World War II Ferro Concrete Barges - FCBs
The acronym FCB represents Ferro Concrete Barge, a generic term for the concrete barges built during World War II.
Non of the Ferro-Concrete Barges had the prefix FCB, despite the fact that the only FCB in a museum has been called FCB 18, and the Purton Hulks even have plaques naming them FCBxx.
There were two types of FCB. Open Barges, also referred to as ‘Lighters’ and ‘Dry Barges’, and Petrol Barges, also referred to by some as ‘Water Barges’ or ‘Tank Barges’.
Open Barges were prefixed F.B. and the Petrol Barges were prefixed P.B. So, if you read elsewhere about FCB18 or FCB52, remember that they are really F.B. 18 and F.B. 52 !
This nomenclature issue is not the most important correction necessary to properly document the history of these FCBs. Most important of all is to try to dispel the Urban Myth that has been created by a few websites that really do carry a responsibility NOT to create and spread fake news. It's great that there are so many drone videos and write-ups about the 16 Petrol Barges at Rainham Marshes, but unfortunately the nonsense written on websites (that get the top Google rankings) means that the fake news spreads, and spreads. Hence, I have dedicated a section below entitled 'Dispelling the Urban Myth'.
Hopefully, in time, those posting videos, reviews and writing commentary about the concrete barges at Rainham Marshes will find this site and real history will prevail !!
294 Open Barges were completed and launched between 26th October 1940 and 10th April 1945. As stated, they were prefixed ‘F.B’ and numbered in the range F.B. 1 to F.B. 300.
The reason that there were 294 is that 5 FCBs, ordered to be built in Hull (F.B. 256 to F.B. 260), were cancelled and one FCB, ‘F.B. 82’ built in Barrow-in-Furness, was adapted to become the prototype Petrol Barge, ‘P.B. 1’.
Initially there were two designs and three builders of what were ‘Stem-Head’ Open Barges.. Wates at Barrow-in-Furness built their barges to Mouchel design, eventually building 137 Open Barges plus the prototype Petrol Barge, ‘P.B. 1’. Thomas Lowe & Sons built 13 Open Barges at Connah’s Quay and Gray’s Ferro Concrete Ltd built 9 Open Barges at Irvine, both to designs by Harry C Ritchie, a ferro-concrete engineer that had designed and built concrete barges in World War I, using his patented Ritchie Unit System.
The Ritchie Unit System utilised assembled pre-cast panels and ribs, rather than a monolithic construction methodology, involving intricate steel work and shuttering. In 1919, Harry Ritchie's Concrete Seacraft company at Fiddlers Ferry had launched Elmarine - 'The World's Lightest Concrete Ship' for example and a number of shipyards built World War I Crete Barges using the methodology.
In World War II, all the Ferro-Concrete Barges were built using the methodology that Ritchie had pioneered.
The Mouchel FCBs were 84’ long, 22’6” wide and 9’1” deep whereas the Ritchie designed barges were 81’9” long, 21’8” wide and 9’ deep. Due to design differences, the Ritchie designed barges were lighter, and actually had a greater carrying capacity.
Following the construction of the first 40 FCBs, the Ministry of War Transport, in conjunction with the Admiralty ,that managed the construction project, settled on the Mouchel design and they were built at Barrow-in-Furness during 1940 – 1942. In 1943, there was a significant acceleration in the FCB building programme with 100 FCBs being ordered to be built in London by Wates, and 40 ordered from Tarran Industries in Hull. Included in the order for 100 FCBs in London, in the range F.B. 121 to F.B. 220, were 50 ‘Swim-Head’ Open Barges, essentially to the same design as ‘Thames Lighters’, which were preferred by the ‘lighterman’ in London for operating on the Thames.
The final FCB built was actually F.B. 255 built in Hull and completed on 10th April 1945. As stated, F.B. 256 to F.B. 260 were never actually built.
Petrol Barges were commissioned by the War Office in Spring 1943 as part of the ‘Overlord’ plan, with the specific intent of being used to transport fuel to support what became the D-Day invasion. The prototype Petrol Barge, P.B. 1, ordered in December 1942,had been built by Wates at Barrow-in-Furness and was accepted as the design for 200 further Petrol Barges to be built by Wates at West India Docks, London.
The main production run of 200 barges did not take place at Barrow-in-Furness due to the distance from the intended embarkation points for the invasion, and because Wates could build 5 per week in London, in addition to the 100 Open Barges also ordered around the same time.
From a design perspective, because the Petrol Barges were modelled on the Open Barges, they were exactly the same dimensions. They were built with four bulkheads in the hold, creating small buoyancy tanks fore and aft in the bow and stern, and with three large tanks capable of carry around 185 tons of fuel midships Their decks were constructed of thin concrete panels and not designed to carry weight but rather created a ‘lid’ to the tanks. There were five circular hatches above each tank and a rectangular hatch that gave access to the pump room.
