ROLLS-ROYCE... What dreams these
two words conjured up to a young Englishman in 1935 whose only
mechanical acquisition was an indifferent bicycle. Such was my
position in early January. The fulfilment of a desire for a service
career found me an Aircrafthand-2nd Class (under training) at Uxbridge
by mid-February. Many sore shoulders, many miles of traversing the
square and many guard duties later, I found myself a fully fledged
A.C.2 and on the way to my first station. This turned out to be a
'Summer Camp' under canvas. A fight of three 'Westland Wallace'
biplanes towed practice drogues for territorial gunners during their
Strangely enough these aircraft,
apart from the novelty, caused no undue enthusiasm. My main interest
lay in the Motor Transport Section: an ambulance body on a 1914
Crossley tourer chassis, a Morris ten wheeler with tanks and
extinguishers as a fire tender, and a number of 1915 Leyland 3 tonners
with various stores, wireless and workshop trailers.
This was it! I knew now what wanted.
It was here I first met real airmen as opposed to the instructors and
permanent staff at the depot. Here was a very different world. Here
was comradeship, relaxed discipline of dress and working conditions,
tales of service overseas, and of the Armoured Car companies equipped
with Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost motors.
As soon as was permissible I
submitted my application for training as a driver (petrol). At this
time the R.A.F. had three grades of drivers - steam, electric and
petrol. It was with some impatience that the required year of service
passed and in January 1936, I received my orders to report to Manston,
the then Motor Transport Training School
Now followed a concentrated but
enjoyable six months. The vehicles in the greatest numbers were very
large, elderly, but extremely friendly Leyland three tonners, followed
by the Morris ten wheelers with various bodies. Still in fair numbers
was the Model "T" Ford, a few as vans but mainly as 'Huck'
starters, a mechanical means of turning the engines of aircraft. Among
the light vans the most predominant was the comical 'Trojan' single
chain drive. It had a solid back axle, two stroke engine under the
driving seat and a diabolical starting device guaranteed to crack the
elbow of eight out of ten. The passenger staff cars were a range of
Hillman and Morris types, mainly the 'Hawk' saloon, a Morris Open
Tourer and a special R.A.F. type known as the 'Hillman Wizard'. Moving
up the scale came the Humber 'Snipe' and the 'Pullman'. Needless to
say the last two were not included in the training syllabus.
The not so pleasant parts of the
course were the theoretical periods. Differentials, gear boxes,
magnetos, the Otto cycle, carburation, etc., broken by periods of
Qualifying as an A.C.1 driver
(petrol), I was posted to Lee-On-Solent. I'd hardly found my bed space
and been allotted a vehicle before I applied for a Drivers Training
Course (armoured car crew). Luck was on my side, for within weeks I
was on my way to the Isle of Sheppey fora course in communication
including Morse by flag, lamp and key. Semaphore, and orders by signal
flag Gunnery naturally was an important subject. Vickers and Lewis
303, fired from a moving car at both moving and stationary targets,
rifle and revolver both from a moving car and from the range.
trained in mild steel 'mockups' of the Rolls-Royce Armoured Car with
normal road wheels and tyres. This taught us the driving position, the
controls and the limited vision with all 'Battle Shutters' closed. In
action they were fitted with sand tyres and heavier wheels. Nor did
the course include the heat, dust and sandflies that were joys to
come. The one piece of realism came in the form of the 'Isle of
Sheppey mosquito', which introduced us to sleeping under a mosquito
Training now over, it was goodbye to
Eastchurch and 'Merry England' and off to the Middle East. ..
Once aboard the 'luxurious' vessel
Dorsetshire, that served as a troopship during Spring and Autumn and a
banana boat, for the rest of the year, speculation as to our
destination were rife. We stowed our kit, then went on deck for a last
look at home. The Aquitania towered over us, a grand old lady of the
sea. At dusk we cast off, and were on our way, unaware that we would
not return for five years. Arrival at Port Said put us out of our
misery. Some joined No.1 Company: IRAQ; others No.2 Company:
PALESTINE; or the least popular No.3 Company: ADEN. My destination was
No.4 section, No.1 Armoured Car Company based at Shaibah, fourteen
miles south of Basrah on the Persian Gulf. Also known as Ash Shuaybah
or Shu-Aiba it was in the 30's a mere speck out in the desert. Now I
understand it is a thriving oil town.
