COD Chilwell component store

COD Chilwell component store
COD Chilwell component store

Tuesday, 21 May 2019

Thursday, 11 April 2019

Middle East and East Africa 1944

Fascinating day writing up my mother’s account of the trip to the Middle East and East Africa she made in November and December 1944 with my father when she was his PA.

There are vivid descriptions of the places they visited.

A good deal of tough work was done much in preparation for a long and gruelling land war against Japan. A substantial Ordance infrastructure had grown to support the North Africa campaign. It now had to be cut back. Huge effort was being put into stripping scrapped vehicles for spares, but without regard to demand. The massive depot at Alexandria, dating back really to WW1, had to be closed leaving only Tel El Kebir and Tura.

I plan that this and other material I am working on will appear in a third volume of my trilogy on Ordnance.


The photograph is of a boot factory at Nakuru in Kenya

Preparing for D Day

For Ordnance, the preparations for D Day had begun probably in 1941 with the setting up of the network of depots, including the new purpose built Bicester, capable of supplying a vast invading  force. The Ordnance  team working as part of the 21st Army Group, lead first by Brigadier Swiney and then by former Seaforth Highlander, Brigadier Jim Denniston, had by April prepared plans and carried out live training.
One major problem remained, they were desperately short of spare parts for the thousands of vehicles and tanks which would cross the channel. Politicians had placed emphasis on the headline number of finished vehicles produced and had ignored the massive need for spares.
Bill Williams, armed with a letter from General Montgomery, boarded a plane at Hendon on 20 March on a mission to persuade bosses and workers at the big US motor companies to shift  production on to spare parts. It is said he also persuaded a ship builder to produce a ship specifically to transport those spares across the Atlantic.
In the course of three weeks he visited all the major companies including having meetings with Henry Ford senior and junior. He went to General Motors, Chrysler and Continental Motors. Mr Hoover acted as host when Bill visited the tyre companies, Firestone and Goodrich.
He ended up at the Pentagon where a year earlier on his first trip he had had the same argument about spares. This time it succeeded.

Sunday, 7 April 2019

COD Weedon

I was thrilled to find that the Royal Ordnance Depot, dating from 1803, is still standing and with a wonderful visitor centre and great bookshop. Its buildings, known as The Depot,  are in use for a whole range of activities.













Weedon began life as barracks with associated powder magazines and pavilion. The troops left at the time of the Crimea and Weedon was used for storage of uniforms. In 1885 it became the centre for the distribution of small arms and it was to this use that the depot was put in both world wars. It handled millions of weapons for our front line soldiers.

In Ordnance, I wrote:

The Army Ordnance Department already had one historic depot at Weedon in Northamptonshire. There had been barracks and powder magazines at Weedon since 1803. The records show that in 1808 the following announcement appeared in the National Register: ‘We learn from undoubted authority that the Government is about to establish an Ordnance Depot at Weedon in Northamptonshire of extra-ordinary magnitude and importance.’ Weedon was principally a small arms depot, however, during WW1 it took some of the burden of clothing supply from Pimlico. It had one shed full only of boots.

In War on Wheels, I added:

The central location in the country was a particular attraction. In WW2, Weedon became the centre for the supply of Small Arms and Machine Guns to the whole Army at home and abroad. Weedon worked with its fellow Central Ordnance Depot at Old Dalby in Leicestershire and locally with sub-depots at Northampton, Long Buckby and Heyford.

My current work in progress is looking at some of the men of the RAOC who served in both world wars. Weedon again features.

On 18 December 1941 a good number of these men met at Weedon to say au revoir to Colonel McVittie, who had served in Selonika in WW1, who had joined up again in 1939 but who had reached retirement. McVittie’s son, also an RAOC officer, was a prisoner of the Japanese having been captured in Singapore.

