The SS Fort Stikine explosion – Bombay, 1944

The Fort Stikine was one of 26 identical ships, all 441 feet long and 57 feet across the beam, and all bearing names beginning with the prefix Fort. The Fort Stikine was a solid workmanlike merchant ship of 7,142 gross tons, capable of travelling at ten to eleven knots and carrying more than 7,000 tons of cargo in its holds.  The Fort Stikine’s first and only captain was Alexander Naismith, who took over the ship in May 1942. It was a utilitarian product of the Lend-Lease system in World War 2, under which the United States essentially allowed Great Britain to borrow war supplies on credit until after the war. Huge numbers of ships were supplied on this basis, the object being to maintain trade and keep war materials moving around the world at a time when German U-boats were destroying unprecedented tonnages of Allied shipping.

SS_Fort_Stikine
The SS Fort Stikine – the ship responsible for one of the largest maritime explosions of all time.

The Fort Stikine steamed out of Birkenhead in England in February 1944, bound for Bombay in India, via the Suez Canal. The Fort Stikine was part of a large convoy, and sailed slightly apart from the other ships. The reason for this was the ship’s cargo. Apart from crates containing twelve Supermarine Spitfire fighter aircraft, the cargo also included 1,395 tons of explosives, of which 238 tons was the highly sensitive category A type, stowed in the wings of the ‘tween-decks. The explosives were essential to the war effort in the Far East, and the Fort Stikine was the only ship that was going to Bombay – all of the other ships would turn away to their destinations before the Fort Stikine reached the Indian Ocean.

 

As well as the explosives, there was also another curious part of the ship’s cargo. In the upper half of No. 2 hold there was a specially constructed steel tank measuring five foot by four foot by four foot. Inside the tank had been placed thirty-one wooden boxes, each containing four bars of gold. In 1944, this quantity was worth in excess of £1,000,000. The use of such a vulnerable ship as the Fort Stikine for transit of such a valuable cargo is evidence both of the dire shortage of more appropriate shipping and the urgency with which the gold was required. The lid of the tank had been padlocked and then welded on.

After a stop for coal at Suez, the Fort Stikine reached Karachi on the 30th of March. The twelve crated Spitfires were unloaded, and in the vacated space the Fort Stikine took on 8,700 bales of raw cotton, several thousand gallons of lubricating oil, sulphur, rice, resin, scrap iron and fish meal. It was highly combustible and sat uneasily with the thousands of tons of explosives already in the ship. Captain Naismith and his senior officers were unhappy about the new cargo but they had no real choice to accept it.

HO187-739-Stowage-plan-of-SS-Fort-Stikine
The stowage plan for the SS Fort Stikine, showing the lethal mixture of cotton and explosives in the ship.

The Fort Stikine left Karachi on the 9th of April and reached Bombay on the 12th of April, and was put into No 1 berth at the Victoria Dock. According to regulations the ship should have flown a red flag to signify to other ships that it was carrying explosives. Captains were reluctant to fly the red flag, feeling that it made their ships a better target for air attack and possible sabotage. Naismith chose not to fly the flag – possibly a fatal error that sealed the fate of the ship.

As the Fort Stikine had explosives on board, it was given priority for unloading over all other ships berthed in Victoria Dock. The category A explosives could not be directly unloaded onto the dock – they had to be transferred onto lighters and then onto the dock. No lighters were available, which delayed the unloading of the explosives for twenty four hours. In the meantime, dock workers started unloading the oil drums and then to the satisfaction of everyone, the fish meal, which had gone rotten and was putting off a terrible smell.

 

By midday on the 14th of April very few explosives had been landed. About this time the Chief Officer of the Fort Crevier, berthed opposite the Fort Stikine, first notices smoke issuing from one of the Fort Stikine’s ventilators. Approximately half a dozen other seamen saw the smoke, but also did nothing – it was lunch hour, the docks were at a standstill and an atmosphere of tropical languor hung heavily in the air. Eventually three hoses of water were deployed into the No 2 hold, and it was thought that the fire would be put out in a couple of minutes. The smoke however, continued to build, and the Bombay City fire brigade arrived to also lend their assistance. The officer in charge of explosives at the docks, Captain Oberst arrived at the docks at 2.30 pm and asked to see the Fort Stikine’s manifest. When he read about the explosives, and the burning cotton, he requested that the Fort Stikine should be immediately scuttled, in order to eliminate any chance of a major explosion. Unfortunately for Oberst, the water was not deep enough in the dock for the ship to be scuttled.