We shared the camp with the No.84
Squadron, at that time flying 'Vickers Vincents' as a bomber squadron.
Our accommodation was two large and one small barrack blocks, a long
shed with fourteen bays and two pits, a wireless transmitter room, an
armoury and offices.
The make-up of a section at that
time was -
- 8 Rolls-Royce Armoured Cars
- 2 Rolls-Royce Wireless Tenders,
mounted on Silver Ghost chassis.
- 2 Scout Trucks, 10 cwt Morris
Commercial Taxi Chassis, 17.9 engine
- 2 lorries, 30cwt, Morris
Commercial 6 wheel twin rears, 15.9 engine
After a few days of celebrations for
the men returning home and a welcome for us - the 'long awaited
reliefs' - life came back to the normal routine. This period as we
discovered, afterwards was our testing time. The right approach to the
experienced crew members was most important; too confident an attitude
was liable to be construed as 'cockiness', nervousness as weakness.
The training programme was in the hands of the car to which one was
initial period was uneventful, my driver being an older man on his
second tour of duty with `The Cars'. Any grinding of the gears,
stalling or sticking in soft sand was met with words of encouragement
and explanation. I considered myself extremely lucky to have such an
I was sorry at the time to be
transferred to an 'Armoured'. Here one had to learn all over again.
The extra weight called for a longer period in each gear, far more
'revs' on the change down; and in these early days we had not
progressed to the 'clutchless change'. The steering too was vastly
different, any violent snatch on the wheel and you were liable to find
yourself battered by sliding ammunition boxes, not to mention the
comments of the other crew members. More important was to roll on the
crust of the sand. Any dig-in by the front wheels breaking this crust
and the car was liable to roll - this misfortune overtook the
'Cheetah' as she mounted a bank and turned too sharply at the crest.
Most of the instruction during this
period was the recognition of the desert, (so called) and the
identification of colour of the different types of soil. This was the
end of the dry period; and training was carried out again during the
rainy season to compare the difference. This was not important as on
occasions the section would break convoy and each driver pick his own
Our first trial run was hilarious.
Away we went sedately following the car ahead, our eyes glued for flag
signals, eager to impress our superiors with our speed of recognition;
when the order came to stop. Then the blow fell. The new men were to
take the wheel. Away we went again, up went the signal to break
convoy, and in minutes cars were stuck everywhere. We now learned the
use, and felt the weight of the long running boards. Those who had
never handled a pick and shovel had a great apprenticeship with
blisters to prove it. Freeing six tons of armoured car with its petrol
tank nestling firmly on the ground is quite a challenge. As a further
assistance in these times of stress, each car carried a steel tow
rope, but unfortunately the 'Lords' of the Air Ministry omitted to
supply gloves. This was no help to those who were fastidious about
their hands and fingernails.
It would be fair to say the
Rolls-Royce armoured car was never designed; it just happened. The
first date back to 1914/15 with the R.F.C.; and R.N.A.S. These
original cars had heavy quarter inch armour as opposed to a later
batch especially built for the R.A.F. which had a plainer style and
three sixteenths of an inch plate. Various ventilating grilles were
found to be unnecessary and were discontinued.
A heavy disc wheel designed to use
the original size tyre was later to be superseded by a heavier wheel
and sand tyres. This resulted in heavy steering, the correction being
a wedge under the front springs to alter the angle of the king pins.
The lighter wireless tender did not need this modification. The only
other alteration to the standard 'Ghost' was a cut-out in the exhaust
system, bypassing the silencers and blasting directly on to the ground
ahead of the gearbox. As a fighting vehicle the design was adequate,
although the traditional comfort left much to be desired.
From front to rear this was my home
away from home; the starting handle was left in position and held by a
leather bucket; the radiator was shielded by shutters, closing to a
'V'; the engine was protected by side plates and hinged top plates;
butting on to this was a square section that formed the driver's
'Battle Shutters'. When closed, visibility was restricted to a slit a
mere 1½" x 9" for driving forward, and a small square by
the driver's head at the side, needed when executing battle
formations. The body sides were five feet long, curving at the rear to
meet the curve of the turret, again with shutters closing to a 'V'.
