Delaunay-Belleville Armoured Cars

by David Fletcher MBE, former Tank Museum Historian.

15th July 2014

Mention the name Delaunay-Belleville to anyone in France, anyone who knows about cars that is, and they will tell you that, up to 1914 at least they were regarded, like Rolls-Royce, as the best cars in the world, probably better even than the Rolls-Royce.

Del Bel (ID 52739)In 1914 three of them, probably on a 40hp, six cylinder chassis, were acquired by the Royal Naval Air Service for conversion to armoured cars and, since some new information appears to have come to light on them it is probably time to tell their story. The new information which comes from a recently published book on Russian armoured cars by Maxim Kolomiets concerns a chap named Arthur Nickerson who we believe was a Royal Naval Air Service man. He is already known, or at least is believed to be the designer of the turrets fitted to Rolls-Royce armoured cars but now the suggestion is that he designed the turret for the Delaunay-Belleville as well, which opens up a whole new dimension to the saga.

You see all the evidence, such as it is, points to the Delaunay-Bellevilles having been armoured in France, probably by the firm Forges et Chantiers de France at Dunkirk. That was the firm Commander Charles Samson used for all his armoured vehicle projects. It seems possible that the cars were designed to Samson’s order, he had recently started to receive armoured cars designed by the Admiralty but he didn’t like them very much because they were open at the top and offered precious little protection to the crew. It may be that he had the turreted cars built to show what could be done, however Forges et Chantiers had no access to real armour plate so the odds are, if they built the Delaunay-Bellevilles, that they were built of boiler plate, not genuine armour plate. It also suggests that if Nickerson designed the turrets he was based in France too, and probably one of Samson’s men.

When Samson left France he brought many of his armoured cars home with him and the three Delaunay-Bellevilles were among them. They formed part of Number 14 Squadron of the Royal Naval Armoured Car Division, along with three Clement-Talbots, six Rolls-Royces and three Seabrook armoured lorries. They were based at Barlby Road, North Kensington, the Headquarters of the Royal Naval Armoured Car Division. Two of the armoured cars remained as they were, for how long we don’t know, but the third had an interesting and in some ways influential history.

Delaunay Belle (ID 52740)In the summer of 1915 this car had its armoured body removed and the body, without its turret, was placed onto an imported American tractor, a Killen-Strait. In that form it became, for a while, the first tracked armoured vehicle, a forerunner of the tank although whether it counts as an actual tank is a bit doubtful. The chassis of this armoured car then became a light truck, or what the Navy would call a tender, for general use in the London area. It must have lasted quite a while because in 1917 it was being driven by Lieutenant-Commander Toby Rawlinson RNVR, brother of General Sir Henry Rawlinson. Toby Rawlinson was in command of a mobile anti-aircraft battery charged with the air defence of London and on this particular day he was driving the Delaunay-Belleville on a visit to Foulness Island on the East Coast near Southend, where some of his guns were stationed. Driving across the tidal causeway Rawlinson passed on the wrong side of a marker post and the vehicle became trapped in the mud. Rawlinson jumped out and ran for it but the car was overtaken by the incoming tide and sank out of sight. Never to be seen again.