ID REG_2005_MBC / Roger Bullen

TitleMersea Island and the Royal Army Service Corps Motor Boat Coys during the Second World War

The birth of the Motor Boat Coys, Royal Army Service Corps can be traced to the period immediately after Dunkirk. The threat of invasion was very high and this necessitated the Royal Navy to operate yachts and picket boats in patrolling river estuaries and backwaters to prevent the landing of enemy agents to commit acts of sabotage. As the threat of invasion receded, the Royal Navy removed its personnel, relinquished its responsibilities and handed its boats over to the newly formed Motor Boat Coys who had already taken responsibility for the fleet of ships belonging to the War Office.

No 2 Motor Boat Company was formed at Moreton-in-Marsh, Gloucestershire on 22nd July 1940 and moved to West Mersea on 20th October 1941, where it began patrolling the Colne and the Blackwater. During February 1942, the unit hosted the Gaumont British Film Corporation which filmed No 2 Section in action. [ available via ]

With the expansion of the R.A.S.C. fleet due to new demands, it was decided that a training base should be set up and West Mersea was chosen due to its excellent boating facilities for shallow craft, although later it would have a problem when larger deep draft boats arrived. In autumn 1942, No 2 Motor Boat Company was withdrawn for duty and transferred to the First Army. It was replaced by No 1 Motor Boat Company, whose role was to be that of training establishment only, with a possibility of limited patrolling.

In December 1942, just a few boats were in evidence, but when training got into full swing in 1943, both channels became full with a varied assortment of cabin cruisers, harbour launches together with a D.U.K.W and Alligators based on Coast Road near Clarke and Carter's boatyard. The Company had four of the latter which had been designed and manufactured in America, from an original design intended to be used for rescue purposes in area of the Florida Everglades. From this amphibious vehicle, which was propelled both on land and water by its tracks, the L.V.T.1 (Alligator) was developed being eventually produced in considerable numbers and used by the U.S. Marine Corps in the Pacific from late 1942. On Mersea, these were used for training purposes and transporting personnel and stores (and the odd ride by the local schoolboys). Unfortunately these vehicles not only played havoc with the Island's roads but continually became stuck in the mud and they were withdrawn after D-Day.

The engineering workshop was a shed at the back of the boatyard. Osea Island became the workshop and engineer training base in March 1943. Boat Sections were formed for training purposes according to the level of instruction required, whether it be basic seamanship, navigation, morse or semaphore etc.

Staff billets for 'A' Section were in Victory Road, the 'Beacon and Sundown' Section HQ was Besom House at the bottom opposite the Victory. Other billets were in the semi detached houses opposite the Blackwater Hotel. Port Bower, Yorick Road, was the Company Headquarters and it also contained the lecture rooms. The Officers' and Sergeants' Mess was down the road opposite. Refreshments were available from the Women's Voluntary Service canteen in one of the small cottages near Orleans on the Coast Road. The NAAFI was to arrive in June 1943, taking over a large house in Coast Road adjacent to the Army cookhouse and more lecture rooms next door. A fully rigged 'Fleet' flag mast was sited on the present car park near the Hard and opposite was the Quartermaster's stores. Beach House was also requisitioned.

At 05.55 hrs on 17th December 1943, Handley Page Halifax LW280 crashed on the salt marshes, half a mile south of Pennyhole Flats. No. 1 Motor Boat Coy was alerted to search for wreckage and survivors. A former crewman recollected the incident as follows:

'Our boat H.202 was detailed to search Tollesbury creek. Visibility was very poor - half light and mist - only about twenty yards, no more. The tide was with us as we crept slowly up the creek, reaching perhaps half way up the 'Tolly', when a large round object loomed up out of the mist - starboard bow. Taking no chances as we had been warned, a quick reverse and 'hedge' anchor over. We drifted back, was it a bomb or mine? It was one of the aircraft's wheels stuck in the bank. On the opposite bank was a large gorge in the mud, the undercarriage must have been down on impact. As I had my 'sea boots' on, we decided to check the port side first although the main body of the plane would be on the wheel side, if that was correct at least we could inform the R.A.F. where to look. John moved '202' into the port side bank and I clambered over for a look. It was obvious that this plane had not been carrying bombs. There was ammunition of various types scattered around along with gelignite packs etc. I could not see any of the crew - live or otherwise - but struggling back to the boat I spotted in the mud a container which had split open spilling small red booklets about 6"x 4" in size. They were sabotage instructions detailing how to blow up this and that printed in French. I thought one would fit in my pocket nicely, you never know.

