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Motor Launch is a term commonly used to describe a relatively small military vessel deployed by the Royal Navy in both World War One and World War Two. These small ships were designed and constructed by various American, British and Canadian firms and were used in a variety of roles ranging from anti-submarine work, mine-laying and -sweeping, and smoke-screen laying, to the interdiction of civilian shipping in the prevention of smuggling and even sea-plane tending. With small crews (officers were typically R.N.V.R.) and fairly light designs, these vessels were not meant for extended open-seas operation. Rather, they were best suited to in-shore patrols with occasional forays further afield but usually only in coordination with larger ships and only for brief periods.

World War One[edit]

Designed and built by the Electric Launch Company (Elco), the Motor Launch, or M.L., of World War One can be considered the forerunner of the famous P.T. Boat and Fairmile B of World War Two. Indeed, both the Elco M.L. and the P.T. boat sprang from the board of the same design team, led by Irwin Chase. They are also related in many respects to the World War One era 110' Sub-Chaser of the U.S. Navy.

Design and Construction[edit]

Construction of the initial batch of 75 foot ships was done at the Bayonne, New Jersey Elco facility[1], with the ships being sailed on their own bottoms to Halifax, Nova Scotia for embarkation to England. They were even painted a yacht-like white for the trip - to suit the requirements of the Wilson administration that a strict neutrality be maintained, with no war materiel being built and delivered directly into British or German hands.

Subsequent construction was done at two yards in Quebec, Canada where the M.L.'s were loaded directly aboard specially fitted steamers for the trip across the Atlantic; four at a time.

Within 488 days the first order of 50 and the second order of 500 more were entirely delivered into the hands of the Royal Navy.

Ultimately, 580 M.L.'s were delivered in three batches: M.L.'s 1-50, 51-550, and 551-580. Later in the war 40 of these were sold to the French navy. Elco also sold at least 105 M.L.'s to Italy and some may have made it into the Russian navy as well. Elco eventually built 701 M.L.'s with at least two being temporarily deployed by the U.S. Navy and many finding their way into civilian hands after the war.

Construction Details[edit]

The typical M.L. (after the initial batch of 50) was 80 feet long, a hair over 12 feet wide, with a draft of 3 feet, 10 inches. The first 50 ships were 75 feet long. Planked with Yellow Pine over steam-bent White Oak frames and fastened with galvanized wrought iron. The power plant consisted of two Standard Motor Construction Company six cylinder gasoline engines. An auxiliary engine from the same company provided electrical generation, water pumping and air compression (the main engines were started using compressed air)[1][2].


Initially, the M.L.'s were fitted with old Horse Artillery 13-pounder guns. However, it quickly became apparent that these guns would be better used elsewhere and nearly all were replaced with the Hotchkiss 3-pounder. Additionally, each ship would have a complement of small arms - including a Lewis gun. Depth charge racks were fitted at the stern on many M.L.'s and some had mine-laying apparatus fitted amidships. More often, the M.L. would be deployed in mine sweeping operations rather than mine-laying, and many were outfitted with various paravane devices for that purpose.

Deployment During the War[edit]

The M.L. was deployed in flotillas throughout the various theaters of war - the English Channel and North Sea (primarily flotilla groups based in Dover, Harwich and Scapa Flow with numerous smaller ports having at least one flotilla), Ireland (Queenstown and Berehaven), and in French ports such as Dunkirk from which they patrolled along the northern coasts of France and Belgium. In the Mediterranean M.L. flotillas ranged from Gibraltar to the Adriatic and beyond. Service ports included Taranto and Gallipoli (not the Gallipoli of the Dardanelles but the one in Italy), Otranto below Brindisi and Mudros and Imbros in the Aegean Sea. Further east M.L. flotillas could be found in Alexandria and Port Said, patrolling the Suez Canal, and toward the end of the war, in Beirut and Tripoli. There was even a flotilla on the West Indies station.