Someone noticed that the bulkhead between No 1 and No 2 hold was getting very hot, and two exceptionally brave firefighters descended into No 1 hold and moved all of the detonators that were resting against the bulkhead. It was suggested that the Fort Stikine should immediately head back out to sea, where an explosion would not damage the docks. Once again circumstances conspired against this plan – the ships’ engine was being repaired while in dock, making it impossible for the Fort Stikine to head out into the open seas.

By 3.00 pm it was obvious that the situation was getting worse – millions of gallons of water had been pumped into the hull, but the paint on the outside of the ship began to bubble. The seat of the fire had been identified – the aft port-side corner, and the Bombay fire brigade chief gave the order for a gas cutter to be fetched, so that an opening could be cut in the side of the ship and the fire attacked directly. Incredibly, more problems occurred – the fire brigade’s own cutter did not work, and an order had been placed for a cutter to be sent from the nearby Magazon Docks, but this order had been cancelled by a senior docks official. The order was resent, but to no avail.

The running of water inside the hold was fanning the fire, and not suppressing it, as the water raised the level of the burning cotton which floated on the surface of the water until it was just below the ‘tween-decks where the explosives were stored. By 3.45 pm huge flames began to leap out of the hatchway, and within minutes had reached the height of the Fort Stikine’s mast. Captain Naismith gave the order to abandon ship, and the crown which had gathered to watch the attempts to put the fire out now surged towards the dock gates. At 4.06 pm, Naismith had just completed a final check of the ship to see that all crew members had disembarked, when with cataclysmic force, the Fort Stikine exploded, killing Naismith immediately and many people who were still dockside.

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Diagram of the ships at the Bombay docks prior to the explosion, and where they ended up after the explosion.

Pieces of flying metal hurtled through the air and landed up to a mile away. The Jalapadma, a 4,000 ton ship berthed next to the Fort Stikine, was lifted right out of the water and deposited on the quay wall. One of the Fort Stikine’s anchors was caught in the rigging of a ship in a neighbouring dock. Eleven ships were now on fire and four were sunk or sinking. This was not the end of it – at 4.40 pm the explosives in what was left of the aft end of the Fort Stikine blew up, throwing debris 3,000 feet into the air. With such devastation, the casualty list was high, although due to wartime censorship and the chaos and confusion after the explosion, figures vary. Approximately 230 dock employees were killed, along with over 500 civilians, although some sources claim that the total death total was closer to 1,500. The Bombay Fire Service took the brunt of the explosion – of the 156 firemen who were present, 65 were killed and 80 wounded. Approximately 2,500 people were injured. It took three days to bring all of the fires under control, and a further seven months before all of the debris were removed and the docks became operational once more. Here is a a contemporary newsreel report, which features the second explosion and the aftermath of the explosions.

Once the fires had been put out, the authorities thoughts turned to what became of the gold that was stored in the steel tank in No 2 hold. It became obvious that all of the gold bars had been scattered far and wide by the explosion. Many civilians returned bars that they had found after the explosion, with other bars found lying on the ground unclaimed. Whenever the dock was dredged, the odd bar was found, with one of the last finds being in February 2011.

Nigel Pickord, “Lost Treasure Ships of the Twentieth Century”, Pavilion Books Limited, London, 1999, pp. 139-146 was used as the major source for this blog post.

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The disappearance of David Eason

More than 600,000 tourists visit Queensland’s lavishly tropical Fraser Island each year. The world’s biggest sand island, covering 184,000 square kilometres adjacent to the coast, seldom seems crowded. With its sweeping beaches, towering dunes framing freshwater lakes, and horizons of coloured sand, the island is infused with the primal hush that stilled the lips of the earliest white settlers.

