War on the Wheels

War on the Wheels
The story of the people

Monday, 1 December 2014

The challenge of civilian 'experts' working alongside soldiers

The presence in all of the depots of men direct from industry with technical expertise in aspects of logistics posed management problems when they were put with men who had served in the BEF and who had built up a resentment for having field promotions forgotten. The direct entrants would be promoted to management positions and so command, or try to command, troops who were in effect their workforce. That this was a live issue is clear from Bill Williams’s 1942 speech. 

“To some or these men we gave direct commissions - just as the other branches of the army, such as the Engineers, the Medical Corps, also gave direct commissions. We gave these commissions for two reasons. Firstly, we were desperately short of officers. We had to have men who could carry the load at once, whilst others went through the ranks and were trained . Secondly, we wanted new blood and new experience as soon as possible. We wanted to get on with the job.

“We have been criticised for opening the door to people who received direct commissions. How else would you have tackled the problem?”

It required a great deal of effort on the part of senior officers to create an effective unit staffed in this way. It is interesting to read about the issue from two points of view. De Wolff was very much at the sharp end as COO trying to draw it all together. Stamford came from the regimental background with an understandable loyalty to his soldiers.

“The climax came when I received a draft of 350 privates who were mostly ‘departmental managers’ from a vast chain store. Their Managing Director had dug himself into the War Office and was now a field officer with one month’s service. Their wives had driven to the camp in expensive limousines and parked them around the parade ground while they searched for billets….The mutterings among ex-corporals back from France became a steady rumble, especially when one private, with a foreign name, announced incautiously that he expected to be a sergeant in three day’s time…That evening I heard on the telephone the high-pitched voice of the deaf commandant. ‘I understand you’ve got in your company a Private X who handles a million pounds’ worth of packing a year for Fuchs and Bieber.?” 

This man was found and his skills put to good use, nevertheless good management was needed to integrate these skilled men into an Army.

De Wolff was invited to visit British businesses to get from them advice and ideas on setting up Donnington. It was to have the best possible chance of efficiency. Even in De Wolff, though, it is possible to detect a hint of disapproval at this new way of doing things, what Stamford refers to as the New Army whose performance is bolstered by buns and cigarettes (one assumes as opposed to old fashioned army discipline).

“There were many ‘experts’ in civil life who were given Commissions, but they were just ‘civilians' in uniform. Those who were posted to the War Office did not know the difference between standing to attention and standing at ease! One of these ‘experts’ was given the rank of Captain at the War office and six months later he was promoted to Major. He was bachelor and lived in rooms in London. He had nothing to do when his duties ceased for the day and so he haunted all the night clubs and made himself a nuisance. This came to the ears of the QMG who told my General, ‘I am demoting that officer to Captain. Send him to de Wolff and let him have go at him.’  


It seems that this was thoroughly successful as the officer emerged 18 months later as a Lieutenant Colonel described as First Class. de Wolff applied his discipline to a number such officers with equal success.
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