They were built on the dockside in a row of 29 barges at a time and then craned into the water. A completed Petrol Barge weighed 160 tons, and because the Port of London ‘Mammoth’ floating crane had a limit of 150 tons, they were finished off once they had been launched and were floating.
By August 1943, 85 Petrol Barges had been completed and were berthed at Surrey Commercial Dock. By May 1944, 200 had been built in London.
What to do with 201 Petrol Barges ?
By the end of World War II, there were approaching 200 Petrol Barges, surplus to war requirements and taking up a great deal of space and occupying moorings in and around the Thames. Aerial views of the Thames in 1945 confirms this.
One practical use that was conceived for the Petrol Barges was to use them to store water. ‘P.B. 8’, ‘P.B. 9’, ‘P.B. 147’ and ‘P.B. 167’ are specifically referred to in War Office records as ‘Water Barges’ and by 1st July 1945, the Petrol Barges were listed as ‘For Disposal’ and managed by the Ministry of War Transport, which became the Ministry of Transport in April 1946.
A number were transferred to the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (19), a number were sold to the Dutch Navy (16) but most were simply excess to requirements and sold off very cheaply. Large numbers were dispersed to the River Medway and research indicates that tens were sunk in Ham Pits, a disused gravel pit off the Thames in the early 1950s. There is a high concentration of Petrol Barges existing today on the River Medway, used as the foundations for jetties, quays, coastal erosion defences and as houseboats.
The River Fal in Cornwall was also used as a place to store Petrol Barges that were, as late as the 1960s, subsequently dispersed to other ports and rivers around the country. The use that was made of them, initially, was to store water for emergencies but over time, they were resold and used as moorings, quays, jetties, coastal defences and also as houseboats, of which there are many find examples existing today.
What to do with 294 Open Barges ?
The 159 Open Barges built at Barrow-in-Furness, Connah’s Quay and Irvine from 1940 to 1945 were put to good use, both during and after World War II. They were allocated to the ‘West Coast Emergency Ports’ of Liverpool, Manchester, Bristol and South Wales. They remained in use for lighterage purposes in Liverpool until the mid 1960s and a few still physically exist. Four that were utilised on the Manchester Ship Canal also exist today, one, F.B. 18, still floating at the National Waterways Museum, Ellesmere Port.
The Open Barges built in London were completed between February 1944 and February 1945, towards the latter stages of the War. Around 1000 steel Thames Lighters had been requisitioned during the War and many converted into Landing Craft of different types. Subsequent to the War, many FCBS are pictured at various locations on the Thames but to date, no extensive use of the lighters, other than as moorings, has been confirmed.
The 35 FCBs built in Hull were also completed late on in the War. They are pictured, seemingly laid up, in Hull docks, in 1947. 17 of the Hull built barges were sold to a lighterage and towage company in Copenhagen in 1947 and 1948, and can be found today in various guises. A number were used to block breaches in the Trent and Ouse in 1947. One survives at Winthorpe Lake in Nottinghamshire.
In common with the Petrol Barges, Open Barges can be observed in significant numbers and various forms, existing today all around the UK and elsewhere.
More to follow !
Research undertaken to date has discovered the destiny of a very high percentage of the 201 Petrol Barges, and 294 Open Barges, built during World War II.
A forthcoming book – 'The British Ferro Concrete Barges of World War II' – chronicles the fate of these concrete barge,s but in the interim, an introduction to, and examples of, these important historic relics of British ferro-concrete wartime engineering will appear on this website and on supporting social media, including @thecretefleet on Facebook and the_crete_fleet on Instagram.
A number of on-line articles, produced by the author, can be found on the Internet
Britain From Above EAW052726 1953
Ideas propagated on the Internet frequently include statements that FCBs went to Normandy and/or that they were part of the ‘Mulberry’ harbours. Neither are correct.
It's extremely frustrating to watch otherwise really nice YouTube videos of drones flying over the Rainham Marshes Petrol Barges, or the Lymm Open Barges, only to have to put up with listening to the regurgitated (and sometimes enamoured and further embellished) nonsense about these FCBs.
I shall state at the off, that the only connections between Petrol Barges and ‘Mulberry’ is that they were built from ferro-concrete, that Wates also built Mulberry components and that they floated. It is often written that the Petrol Barges were" part of the Mulberry Harbour", but they were not. They are barges - not breakwaters, pierheads, roadways or harbours.
Even IF they went to Normandy, which they didn't, they still wouldn't be part of the Mulberry Harbours !
It was following ‘Operation Jubilee’, the Allied amphibious raid on Dieppe on the 19th August 1942, in which 3,623 of the 6,086 men who landed were killed, wounded or became prisoners of war, that it became clear that attacking and recapturing French ports, strongly defended by German troops, was unlikely to be a successful strategy. It was at this juncture, that earlier ideas by Guy Maunsell and Hugh Iorys Hughes were taken seriously. This is almost three years after the first FCBs were ordered.
