines from the Hall-Scott company, the number of engines was reduced to two, making it possible to build 50% more vessels. The top speed was reduced from 25 to 20 knots. With its new tanks, the Fairmiles had a greater range - 1500 nautical miles at a speed of 12 knots.
In September 1939, an order for 13 units was awarded to the Fairmile Marine Co., whose mandate was to contract out the construction to the different yards in the world and ensure compliance with established assembly standards.
Orders came in at an accelerating pace, with the result that in the period from 1939 to 1945, over 680 vessels were built for the navies of the Commonwealth, including the Royal Navy (534), the New Zealand Navy (12), the Australian Navy (35) and the Royal Canadian Navy (80).
The Fairmile's armament could be modified as needed, and adapted to the vessel's various roles as a subchaser, ambulance launch, rescue launch or minelayer.
The deck was fitted with metal rails and anchorings so that the different types of armament could be installed and changed quickly, depending on the ship's mission.
The Fairmile's versatility was to be one of its great strengths.
In this context, the Fairmile Marine Co. expanded considerably, but because of the additional capital requirements, Noel Macklin negotiated an agreement to become a kind of division of the Admiralty with responsibility for receiving orders for Fairmiles, managing supplies of materials and supervising the construction contracts that were awarded.
At one point, the company had a staff of over 500 employees. Macklin had to ensure that production times were kept to the minimum, that components were available and that subcontracting was spread out among a variety of companies which were less affected by the war effort.
Across the Atlantic, the Royal Canadian Navy also faced a growing need for vessels of all kinds to repel U-boat attacks on convoys. Since the immediate need for Fairmile-type motor launches was obvious, the Canadian Navy also benefited from the vessel's design, as a Commonwealth Navy and because of its close and harmonious ties with the British Royal Navy.
All together, 80 Fairmiles were built for the Canadian Navy and put into service between October 1941 and October 1944. The earliest Canadian Fairmiles, which were similar to the British version except for a few details, were built by Ontario shipyards and commissioned in October and November 1941.
The cost price of each vessel was $132,000: $85,000 for the hull, $20,000 for the engines, and $27,000 for armament, supplies and equipment.
In order to secure the contracts for building Fairmiles in Ontario shipyards, the Ontario Fairmile Association, with W. Taylor as president and D. Hunter as secretary-treasurer, was formed early in the war. All Ontario shipyards involved in building Fairmiles belonged to this association, which also looked after coordination among shipyards and had responsibility for speeding up production.
When construction of a hull was completed, a short official launching ceremony was held.
The next step was to install the various armaments, and then put aboard the vessel all the equipment it needed in order to be self-sufficient: bedding, dishes, spare parts, tools, miscellaneous supplies, food and, finally, fuel.
All this equipment was warehoused - among other places, in Québec, in Shed 18 on the Bassin Louise. So new vessels setting out from one of the shipyards on the Great Lakes would schedule a stopover there.
The communication equipment on board consisted of a wireless transmission system, an FR12TH-model transmitter and an MSL5-type receiver. The transmitter, on a 24-volt power supply, had an output of 20 watts and a low-frequency range of 50 miles.
The Fairmile's submarine detection was the asdic (the forerunner of modern sonar), Type 134 A. It consisted of a fixed dome, located under the forward part of the hull. The apparatus emitted pulses of sound energy which traveled through the water and were reflected back by a target. The echo was received, amplified and recorded. The time which elapsed between transmission and reception indicated the distance between the asdic and the target. However, this apparatus was not as successful as anticipated in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, because of the rocky escarpments there, which sent back false echoes. When a contact was clear, the operator would alert the officer on the deck who, in turn, would order that depth charges be dropped or other missiles fired by the Y gun.
The operations of the Fairmiles during the Second World War fall into two periods. The first, or defensive, period began with the commissioning of the first Fairmiles in the autumn of 1941 and lasted until the spring of 1943; the second, or offensive, period ran from the spring of 1943 until the cessation of hostilities.
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The defensive period
In the autumn of 1941, nine Fairmiles launched from Great Lakes shipyards arrived at their main base in Halifax. However, a serious difficulty at that time was the training of personnel, the great majority of whom were required to serve aboard the corvettes and minesweepers recently put into service to protect convoys. The years 1941 to 1943 were years of intense construction activity: by late 1942, 45 Fairmiles had been commissioned. The first 30 had been assigned to their respective bases: 8 to Halifax, 6 to Sydney, 6 to Gaspé, 2 to Rimouski, and 8 to St. John's, Newfoundland.
