Rolls-Royce Armoured Cars
The article “Armoured Cars in Action” was first published in issue No 1 of The Rolls-Royce Owner October 1963, and is reproduced with the permission of the Editor.The early days of the Royal Naval Air Service 1914-1918
At first sight, there might appear to be good grounds for incredulity that Britain’s most prominent naval pilot of the years immediately before World War I should have been the person responsible for pioneering the use of armoured cars on the Continent when the conflict flared up. Yet such was the case. It all came about through the dispatch of the Eastchurch Squadron of the Royal Naval Air Service to Ostend on 27 August 1914, under their Wing Commander Charles Rumney Samson. Characterised by his shrewd eyes and trim pointed beard, Samson had been one of the first group of four naval pilots to learn to fly at Eastchurch in 1911. Since then he had pioneered float-plane flying and participated in the first trials of aircraft launched from naval vessels, although his first flight from an aircraft carrier, a converted barge, had not been a success.
The object in sending the Eastchurch Squadron to Belgium was to provide the RNAS with a suitable base on the Continent from which it could attack the enemy; its stay in Ostend, however, lasted only three days, but Samson had reconnoitred as far as Bruges in one of the Squadron’s cars before the unit was ordered on 30 August to return to England. The Squadron cars were once the property of F C McClean and numbered a ’45 Mercedes, a Rolls-Royce and a Talbot.
On the way back, the Squadron was delayed at Dunkirk for another three days, during which time urgent requests were made to the Admiralty that it should remain there and carry on fighting. These were approved. In addition to being expected to attack hostile aeroplanes and airships, Samson’s men were to help keep all ground within 100 mile radius of Dunkirk free of German air forces and to establish temporary bases 50 miles inland to assist in offensive operations. A force of fifty to sixty armoured cars was promised to the Squadron by the Admiralty to achieve this.
Samson was critically short of serviceable aircraft but, four days after reaching Dunkirk, his aggressive spirit swung into action with two of his transport cars, armed with Maxim guns, which he used to attack from 500 yards range a German staff car travelling with six officers to Cassel. Two of the enemy were wounded in the engagement and the staff car quickly turned about, the occupants later spreading exaggerated reports of a large force of English troops around Cassel.
Two days after the Cassel adventure, Samson set out again with four of his cars for a foray into Lille, evacuated temporarily by the enemy, to capture or destroy any German transport that he might find there. Excitement among the inhabitants ran high at the sight of the warlike naval officer bent on giving battle to the invading Germans – so high, in fact, that Samson was hit on the jaw by a ginger-beer bottle thrown through his car’s windscreen. Samson took the opportunity to issue the following proclamation which was translated and posted up all over Lille:-
I have this day
This opportunity for unfettered buccaneering suited Samson admirably and, to increase its potency, a pair of his cars – the Mercedes and the Rolls-Royce – were quickly given armoured protection with a covering of ¼ inch boiler plate. A request for assistance to the Admiralty soon brought forth on 8 September a force of 250 Marines in charge of Major Armstrong. To get the most out of the forces now available, a plan of campaign was evolved which relied primarily upon close co-operation between the aircraft overhead and the cars on the ground. Reports dropped from the air of any signs of enemy troops or vehicles were followed up at once by the armoured cars, which sped in to the attack. To assist the French forces in the area, a temporary base was set up on 19 September at Morbecque to the north of the Forêt de Nieppe. Three days later the cars were operating to the south-east in Aniche and were fighting German cavalry forces in the town’s thoroughfares on both the 22 and 23 September and for several days afterwards. Nevertheless, the overwhelming enemy columns pushed steadily to the west and 1 October found them again at Douai. By temporarily recapturing an important escape bridge over a canal and a crossroads, the redoubtable Samson and his force of RNAS cars were directly instrumental in making possible the evacuation of the French troops holding Douai.
Samson named his first cars after the places where his victories took place – Cassel, Orchies, Aniche and Douai.
On 1 October Joseph Wedgwood arrived with six new armoured cars from England. These had prototype bodywork with a turret for the driver’s head.
