War on the Wheels

War on the Wheels
The story of the people

Saturday, 22 November 2014

The Waste of War

The writing of a book is a process and crystallises from time to time in the 'blurb' that seeks to describe it. This is the latest iteration.

In the Second World War, the Army grew from having just 4,000 old and battered vehicles in 1935 to being a fully mechanised force with 1.5 million, ranging from tanks and giant tank transporters to jeeps, mobile baths and offices, and scout cars. At the same time the way in which the Army was provided with all it needed was transformed: arms and ammunition, to say nothing of radio, clothing and places to sleep and to wash. On D Day, some 375 million items were packed ready for the invasion force to use.

None of this materiel endured; it was all expended to achieve victory. The title, the Waste of War, was born out of a speech made by Bill Williams, the head of the RAOC during WWII. He had witnessed massive waste of human life in both world wars, but a colossal expenditure of materiel in WWII. As he put it, the side prepared to waste the most would emerge victorious.

The Waste of War is the story of the 250,000 men and women of the Royal Army Ordnance Corps and volunteers who mechanised the Army and who made sure it had all it needed for victory. It is a story of an organisation growing by learning through its mistakes. It is the story of that waste.


Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Vauxhall Motors, WWII and the Churchill Tank

This may be an example of those who choose to record their role in an historic event gaining a voice for posterity. Whether this is the case or not, the story is important.

Vauxhall Motors in Luton began the war with the delivery of many thousands of Bedford trucks. In time a number of variations on the basic model were produced including an all-wheel-drive that would revert to a single axle drive in normal road conditions.

With the poor performance of existing tanks largely of a Great War generation, there was a major initiative to produce a tank that would take on the Germans. Initially Vauxhall contributed to its development, but were then asked to design and manufacture a brand new and more powerful engine of 350 b.h.p., six times greater than the Bedford engines currently in production. A new test bed had to be built, but the prototype of the new engine was running only 89 days after the request had been made.

The Ministry of Supply then decided that it needed a very much heavier tank and Vauxhall were commissioned to design and build it. In his account of Vauxhall during WWII, W.J. Seymour is at pains to point out that no self-respecting engineer would produce a brand new vehicle without extensive testing and a whole sequence of prototypes. However, England after Dunkirk was in a desperate hurry to get into a position when it could stand up to Germany. The Churchill, as it was called, was put int production. It was not a success on day one, but rather developed through modification into a machine that did the job. Vauxhall were developing a successor when hostilities ceased.

The Churchill was perhaps best known in the many ways it was adapted, from flame thrower to bridge transport and anti-mine flail.



Tuesday, 11 November 2014

A square mile of weeds and rubbish

Eighty years ago this month, my father,  temporary Lieutenant Colonel Bill Williams, was summoned from Catterick Camp in Yorkshire by the War Office to visit a derelict shell filling factory just outside Nottingham. He stood on a hill surveying the site and saw a square mile of weeds and rubbish. Yet, it was in the right place: good road and rail links, a plentiful supply of staff, but above all Coventry. Chilwell, on the outskirts of Nottingham was near the motor industry and that held the key. Wars in the middle of the 20th century would be fought on wheels.

The factory, which had been the largest shell filling factory in Britain, was said to have supplied most of the ammunition fired on the Western Front. It had been created by Viscount Chetwynd, a man of great vision, but in 1918 it suffered a disastrous explosion which cost the lives of 134 munition workers and rendered most of the site useless.  One of Bill’s first acts on taking command was to put in place a tradition of honouring these men on each Armistice Day. After the war what remained of the site  became a general Ordnance depot until it closed in 1926.

When Bill returned to Catterick his mind was buzzing. The War Office had asked him to create an Ordnance Depot specifically for Motor Transport.

The full story is told in War on Wheels

Saturday, 1 November 2014

It had never been done before and probably would never be done again

A morning at the National Archives has clarified for me the astonishing truth about the RAOC operation in WWII: it was monumental because of its scale, because there was no depth of experience to fall back on, because, at least initially, and there was grossly insufficient resource. Time and again documents refer to learning new ways and to me to begin with this seemed a luxury, surely better just to get on with the job. It then occurred to me that the job was something entirely new and so the seeking of new ways was business as usual. The RAOC was perhaps one of the first learning organisations.