War on the Wheels

War on the Wheels
The story of the people

Tuesday, 22 December 2015

The role of women

The role of women was massively important as was apparent from an article in the fortnightly publication by the Army Bureau on Current Affairs entitled, The Women Bogey. This sought to bolster the argument in favour of women retaining after the war the more prominent position in the workplace that they enjoyed during hostilities.

Newspaper articles appeared regularly emphasising the crucial importance of the work women undertook in the Ordnance Depots, to say nothing of Royal Ordnance Factories, manufacturing companies and indeed just about every walk of life.

On 15 June 1942, The Yorkshire Evening Post reported on the role of the ATS at Chilwell which had the largest such unit in the country. The Chief of the ATS stressed that ‘it has never been the the aim of the ATS to turn girls into mere weak imitations of men. Girls are individualists and throughout the organisation there must be the individualistic touch.’ The article highlighted the range of tasks undertaken: machine shop, drawing offices, stores and, of course, the 14 cookhouses that keep the depot operating 24 hours a day. ‘More specifically women undertake the Articisation of tanks bound for Russia and the Desertisation of those bound for Africa and the East. To counter the effects of condensation in tanks being delivered to hot climates, a ball of lime is suspended inside. All parts are ‘sozzled’ with oil and grease.’ Not surprisingly the article finds ATS who in their former lives were in the public eye such as the first woman to cross the desert on a motor cycle and who later competed against men in Army trials. No wonder men were scarred.

A similar theme emerges from The Sunday Times on 1 November 1942 of a visit to ‘Woolwich-in-the-country’ described as being in the north but more probably Donnington in Shropshire. The special correspondent tells how, ‘in that radiant summer of 1940 when the sunshine seemed to mock our anxieties as France tottered to capitulation’, he visited a ‘new Woolwich buried in the countryside many miles from London.’ He marvelled at the size of the place but also the many innovations that had been introduced adding that, ‘the American authorities were so impressed by ‘Woolwich-in-the-country’ that they sent an ordnance expert across by bomber to study its methods.’ In relation to women he wrote:

'There are girls wherever you turn and most of them are in the ATS…in one of the huts in the training section a slim 18 year old ATS corporal was lecturing officers, soldiers and ATS on the identification of wireless components…later in the instrument repair shop a good looking young woman with sergeants stripes pinned on her overalls paused for a moment from measuring thousandths of an inch to talk rather diffidently about her civilian studies at five British and foreign universities and to admit that she was a BSc Edin (First Class Hons)…in terms of facilities he saw the hall with  a loan collection from the National Gallery on show.'

The work of the ATS prompted an exchange that paints a contrasting picture of the time.

Early in the war, Dame Helen Gwynne Vaughan was the officer commanding the ATS at the War Office. Betty Perks’ diary tells that she was a ‘real old battle-axe’ with many pre-conceived ideas about women and their role in the services. Many of the younger ATS at Chilwell pleaded to be allowed to wear trousers whilst driving army vehicles, firstly because they were warmest and secondly because it was very difficult to sit in an army vehicle in a tight skirt without showing ‘everything’! Dame Helen wouldn't hear of it - she was horrified that her young ladies would even suggest such thing. A cartoon of a ATS girl climbing into a lorry revealing frilly knickers changed her mind.

The idea of joining the ATS and working with the RAOC was not always attractive at first sight. Margaret Sherman, for one, was not at first inspired:

'We were given our posting instructions and gathered round with excitement. A lot of us had hopefully asked for London District or South Eastern Command. Would we get it? Mary and I heard with a good deal of dismay that we were going to a Central Ordnance Depot somewhere in Northern England.

Perhaps it won’t be for longer than the initial three months,” Mary said comfortingly. “Ordnance, who’d want that?” I said with the nightmare vision of millions of issue and receipt vouchers. I didn’t know then that the only thing I’d hate about Ordnance would be leaving it.'

The ATS did change lives. Gwendoline Walker joined up in 1942 and after initial training had to sit an intelligence test. She was summoned by the senior ATS officer at COD Derby and asked what job she wanted to do. She replied that she had thought of becoming a cook. Her grandparents had been in service and this was the life she had expected to lead. She had left her job in a shop and without telling her parents had ‘escaped’ to join up. She remembered the shock at the officer telling her that she had a high IQ and could do anything she wanted. She had no idea what an IQ was, but suggested that she might work in stores. She went from Derby to Greenford and was a very effective store-woman before moving toward clerical work and accounting after the war. ‘The ATS was where I found myself.’



Saturday, 31 October 2015

What the depots did

An ordnance depot must have been like a vast ‘Amazon’ distribution warehouse, but without computers. Delivery wouldn't be by courier who’d leave card if the customer was out; it was by soldiers often under fire and always under pressure. This is how wartime leader, Bill Williams, described their work.

'The fighting and technical equipment of the British Army consists of half a million different bits and pieces. These are made by many hundreds of different manufacturers scattered all over this country and overseas.The maker of a wireless set, for example, does not make the valves which go with it, or the batteries which work it. The maker of a gun does not make the carriage on which it moves, or the sights and the hundred and one intricate items of technical equipment, without which it cannot be fired. Somewhere the incomplete equipment has to be brought together.

Even the tanks come to us with empty hulls into which we fit the armament, the wireless and the vast array of fighting and technical equipment before they can be issued as fighting tanks.

A 25-pdr. gun is only a headline to newspapers. To a Central Ordnance Depot it is 2,000 different pieces, plus another hundred accessories. If any of these accessories are missing, if one maker falls behind in his production programme, if one case is packed for Libya and an essential part left out, this 25-pdr. gun cannot be used.

A key role for the RAOC was to estimate the likely requirement for both original equipment and spare parts. This would depend on ware and tare but also on estimated casualties from enemy action. With motor vehicles in particular this must have been well neigh impossible. Bill continued for his press conference audience:

You can see there the orders coming in from the War Office, the formations and the overseas theatres of war. We use teleprinters for speed and accuracy. You can see the tanks, the guns, the packing cases leaving the depots for Libya and Russia and India and even America. Codes and symbols tell the initiated their destination, and ensure that the right packages are loaded on the right ship.

Let us suppose that certain packages of vital accessories for a shipload of guns are loaded in another ship, and that particular ship in the convoy is sunk. It means that the guns will be useless when they arrive in the theatre of war.

You can see women and men whose job it is to keep an accurate record of all the bits and pieces they deal with. You can see others undergoing their infantry training for defence of the depots and for service overseas. You can see tanks being tested and fitted for service. You can see repairs carried out. Ordnance depots are towns in themselves, humming with activity alive for twenty four hours every day.'

Had you tuned into the BBC Home Service at 7.00 or 8.00am on Saturday 19 July 1941, you might have heard a slightly different story in a recorded piece by Richard Sharp about his visit to an Army Supply Depot.  It was the very old story of the Crimea and how an Army Supply Depot managed to send a shipment consisting entirely of left boots. Sharp makes the entirely valid point that, with a 20th century depot handling some 97,000 different items, the potential for mistakes is increased exponentially. Sharp marvelled at how the new depot was equipped: its own electricity plant, telephone exchange, furnaces and print works, but then said this:

All this is very nice and comforting, of course. It’s good to know that we have all this stuff, particularly when you remember that it’s only passing through, a sample of what thousands of factories are pouring in to be distributed to the troops, but - the depot that issued that shipload of left boots was a big place too, no doubt. What about the efficiency of this place? The printing press prints two million pieces of paper a week. Think what muddles you could make with two million pieces of paper?

