Cars in books, February 1976

A reader has drawn our attention to another book that contains references to a mysterious racing car, possibly a pre-1914 Mercedes. The book is “Tales of Two Air Wars” by W/Cdr. Norman Macmillan, OBE, MC, AFC (Bell, 1963). Our correspondent sends the following extracts:

“The tale in question deals with arrangements, during the early months of the 1914-18 War, to counter Zeppelin raids against England. Until 1916, with the RFC totally committed with our Armies in France, Home Defence against air attack was the responsibility of the Admiralty. There are interesting details about the famous Cdr. Samson and his successful operations both with aeroplanes and armoured cars—and there is mention of a Belgian Armoured Car Group, commanded by ‘the racing motorist Baron de Caters’.

“An unfortunately unidentified high-performance car features in the history of a daring raid on the Zeppelin factory at Friedrichshafen. During the winter of 1914-15, five pilots were individually briefed for special duty. None knew the names of the others concerned. The orders detailed the collection, in packing cases, of five Avros, bombs and requisite stores. The cases were conspicuously labelled—in Russian—and pilots, together with a small ground crew, ordered to report to the skipper of a small tramp steamer at Southampton. This individual also refused to disclose his identity. At this stage the Senior Officer of the party, who had merely been informed that he was to lead a four-aircraft raid, regarding which instruction& would follow, was becoming understandably perplexed when :

“‘Suddenly a big racing car swerved round the nearest warehouse. It stopped at the quayside end of the gangway, its white paint sullied with mud. From it an immaculately uniformed RNVR Lieutenant, wearing white cap-cover out of season, oddly placed buttons of golden glitter, a monocle and a diamond tie-pin, strode up the gangway. It was the pilots’ first sight of the seventeenth member of the party, the Officer responsible for the administration of their venture, the only one who knew everything. He carried a parcel of papers in one hand and a small dunny-bag in the other. Stepping aboard, he greeted everyone with a dazzling smile and an impartial “Hello!” gave the papers to Shepherd (Senior Officer of the party) and dropped the little sack on the deck. . .

“‘The ship’s siren sounded. The cranesman tautened the gangway wire. “See you the other side”, the Lieutenant called cheerfully and ran down to the quay. As their ship moved, the naval party saw the white car vanish round the shed. Examining the sack, they found it held bank notes and 500 gold sovereigns.,. .

“‘Next morning . . the naval Lieutenant stood on Le Havre quay awaiting the tramp’s arrival. How he had reached there, the officers aboard the ship never discovered— probably by destroyer from Portsmouth. The flying party saw the white car perched on a truck at the rear of a train which was obviously awaiting their approaching vessel. The Russian lettering on the big packing cases flashed conspicuously from the open trucks as they rattled across France. The Lieutenant changed into mufti: the train stopped somewhere and the white car was off-loaded. “See you at the other end” said the Lieutenant gaily, before he and the racing car vanished. After dark the train pulled into a siding by the airship hangar near Belfort. The Lieutenant and the white car were already there. It was “The other end”.’

“Officers and men were then instructed that the cold and draughty hangar was to be their HQ and home until further notice. They were..not allowed to leave it and their only link with the outside world was the white racing car and ‘The man from Switzerland’, which had become their soubriquet for its mysterious driver. The official confirmation of their objective—which they had all guessed by this time—was now given and the identity of the Naval Lieutenant revealed (in the book) as that controversial character Noel Pemberton Billing (son of a Birmingham iron-founder who in 1912 founded the firm later to be known by its original telegraphic address : `Supermarine’). Little was then known in England about the Zeppelin factory, or its defences, and Billing, then a 34-year-old civvy, had gone to Switzerland literally to spy out the land. Commissioned Lieutenant in the RNVR he was, apart from the Admiralty, the only person ‘In the know’ regarding this mission. He now produced his information to the raiding party.

“The natural hazards of the operation must have been greatly increased by the fact that none of the pilots concerned had previously dropped a bomb and (in the interests of security) they were only permitted to flighttest one of the Avros, after assembly! This machine broke its undercarriage on landing, leaving four untested aeroplanes for the actual raid, of which an exciting description follows.

“As may be expected, . . As soon as the machines were airborne, the white car was racing to a telephone box across the Swiss frontier where Billing, in civvies, would await any news from his contact on the farther shore of Lake Constance. . . .’ A successful report duly came through and Billing, ‘monocled and smiling’, was waiting at his Belfort hotel to congratulate the three pilots who returned (one had force-landed and had been taken prisoner—but later escaped). Subsequently the party returned to Paris in two cars, Billing as usual having roared on ahead. But approximately 100 km. from Belfort…

Babington and Sippe found the white car at full stop against a poplar tree, where it had skidded off the road from a patch of ice and snow. They picked up Billing and drove on to Paris. . .’ Neither the identity’nor ultimate fate of ‘the white racing car’ are disclosed.”

Our correspondent wrote to the author of this book and received from him the letter below—does the car still languish in some field in France ? . . .

“I have delayed a reply to your letter of October 16th, 1975, until I was able to give you some information in answer to your questions, because I was unable to add to what I wrote in ‘Tales of Two Air Wars’ off the cuff. I knew personally all three pilots who flew in the Friedrichshafen raid in 1914, not at the time they did it, but later; only one now survives and I have been in touch with him. He tells me ‘Pemberton Billing’s car was, I think, a Sunbeam. I don’t know what happened to the car or whether it even got back to England. The last I saw of it was somewhere on the road between Nancy and Paris, where it had got entangled with a tree beside the road.’

“This is all that can be learnt from an original source. You might be able to discover something in contemporaneous issues of the motoring magazines of the period. I do not know if car registrations so far back are still extant; if they are you might be able to trace something by this source of information.

“I was interested to hear of your communication to Motor Sport about this incident of the car and of the book. At the moment the book is sold out, out of print, and obtainable only second-hand or from libraries.—Norman Macmillan.”