The Register of Australian and New Zealand Ships and Boats
AM2401 was probably the last of the 40' Workboats delivered to the Australian Army. Shown in 1964 operating on Moreton Bay, Queenland. Photo: Graham Galliott
The 40' Army Workboats of World War 2
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Modelmaker David Glasson researched the 40 foot Army Workboats in preparation for a model that he has built. When David kindly agreed to share this information with the author, it initiated further ongoing research that, together with David’s original work, now forms the basis of this webpage.
Design and build
The 40 foot Army workboats were designed by shipwright Jack Botterill in Melbourne. Botterill also designed a 25' workboat for the Army and 32' self propelled bomb scows for the RAAF. Jack Botterill and his partner C.H.Fraser had a boat yard at the Corner of Hanna and Kavanagh Streets, South Melbourne.
The specification for the Army workboat called for a vessel 40’ long by 12’ beam, having a cargo deadweight amounting to a respectable 12 tons, and a laden displacement of 22 tons. The speed was to be 9.6 knots and draft 4’. Plans and specifications can be downloaded from the following.
In standard form, the Army workboats were of cockpit configuration, decked in forward and with a coachhouse in front of a short wheelhouse. The cockpit aft was open except for a canvas shelter on light frames. The mast was 16’ tall and could be folded by means of a tabernacle at the height of the wheelhouse roof. When built, each launch carried an 8’ dinghy on the wheelhouse roof. They were originally designed to be fitted with a 165bhp GM 6-71 diesel engine supplied from the USA on lend lease.
The specification called for keel, stem, stern post of jarrah, a transom of double skin oregon, ½” inner skin, ⅝” outer skin. The ribs were to be of two laminations of suitable steam bent timber each 1” x 2⅜” at about 7” centres. There were to be 21 oregon hull planks on each side finished to 1⅛”. The hull to be copper fastened and copper sheathed. The deck forward was to be ¾” 7-ply bondwood. Built to meet the needs of an emergency, longevity was probably not a high priority, though there are still many on the water after 70 years of service.
Over time, there were small design changes in the WW2 Army workboats as built. A Mark II version was also produced, without the tall mast and with two windows on each side of the wheelhouse. They were probably not intended for the army, but for one of the other services. The three portlights per side of the coachhouse were a defining feature of both versions.
David Glasson has identified some of these in sketches he made while compiling information to make his models.
Late in 1942 the Australian Shipbuilding Board began letting contracts with various manufacturing firms to build small vessels for the services, even though some of these firms may have had no shipbuilding background. The wartime builders of the 40' Army workboats were
While not being experienced in boatbuilding, General Motors Holden’s Ltd and Ford Manufacturing Company had expertise in mass production techniques. This permitted the boats to be assembled quickly and reliably without requiring large numbers of workers skilled in boatbuilding. Prior to WW2, many automobiles still contained considerable woodwork, both in structural components that supported the coachwork, and also in the interior fittings. J. Botterill and Fraser provided the knowledge of boat-building and would have picked up mass production techniques from the other contractors.
J. Botterill & Fraser had to expand their operations to meet the demands of war. They opened a second yard on the waterfront at Footscray, and at that site built larger vessels up to 85'. John Botterill was an apprentice at his father's yard and worked on
Michael Gregg provided the following information on A.T.Brine &Sons Ltd:
The name of the builder of each boat was cast into the rim of the steering wheel. As well as the wheel marked for General Motors - Holden's above, examples have been found of steering wheels for J. Botterill and Fraser and A.T.Brine Pty Ltd, So far, no steering wheels marked for the Ford Manufacturing Company have been located. Sadly, many workboats no longer have their original steering wheel.
Only one contemporary builder's plate has been sighted (see photo above). Reminiscances of men that knew the boats could not recall seeing a builders plate. It is thought that perhaps builder's plates may have only been specified for the workboats provided to the Royal Navy (see below).
The following is a wonderful series of photographs provided by Don Roberts which show the workboats under construction; some in the GMH’s Woodville Plant in Adelaide and some at their plant in Fisherman’s Bend.
