The final book of the trilogy on army supply

The final  book of the trilogy on army supply
The third of my books on army supply

Tuesday 4 June 2024

D Day 80 the supply challenge

Preparations for D Day surely began with the evacuation of Dunkirk; if Hitler was to be defeated, an invasion would be required. An early date for the start of preparations for D Day is evidenced by the Pluto and Mulberry projects where a young Naval officer, Louis Mountbatten, was tasked with the identification of issues to be addressed. One such was just how an invading army would be equipped. 

On 25 June 1940 two men met by chance in the War Office. They had both served in the Army Ordnance Corps during the Great War (The AOC became the RAOC in 1918). Colonel Bill Williams had set up the Army Centre for Mechanisation at Chilwell outside Nottingham and had since April been Director of Warlike Stores on a six month probationary period. Colonel Clifford Geake had served in the British Expeditionary Force (‘BEF’) and would take command over Clothing and Stores. Working initially under the watchful eye of more senior officers, they had the job of supplying the army with all it needed except for food and fuel - the responsibility of the Royal Army Service Corps. They would be joined by officers and men who had fought in the Great War, those who had enlisted since and vastly more from civilian life – altogether some 250,000 men and women of the Royal Army Ordnance Corps.

So much effort had gone into the preparation of the BEF and now, with so much left behind in France, they had to start over again. There was an imminent threat of invasion and in due course there would be other theatres of war to be supplied. To add to all of this the RAOC, still designated a non-combatant corps, was looked down upon by fighting sections of the army many of which wanted their own bespoke supply organisation. There were battles to be fought.

Motor transport was well in hand at Chilwell with depots at Derby and elsewhere coming on stream. Warlike Stores were handled at Greenford, but also Old Dalby in Leicestershire and Donnington in Shropshire where a vast depot was being built to take over from Woolwich and the ever present danger of German bombing. Small arms were handled at the 19th century barracks at Weedon and ammunition in many places around the country including a vast subterranean depot outside Bath. Clothing was based in the former pickle factory at Branston and general stores at Didcot. A brand new multitask depot was planned at Bicester specifically for D Day.

Equipment needed to be produced and I write of this in my book How Britain Shaped the Manufacturing World. Vickers formed the backbone of gun and tank production from its experience in the Great War. Lord Nuffield had undertaken the development of a new tank, the Cromwell. These were joined by Vauxhall’s Churchill tank. All the British motor companies came up with their war purposed vehicles together with anything from aircraft to tin hats and were supported by companies like Lucas, Dunlop and Smiths. Signals equipment was manufactured by the adolescent radio industry. Medicines and healthcare products came from the infant pharmaceutical companies. 

Ammunition and gun production became a vast industry surrounding the chemicals giant ICI and the network of Royal Ordnance Factories which had been resurrected and enlarged upon from that set up by Lloyd George in the Great War. Echoes of that earlier war came with the mass production of boots in and around Northampton which had long been a centre of boot making. Clothing although based at Branston came from the textile manufacturing areas of Yorkshire and Lancashire. For a seaborne invasion provision was made for changes of clothing should soldiers become drenched in seawater on landing.

As Churchill knew all too well, without America, there could be no D Day; quite simply this island, even with all the resources of Empire, couldn’t compete with the might of Germany. In terms of arming the army, this meant that we needed many tons of American weaponry, not least, it has to be said, since British motor companies were manufacturing many thousands of aircraft and had been since the shadow factories had been set up in the thirties. So we had Sherman tanks and Willis Jeeps as well as heavy tank transporters, and caterpillar tractors in anticipation of the devastation in the towns through which the invasion would need to pass. Hobart’s funnies was the nickname given to a whole range of tank adaptions made both in the factory and in REME workshops. The Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers had been spun out of the RAOC in 1942.

Just how do you get what is needed to an invading force? Experience of earlier invasions of North Africa, Sicily and Italy was analysed and answers proposed identifying three stages of invasion: on the beach, on the first advance inland and on the setting up of the first base depot. Parts identified for each stage had to be packed for protection, but also for clear identification. A system of packing was devised that could be used in depots and also by manufacturers. Volunteers, including school children, helped with packing millions of items. The roles of particular depots were redefined, additional storage was put in place by Dickie Richards who returned from the Middle East, swapping posts with Geake, to oversee Clothing and Stores and to hold together the interface between depots and field operations.

The next question was how to get the stores from the ship to the fighting man. There would be some mechanical help from DUKWs for example, but the majority of the work would demand manual handling and thus men able to carry loads under fire. Package sizes were selected to be capable of being carried, but the men needed to be fit. In the summer of 1943 a training programme was introduced for RAOC men to make them both physically fit but also capable of fighting. The RAOC had ceased to be classified as non-combatant in 1941.

With D Day approaching, the RAOC depots reported that essential spare parts were missing for vital American equipment. Bill Williams, armed with a letter of authority from General Montgomery, set out on a whistle stop tour of US factories and ensured that what was needed was sent. 

The Ordnance organisation for the 21st Army Group was an astonishing enterprise led by Brigadier Deniston with Colonel Cutforth as his second in command. Depots were to be set up to supply the advance across northern France.

This article was reproduced in the Pen & Sword guest blog 

Friday 31 May 2024

200,000 blog visits

 I began my exploration of the history of the RAOC ten years ago with the help of the albums my mother kept of my father’s war 

Since then I have spent many hours in the RLC archive, the IWM, the National Archive and the British Library. 

The result is this blog and three books:

Monday 27 May 2024

COD Greenford

COD Greenford’s main functions were the receipt of warlike stores from manufacturers, their storage, maintenance and issue to units at home and overseas. The depot also assembled complete units from many thousands of single parts. As with the other depots, there were workshops working alongside.

Kenneth Johnson-Davis was a barrister, a former scholar at St Catherine’s College Cambridge, and had served in the RASC in the First World War. On demobilisation, he remained in the Territorial Army. In the thirties he was Secretary of the Motor Traders Association and joined the RAOC with a number of others from the motor trade. He would undertake the task of setting up the Greenford Depot in West London.

de Wolff at COD Donnington was the only Chief Ordnance Officer to write at length about his depot, but there are surely many features in common with the others, not least size – they were all massive. The provision of education was a thread throughout. Kenneth Johnson-Davies ran the Greenford Depot, with his wife, Anne, as Welfare Officer. Together they instituted a very broad education provision, including a series of lectures drawing on Kenneth’s contacts industry and the law. A not dissimilar regime operated at Derby under Robbie Robinson, who saw it essential for his men and women to understand the context of their work. He also championed education and effective relaxation, given the very long hours worked.

Looking to the plans for the invasion, depot structures had been worked out. COD Greenford was to be the focus for armaments and technical stores and the first port of call for demands from the Advance Depots over the channel. COD Feltham as the southern part of the Chilwell network was to be the focus for vehicles. COD Bicester provided back up for both. Indeed all depots around the country had their focus on supplying the 21st Army Group.

In August 1943, the Queen visited COD Greenford, which was then under the command of Alfred Goldstein preparing for the key role it would in supplying the D-Day force. Her Majesty was accompanied by the Princess Royal and took particular interest in meeting the many ATS working there.

Friday 5 April 2024

Preparing for D Day - supply

The book of photographs is available to buy from The History Press or on Amazon

Brigadier Jim Denniston, former Seaforth Highlander and Director of Ordnance Services for the 21st Army Group, addressed officers of the Royal Army Ordnance Corps as they made final preparations for D Day. They were approaching the culmination of four hard years of preparation, or perhaps forty years since many of them had served through the Great War. Some had been at the sharp end in the British Expeditionary Force which withdrew to Dunkirk.  

