The birth of modern Air-Sea Rescue

The Air Sea Rescue service that saved so many airmen in the Second World War could be said to have its roots in the early 1930s, with the development of the first fast launches specifically designed with rescue in mind. The 200 Class and similar MkI/MkIA seaplane tenders with the larger 100 Class were the mainstay of the ASR service in the early 1940s, later joined by the ‘Whaleback’ launches more commonly thought of in this role.

One of the first batch of RAF 200 Class ‘seaplane tenders’ on Southampton Water where much of the testing took place

It is a quirk of aviation history that two of the men who helped bring these launches into existence were famous for other things, while their contribution to ASR remain little known. These men were Hubert Scott-Paine, motorboat racer and designer of the Water-Speed Record-capturing Miss Britain and Miss England boats, and T.E. Lawrence – ‘Lawrence of Arabia’. In 1929, Lawrence (at the time known as Aircraftsman T.E. Shaw) returned to England from Afghanistan and was posted to the flying boat station Mount Batten near Plymouth. What brought Lawrence and Scott-Paine together was a belief that the heavy, slow seaplane tenders used by the RAF seaplane stations were totally inadequate to respond to aircraft crashes at sea. This was never their primary purpose, which was generally to transport men, supplies and equipment to and from moored flying boats. Their role as the ‘duty boat’ on standby in case of emergencies was never considered in their design.

Slow, heavy harbour launches like this one were inadequate for rescue duties when speed was of the essence

‘When I went into R.A.F. boats in 1929, every type was an Admiralty design. All were round-bottomed, derived from the first hollow tree, with only a fin, called a keel, to delay their rolling about and over. They progressed by pushing their own bulk of water aside’, Lawrence later wrote. More bluntly, in a letter to Dick Knowles in April 1931, Lawrence referred to the ‘R.A.F. dull stupid heavy motor-boat’. Lawrence had witnessed a flying boat crash in the Solent, and was mortified that the seaplane tender dispatched to rescue the crew was too slow to reach the aircraft before it sank, and several of the crew drowned. Considering that this had led to the needless loss of life, Lawrence lobbied the CO of the station to replace the slow naval vessels with fast, planing-hull launches. Lawrence had experience of this type of vessel from the 1929 Schneider Trophy which he had assisted with. The tender of the yacht that Lawrence stayed on at the time was a Biscayne Baby launch, which was fast but had troublesome engines. Lawrence showed some aptitude in keeping the boat running, so the yacht’s owner made a gift of the Biscayne.

TE Lawrence in 1928, the year before he joined the RAF Flying Boat station at Mount Batten

Scott-Paine had at the same time but independently made an offer to build 35ft planing launches for the RAF to Flight Lieutenant W.E.G. Beauforte-Greenwood. Scott-Paine was at the time one of the most famous figures in powerboat racing and marine aviation. He had managed the Supermarine factory in Southampton, hiring R.J. Mitchell and contributing to the Schneider Trophy victory in 1922. He later set up the British Powerboat Company which had by 1931 built the fastest boat in the world – Miss England II, which took the Water Speed Record to 98.76mph and would later raise it to 111mph. Beauforte-Greenwood suggested that Lawrence would be the ideal person to conduct the trials and development of these boats. The RAF wanted 40ft boats, while Scott-Paine favoured the smaller 35ft craft so a compromise of 37’6” was agreed. The result was the pedestrian-sounding 200-Class Seaplane Tender, which was in fact a very fast (36 knot) motor launch. It was of diagonally-planked mahogany construction, with a single layer on the topsides and a double layer on the underside. The 200-class were powered by two 100hp Meadows engines. One of these boats, ST206, has been beautifully restored to original condition by Philip Clabburn and his father, and can be viewed at the RAF Museum.

Hubert Scott-Paine

The testing took a great deal of time, and most of Lawrence’s RAF service between April 1931 and June 1932. It was not that there was anything inherently wrong with the boats – far from it, but they represented unknown territory and there were a great number of minor issues that the testing raised, and which had to be addressed one-by-one. The Air Ministry did not help by requesting changes along the way such as a hydraulic gear-change mechanism. The engines had to be made reliable enough to run at sustained high speed. The success of the pre-production boats spawned various other projects such as a high-speed armoured target-boat, smaller planing dinghies, and target-towing launches for coastal artillery.

Within a few years, the benefit of fast launches specifically designed for air-sea rescue had effectively been proven, and the multi-role 200-class was supplemented by the specialised 100-class High Speed Launch (HSL), which arrived in 1937. It would take another four years before a dedicated ASR organsation would be introduced into the RAF, but the 200-class represented the first step.

Moreover, the 200-class proved so useful as a seaworthy, high-speed ‘maid of all work’ that a strikingly similar, but slightly larger, 40dr Mk I Seaplane Tender were ordered, even after the arrival of the 100-class. These boats were also built by the British Powerboat Company, and followed on with the improved Mk IA, with many Mk I boats being modified to the later specification. The 40ft boats were driven by Perkins diesel engines, which were more dependable than petrol engines but still afforded a high performance. They were perfectly capable of being used for Air-Sea Rescue when required, but were more often used as support boats for RAF marine units.

An immaculate MkI launch is currently on display at the Portsmouth Royal Dockyard. Launch 1502 is often tied up near Harbour Launch D49, which is distinctly similar to the early RAF tenders that Lawrence experienced in 1929, showing the rapid steps taken in ASR in the early 1930s. The Seaplane Tender evolved into the Range Safety Launch which served the RAF in a variety of second-line functions in the postwar period

Mk IA Seaplane Tender 1502 is currently on display at Portsmouth Royal Dockyard


4 responses to “The birth of modern Air-Sea Rescue

  1. You might be interested in a little bit of history about a ‘Seaplane Tender’, later reassigned as an RSL ‘Range Safety Launch’ 1654.
    It started life in Glugor and finished up in Marsaxlokk, Malta. It is currently as sorry sight and if the owner does not have a change of heart it is going to rot away I’m afraid. Those of a nervous disposition maybe shouldn’t view the following website!

    Please feel free to use any of the information on the website, some of it I obtained from the ASRMC site and I have given credit to them for the info.

    Dave Rose

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