Page last updated 10-2-2013
   During WW2 my late father was a member of an RAF unit which flew barrage balloons from several Silvertown Services lighters on the Thames, located mainly off Beckton Gas Works, Barking Power Station and the Ford motor works at Dagenham. The positioning and servicing needs of these barges was carried out mainly by tugs of the Watkins and Gamecock fleets. Watkins Fabia was one tug which had been requisitioned and placed under RAF control. It performed these duties during 1939 and 1940 and flew the RAF ensign. Another vessel involved was the smaller Denton Wood. This vessel was requisitioned by The Ministry of War Transport for the Admiralty from her owners, Successors to T. F. Wood (Gravesend) Limited on 8-10-1942, for use as a tug, specifically assigned to barrage balloon duties and not finally released back to her owners until 17-8-1944. Denton Wood had been built at South Shields in 1923 as the Sir Acton Blake, and classed as a pilot boat. Built of steel, 67.8'x15.1'x7.6' and 62 tons gross, her official number was 139940. One night in 1943, in a real Thames pea souper fog, the skipper of Denton Wood managed to 'smell' his way from the barge to the coal conversion jetty to put my father ashore so that he could then walk 8 miles through the blackout to the hospital at Forest Gate where I had just entered this world! He always said that the climb in the dark up the vertical, much mangled steel ladder to the jetty top was the thing that scared him most in the war!
   Apart from the weather, other  dangers were  of course the almost constant  attempted bombing of these strategic targets, strafing German aircraft who took pot shots at the tugs and lighters as well as the balloons, and other shipping using the totally blacked-out river at night. One barge had a narrow escape one night when struck a glancing blow by a freighter thundering down the river.
   The WAAF's in the above pictures taken by my father on Denton Wood were part of the team of girls who patched the balloons after they had been punctured by cannon fire or shrapnel. The lightness of the strongback or towing bar in the picture would seem to confirm that Denton Wood  had been built for far lighter duties than those of a Thames Tug. What became of her after the War? I believe she was still around in 1955, possibly owned by ICI, but if anyone can tell me more please contact the site.
   20-11-2007 I am indebted to Colin Collier for the following :-  As a boy I remember the Denton Wood, she attended to Wood's sailing barges carrying explosives and ICI products based at Denton Wharf, her skipper was Harry Livermore,Mate was Arthur Livermore,  Deckhand Jack Stone and Percy ???,  Engineer, my father was skipper of the barge Edith and Hilda. 
5-2-2010 Harriett Pocock has answered the question!! The engineer was Percy Pocock, her great grandfather.
During 1940 German magnetic mines laid mainly by aircraft in the Thames Estuary and North Sea created havoc with shipping. To combat this new threat several tugs were based at Gravesend and fitted out to tow two types of gear to trigger the magnetic mines. One type, LL, consisted of towing two electrically charged leads. The other type consisted of towing a skid along the bottom sending out magnetic pulses.  Tug based at Gravesend for this task included at various times:-
M/S Group 124 LL Tugs [CinC Nore Command]

Built 1917 by Philip & Son Ltd, Dartmouth. YN 490. 144grt.  L85.5'. B 22.1'.   D9.0'. 500ihp 2cyl compound steam engine by builder.

1917 Delivered to War Office, Inland Water Transport Directorate named HS 29. 1921 Sold to Crichton Thompson & Co, London. 10-1924 at Richborough in hands of Receiver for sale and believed moved to Queenborough in 12-1925.   1926 Sold to W J Reynolds & Co Ltd, Plymouth renamed  Antony.  1928 Sold to Shipowners Towage Syndicate, Antwerp renamed  Cooperator.  1930 Chartered  by Remorquage Letzer, Antwerp  1938 Sold to  Remorquage Letzer and renamed Astrid.  1939 Req by British Admiralty for service with the Royal Navy as auxiliary minesweeper renamed Salvo.   7-1940 purchased by the Admiralty. 121944 returned to Remorquage Letzer, Antwerpen renamed Astrid.  1964 Scrapped  by P Boel, Tamise.
Built 1918 by Philip & Son Ltd., Dartmouth. YN 489. L85.5'. B22.1'. D9'. 115grt. 500ihp 2cyl compound by builder. 10 knots.

