Friday, April 3, 2020

The First Drone in the Royal Navy - 1918

The world of drone technology seems a pretty new way of doing things that has only been around in the last few years. Small remote controlled helicopters with cameras have replaced fuel-guzzling aircraft, warfare has seen accurate and controllable missile strikes that have grounded fast jets putting human beings safely behind a screen instead of in harms way and underwater exploration has led to 24-hours-a-day working without a requirement for people to rest and recuperate.

But few people know that drone technology is actually over 100 years old. One such vessel is a small craft known as DCB 1 - Direct Control Boat No 1.

She was launched in 1916 as a Coastal Motor Boat designated CMB-9 and was the smallest seagoing Royal Navy fighting torpedo boat. Built by Thornycroft, she was one of several of these vessels which could launch attacks on enemy warships at a speed of up to 40 knots.

On 8th April 1917 she was one of four CMB's that attacked a group of German warships off the Belgian port of Zeebrugge. Just after midnight the attack led to the destroyer G-88 being sunk which led to CMB-9 receiving a battle honour. This was a rare victory for this type of boat but one which was celebrated as a huge success.

In 1918 she was selected to become the first prototype unmanned drone vessel which would be controlled by an aircraft and she was put on trials. By the end of the war she was renamed DCB-1 but a lot of information on this part of her life is still classified. These boats are still classed as Top Secret.

So the First World War ended and the boats were slowly decommissioned and forgotten about.

That is until friends Robert Morley and Terri Robbins came into the equation. From the age of 19 Bob has been fascinated by restoring old military boats and his job as a marine surveyor gave him the opportunity to make his passion his career.

One snowy day around ten years ago he was carrying out survey work in a Weston-Super-Mare boat yard when he asked if he could have a look around at the maritime junk that was piled up. In what he described as more like a farm yard than a boat yard, what caught his eye was four old boats rotting away in the corner, one in particular sat in the corner of this yard covered in brambles. Bob looked closely and found that this looked not only very old but very unique.

When he asked the owner what he was going to do with them he simply replied that they had been sat there around forty years and he was going to eventually break them up and put them on a fire to get rid of them. Bob pointed to the one he had his eye on and said "This one here....I'll buy it off you."
£250 later he rang Terri up to tell her. "There's a boat here, its only 40ft long. Its got to be a World War I boat, it must be historic!" Although by the look of it somebody had tried to convert it into a pleasure cruiser and had just succeeded to rip the top of the boat off.

It took several months to eventually get it out of the yard and onto the back of a lorry, making the journey to his own boat yard in Avonmouth, Bristol. When it was offloaded and he inspected it he found that the hull itself was fine with a hydroplane hull with a step, making this a "planeing hull."

As his research began he realised that this was the very first ever maritime drone which was aeroplane guided! When he showed it to historians one said that it was "the find of the century" and that the importance of this relic should not be underestimated. 

Terri got to work on tracking down the history of the crew and both worked hard on restoring the vessel to her original state. As the years went by the vessel was finally ready to go back into the water and is now fully working, being used in boat shows and film hire as well as open for enthusiasts to check out. 

Bob has two other historic vessels too - the sister boats Hyperion and Humorist which he acquired around six months ago, they are being restored and are a work in progress. His ambition is to have them both working again side by side. 

As CMB-9 is the only working example of this type of craft anywhere in the world, the hulk of CMB-4 is on display next to the people who are in the stages of building a replica in Portsmouth which will cost around £1 million. But considering an original was only a few hundred pounds, Bob and Terri definitely got the better deal. 

For anybody interested in the projects run by Bob and Terri, if you would like to volunteer to help restore these marvellous historic vessels or just have a look around them, contact them via email at