OK… so it’s raining… and dark… and desolate, in a largely deserted Hartlepool dock area. But that’s not going to stop the National Museum of the Royal Navy and Robert Wynn & Sons from getting RML 497 onto terra firma. The 16 axle SPMT – Self Propelled Modular Transporter – controlled by a single operator with what looks like a PlayStation around his neck, is manoeuvred slowly underneath the cradle supporting the WWII veteran and then the Fairmile B is gently drawn onto the dockside, as the County Durham rain continues give us all a soaking! It’s a stirring sight to see this elegant vessel drift slowly onto the dockside, all the positioning pre-measured with minute care by Group Engineer Sally Weston – including with a tape measure. Computer measurements are just great, but seeing millimetre by millimetre is believing!
This amazing vehicle is a Self Propelled Modular Transporter (SPMT). It has SIXTEEN axles, so even though it’s a long old beast, it can turn within what would be impossible spaces for anything else less flexible. Its controller has a complex panel that he carries on a sling around his neck and shoulders, so he can “walk” the SPMT to its destination. It can go really low to get under whatever it needs to lift and shift, and that’s what it’s about to do here – slide under the cradle supporting RML 497 aboard her sea-going barge Terra Marique. Then the SPMT will extract the Fairmile B onto the dockside, for the last stage of her journey by road to the National Museum of the Royal Navy in Hartlepool. All very straightforward – if you have the skills. They do.
Early one morning – but not quite as the sun was rising! – Tera Marique, Robert Wynn & Sons heavy lift barge slipped into Hartlepool harbour, bearing her precious cargo: RML 497, one of the last remaining Fairmile B motor launches surviving from the Second World War. It
was a landfall less dramatic than many the Rescue Motor Launch had made so often in her role rescuing downed airmen, and much less so than her service at D-Day – but the sense of relief that she’d completed a safe voyage up the East Coast was palpable. A quiet pride too as team leader Sally Weston (see earlier blog) welcomed her from the quayside. It had been a serious challenge to get such a fragile vessel safely to her new home – but Sally’s team had done it, right on time.
This was the scene as RML 497 left Southampton Docks in Terra Marique. It gives you an idea of the size of Robert Wynn and Sons’ lift and shift ship when you realize you can’t actually see any of the 34 metre length of RML 497 within Marique’s – except maybe the very tip of her funnel, if you look closely! The departure followed an anxious day or two, as scrupulous checking was completed to ensure the Fairmile B, WWII veteran and last largely intact survivor of her class, was safely berthed. And secure enough to take on the rigours of the North Sea on passage to the National Museum of the Royal Navy in Hartlepool. On a brilliantly sunny day, the sight of Terra Marique forging ahead under tow was inspiring. A can-do ship with can-do people running her.
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!
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.