The answer came from a Lieutenant Colonel in charge of organisation and planning. This officer’s approach was simple, bring to bare that skills learnt from industry. Things like planning routes so that lorries both go out from the depot full but also return full. The lorries covered a million and a quarter miles in three months and so the savings in petrol alone would have been huge. It was not just petrol; rubber was in short supply and so all road journeys had to count. It wasn’t just transport, the way transactions were routed through the depot make a huge difference to staffing requirements. The Lieutenant Colonel estimated that better procedures had saved 55% in costs. As the war entered its fourth and fifth year, this would matter not so much because of money but because there simply were not the people available and labour saving became very much the order of the day.
The depots were throughout the UK

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Friday, 23 October 2015

Story Terrace blog interview

I was delighted to have been asked by Story Terrace to be interviewed for their blog. Here is the link

This is some of the interview

Your first book, War on Wheels, is set to be released in September 2016. Can you tell us a bit about it?

How long have I got? This was a labour of love. My Mum had kept albums some three or four inches thick of her’s and my Dad’s war. Five years after she died, I opened them and was entranced. I found a man I hardly knew. He was Bill Williams aged then 45 and brimming with energy. When I, as a very young teenager, knew my Dad he was seventy and terminally ill. Bill couldn’t have been more alive. He had been given the job of setting up a massive depot that would handle the vehicles that would give the British Army its wheels. Of course it wasn’t just him; some 250,000 soldiers, ATS and civilians were involved as they pressed ahead with tasks that had never been done before. Some failed, but they learned from their mistakes. They laboured long and hard and created a vast organisation that in the end triumphed. The story had never been told before. The vast enterprise would never happen again.

 If you could choose any person in history to do a Story Terrace project with, who would it be?

William Smith Williams published the Brontes. He and his brother came to London in the late seventeenth century, their family having been for generations ‘dealers in hides’ just outside Oxford. As well as publishing some of the greatest writing in the English language, William Smith Williams and his wife produced some remarkable progeny: Anna Williams who in 1870 was Professor of Singing Music at the Royal College of Music and Sir Arthur Lowes Dickinson who was a founding partner of Price Waterhouse in the USA to name but two. I would love to write their story.

Friday, 25 September 2015

The context of army mechanisation

I have been asked to give a talk about War on Wheels and, as is so often the case with writing, I was totally surprised by what came out. A draft at this stage:

To talk about the mechanisation of the army in WW2 is, in a sense, wrong since, as we know well in Lincoln, it had begun in the Great War with the tank, the first of which we made here in Lincoln on Tritton Road. But there were also lorries, motor bikes and ambulances but not many of any and the main form of transport certainly for supplies was the train from the base depot up to the relatively static front line.

After the war had ended the overwhelming feeling was that it should never happen again and so little thought was given to further mechanisation, indeed there was little resource to spare. The conventional view was that all that was needed were light vehicles and weapons to keep the empire in check, in northern India for example. There were military thinkers like Liddle Heart but no one paid much attention to what they had to say.

It all changed in the mid 30s when the Baldwin government initiated a low level of rearmament. Much of this was related to the air and much was very forward thinking. There is a story of Sir William Rootes, whose group produced Humber and Hillman cars, on tour of the middle east receiving a phone call asking if he would set up a shadow factory ready to manufacture aircraft parts. He said yes. Similar conversations took place with Lord Nuffield, Herbert Austin and other industry leaders. An infrastructure was to put put in place to ensure that Britain could manufacture the aircraft it might need.

It was wasn’t just aircraft; it was the tank and other heavy vehicles. Again there is a story of the remaining very few Great War tanks being taken to Woolwich which was the then base of the RAOC. It was somewhere to put them. But elsewhere thought was being given to the development of the tank from its Lincoln origins. In Russia they had overcome the literal headache of suspension; all too frequently tank drivers would knock themselves out when their vehicle went over large bumps. The technology was developed further by a man called Christie in the States and  the Nuffield group took it forward into production in England in a line of models that would include the Crusader. Vickers, the mainstay of tank production, developed their offering further with the famous Matilda.

All of this though is background, I take the start of the story as a cold November day at Nottingham railway station. Interestingly the same start is taken by the historian who wrote of the contribution of the British motor industry to the war effort. On this cold day a rather large soldier stood impatient for the omnibus, in his pocket was a letter from the war office instructing him to visit the site of the old ammunition factory at Chilwell, to consider its suitability as the centre of army mechanisation and to come up with detailed proposals. The man was temporary lieutenant colonel Bill Williams.

The site was overrun by brambles, the sheds were open to the elements, the massive underground storage area was intact, above all it was in the right place, close to Coventry where the vehicles would be produced.

In his mind's eye was a vast distribution business that would received vehicles from numbers of manufactures and then distribute them to the countless units that would need them worldwide. It would also need to hold spares for each vehicle and have the engineering capability to maintain and adapt.

It was clear to him that no one in the army had this expertise and so he wrote to all the motor companies to pick their brains. The response was warm and his visited Humber, Vauxhall, Morris but also the big lorry producers Scamell and AEC. He visited the competent manufactures: Dunlop would play a big part in the story. It wasn’t just motor expertise, it was distribution, so letters to Marks and Spencer, to Harrods and Woolworths. This was radical. He had the support of his boss and pressed ahead pestering officials at the Treasury to release more and more money - it was raised from a poultry £20,000 to £1 million by the time it was finished in 1938.








Friday, 14 August 2015

VJ Day at seventy

It was all over; for many it had been over since 8 May when Victory in Europe was declared.

I remember being in a tiny church in the Vale of Belvoir in Leicestershire in May 2005 and talking about Victory in Europe in the sermon I preached. After the service, when most people had left, I asked the churchwarden for his memories of VE Day.

‘We had no idea it had happened.’ He went on to tell me that he had been a prisoner of war in Japan and he and those who had survived with him had spent their years oblivious to anything that was happening outside their camp, unless the camp commander chose to tell them.

For the last year I have been researching a book, War on Wheels, about the mechanisation of the Army in WW2. It is about the many thousand soldiers, ATS and civilians who worked in the Royal Army Ordnance Corps, my father’s Corps, and who were responsible for giving the army its wheels. As part of this I looked hard at the war in the Far East. My researches took me to the archives of the Imperial War Museum where I read accounts of the fall and surrender of Singapore and Hong Kong and then the first hand accounts of some of those Ordnance men who survived their imprisonment. I remember sitting at the desk holding the typed and handwritten sheets of paper telling of just what human beings are capable of doing to each other. It was a sacred experience.

I decided that these accounts must be in my book both to honour those men but also to offer to my readers a whole picture, warts and all.

A short while ago I came upon a piece on television about two old men, one a former PoW and the other one of his guards. We saw them shaking hands and smiling. The former PoW said quite simply, ‘you could go on hating until you die, but what is the point?’

It made me think hard about whether I should change my mind and, in the interests of reconciliation, remove the offending passages.

I have decided to leave them in. It is, for good or ill, part of the horror of war. I have said more than once that politicians and others sadly need reminding of these horrors before they send our young men and women to fight.