The first years of the Second World War were for these men a time for learning from mistakes, some painful but all aimed at D Day. Until VE Day, activity continued at a high level and, even in the latter part of 1945 and into 1946, there was the army of occupation to supply. Although I refer here to men, the work of women was equally crucial, not least the members of the ATS who served in all the depots. I might also add my mother, Betty Perks, who was then my father’s PA.

Among the speakers, addressing the group of some forty men gathered in the Debating Hall of the Royal Empire Society, was my father Major General Bill Williams Controller of Ordnance Services and Director of Warlike Stores. The buck would stop with him should the supply services fail. Alongside him was another Major General, his friend and rival Dickie Richards, whose memory of France in 1940 would have been vivid. He had commanded the ordnance depot in Le Havre. He had gone on to command Ordnance Services in the Middle East before returning to the War Office to take charge of the supply of Clothing and Stores. 

Bill and Dickie in more relaxed circumstances

In the audience were three other BEF veterans, Brigadiers de Wolff, Palmer and Cansdale. de Wolff had crossed to France in September 1939, but had been recalled in November to manage the project he had conceived to relocate the massive arsenal from Woolwich to deepest Shropshire away from the danger of enemy bombers. Palmer had commanded the ordnance depot at Nantes and may have been amongst the survivors of the Lancastria which sank whilst evacuating troops after Dunkirk; Palmer would go on to command the depot at Bicester specifically built with D Day in mind. Cansdale was Bill William’s deputy with particular responsibility for field activity. All three had been with Bill and Dickie on the first Ordnance Officers course (the Class of ’22) held after the Great War through which all five had served. 

Bill, (Rivers McPherson), Wolffy and Cansdale in the 1920s

Another veteran of the Great War and Class of ’22 was Alfred Goldstein who, at the time of Dunkirk, was commanding the ordnance contingent in the Malta garrison and then throughout the siege; at the time of D Day he commanded the armaments depot at Greenford which was first port of call for equipment en route to Normandy. Alfred had passed out top of the ordnance officers course, with Bill Williams a close second.

Aside from these regular soldiers were men from industry who held temporary commissions. Listening to Denniston was Colonel Bob Hiam, a Dunlop director, who had commanded the armaments depot at Old Dalby in Leicestershire and who would command the Advance Ordnance Depots to be set up outside Caen and at Antwerp. Another Dunlop man, Colonel Robbie Robinson, was not present having been appointed Ordnance Inspector Overseas; he had set up the Motor Transport Depot in Sincil Lane, Derby and had then recommissioned the depot at Feltham with more than an eye on the coming war in the Far East. Feltham was, at the time of D Day, commanded by former Tecalemit director Arthur Sewell. The Army Centre for Mechanisation was at Chilwell near Nottingham and its chief ordnance officer, English Steel director Reddy Readman, was in the audience. He had overseen the massive packing operation for D Day which had seen some three hundred million items packed and labelled in depots and by volunteers: Women’s Institutes, off-duty fireman and school children. 


School children packing for D Day

The late forties, for some, meant a return to the civilian world of work, an economy desperate for exports; for others it was a well-earned retirement. Many died before their time, exhausted by the task that had fallen to them. My book Dunkirk to D Day, which tells their story, begins in the world of the pony and trap and ends with a Britain that ‘never had it so good’. In between there are adventures overseas, inventive and far seeing management initiatives at home, many recorded in albums and diaries by Betty Perks to whom I owe a huge debt of thanks.


Sunday 10 March 2024

How Britain Shaped the Manufacturing World - talk

This is the text of a talk I have given on my book how Britain Shaped the Manufacturing World. I hope you will find it interesting. If you want something a bit shorter, follow this link; if you have the appetite for something longer follow this one!

Image with thanks to the RLC archive

My quest began in April 2014. I brought down from the loft two big box containing scrapbooks which my mum had compiled of my dad’s war. I had always known that they existed but small boys have little interest in scrap books. This time though I turned the pages and found myself speechless. My dad had headed up supply of army vehicles and weapons in WW2 (COS RAOC) and my mum had been his PA. The albums told an incredible story – the number of vehicles used by the army grew from 40,000 to 1.5 million. I researched and discovered that just about every British motor company had made not only vehicles but anything from tin hats to ammunition. It was a War on Wheels and that was the name of my first book published in 2016.

I had caught the bug: what had happened in the first world war? Just about every British engineering company put its shoulder to the war effort. That book was called Ordnance.

Where had the companies come from and where did they go to?

To try to answer the first question I worked back and got to 1851 and the Great Exhibition in London’s Hyde Park. This as I’m sure you know was an adventurous idea by Prince Albert and Sir Henry Cole aided by others.  The organising committee included such grandees as William Cubitt the builder, Joseph Paxton who designed the massive crystal palace for the exhibition, Robert Stephenson the railway engineer and Charles Wentworth Dilke – editor of the Times. It was to be a ‘Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nations. A great people inviting all civilised nations to a festival to bring into comparison the works of human skill.’

There were 100,000 exhibits from 14,000 individuals and companies from the United Kingdom and overseas, with some 60% from the home nations. The Crystal Palace covered some 900,000 square feet and welcomed six million visitors over that summer of 1851.

My great grandfather, Richard Williams, was manager of surgical instrument makers Weiss & Son at 62, The Strand just over the road from where he had been born half a century earlier. Richard had been secretary of the group of instrument makers responsible for their part of the exhibition.

I found a copy of the full exhibition catalogue online and it read like a list of old friends – the names of companies known but some long forgotten. Ransome farm machinery, Gillow furniture, Savory and Moore medicines, Maudsely and Napier engineers, Butterley steel which incidentally had an underground wharf on the Cromford canal. Naysmith of the steam hammer fame. Elliott & Sons instruments. William Hollins who would later produce Viyella  and Samuel Courtauld.

I had to find where they had come from and where they went. Some of the names took me back to the start.

The rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate . This was perhaps Britain in the late seventeenth century. Land owners were rich and the rest weren’t. I suggest that this conservative scene may have continued uninterrupted had it not been for the sea. The British couldn’t resist the temptation of taking to boats to see what was beyond the horizon. Having reached land, being British, the instinct then was to trade. It worked wonderfully, the wealthy landowners could use some of their wealth to buy the beautiful things that adventurers brought home. It wasn’t only beautiful things, it was exotic tastes like tea and sugar. It transformed the lives of the wealthy; the adventurers didn’t do too badly either; wealth began to leak into a small but growing part of the population: the merchant class; the nation of shopkeepers so derided by Napoleon.

The demand for shipping grew. Some forty years of research have been brought together in Anthony Slaven’s British Shipbuilding 1500-2010;

Ship building, like wool, is fundamental to our island story. Slaven suggests that, all around our shores, there were many carpenters who turned their hand to the building of small boats. Their use was restricted to coastal waters, and, perhaps, as far as the Low Countries, France and possibly Portugal and the Mediterranean. Trade with the Far East was conducted overland, as evidenced by the Silk Road. The late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries saw the ‘great voyages of discovery’, and much longer voyages to the spice islands, Africa and China. This is subject explored extensively elsewhere and so I didn’t dwell on it in my book. 

With all this shipbuilding forests were being denuded at an alarming rate. Forests which were also a store of energy for heating and cooking as well as smelting ore to find metal from which all manner of device could be made. If wood or charcoal could no longer be used, what was the alternative.

