War on the Wheels

War on the Wheels
The story of the people

Sunday, 30 October 2016

USA release date

The significance of the story of War on Wheels is underlined now by the fact that the British National Archives have War on Wheels on their bookshop website

Without the USA, its motor manufacturers and Ordnance, though, there would be little story to be told. A sense of its input can be gained by following this link.

Bill Williams, who lead the British Royal Army Ordnance Corps in WW2, crossed the Atlantic five times and nurtured some vital relationships. He was awarded the  Legion of Merit of the United States of America in the Degree of Commander in November 1945.

Amazon USA have set December, 1 as the release date in the USA for War on Wheels. You can pre-order on their website






Tuesday, 25 October 2016

The top ten places where War on Wheels is truly 'local' history

Chilwell families remember the village before Viscount Chetwynd built his WW1 shell filling factory. They remember the munitionettes with their yellow faces, discoloured by TNT poisoning. They remember the derelict site in the late twenties and early thirties, how it blossomed into life in 1935 with the beginning of the army centre for mechanisation and how it grew and grew during WW2.

Old Dalby residents will remember their peaceful village nestling in the south of the Vale of Belvoir and the harsh awakening as builders moved in to create the massive RAOC armaments depot. They would see tanks and Bailey Bridges, they would hear talk of secret wireless equipment.

Derby folk were justly proud of the Rolls-Royce factory in Sinfin Lane and so may not have noticed the huge vehicle depot that sprung up close to it in the early years of WW2. They would have seen the traffic and may have heard from neighbours who worked there what a good place it was to work, how well they were taken care of.
Donnington people must have hated it when the builders moved in in 1939 to begin to erect the massive sheds that would house Central Ordnance Depot Donnington. They may have heard stories about its eccentric deaf commandant. They would have seen row after row of tanks and, each morning in the dark with a lamp to the fore and a lamp to the rear, the marching column of ATS on their way to work.
Corsham mums and dads must have been anxious for the safety of their children when they went out to play, knowing as they did that 100 feet below the surface there were vast caverns storing the ammunition to feed guns and aircraft.
Greenford streets in the mid summer of 1944 would have been buzzing with activity as ATS riding motor cycles would arrive with endless requests for more equipment for the armies advancing across northern France. The bikes would be followed by lorry after lorry on their way to the docks.
Twickenham school children that same summer of 1944 would have felt a quiet satisfaction at the work they did in the previous Easter holidays packing thousands of items ready for D Day. In all 375 million items were packed, many by volunteers like those school children.
Branston residents may have missed the smell of cooking pickles, but they would have seen the hive of activity in the old factory which was then the place that handled most of the army's clothing.
Didcot is now better known for its former power stations. In 1915 the villagers would have seen the building of a huge general stores depot to supply the western front, served by re-routed railways. In 1944 the site was even bigger as all the non-armament stores were assembled for the invasion.

Bicester was a quiet village and is now an out of town shopping centre soon to become a new town. In 1944 it was the most carefully planned all purpose depot geared to supply the troops crossing into France. It had then the biggest tank repair facility anywhere.

Friday, 21 October 2016

COD Old Dalby

Following the evacuation at Dunkirk, what remained of the Army's armaments that had not been left behind in France were moved by train to Donnington in deepest Shropshire. It soon became clear that there was still insufficient space and so the planned vehicle sub-depot at Old Dalby in Leicestershire became the second Central Ordnance Depot for armaments.

Bob Hiam had come to the RAOC direct from Dunlops and had been given the job of creating the vehicle sub-depot. In 1940, when the demands of more armaments stores became acute, Old Dalby became a Central Ordnance depot with Hiam as Senior Ordnance Officer.


Old Dalby's role became the storage and distribution of engineering and signals equipment ranging from wireless sets to Bailey Bridges; armaments including anti-tanks guns and Bofors A.A. Guns, small arms and workshop machinery. Old Dalby was also responsible for kitting out ordnance mobile workshop lorries.




Bob Hiam later took his experience of armaments stores across with him after D Day when he commanded the huge Advance Ordnance Depot first in Normandy and later in Antwerp.

Private John Frost, who had been a territorial before joining up into the RAOC, remembers a call being made for men with clerking experience. He volunteered and found himself posted to Old Dalby. He recalled a massive office with row after row of desks and paper, in Frost’s own words, “the army runs on paper”.

This photograph of the 'Bee-hive' at Chilwell gives a sense of what Frost meant.


Thursday, 13 October 2016

COD Bicester

In late 1940 it became clear that there was still insufficient capacity in the RAOC depots. Accordingly a brand new depot was to be set up under the command of Brigadier Palmer. This depot was going to break the mould by bringing together all warlike stores including, importantly, motor transport which by then had taken centre stage.

