Gunpowder & Glory – The Short Explosive Life of Frank Brock OBE, Harry Smee & Henry MacRory

Gunpowder & Glory – The Short Explosive Life of Frank Brock OBE, Harry Smee & Henry MacRory

Frank Brock was a member of a famous firework family, responsible for many of the most impressive displays of the 19th and early 20th centuries. He was also an impressive researcher, who comes across as a classic ‘Boffin’ of the type more famous in the Second World War. This biography looks at his family’s history, Brocks life, his wartime inventions and his death during the Zeebrugge raid.

The first ninety pages of the book cover the history of fireworks, the history of Brock’s fireworks and the pre-war life of Frank Brock. This may seem like quite a lot of space for what might be seen as a very long introduction, but it is entirely justified. The Brock family involvement in fireworks went back to the late 17th century, and the family business rose to a positive of great prominence during the 19th century, even gaining a place in the British language as ‘Brock’s Benefit’ came to mean an impressively explosive display. They put on regular displays at the Crystal Palace, and for major Royal and Imperial events. Amongst their clients were many of the world’s crowned heads, including the Shah of Persia and the Ottoman Sultan. Some of their displays sound like they must have been hugely impressive, with giant walls of carefully timed fireworks being used to illustrate major news events in what were effectively short animated scenes. Some of their displays certainly wouldn’t be allowed now – especially the living fireworks, in which a performer was dressed in an asbestos suit and strapped into a framework covered with fireworks, allowing them to put on illuminated boxing matches or similar.

Brock is best known for developing the Brock Bullet, a carefully researched weapon designed to destroy Hydrogen filled Zeppelins. This was not an easy task – normal bullets didn’t make a big enough hole to do any significant damage. Brock had to produce a bullet that was sensitive enough to detonate when it hit the outer skin of the airship, then cause a large enough explosion to create a big enough hole in the hydrogen sacs to allow enough hydrogen and oxygen to mix to produce an explosion. At the same time it had to be stable enough not to ignite when it was fired. Brock wasn’t the only person to produce an anti-Zeppelin bullet, and when Lt Willian Leefe Robinson shot down SL-11  on 2 September 1916 his guns were armed with a mix of three types, but the general consensus is that it was Brock’s bullet that did the damage.

However this wasn’t Brock’s only contribution. In January 1915 he was given the task of setting up and commanding the RNAS Experimental Station, where he and his team developed smoke floats to hide merchant ships, coloured smoke signal cartridges that were used by Allied pilots to identify themselves as friendly, and an anti-Zeppelin and observation balloon air-to-air rocket. He also had the ear of several senior man, including Admiral Fisher and Roger Keyes.

His final innovation was to develop a new form of smoke generator for use on the Zeebrugge raid of 1918. The aim of this raid was to block the canal being used by U-boats based at Bruges to reach the sea, and involved an attack on the heavily fortified Mole at Zeebrugge. Brock managed to convince Keyes to him take part in the raid, and not only that but to take part in the attack on the Mole itself, claiming that his expertise would be needed to make sure the smoke worked, and that there appeared to be unknown German weapons on the Mole which he wanted to capture. 

It must be said the decision to let Brock go on the Zeebrugge raid was monumentally stupid. As the author says, it was the equivalent of letting Barnes Wallis go along on the Dams raid. Brock’s argument that as Keyes was going, he should be allowed to go along too really didn’t hold water – Keyes was going to watch from one of the off-shore destroyers, not take part in the most dangerous part of the entire raid! Brock’s role as a senior researcher also meant that if anything his being captured alive might have been worse for the British war effort than his being killed. Tragically Brock was amongst the dead during the attack on the Mole. The authors do a good job of tracing his involvement in the raid, and make a convincing case for having identified where he was killed and by whom.

This is a fascinating book. Both parts of the story are equally interesting – Brock is a figure who deserves to be better known, and his family’s fireworks sound like they would have been hugely impressive to see.

1 – A Whiff of Black Powder
2 – Fireworks in Their Blood
3 – Taking the Palace by Storm
4 – The Shakespeare of Pyrotechnics
5 – Whatever You Are, Be Brave Boys
6 – Pomp and Circumstance
7 – A Carpet of Violets
8 – Monsters of the Sky
9 – Seeking the Holy Grail
10 – The Magic Bullet
11 – Father of Invention
12 – Striking the Vipers’ Next
13 – Brock of the Mole
14 – The Finest Feat
15 – Brock’s Benefit

Author: Harry Smee & Henry MacRory
Edition: Paperback
Pages: 272 
Publisher: Casemate
Year: 2020

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