1918 Delivered to UK War Office, Inland Water Transport Directorate named HS28. 1921 Sold to Crichton Thompson & Co., London. 10-1924 In hands of Receiver at Richborough for sale and believed moved to Queenborough in 12-1925; still unsold 12-1926.  1929 Owner Shipowners Towage Syndicate, Antwerp, renamed Alsace. 1930 Owner Remorquage Letzer,  Antwerp, renamed Captain A. Letzer. 12-1939 Req by Admiralty as assistant minesweeper, renamed Servitor  FY 1673. 7-1940 Purchased by Admiralty. 21-1-1945 Returned to Remorquage Letzer, Antwerpen, re-renamed Captain A. Letzer. 1964 Scrapped.
 Built 1913 by Wed. C. Boele & Zoon, Slikkerveer. L26.01m. B5.99m. D3.30m. 121grt. 500ihp 3cylTE by Machinefabriek Alblasserdam.
1913 Delivered to SA de Remorquage à Hélice, Antwerpen named Hercules. 8-1939 Req by Admiralty, renamed Shako FY 1657.
22-7-1945 Returned to owner, re-renamed Hercules. 1963 Scrapped  by NV Boelwerf - Scheepswerven Jos. Boel & Zonen, Temse, Belgium.
Built 1904 at Alblasserdam, Holland. Screw Tug. L82'. B20'. D10'. 91grt. 380ihp steam engine.
1904 Built for SA de Remorquage a Helice, Antwerp, named Schelde. 12-1914 At Wapping, London in 'not seagoing' condition. 1916 On charter to William Watkins Ltd. 1918 Returned to Belgian owners? 1939 Hired by Admiralty as a minesweeper, renamed Solitaire FY1674. 1941 Purchased by Admiralty. 20-6-1944 Foundered in heavy weather off coast of Normandy.

M/S Skid Towing Tugs

1929: Built 1929 by Haarlemsche Scheepsbouw Maatschappij, Haarlem. YN 235. L50.2'. B12'. D4.8'. 25grt. 200bhp 4cyl Kromhout diesel by Perman, Bermondsey. ON161376.
1929 Delivered to A.H. Green & Co Ltd.,  London. 7-6-1933 Damaged after colliding with Battersea Bridge. 29-4-1941 Req by Admiralty. 12-7-1945 Returned to owner.
Built 1915 by Philip & Son, Dartmouth YN 454. L48.5'. B12.5'. D5'9". 25grt. 85ihp 2cyl compound by builder ON161374
1915 Delivered to  UK War Office (IWTD), named A13. 1916 Redesignated AS 13. 1921 Owners Crichton, Thompson & Co. London. 1921 Owner Price's Patent Candle Co., Battersea, renamed Veitch Wilson. 1937 Owner R.G. Odell Ltd., Brentford, renamed Ambi. 29-4-1941 On Admiralty skid-towing service 6-11-1941  Returned to owner.
 Built 1929 by Haarlemsche Scheepsbouw Mij., Haarlem YN 236. L50.5'. B12'. D4.8'. 25grt. 200bhp Kromhout 4cyl diesel by Perman and Co., Bermondsey.  ON161375.
1929 Delivered to A.H. Green & Co Ltd., London. 15-9-1940 On UK Admiralty service as minesweeper at Gravesend. 10-10-1940 Returned to owner 29-4-1941 On UK Admiralty service as skid towing Minesweeper at Gravesend. 18-8-1945 Returned to owner.
Built 1920 by Bushell Bros., Tring, Hertfordshire. L75'. B14.5'. 400ihp steam engine.
1920 Delivered to London Haulage Co., London.  192? Sold to C.W. Beckett & Co Ltd., Hampton-on-Thames. 1926 Re-engined 200bhp  Kromhout diesel engine. 21-7-1931 Collided with and slightly damaged Richmond Bridge. 1942 Req by Admiralty for skid-towing M/S duties. 1943 Returned to owner.
Built 194? by Georg Seebeck AG. Geestemünde. L95.7'. B18.9'. D10.5'. 122grt. 3cyl TE steam engine. ON180994.
194? Delivered to unknown German owners, named Mercur. 18-9-1945 Taken as war prize by  UK Admiralty. [MoWT] Grangemouth & Forth Towing Co. appointed managers, renamed Exertion. 6-11-1945 Chartered to Aberdeen Steam Tug Co Ltd., Aberdeen. 1945 UK Admiralty for minesweeping duties. 5-6-1946 Laid up 8-1946 Sold to Russian Govt.  1950 Still in service.