Named after Eliza Fraser, whose ship “Stirling Castle” foundered on the Great Barrier Reef in 1836, the island has long been characterized by poets and novelists as a place of mystery. Perhaps the greatest mystery of all was the sudden and inexplicable disappearance of an English tourist named David Eason. Police, who conducted massive and prolonged searches for the missing man, described the total absence of possessions, clothing or other clues as ‘bizarre’ and ‘beyond belief’.

Eason, aged 46, was an art director of a British advertising company specializing in pharmaceutical products. On the 29th of March 2001 he visited the island as part of a 4WD tour group. Around lunchtime, following several hours of sightseeing, the group’s leader announced that everyone should now head for Lake Wabby, two kilometres inland. From there they would proceed to Kingfisher Bay on the other side of the island, where they would board a tour bus at 3.00 pm and then leave the island.

MapFraserIsland
Map of Fraser Island – Lake Wabby is approximately halfway on the eastern side.

David Eason hadn’t yet experienced enough of the island. Fresh from a grey London winter, he was entranced by the wild crashing surf, endless stretches of dazzling beach, kauri pines and gigantic ferns, and the sting of the tropical sun. He told his companions that he would sunbathe for 30 minutes and before following them on foot to Lake Wabby.

When police individually interviewed the other members of the party the next day, they all shared the same recollection. As they departed, Eason, who was wearing a green singlet, shorts and sandals, had laid back smiling, against a dune and placed a cigarette in his mouth. He seemed relaxed and carefree. Beside him on the sand lay a leather bag containing his expensive camera gear. The time was approximately 1.00 pm.

The tour group waited an extra 30 minutes at Lake Wabby, but with no sign of Eason, they decided to continue to Kingfisher Bay to meet the tour bus. At 6.00 pm, when there was still no sign of him, the tour’s organisers alerted police and park rangers. That night, police officers and volunteers search the island, using spotlights and torches. The next day helicopters and lights places scanned the island from the air – the first of many searches over the following days and weeks.

Particularly puzzling were the results (or lask of them) obtained by 80 State Emergency Service workers who picked painstakingly over an area of two square kilometres surrounding the spot where Eason was last seen. They found nothing: no tracks, no scraps of clothing, no cigarette butts and no leather bag – Eason had vanished off the face of Fraser Island.

Police printed flyers and posters, asking for information from the crowds who had been on the island during the Easter holiday break. No-one could help. The missing man’s sister, Janice Eames and her husband Harvey flew to Queensland from England. They told reporters that they were ‘dumbfounded’ by David’s disappearance- and dismissed suggestions that he might have drowned or committed suicide as ‘just not on’.

EasonPressClipping

According to his sister, David was financially secure and was in a stable and happy relationship with his girlfriend Jo. There was absolutely no reason why he would have harmed himself – and if he had done so on the island, there would have been evidence left behind. Detective Sergeant Bruce Hodges of the Queensland Police force summed up the bafflement of his colleagues. ‘People have gone missing – but usually there is some sort of trace’, he said.

One months after Eason’s disappearance, a nine year old boy, Clinton Cage, was mauled to death by dingoes on the island. Could David Eason have suffered a similar fate? According to police, it was extremely unlikely. Dingoes would have left traces: body parts, bloodied clothing, and they would have not eaten either the leather bag or the camera in it.

After debating and exhausting a broad range of explanations, David Eason’s family was left with only one theory – that he had been murdered. Why, by whom and for what reason they could not begin to imagine. They asked police to treat the case as a homicide enquiry. But with no body, no belongings, no tracks no idea of Eason’s movements, police admitted it would be almost impossible to find the murderer.

For two years there was no new information or leads until the 14th of April 2003, when English tourist Arwen Heaton discovered near Lake Wabby human bones and personal property that was identified as belonging to David Eason.  The scattered bones and personal property were found along the sides and at the bottom of a steep slope.

A coronial inquest was held, with the State Coroner rejecting the theories of homicide (personal belongings were found with the bones) and suicide (stable financial situation and personal relationship). The most plausible theory advanced by the coroner was that Eason was returning to the rendezvous with the tour group when an event occurred which caused him to stumble down the slope, where he died. The Coroner’s best theory was that Eason suffered a fatal heart attack when walking back to the rendezvous, although the possibility that he was suffered a snake bite or other paralysing injury could not be discounted. The Coroner also made recommendations regarding future searches for missing persons, as well as better signage for the walking tracks around Lake Wabby.

