Postwar Gay-Class Boats – The End for Petroleum

Published 6th February 2013

The following is an account of a well known incident that occurred in the Danish port of Aarhus during the 1950s. With the cessation of hostilities the risks to naval operations using petrol powered vessels had obviously greatly diminished; however there remained the ever present danger of fuel vapour detonation aside from actual combat conditions. At the time of this accident the Second World War had been over for just eight years. Strict regulations concerning the handling and storage of high-octane fuel were well known, but many accidents or incidents continued to occur as the result of spillages or small leaks, leading to heavier than air vapours being trapped within boats bilges etc. The slightest relaxing of one’s vigilance could lead to ignition and have the most devastating results. It may appear very surprising to us today, that a new design of Fast Patrol Boat (FPB) employing highly volatile 100-octane aviation spirit as fuel, should even have been contemplated, considering experiences gained during the War: the Ostend disaster of 1945 that occurred outside of combat conditions, and which virtually wiped out the Canadian 29th Flotilla, being one such. However the political situation of the late 1940s and early 1950s, during the Cold War, obviously dictated otherwise. And so we arrive at this interesting and dramatic account of the inherent dangers of life within Coastal Forces postwar. A communication, written by the Commanding Officer of P1041 HMS Gay Archer 2nd FPB Squadron Cdr Tom Kitson, described this incident as occurring on the 17th May 1953. The letter has been abridged but the general focus of the remaining content serves as a stark reminder of an aspect of this branch of naval life in those days.
…[HMS] Gay Archer was about a month late being delivered by the builders, Vosper. When she did arrive, Vosper’s ferry crew managed to knock a small hole in her port side, evidence of which can be seen in the photo printed in the Western Morning News of 25 May 2006! That photo, incidentally, was taken very shortly after her arrival in HMS Hornet, i.e. in early May 1953. I have one of the original photographs and can identify my First Lieutenant, the Cox’n and myself on the bridge.
HMS Gay Archer sporting a tingle over the slight damage to her Hull.
HMS Gay Archer sporting a tingle over the slight damage to her hull
We sailed for the Baltic on 7 May, one week after acceptance from Vosper, but not before splitting a fuel tank on acceptance trials, with all the attendant problems of shutting everything down, being towed out into The Solent to pump out the bilges and then having to lift off the coach deck and replace the tank. Another problem showed itself early on. We would come back on board to find our upper deck some eighteen inches below that of the next boat. The engine room had flooded, but no-one at first knew why. It was later discovered that the cooling water inlet was letting water in, which somehow had got out of the engine and into the bilges. The problem was cured before long. The next problem was the inability of the Gay-class, when fully loaded and fuelled, to get up ‘on the step’ until some of the fuel had been used and the all-up weight reduced. Later on, the transom flaps shown in the picture were fitted and I believe these helped.
Transom flaps as fitted to HMS Gay Carabineer
Transom flaps as fitted to HMS Gay Carabineer
We nearly didn’t get away on the Baltic excursion. We were narrowly missed by Bold Pioneer, as she entered the pens one day, managing to cut the Captain’s motorboat in half! On the passage north, between Den Helder and Cuxhaven, we damaged a propeller on some driftwood. A new one was fitted in Copenhagen before we moved on to Aarhus, moored alongside in a trot of four boats; Bombardier on the jetty, then Fencer, then ourselves, with 1023—an old-style Vosper ‘shortboat’—on the outside. We all topped up our fuel from RFA Airsprite, who came along for these trips carrying the (not much-loved) 100-octane aviation spirit. About 7am the following morning—Sunday 17 May, according to my notes—the Leading Stoker in 1023 went into the engine room to start up the generator which resulted in an explosion and fire. He was blown out through the hatch and, although injured, survived. 1023 burnt merrily and subsequently sank. Gay Archer, alongside her, caught fire and after some difficulty untangling ourselves from the berthing lines and, by then, the fire hoses laid across our deck from shore being played on 1023, [we] drifted away across the basin, quite badly damaged and scorched by 1023’s fire. Having operated the methyl bromide fire extinguishers as a preventative measure, we couldn’t run up our engines. Fortunately, none of the boats actually exploded, possibly due to having full fuel tanks and thus no vapour in them.
