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.

HMS Titania

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?

X-24

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).

 

45 COMMENTS

  1. Was Station IX also the source of the Welrod suppressed pistol? Pretty much the only truly silent (from about ten feet away) pistol I’ve ever heard.

  2. Interesting. The Brits had a big thing about ‘funnies’ and other strange attempts to circumvent reality (though some funnies actually worked, like the Churchill ARVE and the flail mine clearance device.)

    As to midget subs… well… for the most part everyone who tried with them failed with them. The only ones who had a chance were the Japanese, as their midget subs actually worked. And then later the manned kamikaze torpedoes that we would have faced if we had tried invading. A manned Long Lance torpedo. That would have truly sucked. And they had thousands of them ready.

    I mean, like all the SEAL delivery vehicles. Once any knowledge of the capability gets out, that’s it. A prepared enemy can, even today, for the most part, with not a lot of ingenuity, stop delivery vehicles in harbors and easily protected spots. And easily accessible beaches are usually too far from targets. Might as well insert via HALO from a B-1 (like in a certain John Ringo book.)

    Of course, not being totally knowledgeable about SEAL delivery vehicles, I may be full of cow poop, but, seriously…

    Back to the Brits (and the Germans) A lot of money , materials and time to try to work around problems and find solutions for problems that don’t exist.

    The Welfreighter? Seems to be a design copied by many Central and South American drug cartels. But their semisubmersibles only work because we have so few assets searching for them. During WWII? With all the coast watchers and patrol boats and patrol planes and listening posts and other detection equipment? Geez, it was hard to insert a rubber boat, let alone a large, noisy, metallic object.

    Better would have been to spend time taking out those patrol boats, coast watcher positions, listening posts and other fixed or semi-mobile detection systems. Just constantly destroying the enemy’s equipment, futzing with the enemy’s personnel, constantly disrupting their operations. Like what we should have done against the Iranians during Barky the Lightbringer’s reign of terror instead of letting our naval forces be arrested…. Grrrr.

    (Again, armchair idiot here, no real understanding of current capabilities, but…)

    • The last use of a Mk VIII SEAL Delivery Vehicle in combat that I’m aware of took place in Gulf War I. SDVT-1 deployed Delta Platoon to the USS Curts (FFG-38). I was a drilling reservist called up to active duty and assigned to SDVT-1 and later to ST-5 at that time.

      You’re referring to Inshore Undersea Warfare Units, that deploy to sensitive targets to counter combat swimmers and SDV’s. Mk VIII and Mk IX SDV’s are obsolete. The question of their effectiveness in their day remains classified. The Mk VIII deployed in two ways: On a sled, pulled by a patrol craft to the target area when the SDV was used in an anti-mine role; or deployed from a Drydock Shelter (DDS) that was mounted on the back of a submarine.

      The question of whether it is a good idea to send in the SDV or to have combat swimmers lockout from a SSN has a lot to do with the vulnerability of the SSN (high value) vs the SDV (low value), and the ability to take out a target from a stand-off position (cruise missile, for example).

      It’s a complicated question. Extracting a defector in time of peace from a denied area through the use of an SDV has been envisioned, but it’s a wet sub, and unless the defector was a trained Spetznaz operator, for example, you wouldn’t want to do that.

      The Advanced SEAL Delivery Vehicle currently in use is 3 times the size of a Mk VIII SDV, with a much longer range and had much more mission flexibility. It was a gleam in the eye and nothing more in 1990-91. The ASDV doesn’t need a drydock shelter and is a dry sub.

  3. I’m constantly amazed how very smart people consistently produce solutions that are incredibly stupid. It’s like reality is a concept they’ve only read about in books.

    • When the Brits were sure that they wouldn’t work, they shipped them to the Royal Australian Navy… that’s how they rolled.

  4. A time when design engineers were allowed to be really creative to fill a need (the root of excellent conceptual design), regardless whether the result would actually work in the field. Best to try well (‘Wel’?) than not try at all, make mistakes, regroup, refine the design or take what is good and apply it to the next innovation.

    I like the Wel-Bike…predecessor to how many products we have today? So many great innovations have come from military designs, tho most have some App to monitor from your wrist or phone. Dick Tracy was a prophet.

    Steve Jobs was innovative in recognizing an opportunity, then executing its design, but I swear he got a lot of his ideas from the 40’s and 50’s fantasy concepts that required modern materials and circuit miniaturization to come to fruition.

      • Funny how we tend to negatively perceive in the rearview, yet having tried to find solutions to problems looking forward I had to be careful not to get tunnel vision, entirely missing whether it’s a viable or practical solution.

        Buck Roger’s was also a prophet.

      • You’d have had a blast.

        And I say that with all the love in the world because I’d love to have worked there as well. I came up with a device (a large device) that remains classified and was built by NAVSEA (Naval Sea Systems Command), Point Mugu, CA. Only one was built and it was used successfully. I’d love to share but alas.

        So yeah, baby, give me a budget and a drawing table, and my friend, DRJIM (the bright guy in the room) and I’d conquer the world. I totally get it.

        • Fascinating. Do please remember to fill us in if ever it becomes de-classified, however unlikely.

          Did any of the Welwyn toys ever achieve any sort of wide-spread adoption and success?

          • No.

            However, a lot of these things were one-off, purpose-built. Example: You need a left-handed monkey wrench in a world of right-handed wrenches.

