It was thought initially that SOE’s requirement for a small 9 mm calibre machine carbine might be met by a modified Sten Mk II and on 16 May 1942 Maj W. Hussey of the Central Small Arms Department, Enfield (CSAD) visited Station IX to discuss that possibility. Time passed and there was no response from Enfield so SOE decided to go ahead and develop a weapon themselves.
Maj Hussey notified SOE on 5 June that Col Gibson did not oppose SOE’s proposal to design its own special weapon (to be called the Welgun) and about five weeks later Gibson visited Station IX to examine the prototype the Engineering Section had fabricated to F.T. Bridgeman’s design. It was completed and sent to Enfield for assessment on 7 August. As a result of these and other tests a series of modifications took place right up to the time it was submitted to the evaluating agency, the Central Inspectorate of Small Arms (CISA) at Broxbourne, in February 1943. Throughout this period Station IX maintained the closest contact with both Enfield and CISA.
By October 1942 six examples of the Welgun had been produced at Station IX for demonstration to CISA. After final modifications the gun was sent to CSAD for further assessment. It was inspected by the Design Department of the Birmingham Small Arms company (BSA) who considered producing it and submitted an estimate of cost on the basis of an initial production run of 60,000.
By December 1942 the gun had passed its tests at CISA. A further six were being made for final tests by the Ordnance Board. On 1 January 1943 CD wrote personally to the Minister of Production about this alternative to the Sten gun. He explained that with the full knowledge of the Ministry of Supply SOE had built the Welgun which could fire British, American and German ammunition. BSA had examined it, thought well of it and were willing to produce it. 100,000 were needed at a rate of 5,000 per month. Given the authority to commence production, BSA could start delivery in April 1943. In reply, Mr Lyttleton, Minister of Production, said as far as he was aware the Welgun was only then being put through its proof tests and asked for them to be speeded up. Clearly, authority could not be given until all the required tests had been successfully completed on the pre-production models. By February 1943 all examples had passed the CISA acceptance trials. Three were then sent to Pendine in South Wales for Ordnance Board trials and three for trials at the Bisley Wing of the Small Arms School. Gen Worthington and Gen McNaughton requested one gun complete with working drawings for immediate despatch to Canada. They had tested the weapon at Aldershot and were obviously impressed.
A month later three Welguns competed in Ordnance Board design and functioning tests against three Sten Mark IVs. In the final total score the Sten gun beat the Welgun by only one point but the Welgun won the trials regarding accuracy, control, rapid operation, etc. It was beaten by the Sten on operation in arctic conditions, mud and sand tests but the Ordnance Board agreed that greater clearances between moving parts would overcome this. The forward hand grip and balance of the Welgun were recommended for adoption on the Sten and all other folding-stock machine carbines. In April the gun passed the trials at Bisley with comparable marks to the Sten but the particularly advantageous features of the Welgun seem to have been ignored in the report on these tests. Nevertheless, word got around and the Royal Navy and No. 62 Commando wanted to examine examples. In May a report on the tests conducted by the Navy and Royal Marines at Whale Island was sent to Maj Reeves. The gun had been subjected to extensive tests and considerable deliberate abuse but continued to work very well indeed. Commander Young had tested one gun and found it singularly accurate, with a performance above any other tried on the range. The Navy, who had been offered Stens Marks II and III to replace the Lanchester carbines used by their boarding parties, had turned them down and now wondered whether to opt for the Welgun.
In the end, to Station IX’s disappointment, the cheaper but less accurate Sten Mk IV was adopted and the Welgun did not go into production. The full reasons for this decision are not revealed in surviving documents. No estimates of the relative costs of the alternative weapons are available, nor whether the differences were sufficient to outweigh the advantages of the Welgun. One may speculate that the final choice was influenced to some degree by envy that a gun developed by an outside body (as SOE was sometimes regarded) with no long-term experience of small arms should have been able to challenge the competence of the gun-making Establishment.
Among the silenced weapons used by SOE agents, the Welrod was a small 9 mm or .32 in calibre hand gun with a very effective built-in silencer which gave it its nickname of the ‘bicycle pump’. The stock-cum-magazine of the weapon could be readily detached from the barrel, resulting in two pieces which could easily be concealed. In November 1942 some examples of the four-shot .32 in calibre version made to the requirements of the Chief of Combined Operations (CCO) and Capt Sykes had been manufactured and the numbers required were being assessed. After trials the following month it was decided to manufacture 500 for stock at Station XII.
By March 1943 the Welrod had been redesigned with an improved stock, a replaceable magazine, a spring ejector, a knurled boss to replace the bolt action and reduced trigger pressure. At 12¼ in long, the .32 in calibre model now weighed 35 oz (992 gm). It was easier to operate and a great deal simpler to manufacture and it was hoped to reduce the noise still further. The forward silencer unit of the Welrod, which was an integral part of the weapon and included self-closing rubber baffles at each end, was only slightly shorter than the original five-groove, left-twist, rifled barrel, which was retained. Cocking was by means of a knurled-screw boss at the extreme rear of the gun. A quarter turn of the boss anti-clockwise and withdrawal to its limit admitted another round into the breech; pushing it forward and a quarter turn clockwise readied it for firing. Surrounding the barrel was an outer casing known as the bursting chamber which accepted some of the gases released into the silencer. The 9 mm version was larger at 143/8 in long and 3 lb 4 oz (1.47 kg) in weight.
In June 1943 the SOE Council considered a campaign of assassination of selected enemy individuals: German civilian officials rather than soldiers or Quislings. To increase the demoralising effect of the undertaking, warnings were to be given by the posting of death warrants. The Welrod was the ideal weapon for this task and with 600 on order, 100 ready for issue in August, it was decided that ‘Execution Month’, as it was called, should commence on 1 October. No information has been found as to whether this ever took place.
Another campaign, known as Ratweek, was carried out during the last week of February 1944 by the ‘Armada’ RF circuit in France. About a dozen Gestapo staff were assassinated.
The Welrod proved to be a very effective silent close-quarters weapon. At least 600 were ordered and, in addition to its use by SOE, there are some unsubstantiated reports that even after SOE’s disbandment it was issued on operations in Korea, Malaya, Vietnam and Northern Ireland. In his book The Secret War for the Falklands Nigel West describes an incident on HMS Invincible during the training of the Special Air Service’s ‘B’ squadron for a covert attack on an Argentine mainland airbase in which the weapons specialist produced a Welrod. In the event the raid was aborted after the party had landed and they had to be exfiltrated covertly through Chile.