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The Petrol Navy: British, American and Other Naval Motor Boats at War 1914-1920

23 Feb 24

285 pages

Simon Haill

A fascinating book produced from the prolific pen of the author Steve Dunn. With the advent of the establishment of the Coastal Forces Museum (Night Hunters of the Royal Navy) there is now a growing public awareness and interest in the significant role that these craft and their crews fulfilled in two World Wars.

This book is particularly significant in that it fills a gap between the First World War and the unstable decade of the 1920s. Sadly many of the lessons learnt through hard won experience during this period were allowed to lapse in the years leading up to the Second World War – all these lessons had to be relearnt at great cost, so no change there then.

When the First World War started the Royal Navy found that it had an urgent need for more small vessels than it possessed. A relatively new requirement had emerged for minesweeping, anti-submarine patrols and coastal defence. In the true British manner this requirement was initially satisfied by the formation of auxiliary vessels manned by willing volunteers who knew something about boats.

By the second year of the war these ad-hoc arrangements were becoming overwhelmed by the sheer scale of the operational requirement. A meeting in the USA led to the acquisition of American designed ELCO motor launches and 550 were purchased. These were used widely throughout all the maritime theatres of war.

In particular, the development of the internal combustion engine for use by small petrol engine craft in many navies at the time, notably Britain and the USA, had a significant impact upon the development of these craft. In 1915 the British designed the Coastal Motor Boat (CMB) which developed the concept of a hull aquaplaning across the surface of the water. Not only did this enable the craft to achieve speeds of up to 40 knots but also made for a more stable weapon platform. This concept was carried through to craft of the Second World War. The CMB served with distinction throughout the latter years of the war and also in the subsequent confrontation with the Bolsheviks – notably the sinking of the cruiser Oleg at Kronstadt.

Of particular interest are the chapters devoted to other nations who adopted and developed similar craft for their own use. Chapter 13 recounts the story of motor boats in the German, Austrian, French and Italian Navies. The Italian Navy was especially effective in dealing with Austrian battleships in the Adriatic. Chapter 14 takes the reader into what for many people is the largely unknown story of the post war situation regarding the Armistice, occupation of Germany and the Russian Revolution. Here once again the Motor Launch left its mark. There are some fascinating pictures of these craft operating at Cologne.

An aspect of the book that really stands out is the abundance of photographs and drawings that feature throughout. It is probable that some of these have not featured in a book such as this before. Particularly striking is the William Wyllie picture on the front cover of the book depicting motor boats in front of the then afloat HMS Victory – Nelson would certainly have approved of that.

At the end of the book there are some very useful appendices and detailed plans of individual craft that complete the narrative. The final chapters, Last Rites and Conclusions, puts the book into context in that there is an account of the post war demise of the motor boat but also an overview of the establishment and development of the Naval Reservist which was to prove so significant in the Second World War.

All in all, a thoroughly readable and informative account of what has been a little-known area of naval history. It is very strongly recommended for both the serious student and the casual reader.