We have moved on, but I believe we must remember, I think, for two reasons. Firstly, for those men and women who gave up their lives and endured so much for our sake. Those I have read about weren’t soldiers by choice. Many were store-men or mechanics or clerks. They were caught up in a maelstrom; they had been in the wrong place at the wrong time. They conducted themselves with enormous bravery and dignity. We must never forget them.

The second reason is that it was, as I said earlier, human beings doing unspeakable things to other human beings. We see reminders every day that this is not a thing of the past. If we stand up against anything, surely it must be this.




Tuesday, 11 August 2015

Tanks for Russia

On 22 June 1941 the German-Russian pact came to an end and Russia joined the war against Germany.

Both Prime Minister Churchill and the Minister of Supply, Lord Beaverbrook, placed a high priority on making materiel available to the Russians notwithstanding the relative insecurity of the British Isles.  It follows that supplies to Russia were an important feature of the Donnington depot’s work, as John Bull magazine reported:

'Ah, here was a man just back from Russia. He braved the Arctic seas and the German dive-bombers to take tanks  to our  Allies. With the thermometer  at more than forty below freezing, our ordnance lads worked twenty-four hours a day to clear the ships before another convoy arrived. It was dawn at 10.30 a.m. and dusk at three - so they had to work with lights on even with " Jerry " overhead. And men of the RAOC manned the light anti­ aircraft guns.

'And here was another man from Russia. He had gone to teach the Russians all about our tanks and the multitudinous spare parts accompanying them. “Loveable” was his word for these people. They surrender their  cold reserve slowly, and then become the friendliest people in the world.

'As one instance of the all-outness of Russia in the war effort, he said that women are being sent into the munition factories to work alongside their husbands. When they have learned the job themselves, their menfolk go into the army. Yet the one ambition of the woman is to learn as quickly as possible, and of the men to teach them with all speed.


Another story about tanks for Russia concerns Brigadier de Wolff at Donnington who used the knowledge that he had gained of Russian ways in WW1 to smooth the process. All in chapter 4 of War on Wheels.

Thursday, 6 August 2015

Bill Williams, wartime leader of the RAOC, died on 7 August 1965

This is part of the obituary, written by Major General Sir John Hildreth, that appeared in the RAOC Gazette in September 1965 telling something of Bill's achievement for the RAOC, The Army and his Country.

'Without him and his drive and determination, I doubt whether the RAOC [and I would say the RLC] would exist today. Many things went wrong in those early days, enough certainly to daunt the spirit of a lesser man, but not Bill Williams. Many people, Corps and Regiments wanted to take over for themselves those stores and equipments of their particular concern. Some to a limited extent succeeded. It was only Bill Williams's audacious determination, first to put right what had gone wrong and second to hold the Corps together as a successful entity that prevented the wholesale distribution of our job to others....

'I found it exhilarating to serve someone who really knew his job - and mine, and most other people's, and who also knew what he wanted done and by when. He was a great leader, probably the greatest the Corps had known. Some found him harsh - and he had to be, for we were at war and only the best was good enough...He would not allow any Officer to call for a junior to explain any facet of the functions for which he was responsible. If he did not know the detail himself, he was "out"!

'And yet, with this detail on his mind, he had the widest vision of any of the big issues of the day...

'He was asked to visit India and to advise on the best way to reorganise Ordnance Services there - a prodigious task for one unacquainted with that country. Nevertheless he picked the wood from the trees and clearly and succinctly told Field Marshal Auchinleck and his Staff exactly what was to be done to put things right - and it was done....

'When, before Normandy, spares for American tanks could not be obtained from that country because of the policy to provide tanks over spares, he went there and talked to the factory workers of our difficulties in maintaining their tanks in battle. He asked for, and got, additional production effort from the workers which, not only maintained the output of tanks, but gave us the spares as well...

'He is reputed while over there to have persuaded Mr Kaiser to build an extra ship to carry the spares over and I can well believe that he did, too...

'He was without doubt the greatest DOS we ever had and he was one of the greatest of all Corpsmen. So long as history records the activities of the RAOC, so long will he be remembered and honoured among us. With his death an era is passed. For those who lived through it, it must always remain a glorious era. For those who come after it should remain forever an inspiration.'



Wednesday, 29 July 2015

MacRobert's Reply

In my work on War on Wheels, I have found instances of individuals, groups and businesses raising money for the war effort. The MacRobert's Reply is more than one such instance, since it was substantial, enduring and told the story of great commitment by a grieving mother. The result today is the MacRobert Trust.

Put very briefly, Lady MacRobert lost all three of her sons in the early part of the war. Inspired by Spitfire Week, she gave to the RAF a cheque for £25,000 (£700,000 in today's money) to buy a Stirling Bomber.

The story that followed was about the young men who flew the aircraft and its successors. It is their story that I am now beginning to explore in collaboration with the son of one the surviving crew members, Donald Jeffs, and Story Terrace.


Thursday, 23 July 2015

British motor industry in WW2

The British Motor Industry had been put of war alert on the declaration of war. They had ceased domestic production and awaited orders from the Ministries. For a few, orders came quickly; for many there was nothing and factories lay silent. In time orders did come but in what can only be described as a torrent of uncoordinated demands. Ministries requested aircraft parts and ammunition; they needed helmets; they gave instructions for the development of new vehicles; they demanded cars cut in half with ambulance bodies replacing what had been in the rear. Factory managers must have wondered who was running the war; nevertheless they coped.

'Since 1939, under the stress of wartime conditions, a whole sequence of tanks had been developed. Beginning with the Matilda, of which there had been five designs, and the Valentine, of which there had been eleven, there were the Crusader with four designs, the Covenantor, the Centaur, the Cromwell with seven designs, and the Churchill with eight. On top of that, there had been six types of light tank, nine types of reconnaissance car, scout car and armoured car, together with 350 types of army lorries, and all kinds of armoured recovery vehicle…'(Drive for Freedom, Charles Graves)


Saturday, 18 July 2015

How to celebrate the Lincoln tank

Over the past few months I have heard a whole range of views on how and, indeed, whether we should should celebrate the invention of the tank, here in Lincoln.

I love the simplicity of the memorial on Tritton Road, but also the imagery of the tank being painstakingly put together by the ordinary men and women of this city. For me this resonates with the original purpose of the tank. The story goes that in 1915 First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, had become horrifically aware of the stalemate of the Western Front and how young men were being slaughtered because, whilst mankind had invented bullets and shells, it had not yet found an effective defence against them. Thus time and again the order would come for an advance and time and again it would fail with horrific loss of life. What was needed was a machine out of HG Wells, a ‘Landship' protected by steel armour capable of travelling over trenches, mud and barbed wire. For the Great War, the rest is, as they say, history. The tank was invented and built here in Lincoln by Fosters under the guidance of William Tritton, interestingly using caterpillar tracks which had been invented just down the road in Grantham. By all accounts it was largely instrumental in shortening the war and so could be said to have saved a great many lives.

In the 1920s and 1930s, British governments strove for peace and the only possible use they saw for a tank was to protect the far reaches of Empire. It follows that little was done to develop the idea, indeed many soldiers believed that there would be a return to the use of horses. Nevertheless Vickers Armstrong kept producing the Matilda and in the mid thirties Lord Nuffield brought to bear the expertise and resource of Morris Motors. Again ‘the story goes’ that he visited Moscow with senior generals and they witnessed the powerful displays of the Russian Army, in particular a very fast tank which used a revolutionary American invention that made it much less hazardous over rough ground. Nuffield then developed a British version which became the Cruiser and which had a big and positive influence in the early years of the Desert War in WW2.