The year 1942 was to stand out in the memories of many, for in that year the inadequately protected convoys suffered repeated U-boat attacks, notably the successful ones by U-533, U-517 and U-165 in the Gulf and the St. Lawrence River. The arrival of large numbers of Fairmiles was to help remedy the situation.
During this period, people discovered the strengths and above all the versatility of the new ships. About 30 convoys were escorted between Rimouski and Sydney or Halifax, Nova Scotia, and between Sydney, Nova Scotia, and St. John's, Newfoundland. Thanks to quick action by the Fairmiles, 182 survivors were rescued when their ships were torpedoed. Many depth-charge attacks on submarines were carried out. Although no submarines were sunk, these attacks had a dissuasive effect.
By the end of 1942, 45 Fairmiles were in service. The approaching winter and the end of the shipping season in the St. Lawrence brought patrol activities to a close.
In order to keep some of the vessels in uninterrupted service, a group of 12 Fairmiles were divided into two flotillas (72nd and 73rd) for assignment to the Caribbean in the winter of 1942-43. There, under the supervision of their mother ship, HMCS Provider, they provided support to the United States Navy in protecting convoys in the area.
In early 1943, then, the Fairmile fleet counted 45 vessels. A structure had been set up to provide a headquarters for them, so they could become a true attack force.
The new organization was marked on 6 May 1943 by the appointment of Captain Joseph A. Heenan, as "captain of the MLs", i.e. officer in charge and commander of the fleet. With Captain Hennan's arrival, the second period of operations began.
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The offensive period
This period was characterized by a highly effective action plan. Shortly after his appointment, Captain Heenan commissioned a new supply vessel, HMCS Venture, and all the Fairmiles were reorganized into flotillas. A document entitled Motor Launch Fighting Instructions was developed, approved and given to the commander of each Fairmile. Various techniques for attacking submarines were elaborated, and exercises were held to standardize the attack maneuvers of each flotilla. When the shipping season opened in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, the Fairmiles, now grouped into flotillas of six or eight vessels, were assigned to various home bases. Nine new vessels brought the Canadian Fairmiles fleet to a total of 54, including three six-vessel flotillas at the Gaspé base, HMCS Fort Ramsay.
Throughout the year 1943, the activities of the Fairmiles intensified, with patrols, exercises, rescues, convoy protection, minesweeping and support to aerial surveillance. The presence of these vessels in the Gulf and the St. Lawrence contributed to better protection of convoys of ships. The Fairmiles performed their role well, in addition to having a dissuasive effect on the enemy. At the end of 1943, nine more Fairmiles joined the existing flotillas, bringing their strength up to 63 vessels. In total, there were nine flotillas in service: the 70th, 71st, 72nd, 73rd, 76th, 77th, 78th, 79th and 82nd.
At the opening of the 1944 shipping season, the different flotillas resumed their work, and two new Fairmiles - Q 120 and Q 121, built by J.H. Leblanc Shipbuilding Co., of Weymouth, Nova Scotia - were added to the fleet and put into service on the East Coast.
The Fairmiles produced in the 1943-1944 program (those starting with Q 112) were fitted with two Sterling V-12 engines, each developing 700 HP and raising the speed by 4 knots. In 1944, eight more Fairmiles built by yards in Vancouver and New Westminster (Q 122 to Q 129) were added to the six already operating on the West Coast (Q 066 to Q 071). The West Coast fleet, based at Coquitlam, British Columbia, comprised 14 vessels, while the East Coast had 66.
In total, then, 80 Fairmiles had been commissioned for the Royal Canadian Navy.
From an operational standpoint, the Fairmiles certainly proved their usefulness and great versatility during the Second World War. Thanks to their solid construction, rapid production, hull lines permitting high speeds, adequate armament and, finally, well-trained crews, they deserved their title as "little fighting ships". Those who served aboard them have good memories of the experience, even if the space was limited and the small vessels were greatly affected by rough seas.
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8 May 1945: VE-Day
Hostilities ceased with the capitulation of Germany.
