When Lieutenant Smiles left Reni on 21st December 1916, with a party of eight officers, five chief petty officers, and thirty-seven petty officers, forming a special service squadron of armoured cars to assist the 4th Siberian Corps at Braila, the situation had already become critical. Bucharest had fallen, and the Russian Army in the Dobrudsha was being steadily driven back by superior forces, while its right flank was all the time exposed to attack from across the Danube. In fact, it had alreadv been decided that the Dobrudsha must be evacuated, and the next problem was how to extricate the Russian troops on the other side of the river, and bring them back to the line of the Sereth, or any other line which it was possible to hold. One of the virtues of the armoured car is that it can be as serviceable for a retreat as for an attack, its mobility enabling it to harass the advancing enemy up to the last moment, and then make good its escape.
Lieutenant Smiles is an Irishman by birth, and has the Irish gift of quick intuition, which is invaluable to one whose responsibilities continually call for promptness of decision. He had served with the armoured cars in France, Belgium, and Persia, and had just recovered from a wound received in the Dobrudsha, but this did not deter him from volunteering to lead the special squadron, which was sent off in a hurry to Braila upon receipt of a message from General Sirelius earnestly soliciting their assistance. He took with him two heavy cars and six light Ford cars, as well as lorries for the transport of ammunition and stores. These all proceeded by barge to Braila, where they were unloaded and prepared for immediate action. The force was then divided into two sections, one going to Movila under the command of Lieutenant Hunter and the other, under Lieutenant Smiles, proceeding to Valea Canepei. It was not long, however, before the squadron was united again, for the roads in the direction of Movila were found to be unfit for armoured cars, and Lieutenant Hunter returned to Braila, proceeding thence to Valea Canepei to rejoin the rest of the squadron.
At Valea Canepei General Sirelius greeted the British officers by inviting them all to lunch with him, for he had a warm place in his heart for the armoured cars. The next business was the inspection of the front, which was carried out the same afternoon by Lieutenant Smiles, in company with Lieutenant Edwards and Chief Petty Officer MacFarlane. The Huns must have scented trouble in store for them, for they greeted the trio with an extra dose of shells. Colonel Bolgramo, who was in command of the brigade at that point, conducted the party and showed them all the beauties of the place, including the village of Roobla in the distance, where enemy troops were said to be billeted in large numbers. Lieutenant Smiles called to mind a similar scene somewhere in France, and remembered how the heavy cars there used to wander up towards the enemy's trenches, blaze away with 3-pounder guns at certain objects behind their lines, and then, when the Hun artillery began to fmd the range of them, used to dodge back to safety. He saw a glowing prospect of playing the same kind of game on the road to Roobla.
Next day at dawn, Lieutenant Lucas-Shadwell went into action with the “Ulster” heavy car, and started to demolish the village of Roobla. On the east side of the road the houses were stoutly built, and it was said that the enemy had a battery there hidden behind two of the houses, Lucas-Shadwell found the range at 1,200 yards, and blew those two houses into little chunks. Then he turned his attention to the west side of the road, where the houses were more flimsy, and where the troops were supposed to be billeted, and he felt his way systematically up and down the village, firing deliberately and taking careful observation of the fall of the shells. He spent just a quarter of an hour at it, and then, according to orders, brought his car out of action. It was not until he was on his way back that the Hun artillery woke up and started to speed him on his journey. The scouts at the advanced base reported that he had done good execution.
Next morning another heavy car, a “Londonderry,” commanded by Sub-Lieutenant Henderson, went into action, while the "Ulster” was held in reserve. The “Londonderry“ is a bit top-heavy, and consequently difficult to steer. Lieutenant Smiles anticipating that there might be trouble with it, came up behind on an ordinary bicycle, which he had borrowed from a Russian officer, and ordered the “Pierce Arrow“ lorry to stand by with a couple of tow-ropes in case of accidents. His orders to Henderson were to bombard Roobla and the roads round about it, not to remain in action more than fifteen minutes, not to attempt to go beyond a certain shell-crater in the road, and, if he got stuck, to fire three rifle-shots in quick succession. The anticipation of trouble was an intelligent one, for the “Londonderry” had no sooner reached the Russian advance post than it slid gracefully into a ditch. Smiles at once cycled back to Vizirul for the “Pierce Arrow“ lorry, at the same time ordering Sub-Lieutenant MacDowall to take the “Ulster” into action.
