Lyme’s RAF Marine Craft Unit

THE Boat Building Academy facing the Monmouth Beach was once the home of the above unit. Built in 1937 it consisted of barracks, boathouse and workshop, during construction the unit took over the 1884 lifeboat house as a workshop.

The primary duties of the two seaplane tenders was to patrol the bombing and machine gun ranges of Chickerell and Wyke Regis. The unit strength was some 30 airmen who bizarrely were not allowed to go into town wearing uniform. A group of influential residents felt that “it lowered the tone of the Royal Borough”.

There was a quick change of attitude when in September 1939 war broke out. The warrant officer in charge ordered that the seaplane tenders were not to participate in the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force from Dunkirk, this was despite the fact that men from the unit volunteered to take part in the rescue.

In keeping with its wartime role the unit had the prefix Air Sea Rescue (whose moto was ‘The sea shall not have them’) added to its name in January 1942. It was a role that the unit carried out with distinction along with its ongoing range duties for which more suitable tenders had been operating since the early spring of 1942.

Sir Barnes Wallis, inventor of the Bouncing Bomb, carried out tests off Chesil Beach and observed the results from a Lyme-based tender.

In 1946, with the war over, the unit was scheduled for closure. However, after short period of being non-operational it was re-established due to the Cold War.

By the early 1950s it was again at operational level with the craft being designated as Range Safety Launches. The return of holidaymakers and the increase in recreational boating saw the launches carrying out the duties of lifeboat, Lyme having ceased to be a lifeboat station since 1932.

The bombing ranges restricted the local fishing grounds which caused discontent among the fisherman. Live bombs killed large numbers of fish, reputedly these were harvested by the launch crews to supplement their rations with the surplus being sold to residents.

In the 1960s and 70s rumours were circulating in the town regarding chemical warfare trials – they were true. Porton Down the Microbiological Research Establishment was in fact carrying out biological warfare experiments in Lyme Bay as part of the Dorset Defence Trials.

Large scale releases of bacteria were being sprayed from a ship (The Icewhale) mostly at night because the bacteria was known to survive poorly in sunshine. The bacteria included a strain of E.coli and B.globigii which mimics anthrax.

Launches from the unit were sent out to collect water samples, they were collected under tight security and sent to Porton Down. The launch crews were not informed of the nature of their duties and were never issued with any protective clothing. A report stated that experimental releases of bacteria may have put a small number of individuals at risk of infection, a typical official response.

The unit finally closed in July 1964. The buildings were acquired by Dorset County Council and in 1968 it became The Lyme Regis Adventure Centre. It provided residential courses in outdoor activities for schools and youth organisations.

It was closed in 1993 as part of a cost cutting exercise and was not in any way associated with the Lyme Bay canoeing tragedy. My book ‘Ebb and Flow (The Story of Maritime Lyme Regis)’ has a more detailed account of the unit’s history.

Peter Lacey
Local historian and author

Woodmead Halls

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


3 × 4 =