While this sounds logical and reasonable, I am still intrigued as to why Eason’s body wasn’t found immediately after his disappearance, especially if the SES volunteers had gone over that area with a fine-tooth comb.

The basis for this blog post was John Pinkney’s book “Great Australian Mysteries” (Five Mile Press, Melbourne, 2003, p. 232-235), along with the exhaustive and thorough inquest of the Queensland State Coroner.

Australian cars of the 1920’s

There were several attempts to manufacture cars in Australia in the 1920’s. The most successful of these was the Sydney-based “Australian Six”, with approximately 900 vehicles built between 1919 and 1925. Here is a summary of some of the other Australian makes of the 1920’s.

1922 Summit

1922 Summit

Advertised as a ‘New Wonder Car’ and ‘An Australian Triumph’, the Summit was built in the Sydney suburb of Alexandria by Kelly’s Motors Ltd between 1922 and 1926. It was equipped with a radio, cigar lighter and electric stop lights. The Summit also came with a 12 month warranty, which was unusual amongst cars of that era.

The Summit was powered by a 3.4 litre 4-cylinder Lycoming side-valve engine. The only body style available was a five-seater tourer. While most of the mechanical components were imported from the United States, an option was an unusual locally designed suspension system.

This used a series of leaf springs running the full length of each side of the chassis frame and was said to provide an exceptionally smooth ride. Unfortunately the long springs were prone to failure.  A couple of hundred Summits were built, with at least one fully restored example surviving today.

1922 Albani

1922 Albani Six

The Albani Six was built in Melbourne by Albani Motor Constructions Pty Ltd. The protoype, fitted with a US-built Continental 6-cylinder engine, underwent an endurance test in which it covered 8,000 kilometres in 12 days with the bonnet sealed, so that no repairs or adjustments could be made to the engine. Engineers who inspected the car after the trial reported that it suffered no serious mechanical or structural faults. Despite this excellent publicity, the Albani Six never made it into production.

1922 Southern Six

1922SouthernSix

Shortly after the end of World War 1, ex-aviator Cyril Maddocks established the Australian-British Motors Ltd to build a car. The Southern Six was powered by a British-made 2.4 litre 6-cylinder Sage engine developing 20bhp. Other mechanical parts sourced from Britain included Sankey wheels and a Wrigley gearbox. The body was built locally.

The prototype was extensively tested and was said to have a top speed of nearly 100km/h and used only 4.5 litres of petrol per 100 kilometres. Plans were made to make a 4-cylinder engined version of the car, but the only Southern Six built was the prototype.

1923 Marks-Moir

1923 Marks-Moir.jpg

The Marks-Moir was the most original of the attempts to build an Australian car in the 1920’s. The Marks-Moir was the brainchild of a Sydney dentist, Dr AR Marks, who in 1923 had the car built to his specifications in Britain and shipped to Sydney , where it was his personal car.

The Marks-Moir featured a unique chassis-less construction in which stressed plywood was used to provide an unitary structure. The 4-cylinder engine sat ‘east-west’ across the chassis, closes to the centre for optimum weight distribution. The transmission featured a 2-speed epicycle transmission (probably from a Model T Ford), driving the back axle through a limited-slip differential.  A handful of Marks-Moirs were built. One of the cars was passed onto Jim Marks, AR Marks’ son. Jim Marks later went into partnership with noted Australian aviator Sir Charles Kingsford-Smith to build car in the early 1930’s called the Southern Cross, which used the same unitary construction principles.

1925 Besst

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The Besst was conceived by the May’s Motor Works of Adelaide. The company imported 3.2 litre 4-cylinder Lycoming engines from the United States, along with Muncie gearboxes and other mechanical parts. It is believed that the chassis was clearance stock from the Crow-Elkhart company of Elkhart, Indiana.  The lone body style – the ‘King of the Road’ 5-seater tourer was built by local coachbuilder TJ Richards.

The Besst was promoted in local advertisements as a ‘new appreciation of motoring ease and security’, but it cost nearly twice as much as an imported car of similar size and performance, Approximately half a dozen were built and sold.

