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Military Report on the Sinai Peninsula
Towards 'An English Fourth'
Seven Pillars of Wisdom, The Complete 1922 Text
Paperback edition
'The Mint' and Later Writings About Service Life
Boats for the R.A.F. 1929-1935
reports and correspondence


The Forest Giant


Correspondence with Bernard and Charlotte Shaw
Correspondence with E. M. Forster and F.L. Lucas
More Correspondence with Writers
Correspondence with Edward and David Garnett
Correspondence with Henry Williamson
Translating the Bruce Rogers 'Odyssey'
Correspondence with the Political Elite 1922-1935


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T. E. Lawrence, Boats for the R.A.F.

Reports and correspondence, 1929-1935
Edited by Jeremy and Nicole Wilson

Castle Hill Press, 2012
Edition of 227 numbered copies

Boats for the R.A.F., our second volume about Lawrence's service life, brings together reports and correspondence about his work helping develop high-speed motor boats. The volume is a remarkable companion to 'The Mint' and Later Writings About Service Life. Much of its content is previously unpublished.


Boats for the R.A.F. was produced in the same three binding styles as 'The Mint' and Later Writings About Service Life.


Jeremy Wilson

This volume contains the letters and reports we have been able to trace that relate to Lawrence's work on RAF boats between 1931 and 1935. They should be read in sequence since, taken individually, they convey little to a modern reader. The everyday events they discuss are now remote, while isolated fragments of a technical discussion are usually meaningless. It is only when brought together that the documents tell a story, like the tesserae in a mosaic.

On one level this story is the narrative – told by people actually involved – of how the RAF came to adopt high-speed boats in the early 1930s. It is a story with historical significance, since the achievements of those years led inevitably to larger boats, already in development when Lawrence left the Air Force. The larger boats were crucial to air-sea rescue during the Second World War. The 200 Class seaplane tenders described in this book also played a role.

The introduction of high-speed boats to the RAF has been outlined elsewhere. This volume adds a wealth of detail and includes full texts of many of the documents on which earlier accounts were based.

For readers interested in the life of T. E. Lawrence there is a second story here. From the spring of 1931 until the end of his enlistment in February 1935, he was part of a small team that developed and perfected the new types of RAF boat. He worked on seaplane tenders and armoured target boats, general-purpose workboats, refuelling dinghies, bomb-loading dinghies and experimental craft. This work has never been properly described: the account here is by far the most detailed yet published. The letters also fill many blanks in the biographical chronology, by telling us where Lawrence was, on specific dates, and what he was doing.

Although Lawrence claimed to find this work fulfilling, some of his 'intellectual' friends were disconcerted. They had little taste for engines or boats or practical matters in general. To them, he seemed committed to the role of a low-grade mechanic. Robert Graves, for example, regretted the company he kept and lamented the loss of his polished Oxford accent. Biographers with a similar bias depict this as the least interesting period in Lawrence's career, a 'life of renunciation' – if not l’amour de la boue. Victoria Ocampo seemed to find his 'voluntary slavery' incomprehensible; but she gave herself away when she wrote: 'Lawrence was right in thinking that women cannot understand machinery'.1 John Mack and others skimmed over his work on boats in a few pages, suggesting that profound nihilism drove him to turn his back on earlier interests and achievements.

Certainly, during these years Lawrence had less free time for reading. Though he wrote many letters, most were short and matter-of-fact. He maintained only sporadic contact with most of his former friends. After completing his translation of the Odyssey in 1931 his literary output ceased – though he planned to write again once he had left the Air Force.

Yet the evidence in this volume shows that Lawrence's thinking during these years was positive and constructive. To claim it was a break with his past is to ignore the evidence. He had always had strong practical gifts – as a photographer, traveller, archaeologist, wartime guerrilla leader, and so on. 'I am afraid no "open fellowship" for me,' he had written in his twenties: 'I don’t think anyone who had tasted the East as I have would give it up half-way, for a seat at high table and a chair in the Bodleian'.2

Given a choice between active life and academia, Lawrence repeatedly chose to savour the real world. He had enjoyed boating in his youth, at both Oxford and Carchemish. He relished the sensation of speed, whether on land or water or in the air. Testing and helping to improve fast boats was not a break with his past: it was an exciting continuation. He found the work challenging, creative and worthwhile.