Over the rear wheels were tool boxes that served also as seats when on
From behind the front wings to a
point under the tool boxes were heavy running boards. Beneath these
were heavy planks, tapered at each end, known as 'long running
boards', very useful for bridging water or soft sand. On top of each
side was a detachable water tank (40 gallon), a short running board
mainly used as a platform for the jack, and a five gallon drum of
At the rear of the well, formed by
the tool boxes, was a rear spring, a half shaft and a steel tow rope.
The reputation of RR. half shafts not breaking certainly did not apply
here. At least one every three months was not unusual.
the turret was a high powered searchlight, and stowed behind the water
tanks were six foot lengths of canvas with slats of wood attached,
known as 'sand mats'. Other equipment consisted of a full set of tools
per car, funnel and chamois to filter petrol, a two gallon can of
engine oil, Aldis lamp, semaphore flags, instruction flags, six
one-gallon water bags (known as Charguls) for immediate use. A pick,
shovel, compass, and binoculars completed the list.
Armament consisted of one Vickers
MK. 1 (water cooled) per car, one Lewis (air cooled) all vehicles, one
rifle per man, one A5 Webley per man, one Verey pistol per vehicle,
one grenade-adapted rifle per half section and a Stokes 2" trench
mortar per section.
The cars in Aden and Iraq had lift
out planks for flooring; the Palestine cars had armoured shields.
These Silver Ghost Rolls-Royce had three Achilles heels. As big
hearted and willing as the Rolls were, they could be easily
immobilised in close street fighting by driving a flock of sheep into
them. The first few carcases fouled the steering. This trick had been
used effectively during the troubles of the 1920's. The two other weak
areas that affected them as successful fighting vehicles were their
turning circle; and finally the angle of fire through the ports
combined with the wooden floor. It was possible to let a car pass, run
to the side of the car and roll a bomb or light a fire under the car,
without the crew being able to see the enemy or fire at them.
Naturally we were quite uneasy each time we were sent to assist in
Palestine with our Iraq model armoured car.
The driving position was an early
cockpit seat bolted to the floor. A standard brake and six inch
cut-down gear lever were there and to the left of the clutch was a
small lever that could be hooked back by the heel and operated the
exhaust cut-out. All other controls were standard 'Silver Ghost'.
Running on 'Mag & Batt.' was usual.
Among the tricks we had to learn was
driving on the hand accelerator alone, moving up and down the gearbox
and missing specific gears (1st - 3rd, 2nd - top), using the clutch.
I'm sure Mr. Royce would not have approved of rolling changes without
the clutch, a technique that was needed on four occasions to my
Driving on normal reconnaissance
with all shutters open was reasonable. One soon became accustomed to
the limited forward vision. Although the heat was to be expected,
there was a certain amount of through draught. What were not so
pleasant were the occasions we drove with the battle shutters closed.
In the terrific heat, with no draught, the Commander sat on the floor
next to the driver watching for orders to be transmitted by signal
flags. The Gunner slackened the clamps on the turret and crouching
over the gun braced his back against the turret to swing it in the
required direction. In an area roughly 6' x 4', with no headroom, were
three racks of rifles, the Lewis gun in its clamps, the boxes of
ammunition, an emergency ration box and three grown men. Not exactly
ideal conditions for a leisurely spin! Normally the driver would be
alone inside while the other two crew members sat astride the tool
boxes, holding a rail fastened to the turret. With the rear flap in
the turret open conversation was possible. Although I have referred to
'the driver' all members of an Armoured Car Company took their turn at
the wheel. Cooks, Wireless Operators, and Medical Orderlies drove the
auxiliary vehicles, but were not required to drive the Rolls-Royce
cars. Similarly with the exception of the Medical Orderlies, we were
proficient in the use of all weapons carried.
Our main role was Police and Search
duties. The exception being No.2 Company in Palestine which had a more
military role in support of an army unit.
Because of certain incidents during
World War One, the army was not welcomed by the Iraqi Government. The
Navy, although patrolling the Persian Gulf from a small establishment
at Basra, was not equipped for full land duties. The supplying of a
"military presence" therefore fell to the R.A.F. Their
aircraft formed part of a chain of defence for the Near Middle and Far
East, while the armoured cars carried out ground duties.