Then came the job of pulling the “Londonderry “out of the ditch. It was rather a long job, and it was not rendered any easier by the enemy's artillery, which always showed a marked partiality for a stationary target in the shape of an armoured car. It should, however, be observed that the artillery was very inferior to that brought against us in the Dobrudsha. The truth of the matter was that the enemy forces closing on Bucharest had moved so rapidly that their heavier pieces were still many miles to the rear. The tow-ropes were attached to the stranded “Londonderry,” and the “Pierce Arrow“ began to haul, but at first no visible impression was produced. Then various devices were tried to ease the path of the sunken wheels. The workers were so much absorbed in their task that they had no time to look round towards the enemy's lines, and worked on in blissful ignorance of the fact that the Bulgarian troops had climbed over their parapet and were advancing steadily towards them. At last, with a squelching sound, as the wheels were drawn out of the mud, the “Londonderry“ began to move, and in a few minutes was on her way along the road towards Vizirul. Less than half an hour later the enemy were in possession of the spot where she had been lying.
The “Ulster” returned about the same time, and Lieutenant Smiles called at Colonel Bolgramo's Headquarters for further orders.
“Do you see that long hne of infantry?“ said the colonel, waving his hand towards the enemy. “They are advancing on Vizirul, and, if they take it, Heaven only knows how we shall extricate ourselves. I want you to go at once to the general, and ask leave to send all your cars up to the front lines, for I honestly believe that is the only way of beating off the attack.”
To the general he went, and the order to send up all the cars was confirmed. Henderson, MacDowall, and Lucas-Shad well were sent off post-haste, and Smiles himself followed in a Ford. On his way he saw Colonel Bolgramo at the field telephone, and the colonel signalled to him to stop.
“My fellows have lost terribly,” he said. “They cannot stand much more of it. I want you to go right beyond our barbed wire, and do what you can to check the advance.”
The Ford car used by Lieutenant Smiles was in the nature of an improvisation. The ordinary armoured car had often proved too heavy for its purpose in districts where the so-called roads were little more than cart-tracks. When the force was in Persia they found endless difficulties in getting over the ground where dust a foot deep lay on the tracks, and it was soon driven home to their minds that some lighter form of car was essential in the East. They conceived the idea of converting an ordinary Ford car into an armoured car by rigging steel plates round it, and mounting in it a maxim with a gun-shield. Thus the Ford armoured car came into being, and proved very useful for skirmishing, though of course it could not take the same risks as a “Lanchester“ or any of the heavier cars. It was usually manned by an officer, a driver, and a gunner - sometimes only by driver and gunner, and the latter very often lay on his back, so as to get shelter from the steel plates, and worked his gun in that position.
Smiles found that he could not get his car to reverse, and therefore had to go into action forwards. The disadvantage of this is that the car has to be turned round in order to get back again, and on a narrow road turning is not an easy process under any circumstances, and is quite impossible if the car refuses to reverse. There was, however, no choice in the matter, so he went full steam ahead past the line of barbed wire, and was 500 yards beyond it before he stopped. Then he opened fire with his maxim at the advancing Bulgarians and played havoc with them. It is a queer sensation to be stuck out in the midst of No Man's Land, unsupported by friends, and a conspicuous target for foes. It seems that all the rifles, all the machine-guns, and all the artillery the enemy can muster are directed at you and no one else. You seem to be such a landmark for miles round that you start wondering how the Hun's big guns can possibly contrive to miss you. At the same time you experience a kind of exhilaration from the sense of fighting an army single-handed, and the sight of enemy infantry dropping one after another, accompanied by the sound of shells bursting all round you, and the strident ha-ha-ha-ha of your own machine-gun, has a curiously stimulating effect. Life is so full of crowded moments then that you lose count of the passage of time, or rather, you exaggerate the count, and imagine that the space of a few minutes has sent the clock round many hours, for those few minutes contain as much excitement as the majority of people find in a whole life-time. All the same, the officers in command of an armoured car has little opportunity to study these psychological effects, for he has sooner or later to make up his mind upon the chances of receiving a direct hit by a shell. When the artillery has crept up closer and closer, so that the shells begin to straddle him, he knows that the moment has come to get a move on.