In this first photo, the keel has been laid. The stem, transom and transverse
The workboats were built concurrently, next to each other, with the work
This photos shows one of the hulls planked up and fastened to the ribs, the
Components were either prepared or prefabricated at different locations in
At peak, GM-H were able to produce a boat every 36 hours. This shows
The manufacturing plants were not adjacent to the water. At Fisherman's
The 8' dinghies on the wheelhouse roof were made at the General Motors -
In addition to the builders, there were many firms enlisted as subcontractors supplying various components. A book "Department of Munitions Register of subcontractors" (AP1396/1) held by the National Archives of Australia in Sydney lists these subcontractors. The attached file only shows those relevant to 40' Army workboats, 26' motor dories and Gray diesels.
How many 40' workboats were built?
No definitive answer has so far been found to answer this question. The table has been compiled using known numbers. There are likely to be more that are yet to be identified.
Most were built for the Australian Army with 323 identified. Some sources say up to 336 were built for the Army. The additional 13 have yet to be ascertained.
The Army boats were designated by AM standing for “Army Motor”. The first batch of 8 prototypes designated AM1435 to AM1442 appear to have been built in late 1942 or early 1943 by J. Botterill and Fraser. They are recorded as being in service prior to the big contracts being announced in September 1943.
One can surmise that J. Botterill & Fraser built the first batch relatively traditionally with the other contractors looking on to learn the craft and see how it might be adapted to mass production. At least one of these boats was designated experimental and may well have been used for trials to prove the design before mass production and perhaps for subsequent trials of engines and configurations.
Indications are that the prototype design was subsequently modified in the light of experience. The cockpit deck on the prototypes went right up to the front of the wheelhouse. The helmsman stood on a raised platform, but headroom under the wheelhouse roof was rather limited. Both Mark 1 and Mark 2 designs had the cockpit deck raised in way of the wheelhouse, and the wheelhouse itself was taller.
All but two of the Army launches were also given names. For example, in 1945 AH1567 had the name Hatta and AM1643 had the name Latrun.
Four of the workboats have so far been identified as having served with the RAAF. These were designated 017-29, 017-30, 017-32, 017-33. There were other launches with the 017 prefix, but many of these were not the same.
Though the workboats are perhaps best known for their long careers with the Royal Australian Navy, only 6 of the 40' workboats are recorded as having actually been built for the RAN; these being AWB404, AWB405, AWB407, AWB408, AWB409 and AWB411. The designation AWB stood for “Australian Work Boat”, and not “Army Work Boat” as is sometimes quoted.
A real surprise is the 84 workboats that were built or were building for the Royal Navy. These would probably have been intended for RN operations in South East asia, though little is known. The Royal Navy launches were given a WB prefix probably standing for “Work Boat” followed by a 5 digit number commencing with 45.
Based on the above numbers, this gives a total tally of at least 417 of the 40’ workboats.
Variations on the Standard configuration - Sea Ambulance
Sea Ambulance AM1569: 1944/09 attached to the 4th Sea Ambulance Transport Company. 1944/09/03 at Potsdam, NG being prepared for a special trip to Manam Island to pick up sick and wounded service personnel. Australian War Memorial Photo Number 075873
Amongst those built for the Army were 10 sea ambulances. These were modified to accommodate 8 stretchers. They could also be converted into a Headquarters vessel by the fitting of 6 extra bunks. So far the boats designated AM1566 to AM1571 and AM1659 have been identified as sea ambulance launches. There were three others. Before war’s end, at least some of these launches were differentiated from other workboats by replacing the prefix AM by AH standing for “Army Hospital”.
A drawing that illustrates the Sea Ambulance configuration can be downloaded from the link above. The main difference from the standard configuration was the provision of a more permanent coachhouse over the cockpit.
Variations on the Standard configuration - Refrigerated
Refrigerated AM1938 being completed by J. Botterill and Fraser at Melbourne. It is quite likely that it was J. Botterill and Fraser which undertook the additional work to complete the sea ambulance and refrigerated launches because of their experience in custom boat building. AM2234 was a 25' Army workboat also designed by Jack Botterill.-
Another variation was the refrigerated launch. 6 were built. They were in effect fishing boats. They had a derrick on a mast located abaft the wheelhouse. There were side booms for trawling and an insulated hold aft capable of holding 2 tonnes. The "refrigeration" was provided by a big ice chest. The refrigerated boats were attached to Marine Food Supply platoons. These had been established to supplement fresh food supplies so as to facilitate the recovery of the wounded and sick in hospital.