Apart from 'showing the flag' at
intervals in major towns, the routine task was the marking and
inspection of the tracks that served for roads. Strangely enough these
tracks were of great use to aircraft. Each track had a number in Roman
Numerals marked on a mound of earth (Mutti) at ten mile intervals, and
an identification letter. Any pilot flying off course, came in low,
picked up a track and followed it. By referring to his map he could
then identify his position, and by observing an increase or decrease
in the number determine his direction, ie. 'A' track Basra '0' -
Bushiyah '120'; if there was in increase in numbers he was flying away
During a sandstorm it was quite easy
to run off track. We had many calls to find bus loads of pilgrims on
their way to Mecca which had met this fate. The markings would become
blurred by drifting sand in summer and heavy rains in winter, thus
requiring a six monthly inspection, which was the main reason for the
picks and shovels on all vehicles. Most of the tracks were reasonably
firm, with the exception of 'K', which was known as 'fighting K'. It
ran through an area of soft mutti which, after the rain, became a bog
for 30 miles.
Iraqi deserts are nothing like the
rolling sand deserts of Egypt. There is plenty of soil which, if
irrigated, could bear a rich harvest. For some distance inland from
the banks of the Tigris and the Euphrates there are now rich date
plantations. In my day, however, apart from literally a few yards on
either side of these rivers which bore some cultivation, mostly
melons, the desert was stark and bare. The only serious cultivation I
saw was a date plantation at the junction of the two rivers, Satt-el-Arab,
at the port of Basra which was American owned and operated. There are
some stretches of sand, but not so much as is expected, and stones and
rocks are plentiful Travelling north from Bagdad, through the
oilfields of Kirkuk and Mosul, passing Erbil (reputed to be the oldest
inhabited city in the world) the going becomes increasingly rugged.
The ranges become steeper until you arrive at a vertical mountain wall
at the Persian border.
Some of these routine trips could
last up to five weeks from the base station and the mobility of the
section was of prime importance. Nothing of a personal nature was
carried on the cars and all bedrolls and kit were stowed on the
Albion. Tents, a breadbox, food supplies and any heavy stores were
loaded on the Crossley. One scout truck carried the officers' kit, the
other, the food, cooking utensils and the cook. He would put up a
scratch midday meal as camp was only formed at night. The one
exception being the crew of the wireless tenders. As they often had a
signal watch after we had broken camp and moved on, they carried their
own kits on these vehicles. With only the wireless equipment these
tenders were much lighter than the cars and therefore travelled
faster. Over these long periods we relied on aircraft of 84 Squadron
to drop us fresh supplies of bread and other food stuffs about every
three days. The petrol we carried was purely for emergency use, and
our main supplies came from dumps in the ground at 100 mile intervals.
The oil companies had a contract to inspect these and keep them
filled. Water normally caused no problems. We usually camped at a fort
manned by Iraqi Levies, with water tanks filled by pumps. This gave us
plenty of cooking and drinking water - personal hygiene however was
very sketchy. As complete as a section was, it hadn't got around to
portable baths or showers.
base camp was pretty humdrum. Down to the bays at 6 am. (summer) or 7
am. (winter). Unlock your car, start it up, check it over, sign the
daily inspection form and then tinker. The general rule here was: if
it moves - salute it, if it doesn't - polish it! Polishing, painting
and inspecting took up most of the time, but occasionally we had
competitions for changing wheels, half shafts, and even springs under
active conditions away from workshop facilities.
One trick to impress the uninitiated
was to ease the side shutter, reach in to the hand pump, pump 2 lbs of
air, switch on and flick the ignition lever. If the engine was tuned
correctly it would start. You then nonchalantly strolled round,
unlocked the rear shutters and climbed aboard.
Apart from the driving aspect,
weapon handling and range practise filled in certain periods; as did
communication exercises with morse key, flag, lamp and that very
useful method - Semaphore.
Even forming camp was brought to a
fine art. This required vehicles in correct position, gunpit: on the
corner:, turrets swung, gun covers off, kitchen site and firepit dug,
wireless mast erected and earth mat buried, auxiliary vehicles
unloaded and tents erected. When on the outskirts: of a town during a
'showing the flag' recce, we even went to the extent of a flag mast
flying the R.A.F. ensign.
The introduction to active Armoured
Car Section in those days was in the tradition of the pre-war
services, no pampering, straight in at the deep end ... On arrival,
having had our pure white knobbly knees admired and the sartorial
elegance of our issue khaki drill ridiculed, we paraded before the
Flight Sergeant of the section. He handed us down to the Sergeant, and
so down to the Corporals, each of whom were Car Commanders. Having
made it plain that they despaired of us being able to do anything
right, and commenting that this time the Air Ministry had definitely
scraped the bottom of the barrel, we were allocated to vehicles as
gunners I was relatively lucky as my first steed was the wireless
tender Pathfinder. Not being a fighting vehicle, and having a Wireless
Operator as part of the crew, the spirit aboard was far more relaxed
than that on an armoured car.