It was though a two edged sward.

It is probably fair to say that many of the allied WW2 tanks were deathtraps for their crews. The British tanks had less firepower and thinner armour than the tanks they faced. American GIs nicknamed the Sherman Tank, the “Ronson’, after the famous cigarette lighter, because when it was hit, it had a 50% chance of catching fire, and, if it caught fire, the crew had only a 50% chance of survival.

 The tank was though a triumph of engineering. This is what my father wrote about it in 1940.

‘There is not only the tank itself, but the guns, the machine guns, the wireless which has to operate under the most difficult conditions, and stand up to incredibly rough treatment, and many other things as well - watches, binoculars, sighting instruments and other secret devices of all sorts. All these are items of extreme delicacy in design and manufacture and need skilled hands to make them. All these different articles of equipment have to be married together in our Ordnance Depots before the tank can be issued to the troops or fighting unit’

The devastation caused to people and buildings by the tank was incalculable.

The story of the tank is a sharp reminder of what human beings are capable. We should celebrate the engineering but then use theatre and other art forms to remind a new generation of the horror.

This piece was published in the Lincolnshire Echo on 16 July 2015

Wednesday, 15 July 2015

RAOC in Italy 1944

Kenneth Lucas came from Bolton and joined up one month after the outbreak of war, only two months after his wedding. He opted for Ordnance since he thought it had something to do with maps.

Following a period of chaos at Hillsea, he was posted to Branston where his previous experience in the textile industry was noted and he was placed in the shipping department. He steadily progressed through the ranks and eventually was encouraged to take commission. He moved to Donnington and remembered the formal mess dinners each night politely listening to the anecdotes of the CO.

In the spring of 1944 he found himself together with 4400 other troops on board a ship sailing from Liverpool to Naples as part of the 8th army being sent to reinforce those who had invaded at Salerno.

In the winter of 1944 he was promoted to Major and posted as OC Ordnance Store Section 25th Armoured Assault Brigade, 685 Tank Troops Workshop REME.

Here are some of the photographs he took.






Some great images of the Italy campaign 1944 from the RLC archive

Friday, 10 July 2015

Nuffield's role in the Battle of Britain

It became clear very early in the war that the RAF was 'wasting' a great many planes, in the sense that planes crashed and could no longer fly. Nuffield was commissioned to set up a network of Civil Repair Organisations which would collect the crashed aircraft, bring them to repair factories in various parts of the country and, largely by trial and error, put them back into airworthy condition. This was a massive operation that provided vital support in the Battle of Britain.

Lord Nuffield was a single minded, patriotic entrepreneur. He had seen the threat from Germany building in the mid thirties and had set up, as an offshoot of the Riley company, a factory to manufacture aero engines. In spite, or perhaps because this was at his own expense and initiative the Air Ministry declined to make use of it.

The Nuffield organisation also had much to do with the design and manufacture of tanks but with far greater impact in the desert rather than with the British Expeditionary Force. It wasn't just tanks, in Coventry the Nuffield Organisation manufactured Bofors guns under licence from Sweden. It, like the other major motor companies, manufactured anything from trucks to ammunition, steel helmets and trucks such as the Morris Commercial.

Friday, 3 July 2015

The Tank and the Lincolnshire Agricultural Engineers

The tank had been a British invention, the first examples having been manufactured by William Foster & Co in Lincoln.

The story goes that in 1915 First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, had become horrifically aware of the stalemate of the Western Front and how young men were being slaughtered because, whilst mankind had invented bullets and shells, it had not yet found an effective defence against them. Thus time and again the order would come for an advance and time and again it would fail with horrific loss of life. What was needed was a machine out of HG Wells, a ‘Landship' protected by steel armour capable of travelling over trenches, mud and barbed wire. With Churchill’s influence it was the Navy who made the first prototypes and hence the initial name of Landship. The biggest problem was the sheer weight of armour.

Quite separately, Lt Col Swinton, then a war correspondent, had identified the need for, ‘a power-driven, bullet-proof, armed engine capable of destroying machine guns, of crossing country and trenches, of breaking through entanglements and of climbing earthworks.’ Swinton had been told of an earlier invention by Hornsby Agricultural Engineers of Grantham of a tracked vehicle suitable as a cross-country tractor. Whilst the design had won first prize in a 1908 War Office competition, the company had failed to make it a commercial success and so had sold the patented track system to the Holt Tractor Company of California who had found a strong demand for such a vehicle from their agricultural customers. The Holt system seemed to address the problem of weight.

Contracts were awarded for the production of 100 landships to Fosters where the naval officer responsible, Walter G Wilson, had joined William Tritton. The project was of course secret and it was let known that the factories were producing motorised water ‘tanks’ for use in Mesopotamia, the name though stuck. Following a period of experimentation a revised tracked version proved satisfactory and over four thousand were produced.

When Churchill returned to office as Minister of Munitions, he resumed oversight of the project and so had a hand in the victory at the battle of Amiens in August 1918 when 600 British Tanks sent terrified Germans into headlong defeat. In time they recovered their cool, but crucially morale had been broken by this invention with which Churchill had had more than a hand.

Friday, 12 June 2015

The supply blueprint for D Day

In Detroit on Sunday 13 June 1943 UK Ordnance Chief, Bill Williams, met with his American opposite numbers and worked out what was to become the blueprint for D Day for the vital supply of spare parts for the thousands of vehicles that would cross the channel in June 1944.

A number of problems needed to be addressed.

Full sets of spare parts were being shipped, whereas experience showed that it was only 10% of items that fell regularly to be used in order to keep vehicles moving. This meant that the spares pipeline was full of items that may never or hardly ever be needed. A reduced list of frequently used spares would ease the flow.

Spares were being shipped in box sets of 100 and the receiving Ordnance staff were faced with the task of searching, 'mining', for the item they needed. Spares packed in multiples that reflected likely usage, and clearly marked would save the time spent in searching.

Different spares were needed at different periods in a campaign. A few common items would be needed for beach landings, a slightly larger number for field maintenance and a full set for Base Shop.

The spares had to be packed in clearly marked boxes for landings and these had to weigh 70lbs or less and have rope handles to facilitate handling on the beaches.

It was Bill's 42nd birthday and so an appropriate present that would make a big difference when the invasion took place.

Tuesday, 2 June 2015

The Lincoln Tank

In his brilliant book, The Churchill Factor, Boris Johnson gave his take on the birth of the tank. Next year Lincoln will be marking its very particular role. This is an extract from War on Wheels about the early years of the tank.

The tank was a British invention, the first examples having been manufactured by William Foster and Co in Lincoln.

In 1915 Winston Churchill became horrifically aware of the stalemate of the Western Front and how young men were being slaughtered because, whilst mankind had invented bullets and shells, it had not yet found an effective defence against them. Thus time and again the order would come for an advance and time and again it would fail with horrific loss of life. What was needed was a machine out of HG Wells, a ‘Landship' protected by steel armour capable of travelling over trenches, mud and barbed wire. With Churchill’s influence it was the Navy who made the first prototypes.