We returned to West Mersea with haste as survivors - if any - would be on the Peldon side presumably. The R.A.F. had to be alerted where to look. John and I had just time to grab some breakfast before the Military and Civil Intelligence boys arrived. They very quickly read out the riot act to John and me in no uncertain terms. Needless to say I lost my 'red book' and got a rollicking to boot. What happened afterwards was a 'closed shop' for us at No. 1 Motor Boat Company. We assumed the plane was tackled from the Tollesbury and Peldon area.'

The Halifax was returning from an aborted mission to supply the French Resistance when it ran out of fuel. The crew of eight baled out of which four survived. Later that day the remains of the fuselage were dragged on to the Hard under strict security and transported off the Island.
[One of those who died was Lieutenant (or Resistance Commandant) Henri Drouilh who was the Director of Operations for the British-based French section of Special Operations Executive (SOE).]

In January 1944, Mersea relinquished its training role and once again became a base for operational Coys as part of preparations for D-Day. No 1 Motor Boat Company (246) left for Rothesay in Scotland and the Island became the base of CRASC No 42 Transport Column which comprised the Motor Boat Coys which would assist on the Normandy beaches.

Arrivals were as follows:
February 1944: HQ CRASC CTC from Rothesay to East Mersea.
10 March 1944: 624 Motor Boat Company from Inverary to West Mersea.
16 March 1944: 571 Motor Boat Company from Woolwich to West Mersea and 626 Motor Boat Company from Rothesay.
4 May 1944: 9501, 9505, 9509, 9513, 9514, 9515, 9516 - Fire Boat Sections from Catterick to West Mersea.
7 May 1944: 9505, 9506 (Med) Fire Boat Sections from Catterick to West Mersea. 9510 (Large) Fire Boat Section from Catterick to West Mersea.
11 May 1944: HQ 109 FF Coy (Overseas) from Catterick to West Mersea.
22 May 1944: 9521, 9529 Fire Boat Section from Catterick to West Mersea. 9531 Fire Boat Section (Lge/Med) from Catterick to West Mersea.
5 June 1944: 9503, 9504, 9507, 9511, 9512, 9519 (Med) Fire Boat Section from Ealing to West Mersea. 9517, 9520 (Lge) Fire Boat Section from Ealing to West Mersea.

George Rutherford was an officer with No 571 Motor Boat Company which arrived on the Island in March 1944.

'Now 571, having been relieved of our landing craft by the Royal Navy - they always tended to treat us seafaring pongos with scant respect - for the Sicily landings, descended on West Mersea with a splendid mini fleet of Military Fire Vessels. These were 50ft motor fishing vessels that had been converted at Tarbert, Scotland, as fire fighting craft, a somewhat bizarre decision by the War Office seeing that they were built of wood! We also retained the pick of the training company's more sophisticated launches, ideal for jaunts up the Blackwater to Maldon and Heybridge basin where our sister Company, No 624 was stationed.

Apart from 571 personnel there was little military presence on the Island. There was a small contingent of Royal Artillery based mainly at East Mersea under a single officer, Dick Collins, an Australian. In fact, it always concerned me that the Island was poorly defended and the few concrete pillboxes along the foreshore could well have sported 'to let with vacant possession' notices. The Strood causeway was similarly devoid of any fortification.

Billeting was no great problem as most of 571 personnel lived aboard our craft although the officers lived ashore. Our favourite mess - its name escapes me - was the splendid last house on the left in Seaview Avenue fronting the sea. For the most of my wartime sojourn I was fortunate to live out with my wife, having 'smuggled' her in to what was then a restricted area with the connivance of the local copper, Sergeant Tom Waylett.

What did 571 personnel do off duty? Well, as is probably still the case, nightlife on the Island was in its infancy so the White Hart and The Fountain had a bonanza. We officers were fortunate to be made honorary members of the Yacht Club. The Sailing and Social Club between the Yacht Club and Clarke and Carter's boatyard, dubbed the S and S or the Sordid and Sexual was also a haunt of the officers. We arranged a sprinkling of concerts and dances at the village hall and, being a keen cricketer, I and a fellow officer were roped in to boost the local club, skippered by Bill Farthing, the local milkman who then delivered by horse and cart.

We certainly were made welcome by the local population and morale appeared to be remarkably high. Considering it was wartime, Mersea seemed to have an air of tranquillity and with oysters at half a crown a dozen life was not at all bad!'

With D-Day imminent, all Coys and Sections left Mersea Island and made their way to Fort Victoria on the Isle of Wight via the Straits of Dover from where they made their journey across to the invasion beaches. On 23 September 1944, No 624 Company briefly returned to the Island before sailing to Tilbury in January 1945 to be despatched as deck cargo to Antwerp. So ended Mersea Island's association with the Motor Boat Companies of the Royal Army Service Corps.

Published in West Mersea Town Regatta Programme 2005.

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Handley Page Halifax LW280 by Edwin Sparrow

AuthorRoger Bullen
PublishedAugust 2005
SourceMersea Museum