            So they build it, test it, and hopefully, the war hasn’t ended before you can use it.

        • LL- There’s always that “bright guy in the room” we all turn to for the gnarly problem solving, usually working off in some piled high office ginning up circuits and software to his or her hearts content, and knew what AL buttons the scope did…emerging only to get moire coffee or when it was time to try it out. EVERY group had one. Indispensable to innovation.

          • Besides intellect and clear skillset, that “all in” ability to focus…I called it “being in the zone” when you just knew asymptotically you were gaining on the solution, bringing everything to bear, and the world could blow up outside and you don’t notice.

        • I’ve had a rather rewarding career, LL. I see things on these “documentary” programs, and just smile, and gently whisper to myself “If You Only Knew….”

      • Ed – Absolutely!…I truly enjoyed working in engineering shops that afforded free rein for innovative solutions, fun times despite inherent difficulties. Had Apple been along the Front Range that would have been the place to be. Those “Accidental Empires” (great book) showcases more than historical progression of those guy’s (Jobs and Gates gained a lot by visiting the Xerox lab, who freely gave them their GUI and other ideas). MrsPaulM worked with many of them as startups, she was in the thick of it and attests to how the book outlines that era…would have been great to work at any number of them. That said, later, as with many who pushed the personnel “as one big happy techy family” was not usually good for life balance, I would never have drunk that Kool Aid as I have other interests besides work.

          • At some point it would be fun to have a gathering of the LL blog tribe…I suspect there’d be a massive amount of interesting conversation over a few days, from military to Biblical matters and all anecdotal points in between.

          • +2 for Ed and Paul!

            I’m not sure all of us gathering in one place would be a good idea. Some absolutely **serious** mischief could occur…..

          • We have plenty of breathing room if things get too “burning man”…I can gin-up some RV hookups and a port-a-potty. The. Again, it might ruin the “online mystique”, maybe we’ll hate each other by the end of a few days. Hehe

          • Yeah, pretty sure based on commentary we’re all within similar lines and would have a great time.

    • We just need hand grenades at Lake Whitney for when the fish aren’t biting but we don’t want to go to the store for fish for dinner.

  5. I guess there will always be those who’d enjoy exploring ideas rather than the utility, quite an interesting discourse. On a slightly different note, there is a lot of conspiracy theory like buzz around the concept of ‘free energy’ extraction, from literally nothing. It argues that some attempts claimed to be successful in the past were strongly silenced, I wonder how you see those stories.

    • Vacuum energy.

      It’s a lot like a space elevator that would lift from Earth (the equator most likely) to low orbit. Could it be built? Everyone says yes. Would there be a budget to do it, likely yes. Is the tech there to pull it off? I don’t think so. I’ve followed the space elevator concept and attempts to build material that could make one and we may be 50 years off or 100 years off, but it will be built. It’s like affordable fusion energy (cold fusion or hot fusion). There are tokamaks being built in France and China and research in the USA, but they’re not quite there.

      If we don’t blow ourselves up maybe we’ll get there. The world has a lot of very bright visionaries who are correct – but can’t quite get there. Sometimes big business opposes them or they simply implode personally. I’ve seen both in my life. Sometimes it works. Some of the more simple ideas (velcro or non-stick frying pans or microwave ovens or cellular phones — or even a better potato chip/crisp) sweep the planet while others die on the vine. Look at the Internet. I sat at my desk at the Orange County District Attorney’s Office circa 1989 or so, with my computer attached to a modem, linked to the early net. My boss came by and asked me what I was doing. I explained. He pronounced me insane. I said, “no, this will sweep the planet.” You can argue that I should have been working instead of tinkering with that, but I worked at a place that gave me wide latitude so long as I was successful at what I was doing, and I was. Sometimes, it all comes together.

      • When I worked at Fermilab, I had a friend who worked at CERN, and we played chess at lunch on the DARPNET.

        Somedays I wonder whether I was born too early, or too late…

    • Have you ever been pre-briefed and debriefed as a part of government foreign travel? One of my naval reserve jobs (CTF-168.0) had me doing that during my spare time. We had credentials. One of the guys I worked with then lurks on this blog. I’d stack up meeting appointments, take a day off work (day job) and do that. It was fascinating and was all Q-related. I’d write up the IIR’s and then they’d be evaluated, and so forth. HUMIT, after a fashion, under a program called FORMICA (U). Living in the Southern California area gave lots of places to go – driving time. It’s all classified, SiG. Now, out of date, but fascinating.

      • Sometimes, in reflection, I wonder how I did it all, packed into a life. But I did. I learned that if you’re good at what you do, the world beats a path to your door. Of course, then it wasn’t all about skin color, tribal affiliation, which bathroom (or any bathroom) you use, which God you pray to, etc.

        The remarkable thing – the truly remarkable thing – was that MRSLL tolerated me, that I never failed to carve out family time (except when I was deployed for a year unaccompanied), and that my daughters turned out normal, good women, good mothers, good people with wonderful grandchildren. I was always able to get by on 4 hours of sleep a night and rarely wasted the remaining time.

  6. As Paul said, there ‘are’ those people here… I worked with a few of them over the years (shudder). And the Brits/Aussies/Japanese all have their ‘current’ versions of Welwyn… But they seldom get past the prototype stage these days without a LOT of vetting… Just sayin…

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