War on the Wheels

War on the Wheels
The story of the people

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.