Historic bodge fixes: T.E. Lawrence

T.E. Lawrence, on right, enters Damascus in the Blue Mist.

Here’s a bit of history David Lean left out of his epic film Lawrence of Arabia: In addition to the camels T.E. Lawrence and his Bedouin allies used on their spectacular raids against Turkish outposts and railroads in what is now Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Syria, Lawrence employed a fleet of automobiles. 

An unabashed romantic, Lawrence was nevertheless also an utterly practical (and brilliant) military strategist, despite having no training whatsoever beyond the written accounts of historic campaigns he had devoured since childhood. He was the first battlefield commander to recognize and fully exploit the value of aircraft used in support of ground troops, and he pioneered aerial mapping techniques. His guerrilla tactics are still studied today by insurgents as well as counterinsurgents, yet at Tafileh in January of 1918 he proved himself equally capable of commanding a pitched conventional battle. 

Lawrence also quickly realized that on the wide, flat deserts he had to cross with heavy loads of explosives and weapons, an automobile could cover ground much faster than a camel. After his stunning victory at Aqaba, he had the clout to request and receive a small detachment of armored cars, accompanied by automobile “tenders.”

But these weren’t just any automobiles. Lawrence’s desert raiding machines comprised nine Rolls Royce 40/50 Silver Ghost motorcars, including a personal vehicle he named the Blue Mist. 

At the beginning of the war, Rolls Royce was already established as a maker of the finest automobiles, catering to the upper crust of society. But in those early days, such a reputation had as much to do with reliability and durability as it did luxury. In 1907 the company had entered one of its 40/50-horsepower models in the grueling Scottish Reliability Trials, and followed up the performance by driving the same car between London and Glasgow—27 times. The Autocar magazine declared it “the best car in the world”—still Rolls Royce’s motto a century later.

A Rolls Royce 40/50 Silver Ghost in more genteel surroundings. (Image courtesy www.ritzsite.nl) 

That tremendous strength served Lawrence well in terrain and conditions far removed from what even Henry Royce had envisioned. In one passage from Seven Pillars of Wisdom Lawrence describes an exploratory excursion: “Their speedometers touched 65 mph; not bad for cars which had been months ploughing the desert with only such running repairs as the drivers had time and tools to give them.” 

Alas, even the mighty Rolls Royce proved not completely immune to damage from constant, crushing abuse. 

On September 16, 1917, Lawrence and a small team set out to demolish a railway bridge south of Amman, in what is now Jordan. The Blue Mist was “crammed to the gunwale” with explosives and detonators. While his companions, who had followed in another tender, engaged the Turkish post guarding the bridge in a brief but ferocious firefight, Lawrence coolly placed 150 pounds of charges in the bridge’s support spans, ignoring desperate signals from the two British officers supervising the cover fire that Turkish reinforcements were on the way. The explosion sent twisted shards of the bridge plunging into the ravine below, and further enraged the pursuing Turks. 

And at that moment, as the group raced away from the rising smoke, one of the Blue Mist’s rear spring brackets snapped, dropping the body onto the tire and instantly halting forward progress. It was, as Lawrence later described it, the first and only time a Rolls let him down in the desert. 

Anyone else would have simply abandoned the car, but Lawrence was loath to lose not only his faithful Blue Mist (“A Rolls in the desert was above rubies,” he wrote), but the extensive explosives kit inside. With the Turks perhaps ten minutes away, he and his driver (who was nicknamed “Rolls”) jacked up the car, and untied a length of wood plank kept with each car for deep sand recovery, with the idea of wedging it between the axle and chassis. It was too long, and “Rolls” estimated they’d need three thicknesses of the wood to support the car. They had no saw, but Lawrence solved the problem by simply shooting crosswise with his pistol through the plank several times in two places, until the board broke in three pieces. The Turks heard the firing and paused their pursuit, which lent Lawrence and “Rolls” time to rope the planks in place, using the running board as a mounting point, and make good their escape. Lawrence wrote: 

“So enduring was the running board that we did the ordinary work with the car for the next three weeks, and took her so into Damascus at the end. Great was Rolls, and great was Royce! They were worth hundreds of men to us in these deserts.” 

So, if you don’t already have them on board your own Rolls Royce, I suggest adding to your recovery kit one (1) wooden plank and one (1) pistol.