Fairlie’s Secret War

The fact that Fairlie is on our doorstep yet very few members of Largs Probus Club were aware of the role the village played in combating the German U-boat threat, lead to a very interesting and informative talk by John Riddell who had researched the role and published a book of that name on the story.

He advised that during World War 2 the Royal Navy’s Anti-submarine Experimental Establishment at Portland in Dorset was bombed in 1940 and it was decided to relocate the establishment to Fairlie, where it occupied the boatyard of yacht builder William Fife. For the next six years the establishment carried out highly confidential research on the acoustic detection of submarines by asdic, later known as sonar, with some 250 people involved comprising Naval Officers, civilian scientists, technical staff and many local men and women as support staff.

The main research activities took place into new ways of sinking German U-boats, these included depth charges: the Fairlie mortar being a “hedgehog” of multiple small bombs which only exploded on impact, and the very effective Squid, a triple barrel mortar whose missiles could be set at variable depths. The latter had its prototype tested on HMS Ambuscade and was to have a 50% success rate against enemy submarines.

John referred to those who worked at the Establishment including George Deacon, an expert on thermal climes, and Tom Bacon who worked on developing fuel cells, subsequently used to get to the moon. He commented on the impact the establishment had on local people and their generally favourable relationship with the naval officers and scientists who came from England to work there. He concluded by stating that the work done at Fairlie was recognised by Winston Churchill as critical to winning the Battle of the Atlantic and ultimately the war and that the people of Fairlie should be proud that the destruction of some 200 U-boats was due to the work carried out there, even if they didn’t know it at the time.

Bernie Rafferty gave thanks to John for an excellent talk on a subject that must have been difficult to investigate as it was so secret.

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