SPECTRE: The weapons of secret agents

Secret Agent Weapons, Evening Talk on 4 November 2015

Secret Agent Weapons, Evening Talk on 4 November 2015

Like many of you, we at the Royal Armouries are eagerly awaiting the latest Bond movie, SPECTRE. On November the 4th in our talk ‘Secret Agent Weapons’, we’ll be telling some of the real stories behind the weapons used in the Bond movies over the years, as well as those designed for real life secret agents (see this link for details).

The most important Bond gun, of course, is that carried by 007 himself. Here are a selection of those he’s carried over the years…

The traditional Walther PPK.

PPK – ‘The’ Bond Gun

Although we don't know what weapons the real Secret Intelligence Service might have used, we do know that during the Second World War, German spies did use the PPK. This example was intended for a Nazi party official.

Although we don’t know what weapons the real Secret Intelligence Service might have used, we do know that during the Second World War, German spies did use the PPK. This example was intended for a Nazi party official.

An iconic weapon, Bond’s PPK has been with him since the very first movie, though not the first Ian Fleming novel. In his first Bond book (Casino Royale, 1953), Fleming drew from his own wartime experiences in Naval Intelligence, and equipped 007 with the small Beretta 418 in the small .25 ACP cartridge. It was a sensible enough choice for a secret agent. After all, if a real spy has to draw his or her weapon, something has gone wrong! Fleming even had Bond remove the grips to make the pistol as slim and concealable as possible; important to prevent unwanted bulges when wearing a tailored suit or tuxedo!

As the novels progressed however, and Bond began to develop into the action hero we know today, Fleming received a letter from a fan that would forever change the Bond universe. In 1956, firearms expert and Bond fan Major Geoffrey Boothroyd wrote to Fleming to suggest that the Beretta that he had carried for Fleming’s first five stories was ‘a lady’s gun’. He also criticised his choice of holster as not quick enough to use, and his reliance upon silencers, which he thought weren’t quiet enough relative to the loss of power they caused. Boothroyd’s suggestion was a revolver, the Smith & Wesson Centennial Airweight, which Fleming incorporated as a sort of ‘guest star’. However, for Bond’s main sidearm he stuck with a compact self-loading pistol, the Polizei Pistole Kriminalmodelle (short police pistol). The legendary Bond PPK was born.

Again drawing from wartime experience, Fleming created the fictional ‘Q’ Branch, based upon the real-life wartime SOE Station IX and named after the military term ‘Quartermaster’. This team would from now on furnish Bond with not only his PPK, but a range of other weapons and gadgets. In honour of Boothroyd’s good-natured nitpicking, he named the his new head of ‘Q’ Branch ‘Major Boothroyd’, dubbed him ‘the greatest small-arms expert in the world’, and wrote a scene in which Bond’s pistol was replaced by the PPK. This was later recreated in the first Bond movie, 1962’s ‘Dr. No’. In reality, the pistol used in this movie was the larger Walther PP, perhaps because the diminutive PPK would have appeared too small in Sean Connery’s hands.

LINKS- You can read more about the Boothroyd story here:

The PPK’s original calibre was 7.65x17mm (.32 ACP), but was later produced for the larger 9×17mm (.380 ACP) cartridge. Bond has carried both, sacrificing one extra shot (7 vs 6 rounds in the PPK) in exchange for more potent ammunition. Today, .380 is regarded as the minimum for practical self-defence purposes, so Bond’s recent use of the .380 variant makes sense. Due to American import restrictions on foreign firearms (and possibly the larger hands of some Bond actors), the PPK is sometimes replaced in the movies by the PPK/S, which is the short slide and barrel of the PPK fitted to the larger PP frame.

The larger Walther PP, as the L47A1, was issued to RAF aircrew for escape and evasion purposes.

The larger Walther PP, shown here in British service L47A1 form. These pistols were issued to RAF aircrew for escape and evasion purposes.

The outdated PPK, first produced in 1931, remains in production today. This is due in large part due to its iconic status as the ‘Bond gun’. Yet it was replaced for a time in the movie series from ‘Tomorrow Never Dies’ until Daniel Craig’s first outing in ‘Casino Royale’, by the much larger and more modern-looking polymer-framed Walther P99. Though harder to conceal, the P99 has much better sights, a longer barrel, and 15 round capacity as standard. Given the number of gunfights Bond finds himself in, this move made a lot of sense. But the PPK would not be kept down. In keeping with Skyfall’s ‘back to Bond’s roots’ approach in 2012, the PPK (in PPK/S form) reappeared, this time with a set of high-tech biometric palm-print reading grips that of course featured in a key action scene.

In the new movie SPECTRE, Bond again ignores a range of more useful modern ‘concealed carry’ pistols (including the modern Walthers), in favour of his old PPK. As in other areas of Bond’s character, nostalgia has overcome ‘realism’.

Beyond the PPK

Interestingly, in the continuation novels written after Fleming’s death in 1964, the PPK is abandoned far sooner. The PPK is actually withdrawn from MI6 service by the time of ‘Licence Renewed’ (1981), based upon a real-life incident where the pistol used by royal bodyguard DI James Beaton jammed as he tried to protect Princess Anne and Captain Mark Phillips from a would-be kidnapper. In reality, the PPK is no more prone to stoppages than any other pistol, and there would have been no need to withdraw it from SIS service as it had never entered it!