A drawing that illustrates the Refrigerated configuration can be downloaded from the link above. The boat is arranged with mast and derrick abaft the wheelhouse, the side booms either side of the wheelhouse and the refrigerated hold aft.
The original purpose of the 40’ Workboats was to support the Allied operations in the islands to the North of Australia. Most of the Army launches saw service in locations from Torres Strait to New Guinea and perhaps also in the Solomon Islands. A few were apparently stationed at training establishments on the Australian coast. There is a lot more research that needs to be done on this period.
A number of the boats are recorded on these Royal Australian Navy Record of Shipping Movements compiled during WW2. This is a rich resource yet to be examined. One of the record cards is shown here, this one being for the 40’ Army Workboat AM1438 Kantara.
Believed to start in 1942, it indicates she was at Thursday Island, Merauke, Mapi, Okaba, Kinaam and Koombus between November and the following May. These are locations inside what was then Dutch New Guinea on the Southern coast of the island West of the border with Papua. There was a major Allied air base located at Merauke, and it was the site of fighting between Japanese and Australian patrols.
One workboat RAAF 017-29 was based at Melbourne. The three other known RAAF 40’ workboats appear to have been based at Darwin. There are reports that more may have been operating in New Guinea. Further details sought.
The 6 boats for the Royal Australian Navy were all completed in late 1944 and early 1945 by General Motors – Holdens and most appear to have been fitted with Graymarine diesels, probably part of the RAN's allocation. Most of the workboats built for the RAN were shipped to New Guinea. None are currently in service with the RAN. The last shown was AWB404 Topaz which was sold around 2011.
In the latter half of 1945 General Motors - Holden's Ltd at Woodville, SA were engaged in building 30 of the 40' workboats for the Royal Navy. The workboats were to be fitted with Chrysler Royal engines. A progress report dated 20 August 1945 advised that component parts for the 30 workboats were nearing completion and would be finalised within 2 weeks. 18 keels had been laid and 14 hulls completed awaiting engines. By the end of October it was expected that the 30 keels would have been laid and 26 hulls built, with the balance in the final stages of construction. With no information as to the availability of Chrysler Royal engines, no indication could be given as to how many boats would be fitted with engines by the end of October.
The end of WW2 came suddenly. A secret weapon, the atomic bomb, was dropped on Hiroshima on 6 August and another was dropped on Nagasaki on 9 August. Within a week Japan had surrendered. Without having prior knowledge of the atomic bomb and the tremendous change in tactical advantage they would bring, construction of small craft in Australia had proceeded unabated. By 25 October 1945 there were 33 of the 40’ Army workboats under construction: 3 for the RAN, 23 for the Royal Navy and 7 for the RAAF. A meeting recommended that construction be immediately terminated. It noted that the Army had 57 of the 40’ workboats unallocated and the RAN would be a potential purchaser.
The RAN Workboats after WW2
Very soon after the end of the War, the Royal Australian Navy acquired about 38 additional launches that were surplus to the requirements of the Australian Army. These became AWB403, 406, 410 and AWB412 to 446. No references have been found so far for AWB401 and AWB402.
Post war, the RAN workboats were stationed in every State capital city, at Jervis Bay, Westernport Bay and in Papua New Guinea. The RAN progressively made alterations. The tall mast was replaced by a much shorter one on the wheelhouse. As time went on the petrol engines were removed and replaced by diesels. Robert Curran has located the following:
The motors were 'derated' by replacing the 'Services 90' injectors with 'Peacetime 60' injectors reducing the engine power from 225bhp to 165bhp.
At some later time after WW2, the RAN acquired three more Army launches: AM1658, AM1783 and AM2009. For these, only the prefix was changed to AWB but the original Army numbers were retained. They became AWB1658, AWB1783 and AWB2009.