Built 1936 by Henry Robb Ltd., Leith. YN 222. L65'. B16'. D6.6'. 50grt. 390bhp 6cyl M361 Polar Atlas diesel engine.

1936 Delivered to General Lighterage Co Ltd., London. 24-9-1942 Req for  Admiralty service. 1945 Returned to owners. 1963 Owners Thames & General Lighterage Co Ltd., London. 1970 Owners Electro Marine Engineering Co Ltd., Gravesend. 19?? Owners Millwall Lighterage Ltd., London. 1980 Sold to A.E. White & Sons Ltd., London, renamed Chalky White. 1983 Sold to Penfold., Erith, renamed Sarah Burn. 1987 Sold to Able Towing and Marine Services., Rochester. 1989 Sold to Argyle Charters., Campbeltown. 1990 Renamed General IV. 1994 Sold to  Frank Warling. 1994 Seized for drug smuggling and laid up at Campbeltown. 2003 Owner Simon Sawers , Firth of Clyde. 2004  Sank in Bowling harbour.
Built 1935 by James Pollock Sons & Co Ltd., Faversham. YN 1306. L50.1'. B13'. D5.2'. 20grt. 120bhp 4cyl W H Allan diesel engine. ON164522.
8-1935 Delivered to William, Henry & Frank Earnell and William Pocock, London. 1966 Owner W.J. Earnell Sons & Co Ltd., London. 1976 Sold to unknown owner. 1992 Deleted from register.

Built 1937 by Henry Scarr Ltd., Hessle. YN 388. 50grt. 340bhp diesel engine.
1937 Delivered to Lion Wharf Ltd., London. 27-4-1941 Req by Admiralty. 1944 Returned to owner. 1960 Sold to General Lighterage Co Ltd., London, renamed General  V. 1962 Sold to Erith & Dartford Lighterage Co Ltd.,Erith renamed Caroline. 1975 Renamed Caroline  Bodkin. 198? Sold to Albert Coffey. 1989 Sold to Medway Towing Services, re-renamed Caroline.  2004 In Hoo Marina. 2006 Still in existence.

 Built 1924 by James Pollock Sons & Co Ltd.,  Faversham. YN 1140. L55.6'. B14.5'. D6'. 37grt. 120bhp Gardner diesel engine ON148524.
12-1924 Delivered to Union Lighterage Co Ltd., London. 26-4-1941 Req by Admiralty  for skid towing M/S duties. 2-10-1944 Returned to owners. 1971 Sold for Scrapping. 8-1974 Scrapped by T.W. Ward Ltd., Grays.

