Jordan, 1918—Night in the desert. In a small encampment beneath the jutting outcrop they call Tooth Hill, the raiders gather around their campfires, warmed by rations of rum and nourished by salt-cured beef. One lean officer stands apart, watching sparks from the brushwood soar toward the myriad stars. His gaze falls on the khaki flanks of looming steel-clad behemoths flickering in the firelight, and a smile crosses his face. “More valuable,” he will later write of the beasts, “Than rubies in the desert.”
For more than a year, T.E. Lawrence—Lawrence of Arabia—had been knifing across the flint-strewn planes of the Arabian Desert to destroy and disrupt the forces of the Ottoman Turks. He was sometimes supported by Arab irregulars, often guided by spotter aircraft; his style of fast-moving, hit-and-run desert warfare was familiar to everyone from field marshal Erwin Rommel to Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf. Initially involved in intelligence gathering, the young British officer gained status when he attacked and overwhelmed the garrison at Akaba. His superiors were impressed: They expected the siege to fail but now found themselves with a new northern foothold with which to press into Syria and Jordan. Lawrence asked for, and received, a force of nine battle-ready Rolls-Royce Silver Ghosts.
Mk1 1914 Pattern armored Rolls-Royce
Launched in 1906, the Silver Ghost re-mains the definitive Rolls-Royce. Coachbuilders could fit in every possible luxury a customer might desire, but the car’s success came from its bones. In one example of its durability, a British entrepreneur sealed the hood of a Silver Ghost 40/50, removed the toolkit, then drove it 620 miles through the difficult mountain passes between Bombay and Kolhapur. As a publicity stunt, it was a triumph, and soon every potentate in the area had to have one.
The use of the Ghost as a fighting vehicle came as a result of its association with no-bility and the British Navy. At the beginning of World War I, Wing Cmdr. Charles Rumney Samson was in charge of Royal Navy aircraft engaged in strafing zeppelins in occupied territory. This being the early age of aviation, the planes were constantly crashing with pilots needing rescue. Samson brought over several of his personal automobiles for just such duties, and he had the bright idea of strapping a Maxim machine gun on the back of his open tourer.
On one sortie, Samson’s team came across a German staff car, which they promptly machine-gunned the hell out of. No doubt spurred on by this victory, they swept into occupied Lille, where an unhappy civilian threw a ginger beer bottle through the windshield, badly cutting Samson’s face.
Even so, Samson’s successes and the use of an armored Minerva sedan by the Belgian army convinced the British war office of the effectiveness of the armored car in combat. They ordered Rolls-Royce to prepare chassis to be fitted with armor-plated bodies; all civilian chassis were requisitioned, and by October 1914, all Rolls-Royce civilian production had ceased. The Silver Ghost was now a chariot of war.
The 1914 pattern cars used by Lawrence had chassis essentially identical to those of an earlier four-car factory rally team known as the Alpine Eagles. The successful completion of the grueling Austrian Alpine Trials in 1913, held high in the Italian and Austrian Alps, cemented Rolls-Royce’s already excellent reputation. Commentators declared them the “best cars in the world.”
Power came from a straight-six engine displacing 7.5 liters, with a four-speed gearbox, single axle up front and double in the rear. Armored cars received heavier- duty rear springs but were otherwise the same underneath as the civilian models. The steel plate armor was arsenic-treated for strength, and, at 0.47 inch in thickness, it was bulletproof to standard rifle rounds. Cars were fitted with a high-mounted revolving turret and armed with a navy-issue .303 water-cooled Vickers machine gun.
With just 80 hp on offer to haul around more than 4 tons of steel, the Mk1 1914 Pattern armored Rolls-Royce was somewhat ponderous. As fighting on the Western front devolved into the muddy stagnancy of trench warfare, armored cars were of relatively little value.
The Mk1 1914 Pattern armored Rolls-Royce
But in the desert, they struck like iron-tipped spears. In one of the most romantic actions of the war, Hugh Grosvenor, second Duke of Westminster, mounted a daring raid against superior forces, rescuing shipwrecked sailors trapped in Northern Africa.
One of the wealthiest landowners in Britain, Grosvenor raced motorboats in the 1908 Olympics and served in South Africa in the Boer War. Always interested in motorized pursuits, he aided in the development of a prototype armored Rolls-Royce and commanded a squadron of nine vehicles in Egypt during the 1916 campaign. Raiding the enemy at Bir Asiso, the armored Rolls squadron swept in, terrifying the enemy and destroying their encampment. It is reported that camels laden with munitions exploded when fired upon. Then, hearing that sailors of the HMT Moorina and HMS Tara were being held prisoner at Bir Hakeim, the Duke gathered together his forces and sped across the desert, 120 miles into enemy territory. Confronted by the steel elephants, the enemy forces turned and ran; the sailors were rescued.
Lawrence’s war was less straightforward than the charging Duke of Westminister’s. Not only were subterfuge and insurgency central elements of the campaign, but Lawrence was deeply troubled by the promises he was making. He suspected, correctly, that the European powers had no intention of granting the Arab states sweeping independence once the war was over.
Still, he took fierce joy in striking out against Ottoman fortifications and transports. The Hejaz Railway—the Turks’ only supply lifeline to Medina—stretched for 800 miles; Lawrence’s forces constantly sabotaged it. The speed and reliability of his five armored Rolls and four tenders was without fault, despite the rugged terrain.
Or nearly so. In one event, Lawrence had just blown up a railway bridge and was retreating with Turkish forces in hot pursuit. Suddenly, the rear leaf spring of his personal tender, known as Blue Mist, snapped in two. The car was stranded. Lawrence and his driver (the improbably named S.C. Rolls) worked feverishly to repair it with a board. Lacking a saw, Lawrence pulled out his pistol and shot the board in two. They roped things together, escaped the Turks, and spent the next few weeks racing around the desert with a half-wooden suspension.
Armored Rolls-Royces were used in various fields of battle into the 1950s. Almost none remain, their armored bodies removed and chassis sold back into civilian life. A few are scattered throughout the world in museums. Most of these are static displays.
Riding shotgun in Blue Mist, Lawrence arrives in Akaba in 1917.
The exception is Sliabh na mBan, one of 13 1920 pattern Rolls-Royces that played a pivotal role in the Irish Civil War. Present at the death of Gen. Michael Collins, it is fully restored but still bears bullet strikes from the conflict. Because it is owned and serviced by the Irish Army, budget requirements mean that it must perform all duties of any other armored vehicle in the motor pool. It is driven by specially trained enlisted soldiers, and it fires its Vickers .303 at least once a year at the range.
After the war, Lawrence returned to England, first serving the Foreign Office, then later joining the RAF. He wrote prolifically, his major work being “Seven Pillars of Wisdom,” a semi-autobiography of his experiences in the desert. In 1935, while riding his Brough Superior SS100, he crested a hill at speed to see two boys playing in the road. He swerved, crashed and died six days later.
Four years ago, a small team of British archaeologists discovered Lawrence’s camp beneath Tooth Hill. Working from photographs, they scouted the location and uncovered fragments of navy-issue rum jars, spent shell casings and ancient spark plugs.
It is said that T.E. Lawrence carried a copy of Thomas Malory’s “Le Morte d’Arthur” with him on the battlefield. For a man tormented by the half-truths of guerrilla warfare, its tales of knights, chivalry and conflicted honor may have provided some comfort. Camped in the pure and empty desert, he surely found clarity: just his mission, his troops and their armored steeds.