Belated Book Review

By a curious coincidence, shortly after the September Motor Sport was published, we walked into a secondhand bookshop (we are rather fond of them) and came face to face with “The Defence of London 1915-1918,” by A. Rawlinson, C.M.G., C.B.E., D.S.O. (Melrose, 1923). Being intrigued by early aeroplanes and things, we bought it. Now the coincidence mentioned above wasn’t evident at the time, but became so before we had read very far. It will be recalled that in his epic “Veteran Types ” last month on two small de Dion Boutons, Karslake mentioned that the last recorded use by de Dion of their famous de Dion back axle was on their 1916 Type GS, which he further told us “was an eight-cylinder military chassis used for towing.”

Now in the aforementioned book the author describes how public indignation at the early Zeppelin raids on London resulted in him being sent to France to beg from the better-organised Paris defences one of their 75-mm. canons automobile. This Lt.-Cmdr. Rawlinson successfully accomplished, and the coincidence is that he describes the vehicle as a “specially-designed de Dion automobile chassis.” A photograph shows it to have had solid tyres, double at the back, 1/2-elliptic suspension, and a typically de Dion radiator; alas, details of the back axle are not visible. But pretty obviously, I should say, this is our Type GS. Indeed, besides carrying an anti-aircraft gun it was also used for towing, as it drew its own ammunition waggon behind it.

We were, however, hardly prepared for what came next — the author’s description of the hustle with which the French gun was rushed back to England at the Royal Navy’s command. Having obtained permission from “Papa Joffre ” himself to take a de Dion auto-cannon, it left Mount Valerien, Lt.-Cmdr. Rawlinson tells us, with its caisson, at 12 midday. It had 160 miles to go to Boulogne and it reached there after dark that evening. “With well over 100 h.p.,” we are told, “the auto-cannon did an easy 50 m.p.h. on the level, but its weight of over five tons delayed it somewhat on hills.” Lt.-Cmdr. Rawlinson, as other passages in his book make clear, was himself a fast driver; indeed, ln seeking General Joffre he had covered 45 kilometres “down the good road to Chantilly, at a speed which could be justified only by urgent necessities of war”! Yet, having telephoned for mechanics to meet his newly-acquired auto-cannon at Newhaven, he set out from Mount Valerien to overtake it, and, “though driving an exceptionally fast car and sending it along at its best speed, it was no easy task to catch up the gun.” Indeed, Lt.-Cmdr. Rawlinson did not succeed in doing so until just before Abbeville, 110 miles from the starting point.

The English part of the journey must have been even more remarkable, for the car and the de Dion towing its caisson did not leave Newhaven until after 7 a.m., yet it was outside Admiral Sir Percy Scott’s house in London soon after 11 a.m. Nor was the journey made non-stop, for Lt.-Cmdr. Rawlinson tells us that “I drove the gun the greater part of the way myself to have the opportunity of explaining its many peculiarities to the mechanics.” The auto-cannon was inspected by Mr. Balfour that afternoon and was then installed at the Talbot Works at Ladbroke Grove.

Its first call, on October 13th, 1915, merely strengthens the coincidence which led to our buying Lt.-Cmdr. Rawlinson’s book, for we find that it was rushed to the Artillery Ground in Moorgate, opposite the present Motor Sport offices and, incidentally, the bookshop in which we discovered this enthralling volume! At 8.25 p.m. Zeppelins approaching the City were reported and at 9.5 p.m. the gun and waggon left Ladbroke Grove, preceded by Lt.-Cmdr. Rawlinson’s “own fast car.” With all lamps lit and sirens wailing, an incredible drive commenced. Along Oxford Street ‘buses drove on to the pavements to let the gun go through and people flattened themselves against shop windows! Down Holborn hill the speed reached 56 m.p.h., when the car ran into a road-repair obstruction, the front wheels luckily sending the pole flying in two broken halves, the car’s radiator being the only casualty. Lt.-Cmdr. Rawlinson continued at full speed to Moorgate, where the gun took up position, the first round being fired twenty minutes after leaving the Talbot works.

That was a wonderful feat and I would dearly like to know what car was used. The only clue is that it was low-built, and it may or may not be another coincidence that a Mr. Rawlinson took part in the Brooklands opening procession (“The Story of Brooklands,” Vol. I, p. 12), driving a very sporting low four-seater Darracq. Could its driver have been our gallant Lt.-Cmdr., perhaps still using his old Darracq? Indeed, I half expect “Baladeur” to tell us that this gentleman was, in fact, the very Rawlinson who drove Darracqs in the early races, a later remark in the book that “driving in an international motor race paled in comparison with that of the frenzied drive which ensued in an endeavour to reach headquarters” (from a visit to an outlying gun site when the alarm had come through) lending strength to my suspicions. And what of this remarkable de Dion? It was, I suspect, a Type GS, and I suspect, also, that it had the V8 94 by 140-mm. de Dion engine. Perhaps it isn’t surprising that, even when heading the R.N. A.A. Mobile Brigade in the 1915 Lord Mayor’s Show on a wet day, the sides of its massive bonnet were well and truly propped open!

At that time Rawlinson was deservedly promoted to Commander and his Brigade now had four French auto-cannon, presumably all de Dion, a Daimler lorry mounting a 3-in, gun, eight Vickers’ guns on Lancia lorry-chassis and four searchlights on Tilling-Stevens petrol-electric chassis. The Lancias were presumably 35-h.p. “Thetas,” while the Tilling Stevens were familiar as solid-tyred, double-decker London ‘buses, where they remained in use until 1930 or even later.

Commercial, and particularly military, vehicles are normally outside the province of Edwardian-car enthusiasts, but I must confess I find Cmdr. Rawlinson’s later chapters of extreme interest. For example, details are given of the speeds at which guns were moved at night on practice turn-outs. On one of these Cmdr. Rawlinson drove a gun himself from Higham Hill to Streatham, via the City, and the time was certainly under 35 minutes. On a later long-distance trial, two guns, a service lorry, and one “ammo” wagon did the 45 miles from Kenwood to Great Dunmow at an average of 36.5 m.p.h., at a time when averaging “only 25 m.p.h. even in a light touring car” was a redoubtable achievement. On this trial a “veritable road race” developed between the crews, yet in a total car-mileage of 958 no accidents or involuntary stops occurred. As this was 1916, we can say — Good for the Edwardians!

The book contains other references to fast drives, details of routes taken on cross-country “marches,” describes the loss of a Delaunay-Belleville in quick-sands off Shoeburyness and indefinably but quite definitely conveys the “atmosphere” of motor-transport undertakings of the 1914-18 period. It is certainly another title you should endeavour to add to your motoring library. — W. B. [N.B. — The arm of coincidence is certainly very long — just before reading the above in proof form a photograph arrived from France of a V8 de Dion which now resides in an American museum. This one has the same radiator, but pneumatic tyres and vast brakes on its front wheels. — Ed.]