01 November 2010
Ken Rimmell's holiday read uncovers an unusual weapon ...
It was while reading an excellent book by Derek Pawle entitled The Wheezers and Dodgers: The Inside Story of Clandestine Weapon Development in WWII that I came across an interesting story. The ‘Wheezers’ – or to give them their correct title Department of Miscellaneous Weapon Developments – was a unit tasked to invent and test all manner of weird and wonderful weaponry for the Royal Navy. By coincidence I was reading this book, first written in 1956 and recently re-released by Pen and Sword, while I was holiday in Cornwall and a small section referred to a steam gun made by a Cornish Mine Engineering Company. I was so fascinated that this required investigation.
My first stumbling block was that the company that made the steam gun – and yes it did exist – was closed down some years ago. At the Cornish Studies Library in Redruth a helpful member of staff provided me with reams of information on Holman’s, the Camborne Mining Engineers and makers of the gun.
Across the road the editorial staff of the local newspaper, The West Briton, helped to fill in the gaps in information not in the county archive. It became even more exciting when I contacted Kingsley Rickard from the Trevithic Society who was able to show me the only surviving steam gun.
Holman’s were a world-renowned mine engineering company based in Camborne, Cornwall. With such a rich underground treasure trove of tin and copper to be recovered in that county, Holman’s produced a rock drill as far back as 1881. So revolutionary was this drill that by 1896 it was produced and exported in vast numbers to South Africa. Further success followed with the largest ever compressor plant built in Cornwall and installed at Carne Brea Mine in 1894 and in 1910 the company won the prestigious first prize in the World Rock Drilling contest held in South Africa.
With the outbreak of WWI the firm still produced mining equipment but a heavier emphasis was placed on war work. At its peak Holman’s employed over 3,000 people.
The steam gun was the brainchild of Treve Holman a director of Holman’s in late 1939. In conjunction with the ‘Wheezers and Dodgers’ of the Royal Navy, the gun came into its own while fitted to steam powered small ships who became easy game for marauding enemy fighters in WWII.
At first the gun – now called the Holman Projector – was powered by compressed air, but this was cumbersome on the decks of small ships so a steam variant was quickly developed. Using odd scraps of material lying around the workshops, what can only best be described as a ‘Dad’s Army’ weapon was built. At first a steel tube was welded to a tank of compressed air and fitted with a quick release mechanism, later steam was used with greater efficiency.
The Royal Navy was summoned to view this ‘contraption’ during test firing – using in this instance potatoes – on the ranges at Porthtowan, a few miles from Homan’s factory. Impressed with what they saw, the Navy invited Holman’s to a test day along with other similar engineers at the Royal Navy School of Gunnery at Whale Island in Hampshire.
The initial test at Porthtowan ranges resulted in some major improvements which were done in time for the great day at Whale Island.
The Navy’s specification required that the gun should be able to be made from almost any steel or cast iron metal scrap, and be capable of firing a missile with a three second fuse to over 1,000 feet. It also needed to fire at least 30 rounds per minute and hold a ‘stock’ of 50 weapons for firing.
Confident of success, the team from Holman’s, now under the watchful eye of high-ranking naval personnel, loaded their weapon. Early tests from rivals had seen their missiles disappearing all over the place. Holman’s loaded the ‘projector’ and fired. A click and a small hiss of steam and the missile landed just a few feet away from the assembled mass of Navy Braid – it has been said that many speed records were broken as people scattered to points of safety.
A rather embarrassed Treve Holman watched as a Royal Navy rating stepped out and placed the ‘missile’ into a bucket of water expecting a medal for his bravery. The missile was in fact a dummy and, lacking the proper weight of the real thing, had not activated the release mechanism properly. Assuring the senior ranks, still hiding behind all manner of safe buildings, that fitted with real ammunition it would work, a second attempt was made, this time crowned with success and an order was placed for the Holman Projector.