The biggest problem was the sheer weight of armour. Eventually two alternatives emerged, one with a large wheel and one with caterpillar tracks. It was not Churchill himself who gave the orders for their production, since he was out of office following the disaster of the Dardenells. Contracts for the two alternatives were awarded to Fodens for the wheeled version and Foster for the tracked vehicle. The project was of course secret and it was let known that the factories were producing motorised water ‘tanks’ for use in Mesopotamia; the name though stuck. The tracked version proved vastly superior and over four thousand were produced.

When Churchill returned to office as Minister of Munitions, he resumed oversight of the project and so had a hand in the victory at the battle of Amiens in August 1918 when 600 British Tanks sent terrified Germans into headlong defeat. In time they recovered their cool, but crucially morale had been broken by this invention with which Churchill had had more than a hand

Friday, 29 May 2015

The RAOC Depots

Here is a map of the #WW2 RAOC Depots

Here are some the larger ones.

Bicester, COD, Oxfordshire, OX25, Map
Bramley, CAD, Map
Chilwell, COD, Nottingham, Map
Corsham, CAD, Wiltshire, Map
Derby, COD, Sinfin Lane, Map
Didcot, COD, Map
Donnington, COD, Shropshire, Map
Feltham, COD, Middx, near Browells Lane and the former Aston Martin factory (previously Whitehead Aircraft) Map
Greenford, COD, near the former Heinz factory and the Kelvin Industrial Estate (UB6), Map
Kineton, CAD, near Stratford on Avon in Warwickshire, (CV35), Map
Longtown, CAD, and COD Solway southwest of the town of Longtown in Cumbria, Map
Nesscliff, CAD, Kinnerly, Oswestry, Shropshire, SY10, Map
Old Dalby, COD, Leicestershire, Map
Weedon, COD, Map




Thursday, 28 May 2015

The retreat to Dunkirk

An extract from an account of the retreat of ‘A’ Section 1st Brigade RAOC  Workshop gives a sense of what it might have been like

“On receipt of the news that Holland had been invaded, plan ‘D’ was put into operation and all outstanding work was cleared up. This included assembly of a Ford V8 engine and two Leyland Terrier Engines which had been stripped down for complete overhaul. A Humber with clutch cable trouble and two motor cycles had also been repaired…by 1800 all work in hand had been completed and returned to units and at 1830 hours the workshop moved off…two bombing raids were encountered but no damage done. Workshops were established in a large barn and surrounding buildings at Arbres…Extensive repairs were carried out to a Bofors gun which had overturned…two Bren Gun Emplacements were dug to defend the workshops…many bombing attacks were experienced.

“At Romarin a big amount of gun work was completed. One 3.7 inch AA gun was completely rewired…

“On 28 May orders were received to destroy and dump the majority of our vehicles.

“29 May in the afternoon we were again heavily shelled and moved into the sand dunes behind La Panne…at 2200 hours with 17th AA Battery [the last operating] a light battery and Regiment HQ moved to the racecourse at Dunkirk…the remainder of the vehicles were destroyed and the party marched with personal weapons and two Bren guns in good order onto the mole at Dunkirk and embarked on a destroyer at 2100 hours arriving Dover at 0450 hours on 2 June.

“It was a heart rending process. I saw one particular sergeant who had tended his specialised equipment vehicle with loving care who was in tears when we smashed costly equipment with the sledge hammers we wielded….we slashed tyres, ran engines until they seized up, put sugar in the fuel tanks and hammered cylinder blocks.


“Later, we made our way to the cooks lorry for an issue of stew. We were told it was the last meal to be served, but were each given a tin of bully beef and a packet of biscuits and told to make it last….”


Sunday, 17 May 2015

AEC and the big beasts

AEC at Southall in West London, the manufacturer of the world famous London bus, turned its production in wartime to Matador and Marshall heavy trucks. These had all-wheel-drive chassis with six pairs of wheels powered by 120bhp engine through two gearboxes giving six speeds to all three axles. These beast were used, amongst other things, for transporting pipes for the construction of oil pipelines.

Design work on what became the Matador was carried out by Charles Cleaver of the Four Wheeled Drive Motor Company. AEC bought out FWD and Cleaver finished the design at the Southall Factory. The initial contract was for 200 trucks; by the end of the war 10,500 Matadors had been produced.

AEC also produced the six wheel drive model 850 which it developed from the FWD R6T. Only 57 of these beasts were produced by were used by the RAOC on occasions as temporary tank transporters.

Tuesday, 5 May 2015

Special Corps Instruction VE Day

Special Corps Instruction signed by Major-General 'Bill' Williams 10 May 1945

Vast number of different vehicles in WW2

Over the five years of WW2 the number of different vehicles used by the British Army grew almost exponentially. Charles Graves puts it like this, referring especially to the tank, :

‘Since 1939, under the stress of wartime conditions, a whole sequence of tanks has been developed. Beginning with the Matilda, of which there have been five designs to date, and the Valentine, of which there have been eleven, there are the Crusader with four designs, the Covenantor, the Centaur, the Cromwell with seven designs, and the Churchill with eight. On top of that, there have been six types of light tank, nine types of reconnaissance car, scout car and armoured car, together with 350 types of army lorries, and all kinds of armoured recovery vehicle…’

The reasons for the huge variety of different vehicles can now only be stabbed at. I would venture one reason as being cultural. In his book, The Industry Ordnance Team, Bill’s American opposite number Levin Campbell wrote that ‘Ordnance is responsible for the design and development of the vast majority of the weapons, ammunition and automotive vehicles of our fighting forces.’ This resulted in common specifications, common spare parts. This may well have come from the Henry Ford dictum, any colour you want so long as its black. This contrasts with the craftsmen based UK motor industry and the tradition of the gifted amateur engineer. To them, variations were seen as challenges to be tackled with relish rather than inconveniences that got in the way of efficiency. I suggest that the suppliers was only too keen to oblige when the army chiefs demanded this or that variation. In between came the Ministry and endless committees - in four years no less than four Minister of War - surely a recipe for chaos.

This is no way detracts from the magnificent way in which the motor industry served the county in war time, indeed it makes it all the more commendable that they delivered as much as they did.



Tuesday, 28 April 2015

Carmen of the Army

On 28 October 1941 Bill Williams gave the response to the toast at the Worshipful Company of Carmen, the City of London Livery Company for the Motor Distribution Industry.

He began by apologising for the insatiable demands he was placing on motor manufactures for both new vehicles and spare parts.

He then went on to talk about the problems of tank production explaining that this was the area of latest development for the army Carmen business.

‘There is not only the tank itself, but the guns, the machine guns, the wireless which has to operate under the most difficult conditions, and stand up to incredibly rough treatment, and many other things as well - watches, binoculars, sighting instruments and other secret devices of all sorts. All these are items of extreme delicacy in design and manufacture and need skilled hands to make them. All these different articles of equipment have to be married together in our Ordnance Depots before the tank can be issued to the troops or fighting unit….

'There must be no mistakes. Everything must be of the best, the best armour-plating, the best guns, the best engines, power operated turrets, the best wireless, the best that the Ministry of Supply and the great engineering industry of this country can produce. …

'Even when the tank has been completely assembled, has left the depot, and joined its unit, we still have to look after it. A tank, for all the strength, is a delicate instrument of war. It requires constant attention.