During the first week of October it became evident that Antwerp would have to be given up, and the armoured cars were given the task of harrying the Germans who were approaching the escape route to Ostend. By the middle of October, the fluid nature of the line of German advance was changing as ‘trench warfare’ took over. Consequently, the demands for the services of the RNAS cars lessened, but No’s 5, 6, 8 and 15 Armoured Car Squadrons continued to work with the 3 rd Cavalry Division as the long and desperate fight for Ypres dragged on into the early summer of 1915.
In another theatre of war and under entirely different conditions, No3 Armoured Car Squadron of the RNAS, in the charge of Lieut-Commander JC Wedgwood, found itself in action against the Turks at Gallipoli. By mid-April 1915, the unit had reached Mudros but it was decided that, before being committed to land operations, the Squadron’s machine-gun crews could be used with advantage to provide covering fire with eleven Maxim guns installed in emplacements on the foredeck of the River Clyde, the landing-craft to be used in the assault on the Turks.
Early on 25 April the vessel ran aground on the gently sloping beach at Sedd el Bahr, but No3 Squadron’s gunners kept up such a torrent of fire on the Turkish positions that the forces were able to get ashore and capture Sedd el Bahr the following day. While this action had been taking place, No4 Armoured Car Squadron had been attacking Bulair as a diversion under Squadron Commander C E Risk.
Until the end of May, the Armoured Car squadrons continued with their Maxims to support the Army in its battle at Gallipoli with the Turks. Finally, after a short break, on the 4 June the cars were withdrawn as of little further use in the trench fighting which by then was under way. The cars were engaged with the infantry in attacking Turkish troops on 28 June but, as autumn and winter came towards the end of 1915, the RNAS armoured cars – together with the crews who manned them – were transferred to the Army.
During 1916, three squadrons of RNAS armoured cars, in the charge of Squadron Commander R Gregory, were assisting Russian and Rumanian troops and attacked the Germans and Bulgarians near the Tchernavoda Bridge of the River Danube in fighting which took place from 25 November until 3 December.
The Naval Air Service’s warriors on wheels had fought in a spirit worthy of their forebears in many engagements during the first sixteen months of the war, successfully attacking the enemy with gusto at every opportunity in an element totally removed from that in which their normal activities lay.
Cap badge of the Royal Naval Air Service, showing stylised Armoured Car, circa 1916
The article prompted the following letters in the original publication:
My 1914 Silver Ghost, chassis No 23 YB, was originally owned by the late Col McClean, who was possibly the FC McClean mentioned by Peter Lewis in his extremely interesting article in your October issue.
I don’t suppose it is the same car, but I discovered that the engine has “RNAS DUNKIRK” stamped on the web of the centre main bearing, when I had the sump off.
Also, there are some small dents on top of the radiator, in front, caused by German bullets, when Col McClean was using this car as a staff car. This has been verified by Col McClean’s nephew, Mr FW McClean, with whom I have had correspondence on the subject.
J.G. Hutt, Newbury, Berkshire
In answer to the query about numbers of armoured cars, raised by Mr White, I enclose a chart summarising the position in April/May 1919.
This was compiled by the War Office from returns sent in and forms part of a ‘Vehicle Record’ of 1919.
BH Vanderveen; Dorking, Surrey
"the 40/50 tourer on the quay at Harwich in 1914 could well be Commander Sampson, who led the Royal Naval Air Service Squadron in support of the RN division in the defence of Antwerp in 1914. Several of its officers overcame the shortage of mechanical transport by taking their private cars with them. A number were subsequently armoured in the dockyards of Antwerp and from them stemmed the Rolls-Royce armoured car
‘The clinging mud that so seriously hampered men and machines in the shambles of the Flanders battle fields and the back areas has caught yet another victim here. This time it is an armoured car which has sunk axle-deep into the mud and slime of a road pulped by shellfire. The vehicle is a 40-50hp Rolls-Royce of the type which was widely used in Palestine, Mesopotamia, Egypt and Russia, but proved a failure in the mud of Flanders. Armour plate protected all vital parts, and the revolving turret carried a Vickers machine gun. Photograph from the Imperial War Museum.’