In August 1942 the Quartermaster General and Director of Army Equipment both visited Weedon with the Director of Warlike Stores, my father Bill Williams. In Bill's archive there is a programme of the visit. The programme has a fascinating list of the range of arms, obsolescent and otherwise, in the depot at the start of WW2: Rifles, .303; Bren Guns, .303; Boys Anti-tank Rifle, 0.5; Lewis Guns, .303;



Tuesday, 1 January 2019

A glance back and an attempt to see ahead

Publishing Ordnance was something I really wanted. Writing it had taught me so much about a terrible period in our history, in particular about ordinary men and women who had done extraordinary 'ordinary things' for those they loved. I wanted more people to know the story. I gave four talks on the book and found audiences thoroughly engaged.
Lincoln Drill Hall is inextricably linked with the Great War; it was where the Lincolnshire Volunteers mustered before beginning their journey to France. It was wonderful to introduce the only BBC Prom outside London, the highly appropriate Soldier's Tale. It was a privilege to be part of the Commemoration of Lincoln in WW1. It was wonderful to welcome Michael Morpurgo's Private Peaceful and then Sir Michael himself as part of the Lincoln Book Festival.
With thanks to Phil Crow
War on Wheels and Ordnance were inspired by my father who fought in both world wars. It was thus both appropriate and wonderful that I was invited to the RAOC Officers Association dinner to mark the centenary of the founding of the Corps to which my father devoted his life. A few weeks later I was at the Chilwell War Memorial on the centenary of the Armistice where my maternal grandfather had worked as supervisor on the Shell Filling factory and where my father had founded the Army Centre of Mechanisation in 1935. Unforgettable occasions.
William Smith Williams comes from a different age and a different world. To have an article on my research of him accepted by Bronte Studies was a great compliment; to have completed a draft of his biography was an achievement of which I am proud. Let's hope a publisher agrees!

The year ends with another work in progress. I had been struck by the massive impact on people's lives of serving in two world wars. I saw them as a Blighted Generation. I had noted that many I had written about had died young. They hadn't been killed in the trenches, on the beaches or in the POW camps but they had worked under massive pressure for years on end and this had taken its toll. I am seeking to tell some of their stories.

So, that is the glance back; what of the year ahead?

I so hope I can publish William. I will complete a Blighted Generation and explore publication options. I think I will have some work for Story Terrace writing some family stories. Beyond all else I hope we can find a viable path forward to my beloved Drill Hall.
Lincoln Drill Hall


Thursday, 20 December 2018

The Class of '22 and the Ordnance supply success on D Day

This photograph has accompanied me all my life. 

I have always known who one of the young men was, my father then known as Bill Williams although he had been baptised Leslie. Of the others, I could recognise the Duke of York and the largest man in the front row, as a child, I named , ‘prawns’, I suppose because of magnificent moustache. 

When it was taken or where I didn’t know, any more than I knew the names of the other young and not so young men. All was partially revealed in 2015 when I found the same photograph in the archive of the Royal Army Ordnance Corps annotated with names. I say partially revealed because whilst the names were there, I still didn’t know who they were, whence they had come or whither they would go. 

The photograph was taken on 2 May 1922 at the then HQ of the RAOC at Hilsea and many of those in the picture were on the very first Ordnance officers course. That course, comprising two dozen men from the RAOC but also the RA and Indian and Canadian Ordnance, produced no fewer than five Major-Generals and eleven Brigadiers. 

I am now embarked on a quest and, just in case it may seem to the reader a rather pointless quest, I can reveal that from this group would emerge the small group who masterminded the Ordnance supply success of D Day. This quest digs beneath many of the names that appear in my books, War on Wheels and Ordnance.