In any case, Bond for some reason opts instead for the even older FN M1903. This is followed by the space-age but wholly spy-inappropriate Heckler & Koch VP70 (seen in the movie ‘Aliens’), and then the H&K P7, Hans Gruber’s pistol of choice in ‘Die Hard’ (1988). The remainder of the John Gardner novels settle on an excellent period choice; the Smith & Wesson ASP. The ASP, based upon the S&W Model 39 self-loading pistol, was created specifically for the type of covert work we read about in the Bond books. It’s small, slim, and has an unusual channel cut in the slide instead of conventional sights. The idea was to allow the shooter to quickly align his sights in the sort of close-range gunfight that a spy might actually partake in. It also featured transparent grips to show how many rounds were in the magazine.

From the Internet Movie Firearms Database.

From the Internet Movie Firearms Database. The ASP pistol, originally designed by American gunsmith Paris Theodore. This pistol was also featured in the Cold War special operations-themed game ‘Call of Duty: Black Ops’ (2010)

From 1997, the novels (now written by Raymond Benson) mirrored the guns seen on screen, with the PPK giving way in ‘Tomorrow Never Dies’ to the P99. However, they part company later in the 1990s, with Bond switching between the two pistols. This of course prefigures Bond’s much more recent return to the PPK in the movies.

Opening Shots

As memorable as Bond’s PPK is the classic opening ‘shot’ of the movies, with its bullet’s-eye-view of Bond in the sights of a bad guy’s gun. You might be surprised to learn that a real gun barrel was originally used to film this scene. A revolver (supposedly a Smith & Wesson .38) was purchased from a shop in Piccadilly, and a pinhole camera aimed down the bore at stuntman Bob Simmons (presumably the barrel was removed to achieve this). This amazing but simple practical effect was replaced with CGI from ‘Goldeneye’ (1995) onwards.

From the Internet Movie Firearms Database

From the Internet Movie Firearms Database. Maurice Binder, creator of the famous opening titles.

The shooting stance used in these scenes looks strange, even silly to those of us today used to ‘tactical’ two-handed shooting techniques seen in modern films and TV series. However, it was actually based on real Second World War combat shooting techniques that emphasised speed over accuracy. Recognising that most pistols were used at very close range, military instructors William Fairbairn and Eric Sykes taught Commandos and Special Operations Executive agents to rely upon instinct. The shooter would adopt a half-crouch for stability and to make themselves a smaller target for return fire. The non-firing hand would be held out to one side for balance. A variation on this, known as ‘hip-shooting’, had the firer simply point the pistol without actually aiming with the eye. The use of these techniques in the movies reflects Fleming’s real-life military experience and the era in which the classic novels and films were produced. Another Fleming nod to realism also appears in ‘The Spy Who Loved Me’ novel (1962), where he explains that firing a sub-machine gun from the hip is the ‘correct way’ to fire an automatic weapon. This is still basically true today, because most firearms will climb and pull to the right on a long burst (although it is possible with some weapons to fire quite accurate bursts from the shoulder).

From ‘Kill or Get Killed’ by U.S. Army Colonel Rex Applegate (1943). This expanded upon skills outlined in ‘Shooting to Live’ by Fairbairn and Sykes (1942).

Combat shooting as illustrated in ‘Kill or Get Killed’ by U.S. Army Colonel Rex Applegate (1943). This expanded upon skills outlined in ‘Shooting to Live’ by Fairbairn and Sykes (1942).

We’ve already seen a range of weapons in the SPECTRE trailers, from the old favourite PPK to the latest from German makers Heckler & Koch and Arsenal firearms of Bulgaria. Watch out for the first big screen appearance of the bizarre Arsenal AF2011 Dueller Prismatic; essentially two Colt 1911 type pistols melded into one, firing two shots for every pull of the trigger! A future classic ‘bad guy’ gun if ever there was one.

To find out more about the weapons of Bond and their real origins in WW2 secret agent activities, visit our talk with curator (and author of the above) Jonathan Ferguson Wednesday 4 November – see this link for more details.

Agincourt 600: Transporting the battle

English archers behind their defensive stakes

English archers behind their defensive stakes

As part of the museum’s commemoration of the 600th anniversary of the battle of Agincourt, the Royal Armouries is exhibiting a unique collection at the Tower of London from 23 October until 31 January. For this special exhibition, the museum commissioned a bespoke diorama of the battle with David Marshall, model maker of MMDioramas, along with the Perry brothers of Perry Miniatures.

So far in our blog series on making the model…

  • David Marshall has given an overview of how the project took place – see this link
  • The Perry brothers have detailed how they produced the bespoke figures for the battlefield – see this link
  • David has detailed how he shaped the terrain of the battlefield – see this link. 
  • Rob Henson (Painted Wargames) and Aly Morrison have taken us through how they painted the armies of Agincourt – see this link.
  • and how the figures were placed into battle formation, with the help of Professor Anne Curry – see this link.

Possibly the trickiest element of this project was going to be it’s transportation to the Tower of London. Here, model maker and project manager David Marshall writes on the highs – and challenges – of the model’s journey.

