The role of technical experts such as engineers, scientists, and mathematicians in modern warfare, is often indispensable. John Robert Vernon Dolphin, born in 1905 in the small village of Christleton, just outside Chester, was just such a technical expert. He was born into a well-to-do scientific family, with a father who worked as a metallurgist for a copper refining company. John grew up to be an inventor and engineer of some brilliance. After leaving school, he enrolled as a student apprentice at Loughborough Engineering College, where he successfully graduated at the age of twenty-one. Two years employment followed at the Hydraulic Engineering Company in Chester, and Dolphin then occupied a series of progressively more responsible positions in the engineering sector, until he became a self-employed consultant in 1938. John Dolphin’s successful civilian career in engineering was combined with a burgeoning military career in the Territorial Army (TA). In 1928, he was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the 4/5th TA battalion of the Cheshire Regiment, and in 1931 he was promoted to lieutenant in the same regiment. Once war broke out, in September 1939, Dolphin received a series of temporary wartime promotions, becoming a captain, and then a major, and in July 1942, he was promoted to the rank of lieutenant-colonel.

John Dolphin
John Dolphin. (Chester's Military Heritage, Amberley Publishing)

John Dolphin’s meteoric rise in the army owed much to his engineering prowess, but also acted as a cover for his significant role within the shadowy world of the Special Operations Executive (SOE). The SOE was a clandestine organisation set up by Winston Churchill, in 1940, with the declared aim of ‘setting German occupied Europe ablaze’. Dolphin became a key member of this secret organisation. By the end of 1939, he was living at 97, The Frythe, near Welwyn in Hertfordshire, and was described in military documentation of the time as being a civil servant, working for the War Office. In fact, The Frythe (an exclusive former hotel) had been requisitioned by the British government, and become the wartime home of SOE’s Station IX, which was responsible for secret weapons development. John Dolphin was engaged in all sorts of secret research on military vehicles, equipment, explosives, and sabotage, and during 1943, he became the Commanding Officer at the Station. All the often-deadly items produced at Station IX by Dolphin and his associates were given names prefixed by ‘Wel’ in order to show The Frythe’s proximity to the nearby town of Welwyn. Some of the weapons developed under Dolphin at Station IX were undoubtedly very successful. For example, the Welrod was the particular brainchild of Major Hugh Reeves, and proved to be a simple, reliable and quiet gun, ideal for assassination purposes. There were no markings on the Welrod, which was used extensively by the SOE, the American OSS (forerunners of the CIA) and by European Resistance forces. There were 2,800 Welrods made during the Second World War, and another 14,000 were produced in the post-war period.

Welrod Mk1 (Picture by Askild Antonsen, Chester's Military Heritage, Amberley Publishing)

Dolphin was a keen motorcyclist, and closely involved in the development of the Welbike, a small folding motorcycle which could be dropped from the air in containers, and then unpacked and used by paratroopers. Dolphin’s Welbike was the smallest motorcycle ever used by the British Army, and 3,853 were produced between 1942-5. The SOE didn’t make much use of the Welbike, but some of the British airborne troops dropped over Arnhem in September 1944 certainly used their Welbikes for extra mobility, once they’d landed in the Wolfheze, Arnhem and Oosterbeek areas. The motorbike could travel at a speed of 40-45 m.p.h. and do 180 miles to the gallon. A civilian version of the paratroopers’ Welbike was also made available in 1948, at a total price of £66.

Other Station IX inventions were not quite so successful. The Welman one-man submarine had no periscope and proved to be very difficult to manoeuvre. As a result, it was largely dropped from operational usage after just one abortive attack on enemy docks in Bergen, Norway. The Welfreighter was a 37 ft midget submarine, intended for the use of special forces, and for coastal reconnaissance. However, the new design never really progressed beyond the testing stage, and the war ended before the submarine could be used operationally. John Dolphin continued to serve in the TA even after the end of the Second World War, and he received the Territorial Army Decoration for long service, in the late 1940’s. He continued to be a prolific inventor, securing patents for his new designs until well into the 1960’s. Prior to his death in 1973, he had developed battery powered bicycles, which anticipated the arrival of modern mobility scooters. He had also made design improvements to forklift trucks and developed better saddles and frames for bicycles. Many of these post-war engineering developments drew considerable inspiration from Dolphin’s wartime work in the cloak-and-dagger world of the SOE.

Adrian and Dawn L. Bridge's new book Chester's Military Heritage is available for purchase now.