Now Lieutenant Smiles had gone into action nose forward because he could not get his car to reverse. When he wanted to come out of action, he found that the road was too narrow to turn in, and was bordered on either side by a ditch. But hope springs eternal in the human breast, and he had a vague notion that the old car, which had thrown its hand in when asked to reverse into action, would be so jolly glad to get out of it that it would not only reverse, but would stand on its head if necessary. So he told the driver to try the reversing gear. There was a grunt, a groan, and a squeak; and then silence. The engine had stopped. The silence, of course, was only inside the car; outside it there was plenty of noise, for bullets were whistling and shells were bursting incessantly. Lieutenant Smiles, however, showed no hesitation; he jumped out of the car, seized the handle, started up the engine, and jumped in again.
There was just a moment of extreme suspense, when every one inside the car was wondering would she go, or would she not, and then she began to move, slowly and protestingly, but still she moved, and moved backwards. For fifty yards she floundered along the road, with about as much grace as an old sow being pushed through the gate of its sty, and then the engine again stopped dead. Smiles was outside the car in a moment, and was turning the handle vigorously; but the engine made no response to his efforts, and just as the unwelcome truth dawned on him that the car had an unreasonable prejudice against progressing backwards, a bullet caught him in the leg just above the knee. He rolled into the ditch by the side of the road to do a little quiet thinking. Petty Officer Classey put his head out and shouted to him:
“Shall I have a try, sir?“
Leading Petty Officer Graham also put his head out.
“I think I might be able to manage it, sir.”
But Lieutenant Smiles was firm. It was quite useless to start the engine up because it would only stop again; it had consistently refused to work when the reversing gear was applied, and, being an inanimate thing, it could not realise the extreme necessity of overcoming its prejudice. In extenuation of its behaviour it must be observed that all four tyres had been punctured by bullets, and consequently the strain on the engine was considerable even when the car was going forwards. The process of quiet contemplation was not aided by the persistent attentions of the enemy's artillery, which became all the more persistent when it was realised that the car was stuck.
“You fellows had better come and join me in the ditch,” said Lieutenant Smiles; “they'll be scoring a direct hit before long, if they have a decent gunlayer among them.”
The two men jumped out of the car and dropped into the ditch,
“Look here, Graham,” said the officer, “the chances are that some of those Russian sportsmen will be thinking of coming to the rescue. I want you to crawl back along this ditch, get hold of their commanding officer, and ask him, as a special favour, not to let a single Russian soldier risk his life on our account. Tell him that we are all right, and can look out for ourselves.”
So Graham started off towards the Russian lines, keeping himself under cover as far as the depth of the ditch would allow.
“As a matter of fact,” said Smiles, “I see no reason why we shouldn't get out of this mess after dark.”
“If we could get space enough,” said Classey, “to turn round without reversing.”
“There's only one way, and that is to run her off the road across this ditch, turn round in the field, and then run her back again on to the road.”
“I don't see why we shouldn't be able to do it after dark. But, bless my soul, sir, you're bleeding.”
“So I am. I stopped one when I was trying to start up the engine - just above the knee. For Heaven's sake, man, keep your head down.”
Petty Officer Classey was too busy rendering first aid to worry about the bullets whistling over his head, and Lieutenant Smiles had to remind him constantly not to expose himself. But he made quite a neat job of the bandage, and when he had finished it the pair of them began a long weary wait for nightfall.
The reaction after the excitement of the last quarter of an hour was painful; nothing to do but wait all through the day, remaining in a cramped position in order to secure the shelter of the ditch. At times the artillery did their best to hit the abandoned car, but fortunately they never scored a direct hit. While their efforts lasted, however, they made life very uncomfortable for the two in the ditch, and during the lulls it quite astonished them to find how little a man heeds a perfect tornado of rifle and machine-gun bullets, when he has successfully passed through the ordeal of shell-fire. When darkness had fallen they crawled out of the ditch and into the car, Classey having started up the engine. She bounded forward with a mighty jerk, as though eager to show what she really could do when people did not play silly tricks with the reversing gear. With a mighty lunge she waddled across the ditch by the side of the road, took a short tour round the adjacent field, and then tried to waddle back across the ditch on to the road. The second waddle, however, was not so successful, and it required a good deal of hard shoving to help her up the slope of the ditch. Once on the firm road she was off in a twinkling, and was soon safely back in the village of Vizirul.