3A1DD2E4-2A74-41AB-A260-222B128FF721Right at the beginning I quickly identified that the packing and delivery of a 4m x 2m diorama would be the most challenging and unpredictable part of the whole project. The model had resided in my workshop for the last two years in a controlled safe environment, but as soon as the model left the building into the big wide world anything could happen!

I contacted a supplier of purpose built crates as early as the tender-stage of the project, to price up and advise on the best way of packing the finished diorama to deliver it safely to the Tower of London, and later to the museum in Leeds. I also checked at this point that I could hire a van big enough to contain the model – as I was determined I would drive it down myself rather than hand it over to a courier company! Call me paranoid but I wanted to make sure I had done everything in my power to get the model safely to the Tower after two years intense work.

When it was time to order the crates for the model, the Perrys and I discussed how they should be designed, how we would get the boards out of the boxes and other practical things like that. We decided we would go with an ‘upside down box’ approach, as recommended by the company. The ‘lid’ was the base of the model and once the diorama piece was sitting on this lid we would then slide the sides and top over it – which avoided lifting the pieces in.


In the process of ordering the boxes I double checked on the size of the van. The original design of the crates made them 2.25 metres long each. It was a good job I checked as the longest van I could get was 4.25 metres long. I had intended to lay two crates end to end, which meant the van was by 25cm short!  Fortunately, we were able to amend the crate size to 4.15metres long. Crisis averted!

When the crates were delivered, I hired an extra-long transit van for an hour just as a final belt and braces test to make sure everything fitted… and it did.The diorama was due to be delivered and installed into the White Tower on the 22nd September, but before this could happen the model needed to be framed in a special case ready for the general public. This meant the model had to be close to complete sign off well before that date.

The final meeting at Loughborough with me and the team from the Royal Armouries came in early August, and I expected it to be one of the most nervous days of my life – two years work came down to this meeting and their final approval. The Perrys and I had worked very closely with the Royal Armouries throughout the model’s development, but even so when it came down to D-Day I was expecting some serious nerves.

I decided to do a big reveal, so as everyone arrived I ushered them into a meeting room until the whole party was present so I could show everyone at once for a (hopefully positive) big reaction. Whilst we waited for the whole party, we chatted with cups of coffee and enjoyed a batch of my wife’s home-made cookies (Frances had baked regularly for the team over the last two years and had deservedly gained legendary status amongst them for her delicious treats).

It was at that moment I realised I was completely confident that the Perrys and I had done a great job on the diorama, so I wasn’t nervous at all! I was confident it was going to be well received which was a fantastic feeling. My instinct was thankfully rewarded as the model was met with an abundance of ‘wows’ and ‘greats’ which was such a thrill, with only a few final amends to organize before the big move. I arranged the final additions to take place whilst I was away, so I could go off on holiday a happy man.

When it came to moving the model for its journey to Redditch, to be encased ready for the exhibition, I arranged for a friend to help with the loading.


We learnt a lot very quickly! It turned out that two people really wasn’t enough to move the crates safely – the diorama and crates weren’t very individually heavy but together suddenly they were hard to lift. Also, and this was a big one, not all extra-long transits are the same length! We got one crate into the van and it became obvious there wasn’t enough depth to get another crate in. Disaster was looming but a quick call to the van hire company and we were able to swap it over for the van I did the dry run with. After collecting the new van we headed back to the studio, picking up my friend’s son Ben on the way – who at 23 was the perfect addition to the loading/unloading team.

Now we had the right sized van and enough people for the job – so after a false start we got the other 3 crates in the van quite smoothly. That morning was tricky but I’m glad we could work those issues out before shipping the model to the Tower, when timings were very tight indeed. The lessons learnt that morning made the move to the Tower go without a hitch.


The Hub in Redditch, where the model would be fitted with its case, was about an hour away from me in Loughborough so a nervy drive later we arrived and the van was empty in no time as there were 4 or 5 people to help.

Soon after that, the full team met at the Hub with the Royal Armouries for the last project meeting I would attend. I was there really to answer any questions about the diorama and be ready to sort out any unforeseen problems. As it turned out everything was fine so I could just enjoy finding out how everything else was going. Before I left I arranged with The Hub when the model would be packed away ready for its journey to the Tower, as I would collect it on route down to London.

As I drove home to Loughborough that day I realised that my model-making role was complete (until installation on the 22nd September). It meant that for the first time in two years I didn’t have to think about Agincourt…. for just over a week anyway!

Coming up – the final ‘making the model post’ on installing the model in the White Tower.

To see the model visit the Royal Armouries’ Agincourt exhibition at the White Tower of the Tower of London from Friday 23 October until the 31 January. For more details please see this link.

Agincourt 600: Shaping the battlefield, with David Marshall

As part of the museum’s commemoration of the 600th anniversary of the battle of Agincourt, the Royal Armouries is exhibiting a unique collection at the Tower of London from 23 October until 31 January. For this special exhibition, the museum commissioned a bespoke diorama of the battle with David Marshall, model maker of MMDioramas, along with the Perry brothers of Perry Miniatures.