Interesting pictures of Rolls-Royce armoured and staff cars taken during the Russian Archangel expedition at the end of 1917. The armoured car shown is a 1914 Mark 1, and of special interest is the local modification of fitting protecting armoured shields on either side of the water jacket of the Vickers gun. I have never seen that before. The Silver Ghost staff car is interesting as it is fitted with twin rear wheels, which no doubt it needed. Some of these vehicles were abandoned at the end of the campaign and are still believed to be owned by the Russians. Certainly I have seen a news film of the Russian Army celebrating the 50th anniversary of the great revolution in which a number of Austin armoured cars took part and the turrets of several Rolls-Royce armoured cars identified behind them. They were part of a historic tableau."
‘A couple of 1914 Mark I patterns taken in the Middle East, probably during Allenby's campaign’
‘More Ghosts in the Desert. These never before published photographs of an armoured car unit in the Middle East were taken in the early 1920’s and provide a silent tribute to men and machines under gruelling conditions. They have been kindly sent by new member John Warburton of Manchester. Unfortunately, they are uncaptioned.’
‘Here is another interesting armoured car which has a few oddities about it - various features put it in the early 1930's, the wheels in particular. It is an RAF pattern but has a unit sign similar to Army styling, and the name is from a Royal Naval Air Service list. David Dudley is scouring the Old Comrades of the Royal Corps of Signals for possible help as the 'spring mattress' aerial is strange, while the upright was common to Headquarters Tactical Signals units well into the Second World War. We now have some information and chassis numbers of about 130 Rolls-Royce armoured cars produced in 1914 and 1915 for the Admiralty and for the War Office. From 1919 they are fully documented and all the chassis cards with detailed modifications are safe and well.’
‘An unknown picture – anyone identify?’
Bulletin 119A Tough Assignment: by Lt Col C D V Cary-Barnard, GMG, DSO
The following letter, kindly submitted by Mr W Boddy, originally appeared in ‘The Tank Corps Journal’, October 1922
The most outstanding incident since the war has been the trip of three Rolls-Royce armoured car tenders from Jerusalem to Baghdad last year. This journey was undertaken with the aid of aeroplanes who daily kept in touch with the cars and brought them supplies. In addition to these three tenders, fitted with Vickers machine guns, the convoy consisted of some other makes, over which the former demonstrated only too often their vast superiority. Upon one occasion a back axle complete was brought out by air and, in all, thirteen back axles were broken on twelve accompanying vehicles whereas the Rolls-Royce cars had no mechanical breakdown, either on the outward or on the return journey.
Generally, the ground travelled over was rough in the extreme. One particular stretch, a total distance of only 10 miles, took two days to cover, for a road had to be hand picked over lava beds. Altogether the journey took 28 days going and 18 days coming back. The return journey would have been much quicker but for the delay caused by some accompanying vehicles, which occasionally had to be towed by the Rolls-Royces.
Taken in early 1920's after crossing the great lava beds in Persia, shows the horrendous damage to tyres these jagged rocks inflicted. All tyre changes by hand, no doubt, and hand or foot pumps unless they had a spark plug compressor unit"
(Picture and caption from Bulletin 137)
These armoured cars were the ordinary Rolls-Royce chassis with no other changes in construction other than a lowered gear ratio and heavier, stronger springs substituted for the usual touring equipment.
Road tests showed that a steady squadron speed of over forty-five miles per hour could be maintained, although the cars with armour and equipment weighed CLOSE UPON FOUR TONS.
In German West Africa … during several months of extremely arduous work, over country which was devoid entirely of roads and consisted mainly of desert sands and rock-strewn highlands, not a single Rolls-Royce armoured car was laid up for an hour, except as a result of the enemy’s fire.
Memories of times spent as a young Lance Corporal (fitter) in a Rolls-Royce armoured car company in India 1929-36
By J R Chapman
All cars were 1911-14 vintage with exception of one named ‘Wedding Bells’, which was a 1908 Rolls-Royce.
Armament . One Vickers .303, belt feed, water-cooled, mounted in front face of turret.