‘Modern warfare is largely a Carmen business. It consist of getting heavy loads of men and guns and ammunition to a certain point in the shortest possibly time, regardless of obstacles, whether they be rivers, ditches, trenches or Germans.

‘The Carmen in the army are the people who do this job on the battlefronts. But you Carmen are the people who have to do a lot on the roads and railways of Britain. Incidentally the Ministry of Supply and the War Office have done their best to help you in your problem by allotting a definite proportion of the output of new vehicles and spare parts to civilian transport. …

'The carmen of Germany are good. But I believed that the Carmen of Britain - both in and out of the army - will do the better job. We shall in the end go further, our staying power is greater, and we shall go on until victory is ours.


Monday, 27 April 2015

Which were the British made equipment stars of WW2?

I have spent the day reading about scout cars and trucks, Matadors and other gun tractors, recovery vehicles and tank transporters and of course, endlessly, about tanks.

There must have been an RAOC, and later REME, folklore about what worked and what didn’t. I have heard that the much loved Jeep was a b***** to repair, unlike the Humber or Daimler.

I have read articles telling of the COS praising American Sherman Tanks and Jeeps. There had been a problem with recovery vehicles and it seems that later in the war most of these were American. Was everything good American?

The British Centurion tank was good, but came too late. The Cromwell was good, but outshone by the Sherman.

I have heard no criticism of Tillies. The Carriers in their various forms seemed to have performed. The motor bikes and bicycles seemed OK.

I would love to hear the ‘word on the street’.


Thursday, 23 April 2015

After Dunkirk

Many people played a part in caring for the troops as they arrived back home from Dunkirk. COD Chilwell welcomed some 7,000 evacuated troops. Sergeant Major Hall of the ATS recalls them arriving.

“We gave them bacon and eggs and lashings of hot tea and when they’d finished they just fell asleep at the table. Everyone came to building 176 to cook, serve, wash dishes…the commanding officer and the newest recruit rolled up their sleeves and worked side-by-side; our men gave up their cigarettes and chocolate and beds, handed over some of their own clothes and did any odd jobs they could…”

Doris Smith was one of the cooks. She came from South Shields where before the war she had been a housekeeper. When war was declared she volunteered, choosing the ATS rather than the WRNS because she didn’t like water. Her reaction on arriving at Chilwell was the sheer volume of food to be cooked. The arrival of the Dunkirk evacuees tripled the number of mouths to be fed. She recalled having to step sleeping body after sleeping body as she tried to cross one of the massive sheds to wake the stoker so that the kitchen ranges could be ready to cook thousands of breakfasts. A later memory of that summer was being handed a pair of binoculars and a tin hat and being sent up to the roof of one of the sheds to look out for enemy planes. She arrived as a shy country girl; her experience at Chilwell gave her the confidence to pursue a successful career in catering.



Friday, 17 April 2015

The Tank

The tank was a British invention, the first examples having been manufactured by William Foster & Co in Lincoln.

Boris Johnson, in his book The Churchill Factor, talks about how in 1915 Churchill became horrifically aware of the stalemate of the Western Front and how young men were being slaughtered because, whilst mankind had invented bullets and shells, it had not yet found an effective defence against them. Time and again the order would come for an advance and time and again it would fail with horrific loss of life.

What was needed was a machine out of HG Wells, a ‘Landship' protected by steel armour capable of travelling over trenches, mud and barbed wire. With Churchill’s influence, it was the Navy who made the first prototypes. The biggest problem was the sheer weight of armour. Eventually two alternatives merged, one with a large wheel and one with caterpillar tracks. It was not Churchill himself who gave the orders for their production, since he was out of office following the disaster of the Dardenells. Contracts for the two alternatives were awarded to Fodens for the wheeled version and Fosters for the tracked vehicle. The project was of course secret and it was let known that the factories were producing motorised water ‘tanks’ for use in Mesopotamia, the name though stuck.

The tracked version proved vastly superior and over four thousand were produced. When Churchill returned to office as Minister of Munitions, he resumed oversight of the project and so had a hand in the victory at the battle of Amiens in August 1918 when 600 British Tanks sent terrified Germans into headlong defeat. In time they recovered their cool, but crucially morale had been broken by this invention with which Churchill had had more than a hand.

Herbert Ellis, in The Autocar magazine of 16 June 1944, reported on an invasion-eve visit to an Royal Army Ordnance Corps vehicle reserve depot where transport was massed for the assault on France. He began though with a a piece of serendipitous history.

‘One afternoon in 1921 a number of Mark IV and Mark V tanks, which a few years previously had rumbled over the battlefields of Flanders, were delivered at Woolwich Arsenal, the peacetime depot of the Royal Army Ordnance Corps. These tanks were obsolete and clumsy, yet their arrival at Woolwich represented a milestone in the history of the RAOC. It marked the point at which the Corps. not previously concerned with the supply of motor vehicles to the Army, began to set up which is now the greatest distributive system the motor trade of Europe has ever seen or is likely to see.’

Thursday, 16 April 2015

Garages around the country help the war effort

In towns and villages around the country, garages large and small found that many of their mechanics had joined up, initially a blessing as domestic motor use declined and with it the need for repairs. Many businesses found they had capacity and the more entrepreneurial approached the Ministry of Supply. At first they were met with a bureaucratic 'no', then, with the blitz, dispersal had become the other of the day and the result was the awarding of contracts for war work. One London garage repaired the vehicles of the 51st division before it embarked for North Africa. Others manufactured parts for munitions and some whole shells; army vehicles were repaired and serviced, mainly lift armoured cars and Bren carriers; in fact a huge range of different work was undertaken. 

In time work forces expanded and, with so many men in the armed forces, many garages recruited women who soon gained the necessary skills from the careful teaching of those mostly older skilled men left behind. 

There was a shortage of machine tools and many garages made their own, but using the parts they had to hand and suitable for use by relatively unskilled labour. The same was true of spare parts, where those coming from the USA were lost in sunk Atlantic convoys; these too were manufactured on workbenches of garages, large and small, urban and rural.

These are some of the unsung heroes of WW2.


Monday, 13 April 2015

The Liberation of Belsen

On 15 April 8 Corps arrived at Belsen and the Deputy Director of Ordnance Services 8 Corps was one of the first to enter the camp. The camp, he found, was ‘a cesspit of filth and disease; men, women and children were dying by the hundred every day; and 10,000 unburied bodies, in various stages of decomposition lay around. Priority one was to get the medical services going, and within 48 hours, 304 mobile laundry was in the camp and working. Bath sections 304, 105, 305 and 310 Mobile laundries arrived within a matter of days. and inmates of the camp were soon having their first bath since imprisonment’. The principal role for Ordnance was the provision of mobile Laundries and Baths and bedding and clothing.

On entry into the camp the medical teams found that of 28,135 women, 21,000 required hospitalisation and of 12,000 men over 9,000 required urgent treatment from conditions including typhus, tuberculosis, enteritis and famine oedema. The camp had been without water for five days and so the most immediate task was the trucking in of water and the construction of new supplies. Every inmate was starving and so appropriate food was needed. Then came the burial of the dead, the washing of the living and the provision of clothing, and the dusting of everything to kill lice.

