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February 02, 2004

A little history

Fifty nine years ago my father, then a twenty two year old Able Seaman in the Royal Navy was serving in the Coastal Forces 37th Flotilla attached to the Eastern Fleet and based at Trincomalee in Ceylon (Sri Lanka). They joined the Royal Indian Navy's Coastal Forces in supporting the advance of the 14th Army (Chindits) down the Arakan Coast. This involved raiding deep into the jungle up the Chaungs - tidal leads penetrating deep into the mangroves all along that coast.

This ramble was prompted by my finding a photograph of my father as a young AB I thought I had lost.

Dsc0026 847 at Ramree.JPG
HMML 847 depicted off Ramree Island, Arakan, Burma January 1945

The painting is one of my own done from a sketch and a very battered photograph. These little ships were built in furniture factories, as kits and then assembled in boatyards all over the empire. The Fairmile B was a real workhorse and many are still afloat today as ferries and as houseboats. The design is for a wooden hull of teak "double diagonal" planking over frames and powered by twin Rolls Royce Merlin (with a spare pair of Packard or Hall Scott licence built Merlins) engines converted for marine use. This gave them a top speed of 25 knots, although some could manage a slightly higher figure. They were superb sea keepers and my fathers boat and some of her sisters survived running through more than one full cyclone in the Bay of Bengal that sank several bigger merchant vessels.

The 37th Flotilla were late arrivals on the Arakan coast, but saw some tough campaigning. They were also slightly better armed than most others and the Admiral who commissioned them in Simonstown remarked that he could not remember seeing so much armament packed into so small a ship. The trip to Ceylon was eventful as they had to carry extra fuel in 200 litre drums lashed on deck - and 120 octane is not stuff you can play around with anywhere!

The Admiral was not wrong in his assessment of their weapons fit. In a ship just over 114 feet overall, the navy had managed to fit (from forrard to stern) a 3 pdr quick firing gun, 2x6x9 Centimetre Rocket launchers abreast the wheelhouse, cradles for 21 inch torpedoes (Not carried by this flotilla but the cradles were not removed either!), twin 0.303 Browning machine gun mounts on either Bridge wing, a twin 20mm Oerlikon Gun aft of the funnel, a 40mm fixed mortar firing directly astern aft of the Oerlikon, a 40mm Bofors Gun on the aft deck with 4 x 500 lb depth charges on either side of that. Quite a lot of Japanese coastal shipping discovered very quickly that these boats were definitely bad news as they raced past throwing projectiles at them.

My father was the gun captain of the Bofors and had a reputation for being able to hit anything stupid enough to get within range. I should add that the Bofor fire 120 (4 pound weight) explosive shells per minute. Paired with the twin Oerlikon which throws 600 rounds per minute from each barrel, anything approaching from a direction in which these guns could be brought to bear was asking for trouble.

Before joining Coastal Forces Dad had served on a converted trawler (ironically named HMS Sunburst) sweeping magnetic mines, and on HMS Ramillies, a 15 inch gun battleship. He loved the ships and he loved the sea, and his one wish was always that he could have bought a Fairmile B to live aboard and use. He was a consumate seaman and I learned a lot of my seamanship from him.

Sadly, he never achieved his dream.

The 37th Flotilla was disbanded in December 1945 and all the "boats" were sunk to comply with the Lease-Lend Agreement even though most had been running on their Rolls Royce engines. These were removed and the Packard engines were sent to the bottom.

Posted by The Gray Monk at February 2, 2004 11:41 PM


Your father served on the Ramillies and had the chance to serve in the Far East as well?

I would have loved to be able to pick his brains, he must have had a fascinating war career.

I thank him for his service.

Posted by: Paul Jané at February 3, 2004 07:02 AM

Fascinating - sounds a great man.

Posted by: Tim at February 3, 2004 07:28 AM

He certainly found it something of an experience. He rarely spoke of most of it, and his time on Ramillies was short - he joined her in Durban as a replacement in a 15 inch battery and saw action at Diego Suarez in Madagascar, which included spotting for the 15 inch from a Walrus Seaplane. The ship was hit (according to him) by a torpedo from a Vichy French submarine and almost went the same way as the Barham after it started a fire in the aft 15 inch magazine - only quick flooding (and the drowning of the 90 man magazine crew) saved the ship. She returned to Durban for repairs and he was reposted to Coastal Forces from there.

His far East service took him to Adu Atoll, Trincomalee, Visakapatnam, Cox's Bazaar, Colombo, Akyab,Teknaf, Calcutta, Madras and Rangoon. He also saw something of Singapore from HMS Khedive which apparently took in some of the Dutch East Indies as well before sailing for home. He was both mentally and physically scarred by some of the experience (he was seriously wounded three times) and came home suffering from Malaria and pluerisy which later turned to TB. He died aged 57 in 1982.

Posted by: The Gray Monk at February 3, 2004 03:26 PM