So far in our blog series on making the model David Marshall has given an overview of how the project took place (see this link), and the Perry brothers have detailed how they produced the bespoke figures for the battlefield (see this link). Here, David will take you through how he made the terrain of Agincourt for this extremely detailed diorama.


When we started the project in January 2013 we had an outline of what the battlefield would look like and its size, but the details and final decisions were still to be made. The first few months were taken up with working out these elements until we had a final design concept.

The completed diorama would be 4m x 2m in size, with woods flanking on either side comprised of a selection of autumnal trees and evidence of coppicing.

(Coppicing is a traditional English term for a method of woodland management, which takes advantage of the fact that many trees make new growth from the stump or roots if cut down. In a coppiced wood, young tree stems are repeatedly cut down to near ground level. In subsequent growth years, many new shoots will emerge, and, after a number of years the coppiced tree, or stool, is ready to be harvested, and the cycle begins again.)

The plan and terrain of the fields of Agincourt where the battle took place was then decided on, and a contour map supplied of the area for reference. The terrain of the battlefield would be muddy as a result of the trampling armies (think Glastonbury festival), but there would also be evidence of ploughing and planting in areas less touched by the action. There would be no roads and no buildings.

As the model would have to be installed into the top floor of the White Tower in the Tower of London via crane through a 1.2 meter wide window (the Normans weren’t big on wide access stairs or lifts), the whole model had to be split into four smaller sections of 2m x 1m. This dividing of the model also made the diorama easier to work on.


Making the terrain of the diorama – shaping the field of battle:

The contour map of the battlefield was converted into a series of profiles so a carpenter could use them to make four wooden carcasses. Each one was 2m x 1m and was the foundation of the whole diorama.

Once I had these delivered back, I filled each one with polystyrene and weighted them down and left them to dry for a week or so. This keeps the weight down but still gives me a firm base to add all the texture and figures later on.

3CAE359E-2E41-45D9-9545-363FA34A164CThen I shaped the polystyrene with a hot wire cutter and sandpaper until it resembled the right shape. This job turned my workshop into a snow storm as the polystyrene went everywhere!

3C4517CD-6507-417A-BCF5-0A871CFD8AFBAlthough I had used sandpaper the surface was still quite rough, so I then skimmed it with a thin layer of tile grout before putting another thicker layer on top, so it would be strong enough to support the figures later.

Up until now it was just hard work with no creative touches. Now the fun could begin, starting with a layer of Artex. Most have heard of this used to create texture on ceilings, but it is great for model making. It is a powder that you mix with water to the thickness needed. The result was I could use a more watery mix for the areas that were very muddy and firmer for the ploughed areas. It also takes ages to dry, so I was able to work a long time on it as it set.

The trampled area needed hundreds of small footprints added so it looked like an army had walked all over it. I found a piece of resin that resembled a small footprint so I just set to pushing this into the Artex until the whole area was covered in tiny footprints! This process was rather time consuming so I wasn’t sorry to finish it!EF5DB256-38C2-402F-8CC9-CC40F193C973

For the ploughed areas, I ran a small trowel repeatedly over it in a series of straight parallel lines until the field was covered in furrows.IMG_0626

I left that to dry for a week or so and then painted the whole battlefield a special mix of brown wall emulsion paint that I selected to match the sample of Agincourt earth I had been given by the Armouries.AF702946-C3DB-41D3-986E-3D303F42D6F4

82849A75-5BB6-441A-AC76-9C7AFFC4554DA single coat of brown paint gives a very dull and uninteresting finish, so I then diluted raw umber acryllic paint and splashed that all over the brown base. This ran into all the footprints and furrows adding extra colour and tone to the whole field, which started to bring it to life.FFF49013-D0D7-4AC3-B263-787DDA45DB47

The final paint job was to dry brush a cream paint all over it. Dry brushing is the technique where you add paint to a brush, wipe as much of it off as you can and then very lightly draw the brush backwards and forwards over the field. The cream paint stays on the peaks of all the footprints and furrows highlighting all the detail and adding more contrast and life to the field.1DA7CC97-08C9-4C9B-87DD-8F62C8238769

Months before I had ordered the trees and coppicing from Realistic Modelling Services. We had long discussions about the colour of autumnal foliage on the trees and worked very closely with the Royal Armouries to get the coppice looking authentic. It was worth the effort when all the trees were planted.

Then I had to add the grass where the English army was deployed. I used a series of coloured ‘flock’- different shades of green, brown and cream of finely chopped foam and static grass. I counted 7 different layers and shades by the time I had finished.5404C27C-ED47-4653-9A70-EAFB1B32F027

Finally, I needed to add a few puddles where water hadn’t drained away. It made sense to use the low areas of the field where water would collect and just left to slowly drain away. The field’s high point runs along the middle of the field and then slopes away to each of the woods on both flanks so the puddles were added near the woods. I remember it fooled a number of people who thought we had had a water leak. Very satisfying!

The finishing touches on the battlefield occurred was once the model had been safely craned into the White Tower. We needed to fill the gaps between each section with Artex, once this was done the final footprints or furrows could be added and finally painted with the same colours as the rest.

All of this, of course, was the canvass to display the battle involving 4,500 figures…..that is another story….

Next up – painting the armies of Agincourt.