Those canny Brits living in the north east already knew the answer, for they had been collecting seacoal, as opposed to charcoal, from beaches for centuries. What’s more, they found that if you scraped the surface you could find more seacoal underneath. It was filthy and gave off noxious fumes but it provided heat when heat was needed.

None of this story is strictly linear, but some things did follow as a consequence of others.

Beautiful cloth was imported from India and this made sense because cotton grew there and they had been making it into wonderful garments for centuries. British textile merchants, who had for centuries run their supply chain of wool and flax spinners and weavers, recognised an opportunity. Why not let Lancashire spinners and weavers make the cloth from imported cotton?

It was an opportunity not to be missed until Napoleon came along

British merchants had developed a nice little continental market for their cotton cloth. The Napoleonic wars scuppered that and prices collapsed. Somehow costs had to be reduced. There wasn’t enough scope in paying yet less to the weavers and spinners – who were becoming desperate

Something else was needed: mechanisation.

The British had always been finding better ways of doing things. John Kay with his flying shuttle; James Hargreaves with the spinning jenny, Samuel Crompton’s mule and Richard Arkwrights mechanised factory.

These machines demanded metal for their construction.

Elsewhere in the forest, as they say, iron masters were finding better ways to produce metal and better metals in the form of brass and steel. All this demanded more coal and more coal demanded deeper mines. Deeper mines brought twin problems of flooding with water and foul air. Metal provided the solution in the hands of men like Newcomen, Blenkinsop and Hackworth, first with the atmospheric engine to pump the water to the surface. Ever ingenious, this water was then used to power waterwheels which, in turn, could power a lift to bring the hard won coal to the surface and onwards to the canal and the final customer.

But back to the mill. All this mechanisation in textile manufacture was fine so long as you were near a fast flowing  river and could harness its power to drive waterwheels to work machines. What was needed was rotational power that did not need a fast flowing river and this brings us to Birmingham.

This is and was  a remarkable place. In the seventeenth and eighteen century it was a town of workshops. Accounts from the time tell of innumerable chimneys puffing out smoke as all manner of metal was worked into tools, weapons and toys – those items of delight that so thrilled the monied classes. The very special thing about Birmingham was that each workshop carried out a single process, with the item passed on to the neighbour for the next process and so on. It was classical division of labour, a production line, if you like. The other special thing about Birmingham was a man named Watt in partnership with Boulton. Watt did of course crack the problem of rotational motion powered by steam.

Now there was no stopping this people.

Rotational motion powered by steam worked a dream in cotton mills, and the percentage of cotton clothing worn by the British and Europeans increased dramatically.

It was itself a revolution but one not without its dark side as the cotton was grown by slaves and the working conditions in the mills and mines for men, women and children were appalling. This has been explored extensively elsewhere and although fundamental to the industrial revolution and indeed our history, I won’t talk more about it this evening.

It is interesting to try to identify just what it was that drove the massive increase in cotton consumption. One school of thought puts it down to domestic demand; people wanted clothing they could wash. Or was it the export markets? I suspect a bit of both. But back to steam.

We had the factories, could steam also help the transport problem? Roads were dangerous and often potholed, Canals were great, but slow. In step  Trevithic, Stephenson and Isembard Kingdom Brunel and the railways beckoned.

The railway entrepreneurs like Thomas Brassey and George Hudson built a more densely populated rail system than was absolutely essential. Yet investors kept piling and an astonishing infrastructure resulted. Britain not only built railways in Britain but in France and elsewhere. We exported rails to the USA and indeed worldwide.

Trains dramatically reduced travel times, but what if there was a quicker way to send a message?

Scientists on both sides of the Atlantic had long been experimenting with electricity, but in Britain it was Cooke and Wheatstone who demonstrated that a signal could be transmitted along a wire; some suggest before Morse. Soon telegraph wires extended beside railway lines cementing the connected country.

Electrical wires needed insulation which was provided by a rubber type substance from southeast Asia called Gutta Percha, the main producer of which would become BTR, the company that bought Dunlop – that though is jumping ahead.

Britain wasn’t just a country, it was the heart of an empire extending across the globe. British ships sailed and steamed everywhere with iron and steel steadily taking the place of wood for ship construction. The Empire could be drawn ever closer with telegraph and this is where Siemens stepped in. This was the British Siemens led by William, later Sir William, as opposed to the German company bearing the same name, run by his brother. The British Siemens Brothers made cable by the mile at their Woolwich factory, later part of AEI and then GEC. Soon the empire was linked.

Yet, telegraph was to be a splash in the ocean as far as the use of electricity was concerned. We come across a man named Ferranti working in the Siemens laboratory. From there he went on to power generation and, in his early twenties, a phenomenally ambitious scheme to provide electricity for London from a new power station at Deptford.

Telegraph was great if you could run cables, but what about ships? Just think of the commercial advantage if ships could be contacted en-route. Here another man of Italian birth steps in. Marconi created a business enabling ships to communicate with land stations using radio.

Time and again we might admit surprise at the names of those most influential in the story, for many were not ‘British’. The peoples of these islands welcomed and offered opportunity to men, for most were then men, who had been born elsewhere. Perhaps it was our openness to the world more than anything that resulted in our place in the world of manufacturing.

The manufacturing ecosystem screamed for yet more power. I turn first to two Britons – James Young who found a flammable liquid seeping out of coal seams down in the mines, and Joseph Ruston top of my list manufacturing heroes.

Joseph Ruston was one of the founders of the Lincoln firm, Ruston and Hornsby. He was the complete businessman: innovative, a great salesman and financially astute. There is a delightful book One Hundred Years of Good company which tells the story of Rustons with a little fictional narrative alongside the harder history.

Well , this book tells a story of Ruston travelling to Russia to sell them steam pumps to drain the land ready to plant grain. Being an entrepreneur always with an eye to an opportunity, Ruston heard that a man nearby wanted to pump oil out of the ground and what better than a Rustons pump. That man’s mainstream business was trading in shells – it did of course become the massive Shell Oil Company.

The Rustons book suggests that Ruston and Hornsby can lay claim to the first ‘diesel’ engine – indeed before diesel. These spread around the globe frequently for electricity generation as in lighthouses and indeed the statue of liberty.

In any sane world British engineers would have developed the internal combustion engine to add power to carriages.  Instead the island was plagued by rich idiots recklessly driving steam powered vehicles on the roads. Government stepped in to limit speeds with the Red Flag. This gave the French and Germans time to take the lead in inventing the motor car. As is often the case the British did rather well following the footsteps of others. Harry Lawson bought the Daimler patents and created the first British motor factory in an old cotton mill in Coventry.

Others quickly followed.

The route to the motor car derives quite possibly from the sewing machine. This piece of apparatus evolved over a period with input again on both sides of the Atlantic, eventually taking shape under patents taken out by the America Singer.

A word about patents. It would be remiss not to acknowledge the role played by William Cecil, Queen Elizabeth I trusted advisor. He masterminded British patent law which provided protection to those who wished to exploit their inventions here. Many chose Britain in preference to their native land for this reason.

Those working with sewing machines used their new found knowledge to branch out into bicycles and here names like Humber, Hillman Singer and Starley emerge. From bicycles came motor bikes and then motor cars.

For the motor car, alongside Lawson and Daimler, I might place Lanchester very much not an entrepreneur and definitely not a business administrator but a brilliant engineer. He built the first vehicle that was not simply a horseless carriage. Harry Ricardo, who himself designed the engine for the tank, said of the Lanchester that he could vouch for their ‘quietness, lack of vibration and smooth ride.’

