Situated in southern England, near the town of Welwyn, lies a stately mansion known as the “Frythe.” During the Second World War, this once-private residence became home to Station IX, a research and development center created by Great Britain’s Special Operations Executive (S.O.E.), an organization responsible for running agents and supplying resistance movements behind enemy lines in both the European and Pacific theaters of operation. A highly secretive and valuable site, the residence employed scientists and engineers to come up with innovative, even devious, devices to aid Allied and other sympathetic forces against the Axis.
Its origins began in August, 1939, when the Frythe, then serving as a hotel, was taken over by Military Intelligence. Needing a special section for clandestine warfare, Professor D.M Newitt received appointment as Chief of Scientific Research and recruited several engineers to design and experiment in the many workshops and laboratories being built on the grounds behind the mansion.
After a thorough selection, the employees and their pencils arrived and began charting formulas and tracing diagrams, always under military guidance. On the radios and in the papers they heard or read about the speedy advances of German forces over the coming months. And when the debacle at Dunkirk, in May 1940, drove Britain from the continent, they realized their country was alone and on the verge of invasion.
On July 19, 1940, with eyes watching the sky as the Battle of Britain raged, British intelligence formed the Special Operations Executive and appointed Major John Dolphin, himself a scientist, to command work at the Frythe, now designated as Station IX. Here, Dolphin, like the other civilians under his authority, received a military rank for his job, and work continued around the clock.
The primary areas of interest were explosives, camouflage, chemical and biological warfare and technical sabotage. But Station IX did much more and quickly materialized as sort of a ‘Q’ branch, to use James Bond terminology, to supply equipment or weapons for specific tasks. As an interesting fact, they decided to name most of their creations using the first three letters of Welwyn.
Throughout the months, as the invasion threat receded from Britain and S.O.E. agents infiltrated into Europe, the workshops and laboratories tested, discarded and retested formulas, machines and weapons for their usage. From behind closed doors, all sorts of devices emerged for transport to testing grounds under a constant heavy guard by armed security that lasted until the war’s end.
Here are some of the most well-known.
The Welbike, a Dolphin invention, emerged in 1942. Designed to fit into a parachute canister, it weighed just 71 pounds, sped along at 30 miles per hour, and had a remarkable 90 mile range. Over a year’s time, 3,641 were produced, seeing use with British ground forces at Anzio and Normandy before its intended operators, the Airborne, used them in small numbers during Operation Market Garden, in Holland. Some S.O.E. agents are also known to have used them, though sparingly, due to their locations.
Other machines focused on water. 1941’s Welman Midget Submarine, for example, was 20 feet long and carried a 425 pound Torpex high explosive warhead that the craft’s pilot maneuvered to affix to a warships hull. The concept sounded promising and 100 were made. However, a mission that first used them ended in failure and further use was denied as being too risky.
The Welfreighter came next. Looking like a 37-foot-long motorboat, it too was actually a midget submarine that in addition to a two man crew, could carry four agents or equipment. The craft could submerge when necessary to affix explosive charges or lay mines. Appearing in prototype form in 1942, it went through several design alterations and by the time it entered service in late 1944, its well-trained crews were no longer needed for European operations. Plans then switched to the Pacific and Z unit, Australia’s version of S.O.E., trialed a few, but like the rest of the 100 built, they never saw action.
A Motorized Submersible Canoe (MSC), nicknamed “Sleeping Beauty,” was 12 feet long and air-droppable, and allowed a single frogman to transport 9 limpet mines to targets up to 40 miles in distance. Scheduled for use in Operation Rimau, the Australian raid against Japanese ships in Singapore harbor, it was decided to use collapsible canoes instead. Nonetheless, “Sleeping Beauty” saw influence beyond the war as a basis for the modern Swimmer Delivery Vehicle.
The Welbum. This device featured a motorized container for agents dropped into water. Worn on the back, it propelled the operator up to two miles at 2mph.
The last two machines were the creations of Major Hugh Reeves, who established himself as one of Station IX’s best employees. Reeves designed the Sleeve gun, a silenced tube containing a .32 caliber round that an agent could keep up a shirt or jacket sleeve. When needed, one simply whipped it where it could be grasped, flicked a switch similar to that of a flashlight, fired, and slid it away to go about their business.
In concert with the Sleeve gun, he designed the Welrod silenced pistol, of which approximately 2,800 were made, starting in early 1943. This firearm became Station IX’s most famous and influential product.
Agents and resistance forces went on to use the Welrod silenced pistol worldwide to great effect, killing many enemy soldiers with either the .32 or 9mm variants, and lauding its near-silent operation, which was crucial in many circumstances. Magazine-fed with six .32 or eight 9mm rounds, this manually loaded weapon was appreciated just as much after 1945, when British Special Forces continued using it in hot spots right up through the 1982 Falkland’s War.
Reeves continued working for Station IX right up to the last shots of World War II. Four months later in January 1946, S.O.E. disbanded and Station IX closed down. An uneasy and temporary peace settled over the globe, and though recognized for their contributions, Reeves, Dolphin and most of the other brains of Station IX headed back in their prewar careers of designing products for the civilian market place. Each took great pride in the fact that despite turbulent times, they gave their all for the King.