Saturday, 7 February 2015
The British Army that returned from France was exhausted, dispirited and no longer mechanised in any real sense. The stark reality in the summer of 1940 was that at some point Hitler would invade these islands. Accordingly the Army set up, within what was really a peace time structure of area Commands, a Home Army alongside a vital anti-aircraft command. By July 1940 by hook or by crook some five divisions had been re-equipped by the small largely civilian manned Ordnance Depots within each area Command. These were supported by the then five existing Central Ordnance Depots. In addition to Chilwell, there were depots dating from the Great War at Woolwich (armaments), Bramley (ammunition), Weedon (small arms) and Didcot (clothing and general stores).
“God, what a war!” he said. “There’s always some blasted spare part missing and you can’t get a sausage out of anybody urgently! It was different when we only had rifles” This complaint by a staff captain comes in JK Stamford’s account of the Dunkirk evacuation and states the underlying problem with stark clarity. The older depots were still organised largely as if they had ‘only rifles’, whereas they were trying to handle an ever increasing range of items. The requirements of an army of the 1940’s were different but nothing like as complex as they would become by 1945.
It was clear to Bill Williams, who by then have been given full charge of the Depots (other than clothing and general stores) as Director of Warlike Stores, and to those around him that the end of the war would come only with a return to France on a massive scale. In the days and months following Dunkirk this must have become more an article of faith than a realistic proposition. Yet it was a target and something to plan for.
An invasion on a massive scale would demand vehicles, armaments and equipment in an unprecedented number, but, unlike the BEF, effectively supplied and supported. This would take time and, in the build up, effective storage would be needed. The existing Ordnance depots dated back to before the Great War and so new space was needed. It was needed also since the war of the mid twentieth century would need supplies wholly different from the wars of the past.
The key impact on the RAOC of the Dunkirk evacuation and the experience of the BEF had been first and most obviously a sickening return to where they had been over year earlier desperately short of everything. In the aftermath of Dunkirk, Winston Churchill writes in his account of the war that he contacted President Roosevelt who immediately made US ordnance reserves available. Yet none of this came free and the British government had to part with its fast diminishing reserves of dollars and gold. This remained that case until Roosevelt achieved the passage of the Lend-Lease act in March 1941.
One more immediate result of this piecemeal arrangement for supplies from the US was a huge variety of different makes and models of equipment. Add to this the consequences of the separate UK motor companies developing their competing models each with their own set of spare parts and that, after Dunkirk, the fact that the vehicles that could be obtained relatively quickly were an even greater variety: the RAOC was faced with a store man’s nightmare.
So, it wasn't just about volume, it was about hundreds of thousands of parts which make up the volume. Official accounts all talk about the tons of stores held or issued and the picture conjured is of bails or crates of bulk. Truly the devil is in the detail explaining another of Bill’s favoured saying, a place for everything and everything in its place. The task was to set up an organisation which could estimate what needed to be ordered, order it, receive it, check it, store it, issue it and then maintain it.
Phil Hamlyn Williams's current project is a book entitled Ordnance telling the story of how the British Army was equipped for the Great War. It is to be published by The History Press in June 2018. His previous book, War on Wheels, tells the story of the thousands of ordinary men and women who together worked to mechanise the British Army in WW2. It was published by The History Press on 8 September 2016. He writes regularly on contemporary issues for a number of periodicals and his own blogs. He has written the story of the MacRobert's Reply collaborating with Story Terrace, published in December 2016. He was awarded an MA in Professional Writing at University College Falmouth in 2009. As a result of the this course, he wrote a novel, Broken Bonds, on human dimension of the Banking Crisis. His He has been writing for fifteen years, having spent much of his career in professional services and the not for profit sector.