War on the Wheels

War on the Wheels
The story of the people

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.’