The black and white pictures for this blog post were sourced from the Allcarindex.com webiste, while the picture of the Besst was taken from the book “South Australian Cars: 1881-1942” by George Brooks and Ivan Hoffman, 1987.

Text is from the book “Aussie Cars” by Pedr Davis, published by Marque Publishing, Sydney in 1987.

 

 

 

The Battle of Broken Hill

Four months before the 25th of April 1915, when the ANZACS (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) landed on the Turkish coast at Gallipoli, the first Australians to fall from Turkish enemy fire were Oddfellows and members of their families – civilians on a Broken Hill picnic train.

The incident occurred on New Year’s Day, 1915, in Broken Hill, located in the far west of NSW. Broken Hill is a mining town, and was where the BHP mining company was founded in 1885. Members of the Manchester Unity Order of Oddfellows and their families – 1,200 people, including children, crammed into open ore trucks of a train steaming to the picnic grounds at Silverton, located 25 kilometres north-west of Broken Hill. Short of the picnic grounds, however, the train groaned unexpectedly to a halt.

Picnic train
A picture of a Broken Hill picnic train – the exposed positions of the passengers can clearly be seen.

The engine driver had braked at the curious sight of an unattended ice cream cart by the side of the track. Attached to it was a pole, and from the pole hung a flag – the Turkish flag, although none of the passengers recognized it as such. The happy babble on the train died down as the passengers pondered the meaning of the deserted cart and the forlorn flag.

The silence was suddenly broken by the sound of a gun shot, followed by another. It took the crowd a short time to realise that they were under attack, with a boy, girl, old man and three women hit in the initial volley of bullets. Some of the people on the train realised that they were under fire from two men in a trench dug in a nearby sand dune. The two men firing at them were the town’s ice cream vendor and part time camel driver, Gool Mahommed, and the butcher for the Afghan camel drivers and the leader of the local Islamic community, the elderly Mullah Abdullah. As well as the dead and injured on the train, a man riding by on a horse was also shot, while another man chopping wood 500 metres away was killed by a ricochet of a bullet. The train started up again, taking the petrified passengers out of range, while news of the attack was telegraphed back to the town police and citizen militia.

Mahommed and Abdullah made a run to a new vantage point, and along the way they shot a man who had barricaded himself inside a hut. Near the Cable Hotel, still on the run, the pair came across a group of police. When the police saw they had rifles, two constables were ordered to approach them to ascertain their identity. Mahommed and Abdullah opened fire, and one of the constables was wounded by two bullets. The police decided to retreat and wait for reinforcements. The killers ran for cover to a rocky white quartz outcrop a few hundred metres away that gave them good protection and from there, for the next 90 or so minutes, the they shot it out with police, with the militia and enthusiastic civilians joining in.

Quartz
The quartz outcrop where the final shootout occurred between the Turks and the local police, militia and citizens.

 

The Barrier Miner reported the engagement:
“The general operations were under the direction of Inspector Miller and Lieutenant Resch. The attacking party spread out on the adjoining hills, and there was a hot fire poured into the enemy’s position, the Turks returning the fire with spirit but without effect, which is rather surprising, as the range was short and the attacking parties in some cases exposed themselves rather rashly to get a shot.”

The reason for the ineffectual return fire from the Turks was that Abdullah had been shot dead early on in the battle. Eventually Mahommed stood up with something tied to his rifle – either the Turkish flag or a white flag of surrender, and was shot immediately.

The Barrier Miner reported on the end of the shooting:

“In the battle there was a desperate determination to leave no work for the hangman or to run the risk of the murderers of peaceful citizens being allowed to escape. It was not a long battle. The attacking party was constantly being reinforced by eager men who arrived in any vehicle they could obtain or on foot. At just about one o’clock a rush took place to the Turks’ stronghold and they were found lying on the ground behind their shelter. Both had many wounds. One was dead, the other expired later in hospital. They were in the dress of their people, with turbans on their heads. The police took charge of the bodies.”