Some of the 40' workboats operating with the RAN also carried the name of the base to which they were attached; AWB417 was given the name Harman for the Naval Radio Communications Centre in Canberra. AWB418 that was based at the Royal Australian Naval Air Station at Nowra between 1958-1963 carried the name Albatross during this time.
The RAN workboats attached to the pound at Garden Island were not named. But the launches that served Spectacle Island depot in Sydney were named Garnet (444), Onyx (416), Topaz (404) and Amethyst (420).
In the 1960s and 1970s a number of the RAN workboats were remodelled with a raised wheelhouse and aft coachouse, providing better shelter for use as personnel carriers. These sketches by David Glasson show modifications that were made to AWB404 and AWB420.
One of the dive boats, AWB440, was later assigned to the Defence Science and Technology Organization. Fitted with an A-frame aft, a short permanent awning and test equipment, she continues to be used for classified testing and experimental operations.
Over the years, the Graymarine diesels in some of the RAN workboats were subsequently replaced by other engines that included Gardner diesels and GM Detroit 6-71 diesels.
Not all RAN 40' Australian Workboats date from World War 2
The RAN built ten 40' workboats in the 1960s. The hull of these workboats appears quite similar to the WW2 boats, but the superstructures are along the same lines as some of the modernizations of the WW2 workboats. For more information, see the webpage on 1960s RAN Workboats.
The Army's Workboats after WW2
35 Water Transport Squadron RAE operated out of Woolwich in the late 1960’s through to the Royal Corp of Transport in 1973 taking them over. There were three work boats at Woolwich, AM400, AM404 and AM410. In 1972 as well as the workboats, the Unit consisting of six LCM 8 landing craft, the supply ship AV3051 John Monash and the tug Joe Mann AT2700.
Workboats AM400, AM404 and AM410 assigned to 35 Water Transport Squadron taken in about 1972. Photo: George Newton
The last 40’ Army Workboat operated by the Australian Army was AM402 Mena (ex.AM1945). From 1965 AM402 Mena was attached to 31 Terminal Squadron RAE, based at Swan Street Richmond Engineer Depot, Melbourne. Between 1975 and 1982 Mena was attached to Melbourne Water Transport Unit, which had been formed from the amalgamation of 31TML Squadron (RAE) and 41 TPT platoon (AMPH). She was employed as tender to movements of LARC V's on Port Phillip. In about 1980 the existing Graymarine diesel was replaced by a brand new 6Cy. Graymarine diesel that was war store stock from Bandiana. In April 1982 AM402 Mena was put up for disposal after having been replaced by aluminium workboat AM421 Mena II. In August the last of the Army 40-footers in service with the Australian Army was disposed after 40 years service, presented to the Royal Volunteer Coastal Patrol at Williamstown to be used as a training craft.
Left: AM402 Mena in about 1980 while attached to Melbourne Water Transport Unit. Photo: Rob Lyell
Disposal of surplus workboats
The South Australian Police purchased workboat WB45379 and renamed her Archie Bardenoch. She served as their police boat at Adelaide for over 30 years.
Archie Bardenoch (ex.WB45379)
So where are the WW2 Army Workboats now?
The Royal Australian Navy still operates three former Army Workboats on Sydney Harbour: AWB420, AWB440 and AWB444. AWB444 shown in the photo below has been renumbered 401.
AWB444 operating with the number 401 on Sydney Harbour in 2012. Photo: David Glasson
Of the many that operated with Government Departments, perhaps the last in public survice is the Burnley which is still operating with Parks Victoria.
Of those sold into commercial service, there are still some carrying passengers including the Mulloway (ex.AM1437, ex.AWB435). Mullaway operates fishing charters out of Lakes Entrance. Another the Codock II (ex.WB45340) operates as a ferry and for charter cruises on Brisbane Water.
Codock II. After 44 years serving the Dockyard at Cockatoo Island, she is now operating commercially on Brisbane Water.
A number of the workboats ended up in the fishing industry. Most of these are no longer working, but have become pleasure cruisers. However, the Vigilante is still (2013) fishing commercially out of Greenwell Point, NSW. Purchased with the name Doreen at Geelong by Graham Bates in 1987, she had previously been used as the Geelong Harbour Master's launch. Graham Bates decked the cockpit in and fitted a wheelhouse on deck. He worked her for 22 years before selling Vigilante to a new owner who continues to fish out of Greenwell Point.
