BALLYMENA 1914-1918

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The Tsar's British Armoured Car Units

Petty Officer Edward James Crawford from Clough (1st Sqn), Petty Officer Robert Dickie from Killagan, Glarryford (unknown), Petty Officer Samuel Arnott Bellis, Ramelton, Donegal and Waveney Cottages, Ballymena (HQ), and Petty Officer Robert James Craig Storey, Main Street, Randalstown (1st Sqn), were four of 111 Ulstermen who served in one of the most unusual military units of World War One, a special section of the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS). 

The RNAS required a means of reconnaissance and a means to recover downed pilots, and as early as September 1914 cars were used for this purpose.  These gradually acquired light armour protection and a machine gun.  Though this was not the first use of such vehicles, they were adopted by the RNAS and Commander C.R. Samson's initiative was so successful that on 3 September 1914, Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty, decided that a new unit, the Royal Naval Armoured Car Division (RNACD) should be set up under the banner of the RNAS. The Division's envisaged strength was eventually 20 Squadrons.

Commodore Murrey Seuter, Director of Air Department, and Churchill took steps to provide 50 to 60 armoured cars for Squadrons No. 1-4, set up in October 1914, i.e. four Squadrons of fifteen vehicles.  Each Squadron consisted of three sections of four cars, purpose-built armoured vehicles with turrets that were based on Rolls Royce and Lanchester platforms, and a Heavy section, based on a truck chassis and fitted with a three pounder gun. Somewhat later Chief Petty Officer L. Gutteridge developed a special and lighter naval armoured car based on a Model T Ford chassis. Units in the field were supported by lorries which carried fuel, ammunition, spare parts and food.  Additional support came in the form of a mobile workshop, a motor ambulance, several motorcycles, and a wireless vehicle.

Mechanics of RNAS Russian Armoured Car Division repairing cars after action in Galicia, during the Austria-Hungary partition of Poland, July 1917

photograph courtesy of the Imperial War Museum -© IWM (Q 109745) 

Banner photograph -© IWM (Q 109758)

They were very successful, operating much as cavalry did in that they had a tactical, rescue and reconnaissance role.  One  Ballymena combattant - see Weekly War and Virtual Memorial entries -  gave a interesting insight into their role in an interview given to the Belfast Weekly Telegraph, 2 May 1915.  PO/10353 Private Hugh McNeill, Royal Marine Light Infantry,  and was wounded withdrawing from the trenches during the defence of Antwerp. He had also served in the armoured motor car of RNAS Commander Samson. He said that it was largely due to Samson and his armoured cars 'that wandering bands of Uhlans (German heavy cavalry) are now seldom seen'. He said that 'on one occasion, whilst on a trip with Commander Samson, about 20 Uhlans were killed outright, and then the armoured motor car retreated, having previously left a number of men in ambush. The Germans, who followed, fell into the trap, and had to retire with heavy losses, whilst the motor car returned and rendered further damage.' On another occasion he said Samson 'surprised a party of 168 Uhlans who were having tea together in a small village. Their meal was suddenly disturbed by the advent of the armoured motor car, which inflicted great loss on the enemy.'  He thought 'the Germans had come greatly to dread Commander Samson and his gallant men'. His descriptions, though relating to a different unit,  really crystallise in a few words the importance of the role armoured cars could play; however, the advent of trench warfare, static as distinct from mobile, rendered the units ineffective in France and Flanders and they were withdrawn, their fate sealed once Churchill left his position after the Gallipoli debacle.

The RNACD was disbanded in the summer of 1915, its units transferred to the Army and coming under the command of the Motor Branch of the Machine Gun Corps. However, some units had been previously sent overseas. The 2nd, 5th, 8th and 15th Squadrons were in France, and the 16th, 17th and 18th Squadrons had been formed there. The 3rd and 4th Squadrons were sent to the Dardanelles, but unsuitable for the terrain, they were dispatched to Egypt. Some were sent to Africa to assist in the capture of German colonies there.