To see David Marshall and Perry Miniatures stunning diorama in the flesh, be sure to visit our Agincourt exhibition at the Tower of London, running from October 23 until the 31 January.

Find out more about how the model was made and the figures made in the posts below.

For more details about the Royal Armouries’ Agincourt exhibition please click this link.

New to Fort Nelson, a stunning composite Drake gun

Fort Nelson has recently received a donation of a composite drake gun sometimes known as a minion drake. The gun is believed to be Dutch, possibly originating from Amsterdam. Dutch patents of 1627 and 1633 cover this kind of construction. According to the inscription behind the vent, it weighs 260 Amsterdam pounds and was produced in the mid 17th century.

Drake blog 1

The gun was found in inshore waters off the Kent coast by divers Paul Aaronovitch, Vince Woolsgrove and John Webb.

Drake blog 2

This gun is a light version of a minion or roughly 3 pounder, built up of copper alloy and iron, and probably soldered using lead alloy. The copper alloy has been decorated with bands of interlace from the muzzle (head) of the gun down to cascabel (rear) – where arresting ropes are tied to limit the gun’s movement due to recoil when firing. The handles located on the mid-section of the gun have been cast in the form of dolphins which was common for guns of this type

A labelled cross-section of a gun

The gun will be on public display in a desalination tank which will be used to wash the chloride ions out of the gun and to keep it underwater to prevent rapid corrosion until the conservation treatment is completed. This process will take several years in the Artillery Hall at Fort Nelson. Fort Nelson Conservator Matthew Hancock said “Fort Nelson is delighted to be able to add this fine and rare gun to the collection, although it presents some conservation challenges.  It is impossible to put a precise timescale on the project as the amount of chloride ions in the gun cannot be calculated. The process is further complicated by the reactions of the different metals in the gun.  The public will be able to view the gun during the conservation treatment as the gun will be on display in its tank in the Artillery Hall.”

Drake Blog 3

The Royal Armouries would like to thank the Receiver of Wreck for their assistance with this donation.

The Diary of Private Holden: Part Two – The Remount Depot (24th May – 1st July 1915)

As part of the museums’ ongoing First World War Archives Project, we have been looking into the fascinating diary of Private Wilfred Holden In our last post, Holden described the journey to France and has now crossed the channel.

Now arriving at Rouen, the soldiers faced a 4 mile hike to Base Depot Number 5 where Private Holden was to stay for nearly 6 Weeks. The base at Rouen consisted of different camps, largely firing Infantry, and was the primary hospital centre for the British Expeditionary Forces, in addition to housing the Cavalry Remount Depot. Private Holden describes it:

“like a big canvas city, & the distance round it, would be somewhere about, six miles, so you can form from that the amount of space taken, & very little space was wasted. In our camp alone we had over 50 stables, each one having over a hundred stalls, & about half a dozen lines, & at times these had over a hundred horses on each one”

Example of a British Army Camp ©Duke of Wellington’s Regimental Archive/ Royal Armouries FWWA

Though entranced by the appearance of the ‘canvas city’, the reality of accommodation at the base seems to have left something to be desired.

“The first few weeks, we had three tents between us, but we did not have them long, & we had two between twenty of us, it was so hot …. .after that we spent most of our nights outside, with the stars for a roof. Wet nights we looked for an empty tent.”

During the day the soldiers worked at the Remount Depot. Private Holden describes a typical day:

  • 6 am               Fall in and report to designated stable to groom and take to                                        water about one hundred horses per man
  • 7:30 am          Breakfast
  • 8:30 am          Back to the stables to groom and exercise the horses
  • 12 Noon         Rest period
  • 2:00 pm          (if on Cavalry Depot duty) Saddle horses ready to move out
  • 4:00 pm          Grooming, watering and feeding the horses
  • 6:00 pm          Released from duty

Evenings at the base were typically spent in the YMCA hut writing, playing cards or watching one of the nightly concerts or performances. Private Holden was lucky enough to be at the base when it hosted one of Lena Ashwell’s famous Concert Parties. Lena Ashwell was an actress and theatre manager who organised concert parties for troops as far afield as Egypt during the war, receiving an OBE for her work in 1917.

Interior of a YMCA hut at Rouen © IWM (Q5457)

Interior of a YMCA hut at Rouen © IWM (Q5457)

When not attending camp entertainments soldiers could request a pass to go into Rouen during their free time. Private Holden seems to have been very taken with the city, describing its churches, roads and cafes, and even going as far as to comment:

“I must say that most of their public buildings are much better looking than ours in England, the churches, were all very pretty buildings, the carving being the chief thing”

On 25th June, after 5 weeks at the base, Private Holden and 12 others were warned to prepare to travel to the front, and on 1st July they finally moved out.

“this time we were on the last stage of the road to the fighting line, we again left friends”

The Diary of Private Holden: Part One, a journey to France

As part of the museums’ ongoing First World War Archives Project, we have been looking into the fascinating diary of Private Wilfred Holden

Unlike those who joined the army to become career soldiers, Private Holden was part of the Special Cavalry Reserve. Volunteers or conscripts who enlisted after the start of the war served with the reserve regiments in England, undergoing basic training before being sent overseas to supply drafts to their affiliated regiments.