The name Harry Lawson brings in those of other entrepreneurs who sailed near to and sometimes over the line. Ernest Terah Hooley was one such described by the Economist as the Napoleon of finance.

Cars needed tyres and in steps John Dunlop with his tyre for bicycles. It wasn’t Dunlop though who drove the business from Ireland onto the world stage and motor cars. It was the du Cros family and Hooley; and much later Eric Geddes. It was Hooley who launched Dunlop as a public company, making millions as a result. He went on to build the Trafford Park industrial estate in Manchester.

Cars also needed lights and other electrical equipment and in steps Joseph Lucas, first with lights for bicycles but then for cars

But also engineers like Humber and Hillman, designers like Louis Coatalen.

There were many others. Morris in Oxford. Austin who started out in Wolseley making sheep shearing equipment. Wolseley later became part of Vickers of which more later. There were also Rolls-Royce and WO Bentley of course.

If internal combustion engines could be used to power transport on land, why not ships and why not in the air; indeed why not on rail? Once again the British weren’t first but they prospered in the slip stream.

In relation to ships, the invention by Newcastle man CA Parsons of the steam turbine may have delayed the move by British shipbuilders to internal combustion. Steam turbine ships were very good.

Genius with steam also encouraged the British to stay with coal powered railway locomotives – after all with the Flying Scotsman and the Mallard, it was a remarkable industry.

Clearly the same wasn’t true of aircraft and in the years before the First World War we began to see those much loved icons: de Havilland, Hadley Page, AV Roe, Sopwith and Hawker.

Tragically and ironically, war played a huge part in the history of British manufacturing. Aside from the loss of young lives, the drain on the exchequer especially after the second world war placed great pressure on the governments that spurred the export drive in its wake.

Looking at war driven technological advances, the Crimean war inspired William Armstrong to invent the rifled barrel for big guns, vastly improving their accuracy, and encouraging advances in metallurgy. Armstrong would join with Whitworth and then Vickers.

Advances in medicine are well known. War also inspired Donkin to develop the tin can for preserving food especially for the Navy. Napoleon could claim the initial credit since he had sponsored a competition to produce a means of storage of meat for his sailors. The competition was won by a glass container; Donkin’s metal one worked rather better in practice.

The Boer war developed the use of telegraph transforming the way infantry and cavalry worked together.

The First World War had a massive influence. At the start, the War Office had specified Bosch magnetos for all war office vehicles. In stepped Peter Bennett of Thomson Bennett which were the only UK manufacturer of such parts. Lucas spotted an opportunity and bought the company, massively increasing its production. Almost as important, Bennett would go on to run Lucas in the interwar years with great success.

Inevitably expertise with explosives grew with people like Nobel and Abel. A whole string of munitions factories were created. Heavy engineering flexed its muscles with companies like Vickers, John Brown, Cammell Laird and Beardmore. The young motor industry stepped up with large numbers of lorries, motor bikes and cars. Textile manufacturers churned out tons of uniforms.

Lincoln’s William Tritton invented the tank, made by manufacturers across the land. In truth under the inspiration of Lloyd George the whole national industry went to war.

I spotted a toy tank in a national trust house we visited a couple of years ago. It has a strong message about toys which were barely visible in any quantity before the twentieth century. There may have been a horse tricycle from G&J Lines, but more likely a wooden toy bought from a street trader. After 1900, they may have had a Mechanics Made Easy set and accompanying instruction manual. Frank Hornby, a Liverpool office worker, had been making perforated metal strips for his sons. These could be connected by means of small bolts and nuts to make anything from model trains to bridges and cranes. The adoption of the name Meccano came in 1907.

Harbutt’s Plasticine was first manufactured in 1900. For wealthier families, the main source of toys was Germany with manufacturers such as Steiffe for Teddy Bears and Marklin for tinplate. The British firm Bassett-Lowke designed and supplied clockwork trains, but often had them manufactured in Germany. Between the wars, the absence of German suppliers boosted British toy makers into world leadership

Telegraph and telephone were used by the country mile but also radio especially for contact between the ground and aircraft overhead.

The interwar years witnessed change on a grand scale.

At first there was a short post war boom but then old industries suffered as former customer nations found they could make it themselves – so textiles and shipping. Then the massive infrastructure of war production had  to be redeployed. Shipyard owners rationed themselves to share out the reduced volume of work. Thousands of skills workers were laid off. The consumption of whisky fell and producers such as the Distillers Company sought new uses for their plant – industrial alcohol made from molasses was one answer.

New industries prospered. The chemicals giant ICI was created in 1926 and would fund research which would, within a decade, lead to the invention of polythene and Perspex, using that industrial alcohol. Courtaulds took a licence for the production of rayon from vegetable material and soon transformed the dress of the British from cotton and wool to rayon – once again historic skills of spinning and weaving came in. The Celanese company of Derby took this further by using chemicals derived from cracking oil.

I don’t know whether magnificent head offices were a hint of something to come.

Elsewhere Lever Brothers were making more than soap, Burroughs Welcome were developing medicines although Glaxo still focused on baby milk – how it would change!

English Electric and Associated Electrical Industries were both products of the interwar years. It is interesting though that these giant electric companies owe their childhood years to America.

Motor cars went from strength to strength

 Radio thrived, once businesses realised they could make money out of it. The BBC was formed by radio manufacturers in the 1923. To begin with the number of amateur licences far exceeded those who simply wanted to listen. A great many of the early radios were home made, but then we have names like Ekco and Pye. Gramophone recording kept pace with radio but television would follow later. There were British fingers in each of the pies.

In the mid-thirties, rearmament saved shipping, but also aircraft. Companies such as Avro, Supermarine, de Havilland, Vickers and Shorts were busy again.

There is a case for saying that the Second World War lasted for ten years for British manufacturers. It produced an astonishing set of advances.

Motor manufacturers stepped up to the mark even more, producing everything from tanks, tin hats and ammunition to vehicles of all kinds – they made aircraft in the shadow factories built in the thirties in anticipation of war. Out of aircraft production came the jet, brain child of Frank Whittle which took to the air in the Meteor.

Radio manufacturers produced thousands of sets for all three services; they developed and manufactured radar and many other devices not least the Collosus computer that cracked the enigma code.

The potential of nuclear power was explored by ICI and others. Interestingly Frank Kierton, who went on to run Courtaulds, was part of the ICI team. Nylon, based on chemicals derived from oil was invented. British Nylon Spinners, owned jointly by ICI and Courtaulds, exploited the American invention. Glaxo and Wellcome produced penicillin initially using a natural fermentation. It would not be long before penicillin was joined by pharmaceuticals also derived from oil.

Aluminium, which had been produced in the UK since the late 19th c, had been used by the ton in aircraft manufacture and would go on to be used in London’s tube trains.

Post war, there was no respite. Exports were needed in unimagined quantities to balance the nation’s books. It was tough on an exhausted population for rationing became ever fiercer. For exports, plastics mushroomed as more oil was refined to meet demand. Polythene began to be seen in the home. Giant chemical works appeared. What might be termed the gluttony of hydrocarbons got under way.

The motor industry yet again came into its own. The problem was how to meet the pent up demand. The American market was hungry for Jaguars, Austin Healey and MG and the Sunbeam Talbot. This strong demand laid the foundations of troubles to come as demands for higher wages were accepted just to keep production moving. Coventry was a busy place. Steel works struggled to keep pace. Shipyards were rationing orders to cope with demand. Again storing up problems for the future. The absence of competition meant that technical advance was slow or not existent. Old work practices were re-embraced.