Requisitions of clothing had been made from the local population and substantial stores were discovered in the blocks previously occupied by SS guards. These stores, including clothing and bedding, were issued to non-hospitalised inmates. The block itself was converted into use as a hospital and again much of the equipment needed was found to have been on site. The remaining equipment needed was brought in by Ordnance personnel from the Antwerp AOD.

The operation, led by the 249 (Oxfordshire Yeomanry) Battery of the 53 Anti-Tank Regiment, included, in addition to RAOC personnel operating baths and laundries, men from REME, RASC, Military Government and of course British Red Cross and RAMC General Hospital, Field Hygene, Light Field Ambulance and Mobile Bacteriological Laboratory.

In spit of everything that was being done, the death-role continued to be high for many days.

103 Laundry Unit operating earlier in France

Monday, 30 March 2015

Operation Plunder


Operation Plunder itself was an amphibious and airborne attack as complex as D Day itself.

Ordnance was called upon to produce Asdic Echo-sounding apparatus, Fluorescent Tapes and panels, Light Floats (smoke producing flares), Land Mattresses (artillery shells) , Tabby (Night vision) Equipment, Mae Wests (life preservers), Weasals (snow vehicles), Windsor Carriers (Canadian longer version of the Bren carrier) and other specialist equipment all of which needed their own spare parts.

The concentration of troops into marshalling areas began on 20 March. A heavy smoke screen was demanded and, at 2100 on 23 March, the crossing began. Stores followed in the early hours of 24 March. The Second Army was thus ready to breakout into the heart of Germany supported by Forward Trailer Sections.

The 11 Armoured Division had been supplied with new tanks and discovered that the factory fitted fan belts were faulty. 200 new fan belts were needed in 48 hours unless the advance was to be halted. The Senior Ordnance Officer  of 8 Corps sent for replacements and these were despatched from Central Ordnance Depot Old Dalby and flown out.



The result was that the advance into Germany went ahead with no delay.


Sunday, 29 March 2015

Tel el Kebir

J.K. Stanford was posted to Tel el Kebir and he offers a description of what awaited the party with whom he had spent the sixteen week voyage from England.

Tel el Kebir, seventy-five miles from Cairo, was at the western end of a chain of vast hutted camps, base hospitals, depots, workshops and prison camps. These were just springing up in the desert along the Sweetwater Canal and the Suez Road, and for years after the war became the main bone of contention between us and Egypt.

They grew and grew. There were buildings for miles, all with water and electric light laid on…the dessert wilderness blossomed almost as you watched. Units took an army lorry and brought from the canal a spade-deep slice of the rich sludge of Egypt and spread it on the bare sand. Then someone planted and someone else watered it out of a goat-skin…so that the messes were quickly surrounded by gardens of eucalyptus trees and shrubs which grew six feet a year.”

The many RAOC soldiers who served at Tel el Kebir knew it simply as TK. James Heys was posted to 2 Base Ordnance Worksop at TK on 27 April 1941. He was an apprentice painter and, not tall enough for the RAF, had joined the RAOC in September 1940. He’d spotted a notice seeking volunteers to train as mechanics, applied and had been sent on a 10 week course at Aldershot. After TK where he worked on Matilda tanks, he volunteered for the Long Range Desert Group preparing motor bikes.

The image is of Chilwell; does anyone have an image of bikes at TK?

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

The question the book answers

Having now a first working draft, I can stand back to see just what question the book is answering.

Imagine you are looking at a film about D Day and the drive through to the heart of Germany; you wonder how on earth everything got there, how the soldiers had what they needed when they needed it. That is the question.

War on Wheels tells its reader how the troops were supplied with everything apart from food and fuel. It could do this too. It tells how those many involved learnt through mistakes and experience of war.

It can tell more about the vehicles themselves: with what did the army mechanise. It can talk about who designed them, who made them and how they were used, as well as how they were supplied and maintained.



Friday, 20 March 2015

A first working draft

War on Wheels has evolved from a wish to write the story that was told in five large scrap books that my mother kept of my father's war.

It has taken me to the Royal Logistics Corps Museum with its eclectic archive, ranging from a map of the locations of the British Expeditionary Force to Ted Mordecai' remarkable narrative of his five days at Arnhem and Wolfy's idiosyncratic account of his time running the massive depot at Donnington in Shropshire.

It took me to the Imperial War Museum and the recordings of interviews with veterans but also personal papers, most movingly the account of being a Japanese prisoner of war working on the Burma Siam railway.

It took me to the National Archive at Kew and the War Diaries of the men who ran the depots, people I never met but now feel I know.

It took me to meet Arthur Beards and to hear from him what it was like crossing the channel in a landing craft.

It took me to mine the loft and discover the package of papers with the note in my father's writing 'important, not to be thrown away' - how right!

Now it's down to graft.





Monday, 16 March 2015

4th Ordnance Stores Company Singapore 1942

In early December 1941 the 4th Ordnance Stores Company was being formed at Aldershot. Men had come from depots around the country. Douglas Hanson, a motor mechanic, had returned wounded from the BEF. Frank Newton came from the food industry and had been called up just as he was planning his wedding. He had been posted to COD Branston and had spent his few months stacking and sorting bales of cloth. Others in the company were drivers, radio mechanics and boot makers. We might suppose there were also men skilled with ammunition and armaments. Their intended destination was the Middle East.  En route they docked at Durban and changed ships to one bound for Singapore.

The events of 7 December 1941 in the Pacific changed everything and for Douglas and his fellow Ordnance men the priority became the defence of Singapore. Douglas had experienced the horror of the sinking of the Lancastria as the final elements of the BEF left France. For Frank Newton it was his first experience of war. For both of them it was the first experience of RAOC men being regarded as combatant.

What lay ahead of them following the fall of Singapore is beyond our comprehension.

Friday, 6 March 2015

A 'Combatant' Corps in Singapore

What follows is an account written by an unnamed RAOC soldier in the Changi Prisoner of War Camp on 6 March 1942.

‘It is known that the RAOC had been reclassified as a ‘combatant’ corps in the latter part of 1941 and it is therefore probable that these operations were the first in which they were called upon to take a ‘combatant’ role since attaining that status.

Prior to hostilities, the RAOC provided the main part of a force known as the “Alexandra Defence Force”. This force included a few RASC and Signals details but was commanded by OC, RAOC Singapore. Its role was the occupation of prepared defensive positions around the Alexandra depot area but only when the depot was in danger of direct attack. It had previously been ruled that if deployment was ordered, the position would be that purely Ordnance activity would be impracticable. This did not prove to be the case.



On Saturday January 31st the Johore Causeway was blown up, thus placing the island in a state of siege. On Thursday February 5th, No 4 Ordnance Store Company RAOC arrived from the UK with 16 officers and 367 other ranks, bringing up the Regimental strength to approximately 50 officers and 800 other ranks.

On Sunday February 8th, the Japanese landed on the island and at about 6.30 am on Wednesday February 11th, the deployment of the Alexandra Defence Force was ordered. All positions were manned by RAOC men divided into five companies. Forty-two L.A. positions were manned in addition to six L.A. positions with twin AA guns on concrete mountings. At this time the front line was about 1 1/2 to 2 miles in front of our positions and was being held by the Loyals and Beds & Herts. The deployment was quick and efficient and during the next three days the positions were maintained although ‘A’ and ‘B’ coys were shelled heavily at times, but owing to the wide dispersion there were few casualties. considerable experience was gained in overcoming administrative difficulties in the field. During this period a totally inadequate staff had been retained at the Base Ordnance Depot and other units no doubt suffered when trying to obtain stores ungently. Sufficient staff for Ordnance work should always be retained under all conditions.

