GUNPOWDER & GLORY: THE SHORT, EXPLOSIVE LIFE OF FRANK BROCK, OBE

Reviewed by: Andy Field

I enjoyed reading this book, co-written by Harry Smee, Frank’s grandson and a former director of Brocks Fireworks and Henry Macrory, a former newspaper editor and political communicator in Downing Street. There is something of the ripping yarn about it, and with the descriptions of Frank Brock as a “…daredevil combatant, secret agent and brilliant inventor…. pyrotechnical genius, one of Britain’s great, unsung heroes….” plus the lurid cover, I felt that I was in for an enjoyable read.

I wasn’t wrong, but I’m not sure whether it is a book members of The Naval Review may necessarily want to buy. It’s clearly a labour of love for Harry Smee, but if you are looking for detailed accounts of Frank Brock’s work, you have to be patient. Smee and Macrory spend time describing the history of Brock’s fireworks. I found this interesting, but  also a bit frustrating. Frank Brock and his exploits only make their appearance in Chapter 7 when, in 1903, he joined his father on a successful trip to India, assisting in organising the Coronation firework displays. Proving himself a competent pyrotechnician and taking on more responsibilities, under Frank, “…. The future of Brocks had never looked more assured….”.

Frank Brock seemed destined for other things though and in 1914 the authors tell us of his resignation from the company, following a trip to Düsseldorf, working for the precursor of MI5 – the Secret Service Bureau. This was July 1914, remember, when conditions in the Balkans were deteriorating, so Frank disguising himself as “an American visitor”, bluffing his way into the Zeppelin works on Lake Constance and being given a comprehensive, guided tour was not without risk.

On the outbreak of war the newly-married Frank enlisted in the Royal Artillery, but was soon embroiled in more espionage, this time on behalf of the Royal Naval Air Service. Accompanied by another, larger-than life character, Noel Pemberton Billing, he returned to Lake Constance to gather further intelligence for an air raid by the RNAS on the Zeppelin sheds at Cologne and Düsseldorf. Narrowly evading capture, the pair returned to Belfort, in France, and three Avro 504 aircraft subsequently successfully bombed the sheds.

As a result of this exploit, Frank requested, and was granted, a transfer to the RNAS. Given command of an Experimental Station in Stratford, he used his expertise to work on an effective explosive bullet capable of destroying Zeppelins, which were bombing Britain.

There was no effective opposition to these. The few anti-aircraft guns were outranged, defending aircraft could barely claw up to the required altitude and the existing explosive Pomeroy and Buckingham bullets were ineffective. Using his own money to fund research, Frank developed the Brock bullet, sensitive enough to explode when it touched an airship’s envelope. In September and October, three airships were brought down in flames. Three weeks later the Zeppelin L32 was brought down and in October, L31. Zeppelin raids became increasingly dangerous and  were finally ended in 1917.

Next joining Jackie Fisher’s Board of Invention and Research, Frank concentrating on anti- U-boat measures, producing smoke floats to protect merchant shipping, intense flares for the Dover Patrol and an enhanced Very Light.

It was Frank’s developments for the Zeebrugge Raid, (which members will be familiar with), that really showed Frank’s flair of invention. His expertise proved invaluable, developing smoke screens, grenades, flame throwers and grenades. As ‘payback’, Smee and Macrory tell us that Frank insisted on being a part of the raid and on-going ashore. He wanted to examine, or even seize one of the extremely accurate Goertz rangefinders and some German ‘flaming onion’ anti-aircraft shells, clusters of 6-8  attached balls of fire which caused whirled up towards attacking British aircraft.

Storming onto The Mole, shouting, “Come on You Boys!” and armed with pistols and a cutlass. Frank was observed fighting, sometimes bare-fisted, until he was fatally stabbed in the throat, managing to kill his assailant in return. Posted ‘Missing’ at first,  a Belgian gravedigger later recalled burying a well-built, dark haired, Captain with a neck wound.

Frank’s death is not quite the end of the book, which concludes  with the authors giving readers an outline of the company from the ending of the Great War to its final demise, in the face of increased Health and Safety regulations and cheap Chinese imports. This rounds the story of Brocks off well, but doesn’t add to Frank’s story, unlike, say the Appendices.

Criticisms? The small errors encountered in my advance Reading Copy will, I’m sure have been corrected before final publication. Other than these, I have two concerns. I’m not sure who the book is aimed at. Although I enjoyed reading the book, I felt that it fails to develop Frank Brock’s exploits in the depth I’d have liked. It reads more like a history of the family and the company, whilst highlighting Frank’s exploits. An enjoyable read for all of that, but possibly falling short of the original intentions.

In its final form the book is a hardback, with dust jacket and retailing for £25.00, which I feel is overpriced. For these two reasons I would hesitate to recommend buying the book.