That ferro-concrete floats (Archimedes principle !), was well established from the mid 19th century and engineers didn't think about how they could build a harbour, look at a FCB and shout 'Eureka' !
The possible source of the misunderstanding about their role, is that when the Mulberry harbour trials were undertaken at Garlieston, Scotland, a number of Open Barges were in fact tested as possible pontoons to carry the 'Whale' roadway sections, fitted with a ‘cradle’ in their holds to support the bridge sections.
I have provided photos of them at the Garlieston tests in Summer 1943 from the Imperial War Museum Archives. They actually show something of a before and after a significant storm. The other pontoons on test were 'Beetles'.
Ultimately, ‘Beetle’ pontoons, designed and built for purpose, were selected in the same way that ‘Spud’ pierheads were chosen over ‘Hippo’ and ‘Swiss Roll’ was rejected as a means to transport vehicles from the pierheads. Petrol Barges were never tested for such a purpose and would not have worked as the concrete deck slabs were extremely thin.
Hopefully this puts to bed the idea that the Petrol Barges were part of Mulberry
Petrol Barges and 'Overlord'
There is no question that the 201 Petrol Barges were built as part of the 'Overlord' planning. They were designed to carry 185 tons of fuel each so based on the theoretical maximum, that's over 37,185 tons of petrol.
Ultimately however, the 201 Petrol Barges were not used for the purpose for which they were built, to carry fuel for the invasion, and they did not go to Normandy.
There are a number of reasons for this. In July 1943, ‘Exercise Jantzen’, a beach landing trial, took place in South Wales and four Petrol Barges accompanied the landing force. Unfortunately, having been beached near Tenby, ‘P.B. 5’ broke her back and spewed petrol all over the beach, the incident being captured on film and available in the Imperial War Museum archives. A sea trial in October 1943 resulted in one of the Petrol Barges sinking.
Records from the National Archives of the COTUG towing roster for D-Day specifically shows the Petrol Barges being excluded and they do not appear on the ‘TOP SECRET “BIGOT” schedule of Military Floating Plant & Equipment – Cross-Channel Movement & Tonnage Programme’ dated 17th May 1944.
Furthermore, from the point of conception in Spring 1943, numerous other options for providing fuel for the invasion emerged. Indeed, fuel was delivered by a variety of other means – ‘Jerrycans’, ‘Y’ Tankers, 'CHANTS' for example. PLUTO - ‘PipeLine Underwater Transportation of Oil’ - started to deliver fuel by September 1944.
Bottom line, the concrete Petrol Barges failed their tests, they were not trusted and they were not needed. Hence ,they didn't go.
Not one single record of a 'Mulberry Tug' towing a Petrol Barge exists that I have been able to find. Not one single photograph of Petrol Barges being mustered for the Cross Channel journey exists, that I have been able to find. Not one single photograph of Petrol Barges at Mulberry A or Mulberry B exists, that I have been able to find. No one single wreck of a Petrol Barge has been identified at Normandy, that I have been able to find.
They did not go to Normandy !
16 Petrol Barges at Rainham Marshes
What is not in doubt is that 16 Petrol Barges were placed at Rainham Marshes in 1953 during the ‘Great Flood’. They are still there now, 70 years later.
It is not uncommon for Urban Myth about the 16 Petrol Barges at Rainham Marshes in Essex, to extend to a statement they had been ‘towed back from Normandy’ whilst throwing in a bit of Mulberry Harbour nonsense for good measure.
The idea that they were towed back from Normandy is flawed, indeed bizarre, at so many levels, not least because they were never there.
In any scenario imaginable, It is utterly implausible that 16 Petrol Barges were simply hanging around somewhere in Normandy, nearly eight years after D-Day, and that tugs were sent across to France, in the midst of the flood crisis, to retrieve them and bring them back, seemingly in towable condition, despite the ravages of the preceding years.
Using Britain from Above (EAW052726) , I then discovered a 1953 aerial view from Erith side of the river which clearly depicts 26 concrete barges at Coldharbour, meaning that 10 were subsequently moved away (or may even be now buried or sunk). So 26, not 16, FCBs came from somewhere. One is an Open Barge.
There is in fact, there is clear photographic evidence that, in 1953, large numbers of these barges were being stored in a gravel pit off the Thames and also on the Medway.
These 25 Petrol Barges and 1 Open Barge were in fact being stored somewhere on the Thames, probably Surrey Commercial Docks, and as such, it was feasible to quickly deploy them as temporary flood defence breakwaters. Now that makes sense ?!!
So, I hope this has laid to rest, once and for all, the spurious information that someone, once upon a time, must have made up and put on the Internet. Slipping in a phrase such as "it is disputed" and then regurgitating the myth is just lazy history.
Some people say that giants once roamed our lands. Nobody is yet to find a skeleton.
#rainhammarshes #concretebarges #urbanmyth #dontrepeatit
Exercise Jantzen : Danger of Explosion
Photo credit Imperial War Museum