Though it has not been possible to locate him in the surviving WW1 records, Private Holden most likely belonged to the 4th Reserve Regiment, based at Tidworth, which was the regiment that supplied drafts to the 7th Dragoon Guards until 1917.

Private Holden does not seem to have taken naturally to soldiering and his diary has few place names or dates and very little mention of enemy action. It does however give a wonderful picture of his everyday worries and wishes and the various mishaps that befell him.

The Journey out (22-23 May 1915)

 “It was on May the 20th, when, along with ten more men, I was warned for France, but it was not until two days later, that we were told the day for leaving. On the evening of the 22nd we got orders to parade at 8 A.M the following morning, when, I should say, about forty eight men & two NCO’s turned out, we marched down to the station, but unlike all other drafts we had no band, at the time they were on leave. At the station we were given a good send off, by our own men & also the 9th Lancers and the 18th Hussars, they were also sending men away and we were all on the same train, & we steamed out of Tidworth station, which to most people, was a thing to be remembered, the two bands of the 9th and the 18th were playing , & the chaps wishing us all good luck, & a few wondering if they would ever see their chums again, then all was left behind and the future talked about”

Cavalry Troops at southampton docks

P.269/2 Cavalry Troops at Southampton Docks ©Southampton Archives


Arriving at Southampton Docks, Private Holden had to wait for the troop ship to be prepared for embarkation and spent his time watching the boats come in.

“During the time we were waiting for the order to fall in, we saw a few hospital ships come in dock, then the question how long should we be out before we should stop one, as it is called. About 4:30 we got the welcome order fall in, then we marched on the boat, the name I have forgotten, it was some Irish name, & was an old cargo boat, & was fitted up for cattle, we all marched on, & three hundred horses were taken on. At 5:30 the boat steamed out, but, unlike the pictures of a ‘departure of a troopship’, all was quiet, no cheering and goodbyes. No one was on the dock, only workmen, & a few soldiers, & many looked longingly at old England’s shores as we went slowly down the channel”

Private Holden Diary Entry

Newsreel films of the departures of troop ships from Britain and Overseas were common during the early years of the war and presumably it is one such film that Private Holden refers to within his diary. Examples of such films can be viewed in the British Pathé online Archive, including this film of Russian Relief troops departing from London.


Many of the ships used to carry British and colonial troops during the war had been requisitioned and were fitted up as best they could be for the process of carrying large numbers of men and horses across the sea. Horses were often winched onto the ships and confined in small quarters for the voyage, with many dying from disease and injury.

Even the short journey across the channel was dangerous for both man and beast, with submarines targeting the troop ships. Only a month after Private Holden’s voyage, in June 1915 the SS Armenian was torpedoed off the British coastline and 1,400 mules and horses were left to perish while the remaining men abandoned ship.

Conditions on the troop ship were cramped and most of the soldiers took the welcome chance to sleep while they could but Private Holden stayed on deck watching the sunset.

 Seasick Soldiers on SS Euripides  ©Sea Power Centre, Australia

Seasick Soldiers on SS Euripides ©Sea Power Centre, Australia

I smile often when I think of the crowd, & picking your way over them was a very difficult task, for with the swaying of the boat, & the different positions of the men, you had a hard task, & more than one man had a rude awakening, through someone falling on the top of him.”

Seasick Soldiers on SS Euripides  ©Sea Power Centre, Australia

Passing Le Havre signalled the completion of the channel crossing and the ship turned to sail down the river towards Rouen.

“We passed several villages on the river side, some of the people seemed to be just getting out of bed, but the noise made on the boat, was enough to awake the dead, & before we reach Rouen, half the chaps could not shout, the people cheered us all the way down, but when nearing Rouen, we had to cease shouting, to give the sailors a chance to hear the orders given from the bridge.”


Marking 70 years since VE Day – The Big Guns of WWII: 25 pounder self-propelled gun

To mark the 70th anniversary of Victory in Europe day, our Portsmouth site Fort Nelson will be firing the impressive 25 pounder self-propelled gun at 1pm and 3pm today. Also known as the Sexton, the gun was developed to support rapidly advancing forces in later stages of World War Two. The gun will be fired at at 1pm and 3pm today.

The 25 pounder self-propelled gun pictured on the Parade at the Royal Armouries at Fort Nelson ©Royal Armouries

The 25 pounder self-propelled gun pictured on the Parade at the Royal Armouries at Fort Nelson ©Royal Armouries

The Royal Artillery experimented with a number of designs in their attempted to improve the mobility of artillery. Self-propelled guns on tracked mountings gave much better cross-country mobility. The ‘Flanders Mud’ of the First World War made it difficult and sometimes impossible to move heavy guns. Early tanks showed the way forward, leading to the gradual introduction of self-propelled guns [SPGs]. The towed 25 pr gun, examples of which can be seen on display in the Voice of the Guns gallery and the Artillery Hall, required a towing vehicle and limber and had limited off-road ability.

Early prototypes included the ‘Bishop’, combining a mounted 25 pounder quick firing gun to chassis of a Valentine tank. The Royal Artillery also used the American M7 self-propelled 105 mm which was known as the ‘Priest’, as its gun mounting resembled a pulpit. However, the British needed a self-propelled gun which incorporated the 25 pounder.