Photographs of Palmer show him always with a pipe, a small man with neatly combed hair. He had been on the first Ordnance Officer’s Course but it seems had not covered himself with glory having failed the ammunition exam paper. He had commanded 1BOD in the British Expeditionary Course. We don’t know whether he sailed on the Lancastria, but it is certain that many of those men who lost their lives had been under his command.

On 13 January 1941 Bill Williams wrote to him with the instructions to build a very large and entirely new type of depot as a key platform for the invasion of mainland Europe. Palmer would go on to be promoted to the rank of Major-General with oversight all the motor transport within the Corps.

Palmer was man with 29 years of experience in ordnance and he set to his task with relish at having the rare opportunity of fitting buildings to stores rather than, as had been more usual, of fitting stores into buildings which had been built for other purposes. The depot was to be different in two other important ways. In view of the difficulty in securing sufficient local civilian staff, it was to be an all military establishment. It was also to deal with every kind of supply except for ammunition. It was to have the largest tank repair shop in the country.

Having the opportunity to design the buildings, much thought was given to optimum size. Large buildings of 300,000 to 400,000 square feet such as those at Chilwell or Donnington were thought too generous a target for air attack, whereas the smaller 40,000 square foot buildings favoured by the RAF were too small to be operated with maximum staff efficiency. A happy medium of 100,000 sq ft was selected and worked well. There were to be other ‘special’ features: walls and roofs were to be independently supported. Concrete roofs provided protection from incendiary attack. Rail and road routes inside sheds helped to avoid double handling and having them sunk meant that ramps could be dispensed with. The floors of the sheds would be on slight gradient sloping down from the Receipts end to Issues. Clerical functions were also decentralised to improve liaison between ‘stores’ and ‘paper’ . The covered space totalled 3 1/4 million square feet.

The site was to be between Towcester, Warwick, Cheltenham, Swindon, Oxford and Aylesbury which allowed proximity to a civilian workforce in peacetime and the avoidance of airfields. The place chosen was Bicester just outside Oxford where today thousand flock to shop and is to become a garden city; then it was countryside which those fighting sought to preserve as English.


COD Derby

In 1934 the British government secretly authorised the creation of a centre for army mechanisation on the site of the former shell filling factory at Chilwell near Nottingham. On the outbreak of war, Central Ordnance Depot Derby in Sinfin Lane was created as a major sub-depot to Chilwell by ‘Robby’ Robinson, a former managing director at Dunlop. He was one of many managers brought from industry and with him what was most telling was his approach to man management. Amongst other initiatives, in 1943 he instituted the production of a daily news sheet for the depot which itself tells the story of the lengths he went to build a team.

The news sheet gave news of the war, for example, Operation Market Garden, the Arnhem mission, day by day without any hype and not hiding the terrible losses. At a more parochial level, an earlier edition had a piece about gaskets and how they have to be handled carefully (later there is a piece telling how, in view of shortages, some gaskets were being made from wrapping paper.) On the subject of paper, a new recruit is quoted as asking why there is so much paperwork - the answer, ‘it’s all about checking; if everyone took more care it wouldn’t be needed!’

At Derby like most of the depots, both training and education were provided to all staff including motor engineering, building trades, gardening, poultry keeping, accountancy and shorthand, languages, history, politics and science.

Each month Robinson had to send in a report of activities. He reported that Music While you Work was broadcast over the tannoy with some words of introduction by him. There were then reports on education opportunities before getting to the detail of the business of the depot. Even here, there was a touch of civilian management. Photographs of the vehicle, scout car or tank, for which spares were destined were exhibited at the end of the respective rows of bins where the packing was taking place and this ‘greatly stimulated interest in the job.’

March 1944 saw a great increase in the overtime required and a system of redeployment of clerical staff to store duties when needed. As well as Music While you Work, haircuts were offered during working hours, given the demands of overtime. A one point Robinson realised that there were simply not enough hands to pack all that would be needed. Help was found from pupils at Bemrose School in the Easter holidays of 1944. As elsewhere there were poster campaigns but, at Derby, including War Charities and Blood donors.

The book, War on Wheels, makes extensive use of archival material and first-hand accounts to follow some of the men and women who mechanised the British Army from those early days at Chilwell, through the near disaster of the BEF, Desert War and Italian invasion, to preparations for D-Day and war in the Far East. Illustrated with some fascinating photographs from the time, War on Wheels explores the building of the network of massive depots, including Derby, across the UK and throughout the theatres of war that, with creative input from the UK motor industry, supplied the British Army.