A man named Bamford made his first excavator from a converted tractor.

The Vickers Viscount and de Havilland Comet took to the air

The jet engine powering  aircraft also found spectacular use as gas turbines powering the new oil industry. I was privileged to meet Kelvin Bray, managing director of Ruston Gas Turbines for twenty five years and he told me how the team in Lincoln, working under a watchful eye from Frank Whittle, developed the gas turbine with encouragement from Arnold Weinstock of Ruston’s then owner, GEC.

Rustons gas turbines were used by 80% of the world’s oil industry

The post war era saw Brush at the Falcon Works in Loughborough manufacture generators, transformers and railway locomotives. Brush later became part of Hawker Siddeley.

Rolls-Royce at Derby had powered so many aircraft with the iconic Merlin engine amongst others. Their motor cars transported royalty. The post war era saw wonderful motor cars but also Rolls-Royce jet engines and work on nuclear power for submarines.

This part of my story ends with the Festival of Britain, an occasion of great hope for the future. For my book it forms a bookend to mirror that of the Great Exhibition.

The Festival itself was to be unlike the Great Exhibition; in the words of the Festival director:

We were going to tell a story not industry by industry, still less firm by firm, but the consecutive story of the British people in the land they live in. Each type of manufacture and each individual exhibit would occur in the setting appropriate to that part of the story in which it naturally fell e.g. steel knives and sinks in the home part of the story, steel machines in the industry part of the story, steel chassis in transport, and so on.

Exhibits were chosen as products of good design, functional efficiency and manufacture. We had moved on to a world of design and people like Robin Day with his iconic plastic chairs.

I found surprising the emphasis given to the manufacture of textiles. Perhaps I shouldn’t have, given the importance of textiles to the whole industrialisation process. In 1914 it was said that Britain produced enough cloth to clothe half the world’s population.  In 1951, the future of textiles was considered strong – they were to lead the export drive. How things have changed.

There was an emphasis on new materials: aluminium, fibreglass and all manner of rubber highlighted by Dunlop. There was a focus on what we now call green energy: nuclear and hydroelectric.

A Design Review was compiled of some 24,000 products chosen for good design, functional efficiency and manufacture. It was to be a showcase for the nation. It also provides the spring board for my current book, Vehicles to Vaccines, which explores what happened next. Contrary to popular opinion it is not all doom and gloom, British manufacturing, although employing many fewer people, may well be approaching another golden era.

Further reading

Slaven, Anthony British Shipbuilding 1500-2010, (Lancaster: Crucible, 2013).

Moore, Peter, The Endeavour, (London: Chatto & Windus, 2018).

Fraser, Rebecca, The Mayflower Generation, (London: Chatto & Windus, 2017).

Bond, Andrew, Cowin, Frank and Lambert, Andrew, Favourite of Fortune (Barnsley: Seaforth, 2021).

Poole, Robert, Peterloo, The English Uprising (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019).

Farrington, Karen, Great Victorian Railway Journeys, (London: William Collins, 2011).

Geddes, Keith and Bussey, Gordon Setmakers – A History of the Radio and Television Industry, (The British Radio & Electronic Equipment Manufacturers’ Association, 1991).

Brown, Kenneth D., The British Toy Industry, (Botley: Shire Publications, 2011).

Turing, Dermot, The Story of Computing – from the Abacus to Artificial Intelligence, (London: Arcturus, 2018).

Nockolds, Harold, Lucas The First 100 Years, Vol 2: The Successors (Newton Abbot: David & Charles, 1978).

Jones, Edgar The Business of Medicine, (London: Profile Books, 2001).

Fosters Tank Factory, Lincoln with thanks to Richard Pullen

Saturday 3 February 2024

COD Didcot

The story of Central Ordnance Depot Didcot.

The War Office had seen the need to relieve the pressure on Woolwich and also to find a site less vulnerable to attack. The apocryphal story is that a ‘senior officer’ happened to be standing on Didcot station and saw around him acres of land that looked eminently suitable for a major Ordnance depot. 

On 15 June 1915 the depot opened under the command of Second Lieutenant George Payne of the Royal Garrison Artillery. Payne was soon joined by Chief Ordnance Officer Colonel C Purchas.  Payne described the scene in a letter: ‘The stores started to come in from the various factories and soon we turned the previous wheat acres into a seething mass of MUD, MUD, MUD and water. Never did I see such a wet and dismal situation.’ 

The Depot was ‘to receive, store and issue stores required to support the British and Commonwealth Armies throughout of the World’ but in particular to accommodate the QMG stores that were too bulky for Woolwich, items such as hospital and camp furniture, barrack stores and vehicles. 

Colonel Purchas clearly reviewed the situation and quickly noted that, ‘it was becoming impossible with the force of the Army Ordnance Corps here to receive all the supplies coming in from all sources, and to issue them promptly,’ adding, ‘at my wit’s end I went to Oxford.’ He also approached neighbouring public schools Eton and Radley.

The story came to attention of the Times and this was part of the article read at the nation’s breakfast tables in the autumn of 1915. The headline ran, ‘Zeal at Didcot Dons among the workers. Busy Sunday scenes’, it then continues:

The training corps offered to come in a body the following Saturday, and they were joined by a party of Dons and Undergraduates, making a force of between 300 and 400 volunteers…

The work of shunting and unloading went cheerfully forward all that day and the next. Here might be seen a professor painting a bucket, whilst a renowned historian carried plates… 

One Sunday, instead of 300 helpers, nearly 3,000 came over from Oxford, Witney, Banbury, Thame, Reading, Maidenhead, Henley, Windsor, Goring and Streatley, Bicester and Chipping Norton. Mr Mason MP, as he stated in the House of Commons on Wednesday, came over and took command. So well did this amateur army work under the direction of the small regular force that hundreds of trucks were unloaded and the line cleared.

Didcot played a vital role in supply right until the end of the war. It then remained open with much reduced staffing and so was ready when war threatened once more.

The range of stores held by Didcot and its sub depots in the Second World War was huge and included equipment for mountain and snow warfare, airborne equipment, and assault, commando and jungle warfare in addition to bicycles, industrial gases, camouflage equipment, camp equipment and household utensils. In terms of numbers, there were 7,410 personnel in 1943 comprising 1,150 RAOC, 1,000 Royal Pioneer Corps, 850 ATS and 4,410 civilians. Annual expenditure rose from £3 million in 1939 to £75 million in 1945, with the annual tonnage shipped increasing from 18000 tons to 1.5 million tons over the same period. 

With the coming once more of peace, COD Didcot became the site for a power station, now demolished.

 Volunteers from Eton in 1915

I write further about Didcot in Ordnance, War on Wheels and Dunkirk to D Day.

Monday 29 January 2024

My book on UK Manufacturing seems popular

 Amazon have posted that How Britain Shaped the Manufacturing World ranks third amongst the most frequently gifted books on manufacturing. I hope the gifts were well received 

The story seeks to explored how manufacturing came to be so important in 1951, the year of the Festival of Britain 

Thursday 9 November 2023

The talk I gave about the Old Dalby depot 8 November 2023

 I had a wonderful audience at Old Dalby Village Hall to hear my talk about the Old Dalby depot in the context of the massive machine of army supply. This is what I said.

Over sixty years the depot at Old Dalby played a key role in fighting war and keeping peace. As will become apparent, its story is also quite personal to me.