Highlights of M.L. Service[edit]

Compared to the stories of other small fighting ships, mentions of the M.L. and of those who served aboard them are few and far between. Perhaps their most notable contribution came during the 23 April 1918 raids on Zeebrugge and Ostend when flotillas of M.L.’s were detailed to provide smoke-screen cover for the block ships and the diversionary landing party ships. Certain M.L.’s were also detailed to collect the crews of the block ships as they were scuttled. Among the eleven Victoria Crosses awarded after the raids that night and the follow-on raid on Ostend on 10 May 1918, three were awarded to M.L. commanders.

Post-War Service and Disposition[edit]

On 11 November, 1918 the Great War was over. The Royal Navy quickly found they had little use for the M.L. after the war. They also found that disposal of the numerous surviving M.L.'s was no easy task. However, there were a number of applications - both within the Royal Navy and elsewhere - where the M.L. was deemed useful.

The Rhine Patrol Flotilla[edit]

With the signing of the Armistice and the establishment of the British Army of Occupation a Flotilla of M.L.'s was deployed to Cologne to ensure the security of the navigable waterways, bridges, and beach-heads within the British sector. Deployed at the very end of 1918, the Rhine Patrol Flotilla remained on station until the British withdrawal from Cologne in 1925.

Northern Russian Expedition[edit]

The North Russia Campaign (also known as the Northern Russian Expedition or the Allied Intervention in North Russia) was part of the Allied Intervention in Russia after the October Revolution. The intervention brought about the involvement of foreign troops in the Russian Civil War on the side of the losing White movement. The northern campaign lasted from the final months of World War I in 1918 into 1919.

The Irish Free State[edit]

Immediately following the Armistice the Royal Navy maintained the Queenstown Command for purposes of mine-sweeping and traffic control. This was largely complete in early 1919 at which point the M.L. disappeared from Irish waters. In January 1922, following the War of Independence and the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty, the Provisional Government of the Irish Free State was established. Among the first actions taken was the creation of some force to establish a government presence in coastal waters. Four M.L.'s were the initial purchase in the creation of this force.

Yacht Conversions[edit]

Articles and advertising appeared in magazines such as The Motor Ship and Motor Boat and The Yachting Monthly] throughout much of the early 1920's targeting the new civilian M.L. owners hoping to convert them from their spartan military configurations to more luxurious accommodations. How-to articles showing interior modification ideas as well as ways to change or upgrade the ship's systems to more suitable civilian uses were common. Advertisers included manufacturers of engines (the Standard engines were probably not well suited to civilian life without dedicated motor mechanics to baby them). Even well known boat designer, author and editor of The Yachting Monthly Maurice Griffiths lived aboard a converted M.L. named Night Mist for a number of years in the late 1920's[3].

Perhaps the only well-known yacht conversion among the post-war M.L.'s is Eothen (formerly M.L. 286). As a private yacht Eothen became one of the Dunkirk Little Ships at the start of World War Two. Perhaps because of this touch of fame Eothen still exists today, though in a precarious state.

World War Two[edit]

One of the most common was the Fairmile B. These were designed by the Fairmile company but production of the individual components of the hull was contracted out to others the design being in various sections. These sections would be built at factories and then taken to various boatyards for assembly and fitting out. Eighty boats were built in Canadian yards for use as escort vessels.

The Fairmile B is a 111 foot (34 m) wooden hull design of about 130 tons displacment. Two petrol engines were the powerplant. Armament was a single three-pounder gun and a number of machine guns. A number served in the St Nazaire Raid

Twelve in service with Canada were transferred to the US Navy to act as Submarine chasers

Post war they were often taken on as pleasure boats and a number of Fairmile Bs are on the National Register of Historic Vessels

See also[edit]

External links[edit]


  1. ^ a b Nutting, William Washburn. The Cinderellas of The Fleet, pp3–4. 1920: Standard Motor Construction Company, New Jersey.
  2. ^ Parkes, Surgeon-Lieut. Oscar; Maurice Prendergast (eds). Jane's Fighting Ships 1919, pXXX. 1919: Sampson Low, Marston & Company, London.
  3. ^ Durham, Dick. The Magician of the Swatchways, pXXX. 1994: The Yachting Monthly, London.


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