A Trip Down Mexeflote Lane

Mexeflote_solent

With the impending sale of RFA Largs Bay we had an interesting comment on an old post about mexeflotes from an Australian asking if the mexeflotes would be included in the sale. Of course, we don’t know but he also asked who made them.

Time for a trip down mexeflote lane.

To understand where the mexeflote comes from it is important to understand the role of the Military Engineering Experimental Establishment (MEXE) in Christchurch, Dorset, for it is here where they came from.

Shortly after the First World War in 1919, the Experimental Bridging Company of Royal Engineers was set up at Christchurch, in 1925 this became the Experimental Bridging Establishment (EBE). The Experimental Demolition Establishment  (EDE) moved to Christchurch from Bovington in the same year and much later, in 1946, the Experimental Tunnelling Establishment (ETE) also moved to Christchurch from Yorkshire.

In 1946 the EBE, EDT and ETE were merged to form the Military Engineering Experimental Establishment (MEXE)

MEXE were responsible for all manner of innovative research, logistic and military engineering projects from the MEXE Soil Penetrometer to the Combat Engineering Tractor (CET) to the Christchurch Crib. Its most famous director was none other than Sir Donald Bailey, of bridge fame, who had joined MEXE in 1928 as a civil engineer designer. Both the Bailey and the Medium Girder Bridge (MGB) hailed from the good offices of MEXE.

The site, on the River Stour, had been used as a barracks since 1793 when a squadron of cavalry was stationed there to deter smuggling.

In 1969, MEXE was awarded the freedom of the Borough of Christchurch but by the early seventies MEXE had been merged with other departments and I think what was left, is now part of DSTL.

So, back to the Mexeflote.

Mexeflote Design and Configuration

The Mexeflote came into service with the British Army in the early 60’s, elegant in its simplicity, they are simply pontoon sections that can be pinned together (much like the Bailey bridge) to form lighterage rafts, jetties and piers.

How much of that design was inspired by the US Rhino Ferry system is open for debate.

When used as a powered pontoon they use what are in effect, large outboard motors.

The Knights class RFA’s would carry two, one on each side. To deploy them the lashings were removed leaving a single quick release fitting holding it until the whole thing was released, the mexeflote falling into the water.

Recovery involves manoeuvring them alongside, removing the engine, winching them up over the fender belt and securing for transit.

Multiple Mexeflotes can be combined and in addition to acting as a powered raft can also be as a jetty, floating transfer platform or other floating structures. The modular construction allows a variety of shapes to be constructed.

When used as a powered raft they are usually commanded by a junior NCO with a crew of 5.

individual pontoons are of welded steel construction with flush sides.

Recessed slots are fitted to the sides of the pontoons into which the pontoon section connectors are fitted.The bow pontoon consists of a forward section, an aft section and a ramp. The sections are articulated to allow movement and this articulator is also mounted in a recess.

The front ramps are hydraulically mounted and the engines/propulsion units are connected at the rear.

Total payload depends on the size of the assembled pontoon

20.12 x 7.32m 60 tonnes

8.41 x 7.32m 120 tonnes

38.41 x 12.2m 180 tonnes

The propulsion units, or outboards to you are me, are rather special.

Modular Z Drive propulsion units from Sykes Hyrdromaster provide the motive force when used as a powered raft and although it might not look particularly seaworthy can be used in 1.5m wave conditions.

In 1994 the Army ordered an additional 50 units and in 2000 upgraded most of them.

I think the Z Drives have now entirely been replaced with OD150N from Thrustmaster.

The pontoon sections are sized to be compatible with ISO containers and although I am not sure who made them, their construction is relatively simple so if Australia did buy Largs Bay and the mexeflotes weren’t included in the optional extras list they should be relatively easy to manufacture.

Alternatively, they could buy them from Jenkins Marine in Poole, Dorset, ironically, not all that far from Christchurch and MEXE.

17 Port and Maritime Regiment RLC

17 Port and Maritime Regiment, Royal Logistic Corps, are the operators of Mexeflotes.

From the Army website

17 Port & Maritime Regiment RLC are based at Marchwood, near Southampton. The unit provides the UK Armed Forces’ only specialist port, maritime and rail capability and deploys regularly in support of operations and exercises around the world. Soldiers serving as a Port Operator, Mariner, Marine Engineer, Railway Operator or Vehicle Support Specialist would predominantly serve with the 17 Port and Maritime Regiment, though almost any RLC trade has the opportunity to serve with the unit.

The Regiment has three Port Squadrons, a Port Enabling Squadron, a REME Workshop and a Headquarters Squadron. It operates a wide variety of vehicles, plant, railway equipment and vessels, including Ramp Craft Logistic (RCL), Workboats, Landing Craft Vehicle and Personnel (LCVP), MEXEFLOTE rafts and Rigid Raider Craft. It also has the only military Dive Team in the RLC; they are responsible for a range of tasks including port clearance and vessel maintenance.

17 P&M have a faceboook page with loads of images, click here to have a look, including this one which I have shamelessly nicked because I thought it rather amusing.