In 1935, my Dad had begun setting up the Army Centre for Mechanisation at Chilwell just outside Nottingham and my mum had got her first job as a secretary in 1938. She quickly moving on to become his PA. Chilwell needed more space and so further sites were explored, one being Old Dalby. I discovered all of this in an archive mum had compiled of my Dad’s war.

My research led to three books: War on Wheels looking at supply in the Second World War and Ordnance which explored army supply in the First World War. Taking the two books together, the shock was the number of names that appeared in both; these men had served in not one, but two, world wars. The horror of war is bad enough; to endure it twice is beyond belief. I needed to discover who were they? Dunkirk to D Day tells their story.

So, let’s travel back to 1938. War threatened, but the government seemed to have set its face against re-armament. In the background though factories were busy building aircraft, but also the many thousand things an army would need in order to go to war. 

It was all very well having weapons, vehicles, ammunition and countless other items produced; these had to get to the right part of the army in the right place at the right time. This was the stuff of what we would now call logistics. 

Chilwell just outside Nottingham had been the site of a vast shell filling factory in WW1 but had been vacated and by 1935 was a square mile of weeds. It was however well located and it became the army centre for mechanisation. 

Much more was needed.

I want to talk this evening about how old Dalby fitted into this massive logistics operation but also the parallel task of maintaining the equipment, a task that lasted here until 1996.

Tony Postle gave a talk about the depot a few years ago and an edited version of that talk is in the Old Dalby digital archive. I will try not to repeat what he said, but rather focus on the wider picture.

So, let me start with a bit of history. I could go back to the foresters who grew the wood for bows and arrows. Instead I want to return to England in the wake of the civil war. Parliament was determined to protect the nation and part of this was to take control of the nation’s weapons. 

A Board of Ordnance was created alongside a Master General of Ordnance. One of their tasks were the forts built around the coastline, another the Ordnance Survey to map the country, again for defence.

At Waterloo, the Duke of Wellington had at his disposal muskets and swords but also cannon. Following his victory he was appointed Master General of Ordnance and so in charge of all this weaponry most of which had been kept safely in the Tower of London.  Around the tower you could be find gunsmiths making weapons from metals smelted on the Weald. In time the coal fields and ores in the black country attracted these trades and so too the making of weapons. 

On the Thames, though, the Royal Arsenal at Woolwich was staking its claim to be the centre of excellence in weaponry. The arsenal set up small arms manufacture at Enfield and gun powder production at Waltham. On the Woolwich site there were the Royal Gun Factory and the Royal Carriage factory plus a laboratory exploring explosives.

The musket was now being challenged by the rifle, but not enough for the Duke to completely re-arm the army. So the troops that left for the Crimea had a variety of different weapons which made supply a nightmare. An apocryphal story from the time talks of a boat load of boots arriving for the troops; the problem was that they were only boots for the left foot.

There had been some steps forward. Telegraph massively aided communication, the tin can kept meat from rotting, but cannon were still both unwieldy and inaccurate. The war office set a challenge to the great engineers of the day: Brunel, Whitworth and Armstrong. It was the latter who arrived at the answer of a big gun with a rifled barrel. 

With the return of the troops, the Arsenal was modernised. Electric power arrived.

The next conflict of the Boer wars saw the more modern weapons, but also the addition of wireless to aid communication. 

The Great War that followed witnessed warfare on an unimaginable scale. Supply would be from the Royal Arsenal but also from a network of Royal Ordnance factories across the land, together with all the great engineering companies and much more besides. 

That destined for the western front would cross to France by boat and into a distribution network to the trenches

The interwar years saw the Royal Ordnance factories disbanded and engineering put to peacetime activity. That is until the mid-thirties when it seemed it would start all over again.

I want to continue the story with the help of three men, Charles de Wolff, Bob Hiam and John Frost, from wholly different backgrounds.

De Wolff was the grandson of a French cavalry officer and had studied law at evening classes before joining the Army Ordnance Corps in 1914. He fought in the Dardanelles and Mesopotamia losing his hearing in the process. It is characteristic that his memoire talks more of the theatrical performances he produced for the troops.

Wolffy was one of those young officers who, after the war, attended an ordnance officers course at Woolwich. My Dad was also on that course and he and his then wife and Wolffy and his wife shared digs near Woolwich to which they would cycle each day. My Dad was by all accounts a bit of a know-all and Wolffy loved playing tricks. One day this took the form of a drawing pin sharp side up in my dad’s bicycle saddle. Apparently my dad didn’t flinch.

Bob Hiam was the son of an artist and was too young to serve in WW1. He joined the Dunlop rubber company and worked his way up into a management role in tyre distribution.

The third man, John Frost, Frosty as he was known, was a tidy man probably happiest at a desk or with his hobby of collecting newspapers. He worked for Unilever in London and lived with his mum just off the north circular road.

In the thirties de Wolff decided that his poor hearing meant the end of his army career. However he had written a paper setting out a plan for moving the armaments at Woolwich to safety miles away from enemy bombers. His boss was Major-General Hill, a talented soldier who had also captained England at Rugby on two occasions

Hill had been impressed by Wolffy’s paper and encouraged him not only to stay but to set in hand his plan which was to create a new RAOC Woolwich at Donnington in deepest Shropshire. De Wolff set to work.

Back at Dunlops a move was afoot to identify men with logistics experience who could be drafted into the army supply organisation when war was declared. Bob Hiam was one such manager as was his colleague Robby Robinson. The same was happening at Lucas and Rootes both of which had distribution organisations alongside manufacturing. Recruitment from these companies led to nicknames: Rootes Rifles and Lucas light Infantry. It won’t surprise that the mix of army and industry did not immediately gel. Wolffy, Robinson and others took it upon themselves to smooth things over. In time the combination proved very effective. 

Frosty was already a territorial with a searchlight regiment. A number of companies, Unilever in John’s case, had encouraged employees to join territorial units. Emphasis had been given to antiaircraft protection. 

John remembered peacetime activity as relatively gentle, and in particular being called out at the end of August 1939 but then being sent home since ‘nothing was ready’.

 He returned on the Saturday and he recalled the chill as an officer read the articles of war. The informality of peace had gone and there they were shut in with a guard on the gate. 

In August 1939, war was declared and an expeditionary force crossed to France with de Wolff as number two in the support organisation. The plan it seems was to create very much the infrastructure used a quarter of century earlier.

As we now know, little happened and a period known as the phoney war began. Hiam and Robinson and many others from industry began their army training and De Wolff was brought back to Donnington to resume his project. 

In May 1940 the German advance changed everything. Everything in RAOC Woolwich needed moving; Every officer, soldier and civilian available, from the Brigadier in command downwards, took off his jacket and finished the job in 48 hours. The railways were completely blocked to other traffic for this massive move from Woolwich to Donnington

In June 1940, everything changed again as 300,000 troops returned leaving weapons and vehicles behind. Desperate efforts were made to defend the British isles from German attack. The task of rebuilding supply began.

Great efforts were made in factories to replace what had been lost. It would have been folly to send this new equipment to Woolwich. They had therefore to come to the already overcrowded fields, now seas of mud at Donnington. Swarms of builders and contractors, hundreds of soldiers and a constant stream of trucks and railway trains carried on the business of both creating and operating what had become the largest Ordnance depot in the world.

Old Dalby was to have been a subdepot of Chilwell, but Donnington’s need was greater and it became an armaments and signals depot opening on 30 December 1940 with six officers and 60 other ranks. It was commanded by Bob Hiam. 