Meanwhile the other cars of the squadron had been having little adventures all on their own. Lieutenant Shadwell had experienced the same trouble as his leader in getting his car to reverse, but he had taken her right up to the enemy's barbed wire, and done some good execution with his machine-gun. Just as he was withdrawing, a bullet caught him in the neck, causing a nasty wound, which put an end to his activities for the day. MacDowall with his “Ulster“ was one of the first to go into action in the early morning, when there was a heavy mist, which obscured his view of the enemy. Chief Petty Officer MacFarlane and Petty Officer Fear went up the road as scouts, and presently came back with a report that a body of Bulgarian infantry were creeping up towards the car. The crew in the car waited until the Bulgarians were about 150 yards off, and then let drive at them with machine-gun and rifles. This had the effect of thinning the ranks, but not of stopping the rush, and it soon became obvious that they intended to capture the car by storm. Possibly they were not sufficiently conversant with the various breeds of armoured car to know a heavy one from a light one, for when MacFarlane and Fear dropped their rifles and got to work with the 3-pounder, the Bulgarians were completely dismayed. They turned and fled, some of them dropping into a shell-crater about 50 yards up the road from where the car stood, and here the 3-pounder dropped two or three shells into them just to make sure that they would try no more of their storming tactics. The supply of shells was then finished off on the village of Roobla, the road leading to it, and finally into the trenches 1,000 yards away, and then the car came out of action, having suffered no casualties.
After a short interval MacDowell went into action again. The enemy were then advancing in rushes against our advanced posts, and at times it looked as though they stood an unpleasantly good chance of breaking through the Russian lines. The car ran up to within 700 yards of the advancing Bulgarians and started pumping lead into them as hard as it could, which had the effect of checking the advance for the time being, and of compelling the enemy to dig themselves in. Unfortunately it is not possible for an armoured car to carry any large stock of 3-pounder ammunition, and so it behoves its occupants to use their shells sparingly, reserving fire until they see a group of three or four of the enemy together. After two hours steady pummelling of the Bulgarian infantry, the car had to withdraw for more ammunition, but it went back into action almost immediately and contrived to remain in action for the next five hours until darkness began to fall. To the enemy it must have been a constant source of annoyance, for the troops had no inclination to advance against shell-fire at point-blank range, and wherever the armoured cars were operating the enemy's offensive was completely held up.
Lieutenant Henderson had the "Londonderry” car in which he took up his station near the entrance to Vizirul village, and steadily shelled the enemy from half-past nine in the morning until two o'clock in the afternoon. He had some trouble with his turret, which refused to budge until Chief Petty Officer Common and Petty Officer Wildbore got out of the car under heavy fire to swing the turret round by means of the gun. Then the “Londonderry“ played its old trick of sliding into a ditch, where it sat patiently for some time, and was finally rescued by the “Ulster.”
Just before nightfall the enemy drew off his infantry and commenced another artillery bombardment, which only ceased when darkness fell. That night the Russian scouts were busy collecting rifles from Bulgarians who had fallen in the fight. In one spot, where the armoured cars had been busy, 380 rifles were collected. Colonel Bolgramo had many appreciative words to offer Lieutenant Smiles upon the work done by the armoured cars during the day. The outstanding fact, which eclipsed all others, was that at that point in the Russian line the enemy had been completely repulsed. Unfortunately, however, it was the only point of which this could be said, and before long there were messages coming through showing that both flanks to right and left of Vizirul had been driven back.
The next morning dawned with the usual thick fog clinging to the valley of the Danube and the marshes on either side. It was impossible to see more than 100 yards ahead, and, though a fresh attack was expected at any moment, it was not likely to materialise under such conditions. At eleven o'clock the fog had abated, and the scouts reported that the Bulgarians were advancing in great numbers on the road from Roobla to Vizirul. Lieutenant Smiles at once went into action with the "Ulster“; he was 300 yards beyond the Russian trenches before he saw any sign of the enemy, and then he was greeted by a storm of bullets from rifles and machine-guns. He had to drop back a bit, but he kept his maxim searching up and down the Bulgarian trenches, while his 3-pounder, at a range of 1,500 yards, was peppering one of the enemy's observation posts. All the time he moved his car backwards and forwards to baffle the enemy's artillery, and by this means contrived to keep in action all day until half-past five in the evening.
