Sunday, February 6, 2011


This is a somewhat different post than normal. I've used or at least heard the word 'smokescreen' many times, and presumably knew what the meaning was in context. A smokescreen is kind of a diversionary tactic. Something that hides what's really going on.

But not once, when I read or employed the word smokescreen did I envision this:

It's interesting to think what we do see in our minds when we use metaphorical terms. I think I get a wisp of smoke in their somewhere, but it is certainly not a plume of smoke so dense as to totally obscure the field of vision.
Tanks are relatively new in the long history of war. So is war really where the term 'smokescreen' came from? And does it predate the armored vehicle? Let's find out.

Well, it's fairly recent, although smoke as a metaphor of deception goes back quite a good ways further. But according to the very reliable Online Etymology Dictionary, smokescreen has been used since 1915 to describe the real deal, and since 1926 in the figurative sense we tend to hear it used most these days.
According to the sometimes reliable Wikipedia, it is more commonly deployed by grenade, and was invented by Frank Arthur Brock. His own story is interesting. He belonged to the C. T. Brock family, famous manufacturers of fireworks. While he was away at college, he blew up a stove, which seems only fitting. He then rejoined the family company, eventually becoming its director, until the onset of World War I. Although starting out in the Royal Artillery (another natural move, I'd think) he eventually ended up in the experimental branch of the Royal Navy. He developed more than a few things there--an anti-Zeppelin bullet that brought down the first German airship, a flare used in anti-submarine warfare, but he seems to be most remembered for smoke screen. It wasn't just an idea, Brock's was a specific chemical mixture that was injected into the exhaust pipes of small motor boats or the funnels of destroyers. He preferred to think of the result as 'artificial fog'.
This fog became important on April 22, 1918 when under its cover, an armada of  British small boats, led by a cruiser called, appropriately, HMS Vindictive, attacked the Mole (which means something like causeway or breakwater) at Zeebrugge, Belgium, where the German troops were based at that point and posing a serious problem for Allied shipping. Brock, who was on board the Vindictive to oversee the smokescreen process asked to be allowed to go ashore so that he might learn the secret behind German sound-ranging (a technique which helped them discover the coordinates of enemy artillery). He joined a storming party which was attempting a landing of the Mole. He was killed in action and his body never recovered, though there is a memorial to him at Zeebrugge. An interesting account of this raid on Zeebrugge is here.
I think I might have liked old Frank. Not only was he brave and curious, he also had a sense of humor. When he boarded ship for this last adventure, he brought with him a box labeled "Highly Explosive, Do Not Open".

 It proved to be vintage port, which he shared with his men.

Edited to add that the link above doesn't work anymore, but Colin McKenzie has given a link to a site about Albert McKenzie, a member of his family who was there at Zeebrugge and won the Victoria Cross for his efforts.


  1. Seana

    My dad, brother and great uncle were (or are in the case of my brother) all Royal Navy men so I sort knew this story by osmosis, but it was great to have it pulled together like this. Nice job.

  2. Thank you. It is a fascinating story, and not one I had any clue I was diving into beforehand. We hear about D-Day, but this definitely seems a precursor.

  3. Quite a story, yes, though I do wonder about your recent fascination with explosives.

  4. Scary, I know, but the good thing probably is that I've never been fascinated by them before.

  5. sadly the link above is broken, but try my family history site which tells the whole story:

    best wishes and thanks for posting the story
    Colin McKenzie

    1. Thank you, Colin. I'm sorry the link doesn't work anymore, but I'll edit the post to add your link. Happy to help remember your ancestor.