London Buses and the Battle for Shoeburyness

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On Friday the 18th December 1908, an unknown military force landed on the shores of the river Crouch in Essex.

Britain had been invaded.

The invading force (the Germans, if the soldiers tasked with responding were to be believed) appeared to have gained that greatest of military assets – suprise. Now, having secured a beachhead, they were pushing towards Shoeburyness.

For Captain R.K. Bagnall-Wilde of the Royal Engineers, the officer on the spot, this was a potentially disastrous situation. If the enemy reached the town they would secure a strategically important point on the Thames Estuary and Britain’s ability to resist the invasion would be seriously compromised. The facts were simple. Shoeburyness needed to be held at all costs but only a small number of troops were stationed in the town – certainly nowhere near enough to successfully dig in and defend it.

Bagnall-Wilde’s immediate objective, therefore, was simple. The nearest available troops were at Warley Barracks near Brentwood in Essex and the Captain needed to get them to Shoeburyness. Fast.

It was a big ask. With the enemy already moving towards their target, Bagnall-Wilde would need to assemble his reinforcements and get them to Shoeburyness faster than any forced march would allow. Luckily, the Captain had an ace up his sleeve. One the Germans wouldn’t expect. For Bagnall-Wilde had been given permission by British Army Headquarters to call upon a relatively new technology – motorised transport.

And so Bagnall-Wilde turned to the people who perhaps knew more about moving large numbers of people by motorised vehicle than anyone else in the world at that  point in time – the London General Omnibus Company.

Proving a Point

There was, of course, no invasion of Britain in 1908 – though relations with Germany were by then cooling rapidly and many thought it was an increasingly real possibility. The rest of the above scenario, however, is perfectly true. Captain Bagnall-Wilde was ordered to organise a response to an enemy invasion and the soldiers at Warley Barracks were indeed mobilised. The “London General” was also called upon to do its duty to King and Country. All, however, were part of a major military exercise – The War Office Trials of 1908.

By 1908, large-load motorised transport of materials and men was becoming increasingly common. For the War Office, however, the precise role that motor vehicles might play in Britain’s armed forces was still unclear. Did motorised transport represent an effective way of getting men quickly to a point of crisis, and if so could it be relied upon to do so quickly and reliably?

It was this that the 1908 War Office trials were set up to establish. This wouldn’t be the first time the War Office had carried out experiments with buses – they had carried out a very limited exercise involving steam buses and some men of the Essex Regiment earlier that year – but it would be the most extensive. The results of this exercise would help determine the War Office’s opinion on motorised transport for some time to come.

The London General

Given the importance of the exercise, it is not surprising that it was to the London General that the War Office turned for help. Established in 1855, the company had swiftly come to dominate the London Omnibus scene, buying out many of its smaller competitors along the way. Quick to spot the potential that the age of motoring held, the General had begun to switch from horse to motor operation as early as 1902. By the time of the War Office Trials this transition was well under way, and a reputation as a motorbus company first and foremost had recently been cemented by the  takeover of its two biggest rivals – the London Road Car Company and the Vanguard Company.

A London General de Dion Bouton in 1905, courtesy LTM

A London General de Dion Bouton in 1905, courtesy LTM

As 1908 drew to a close, therefore, the newly amalgamated London General stood proudly dominant over the London bus scene. Under the watchful eye of its visionary Chief Engineer Frank Searle, its busworks at Blackhorse Road (formerly owned by Vanguard) were about to become the spiritual birthplace of London Buses. It would be here in 1909 that Searle’s X-Type, the first bus truly customised for the streets of the Capital, would roll off the production line and here in 1910 that its legendary successor, the LGOC B-Type, would be born.

The B-Type 'Ol Bill' at the Imperial War Museum, by DanieVDM

The B-Type ‘Ol Bill’ at the Imperial War Museum, by DanieVDM

Uncle Frank

Indeed it was to their Chief Engineer that the General’s senior management turned when the War Office asked them to take part in the Trials. Searle swiftly decided that he’d take personal command of the expedition and that a total of 36 buses would be required along with three suport vehicles. He asked each of the formerly separate motor companies that now made up the amalgamated General to contribute to  the exercise. From the General would come twelve 30hp de Dions. From the Vanguard, twelve Milnes-Daimlers. Finally, the London Road Car would contribute twelve 40hp Straker-Squires, the chassis of which were already being used to create motorised ambulances for the US Army.