Monday, 3 December 2018

Ordnance Reviews


Ordnance was published by The History Press in June 2018. Here are some of the reviews:

Norman Cherry, former Pro Vice -Chancellor at the University of Lincoln wrote:

Informative and accessible

Like Phil Hamlyn Williams' previous War on Wheels, this book offers genuinely interesting insights into the immensely detailed and often overlooked organisational aspects of fighting a successful war. His is a light but not lightweight approach to the subject, meticulously researched and well-referenced, and written in a very accessible style. If you have an interest in just how complex a business supplying the fighting services and their auxiliaries was during the First World War (and still must be in contemporary conflicts) this book will most definitely inform you and go a long way to explaining why wars are not just about the actual fighting.

Alex Lewczuk Editor, Siren FM and the University of Lincoln wrote:

Excellent, albeit challenging

An extraordinarily well researched and insightful overview of a period of history which recalls the George Santayana saying `Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it`. The level of scholarship present in this work is first class throughout and provides an impressive backdrop to the challengers faced by the country in the second decade of the twentieth century. Excellent, albeit challenging, reading.

Rob writes on Amazon

Long overdue

With a plethora of books recently published to commemorate and remember 1st World War, Phil Hamlyn Williams book on Ordnance tells the untold story of the organisation that basically enabled Britain and its Empire to fight the war. Well laid out and easy to read it is a book that I have recommended to many of my friends and colleagues.

Norman Penty, who found out so much about the man who discovered Charlotte Bronte wrote: 

I was delighted to receive your book Ordnance yesterday and spent a pleasant afternoon in the garden looking through it and needless to say I was most impressed by the publication and its whole presentation.   I only wish that I had had the same skills that you have clearly demonstrated - are you involved in the publications business or have you inherited your great-great uncle's genes or both?

Ken Weston, commenting on Facebook:

An excellent book.

Toby Neal has written in The Shropshire Star had the massive depot at Donnington in deepest Shropshire became the new "Woolwich' in WW2, with echoes of the old Woolwich in WW1 as told in Ordnance
 https://www.shropshirestar.com/news/nostalgia/2018/08/25/the-shropshire-village-which-helped-win-the-war/


Tuesday, 13 November 2018

A longer perspective - Historical Association Lincoln 19 November

I have spent the last four years writing about how the army was supplied in the two world wars. It is now time to take a step back and look at the results of my research in a longer historical frame.

I could begin with bows and arrows, or with gunpowder and shot; I decided to take as my starting point the Crimea and the groundbreaking work by William Armstrong in the invention of the rifled heavy gun. I then follow the story of guns and ammunition through to the modern arms industry. If ever there was an example of the law of unintended consequences, surely this is it.

I look at three aspect of Ordnance supplies. So, in addition to the first, guns and ammunition, vehicles demand serious attention. It wasn't by chance that my book on WW2 was called War on Wheels. What I found was, to all intents and purposes, the history of the motor industry.

The third aspect is the nitty gritty: just how you get the right item to the right place at the right time and indeed in the right condition - far from simple. Apparently my father is still known for his attention to packaging. I shall tell why, amongst much else.

So, for those who have heard me before, this is a new talk!

Sunday, 11 November 2018

Reflections on Remembrance

I offer two reflections on Remembrance

Standing on a pavement trying to peer over the people pressed against the railing around the Tower of London, I wondered what we were doing.

We were expecting to hear the Last Post and I found myself wondering how many people now know what it is, and then whether that actually matters. We were expecting to see lights lit to represent the fallen of the Great War. What I came away with was a sense of peace.

I had asked myself what the boys who lives had been stolen would have thought, being remembered a century after they died; well, not actually remembered since no one knew any of them. I then recalled my researches that in 1921 the last of the Ordnance Factories, that had supplied the arms they used, had been closed because they were thought no longer to be needed. I remembered my initial reaction on reading that: how stupid! I now know how wrong I was and how sane that decision.

The tragedy that is the world wars of the twentieth century cost many millions of lives; it transformed the fortunes of nations; most sinisterly it nurtured a monster that we now know as the arms industry. If it didn’t create it, but it most certainly fed it and when the war ended the industry, hungry for work, found willing buyers wherever they could be found: a dreadful example of the law of unintended consequences.