Driving position . First and second drivers sat on a cushion on the floor of the car, with supporting back straps. Second drivers’ duties included that of being responsible for the air pressure in the petrol tank; in event of mechanical air pump failure he operated the hand air pump.
Lighting . Low-pressure carbide lighting system. Second driver responsible for cleaning carbide container, filling container with fresh carbide and water, pricking of lights, jets, burners holes and serviceability of the lighting system feed hose. As a rule the lighting system worked perfectly when tested in daylight, but became defective as soon as the sun set.
Batteries . Removed from cars and charged in the workshop. No dynamo or starter motor fitted.
Starting . Drivers would complain if the cars would not start by simply turning the switch on top of the steering column to MAG or BATT. All drivers considered the starting handle should only be used for charging the combustion chambers and for maintenance. When priming the combustion chambers, to get a very rich mixture a penny was placed under the control arm which was clamped to the mixture jet. The jet was thus lifted out of its tube by the thickness of the penny, giving the richness required.
The high-speed jet was adjusted on the road at speed. The fitter used to lie on the front mudguard with legs on running board and lash himself with rope to the armoured body stay. Tools required were hanging from the engine by lengths of string.
Clutch . When required the clutch pedal was depressed and propped out with a piece of wood in order to soak the cone clutch lining with castor oil. The clutch pedal was usually left depressed all night.
Piston Rings . Standard type rings were too small. OS rings had to be ordered from UK.
Brakes . Hand brake shoe linings were of cast iron secured to shoes by copper rivets.
Tyres . Inflated by hand pump.
Steering . The steering geometry, or as much as was known about it in those days, had to be really accurate. If not the car developed the most alarming ‘wobble’ and I have known the turret to be thrown off due to such wobble. I have known a slight bump on a dumb iron to cause a steering defect.Jobs most disliked in workshop:
Also from the Bulletin (issues unidentified)
After the Rashid Ali revolt in 1941 the Indian Expeditionary Force were involved in an incident in Persia. Much to their surprise they were up against Rolls-Royce armoured cars. These cars were eventually captured and taken to a workshop at the head of the Persian Gulf, where they were left as scrap.
Later it was decided that all four cars should be put in running order and taken to Baghdad, a distance of approximately 350 miles. Throughout the whole of this distance there were no roads and one had to follow such tracks as were available. There was a single-track railway from Basra at the head of the Persian Gulf to Baghdad, which provided a useful guide. I was given the task of going to Basra and putting the cars into running order for their journey to Baghdad.
An examination of the cars clearly indicated that they were ex-government vehicles; it was subsequently established that they had originally been RAF Silver Ghosts; they were fitted with large section pneumatic tyres. The second point was that they had been sabotaged, fortunately for me in a very elementary manner. All wiring and piping had been pulled out as far as possible and a hammer had been used to cause further damage. The most difficult problem was the fact that the carburettor dashpot housing had been damaged to the extent that the pistons were jammed.
As there were absolutely no spares available, it was a case of repair, manufacture or improvise, and in the case of the dash pots the difficulty was overcome by the minimum possible scraping to enable the dash pot pistons to operate in one position. The cars were eventually driven to Baghdad and except for the fact that I spent all the time going from car to car freeing the pistons which ‘had got off track’, it was a successful journey. The cars were taken to 31 Indian Mobile Workshops, Baghdad, which at that time was commanded by Major HMVM Smith, IA, OC.
T G Mills
Stories have been in circulation involving Rolls-Royce motor cars since they were first introduced, some true, some apocryphal, but none with more tragic overtones or air of mystery than the following, in which one such vehicle featured prominently, becoming known in local folklore as ‘the Moon Car’.
Although hampered by incomplete records, long and extensive research has established the fact that the car in question was a Silver Ghost tourer, built some time between 1915 and 1920 and originally supplied to the family that owned the Clark Tobacco Company in Southern Ireland, who lived in the Macroom district of County Cork.
At that time Ireland was in turmoil, divided over the question of a united country, with feelings running high on both sides. Bloody guerrilla warfare raged in town and countryside between the forces of the British Crown and those who wished for complete independence.