The answer, which came to be known as the Sexton, was created by adapting a Canadian Kangaroo chassis, based on the M3 American tank, to carry a 25 pounder field gun. Manufactured at the Montreal Locomotive Works in Canada, over 2150 Sextons were produced between 1943 and 1945.

The 25 pounder self-propelled gun on display in the Artillery Hall at the Royal Armouries at Fort Nelson ©Royal Armouries.

The 25 pounder self-propelled gun on display in the Artillery Hall at the Royal Armouries at Fort Nelson ©Royal Armouries.

This example on display at the Royal Armouries at Fort Nelson is painted in the colours of the 90th City of London Yeomanry, which landed in Normandy on D–Day, 6 June 1944. On the final run into the beaches they fired their guns from the landing craft in support of the troops already ashore. This example was transferred to Portugal after the Second World War and reimported in the 1980s and  has been restored to running order

See the mighty 25 pounder self-propelled gun fired at the Royal Armouries at Fort Nelson on Friday 8th May to commemorate the 70th anniversary of VE Day. Firings take place on the Parade at 1 pm and 3 pm.

In conversation with: Strong Voices


‘Light Fever’ is a powerful new photographic exhibition showcasing the innovative and inspiring work of local teenagers, currently open at Royal Armouries Museum at Fort Nelson, in partnership with Artswork, Butterfly FX, and Portsmouth Autism Support Network.

With the exhibition coming to a close this Saturday 21 February, we asked Strong Voices member Jack Halsall to share his experiences of creating the exhibition.


© ButterflyFX


How did you become involved in the project?

I was part of the group of teenagers who did the Bronze Arts Award with Strong Voices. That was about The Lost World and we did a lot of it in the City Museum. I really enjoyed that and wanted to be part of the Silver Arts Award at Fort Nelson.

What was your favourite picture you created for the show and how did you do it?

The Creeper. I like the way it is coming towards the viewer. I’m really pleased with the way that it worked out. I did it using stencils, which was quite tricky and a lot of work so I’m glad it was worth it.

‘The Creeper’. © ButterflyFX


There are lots of different styles of light graffiti in the different pictures, did you need to use different techniques to get these effects?

Yes, for some of the pictures we used stencils, and for others outlining objects and freestyle, which was basically just throwing lights around and seeing what they looked like afterwards.

Which technique did you most enjoy doing and do you think it was the most effective?

The most fun was freestyle. Stencils were the trickiest to do, but if they were done correctly they were the most effective.

aoa wheel on fire

© ButterflyFX

dragon breathe

© ButterflyFX


When people who don’t know a lot about digital art, look at the final images, we don’t really understand how much work has gone into it at the editing stage. Tell me about what happens between the camera and the finished project.

I’d like to use the image of the skull as an example. We took lots of photos of the skull with different lights (some red, some green, some white) and then we merged them together when we were editing and it was really effective. I enjoy using Photoshop to edit and enhance images.


© ButterflyFX


Has working on this project changed your opinion of museums? If so, how?

I’ve always liked visiting museums but this gave me a whole new view of museums because I realised that there could be lots of places that I don’t normally get to see. It was really interesting to be in the museum after it was closed and the tunnels were all dark. The tunnels were epic places to do light graffiti. Not only were they really dark but also they were full of atmosphere and the feeling of being very old. We had a lot of fun things stored at Fort Nelson. We used the old skull to produce a brilliant piece of artwork. We also used swords and armour. My favourite one was when it looked as though electric was coming out of the sword.

How did you feel when you saw the final exhibition?

I was impressed by how good it looked. For the first time I could see it as a professional exhibition. I feel very proud of it and so were the other people who were putting it up.

light fever install image

© ButterflyFX


Light Fever is part of the ARTSWORK (hyperlink to artswork website) Strong Voices programme; a two year national programme funded by the Department for Education through their Voluntary and Community Sector prospectus. Strong Voices seeks to increase the numbers of young people accessing the resources offered by England’s Major partner Museums and National Portfolio Organisations.

In Love and War

In honour of this Saint Valentine’s Day, we’ve put together a special ‘loved up’ post from the Royal Armouries. We’ve chosen to highlight two special romantic items of our collection; the amorous armour of Henry VIII, currently at the Tower of London, and the heartfelt gifts of World War One soldiers at Fort Nelson.

Intertwined initials decorate the armour

love token 2

Amorous Armour

Did you know that Henry VIII declared by Royal Charter that all of England would celebrate February 14th specifically as “Saint Valentine’s Day”? In honour of this, we thought we should discuss his most amorous armour, which was made about 1515. Throughout its decoration there are constant symbolic representations of his happy marriage to Katherine of Aragon, who had been his Queen for 6 years (married 1509).


All-over the armour’s decorations are beautiful flowering Tudor roses and pomegranates of Aragon, to illustrate this happy union (for now anyway!) The wings of the poleyns (knee protection) bear the sheaf of arrows badge of Ferdinand II of Aragon, as well as the combined Tudor rose and Katherine’s pomegranate badge, while the toecaps of the sabatons have the castle badge of Castile and the Tudor portcullis.