Found on the body of Mohammed was a note, which read:

“In the name of God, all Merciful, and of Mahommed His prophet. This poor sinner is a subject of the Sultan. My name is Gool Badsha Mahomed, Afghan Afridi. In the reign of Abdul Hamid Sultan, I have visited his kingdom four times for the purpose of fighting. I hold the Sultan’s order, duly signed and sealed by him. It is in my waistbelt now, and if it is not destroyed by cannon shot or rifle bullets, you will find it on me. I must kill your men and give my life for my faith by order of the Sultan. I have no enmity against anyone; nor have I consulted with anyone, nor informed anyone. We bid to all the faithful farewell.”

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The Battle of Broken Hill left four people dead and ten wounded, and had far reaching implications. The Australian Attorney-General, Billy Hughes, used the incident to agitate successfully for the internment of all enemy nationals (mostly those of German descent) in Australia during World War 1.

Paul Taylor’s book “Australian Ripping Yarns”, Five Mile Press, Rowville, Victoria, 2004, p. 175-177 was used as the basis for this blog entry.

 

 

The shadowy “Owen” motor car

There have been many examples of “shadowy” makes in motoring history, with little hard evidence of any manufacturing.  Some of these were linked with stock market fraud to fleece investors and customers. The granddaddy of the “shadowy” makes was the Owen, a make with at least six different names, listed on and off for 36 years, no press descriptions after 1902, no road tests, advertisements or even a photo to show that even just one Owen was built.

The first reference to an Owen car was in March 1901, when Edward Hugh Owen announced that the Automobile Transport Company of Comeragh Rd, West Kensington, London was building a 3.5 hp voiturette called the Twentieth Century. By December of that year, Owen told the Motor Car Journal that he was prepared to take orders for 9, 12, 16 or 24 hp cars, with delivery in early 1902. In January 1902 the company name had changed to the Twentieth Century Travel Co, and the cars were now named Lococars. Only one model was described, a 24 hp powered by a 4-cylinder engine. No illustration was forthcoming.

By 1905 the company had reverted to the name of the Automobile Transport Company, and was listing cars under four different names – 10hp Parisia, 20hp Londonia, 30hp Twentieth Century and 40hp Owen’s Gearless. These cars were listed up to the beginning of World War 1, along with a 60hp model listed up to 1913. Cars named Models A, B & C were said to have been made during World War 1. Owen provided details of chassis numbers, but this doesn’t prove that complete cars were manufactured. While most makes would provide names of famous people who drove their cars in publicity materials and advertising, Owen conveniently said “On Application”, thus hiding the fact that no cars had been built and sold.

After World War 1 Owen listed the smaller Orleans model, with 10hp, 15hp and 20hp models. The first 8-cylinder car was listed in 1921 – the Model OE with a 5.3 litre V8 engine, 2-speed gearbox and a starter motor and carburetor of Owen’s own manufacture. A chassis price of £2,250 pounds was quoted, £150 pounds more expensive than a Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost. The car was actually illustrated in the “Buyers’ Guide”, (picture below) but the side view is suspiciously like the American Kenworthy, with slight retouching. The Kenworthy was never offered for sale in Great Britain and would be thus sufficiently obscure to be unknown to most British readers – another example of Owen’s cunning.

 

1921 Owen Eight
The only known photograph of an Owen car.

In 1925 the V8 gave way to 7.6 litre straight-8 engined model with a chassis price of £1850, which was steadily reduced to £1775 in 1929, staying at that price until the Owen disappeared from buyers lists in 1935. Owen never took any paid advertising in any known magazine. All of the lists which contain details of the Owen are in buyers’ guides and insurance manuals, which would have been free insertions.

Two addresses in Comeragh Road pop up in regard to the Owen – Nos 6 and 72. No. 72 is part of a terrace of late-Victorian era houses with no commercial premises. No. 6 consists of a small shops with a flat above, so once gain there is no chance of any manufacturing taking place there. Links to other cars produced around the same time and in the same area show that the Owen was not one of these cars. The most plausible explanation is that EH Owen was a fantasist in the Walter Mitty mould, and judging by all of the contradictions in his history and specifications of the car, not a very good one.

Nick Georgano’s “Beaulieu Encyclopedia of the Automobile”, Stationary Office, London, 2000, was used as the source for this blog post.