17 P&M are relatively new, being formed in 1949 as a Corps of Royal Engineers unit, tasked with operating ports and beaches in support of the armed forces. In 1965 the Royal Corps of Transport was formed and assumed the port operations role from the Royal Engineers.

After a number of organisational changes, it is now part of the RLC.

17 P&M also run the Marchwood Sea Mounting Centre on the south coast.

The US Army Logistician Journal had a good article on the role of 17 P&M, especially how they fit into amphibious operations, in 2005. Click here to read it.

The Falklands

Mexeflotes really came into their own during Operation Corporate, a hugely challenging logistic effort. The lines of communication stretched 8,000 miles or 21 sailing days from the UK and there were no plans for an operation of this scale outside of Europe.

Each of the Knights Class LSL’s had a detachment from 17 P&M and a Mexeflote or two although they were carried on the deck for the voyage south after Ascension because it was thought the severe south Atlantic weather would rip them from their side mounts.

Operating around Green Beach in San Carlos Water, mexeflotes landed a significant amount of vehicles and stores including 63 Battery RAF Regiment. After initial operations on the 20-21 May, they continued for a couple of weeks. It is estimated that the Mexeflotes offloaded some 75% of the stores and due to the weights being carried, especially ammunition pallets, the pontoons were often underwater, as the picture above.

The LSL’s were used to transfer equipment from the larger RORO vessels offshore and it is during this operation that a Mexeflote was used for at-sea ship to ship transfer. Connecting the LSL and a larger ship the Mexeflote would form a floating causeway and forklift trucks like the Fiat-Allis would trundle between the two. In the sea conditions encountered this must have been a very hairy operation.

LSL’s and mexeflotes continued to be used at Teal Inlet and the ill-fated Bluff Cove

Sergeant Derrick Sidney Boultby of the Royal Corps of Transport was awarded the Military Medal for his actions and his citation was as follows;

Sergeant Boultby of 17 Port Regiment, RCT, was the NCO in charge of MEXEFLOTE rafts throughout the Falkland Islands operations. At Ascension Island, during a massive re-stow operation he worked all hours under difficult conditions to move cargo quickly. In San Carlos Water, the MEXEFLOTE rafts played a major part in the logistic landing of equipment to ensure the success of the fighting troops. From the exposed position which such a raft offers, Sergeant Boultby worked continuously throughout daylight hours and in extreme weather conditions.

The vulnerability of his position to constant enemy air attack did not deter him from his task and he was an inspiration to his crew and other RCT personnel. He was coxswain of the MEXEFLOTE present at Fitzroy during the bombing of RFA SIR GALAHAD and RFA SIR TRISTRAM, and repeatedly returned to the area of the stricken ships to rescue survivors and, with complete disregard for his own safety, dived into the sea to rescue a Chinese crewman. Sergeant Boultby’s dedication to his tasks in dangerous conditions was outstanding.

Highlighting a deficiency in ship to shore fuel transfer the mexeflotes were used to move podded fuel vehicles, these would be driven off the beach, used to fill jerrycans and returned to the ship for refilling, hardly efficient but the best that was available.

After hostilities finished, mexeflotes continued to provide an essential ship to shore transfer service until more permanent facilities could be established, FIPASS for example.

Haiti

In the aftermath of the earthquake in Haiti, DFiD and the armed forces supplied a number of locations with much-needed food and other supplies.

Bay Class Royal Fleet Auxiliary (RFA) vessel Largs Bay, with members of 17 Port and Maritime Regiment, Royal Logistic Corps, and other members of her embarked military force delivered essential supplies at Haiti’s capital Port-au-Prince, the ship and her crew continued to work, redistributing World Food Programme (WFP) food and commodities to Haitian communities who were logistically cut off from the rest of the island in the aftermath of the quake.

Since the disaster, the population of Anse-à-Veau, in Nippes province on Haiti’s southern peninsula, was swollen by refugees from Port-au-Prince. With the roads impassable due to mudslides and flooding, the only way to get aid through to the area has been by occasional airdrops.

RFA Largs Bay and its crew were tasked by the WFP to deliver Anse-à-Veau’s first major relief package since the earthquake.

During the four-day relief operation at the village, RFA Largs Bay’s Mexeflote raft shuttled 275,000 ready meals, 30 tonnes of rice, six tonnes of beans, more than 200 boxes of corn soya blend, 100-plus boxes of vegetable oil, and 13 bags of salt to the shore at Anse-à-Veau.

For a great gallery of RFA Largs Bay and the Mexeflote in and around Haiti, click here

Shame we are selling here.

Afghanistan

No, I haven’t been on the sherry,

Mexeflotes have been used for transferring vehicles from the Points class RORO vehicles to facilities at RAF Akrotiri as part of the ‘sail to fly’ movements programme.

The Joint Movements Squadron (JMS) is made up of RAF and Army personnel from 17 Port and Maritime Regiment (Royal Logistic Corps)

Read more here

The Mexeflote is an unglamorous but essential and innovative system, and its a metal box with an ISO container on the top

What’s not to like!

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