War on the Wheels

War on the Wheels
The story of the people

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.'