The enemy was still held at bay between Roobla and Vizirul, but this did not compensate for the fact that he had been successful everywhere else, and had advanced so far on either flank that the Russian forces at Vizirul were in danger of being surrounded. On the evening of 28th December the colonel received orders to evacuate Vizirul during the night, and, with a view to making a demonstration. Lieutenant Hunter and Sub-Lieutenant Kidd were sent with a couple of cars up to the Russian first-fine trenches. There they stopped their engines, and the Russian infantry silently pushed them into No Man's Land. At midnight the Russians crept out of their trenches, and the retreat began, while the two cars kept up a merry tattoo with their maxims, to give the enemy the impression that they were about to receive a furious onslaught. For three-quarters of an hour they blazed away, and then began slowly to follow the Russian troops. Kidd led the way, and, as ill luck would have it, missed the line of the road in the darkness and slid into a ditch. Hunter came up behind and found that Kidd's car was damaged sufficiently to make its extrication a matter of impossibility under the circumstances, so there was nothing for it but to salve the gun, demolish the engine, radiator, petrol-tank and coils, and abandon the wreck to the enemy. Some of the crew managed to get into Hunter's car, and some had to walk, but all of them managed to overtake the Russian rearguard, and reached Locul Sarat at five o'clock in the morning. They had the satisfaction of knowing that the retreat had been completely successful, and that out of the whole Russian force at Vizirul, only one man had been wounded during the evacuation.
The battle of Vizirul was over, and, though the arms of the Allies had suffered another reverse, the defeat reflected as much credit upon the armoured cars of the Royal Naval Air Service as if they had participated in a glorious victory. The bare recital of the facts is sufficient to indicate how invaluable were the services of these cars to the Russian army at a very critical juncture, and if further testimony were needed it can be found in the words addressed by the General Commanding the 6th Army to Commander Gregory on New Year's Day - three days after the battle ended. “I am proud to have under my command such a brave and splendid force as the British Armoured Car Division, and I thank our British comrades very much for their help in all these fights of the last few days, and in the Dobrudsha.... The squadron of cars commanded by Lieutenant Smiles saved the left flank of my army twice in forty-eight hoars at Vizirul. It is an achievement for which I can find no adequate words of praise. 1 wish you all a happy New Year, and 1 want to take an early opportunity of rewarding the gallantry of the men under your command by conferring on them the Crosses and Medals of St. George.”
The reader will probably have observed that Lieutenant Smiles went into action on the day following that on which he was wounded. He himself speaks lightly of his wound, but others have expressed a different opinion. The fact is that he persuaded Petty Officer Classey to join in a conspiracy of silence about it until the battle was over, for the Irish blood in him revolted from the prospect of being cooped up in a hospital when there was real fighting to be enjoyed. Some days later the story reached the headquarters staff at Galatz, and the Chief of Staff sent for Commander Gregory and asked him for the name of the British officer who went on fighting after he was wounded. For his share in upholding the highest traditions of the British Navy and the prestige of British arms in Russia and Roumania, Lieutenant-Commander Smiles has been awarded the Distinguished Service Order.
I skipped to the image.
Thanks, this is a good read and very interesting.
Just because you can change the typeface to bold doesn't mean you should.
Thank you for the very interesting story and some of the history of the armored cars used in the war. I enjoyed reading it very much.
Great read. The beginnings of Armored Cavalry.....
I read the entire thing! And thoroughly enjoyed it!
I do not know for certain whether it was a good thing or not. But it certainly was a turning point in warfare.
Thank you Constantine. Regardless, it is important history that we all need to learn from.
Do drive carefully, and enjoy! W2
For you modeler's out there or if you want to build a full size:
Thanks for that Howard. It would really be a fun project to build a full size copy, and even more fun to drive or be the gunner!
These babies were made by W. G. Allen & Sons of Tipton, six were sent to Russia, see:
I think enough photos and info exist to make a decent copy but I wonder if the original design plans have survived?
I think the heavy armoured cars were probably Lanchesters - there is one mention in the text.
They were very successful in Russia, sent there after the UK decided to standardise on the Rolls Royce 40/50 armoured car (as used by T E Lawrence who also had Fords).
The Lanchester driver sat alongside the engine, allowing more space behind. Both Lanchester and RR suffered as described in soft ground, having lots of weight but just 2WD.
Walter Smiles later became a British MP, but died in a shipwreck in 1953. He was the great grandfather of modern explorer Bear Grylls.
Interesting that thse were Royal Naval people, not Army. Armoured cars were 'ships' developed by and for the Navy!
Having to jump out of the armoured car in the midst of battle to crank start a stalled engine was quite a drawback - they would have needed a pull start accessory
Thanks for posting that Roger. I think I will print it out and since it is after December 1st 1917 will enclose 12.50 and get me one.
I will let you know how it works...
By the way, the text at the top of the page comes from the book The "Royal Navy Everywhere" by Conrad Cato (1919). The you find a full copy of the book online for free.
There's Ts in the background of this pic:
Armoured cars sure do look like a lot of fun, here's a 1920 pattern Rolls-Royce: