In 1903 a book was published that made an immediate impact and has never been out of print since then. It has often been called the first thriller. This was Erskine Childers “The Riddle of the Sands”. No biography of Childers has ever remarked about his links with the Legion of Frontiersmen, but he was a member of the Executive Council in the early years of the Legion. The “Frontiersman’s Pocket Book”, published in 1909, records him as: Volunteer Soldier in the S.A. War, Yachtsman; Author of “The Riddle of the Sands,” “In the Ranks of the C.I.V.,” Vol. V of The Times History of the War; Executive Council L.F. His book, still highly readable today, made a great impression on the public and on members of the Legion with its warnings about Germany’s plans. The final sentence of the book echoed the sentiments of the Legion, Is it not becoming patent that the time has come for training all Englishmen systematically either for the sea or for the rifle? From 1895 to 1910 Childers served as Clerk to the House of Commons where he would have been in contact with many senior figures of the Legion. After Childers’ later involvement with the Irish Republican Army and his execution as a traitor, the Legion conveniently forgot his early involvement, but the influence of his “Riddle of the Sands” on Frontiersmen thought must not be under-estimated. When Roger Pocock was asked by the Army Council what the Legion would propose to do in the event of war with Germany he replied “Blow up the Kiel Canal, Sir.”
Onlookers could be excused for believing that the adventures of the Legion of Frontiersmen were inextricably tied in with the horse. It is important to highlight the Legion’s strong maritime links. These began with the grandfather of the Legion’s Patron, The Countess Mountbatten. Prince Louis of Battenberg was one of the Legion’s earliest members and at the time was Naval D.N.I. Prince Louis had read The Riddle of the Sands, but although he thought it an excellent novel, he considered it absurd that Germany would ever undertake the plans laid out in that book.1 February 1908 saw the formation of Suffolk Command under E.G. Pretyman M.P. who had been a Navy minister in the previous Conservative Government. This became a de facto Maritime Command, which slowly gained more independence and the intention was to call it the Maritime Reserve. When Pretyman found he needed all his time for his duties in Parliament, the unit was organised by Robert A Smith and Linton Hope (1864-1920) following Pretyman’s ideas. Linton Hope was a brilliant yacht designer. Boats to his design are still preserved and sailed today. It would be interesting to learn of some still sailing. According to Smith “Our programme was not too ambitious, we were prepared to enrol coastwise people, yachtsmen, bargemen and fishermen, who were not eligible for the R.N.R., train them in signalling and for use in time of war in: (1) relief of Coastguards, (2) shore boating, (3) local pilotage, (4) examinations, (5) minesweeping…We undertook to be self-supporting, asked for nothing but the recognition of our badge and officers…” As with the War Office and the main body of the Frontiersmen, the Navy “…put up every possible (and impossible) objection..”. Explaining events in full detail, Smith wrote that: “The War was half over before they got examinations done by practical cargo men and so began to find counterbrand [contraband] in any quantity. Lastly, Minesweeping had to be taught while war was on. Is it any wonder that our failure is a sore point with me? We were beaten by lack of imagination in the Official mind!” 2 This complaint has been too often repeated by Frontiersmen over the past hundred years.
Frontiersmen imagination was responsible also for a naval success of the First War: the Naval Africa Expedition of 1915-16 when two motor-boats were hauled across Africa to Lake Tanganyika to wrest control of the lake from the Germans. The idea was that of big-game hunter and Frontiersman John R. Lee who wanted Col. Driscoll and the Frontiersmen to take a major part. However, once they arrived at Cape Town, the appointed Commander of the Expedition, Spicer-Simpson, managed to get Lee completely excluded. Yet again the Frontiersmen received no credit for an ingenious idea.3
We know far too little about Robert Smith other than he was born in Victoria, Australia in 1870 and was one of the very first Frontiersmen. For many years he was a leading member of the Royal Canoe Club and was the leading mediator in bringing peace between the breakaway IOC and the original Legion. It was his diplomacy that brought the rebels back into the fold and caused the IOC to cease to exist in 1934. He was an engineer who had a wide knowledge of explosives and demolitions and wrote the section in the Frontiersman’s Pocket Book on that subject. The late Uffa Fox would have known him well and we can only wonder whether he may have talked about Smith to H.R.H. Prince Philip.
In 1930, Cdt-Gen Burchardt-Ashton decided that the Maritime Division should be re-formed. He approached “Count” Johnston-Noad, a wealthy solicitor (privately referred to as a “dodgy solicitor” by the Metropolitan Police) and Freeman of the City of London who had a deserved international reputation as a successful racer of motor-boats. As we demonstrated in previous Topic pages, Johnston-Noad was also building a reputation as a rogue. The best description of him is a man who could charm the birds out of the trees – and then sell them shares in one of his dodgy companies. Johnston-Noad was also a pilot and formed the Air Command in 1932 before he faded into the background and the Air Command became a success under Alec Knowles-Fitton. The Maritime Command proved a steady if limited success in ports around England. They were based in Essex, where they had fifteen yachts and other small craft, all active almost every week. They claimed that they were working to help the authorities counter the smuggling of contraband into the small inlets that abound round the coast of that county. Johnston-Noad was succeeded by Capt W.J. Lyons who was based at Leigh-on-Sea. A second unit was formed at Portsmouth in Hampshire under Capt J Woodrow, but all that we know about them so far is the photograph shown here. As with the Air Command, the Maritime Command saw no need to wear Stetsons and their uniform was the standard navy reefer jacket with Legion buttons, matching trousers and a naval cap. Officer ranks were indicated by naval gold lace, but without the curl. From what can be made out from the old photograph, Capt Woodrow seems to have adopted angled lace to augment his cuff ring. Ratings wore the same uniform but with navy shirt instead of white. A Leading Seaman wore an anchor, a 2nd class Petty Officer two crossed anchors and a first class Petty officer two crossed anchors surmounted by a mural crown badge.
There is evidence that Frontiersmen were active at sea in other Commonwealth countries during WW2 and information is still being gathered.
1 Mark Kerr Prince Louis of Battenberg: Admiral of the Fleet [London, Longmans, Green 1934] p.174-176
2 Letters from Robert A. Smith to Cdt.Gen. Arthur Burchardt-Ashton (originals in Legion of Frontiersmen achives)
3 Peter Shankland The Phantom Flotilla [London, Collins 1968]. For a more recent and somewhat more colourful account of the expedition see: Giles Foden, Mimi and Toutou Go Forth [London, Michael Joseph 2004].
Linton Hope pictures and of the Maritime Section at Portsmouth are from the photographic archives of the Legion and from The Frontiersman’s Pocket Book © Legion of Frontiersmen (Countess Mountbatten’s Own)
The article above was originally published on http://www.frontiersmenhistorian.info in April 2012, and has since been revised and updated.
© Copyright Geoffrey A. Pocock. All rights reserved. This article may not be reproduced in any form, in part or in full, without prior permission.