Burgh man captured 'death boat'

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THE HEADLINE in the Helensburgh and Gareloch Times was rather more dramatic than the Times usually carried . . . “Towing Nazi Death Launch’.

But the story, which featured a burgh man, deserved it.

Temporary Lieutenant John Speirs Fullarton of the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve was the commanding officer of a Coastal Forces Motor Launch deployed off the coast of Normandy in the run up to and after the D-Day Landings in the summer of 1944, and was the senior officer of a flotilla.

ML 131 was a Fairmile B class and was built by British boatbuilder Fairmile Marine for the Royal Navy for coastal operations.

Based on the lines of a destroyer hull it was designed for total prefabrication so that individual components could be contracted out to small factories for production.

These were then arranged as kits which were delivered to various boatyards for assembly and fitting out.

ML131 was assembled by Frank Curtis Ltd. in Looe and commissioned on November 27 1940. Lieutenant Fullarton captained the vessel from February 6 1942 to July 11 1945.

This type of ML was initially intended as submarine chasers, so the boats were fitted with sonar as standard.

Their main armament in 1940 reflected their anti-submarine role, with 12 depth charges, a single QF 3-pounder Hotchkiss gun aft, and one set of twin 0.303-in machine guns.

As the war moved on, the vessels were adapted to other roles and the armament was modified and upgraded, such as the replacement of the 3 pounder with one or more 20 mm Oerlikon cannon.

ML 131 was reputed to have been in operation off Normandy longer than any other vessel. One of the seaborne dangers was the German E-boat built by Linnsen.

They were explosive speed boats normally operated in units of three with two boats carrying 660-800 lbs of explosives and a third tasked with remotely controlling them during their final attack run.

This radio-controlled Explosive motorboat was first developed by the Abwehr miitary intelligence organization and employed by the Brandenburg Regiment. It was inspired by the Italian MTM boats as special weapons for commando usage.

Their first use was an ineffectual attack on the Anzio bridgehead in April 1944, while still under Army control.

After some political inter-service argument, these 5.75 metre boats, of which 30 were built, were taken over by the Kriegsmarine K-Verband or Naval Small Battle Force. They were powered by a 95 horse power Ford V8 petrol engine.

The two explosive boats were piloted by a single crewman until the moment when the control boat took over by radio control. The boat operator then jumped overboard to be rescued by the control boat.

Aboard the control boat was the helmsman and two operators for the radio control. Once under remote control, the crewless boats were directed towards the targets at 35 knots.

The boat operator switched on recognition lights of red and green that could only be observed from the stern before bailing out, so the command boat could align the boats with their targets.

ML-131-sketch-wWhen the target was struck, a metal bumper framework around the bow was compressed, triggering a small charge that blew off the boats bow and primed the fuse of the main, stern-mounted charge.

The boats then sank and the seven second delayed action charge detonated with the effect of a ground mine.

However operators of these craft referred to their duties as suicidal missions, and the boats were too dangerous to operate effectively.

At the time ML 131 came across an unmanned E-boat floating by itself, the Allies had little knowledge about their design and potential, and Lieutenant Fullarton decided to attempt to tow it to shore for examination.

After taking part in the dispersal of a mass attack by explosive boats they found themselves bobbing up and down alongside one and attempting to capture it intact.

Twice they bumped into the explosive-packed bow — and they lived to tell the tale.

The skipper told the Helensburgh and Gareloch Times later: “I brought our craft alongside one. She was empty, lying with her engines stopped.

“Sure enough, while my First Lieutenant was trying to secure her with a rope, we gave the bows two rapid knocks. Nothing happened.  Feeling as proud as peacocks, we began to tow.

“Suddenly, after travelling a fair distance, there was a vivid flash, a terrific detonation, and amid clouds of black smoke she disintegrated into a shower of debris.

“Only one of our crew received a superficial wound, although most were clustered around our stern.”

The London Gazette of March 13 1945 recorded that Lieutenant Fullarton had been awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his service during the Normandy assault from June to September the previous year.

He had been recommended for an award by the Allied Naval Commander Expeditionary Force in November 1944, and he received the medal at an Investiture in Buckingham Palace on November 27 the following year.

The citation read: “For outstanding courage, leadership and skill during the build-up of the Normandy bridge-head.”

Born in Helensburgh on November 11 1915, he was the only son of Dr and Mrs Robert Speirs Fullarton, of Woodburn House, John Street, who also had a daughter, Elspeth.

ML187FairBEducated at Shrewsbury School and Oxford University where he graduated B.A. in Modern Greats and was a member of the university rowing second boat, he was a keen yachtsman and a member of the then Royal Northern Yacht Club.

After the war he worked for ICI at Ardeer and then for the British Electricity Authority as a personnel officer in Glasgow for a number of years, returning to live in Helensburgh about 1950.

Ten years later he moved to Dunfermline and took up an appointment as a personnel manager with the National Coal Board.

A keen carpenter and vintage car enthusiast, he was always greatly interested in Scottish history, a subject he lectured about to various organisations.

He died suddenly from a bronchial attack in the Dunfermline and West Fife Hospital on August 11 1970 at the age of 54, and was survived by his first wife Jill and his second wife Christine.

Captain Robert S.Fullarton RAMCHis father, Dr Robert Speirs Fullarton, MA, MD, DPH, FRCPS Glas., served as a Major in the Royal Army Medical Corps in World War One and was in charge of a hospital at Mikra in Serbia, seven miles from Salonica, with Serbian and British staff who lived under canvas.

He was awarded the Serbian Order of St Sava, 4th Class, for his service there. He lived for many years in the burgh, and died on April 17 1937 after a short illness.

An obituary in the Helensburgh and Gareloch Times stated: "Dr Fullarton was highly esteemed in Helensburgh by all who knew him.

"For some years past he had been almost blind, but in spite of his defective eyesight he was keenly interested in all around him and was fond of walking and gardening.

"He was naturally very sympathetic with blind people, and undertook the translation of books of outstanding merit into Braille for the benefit of fellow sufferers."

Dr Fullarton was a director and loyal supporter of the Helensburgh and Clan Colquhoun Highland Association, and a leading member of St Michael and All Angels Church where his funeral was held.