Living chess

Living chess, or human chess, involves human beings taken the part of chess pieces and moving around on a giant board. The earliest examples can be traced back to the 15th century. Most commonly such games are intended as a spectacle or pageant and a rehearsed game is “played”, to avoid the problem of a long and/or boring game which would not be enjoyable for the spectators (and probably for the people being used as the pieces!)

In 1891 a Club of Living Chess was formed in Dublin, Ireland with the purpose of giving living chess displays for suitable charities. In 1892 one of the members, Dr Ephraim McDowell Cosgrave wrote what is probably the only book devoted specifically to living chess, “Chess With Living Pieces”.

ChessWithLivingPiecesBook
The front cover of Ephraim Cosgrave’s 68 page book on Chess With Living Pieces.

 

While most living chess games are “one-off” demonstrations, Marostica in northern Italy is famous for its biennial living chess game, which has been held since 1954. The game is performed in honour of a game played in 1454 for the hand of a lady. The moves of the 1454 game are repeated each year, and the event has become a major tourist attraction for the town. One of the restaurants in Marostica is called “alla Schacchiera” (at the chessboard).

 

David Hooper and Kenneth Whyld, “The Oxford Companion to Chess”, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1992 pp, 230 & 249 was used as the basis for this blog post.

1940 Swift training rifle

In June 1940, Great Britain stood alone against Nazi Germany. Her European Allies, France, Poland, Belgium, Norway, Denmark and Holland had all been crushed by the Blitzkrieg in 1940. The BEF that was sent to reinforce France and Belgium was almost overrun and was only saved by the evacuation from Dunkirk.

At Dunkirk, they had been forced to leave behind a huge store of equipment and munitions. This created an acute shortage of arms for defence not to mention training of new forces. With invasion pending, the government turned to the Swift Training Rifle to help educate the nearly two million British Home Guard troops and the RAF ground defence forces who would repel German paratroopers expected to land at RAF airfields.

Going back before to the 19th century, rifle-sized practice devices were used for target practice. Earlier examples were the American Hollifield “Dotter” and Cummings “Dot Rifle”. The reasons for this were multiple.

When using an active line rifle to train raw recruits, many of whom were city-dwellers who had never held a firearm before, safety issues were tantamount. By using a training rifle, which was incapable of taking and firing any sort of live ammunition, it was nearly impossible for a recruit to have a negligent discharge. Because a training rifle could not and would not fire live ammunition, you could practice basic marksmanship in any room and were not chained to a shooting range. This also allowed training in inclement weather when outdoor ranges would be closed.

Firearms instructors, both civilian and military, attest to the fact that basic marksmanship is decided by the proper use of trigger control, grip, stance and sight alignment to effect rounds impacting down range of the target. A training rifle taught all these fundamentals. The use of one such device with proper reinforcement could teach the basics of these fundamentals to a platoon of recruits in a single afternoon.

With these skills, the recruits could progress to being issued live weapons and proceed to the shooting range to fine-tune their skills. This training formula also would reduce the amount of rounds having to be fired in training as poor shooters could be sent back to the training rifle for more simulated firing before coming back to the range to try again.

Built in Oxfordshire, the Swift Training Rifle had the same dimensions as either the Short Magazine Lee Enfield or the US-made P14/17 Enfield rifles. Some 16,000 of these devices were built in 1941-43 in five variants. The trigger group, magazine, bolt and sight were identical as was the length of pull, weight and overall “feel” of the device to its model.

Where the Swift Training Rifle differed from a real rifle was that instead of a barrel that fired cartridges, the end of the Swift had a series of metal probes. The soldier behind the sights would aim these probes at a scale drawing of enemy troops and when the trigger was pulled, the prong would ‘dot’ the paper target. The whole affair was set up in a folding frame that held the rifle and target, thus making the Swift a simple and self-contained unit to use. Another feature was a spring-loaded butt plate, designed to help the trainee pulled the rifle firmly into his shoulder. If he didn’t do this, an internal safety mechanism prevented the Swift from being “fired”.

The source for this blog post was the www.firearmstalk.com website. The Forgotten Weapons youtube channel has a video on the Smith rifle, which shows the operation of the rifle, and also shows the targets that were placed in front of the rifle.