Oral reminiscences from old men still alive today who lived through those times must necessarily be regarded with a touch of scepticism, but although lacking documentary evidence, and ignoring the more blatant embellishments brought forth by over-indulgence in the hard stuff, enough convincing facts can be gleaned.
Somehow or other the Clark’s Silver Ghost came into the possession of the Republican faction opposing British rule and was converted into a military vehicle, transporting men and arms on various forays against the occupying British forces.
A thick steel plate was fitted to the rear passenger compartment, to which were bolted twin Lewis machine guns, and the bodywork was strengthened with armour plating. Its firepower and speed made it a serious force to be reckoned with. In sporadic raids against the military over a long period of time it was used almost entirely during the hours of darkness, thus earning its sobriquet ‘the Moon Car’, among those who observed it.
The Irish Free State was formed in 1922, headed by Michael Collins, the Sinn Fein leader who had previously organised resistance against the British. Many opposed this act and continued the fight against what they regarded as an occupying power. Collins himself was killed later that year in a Republican ambush in wild country between Macroom and Bandon. The Moon Car was reported to be still in use by the rebels but reliable information is again scanty.
Written evidence of its existence comes in the following news report from the Times of 21 st March, 1924:
‘OUTRAGE AT QUEENSTOWN: BRITISH SOLDIERS FIRED ON: MACHINE GUN ATTACK’
(from our correspondent Queenstown, March 21)
Just before dark tonight a motor car with four men dressed in the uniform of Irish Army officers dashed into Queenstown from the Westbourne end, stopping when they had got to the beach right opposite the pierhead where British soldiers from Spike Island had just landed.
The occupants of the motor car were seen to train a machine gun on to the pierhead and fire, wounding a number of British soldiers there. Twelve is the number given as being wounded, and one is said to be dead. They were all subsequently taken in the military launch to Spike Island.
The persons in the motor car then drove furiously out of Queenstown along the High road past the Yacht Club and when opposite the destroyer Scythe they turned, and, training the machine-gun on her, fired again, but no casualty is reported among the Scythe’s crew.
The motor car with the four men in Irish National army uniforms then disappeared along the high-road going towards Rushbrooke at a furious pace. The utmost consternation prevails at Queenstown in consequence of this unexpected occurrence.
A Press Association message from Queenstown last night stated:
The latest information gives the casualties as one dead, four seriously wounded and not expected to recover, seventeen others wounded. Patrols of Free State troops are scouring the district to capture the perpetrators of the outrage. It is believed there were no casualties aboard the destroyer Scythe.
Subsequent newspaper reports described the car used in the attack as a ‘yellow Rolls-Royce of the touring type equipped with two Lewis machine-guns’.
Eyewitness accounts stated that ‘the big yellow touring car from which the shots were fired had been noticed in the little town on more than one occasion recently and that it arrived abreast of the jetty less than five minutes before the leave launch bringing the soldiers ashore from Spike Island drew alongside’.
Another statement from a witness who was walking towards Queenstown that evening about seven o’clock read: ‘It was still light enough to see a good distance ahead when I saw this car coming towards me at a reckless pace. I reckoned that all was not well with its occupants.’
Yet again from the Times: ‘Two other motor-cars covered the retreat of the flying car on the roads beyond Belvelly bridge, the only exit from the great island on which Queenstown is built to the mainland. Having got safely off the great island and then off Fota Island and the demesne of Lord Barrymore, a choice of roads lay before it, and it is asserted that before darkness fell it was seen disappearing, still at breakneck speed, along that road which goes north-east towards Fermoy. As the car was of notably powerful appearance it must have engaged the attention of many people along the public highway.’
Apparently not, for no information was forthcoming about the vehicle after these few brief reports, either from fear of reprisals or sympathy with the Republican cause.
The attack on the soldiers and the destroyer Scythe had evidently been carefully planned and there was conjecture as to whether or not it had been carried out as a gesture of defiance by members of the Free State Army who had mutinied earlier that month. It seems more likely though that the Republican army was responsible.
Be that as it may, the Moon Car had struck its latest, and as it turned out, last blow in the struggle for Irish independence.
