Robert Erskine Childers, the father of future president of Ireland was one of the most famous names in Ireland’s battle for independence and subsequent civil war. He was executed by firing squad as a traitor in 1922, nineteen years after the publication of his novel Riddle of the Sands.
“A story with a purpose” in the author’s own words, written from “a patriot’s natural sense of duty”, which predicted war with Germany and called for British preparedness contains many realistic details based on Childers’s own sailing trips along the Eastern Friesland coast.
The yacht Dulcibella in the novel is loosely based upon Vixen, the boat Childers used for his exploration. In August 1910, inspired by the work, two British amateur yachtsmen, Captain Bernard Trench RM and Lieutenant Vivian Brandon RN, undertook a sailing holiday along the same section of the Frisian coast, during which they collected information about German naval installations. The two men were sentenced to four years custody by a military court in Leipzig, but they were pardoned by the Emperor in 1913. They joined the intelligence and decoding section of the British Admiralty, on the outbreak of war.
Childer’s Vixen was rigged as a cutter, whereas the fictional Dulcibella owned by (Arthur H.) Davies was a yawl – both yachts set gaff rig mainsails, and both Vixen and the Dulcibella, were converted Royal National Lifeboat Association lifeboats – the rebuilt Susan Ashley which had previously seen service at Brook on the Isle of Wight was used in Worldmark Productions’ 1979 film, but she did not have a centerboard, the casing of which took a great deal of space in the cabin of the fictional Dulcibella. The interior cabin layouts used for the film sequences were constructed from the sketches prepared the previous year by Laurent Giles Partner Dick Stower, and by David Parrott who detailed the sketches of No 3 Rippingille stove which Davies instructed Carruthers to deliver aboard. David also designed the rather clever folding portable camera platform (never in shot) that attached to the bulwark of Dulcibella to support the cameras, lighting dollies and sound recording equipment. A happy coincidence being that David joined Laurent Giles in that year from the design office of the R.N.L.I at Poole.
Laurent Giles’ designer Barry van Geffen undertook the sail plan, and the spar and rigging designs, and Dick Stower supervised the whole project and masterminded the structural alterations to the hull and deck works to create the centerpiece of the story in which Carruthers, a minor official in the Foreign Office, is contacted by an acquaintance, Davies, and agrees to join him in a yachting holiday in the Baltic.
He arrives to find that Davies has a small sailing boat (the vessel is named Dulcibella, a reference to Childers’s own sister of that name), not the comfortable crewed large yacht that he had anticipated. Based on his belief that he was nearly wrecked by a German yacht luring him into a shoal in rough weather during a previous trip, Davies gradually reveals that he suspects that the Germans are undertaking something sinister in the Frisian Islands and having failed to interest anyone in the British government in the incident, he feels it is his patriotic duty to investigate further – hence the invitation to Carruthers.
Taking advantage of a thick fog, Davies navigates them covertly through the complex sandbanks in Dulciballa’s rowing dinghy to investigate the locale, and a discussion; something more than treasure hunting, including cryptic references to “Chatham”, “Seven” and “the tide serving”. The two men return through the fog to the Dulcibella.
Carruthers finally puts the riddle together. The Germans are linking the canals and the railways, dredging passages through the shifting sands and hiding a fleet of tugs and barges. The only explanation is that they are going to secretly transport a powerful German army across the North Sea to invade Britain’s east coast.
Of course in the best traditions of the silver screen the 1978 movie also features a pretty girl, the characteristic car chase, whispered conversations, a red herring and a ‘come dine with me’ scene when the two Englishmen are cross examined.
At the turn of the twentieth century the whole genre of invasion novels raised the public’s awareness of the potential threat of Imperial Germany. Although the belief has grown that the book was responsible for the development of the naval base at Rosyth, the novel was published in May 1903, two months after the purchase of the land for the Rosyth naval base was announced in Parliament and some time after secret negotiations for the purchase had begun. Although Winston Churchill later credited the book as a major reason why the Admiralty had decided to establish the new naval bases, this seems unlikely. When war was declared he ordered the Director of Naval Intelligence to find Childers, whom he had met when the author was campaigning to represent a naval seat in the British Parliament, and employ him. At the time Childers was writing Riddle he was also contributing to a factual book published by The Times in which he warned of outdated British army tactics in the event of “conflicts of the future”.
On board the converted Susan Ashley there was no comfort below – just a large diesel engine and fuel tank. The construction work was undertaken by Tim Bungay who had previously built the hull and deck tooling for Giles’ Mk II production G.R.P Vertue, and in 1973 his own Laurent Giles designed 44’ cutter Timari.
During the First World War, Childers worked as an intelligence officer in the Navy and won the DSC. He even came up with a reverse plot from Riddle of the Sands to invade Germany. But it was Irish Home Rule that became his great passion — a cause he devoted himself to for the rest of his life and which branded him a traitor. Childers overstepped the mark when he started gun-running, using his boat to collect 800 Mauser rifles from a German tug that he and his wife delivered to waiting Republicans in southern Ireland. Two years later the guns would be used in the Easter Rising of 1916. In the gruesome civil war that followed the establishment of the Irish Free State, he threw in his lot with the new IRA in favour of total independence. It was a bad move for him. His house, where he was in hiding armed with a pistol (a capital offence) that Michael Collins had given him as a souvenir, was surrounded by Irish troops. He was marched off to Dublin for court martial and on 24th November 1922 execution at Dublin’s Beggars Bush Barracks, on the orders of the Irish provisional government.