Wars create “needs” for specialized equipment in the more “modern” sense of the word. Militaries use what works (the Mongols had a winning system of combined arms, with strategies that were exceptionally successful). When I use the word, “modern”, in a military context, the first one of those was the Roman Army system because it relied heavily on engineering. The Legions had many specialists and a lot of purpose-designed equipment.
Yes, I’m getting to the point. During World War 2, the British sought an advantage against the Germans and the Germans did the same thing. Nobody had more specialized military goodies than those two opponents. One of the more exotic centers of military equipment was Station IX in Welwyn. Welwyn is a small place, located in Hertfordshire, off the A1, north of London.
The place was run by LTC John Dolphin, RA, who designed interesting things that might have been a good idea, but in circumspection, didn’t rise quite to the point of meeting that standard.
All of the secret British devices that came from that design facility that Ian Fleming might have called Q Branch had Wel (for Welwyn) included in their names.
The Welbike was a British single-seat motorcycle produced during World War II at the direction of Station IX — the “Inter-Services Research Bureau” — based at Welwyn, UK, for use by Special Operations Executive (SOE). It has the distinction of being the smallest motorcycle ever used by the British Armed Forces. Between 1942 and 1943, 3,641 units (plus a prototype and some pilot models) were built and, although not much used by the SOE, some were issued to the British 1st and 6th Airborne Divisions, and some were used at Arnhem during Operation Market Garden.
Powered by a Villiers 98 cm3 (6.0 cu in) single-cylinder two-stroke gasoline engine, the Welbike was designed to fit into a CLE Canister – the standard parachute airdrop container 51 inches (130 cm) long, 15 inches (38 cm) high, and 12 inches (30 cm) wide. Once deployed, they were easily assembled and ready for use as quickly as possible. The Welbike, which was carried in the container at an angle, had no suspension, no lights, and just a single rear brake.
The fuel tank allowed for a maximum capacity of 6.5 imperial pints (3.7 L; 7.8 US pt) of fuel. The Welbike had a range of 90 miles (140 km) at about 30 mph (48 km/h). A paratrooper could remove the Welbike from its special green container (which was marked in white lettering with the words Motor Cycle) and its easily identified colored parachute, and be on the road within 11 seconds. The prototype survived extensive drop testing at the Special Operations School at Arisaig in Scotland where it was demonstrated to the commando forces.
In combat situations, the Welbike was a liability as paratroops needed to get under cover as quickly as possible and had to find the Welbike containers before they could even start to assemble them. The difference in weight between a parachutist and a container meant that they often landed some distance apart, defeating the purpose, and some were captured by enemy forces or lost before they could even be used. They. were often abandoned by troops who found it easier to continue on foot.
The Welman Midget Submarine was another of LTC Dolphin’s children. They were only used once in combat and were not successful.
They were envisioned as a method of delivering a large explosive charge below an enemy ship. Sort of a suicide machine from an operator’s perspective.
They were 20 feet 6 inches (6.25 m) in length (including explosive charge), weighing about 2,000 pounds (910 kg). Unlike the “Chariot” human torpedo, the operator was enclosed within the craft, and did not need to wear diving gear. It was a “dry sub”. The Welman could transport a 425-pound (193 kg) time-fused explosive charge of Torpex, which was intended to be magnetically attached to a target’s hull.
You can imagine trying to navigate this beast through the armored glass segments in the small conning tower (picture above) in any sort of sea state. The motor drove the craft at a maximum of 3 knots. For those of you who are familiar with currents in the ocean, that meant that the mini-sub would likely NOT be faster than any respectable ocean current.
Still, they had been built, crews were trained, and that meant that they had to be used, right? For those of you familiar with a command mindset, you will not find that decision any stranger now than then. The British built over 100 of these by 1943, and none of them had been used. Time to get them in the water, headed toward the Hun, right?
In early 1943 the Royal Navy establishment onboard the submarine depot ship (Sub Tender) HMS Titania was expanded to carry out sea trials of the Welman.
In the autumn of 1943 the Combined Ops commander, General Sir Robert Laycock (who took over from the then Lord Louis Mountbatten) decided that the Welman was unsuitable for their purposes, so the craft were returned to the Royal Navy.
Admiral Sir Lionel Wells, Flag Officer commanding Orkney and Shetland, thought they might be useful for attacks on German shipping using coastal waters inside the Leads off Norway. You’ll note that the Admiral wasn’t personally going to take one of these into combat, and neither were any of his sons and heirs.
Motor Torpedo Boats (MTBs) of the 30th Flotilla, manned by officers and men of the Royal Norwegian Navy, were making these raids already and agreed to try the Welmans in an attack on the Floating Dock in Bergen harbor. On 20 November 1943 MTB635 and MTB625 left Lunna Voe, Shetland, carrying Welmans W45 (Lt. C. Johnsen, Royal Norwegian Navy), W46 (Lt Bjørn Pedersen, Norwegian Army), W47 (Lt. B. Marris, RNVR) and W48 (Lt. J. Holmes, RN). The craft were launched at the entrance to the fjord.
Pedersen’s W46 encountered an anti-submarine net and was forced to the surface, where she was spotted by a German patrol craft. Pedersen was captured along with the Welman, surviving the war in a prison camp. The other three, having lost the element of surprise, could not press the attack and so eventually had to be scuttled. Their operators made their way north with the help of Norwegian resistance members and were picked up in February 1944 by MTB653. The failure made the Royal Navy concentrate on X craft and XE craft, although further Welman trials occurred, especially in Australia.
Come on, they built 100 of them. They had to use them, right?
Subsequent to the failed attack the Germans salvaged one of the craft.
The Welfreighter came into being with the same design crew that designed the other Wel-Series of devices. This was yet another mini-sub that would land and supply agents behind enemy lines and deliver naval mines.
The Welfreighter could travel surfaced by night towards an enemy-held coastline, submerging as and when necessary to avoid detection. The special agents would then be disembarked and go ashore along with their equipment, stored in the special containers. The Welfreighter would then sail out to sea and submerge itself to wait until the next night. At a pre-arranged time, or upon receiving a sound signal from the landing party (made by a mechanical device) it would surface again and pick up the agents, before heading out to sea either to rendezvous with a larger surface vessel or return to base under its own power.
In essence, it was a submersible motorboat over a range of 200 miles surfaced and 40 miles submerged. All well and good, but the prototype didn’t work. Nor did the second. Nor did the third.
The third prototype was begun in September 1943. Its surface range – 1,000 miles (1,600 km) – exceeded the specification, but at the expense of reducing the storage capacity by 240 pounds (110 kg). Its speed was less than the specification, at 6 knots (11 km/h) maximum while surfaced, with a mere 2 knots (3.7 km/h) submerged.
Undaunted, the British put them into production, but the war was grinding to a close by the time that they were constructed. Never mind, they couldn’t carry a naval mine, but they might be useful ferrying people and gear secretly.
Two Welfreighters were shipped to Fremantle, Australia, in late 1944, and 12 more in 1945 to become part of the clandestine Services Reconnaissance Department (commonly known as Z Special Unit).