British Transport Commission (BTC)Past and PresentSouthern Railway

SS Autocarrier (I) – Past and Present

SS Autocarrier (I)

Roy Thornton Collection

Autocarrier – Roy Thornton Collection

Steel twin screw steamer, she was Britain’s first railway-owned cross-Channel car ferry, built and engined by D&W Henderson, Glasgow, in 1931 (Yard No 912M) for the Southern Railway

Technical Data

  • Length: 67.15m (220.03 ft) (overall)
  • Breadth of hull: 10.85m (35.6 ft)
  • Depth: 4.30m (14.1 ft)
  • Draught:
  • Tonnage: 822 gross (later increased to 985.46)/645 (under deck)/329 net, 280
  • Engines: Steam reciprocating, 8-cylinder triple-expansion (2 x 15”, 2 x 25” and 4 x 29”- 21”)
  • Power: 154 horsepower.
  • Speed: 16 knots
  • Capacity: 120 (reduced to 100) passengers /25 (average) – 35 (max) cars (loaded by crane)
  • Call Sign: GMPV
  • Official Number:162557
  • Registry: London


October 15th 1930: Ordered at an agreed price of £49,150.

The ship was to be named CAMBERLEY, but before she was launched this was changed to AUTOCARRIER

February 5th 1931: Launched.

March 23rd 1931: Sea trials averaging 16 knots. Originally designed as a cargo boat, but subsequently altered for the specific purpose of carrying cars (crane loaded) in order to meet the greater demand for such facilities.

Roy Thornton Collection

Roy Thornton Collection

March 26th 1931: Autocarrier arrives at Dover from the Clyde.

March 30th 1931: Maiden voyage to Calais. This was her usual run in the summer, but in the winter-time it was changed in favour of the Folkestone-Boulogne route.

September 1939: Became sole British ship crossing the Dover Strait, when the main vessels were requisitioned. Remained on the Folkestone routes, mainly as a cargo ship.

Roy Thornton Collection  Roy Thornton Collection

Roy Thornton Collection (both)

May 19th 1940: Taken up for military service.

May 20th 1940: At Calais.

May 23rd 1940: At Calais.

June 2nd 1940: Left Dover for Dunkirk, but returned empty.

June 3rd 1940: Sailed to Dunkirk where 712 troops boarded.

June 4th 1940: Arrived in Dover.

June 6th 1940: Having been released to resume commercial service she arrived in Southampton to work the Channel Island services.

June 14th 1940: Sailed from Jersey to St Malo being the last Southern Railway connection between the two ports for 5½ years.

June 28th 1940: Arrived in Southampton and laid up.

May 19th 1941: Took up service at Scapa Flow fleet anchorage.

July 6th 1941: After fitting out, left Southampton.

July 17th 1941: Reached Orkney where she acted as a Welfare Ship at Scapa Flow for officers and men of non-commissioned Fleet Auxiliaries

©  ©

New” (A “drifter” taking crews to and fro the ship)(Left) (Recreation) (Right)

New” (on-board NAAFI) (Left) (Cinema) (Right)

” Cross-channel steamer AUTOCARRIER, used as a recreation ship”

© Commonswikimedia 

1945: When war ended she was released to return south for reconditioning in London’s Victoria Dock.

December 10th 1945: Left Southampton for a return cargo crossing to Jersey followed by a special sailing to return 110 islanders to Alderney.

May 15th 1946: Maintained a tidal sailing between Dover and Calais.

Roy Thornton Collection  Roy Thornton Collection

Roy Thornton Collection (both)

August 1st 1946: Transferred to Folkestone, carrying cars and passengers across the Channel to Boulogne. The service was seasonal.

January 13th 1947: Opened the passenger service between Southampton and Le Havre.

April 1st 1947: Resumed Folkestone – Boulogne, this time however to a fixed schedule; and in conjunction later on with the converted DINARD, running a similar service to Boulogne from Dover as from July 1st. After this the ship went to Southampton every winter as a relief on the Jersey – St Malo route

© P A Vicary

New” © P A Vicary (Courtesy of Derek Longly)

January 1st 1948: Registered to British Transport Commission, Southern Region.

1948: Stump aft mast fitted.

Roy Thornton Collection  © Skyfotos

Roy Thornton Collection (left) and © Skyfotos (right)

1950: Returned to Dover as a car ferry, but the year after was used once more as a cargo boat, sailing between Folkestone and Calais.

February 1952: Made her last sailing from Southampton.

June – August 1952: Again employed carrying cars between Folkestone and Calais.

July 1954: Sold to Messrs. Van Heyghen Freres of Ghent, Belgian ship-breakers.

August 6th 1954: Left Dover for the last time, towed out of the harbour by the tug TURMOIL, en route for Antwerp.

All information is believed to be correct and no responsibility is accepted for any errors or omissions found. All items included in this article are subject to © copyright. We would like to take this opportunity of thanking: Derek Longly and Andreas Wörteler for their assistance in producing this feature.

Article © Nigel Thornton and Ray Goodfellow (Dover Ferry Photos Group)


  1. Hi my great uncle Cm masters was the captain of the autocarrier at Dunkirk do you have any Information on him he was reportedly the youngest ever cross channel ferry captain

    1. Peter,

      Sorry, but once again my research doesn’t extend that far.

      As with most of the histories, they are only a small capsule obtained from literature which I possess.

      I suggest your starting points be the National Maritime Museum, London together with the Railway Museum at York.

      Nigel Thornton

  2. Dear all,

    My father was on the SS Autocarrier when it arrived at Calais on 23/5/40. On 26th after fierce fighting he was taken prisoner by German troops and spent the rest of the war as a POW.

    God bless them all.

  3. Hello. As you may know, 15th December 2020 is the 75th anniversary of the return of the first substantial group of islanders to Alderney after WW2. They arrived on board Autocarrier. For purposes solely related to that commemoration, is it possible to purchase a copy of the main photograph, which is absolutely splendid?
    Thank you.
    Bob White

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