At about 4.30pm on Friday, February 13th, The Loyals and Beds & Herts were ordered to retire onto our positions, in which the RAOC force would also remain. At 6pm the Deputy Director of Ordnance Services ordered all Workshop and thirty selected store personnel to report to the docks for embarkation. At 7pm DDOS ordered destruction of the depot. The difficulties in carrying out these orders were obvious as all ranks were in the line to which the infantry had not yet retired. It was therefore decided that all RAOC should be withdrawn except LA gun crews; such workshop men as arrived in time were dispatched to the docks and men from the stores side were directed to the work required in connection with the destruction of the depot. This was completed at midnight when all ranks, in formed parties, were directed down the main railway line to Singapore railway station where they were reformed.

After reporting to 1st Infantry Brigade on the morning of February 14th instructions were received to move three companies to positions behind the much weakened Malay Regiment to the left flank of the whole line (Keppel Golf Club area). The remaining two companies were placed in reserve positions about four miles from these left flank positions (Tiong Bahru area). These two companies maintained these positions with slight alterations until the “cease fire”. As their chief role was defence of two cross roads in rear, they received much shelling. On the left flank, almost as soon as companies had reached their positions, fresh orders resulted in “E” coy being moved into the front line alongside and on the left of the Malay Rgt, “B” and “D” Coys occupying positions in rear.

On the morning of the 15th, “F” Coy and the Malay Rgt withdrew in line with “B” and “C” Coys and this line was held until evening when the “cease fire” sounded. This position was very heavily shelled and mortared as the Japanese were able to put up an observation balloon from the opposite hill and direct their fire. No artillery support was available to retaliate with. The position being held was untenable in the event of a strong attack, but there is no doubt that the RAOC, having undergone their baptism of fire during the preceding days, would have justified their “combatant role”.

Monday, 2 March 2015

The role of women in Ordnance

The role of women was massively important. Each fortnight the Army Bureau on Current Affairs published a series of articles, one was entitled, The Women Bogey. This sought to bolster the argument in favour of women retaining after the war the more prominent position in the workplace that they enjoyed during hostilities. Men were running scared. Newspaper articles appeared regularly emphasising the crucial importance of the work women undertook in the Ordnance Depots, to say nothing of Royal Ordnance Factories, manufacturing companies and indeed just about every walk of life.



On 15 June 1942, the Yorkshire Evening Post reported on the role of ATS at Chilwell which had the largest ATS unit in the country. The chief ATS stressed that ‘it has never been the the aim of the ATS to turn girls into mere weak imitations of men. Girls are individualists and throughout the organisation there must be the individualistic touch.’ The article highlighted the range of tasks undertaken: machine shop, drawing offices, stores and, of course, the 14 cookhouses that keep the depot operating 24 hours a day. More specifically women undertake the Articisation of tanks bound for Russia and the Desertisation of those bound for Africa and the East. To counter the effects of condensation in tanks being delivered to hot climates, a ball of lime is suspended inside. All parts are ‘sozzled’ with oil and grease. Not surprisingly the article finds ATS who in their former lives were in the public eye such as the first woman to cross the desert on a motor cycle and who later competed against men in Army trials. No wonder men were scarred.




A similar theme emerges from the Sunday Times on 1 November 1942 of a visit to ‘Woolwich-in-the-country’ described as being in the north but probably Donnington in Shropshire. The special correspondent tells how, ‘in that radiant summer of 1940 when the sunshine seemed to mock our anxieties as France tottered to capitulation, he remembered vividly a visit to Woolwich Arsenal, adding that ‘a day or two ago he visited a new Woolwich buried in the countryside many miles from London.’ He marvelled at the size of the place but also the many innovations that had been introduced adding that, ‘the American authorities were so impressed by ‘Woolwich-in-the-country’ that they sent an ordnance expert across by bomber to study its methods.’ In relation to women he wrote that, ‘there are girls wherever you turn and most of them are in the ATS…in one of the huts in the training section a slim 18 year old ATS corporal was lecturing officers, soldiers and ATS on the identification of wireless components…later in the instrument repair shop a good looking young woman with sergeants stripes pinned on her overalls paused for a moment from measuring thousandths of an inch to talk rather diffidently about her civilian studies at five British and foreign universities and to admit that she was a BSc Edin (First Class Hons)…in terms of facilities he saw the hall with  a loan collection from the National Gallery on show.’

Wednesday, 25 February 2015

For B.F.s!

On the outbreak of war, many Bedford trucks were taken over from their owners for army purposes. Few of these came with the relevant handbook and so these had to be supplied.

For Vauxhall, a variation on the theme appeared in the form of a book called simply ‘For B.F.’s. It seems that the manufactures became sick and tired of soldiers making the same mistakes time and again. The book, illustrated by Douglas of Punch, became famous worldwide, was translated into several languages and much was reproduced verbatim by the Americans in an instruction book dealing with armoured vehicles.


Friday, 20 February 2015

OVERLORD in contrast with the BEF


"It would be hard to find a greater contrast between OVERLORD and the move of the BEF to France in September 9139 when the RAOC base installations in support of the Army had been manned by a scratch collection of civilians in uniform with only a handful of regulars to guide them"
Brigadier A.H. Fernyhough

Tuesday, 10 February 2015

Mobilisation

The time came at 11.00am on Sunday 3 September 1939, when war was declared.

Bill Williams, now Deputy Director of Ordnance Services (MT) at the War Office, went to Chilwell that morning to lead a group of senior serving officers meeting, possibly for the first time, the newly called up members of the Army Officers Emergency Reserve. These included Reddy Readman who would take over as Chief Ordnance Officer at Chilwell, Bob Hiam, who would command the depot at Old Dalby, Robby Robinson, who would command the depot at Sinfin Lane, Derby, and Dan Warren who would take a lead role in scaling, the dark art of estimating the quantity of stores needed for battle.

Also on that Sunday in Birmingham the executives of the Nuffield Motor Company met to put into action the plans they had prepared for war. Through the various parts of the Nuffield Group it would over the next five year contribute aircraft and weapon production in addition to a great many vehicles. It is probably true to say that elsewhere in Britain similar gatherings were taking place. Nevertheless much of the country would soon return to a certain normality, for example, the motor companies still brought out new cars for the growing market.


Mobilisation had been ordered on Friday, 1 September and, at the RAOC’s new Headquarters at Hilsea near Portsmouth, took the Corps by surprise simply because of the sheer numbers (6,000) who had volunteered and been allocated for Ordnance work. This needs to be set in context. At the point when the nation went to war, the total strength of the whole RAOC at home and abroad was 727 officers and 5,292 soldiers. Indeed, the War Office estimate of the likely number of recruits had been only a misleadingly precise 237 men. The huge influx initially overwhelmed the small recruitment team, but it also necessitated the taking over of every school building in north Portsmouth and Cosham. The NAAFI was quite unable to cope; it was only the absence of rationing and local purchasing that saved the day. At Hilsea, there was neither enough space, nor uniforms, nor equipment. To compound the problem, the Corps was responsible for supplying not only itself but the army as a whole. In time things began to settle, but it was very much ‘make do and mend’.