By all accounts he was a gifted (some would say 'natural') mechanic with a rapid grasp of technical issues. He had an original, diligent, inquisitive mind. He respected – without being overawed by – other people's expertise. He listened and learned. He led from in front, for instance by taking boats out on endurance trials in bad weather when others preferred to stay ashore. Whatever the legends about his past, his knowledge and hard work earned respect, even admiration, in the present.

His enthusiasm was genuine and infectious. He encouraged innovation – and didn't easily settle for second-best. He brought to the work not only practical ability but his skill as a writer, drafting persuasive letters and reports. To anyone familiar with the vocabulary of boats and engines his descriptions are usually so clear that technical drawings are unnecessary. There was also his gift for motivating people – the same gift he had used at Carchemish and during the war.

And there was more. When Lawrence believed in something he could be a skilful advocate. For that he was willing to exploit contacts that stemmed from his earlier fame. Happy to bypass obstacles in the military hierarchy in order to get things done, he had face-to-face meetings with the politicians who controlled budgets and with successive Chiefs of Air Staff. He used friendships with influential journalists and others inside and outside the Service to move things forward. This work behind the scenes on behalf of RAF boats has often been alleged. It has never before been documented as it is here.

We are fortunate that so much documentary evidence from these years has survived (though it is now widely scattered). We owe that largely to fellow servicemen with autograph-collecting instincts. They hoarded Lawrence's letters and reports rather than leaving them in official files – almost all of which were later destroyed.

The four-year time-span of Lawrence's involvement with RAF boats was the longest period in his adult life that he spent in the same occupation. It is comparable in his biography with two other lengthy periods of committed activity: the Carchemish excavations and the war. Curiously, there are ways in which these periods are similar. In each, Lawrence was working with other people on tasks that involved a large practical element as well as intellectual judgement. In each, he found himself alongside people who were not from his own educational or social background. In each, he was in a kind of liaison role, motivated by objectives that meant far more to him than to many of those around him.

In particular, there are striking parallels between Lawrence's role from 1932 to 1935 and his role during the Arab Revolt. This was the same man exercising the same talents, and getting results. Without Lawrence, the introduction of high-speed boats would have moved more slowly – perhaps much more slowly. As it was, by 1939 the designs were proven, with some boats already in service and shipyards capable of building more. During the war, the Air Sea Rescue Service saved more than 13,000 lives. Without Lawrence's contribution to boat-development, more might have perished.



The volume belongs partly in our edition of Lawrence's works, but it also contains 188 letters. There are letters (a number previously unpublished) to Flight Lieutenant W.E.G. Beauforte-Greenwood, and to others involved in the development of RAF boats. Reports include Lawrence's Notes on Handling the RAF 200 Class Seaplane Tender, and his previously unpublished log of maintenance work at Bridlington during the winter of 1934-5. This was the last substantial written task he completed before his death. 


The spines of the bindings are designed to match the bindings of our large-format edition of 'The Mint' and Later Writings about Service Life (2009)

  • While the spine-height is the same, the book is in the narrower format of the T.E. Lawrence Letters series.

Edition of 227 numbered copies, of which 195 are for sale.

Designed and typeset in Caslon by Castle Hill Press.

432 pages, frontis., photographs, fold-out plans

Boats for the RAF 

Quarter-cloth and quarter-goatskin

150 copies (numbered 46-195) are quarter-bound. The choice of style was optional for subscribers, and neither quarter-binding has precedence in the copy-numbering sequence.

  • The quarter-cloth binding corresponds to the quarter-cloth binding of our large-format Mint, with cream canvas spine, spine label, and grey paper-covered boards. Issued in a rigid cloth-covered slip-case.
  • The quarter-goatskin binding corresponds to the quarter-goatskin binding of our large format Mint

Boats for the RAFBoats for the RAF

Full goatskin binding

This issue is accompanied by two large-format design drawings of RAF boats on which Lawrence worked.

Boats for the RAF 

Above: a full-goatskin copy lying on one of the two 1":1ft plans. These are reproduced from originals dating from the 1930s. (The plan shown in this snapshot is an unfolded copy, attached to the outside of the printer's packaging to show which plan was inside.)

45 copies (numbered 1-45) will be bound in full grey goatskin with raised bands on the spine, to give a similar appearance on the shelf to the full-goatskin binding of our large-format Mint. All edges gilt; head and tail bands.

Issued in a rigid cloth-covered slip-case which contains the volume and a black card portfolio for the two folded drawings.

Boats for the RAF 

Thirty-seven copies, numbered I-XXXV, A and B are reserved


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