The Royal Canadian Navy, which had a fleet of about ten ships when the conflict began, found itself in 1945 with over 400 ships in service which were now useless. The War Assets Corporation was mandated in 1944 to manage the whole process of disposal of war surplus, including the fleet of ships. Shortly after VE-Day, Sydney, Nova Scotia was selected as the port for disarming the larger ships (such as destroyers and frigates), while the Fairmiles were disarmed at the Bassin Louise in Québec. After this operation, the Fairmiles were sent to Sorel, where they were moored in a designated place and transferred to the War Assets Corporation with all the equipment remaining on board. Thus on 8 June 1945, eight flotillas comprising 59 Fairmiles were successively withdrawn from service and, accompanied by their commanders, sent to Sorel, to remain there until they were sold. At the end of 1945, only four Fairmiles were still in service: three on the East Coast (Q 106, Q 116 and Q 121) and one on the West Coast (Q 124), but only for two more years at the outside.
The Fairmiles, because of their robust wooden construction (mahogany and teak) and elegant hull lines, were by far the most popular of all warships among future purchasers. Many of them were sold in Canada and United States for use as private yachts, cruise vessels or coastal cargo ships.
An order was established to the effect that federal and provincial departments and agencies and public organisms would have priority in obtaining the vessels.
Accordingly, on 15 September 1945, three Fairmiles (Q 104, Q 105 and Q 107) were towed by the ships Glencove and Glenora to Rimouski for the Arts and Trades School.
Four more were transferred to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police for use as coastal patrol craft in the Gulf and St. Lawrence River, namely the Fort Walsh (ex Q 112), Fort Selkirk (ex Q 114), Fort Steele (ex Q 117) and Fort Pitt (ex Q 119).
Seven other Fairmiles remained in service as power training craft (PTCs): six on the Great Lakes and one at Esquimalt, British Columbia:
HMCS Cougar, ex PTC 704, ex Q 104, Ontario
HMCS Beaver, ex PTC 706, ex Q 106, Ontario
HMCS Moose, ex PTC 711, ex Q 111, Ontario
HMCS Reindeer, ex PTC 716, ex Q 116, Ontario
HMCS Wolf, ex PTC 762, ex Q 062, Ontario
HMCS Racoon, ex PTC 779, ex Q 079, Ontario
HMCS Elk, ex PTC 724, ex Q 124, British Columbia
Many other sales were made to private purchasers over the months and years.
Closer to home, in Québec itself, many will remember the MV Duc D'Orléans, which sailed the St. Lawrence as a cruise vessel for 30 years (1948-1978).
On 12 January 1948, Mr J. Séverin Langlois, a St. Lawrence pilot residing in Québec, acquired the former Fairmile Q 105 from the Rimouski School of Arts and Trades. The idea was to convert the vessel for cruising on the St. Lawrence River. The plans were approved in the spring of 1948, and the conversion work was done at the shipyard in Saint-Laurent, on the Île d'Orléans.
The vessel, when acquired, had its original wartime appearance, with a low pilotage cabin on the main deck, surmounted by an exterior cabin. Major changes were made: one involved replacing the two original gasoline engines (Hall-Scott Defender type, V12, 630 HP) with two 160-HP Detroit diesels. The whole deck was rearranged in order to accommodate passengers safely both inside and outside. The interior of the stern of the vessel, originally used as officers' quarters, was converted into a restaurant.
In 1952, Mr Jean-Claude Morin, of Sillery, took over the business and operated it successfully until 1972. The loading dock was in a prominent location near the Québec-Lévis ferries, just below the Château Frontenac. Because of the quality of the cruises offered, the MV Duc D'Orléans became a well-known and greatly appreciated tourist attraction among visitors and the people of the Québec region.
In 1978, the vessel made its last cruise, from Québec to Sarnia, Ontario, where it had been built by Mac-Craft Ltd. in 1943. It is still operating in Corunna, Ontario, as an excursion vessel on the St. Clair River between Lake Huron and Lake Erie.
After all these years, Noel Macklin, the Fairmile's designer, would be very proud of the longevity of his creation.
© Québec Naval Museum. All rights reserved, Marc-André Morin
*Special contribution by Marc-André Morin, http://www.rcnfairmiles.com/
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