The author, Philip Hamlyn Williams, found the story in some albums his mother, formerly Betty Perks of Long Eaton, kept of his father’s war. His father, Major-General ‘Bill’ Williams led the Royal Army Ordnance Corps through WW2.
Robby Robinson at COD Derby

Wednesday, 12 October 2016

COD Chilwell

‘Had you been a passenger on the omnibus from Nottingham railway station to the little village of Chilwell on a wet November morning in 1934, you may have seen a tall, heavily built soldier fidgeting as he sat, his eyes scanning all that they passed. In his pocket was a letter from the War Office instructing him to visit the site of a former shell filling factory. In his mind there could well have been wild imaginings, a fully mechanised army light years from that which he had experienced in the four dark years of the Great War. He had been asked to see whether the site could be right for the first Royal Army Ordnance Corps Depot specifically for motor transport and, if so, how he would create it.’

What he found was a square mile of junk, weeds, railway lines, one messenger, one civilian artificer with a few maintenance men employed mainly on the heavy guns mounted on railway mountings.

The site may have been derelict, but it was in the right place: good road and rail links, a plentiful supply of staff, but above all close to Coventry. Chilwell was near the motor industry and that held the key. Wars in the middle of the 20th century would be fought on wheels.

The derelict factory, which had been the largest shell filling factory in Britain, had supplied most of the ammunition fired on the Western Front. It had been created by Viscount Chetwynd, a man of great vision, but in 1918 it suffered a disastrous explosion which cost the lives of 134 munition workers and rendered most of the site useless. After the war what remained of the site became a general ordnance depot until it closed in 1926, except for use for Territorial Army camps.

In 1935 all this changed and the site burst into life as the buildings were rendered fit for purpose.

Much more than this, the heavily built soldier, Bill Williams, picked the brains of the motor industry and distribution businesses. He recruited talented people from industry and they created a centre for army mechanisation that would form the hub for all army vehicles in WW2.

This though was only the start, under the leadership of Reddy Readman the depot grew both in size and sophistication and set up sub depots elsewhere in the country notably in Sinfin Lane in Derby.

This and much more of the story of army mechanisation has now been told in a new book, War on Wheels. The author is Bill Williams’ son and the source of much of the story came from albums compiled by his mother, Betty Williams (nee Perks of the Long Eaton builders).

The albums are a treasure trove with newspaper cuttings, photographs and the text of speeches. Most importantly they contained the little booklets that each depot prepared for the quarterly meetings of depot bosses, each of which contains so much of the story of what went on. Among the newspaper cuttings is one from the Nottingham Journal which paints a wonderfully vivid picture: Lumbering Cruiser Tanks rushed by with a noise like a London tube railway, tank engines swinging across huge workshops by the aid of travelling cranes…

As valuable as the albums were recordings and diaries of people who worked in Ordnance whether at UK depots or overseas. These produced some wonderful stories. After Dunkirk the Chilwell sheds were crammed with exhausted soldiers who had been evacuated. Everyone rose to the challenge of feeding and caring for them. In the run up to D Day it was all hands on deck as items had to be packed ready to be taken up the Normandy beaches. Even school children gave up their Easter holidays to help.

It is the story of thousands of ordinary men and women, without whom the army could not possibly have functioned. Chilwell had on site working side by side, soldiers, civilians many of whom had fought in the Great War, and many women both ATS and civilian.  

War on Wheels is available from all good book shops and from www.thehistorypress.co.uk. The author Phil Williams has set up a website to collect any stories that the book provokes and he would love to hear from you. http://www.waronwheels.org

Saturday, 8 October 2016

Christmas card from WW2

The albums from which War on Wheels was written contain hidden gems, like this Christmas card from 1943
So much more material to follow in due course

Monday, 3 October 2016

Book signing and reviews

I am looking forward to heading for the excellent Imperial War Museum North in Manchester on Thursday 6 October 2016. Follow this link to find the details. I will be there from 11am until 4pm.

I'm bringing with me some of Mum's albums in which she documented Dad's war and from which I wrote a good deal of the book.

I now write on 7 October having had an enjoyable day at IMW North with great conversation with school children and veterans. 

This follows a talk and book signing at the Lincoln Book Festival on Saturday - what a great audience!

The book is also appearing in shop windows in Lincoln where I live;


A couple of helpful reviews have also appeared online as well as this in The Truck and Driver:
and this in the Shropshire Star which covers the area of COD Donnington, at massive armaments depot:

and the Derby Telegraph. Also this piece connected with the possible closure of the MoD presence in Shropshire.

The University of Exeter had this to say.