Anyone who has seen the D-Day beach landing scenes in Stephen Spielberg’s film ‘Saving Private Ryan’ will find the images hard to forget. Featured strongly in them was the US Rangers’ assault on German gun positions atop a 100-foot cliff at Pointe du Hoc, towering over Omaha beach. Here a Fairmile ‘B’ motor launch ML 304 (picture) played a key role – and one of her veterans joined us to take a look at progress on her sister, RML 497, as she was being prepared for her voyage north to Hartlepool for the National Museum of the Royal Navy. ML 304’s D-Day task was to deploy her special masthead radar to guide the Rangers precisely to where they needed to be, before they began their highly courageous attack up the almost vertical cliff face. A good shepherd for our allies.
From – and, of course, to – Norman Fowler. Norman was a young officer at D-Day in a Fairmile B motor launch, so the restoration of RML 497 is of keen interest to him. With his son Mark, he joined us in Southampton Docks to visit once again a ship that must have been very familiar to him. Norman told us that life on board a Fairmile was much more relaxed, less “authoritarian” – as you’d expect in a warship in which everyone on board would have more than one role, and close working was essential for survival. Norman makes nothing of his 90+ years, and was up and down ladders on board the transporter barge ‘Terra Marique’ (in which 497 had been loaded) as if it was still June 1944. Mark’s occasional “Dad – hang on a bit” had absolutely zero effect!
And WHAT a barge she is!! This is ‘Terra Marique’, a semi-submersible barge into which RML 497 will be floated, so that the WWII Fairmile motor launch can be transported to Hartlepool for the National Museum of the Royal Navy. ‘Terra Marique’ is the pride and joy of Robert Wynn and Sons, specialised transportation engineers. She has stern doors that can be opened to allow cargoes to float in – float in because she can also sink down, a bit like a submarine (but not so far!), by flooding side tanks. Then, with cargo safely loaded, the stern door is closed and the water pumped out of the side tanks to raise her, and at the same time out of the cargo compartment too. She can self-propel if need be. She’s a game changer, and in regular demand. No wonder.
No doubt about it, the cradle in which RML 497, last surviving Fairmile motor launch, will travel to Hartlepool and the National Museum of the Royal Navy there, can only be described Aussie-style “a real beaut”! (See ‘Rock Your Baby’ blog.) But… now the WWII survivor must be got into it. Tricky. In charge of the operation to get 497 up to Hartlepool and then safely berthed there, is Sally Weston, Group Engineer at Robert Wynn and Sons (picture.) Here she’s helping to guide 497 safely in – a matter of both precision and muscle! Sally – always immaculate – exudes quiet confidence, calm and control as she supervises the loading of her precious charge onto the barge taking the Fairmile north. There were many unforeseeable difficulties, but she was unflappable as her delivery team overcame them, one by one.
Well, RML – Rescue Motor Launch – 497 is hardly a baby, having seen sterling service in WWII, but she’s getting exemplary cradling. This (picture) is what she will rest in from now on – and importantly, on her way to the National Museum of the Royal Navy in Hartlepool. The cradle was designed by Malin Marine of Glasgow – and what they had to take into account above all was how she would fare in potentially rough late winter seas on her way, in a special barge. The key point about 497 is how much of her has been preserved, and for anyone in any heritage sector that’s what must, must be saved. As the cradle sat on the dockside in Southampton, all working on the project knew very well how important it was to get this completely right…
As RML (Rescue Motor Launch) 497 was prepared for her epic journey north – under tow in a special barge – we talked to her “mother”, Arabella Roberts (picture), who’s kept 497 alive and as well for 3 long years, as the Fairmile’s future was planned in great detail. Not least of course by Arabella herself, (picture) who as Historic Ships Manager at the National Museum of the Royal Navy (NMRN) in Portsmouth cared for her charge at a mooring on Southampton’s River Itchen. It was nothing if not a long haul – 3 years in all. With shipwright colleagues, Arabella pumped and patched, checked and re-checked to ensure 497 would make it to her new home at NMRN Hartlepool safely. As Arabella told us (catch our second film about 497 at https://www.maritimefilmsuk.tv/films/fairmile-2/ ) : “It’s great to see she’s just as excited and game for this project as I am!”
Anyone who’s ever owned any kind of ship or boat knows well how fast deterioration can set in if the vessel isn’t being used the way she was intended. Witness the foliage RML 497 has acquired! (Picture.) So the team at the National Museum of the Royal Navy (NMRN) had their work cut out to get her ready to voyage to her new home at their base in Hartlepool – where she’ll begin her new future, telling her and the Royal Navy’s WWII story to a new audience. This last surviving Fairmile motor launch has certainly endured many problems since she was taken out of service down in Devon – The NMRN are working hard and fast to sort everything out – rescuing her just as she rescued downed airmen at sea in her wartime service. Hang in there, 497!!
A sight never to be seen again… RML (Rescue Motor Launch) 497 in her natural home, the sea… or at least on a gateway to the wide ocean, the Itchen at Southampton, where the river opens out into Southampton Water. She’s under tow on the first stage of her final voyage, which will see the Fairmile taken to the National Museum of the Royal Navy in Hartlepool to develop what the museum has to offer, enabling them to tell the story of the RN in the second world war through the history of coastal forces. This will add to their present offer, the history of the 18th and 19th century navy – told through their heritage ship HMS Trincomalee – a superbly preserved frigate, launched in India in 1817, with 60% of her original timbers still intact. A new beginning for both the museum and 497.
Rob is a TV producer, reporter and camera operator with 30 years’ experience at the BBC, Channel 4 and ITN, in news, factual and documentary production. He is a four times award winner, whose awards include a coveted Royal Television Society award for his work on Channel 4 News. His association with The Maritime Foundation goes back to 1995, when he won the first Desmond Wettern Maritime Media Award for a series of reports that led to a major documentary on the loss of the bulk carrier Derbyshire.