The Catford machinery centre followed in 1941. This is a wonderful example of disconnected thinking. The workshop of some 75 mechanics started life at the old RAOC HQ at Hilsea where much of their work was fitting out mobile workshops. They soon found that being close to Portsmouth, it was being bombed. It therefore moved to Catford because ‘Hitler would never bomb.  London!’ I have no idea whether Wolffy ever heard of this.

Anyway Catford was indeed bombed and many long nights were spent in the crowded safety of the Chislehurst caves. The move to Old Dalby came after rumours of other moves to Gloucester and …. I’m sure you know the joke they all shared on finding that Melton Mowbray was famous for its pork pies – Hitler was to be beaten into submission by stale pork pies fired from a 25 pounder.

John Frost remembered 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”.

In September 1941 the US Head of Ordnance General Wesson visited Old Dalby and was suitably impressed. Interestingly this was before America entered the war. His successor visited a year later. Old Dalby was important.

At about this time, the army became aware that the skills of many people were not being put to the best use, particularly engineering skills. This resulted in October 1942 in the formation of REME. This brought into one corps electrical and mechanical engineers. 

The RAOC depots had had engineering workshops from the start. Now such workshops would be re-badged REME and work alongside their RAOC colleagues whose role was redefined as supply of equipment and spare parts. I tell much more of the story of the creation of REME in Dunkirk to D Day.

Old Dalby’s role included the fitting out of repair and stores lorries; they also supplied machine tools for static field workshops. They supplied Bailey bridges. 

A key area of work was with Wireless and Radar, but also optical equipment. It was this highly technical work that would continue after the war. Wireless sets were supplied by companies like Plessey but also Ecko and Marconi; radar was provided by Decca and Ferranti. 

Old Dalby was one of many depots. Looking at a map of the depots, the different functions can be identified. 

In relation to our story, the key places were Donnington, Chilwell and Bicester a few miles outside Oxford. The depot at Bicester was built during the war with the single purpose of supplying the invasion of northern France whenever it came. For REME, it had a massive tank workshop.

1943 was a turning point. With the Americans and Russians on side, victory looked achievable and detailed plans for an invasion began to be prepared. Old Dalby would play its part. Overall control of the supply preparations rested at nearby Chilwell. It was all hands to the pumps. School children in school holidays packed supplies as did WI’s and off duty firemen. Some two hundred million items were packed.

At its peak, Old Dalby and its sub depots employed 4,000 military and 1,000 civilians.

Colonel Bob Hiam had been chosen to command 14 AOD, the supply depot to be set up at Caen in northern France following the invasion. He would bring his extensive experience of operating COD Old Dalby. Plans inevitably changed and with the delay in taking Caen he had to set up on low ground nearby. Royal Engineers performed minor miracles in getting the site operable. The necessary staffing was provided by recruiting French civilians and drafting in German POWs. The depot took over issues on 14 September.

With the slow advance across northern France, so supply had to move. In early 1945, Hiam took command of the depot at Antwerp which had been used by the Germans. From there they supplied the final advance into Germany.

John Frost had been posted from Old Dalby as store-man to the Ordnance Field Park attached to the 11th Armoured Division. 

The Field Park was a mobile storeroom, a group of lorries fitted out with bins carrying the spare parts most commonly needed by the Armoured Division. It sailed from Tilbury. John remembered the journey round the North Circular with crowds of people waving flags and offering cups of tea as the convoy made its slow passage. It also passed the Ford Factory in Dagenham where the workers had rigged up a banner bearing the words, ‘Good Luck Boys’. 

John’s landing craft managed a dry landing and he and his convoy were able to drive up the beach and a mile inland before stopping to form up. His unit followed the armour wherever it went. He would sleep on a stretcher in the back of his lorry, surrounded by his treasured stock records. 

He recalled the advance through France. Through mile after mile of devastated farmland, it didn’t feel like being in an army of liberation at all. This changed on crossing the Belgian border at the end of August where they were met by cheering crowds.  

On crossing into Germany, the contrast again was massive. John Frost recalled the horrific war damage, seeing every building “smashed to smithereens, villagers holding out white flags, apprehensive and frightened”.

Wolffy had been sent to Italy to command supply in the lines of communication as the 8th army made their way north. His place at Donnington was taken by Gordon Hardy who had been serving in Washington handling the massive supplies coming to Britain from the USA.

At long last, the war ended. Bob Hiam returned to Dunlop and Frosty to Unilever. Wolffy retired to Malta where he became a bit of legend. 

Elsewhere a massive task began: repatriating thousands of troops and many tons of equipment and ammunition. The RAOC bore the brunt of the equipment challenge, with equipment returning to the depots at Chilwell, Donnington and Bicester plus a host of sub-depots across the country including a new depot for motor vehicles at Ashchurch.

At Old Dalby, spare parts, returned from the far reaches of the war, had to be identified, sorted and stored. REME had the task of repairing the equipment that was to be retained by the peacetime army. 

The Labour government had been elected just a month before the war ended and it retained the wartime coalition’s commitment to defence. Nevertheless, many Royal Ordnance factories closed or were repurposed and the civilian contractors refocused on peacetime production – this time in the export drive to meet the cost of vital imports. The war had emptied the nation’s coffers and left it with a debt to the USA which would not finally be repaid until 2006.

This is an important point if we are to understand what followed over the next fifty years. Historian David Edgerton wrote ‘On taking up the premiership again in 1951, Churchill took charge of a second rank power. Stalin and Truman commanded vastly greater forces. Only ten years before, Churchill’s forces were second to none.’ Nevertheless, politicians still operated on the basis that we were one of the world’s leaders and so wanted to play our part in all things military. This led to the defence budget never being sufficient for our military ambitions. We can see in the periodic government defence reviews how this turned out in practice. 

For Old Dalby it was an end to a large RAOC presence but held the prospect of interesting work for REME. There was a REME presence in just about all the army basis around the world.

1947 saw the start of national service which lasted up to 1960. Some national servicemen served their time at Old Dalby learning trades that they could take into civilian life. At around the same time the depot began taking on civilian apprentices.

1950 saw the Korean war and REME were involved on the ground and in Singapore maintaining equipment. A piece written at the time recalls the bitter cold wind and the ever present risk of enemy infiltration.

In 1956, Old Dalby was re-designated a Technical stores depot alongside Donnington. It would become 35 Central Workshop REME. 

At that point Old Dalby looked after static and mobile workshop machinery but also photographic and optical equipment, bakery equipment, boot and textile repair machinery, laundry equipment, industrial gas, air conditioning and electrical test equipment. 

The date, 1956, is significant since it just preceded the defence white paper that acknowledged the changing shape of the threat with the cold war and the constant shadow of nuclear warfare. Missiles were to be the weapon of the future. 

For Old Dalby this meant that it became ever more technically advanced in the work it did not least in the field of missiles.

In the late forties, the Ministry of Defence had commissioned English Electric to work on their Red Heathen (later named Thunderbird) and a consortium including Armstrong-Whitworth and GEC to develop their Seaslug for use by the Royal Navy. Ferranti joined with the Bristol Aircraft Company in a project codenamed Red Duster. 

The Red Duster surface to air missile took shape as the Bloodhound guided weapon. This project was remarkable because it was produced both to budget and on time. This was in contrast to what had become English Electric’s Thunderbird produced for the army and de Havilland’s Firestreak for the RAF. Cost over runs on defence projects would haunt governments for many years to come.

The Mark II Bloodhound was said to be ‘the most successful guided weapon system of its era’ and was in service until 1990. Its cost did overrun and caused a massive row with Ferranti.

Guided weapons began to appear at Old Dalby in mid 1958, followed the next year by radar equipment from Donnington. Tony Postle tells of the Thunderbird and the American Corporal weapons appearing in the REME workshops. 