Built 1915 by Verschure & Co., Amsterdam. L79.3'. B19.6'. D8.8'. 100grt. 380ihp 3cylTE steam engine.
1915 Delivered to Steffen Sohst, Kiel, named Steffen. 19?? Owner German Kaiserliche Marine, Kiel (DEU), renamed George. 1920 Transferred to Marinearsenal Kiel. 1928 Sold to Shipowners Towage Syndicate, Antwerp. 1930 Sold to SA de Remorquage à Hélice, Antwerp renamed Baltic. 1939 owners Remorquage A. Letzer SA,  Antwerp, renamed G. Van Dijk. 11-1939 Hired by Admiralty, renamed Scythe. 20-5-1947 Returned to owner, re-renamed G. Van Dijk. 1964 Scrapped by NV Boelwerf - Scheepswerven Jos. Boel & Zonen, Temse, Belgium.

Built 1929 by Werf Concordia (S. Seymonsbergen), Amsterdam. L54.6'. B14.5'. D6.2'. 38grt. 200bhp Kromhout 4M4 diesel engine. ON161328.
1929  Delivered to C.W. Beckett & Co Ltd., Hampton-on-Thames. 26-4-1941 Req by UK Admiralty. 5-7-1945 Returned to owner. 1947 Sold to Borough of Wisbech. 1948 Renamed Fenland. 1956 Sold to Clements, Knowling & Co., London. 1957 Re-engined  Paxman RPH12 (TP4), 400bhp. 1966 Owners Clements-Tough Ltd.,Brentford. 1978 Sold to Thames & General Lighterage Co Ltd., London. 1980 Owners Mercantile Lighterage Co Ltd., London. 1980 Sold to N. Cardy Ltd., Maldon. 1990 Sold to Allan C. Littlewort, Maldon. 1991 Sold to  Alfred C. Littlewort, Isle of Wight. 1998 Sold to Julian Sciville, Rochester. 2000 Sold to Fraser Yates, Ipswich. 2005 Still in existence.