A Straker-Squire in 1906, courtesy the LTM

A Straker-Squire in 1906, courtesy the LTM

The Exercise Begins

At 5:30am on the morning of Friday the 18th, with the fog lying thick on the ground, the General’s transport fleet assembled at Upton Park depot. All 36 buses reported present and correct, and each was – as planned – accompanied by a breakdown tender of the same type carrying spare tyres and parts. Searle himself brought his own own car, from which he would lead the expedition, accompanied by several other personnel from the General and a journalist from Commercial Motor Magazine.

The first stage of the exercise was planned to be quite simple. Upon leaving Upton Park Depot the buses would split into three columns based on the type of buses driven, each of which would be headed by a driver familiar with the roads outside of London. Each column would then independently make its way to Warley Barracks in Essex where the fleet would mass and pick up the waiting troops that Bagnall-Wilde had arranged for the exercise.

At first, things seem to go to plan. All the columns departed on time, and were soon making good progress. It swiftly became clear, however, that old rivalries die hard. Searle’s decision to split the fleet into columns based on the type of bus driven may have made sound logistical sense, but it also meant that the columns were also effectively split along company lines. Soon it became clear that as far as these columns were concerned, this was a race.

It’s not recorded what the people of Essex must have thought of that morning’s activities. The sight of over 35 buses speeding out of the morning fog, overtaking and retaking each other on narrow country roads, must have been both impressive and alarming – especially as many of the buses still carried their route-cards, proudly declaring that they were headed for Shoreditch or Hammersmith. It was a potential recipe for disaster, but even though Searle eventually realised what was happening, it was impossible to prevent it from his position in advance of the columns.

Luckily, all the buses made it to Warley without major incident (and purely for the record,  it appears that Vanguard’s Daimlers’ won). There they found men from the 1st Norfolk and the 7th Essex Regiments waiting to board.

A Vanguard Daimler in 1906

A Vanguard Daimler in 1906, courtesy the LTM

The Hypothetical Relief of Shoeburyness

Perhaps to help dissuade further rivalry, but also to preserve the military’s need to split the reinforcing force (standard practice to ensure that in the event of mishap at least part of the reinforcements would get through) it was decided that the buses would undertake the next stage of their journey in two columns rather than three. The men were thus split into detachments of 25 and embarked. Each man carried full battle kit and a day’s rations. Half were given 150 rounds of ammunition, whilst half were given 90 rounds and entrenching equipment. Additional equipment – including stores and Maxim guns – was also placed on each bus. Overall, the intention was to make the loads as representative of what might be needed in a real combat situation as possible.

With the buses now heavily loaded, the  second stage of the trials thus began. It had been decided that in order to minimise disruption for both the men of the General and the Army the relief of Shoeburyness would be hypothetical rather than literal. Both columns would proceed at their own pace to an agreed meeting point a sufficient distance away, where the men would be disembarked. They would then immediately be re-embarked and  brought back to the barracks. They may not literally get to Shoeburyness,  but overall the buses and men would cover some 2000 miles in aggregate mileage – more than enough to help establish the practicalities of moving troops by petrol power.

The two columns left Warley at 8:30am but soon problems began to emerge. Too late, it became clear that through some miscommunication all three support vehicles had followed the first column, leaving the second without backup. Luckily, in the end only one of column two’s vehicles suffered severe enough problems to force its abandonment before the columns met up at the disembarkation point and the mistake could be corrected, and that vehicle was able to rejoin the column on its return.

Another problem soon manifested thanks largely to the extra weight the buses were now carrying. Back in London the rules of the road (then largely overseen by the Metropolitan Police) stipulated that buses should have an upper weight limit of 3.5tons empty, and 6tons loaded, and the roads of the Capital were designed to support this. Many of the Essex roads that the buses now advanced along, however, simply weren’t constructed to withstand that kind of load – especially as the amount of men and equipment on board the buses meant that many were well over weight. Worse, much of that load was concentrated upon the double-width wheels of the rear axles.

