Woolwich Laboratory and Technical Intelligence

By Web Team / 9 May 2018 / Insights

In earlier posts I highlighted some of the technical intelligence activities carried out by the Allies regarding WW2 Nazi UAVs and the acquisition of systems from the German pocket battleship, the Graf Spee. Actually, some Technical Intelligence operations go back much earlier in history. Over on another blog site here.

I’ve detailed the development of metal cased rockets in the late 1700s and early 1800s. British Military operations against the Mysoreans in India led by Haider Ali, and later his son Tipu Sultan between 1780 and 1799 brought the British attention to the innovative military rockets of the Mysoreans who used them to great effect. I think also the French were also interested in this technology.The British recovered a number of rockets to the Laboratory at the Royal Arsenal in Woolwich, and this post is about the role of the Woolwich laboratory in Technical Intelligence over its history.

For several hundred years, and for obvious, and less obvious reasons, the British Military were interested in the technological capabilities of foreign weapons. This was either due to a concern about defence against them, or acquiring the technological advantage that others had with a view to using them for British purposes. Later there came forensic aspects of technical intelligence , but Woolwich and its Laboratory was at the heart of all this.

The Laboratory is pretty much analogous to parts of today’s DSTL. The Laboratory was deeply involved in the development and production of British munitions for literally hundreds of years. The site was first used by Sir Francis Drake to store a number of captured enemy cannons in 1568, and indeed captured artillery systems were recovered to Woolwich for centuries, and testing of systems took place there in the late 1500s.

The Laboratory itself was first built was built in 1696. The term laboratory was a broad one and was meant to include research, development and production of weapons systems. In 1716 a number of captured French cannon were recovered to Woolwich and exploited, during which an explosion took place killing 17 people. By the time the Mysorean rockets were acquired and sent for evaluation and exploitation in the late 1700s, the Laboratory covered a site of 104 acres, and employed nearly 500 people. It was much damaged and rebuilt after a fire in 1802. At the time of the arrival of the Mysorean rockets at the laboratory in the late 1700s it was being overseen by a senior British Artillery officer, General Congreve, the father of William Congreve with whom the development of British rockets is associated. The rockets used by the Irish rebels in Dublin in 1803 were also recovered to the laboratory. In 1804 General Congreve employed his son, William Congreve to oversee parts of the Laboratory and in particular the exploitation of the rockets from India and Dublin. In this it appears he was assisted by a gentleman by the name of Pat Finerty, who had been actively involved in the production of the Irish rebel rockets. It’s not clear if Finerty was a simple turncoat or perhaps had been a British Agent all along, infiltrated in to the Irish rebel movement.

Congreve (junior) was able, I think, to apply the Laboratory’s technical expertise to fully examine the acquired rockets. Their understanding of gunpowder as a propellent and the manufacturing expertise also organic at the Laboratory enabled the development and production of British rockets within a year or so and then over many subsequent decades. The initial Congreve rockets were in many respects identical in terms of their general design and calibre to the captured rockets, and the evolution of design did take some time. But certainly by 1805, within a year or so of starting his work at the Laboratory, British rockets had been built and fielded in action against the French at Boulogne.

William Congreve took virtually all the credit for this and his “media campaigns” to seek patronage and funding barely mention the crucial Indian rockets and did not mention at all the Irish Rebel rockets – both clearly were the start point for British military rocket development. But also the unnamed technologists within the laboratory supporting the technical intelligence evaluation, exploitation and subsequent development and production of rockets was likely to have played a crucial role.

Much of the technical intelligence work carried out by the Woolwich laboratory over the centuries is shrouded in secrecy, but at times it is clear its role was crucial in a number of areas, not least in the development of rockets and in the first steps of counter-terrorist Weapons Technical Intelligence (WTI), carried out later in the 1800s by Col Majendie whose career as an explosive investigator started at the laboratory when he was appointed as a “Captain Instructor” at the laboratory in 1861, following service in the Crimea and the Indian Mutiny. He utilised some of the test facilities at Woolwich to explode terrorist devices and examine their lethality and a number of IEDs were recovered to Woolwich for detailed examination under his supervision and that of his scientific assistant Dr DuPre. By WW1 the Woolwich site employed 80,000 people, mainly in production, but the laboratory research was a key component. It is only in the last few decades that the activities undertaken by Woolwich for over 400 years have moved elsewhere.