A £10,000 reward was offered by the Free State Government for information leading to the arrest of the attackers and ‘strong hopes are entertained that their capture will not long be delayed. Up to the present no news of their whereabouts is forthcoming, but they will probably find some difficulty in disposing of their big motor-car and the two Lewis guns unless they travelled through the night of Friday and reached either the fastnesses of the Kerry mountains or the wild and desolate regions of South Tipperary’.
And there the matter ended. No more was heard or seen of the ‘Moon Car’ that had for so long remained a thorn in the flesh of the authorities.
Later that year, in the House of Commons, Mr Thomas, replying to Mr Rhys (Romford, U.), who asked if he had any further information as to the likelihood of the arrest of the perpetrators of the murderous attack on British soldiers at Queenstown three months ago, said: ‘I regret that no further information is available but I am aware that the Government of the Irish Free State have by no means abandoned hope of bringing them to justice.’
Sir W Davison (Kensington, S.U.) said: ‘Can the Right Honourable gentleman say what happened to the Rolls-Royce car used by these men who fired on our troops? Has it been found and do the authorities know who owned it?’
The answer in both cases was ‘no’.
This aura of mystery surrounding the Rolls-Royce touring motor car was to last for another fifty-seven years.
It was then in 1981, that a local historian, Mr Liam O’Callaghan, intrigued by the whole story, started his long and arduous task of unravelling the mystery of the car. After many visits to reference libraries, reading anything that might hold some tiny shred of enlightenment, and talking to anyone, young or old, who may have heard some relevant detail, his patience was at length rewarded. The varied snippets that he at last pieced together solved once and for all the enigma of the vanished ‘Moon Car’.
It appeared that after the attack at Queenstown, and realising that the furore caused would make further use of the car inadvisable, it was driven to a small, uninhabited farm in Dunamore, County Cork. There, it was burnt out and buried in a bog. In order to allay local suspicion about the lights used on the farm by the men digging the grave, rumours were spread that the place was haunted. Such was the fear of the country folk in the area, both of the spirits and the long arm of the Republican army, that no word was ever spoken of it to anyone in authority.
Liam, convinced that he had finally uncovered the truth of the matter and reasonably sure of the location of the buried car, spent many long hours with a metal detector searching the bog on Walker’s Farm, Dunamore. Suffice it to say that his efforts were fruitful, and so after much hard work with pickaxe and shovel in damp, cold conditions, the remains of the once splendid Silver Ghost saw the light of day once again.
All those years in the ground had taken their toll however. Most of the aluminium components that had not been first destroyed by the burning had been eaten away by the high acid content of the bog water. Sump, bulkhead and gearbox, all destroyed, while the front block of three cylinders had decayed, exposing the pistons.
A JCB mechanical digger was then employed to lift the chassis from the excavation, but unfortunately the serious metal corrosion caused buckling of the entire frame during the winching operation. After repositioning the lifting tackle, the work went ahead without further incident and eventually all that was left of the ‘Moon Car’ was safe on dry ground.
After all his hard work it was another blow to Mr O’Callaghan when he discovered that, while he was absent from the site arranging transport for his discovery, ‘some thieving little divill’, as he succinctly put it, had stolen the radiator and attempted to split the differential case with a sledge hammer. Evidently the lure of financial gain for scrap metal had overcome any feelings of historical interest in the breast of the felon.
However the surviving remains of the chassis, with the supporting plate for the weapons, are now secure, and research is still continuing to fill the gaps in the existence of the ‘Moon Car’ which played its part in Irish history.
Geographical and historical footnote:
Queenstown, situated on Great Island in Cork harbour, was so-called after a visit by Queen Victoria in 1849. It was renamed Cobh in 1922.
Spike Island is a small island in Cork Harbour used as a convict prison from 1847-1885. It was then changed to a military camp and used by both the army and naval authorities.
At the time in question two British destroyers, the Scythe and the Seawolf, were moored in the harbour.
The official casualty list given after the attack revealed that one soldier was killed and eighteen wounded. Two seamen and three civilians were also wounded.