Fire begining to take hold.
Fire begining to take hold
With flames engulfing the starboard side of HMS Gay Archer, P1023 begins to settle.
With flames engulfing the starboard side of HMS Gay Archer, P1023 begins to settle
Final Moments of P1023 with fire damage much in evidence to HMS Gay Archer
Final moments of P1023 with fire damage much in evidence to HMS Gay Archer
We remained in Aarhus for two weeks being repaired sufficiently to make the passage home. On the day of the fire the ERA fell down the engine room hatch, sprained his ankle and had to be flown home. Tim Hollis, my First Lieutenant, had hurt himself slipping off a gangway in Den Helder on the way up and spent the time in Aarhus in hospital! We left Aarhus on 29 May, meeting up with Gay Fencer at Kiel, who kept us company on the way home in case, in our somewhat weakened state, we sank. Happily, we didn’t, although we did the final leg from Hook of Holland to Sheerness battling into a westerly gale and uncomfortable sea. We spent a day in Chatham dockyard de-fuelling. Fencer towed Gay Archer to Sheerness on 10 June to be de-stored, whereupon the crew all went ‘home’ to Hornet... ...Gay Archer was in no fit state to take her place in the Fleet Review on 15 June, so we had to miss that. Not long afterwards (6 July), Gay Centurion was accepted from the makers and I took command of her until I left Coastal Forces at the end of the year, by which time Gay Archer, as far as I can remember, had still not yet returned to the fold...
The Gay-class of FPB were destined to be the last petroleum powered craft of the Royal Navy: HMS Gay Fencer, one of the last vessels of the type in commission, became a Torpedo Recovery Vessel, later becoming an Admiral’s Barge. Photographic evidence shows her still in use as late as 1965. Some vessels had ignominious ends—Fencer was eventually to be sunk as a target on the naval gunnery ranges off Portland. Bombardier sold privately, was caught smuggling in the Mediterranean being arrested by Italian customs; her eventual fate unknown. Another member of the class, identity currently unknown, was also caught smuggling, this time by the Spanish customs; confiscated and eventually donated to the Spanish Cantabria University at Santanda; re-named Iorana she was accidentally crushed by a Spanish naval tug and deemed a total loss in 2006.
Unidentified Gay class captured by Spanish Customs.
Unidentified Gay-class boat captured by Spanish customs
At least two others—Crusader and Charioteer?—were known to have been converted to Gas Turbine propulsion by Wessex Power Units (WPU).
An unidentified converted Gay-class at the premises of Messrs Wessex Power Units
An unidentified converted Gay-class at the premises of Messrs Wessex Power Units
Whilst two more boats, Bruiser and Bowman—rumoured to be on order for the Italian customs service as P1 and P2—were noted as being on Wessex Power Units premises at that time, the true fate of these, and other boats, have yet to be determined. The writing was on the wall for the entity known as Coastal Forces. The, by then obsolete Dark, plus the exciting Brave classes, arriving too late to have any impact on decisions being made elsewhere. The famous and last Coastal Forces base—HMS Hornet—closed in December 1957—this date now recognised as finis for the Royal Navy’s proud Coastal Forces. HMS Gay Archer however is now the sole survivor of this postwar class of twelve craft. Having once been converted to a private yacht she is now owned by Paul Childs and lovingly restored to a military configuration similar to one that she once enjoyed during the 1950s (now diesel powered of course!). She is currently based at Watchet Harbour, Somerset, UK.
Commander Tom Kitson, first Commading Officer with Paul Childs, current owner of Gay Archer
Commander Tom Kitson first Commanding Officer, with Paul Childs current owner, on the Gay Archer
(Photographs used in this article from the authors collection)