War on the Wheels

War on the Wheels
The story of the people

Thursday, 27 April 2017

So many connections in the push to equip the army for the Great War

Researching Ordnance, I am finding so many connections; it is like a spider's web.

Humber cars, who produced important vehicles in WW2, armoured cars and famously Montgomery's staff car,  were manufacturing in Beeston near Chilwell in WW1 and so its workers would have heard the tragic explosion at the then Shell Filling Factory on 1 July 1918. The Chilwell site became the Army Centre for Mechanisation in WW2, as I describe in War on Wheels.

Holt tractors, helped by patents sold by Hornsby in Grantham and manufactured in the UK by Rustons of Lincoln, became Caterpillar because 'they looked like a giant caterpillar crossing the ground'. Holt caterpillar tractors were used to haul heavy artillery in WW1.

Herbert Austin was the driving force behind Wolseley which became part of the Morris, or Nuffield, group of companies. Neither Austin nor Morris were great vehicle producers in WW1, but both contributed greatly to the war effort in other armaments.

Daimler produced the engine for the first tanks and also for their own and AEC's 3 ton trucks.

Daimler 3 Ton Trucks ready to go to the front

Monday, 20 March 2017

A Prequel to War on Wheels

My new book, Ordnance on equipping the British Army in WW1, is to be published by The History Press in June 1918.

Exploring the story,  there is a strong thread of lessons waiting to be learnt. Some were, but, for others, it wouldn't be until WW2 that they bore fruit.

Alongside the lessons, are great examples of human effort overcoming shortfalls in the organisation and of human ingenuity solving endless problems.

The scale of everything was vast: so big that one constraint was a shortage of raw materials needed to produce all manner of materiel. Not enough leather for saddlery was just one such example. In order to save metal, shell cases were gathered in their thousands for re-use. Salvage became a huge operation, not just to make good shortages but also in the interests of economy.

Millions of tons of explosive used in countless variations and sizes of ammunition were stored in conditions ranging from the mud of the western front to the scorching sun of the desert and freezing cold of the mountains. Deterioration was inevitable, but men had, by hand and without protection, to render them safe and ready for use. Fatal accidents were inevitable.
The war memorial at Chilwell, remembering also those who lost their lives in a massive explosion at the Shell Filling Factory on 1 July 1918.

Wednesday, 1 March 2017

Children supplying the army in WW2

In the summer of 1943 the Derby depot had found itself unable to deal with the volume of material it was receiving and so Brigadier Robinson had the imaginative idea of seeing if school children on their summer holidays would help.

The Derby Evening Telegraph ran an article on how these school children helped to prepare for the invasion. What shone out from this was the enthusiasm and skill of all concerned including the teachers. One girl took on the challenge of sorting a cupboard full of 30,000 boxes by size. Another group packed in three hours what their army supervisor had thought would take days. The children didn’t complain of boredom since it was an activity quite different from their daily round.

It wasn’t just in the Midlands. The Twickenham times ran this story.

Pupils of Twickenham County School for Girls and Hampton Grammar School have shown a fine sense of patriotism by giving up their Easter holiday to do war work…boys and girls aged from 14 to 16, are working morning and afternoon for the Army in packing spare parts for tanks and other Army Vehicles. …some scholars pack the spares into cartons while others seal, label and pack the cartons into boxes ready for shipment.

Elsewhere it was reported that pupils from Eton had also leant a hand at the Feltham Depot.

Tuesday, 28 February 2017

The problem of MT spares - there could be only one D Day

In March 1943 The War Diaries of the DOS Allied Forces HQ North Africa, Brigadier WEC Picknall  reported ‘Warren and McCausland have arrived and I think their visit, and that of the Chilwell party, should be most helpful'.

One issue that had haunted the North African campaign was that of spare parts for motor vehicles. There were a great many different vehicles all requiring their own spares with parts wearing at different rates, some demanding frequent replacement some less so. Somehow the right number of the right parts had always to be in the right place at the right time.

Warren and McCausland were key men at Chilwell which was the British Army's centre for mechanisation. Sending them out to Africa on a mission, which was part advisory and part investigatory, underlined just how crucial this issue was.

It wasn't though about Africa, or indeed Sicily or Italy; it was about the invasion of mainland Europe which was then being planned. It was essential that all the lessons stemming from mistakes revealed in earlier campaigns should be taken on board.

There could be only one D Day.

Landing stores after D Day

Monday, 20 February 2017

Dan Snow's seal of approval for War on Wheels

Dan Snow has Tweeted this to his 155,000 followers @thehistoryguy

I learn from this excellent book that during WW2 the number of vehicles in the British Army went from 40k to 1.5mill
What can I say? I'm thrilled at this affirmation.

Friday, 10 February 2017

Paris in February 1917

What would it have felt to be here, in Paris, in 1917. The war had dragged on for three gruelling years. Everyone must have known someone who had died or been injured. Yet life went on.

The firm of Joly Fils had been given the job of storing, cleaning and repairing British uniforms when summer moved on to winter. Not only uniforms but blankets, great coats and underwear. To say that Christmas had arrived early would be unfair, but there must have been a sense of clouds with silver linings. The Paris fashion houses, which had been deserted by war,  were given the job of cleaning fur lined coats.

Dressmakers remade the kilts of the Scottish regiments and, from the fine quality of the material, were left in little doubt that Scotsmen need wear nothing under them.

There were surely other examples of the war driving the economy. There were tales of the massive number of bakers gathered round Calais in order to be part of the machine feeding the troops. Of greater moment were the armament manufacturers, the ship builders, the clothing and boot companies.

Wednesday, 8 February 2017

Talking at Chilwell

What an experience!
Seeing some of the places that I have been writing about; not for the first time since I was there in 1966 for the sliver jubilee of the Shell Filling factory, although I have no real memory of the occasion.
To imagine the Chilwell site, now a shadow of its former self, as a square mile of brambles and derelict buildings. To imagine the men from Long Eaton builders, F Perks & Son, setting to, to clear the site to make it fit for the centre of army mechanisation.
To imagine my grandfather, Frank Perks, overseeing the work, remembering his time as a supervisor in the melt shop, recalling the devastating explosion that killed 134 and injured 340, but also the men and women who came to work the next day and soon were beating their own production records.
To imagine my father, Bill Williams, who first visited the site in November 1934 and who in March 1935 became the Chief Ordnance Office with the remit to create what was probably the largest motor distribution business the world had ever seen.
It was a privilege to give a talk in such a place. There is so much to talk about in this story that can say so much to today's soldier.