In camp, cleaning was the order of
the day, having been taken over the tender to find what was carried
and where it belonged. I soon found out that great emphasis was put on
cleaning equipment, a mixture of paraffin (kerosene) and engine oil
being high in priority, followed by metal polish and paint. All pipes
and unpainted parts were polished. Painted parts were continually
touched up. Any grease nipples were painted red, the drip trays under
the engine shone, and the Commanding Officer should be able to use the
radiator as a shaving mirror. The body, springs and transmission were
washed with the paraffin oil mixture,' the surplus wiped off and the
parts polished. It was surprising, especially during the rainy season,
how clean the vehicles kept. The dirt and mud simply fell away.
The Rolls-Royce cars having loose
floorboards made the cleaning of the transmission relatively easy. The
Albion and Crossley lorry bodies being mounted high on the chassis
were a little more difficult. The drivers of the scout cars however,
really had problems. Sufficient to say that these vehicles were the
least popular, although occasionally driving one, I was never actually
allocated to one as a crew member. These cars were usually reserved
for those men requiring a little discipline, or those who were not up
to the required standard in all other skills.
Having made mention of Instruction
or Order flags a further explanation is due. Whenever cars moved off,
the correct drill was observed.
All crews stood in front of their
Stand by to go ahead (when shown)
Go ahead (when lowered)
Extend to column distance (shown)
Drop back to four cars length (lowered)
Open to dust distance (when shown)
Drop back from the dust of the car ahead (when lowered)
On approaching the camp site the
convoy would close up to column distance on the flag being shown. This
would be followed by:-
Form camp (left showing)
Stand by to stop (when shown)
Stop/switch off (when lowered)
Form line ahead (when shown)
ARMOURED VEHICLES ONLY
Execute (when lowered)
Section Commander in front
Form line astern (when shown)
Execute (when lowered)
Section Commander in rear
Line abreast to Port (when shown)
Execute (when lowered)
Section Commander on right
Line abreast to Starboard (when shown)
Execute (when lowered)
Section Commander on left
Line abreast of Port and Starboard (when shown)
Execute (when lowered)
Section Commander in centre
ALL cars 90 degrees to Port (when shown)
Execute (when lowered)
All cars turn quarter circle left.
ALL cars 90 degrees to Starboard (when shown)
Execute (when lowered)
Cars turn quarter circle right
Form 'V' (when shown)
Execute (when lowered)
Arrowhead Car Commander at point
Retire (when shown)
Execute (when lowered)
All cars turn through half circle
The origins of these signals go back
to the early influence of the Royal Naval Air Service before
amalgamation with the Royal Flying Corps to form the R.A.F.
Another connection with these early
days was the practice of naming cars, although this seemed rather
elastic and depended largely on individual Section Commanders; this
personal whim also reflected on the colour of the cars. Over the years
it ranged from dark green to light sand.
The prefix to the name also seemed
to be one of personal choice and not an Air Ministry directive. Some
cars displayed the letters H.M.A.C. while others aspired to R.R.A.C.
As a rule the non-fighting vehicles carried a name only, but there
During my tour with No.1 Company,
this was the rule with No's 1, 2 and 3 Sections, but in 1937 No.4
Section acquired a new commander who preferred the cars in a light
sand colour, dispensed with a prefix, and standardised the names to
begin with the letter 'C, After all these years memory has faded and
it is not possible to remember the old and new names, or the sections
to which they belonged.
The names still recallable are:
No's 1,2 and 3 Sections
- Zerka (Crossley)
- Amadia (Albion)
- Magnolia (Scout)
- Moy (Scout)
- Morten (Morris 30 cwt)
- Barzan (Crossley)
- Comet (Ford 1 ton)
These are the faded tatters of the
memories of my youth. That this article exists in print stems from my
idle comment during a New Zealand Rolls-Royce and Bentley Club dinner
that I had served in one of the original Royal Air Force Armoured Car
Companies - my introduction to Rolls-Royce machines and to an undying
Frank Canvin (Rolls
Royce Owners Club of Australia) 1980