Not all of the RN Armoured Car Squadrons were disbanded with the demise of the RNACD. The 20th Squadron was retained as a technical and experimental unit, and it assisted the Landships Committee with tank development throughout 1915 and 1916; by the war's end had over 600 members. The impact of their 'tanks' is well known.  15 Squadron  also survived and went on to play a 'Boy's Own' type role in the Europe as the Russian Armoured Car Division, Royal Naval Air Service (sometimes Armoured Car Expeditionary Force or ACEF), from December 1915 to February 1918.

The RACD was formed around 15 Squadron, a unit initially set up by Oliver Locker-Lampson (Left) Conservative-Unionist Member of Parliament for Huntingdonshire and a cousin of Edward Carson. He had opposed Irish Home Rule, tormented the Liberal Government over corruption, and raised funds for Carson's Ulster Volunteer Force. Like many with UVF connections he supported the war against Germany and in December 1914 received a commission in the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve with the rank of Lieutenant Commander. This was largely on the basis of an understanding with Winston Churchill that he would fund an armoured car squadron for the Royal Naval Armoured Car Division. It trained at Whale Island, Hampshire and in north Norfolk near his family home, Newhaven Court, Cromer.  It was this 15th Squadron that went to Murmansk, Russia.                                                                        (photograph courtesy of the Imperial War Museum) 

The BBC's Your Place and Mine produced an article on the matter some years ago. It says,  'In seeking support to raise the equipment and men necessary to create the Squadron, Locker-Lampson had turned to his political roots. So it was that the Ulster Volunteer Force came to his aid to make up the shortfall in men and money. The UVF connection cannot be doubted'.  Its author compiled a list of men in the unit from 'official Service Histories of the ratings (these records regrettably have since proved to be incomplete but at least no "new" Irish personnel have as yet been uncovered)' and he says 'it is recorded that of 555 Ratings serving with the Unit, 111 were Irish.' The BBC article provides a list of names of known Ulstermen, many from Belfast, and indeed, as the author noted, three of the Squadron's armoured cars were christened 'Ulster', 'Londonderry' and 'Mountjoy'. See



These men served in Russia. Brave Report, collated and published by The Very Rev. Dr Houston McKelvey, says the different elements of the RNAD operated 'within the Arctic Circle', in 'the extreme heat and dust of the desert terrain of Armenia', in 'the Flanders-like mud of the Danube delta', that they 'fought in Asia Minor, Rumania, Russia, and Austria, against Kurds, Turks, Bulgarians, Germans and Austrians'. They, according to McKelvey,  'served with Cossacks and Siberian Army Regiments and rubbed shoulders with Poles, Serbs, Czechs,  Slovaks, Tartars, and many other ethnic groups which at that time were a part of the once vast but by then sadly depleted armed might of Czarist Russia'.


Local sources provide snippets of material that confirm Ulster's involvement. We know from a press report that Petty Officer Joseph Donnelly of Alexandra Park Avenue, Belfast, was drowned on 11th June during the journey south in 1916 whilst he was bathing in the River Don at Kisetirinta, near Rostov. Petty Officer John Armstrong of Clandeboye, Bangor and 15 Squadron left us a diary. Moreover, the Ballymena Observer on June 1, 1917, reported - 'Petty Officer E. J. Crawford, son of Mr. J. A. Crawford, Clough, who was with Commander Locker-Sampson MP, Armoured Car Division in Russia and Rumania is at present home on leave. He has made a good recovery from wounds he received in the Rumanian retreat in November last. Petty Officer Crawford was in charge of a machine gun and he received his wound when the car in which he was working was going to the rescue of a Russian car which had got stuck. He had just opened the door to throw out a rope when he was sniped in the arm and immediately afterwards a shell burst close to the car and he received severe injuries on the left shoulder and side. For meritorious work on this front he received the medal of St. George from the Russian Government'.

