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12 March 1916 – Auxiliary

Having begun with great expectations of a massive naval battle that would decide the conflict, the North Sea has become a battleground of small boats.

Seen above, Motor Launch 473 is one of 550 such vessels that have been built between February of 1915, and will continue to be delivered until November of this year. Ordered through Canada, where American-made parts are assembled, the small boats are proving crucial to minesweeping and anti-submarine warfare by the Auxiliary Patrol. Armed with a 3-pounder deck-mounted gun, depth charges, and ‘lance bombs,’ they are just one of several classes of minor craft doing an unexpected amount of fighting and dying in this conflict. Because they run on petroleum-fueled motors rather than coal, the 80-foot boats are quick to get underway, but they are relatively slow, and the limited engineering of the time makes for occasional breakdowns.

Better yet are the 40 and 55-foot long motorboats built by Thornycroft and armed with torpedoes; based out of Dover, Portland, Portsmouth, and Dunkirk, they have a crew of just five, including the wireless operator. Radio nets — and the intelligence exploitation of radio signals — are becoming a regular feature of the Great War at sea.

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The HM Yacht Mekong visiting Stockholm in 1906 to host King Oscar II shortly after she was built

The war has seen both sides repurpose many civilian vessels to various military uses such as auxiliary cruisers, armed merchantmen, and Q-ships. Originally commissioned as the SS Maunde, by a Mr. Adam Singer of Southampton, the 899-ton luxury steamer yacht Mekong was later sold to Ferdinand d’Orléans, Duc de Montpensier, younger brother of the heir to a throne that means nothing in Republican France. While docked at Southampton last April, however, she was requisitioned by the Royal Navy under wartime authority. Based in Grimsby, and armed with two 3-inch cannons, she is equipped with a relatively powerful wireless set, and makes a natural flagship for the flotilla of trawlers and motorboats operating off the Yorkshire coast between Humber and Berwick.

At about 4:50 AM today, Mekong is beating against a gale in driving rain when she runs up on the Old Horse Rocks off the Gristhorpe Cliffs, an area that has claimed many ships before. On board are 67-year old Admiral Frank Finnis, a retiree who returned to service with the war, and 49 sailors. As the crew signal for help with their deck gun, two courageous volunteers drown trying to reach the shore with a line. One man finally reaches shore without a line to drag him down, climbs the 15-foot cliffs, and is able to get help. The nearest responder of any kind is the Filey Rocket Brigade, a coastguard unit which swings into action. As waves drive the boat ashore at a spot known as the Chimney Hole, they get a line out to the stricken boat and set up a ‘breeches buoy’ to haul the crew up to safety on the shore. In a final tragedy, the quartermaster slips from the truss and falls to his death while being evacuated.

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The Mekong wrecked, as seen from the cliffs where the rescue was staged

In a sign of just how active the Yorkshire coast has become, the Mekong is the second Auxiliary Patrol vessel to be wrecked in the same area in just the last eleven days. By the beginning of 1917, there will be 150 other flotillas just like hers in the Royal Navy, with more ships being added all the time. Having already commandeered almost every available trawler and tug, the Admiralty has placed hundreds more on order. Ironically, more than 400 small craft will be guarding the Grand Fleet at Scapa Flow by 1918, working in dense coordination to make the surrounding waters impossible for u-boats — and constantly swept for sea mines — so that the great battlewagons can be kept safe from harm for a great, decisive battle that never comes.

HM Trawler John Edmund, Mersey-class, renamed Foyle

HM Trawler Foyle, an example of small boats converted for patrol duties. Note the deck gun on the bow