This week we remember the dead and rightly so, but then let’s truly honour them by getting on with the job of living well the life that they never could.

A further reflection following the Service of Remembrance at Chilwell.

I wanted to attend this because my maternal grandfather had worked as a supervisor in the massive shell filling factory that had been built there in WW1 and where 130 men and women workers had been killed by an enormous explosion on 1 July 1918. My grandfather and his men and women had reported for work as usual the next day determined to do their bit for the war effort. The factory was one of those closed in 1921.

My other reason was that my father had founded there in 1934, on the site of the then derelict factory, the Army Centre For Mechanisation which would spearhead the introduction of vehicles of all types into the Army for WW2. It was there he met my mother; my grandfather was then running the large local building company that did much of the work on site.

At 10.45 on 11 November 2018 we gathered on the opposite side of the garrison road from the memorial to those killed in the factory explosion which is also the war memorial. There were people from outside the garrison, but more so wives and children from within together with soldiers not involved in the parade. First the soldiers marched up and took there place in front of us, and then the officers. Finally two military chaplains. The ceremony was simple, with wreathe laying and the saying of the time honoured words.

We then all walked over to one of the massive sheds which certainly date from WW2. it had been  set out with chairs and in front were two large screens showing images of the two world wars and later conflicts. The Chilwell Military Wives sang two very moving pieces, (including Remember from their 2018 album) essentially about losing their men. The chaplain ended with a poem unequivocally supportive the the soldiers in his care. He spoke of the bravery and loyalty of soldiers to their brothers in arms. This was tangible.

So I come away with strands of thought intertwining. The men and their love for each other; the women and their heart break at the loss of their men. But then the obscene loss, I might say theft, of young lives and the wholly unintended and awful legacy.

Earlier in the day on Radio 4 Michael Morpurgo offered his reflection and underlined the importance of continuing to tell the stories ‘of what thy have done’, to take words from the song from War Horse.

Women filling shells at Chilwell

Monday, 29 October 2018

The War of 1914-1945

The more I explore the story of how the Army was equipped, the more I am drawn to a single narrative covering both World Wars.

It most certainly was not intended. The war machine of the controlled establishments, created by Lloyd George in order to produce the arms to enable our men to fight, was dismantled by 1921. Men had been de-mobbed and my father, Bill Williams, was one of them. Many returned to their old jobs, and the women, who had been doing those jobs so well, had to return to their kitchens. During the war women had also played football in place of the men, both to great effect and to huge crowds - as many as 50,000. In 1921 the FA banned the women’s game. 

Life had returned to its peacetime normal. Missing, of course, were the 700,000 British men who had died. Many more of their wounded brothers needed nursing care and yet more carried their disabilities through life; there were no Invictus Games. 

In terms of equipment, the battle fields had been largely cleared of ammunition and arms. The last of the tanks had rolled into Woolwich to rust. The cavalry believed that they were back in business. The numbers in uniform dwindled. The army’s job was to go back to policing the Empire, the occupied territories and dependencies. 

Bill Williams had returned to his old office job only to find that those who had not been to war had been promoted above him. He told them ‘what they could do with their job’ and returned to what had recently been renamed the Royal Army Ordnance Corps and which would become his life. It wasn’t long before he was posted to Gibraltar as Ordnance officer to both the Army and the Navy, under Tom Leahy (well known to readers of Ordnance). There is then a photograph of the last Ordnance depot in Wiesbaden in Germany in 1928 when Bill was the last RAOC officer to leave. 

By the time the 1930’s came, thought was being given to Army mechanisation. Catterick, the large army camp on the Great North Road where Bill had then been posted, was gaining a reputation for its work with vehicles. As I record in War on Wheels, November 1934 was the date when Bill was sent to visit the derelict shell filling factory at Chilwell with a view to setting up the Army Centre for Mechanisation, but on a shoe string budget. From then on it was fight after fight to secure enough funding and then full speed ahead to drag the British Army into the mid 20th century. The pressure wouldn’t stop for another ten years.