Built 1926 by Antwerp Engineering Co Ltd., Hoboken. YN 92. L86'. B19.5'. D10'. 110grt. 400ihp 3cylTE steam engine by Gebr Sachsenberg, Rosslau. 9knots. BP7t. ON[Belg]371 
1926 Delivered to SA de Remorquage à Hélice,  Antwerp named Samson. 11-1939 Req by  Admiralty  renamed Slogan. 16-2-1940 to 30-5-1940  Based Gravesend. 1-6-1940 to 25-10-1940 based Barrow. 26-10-1940 to 15-4-1943 Based Liverpool. 1943 Laid up. 1945 Returned to owner, renamed Samson. 1951 Owner Remorquage Letzer SA., Antwerp renamed Charles Letzer1964 Sold for demolition to Van Loo, Antwerp. Believed partly demolished but hull sold for rebuilding as trawler.
 Built 1894 by Scheepswerf P. Boele & Zoon, Slikkerveer. YN 368. L83.6'. B18.7'. D8.3'. 290grt. 300ihp. 3cylTE steam engine by Machinefabriek Delfshaven, Rotterdam.  ON145206.
1894 Delivered to P. van Geenen & Co., and F. Schellenbach, Dordrecht named Ary Scheffer. 1895 Sold to W.A. van Roekel,  Dordrecht. 1900 Sold to F. Wchellenbach, Dordrecht. 1917 Sold to E.L. Overloop, Papendrecht renamed Schiedhoof. 1917 Req by War Office renamed HS86. 1921 Sold to Port of Richborough Development Co Ltd., London renamed Richforth. 1924 Owners Board of Trade, London. 1925 Sold to Remorquage A. Letzer SA, Antwerp renamed Wrestler. 11-1939 Req by Admiralty renamed Souvenir. 1943 Laid up. 1944 Transferred to MoWT. 1945 Returned to owners, renamed Wrestler. 31-5-1963 Scrapped by NV Boelwerf, Temse Belgium.
     During 1941 a decision was taken to build gun towers in the Thames Estuary, their main purpose being to prevent mine laying by enemy aircraft and deter E-boat raids.Two different types were designed, one manned by naval personnel and the other by army personnel. All units were constructed at Red Lion Wharf, Gravesend and then towed to Berth 28, Tilbury Dock for final fitting out, before being towed out and sunk in position. Each army tower weighed about 600 tons whilst the complete naval fort weighed about 3000 tons.
    The base of the Naval fort was compartmentised and they were towed out relying on their own buoyancy. When in position the compartments were systematically flooded so that the fort sank bow first. The whole sinking procedure taking about five minutes. In one of the photographs below what appears to be a large cylinder can be seen on the bow of the fort. This was in fact  solid concrete and harnessed to the base by chains. When the fort began to sink bow first this rolled off and restrained by the chains positioned itself below the bow. This concrete 'buffer' therefore touched the seabed first, and under the weight of the sinking fort progressively broke up, acting in effect as a shock absorber. This idea was adopted after the first fort sustained some damage on striking the sea bed. After the fort was positioned hopper barges of rubble were towed out and dumped around the base to try and prevent the surrounding seabed sand from scouring away with the action of the tides. Also visible in the same picture are the temporary wooden bulwarks erected to prevent the sea from entering the compartments, some of which were open topped. and which were removed prior to sinking. The framework at the rear was also a later addition, providing a dolphin against which supply vessels could berth.   
     The Army forts were towed out supported by 'camels'.
     The Army forts were located at The Nore, Shivering Sands and Red Sands. The Naval forts were located further out in the Estuary at The Roughs, Tongue Sand, Sunk Head and Knock John. 
9-2-1942 0915 HMF Roughs Tower left Tilbury, Dapper towing ahead, Lady Brassey stern tug and Crested Cock and King Lear ( Gamecock's salvage vessel) lashed alongside. 11-2-1942 1645 the fort was in position 51.33.66N 1.28.93E, 7 miles SE of Lowestoft. [This first tow, taking three days,  was apparently fraught with problems, including hitting a light vessel moored off Gravesend, colliding with three buoys, R1, Mucking 1 and Mucking 2 and weather problems.
1-6-1942 HMF Sunk Head towed from Tilbury early hours, Crested Cock towing ahead, Watercock to port and Challenge to starboard,  and was in position at 51.46.51N 1.30.21E by 22.30. After this tow, which had gone much more smoothly than the Roughs Tower tow, an official is reputed to have remarked "Now we have the right tugs and the right tugmen for this job".
27-6-1942  0530 HMF Tongue Sands towed from Tilbury by Crested Cock ahead, Hibernia alongside starboard and Watercock alongside port. The fort was in position at 51.29.55N 1.22.11E  off Margate at 22.30.
1-8-1942 0540 HMF Knock John towed from Tilbury by Crested Cock ahead, Watercock alongside port and Challenge alongside starboard. The fort was in position by 1545.

4-6-1943 Erection of Army Fort 'Nore Sands' commenced at posn 51.25.45N 0 50 00E.  4-7-1943 All towers in situ.  Tugs included Crested Cock, Challenge and Sun IV?.
23-6-1943 Army Fort 'Red Sands' positioning began at 51 28 62N 0 59 60E. 3-9-1943 All towers positioned. Tugs included Crested Cock.
18-9-1943 Army Fort 'Shivering Sands' positioning began at  51 21 95N 1 04 48E. 13-12-1943 All towers positioned. Tugs included Crested Cock and Arcadia.
Red Sands Towers in July 2008.

The first of each group of seven army towers to be positioned was the bofors tower so that it could give protection against raiding aircraft to the tugs and personnel while the other six towers and catwalks were positioned.
 When the Army forts were constructed a smaller tug, Odells Ich Dien, towed a barge containing the linking gangways. The forts lasted until many years after the war, some still being in existence in 2006. Some famously became bases for pirate radio stations in the 1960's and 1970's. The Tongue Sand naval tower which had settled badly finally collapsed into the sea during a storm in February 1996.
The Tongue Sand fort in the early 1950's, showing settlement already taking place. Photo RGR colln.