Most noticeable is the decoration around the base of the Tonlet (skirt), where the initials of H and K are joined by true lovers’ knots in copper alloy.

di-2010-1309-1024x928This romantic representation of Henry and Katherine is continued on the accompanying horse armour.  At the rear of the crupper (back/rear protection) the initials H and K, with a rose, are supported by putti (cherubim’s). The side panels (flanchards) are decorated with winged mermen, holding shields with combined rose and pomegranate badges – flanked by portcullis and sheaf of arrows badges for the King and his Queen. The lower border of the horse armour (bard) is decorated with the King’s motto DIEU ET MON DROIT, interspersed with even more roses and pomegranates, just in case.

For more information about the armour and bard, take a look at this link: http://www.royalarmouries.org/line-of-kings/line-of-kings-objects/single-object/349

Gifts from the Front

Donated to the Royal Armouries by local resident Mrs Shelia Borer, these heart shaped cushions show us a ‘softer side’ of the First World War.

love token 2

Heart shaped cushions dating from the First World War, donated to the Royal Armouries by local resident Mrs Shelia Borer

These Romantic heart shaped cushions were sent to the wives of two soldiers serving in France during the First World War. They were perhaps intended as love tokens for Valentine’s Day.

The velvet and silk cushions were most likely purchased in France by Frederik Branson of the Royal Artillery and Everett Freeman of the Oxford Light Infantry. They would then have personalised them and sent them home to their loved ones.

portrait image

Frederick Branson RA of the Royal Artillery

One has the Royal Artillery crest whilst the other has that of the Oxford Light Infantry. The latter has a poignant poem that reads:

“Think of me

When the Golden sun is shining

And your mind is care set free

When of others you are thinking

Will you some time

Think of me.”

close up of love token

Credits Phil Magrath



The Royal Armouries Leather In Warfare Conference

Recently the Royal Armouries played host to a wealth of knowledge and passion as we, in partnership with the Archaeological Leather Group, held the Leather in Warfare conference here in Leeds. We were fortunate to hear from a wide variety of fantastic speakers, each providing delegates with a fascinating new perspective on leather and its uses on the battlefield and in arms and armour.

IMG_4597- Leather - Yvette Fletcher - 141114

Yvette Fletcher, Head of Conservation, Leather Conservation Centre.

IMG_4557- Leather - David Nicolle - 141114

Dr David Nicolle, Honorary Research Fellow, Institute for Medieval Research, Nottingham University.

IMG_4548- Leather - Nicolas Baptiste - 141114

Nicholas P. Baptiste, Archivist-Curator Morges Castle (Swi), Doct-Researcher, University of Savoy (Fr).

Attendees were treated to a range of presentations on subjects as diverse as Roman army tents and mamaluk armour. Royal Armouries Emeritus Curator, Ian Bottomley, enthused the audience with his paper on Japanese leatherwork, and Helen Adams’ porcupine fish helmet from the Pitt Rivers museum also caused much excitement. Other Royal Armouries speakers included Senior Curator of Armour Karen Watts, Conservation Manager Suzanne Kitto, Assistant Curator of Edged Weapons Henry Yallop, and Assistant Curator of Armour Keith Dowen. Dr Thom Richardson, Deputy Master of the Royal Armouries, chaired the conference as well as providing his own paper.


Japanese leather items presented by Royal Armouries Emeritus Curator, Ian Bottomley.

IMG_4494- Leather - Thom Richardson - 131114

Deputy Master of the Royal Armouries Thom Richardson.

porcupine fish helmet

Helen Adams, Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford, presenting on Ethnographic examples of animal skin armour – with a porcupine fish helmet pictured.

Debate arose on the final day of the conference when Barbara Wills, senior curator at the British Museum (department of Conservation and Scientific research) presented her project on crocodile skin ‘armour’ from Egypt.

crocodile armour

Barbara Wills, Senior Conservator, British Museum Department of Conservation and Scientific Research – presenting her crocodile skin armour project.

Fellow speaker Carol van Driel-Murray questioned whether this discovery was indeed armour at all, and if it were purely intended for ceremonial use should we not avoid describing it as such altogether? However it was also argued whether this armour was representing specific Egyptian religious beliefs through symbolising Sobek – the crocodile warrior god who signifies strength and power. Was this therefore an example of ‘costume armour’ and therefore should be called such? Was this a complex ceremonial layering of a human, dressing as crocodile, dressing as a solider? No doubt this isn’t the last we will hear of this fascinating project!

Leather - Carol van Driel-Murray- 141114

Carol van Driel-Murray, University of Leiden, presenting on Roman Military leatherwork.

IMG_4581- Leather - Barbara Wills - 141114

Barbara Wills, British Museum.

The event was organised by Curatorial Manager Alison Watson, who commented, “it was fantastic to work with the Archaeological Leather Group to produce such a successful conference and we look forward to working with them on the proceedings, due out 2015.”

A study day commemorating the Battle of Waterloo is currently proposed at the Royal Armouries for spring 2015, and Armouries staff will be speaking at a number of conferences throughout the upcoming months, for more information please contact enquiries@armouries.org.uk. For more images from the Leather in Warfare conference, please visit our Facebook and Twitter pages.