As a result the buses of both columns were soon carving heavy ruts into the road. This made it nice and easy for any vehicles that had fallen behind to follow the route, but the heavily damaged surface certainly didn’t make for an easy drive. This proved to be a major problem for column one, where a number of buses found themselves stuck and had to be helped by the recovery vehicles. Indeed on the return leg one of the Daimlers broke through the road surface completely, sinking up to both its axles, and had to be pulled free with great effort.

Overall, five buses would ultimately fail to complete the trip out to Hadleigh Crossroads – the designated rendezvous point – and back, with the expedition arriving back at Warley barracks just before 5pm that evening.

Despite these loses, however, the exercise had generally been successful, with soldiers from the lost buses having been successfully transferred to the remaining vehicles with little difficulty or delay incurred.  Indeed none of the buses had ultimately been lost to mechanical failure – to a vehicle, they were lost because they had moved off the road to allow oncoming traffic to pass and become trapped in soft ground due to their weight.

Lessons for the Future

That vehicles transporting troops should stay to the centre of the road at all costs was one of the first recommendations thus specified in the Report produced on the exercise for the War Office in its aftermath. This was, however, one of the few blights on what had been an otherwise impressive performance from both Searle and the men and motors of the General. Indeed in general the report was positively glowing.

With some lessons and the right vehicles, it argued, motorized vehicles were very much ready to step up and meet the military’s demands. The aforementioned issue of buses lost to soft ground needed to be guarded against, and vehicle weight needed to be kept down as much as possible (it was noted that none of the buses lost were de-Dions, which were much lighter then the other buses used).

Other recommendations were also made, which would soon become standard practice. Drivers should be as familiar with the vehicles they drove as possible and the use of different makes minimised. Routes should also be clearly defined and err towards the most simple and obvious rather than the fastest – particularly if the route was unfamiliar to the drivers used. Vehicles in a convoy should also try and travel about 60 yards apart, as this seemed to compensate for differing vehicle speeds and gear changes and kept the overall speed of a column consistent. In light of the losses, the report also recommended that one vehicle in eight be empty, allowing it to take up the load should another vehicle have to be abandoned.

Finally, the report noted that whilst the buses had proven well set up for transporting the men themselves (although a “no smoking or spitting” rule had apparently proven tricky to enforce), thought should be given to vehicles better suited for carrying their equipment. This would in part lead to later work to create standardised lorry designs for army use.

Overall, the report spoke highly of the promise of motor transport for the military, claiming that speeds of up to 12mph were realistic and achievable targets for moving men in this way. Indeed as Roy Larkin, points out in in his excellent book Destination Western Front: London’s Omnibuses Go to War, it perhaps speaks a bit too highly – suggesting that for the War Office a shift to motor transport had already been decided upon mentally if not officially.

Looking to the Future

The 1908 Trials were certainly a success – a coming of age, in a way, both for military transport and London Buses. If the Trials had proved a disaster then subsequent uptake of motor vehicles by the military, and the creation of the subsidy scheme which offered a small stipend to companies that agreed to allow their vehicles to be requisitioned in wartime, might both have been delayed. Ultimately, however, the impending technological heat of World War One always meant that motor transport would appear on the Army’s radar sooner rather than later.

Nonetheless, the 1908 Trials helped define many of the rules of the military road that would later become codified during World War One. They also represented the first motorized cooperation between London’s bus companies and the War Office – a relationship that would later see Frank Searle’s X and B-Types become a familiar sight to Tommies in the Great War as transport, ambulances and even mobile pigeon coups. It was also a partnership that would continue beyond the First World War well into the Second, when London’s buses would find themselves called in to help with everything from the aftermath of Dunkirk to evacuating children to the country (an operation, it is worth noting, masterminded by Frank Pick himself).  All on top of keeping London moving during the Blitz and beyond.

The 1908 Trials, therefore, may not ultimately have been a turning point in history but they were certainly an important milestone. Just over a century ago, London’s Buses and Busmen were called into battle for the first time and, as in the very real wars that would come later, they demonstrated that they would never be found wanting.

Written by John Bull