I visited the REME archive in Wiltshire and found amongst much else a photograph album dating from the fifties gives a flavour of the range of army equipment that was being brought in for repair at Old Dalby but also the other REME workshops. 

A Vigar bulldozer repaired at Chilwell. These were manufactured by Vickers with Rolls-Royce Merlin engines as the British answer to the American caterpillar. Also at Chilwell were the Vickers’ Centurion tanks and Saracen and Stalwart armoured vehicles manufactured by Alvis and Daimler’s Ferret armoured car.

There was Gun equipment and small arms at Donnington; also at Donnington, generator sets and forklift trucks, DUKW Siemens Teleprinters, tape recorders and loudspeaker apparatus, 

At Bicester, there were Ruston Bucyrus excavator crawlers, Coles bridging cranes and AEC excavators, 

At Old Dalby there was radar, the Vigilant anti-tank weapon manufactured by Vickers and the FCE7 computer. 

The Cuban missile crisis of 1962 underlined the importance of missiles.

The mid-sixties saw the election of the Labour government and the Healey defence review which tried to address the issue of overstretched and ill-equipped defence forces. The headline cut was the cancellation of the TSR2 reconnaissance aircraft. Before this, under the Conservatives, the size of the army had been reduced and so its need for supply. The RAOC undertook operation Nettlerash and as part of this, in 1961, heavy machines were moved to Old Dalby from Bicester. 

In 1965, the militarily described Valves, Electronic (soldiers for  the use of) arrived from Donnington. This may have included the Larkspur radio which had been manufactured since the late forties by Plessey, Ecko, Mullard and Murphy. 

Radiac, that is radioactive detection equipment, arrived in 1968.

Cost accounting was introduced and there followed a whole sequence of computerisation projects.

But back to weapons. Old Dalby looked after Swingfire anti-tank missile (developed by Fairey and BAC) and Blowpipe (made by Short Brothers and Harland) and the Rapier anti-aircraft missiles which were used in the Falklands conflict with great effect.  

The Rapier guided missile was manufactured by the British Aircraft Corporation in the sixties and entered service in 1971. Old Dalby was responsible for the maintenance of the missile launcher. The Rapier’s successor are still in service.

All the time Old Dalby kept its other activities. In the 1970’s a large fibre glass department was set up to manufacture armour for land rovers being used in Northern Ireland. 

The seventies saw the wider economy suffering the ravages of inflation. Defence was not immune.

The 1975 Defence Review resulted in further savings in defence expenditure, essentially re-focussing on NATO. In relation to the army, it required a significant reduction in civilian employees and the closure of COD Chilwell. Its stores activity was moved to join armaments at Donnington.

Old Dalby pressed on with its REME work and the Duke of Edinburgh piloted his own helicopter to visit the depot in 1979

In the eighties the REME Central Workshop at Old Dalby was one of the biggest employers in the Melton area, taking on fifteen engineering apprentices each year, so sixty at any one time. Clansman radios, used by all three services and manufactured by Racal, Mullard, Plessey and Marconi ,were repaired there amongst much else. It was one of three repair centres for the British army, alongside Donnington and Bicester. 

New buildings were added in the fifties and sixties including the HQ office

By its fiftieth anniversary Old Dalby was 100% civilian and employed 700 people.

A further building was added in 1990. It was required for the repair and modification of the Rapier missile system.  These were highly specialised facilities which were dust free temperature and humidity controlled.  This building was built at a cost of £27 million which Tony Postle suggests led staff to believe that the workshop was safe for many years to come. It was authorised under the Thatcher government with the recent memory of the Falklands. 

The closure of the Old Dalby facility was announced in 1994, by the then conservative defence secretary Malcom Rifkind under John Major, to concentrate activity at Donnington. Yet another illustration of the vacillations of defence policy. 

The workshop closed in December 1996 The ordnance depot survived for a few more years, but that closed in 1998.

Old Dalby has every reason to be immensely proud of their service to the nation over half a century.

The Old Dalby Depot

Friday 5 May 2023

Coronations resonating for me

By me, as I type, is a Coronation stool used by either my father or mother seventy years ago. My father, Major General Sir Leslie 'Bill' Williams was Representative Colonel Commandant RAOC although his day job was as export director of the Rootes Group with a particular focus on the Middle East.

The photograph was taken on the first floor of Devonshire House, the Rootes head office. My father is in uniform and he is with Emile Bustani and a US broadcaster, Jinx Falkenburg. Devonshire House was on Piccadilly opposite the Ritz Hotel and so had a wonderful view of the Coronation procession.

Emile Bustani was a remarkable man who, from humble origins, graduated from the American University in Beruit. His first job was teaching mathematics in a Quaker School in Palestine. He then went to America and, with a degree in engineering, returned to work in Palestine. Soon he set up his own contracting company, with work across the Middle East. The company was a great success, and Bustani became Minister of Public Works in the Lebanese government, forgoing any salary. British journalist Woodrow Wyatt said of him, ‘he does care about what happens to ordinary people. In many ways he is a natural ‘do-gooder’. In the Middle East where corruption was never far away, ‘even his enemies say he is not a corrupt politician’. Bustani was killed in an aircraft accident in 1963. Bill met Bustani a number of times and they enjoyed a good business relationship. I also met him when he came to our house for Sunday lunch. My mother recorded that I was impressed how he ate lemons as if they were oranges.

Jinx Falkenburg was a broadcaster and to me represents the strong relationship which both the Rootes Group and my father had with the USA from his work during WW2 as Controller of Ordnance Services. For Rootes, the USA was a major export market during the 1950s.

You can read more in Dunkirk to D Day.

So, what is it that resonates? The continued importance of the relationship with the USA. Rootes, and indeed the RAOC, have disappeared, but the UK defence industry is performing strongly both for home consumption and for exports. Aerospace and pharmaceuticals are performing well and British built motor cars are being sold in the USA and elsewhere.

In the fifties, it was manufacturing exports that mattered to rebuild the nation's finances after the war. Today, manufacturing has as big a task, as the damage caused by governments focusing on other areas of the economy needs to set right. The country needs home grown supply chains as well as imports; it also need to manufacture for export what other countries want. 

Thursday 20 April 2023

Spymaster by Helen Fry

A carefully researched and multifaceted account of crucial work that enabled the Allies to win WW2.

It starts slowly, painstakingly piecing together fragments that begin to tell the story of Tommy Kendrick. 

It then grips the reader with an equally painstaking, but harrowing, account of just how hard it was to help Austria’s Jews following the Nazi invasion. Reading it, the overwhelming feelings are of shame at the attitude of the British and colonial governments, but also heartfelt admiration for Kendrick and his colleagues who saved thousands of lives. 

Kendrick is arrested by the Nazis but is freed and is given an astonishing job by British intelligence to gather information from POWs. Decency takes the place of violence, but decency combined with secret listening. It is astonishingly effective. Interestingly for me, two of the key sites for the soft interrogation were close to where I lived as a child. One, Latimer, doubled up as an MT depot to hide its true purpose. MT depots were under my father’s command as Controller of Ordnance Services. I can't recall a word being said about these places, a credit to very effective secrecy or admirable discretion on my parents part. 

A passage of particular interest to me was of German weapon development. The V rocket programme seemed to mirror British jet engine development. The atomic programmes in both countries appeared neck and neck. Post war, interests converged to counter the threat from Soviet Russia. I wonder who would have thought then just how important that alliance would become.

A truly fascinating read