Fishing boat Vigilante (ex.Doreen) still fishing commercially out of Greenwell Point, NSW
One of the former 40' Army workboats that worked in the fishing industry and has since been retired is the Marauder which, after fishing out of Eden, NSW and then Mallacoota, Victoria is now one of the large fleet of former 40' workboats on the Gippsland Lakes, Victoria.
Former trawler Marauder. For fishing, the cockpit was decked in, and a wheelhouse on deck and a raised foredeck were added.
The Archie Badenoch mentioned above is now preserved at Port Adelaide by the South Australian Maritime Museum. The Archie operates cruises from Port Adelaide.
The Lady Jess shown below is an example where the current owners are seeking to find out about their former Army Workboat. The early history of these boats is sometimes lost and the owners are looking to find out anything they can, particularly anything about any wartime history. The Lady Jess, ex The Chad, was converted into a motor cruiser in Queensland by Hugh Morris at Brisbane. She is still operational but her owners know nothing of her early history.
The motor cruiser Lady Jess, ex The Chad, ex Army Workboat. Photo: Roxanne Keller
Another privately owned Army Workboat is the Major Percerverance, ex. AWB418 Albatross. In this case, some of the post WW2 history is known but earlier history is yet to be ascertained. In 1958 AWB418 replaced GPV961 at Nowra. 1958-1963 based at the Royal Australian Naval Air Station at Nowra, given name Albatross. 1997 refitted to motor cruiser, converted by Ian Perdriau,
Not all the Army workboats have a secure future. There are some languishing in their twilight years. The Bay City 445, ex AWB445 is lying ashore at Mordialloc, Melbourne. Perhaps these are her last days.
Bay City 445 (ex. AWB445) at Mordialloc, Victoria. Photo: David Glasson
A register of individual boats has been created to try and record the story of each. This register is still in its early days but you will find each of the boats mentioned above plus many, many more listed.
Any information on the history and/or current status of 40' Army Workboats would be gratefully received. Please contact Mori Flapan by email.
Some specific questions that I have:
David Glasson's fine model of AWB420 Amethyst. Photo: David Glasson
Acknowledgements: The author would like to thank the following contributors to this web page-
David Glasson, Ross Gillett, Michael Gregg (WA Maritime Museum), Don Roberts, Craig McCarthy, John Smith, Roxanne Keller, Parks Victoria, Sean Harms, Ian Major, Mal Edmonds, Graham Galliot, Bryan ODonnell, Robert Curran, Larry Wooding, John Botterill, Geoff Chennells, Robert Curran, Rob Lyell, David Payne (Australian National Maritime Museum), Pamela Jennings (Geelong Heritage Centre), Graham Bates, George Newton, Andrew of the National Archives of Australia (Melbourne) and the authors of the following books:
Brian Alsop's Army Watercraft - The Unknown Fleet
If you have an interest in participating in a forum to share information and knowledge about 40' Army workboats, other service boats, and boats that were requisitioned during World War 2, then you might like to join Australian & NZ WW2 boats group at:
How to determine the original number of a 40' Army workboat?
At this stage, there has not been a definitive method established for doing this. Some suggestions follow.
PS: The above might also prove useful when trying to identify other types of WW2 built craft. I was recently told that the first method revealed that a motor cruiser was originally RAAF 020-2 a fire float launch.
Photo 1: The number AM1860 can still be clearly seen incised into the planking at the forward shoulders of this 40' workboat. Photo: Mori Flapan
Photo 2: Stem markings of a Naval cutter. It reads XX-X No 2 Savage W'Town 1944. The meaning of XX-X is unknown. But the rest indicates Launch No.2 built by J.J.Savage at Williamstown, Melbourne in 1944. Photo: Mori Flapan
Photo 3: The steering wheel of an Army workboat showing the name of the builder J. Botterill & Fraser cast into the rim . Photo: David Glasson
Photo 4: Numbers on former AWB417 cut into the transom.
Photo: Craig McCarthy