It wasn’t only my father; there were a great many who worked with him and many others who had survived the First only to serve in the Second World War. There were others who had gone back to civilian life but remained in the Reserves and who came back to serve in 1939. There were those a little older who would see their sons and daughters leave for war as they had done in 1914. Antony Horowitz’s character, Christopher Foyle, in the much loved TV series, Foyle’s War, is an example. It was men born in the last two decades of the 19th century. 


I see them all as part of a Blighted Generation and my current project is to research their story.

Friday, 3 August 2018

A cornucopia of articles on Ordnance

My mind still boggles when I step back and contemplate just how the British Army came to be so well equipped in 1918.

In 1914 it was hopelessly ill-prepared as I wrote in my piece on Military History NowWoolwich Arsenal and the race to Modernise Britain's armaments industry for WW1.

In the course of the war Britain's engineering industry would pay a major role, not least in Lincoln whose engineers were born from the needs of our farmers and who used the technology learnt there to produce the tank. I tell more in my blog piece on The very first tank.


Under Lloyd George and The Ministry of Munitions, probably the greater part of British Industry became involved in the war effort. New factories were built, not least the massive shell filling factory at Chilwell near Nottingham, which came at great cost, as I tell in my piece for The History Press,  Disaster at Chilwell shell-filling factory.

All this materiel had to reach the troops at the right place and at the right time. This was both far from easy as I tell in another piece for The History PressFrom socks to scout cars, how to supply the army at war.

I will be talking about Ordnance at an event hosted by Lindum Books The Collection in Lincoln on 17 August 2018.

Thursday, 12 July 2018

National Army Museum book signing

I am thrilled to have been invited to do a Meet the Author Book Signing at the National Army Museum on 21 July from 11.00 until 13.00.

The story of Ordnance spans four years. It is one of hard work, frustration and astonishment inventiveness.

At one point the depot in Selonika ran out of ink and so a search was made for a chemist who could make some thus enabling orders to be written out.

Another time, local watchmakers had to be found to repair timepieces so that zero hour could be set.

The Lincolnshire Echo in the autumn of 1914, like many local newspapers around the land, contained a plea for saddles, binoculars and horse blankets.

In the Dardanelles, the troops ran short of grenades, so ordnance men had to fill empty food cans with explosives.






Tuesday, 5 June 2018

D Day 6 June 1944 War on Wheels?

I try to imagine Brigadier Denniston and Colonel Cutforth in the early hours of 6 June unable to sleep, but equally unable to do anything more. Months of preparation and planning now had to stand or fall measured only by results.

I can more easy picture Colonel Cutforth since, as a child, I met him some years later when he had risen to the rank of Major General and had been Knighted. Sir Lancelot Cutforth, to a small boy, was all King Arthur and the Round Table and, from memory, Sir Lancelot did not disappoint. He was a tall dignified figure who, as a younger man, must have been the quintessential dashing army officer. His role though, with Brigadier Denniston, had been one of painstaking planning. The 21st Army Group which they supported comprised the British Second Army and the Canadian First Army each with their Ordnance units. Brigadier TH Clark and JAW Bennett were the respective Deputy Directors of Ordnance Services. Brigadier Clark had been on the disastrous Norway campaign with Colonel Cutforth and then had played a key role in North Africa.

I try also to imagine Bill Williams and Dickie Richards; Bill in particular who would carry the can if things did not go well. They too had done all they could. In the planning, the question of morale had ranked high and so Dickie’s Depots supplying camp and laundry equipment and especially clothing were in no sense less important than those supplying warlike stores. In any event all stores had to cross the channel and make it up the beaches.

The question to the fore of each of their minds was whether this time mechanisation would truly work.
Massive tank repair workshop at COD Bicester

On the back cover of War on Wheels, Max Hastings records the very positive verdict of the troops