The backbone of the Navy

COB, under the informal name of MARY, was one of a number of tugs at Scapa Flow. She was on transport duties under the Port Coaling Officer.

  Smiths Dock Monthly recorded her wartime career:

‘The Admiralty evidently thought so much of her beautiful outlines and cheery manner that shortly after war commenced they commandeered her and ordered her to be taken up to Scapa, where she endeared herself so much to all ranks, from admirals to seamen, that it took them till long after the signing of the Armistice to make up their minds to submit to the sad but inevitable parting.

 ‘[…]At first it was understood that her permanent crew would hand her over on arriving at Scapa, but the spirit of patriotism was so strong that it impelled the men to volunteer to run her for the duration of the war, as Coaling Officer’s craft. As Captain Joseph Ballard says “I volunteered to take SMITH’S DOCK NO. 3 (the original name of COB) to Scapa Base, arrived on September 9th 1914, after a record passage of 42 hours from South Bank [Middlesborough], reported to Senior Officer of H.M.S. CYCLOPS, commenced work at once, and continued running night and day for over five years with only one refit.”

 ‘The master and crew, none of them young, but as tough and brave as ancient Vikings. Captain J. Ballard is [in 1920] 68, Mr C. Grieves, deckhand is 81, and both Mr R. Steer, the engineer, and Mr J. Hayes, engineman… have passed the halfway point. No wonder this gallant crew took the Fleet’s affections by storm.’


One night in November 1914 an urgent signal was received that all vessels were to get under weigh and steam full ahead. MARY was told to get all colliers and oilers off the vessel and to steam backwards and forwards, keeping a good look out for a submarine, and if possible to ram it. At 4 a.m. the signal came to return to station, and in the light of dawn the ‘U-boat’ was seen  to be a whale, now dead from gunfire.

 MARY was in the immediate vicinity when H.M.S. VANGUARD blew up on 9th July 1917.


Rear-Admiral Miller in H.M.S. CYCLOPS explained the need for such vessels in a letter to the Secretary for the Admiralty on 24th August 1914: “I must mention that the anchorage and defences of Scapa Flow embrace an area of 64 sq. miles. H.M. Ships and Auxiliaries are at anchor and on duty all round this area. The heavy seas and high winds so often encountered in Scapa Flow frequently preclude the use of ships’ boats and make strong tugs and harbour launches absolutely necessary.”


Where is she now?

COB is now privately owned and moored on the Thames at Brentford.


 Smith’s Dock Monthly, February 1920