Parading to Receive Russian Crosses of St. George. South Russia, 12 March 1917

(photograph, including Smiles image, courtesy of the Imperial War Museum - © IWM (Q 109763)

The Squadron's armoured cars that were christened 'Ulster, 'Londonderry', and 'Mountjoy' were certainly there, their involvement recorded.  Many of the crews were drawn from all round the UK and the world but Sir Walter Dorling Smiles (Right), born in 1883 in Portavo, Donaghadee, Co. Down,  and who was one of Locker-Lampson's officers in Russia (1916-18) and 2nd-in-command of 'Duncars' in 'Dunsterforce' in 1918, was there too. [Post Bolshevik Revolution, October 1917, the ACEF was withdrawn, the unit transferred to the Motor Machine Gun Corps. General Dunsterville later used them to defend the Baku oilfields. This “Dunsterforce” and was under Army control after January 1918]. Smiles won the DSO and his citation says where he was and why he won it:  

Sir Walter Dorling Smiles DSO Award 

London Gazette, Issue 30227, 10th August 1917, page 8204

Damaged Armoured Car

Note damage to turret and water jacket of machine gun

(photograph courtesy of the Imperial War Museum - © IWM (Q 107436)

The fighting referred to here is documented in detail in Navy Everywhere (Navy Everywhere, author Conrad Cato, published in London by Constable and company, ltd., 1919, now reprinted and also available to download free on the Internet. See Chapters XIV, XV & XVI). It says (this version is highly edited, much text omitted for reasons of space):

'When Lieutenant Smiles left Reni on 21st December 1916, ..., 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 ...  the problem was how to extricate the Russian troops on the other side of the river ....

Lieutenant Lucas-Shadwell went into action with the “Ulster” heavy car, and started to demolish the village of Roobla. .... Next morning another heavy car, “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 [thought]... there might be trouble with it .... 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. .... At last ..., 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 line of infantry?“ said the colonel.... “They are advancing on Vizirul .... I want you to ... send all your cars up to the front lines, for I honestly believe that is the only way of beating off the attack.” ... . 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 ... “My fellows have lost terribly,” he said. “... I want you to go right beyond our barbed wire, and do what you can to check the advance.” ... Smiles  ... 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. ... When he wanted to come out of action ... the engine had stopped. ... Lieutenant Smiles ... jumped out of the car, seized the handle, started up the engine .... For fifty yards she floundered along the road ... 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 ... a bullet caught him in the leg just above the knee. He rolled into the ditch by the side of the road ... he observed that all four tyres had been punctured by bullets ... “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 vehicle was shelled but not hit and later that night was 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 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 ... Chief Petty Officer MacFarlane and Petty Officer Fear ... came back with a report that a body of Bulgarian infantry were creeping up towards the car. The crew ... 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. ...  MacFarlane and Fear dropped their rifles and got to work with the 3-pounder, the Bulgarians were completely dismayed. They turned and fled...  

After a short interval MacDowell went into action again. The enemy were then advancing in rushes against our advanced posts, and [had a] 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. 

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. ... 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.” ... 

The next morning ... 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 ... 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.  ... 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 Russian commander said,  “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 hours at Vizirul. It is an achievement for which I can find no adequate words of praise.  I wish you all a happy New Year, and I 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.” Smiles got a DSO, too, as we noted. 

He got a second a short time later.

Sir Walter Dorling Smiles, Bar to DSO Award, 1918 

London Gazette, Issue 30687, 14th May 1918, page 5857

These confirm what the men were doing and where they were operating geographically. We know also that the formation fought until the Russian revolution succeeded. British units were thereafter sent progressively home on leave. The final rear elements escaped via train to Murmansk and arrived back in the UK in February 1918. Four Irishmen died in service with the unit and eight were wounded in action.

RNAD - loaded Newport for  Russian expedition, 1915-1916 

 Photograph courtesy of the Imperial War Museum -    © IWM (Q 107437)