RAOC War Memorial at Deepcut

RAOC War Memorial at Deepcut
RAOC War Memorial at Deepcut

Friday, 8 May 2020

VE Day 75 RAOC

Bill Williams’s Victory message paid particular tribute to the non-regular officers, women of the ATS and civilians who worked so hard and well with regular officers and men. He welcomed the even closer links welded with the Ordnance Corps of the British Empire: India, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. He ended by encouraging renewed efforts for the war against Japan. The QMG added, '‘never before had British Armies been so adequately maintained under such difficult and varied conditions’


Five months earlier, Bill had written this in his Christmas message to the men and women of the RAOC and ATS:

1944 will be recorded in history as a year of wonderful achievement. Our heroic invasion army, this time last year, scattered throughout Great Britain and the Mediterranean is now battering its way through the last line of defence to the Ruhr and Germany itself. The gallant Eighth Army has fought a tough but brilliant campaign from the Toe of Italy almost to the Brenner Pass. Greece has been liberated, and, in the Far East, our men are proving themselves masters of the Jap. I would especially ask you at this Christmastide to remember this Army fighting in the jungle, swamps and hills of the Far East and who have held, no, more than held their own against a ferocious and fanatical enemy. To those of our Corps I send special greetings and assure them that we do not forget them.

How did it feel on 8 May 1945, for Bill and those who with him led the RAOC?

Reading diaries and other records, I can discern two strands. The first was a sense of needing to pinch themselves to know that it was really true. Back in 1940, with so much equipment left behind at Dunkirk, it must have appeared an almost impossible task to rearm with such success. The second feeling was the dull ache that it was far from over. The war in the Far East had to be won, and the difficulties of supply were massive.

Bill, Betty his PA and Dick Hunt his 'eyes and ears', visited France, Belgium and Germany shortly after VE Day. This is what Betty recalled:

We travelled through war torn Belgium and Holland and then through the devastated towns of Germany. We were driven in a Rolls-Royce by a Belgian RASC driver with whom we entered into conversation. He told us that his uncle had been shot by the Germans and his aunt had just returned from a concentration camp with her arm covered in burns from cigarette ends applied in torture. With this fresh in our minds, we drove past a deserted concentration camp on their way to inspect the huge Ordnance depot at Antwerp.

In Belgium and Holland, we waived at passers-by; in Germany we had been warned not to smile. We inspected ordnance and ammunition depots. Our driver had to be wary of mines, although the roads had been cleared. We passed mile after mile of bombed farms and buildings. We drove through a place called Gelden - this was once a town no doubt, but certainly not now. We visited the site of the Battle of Waterloo; the Headquarters of the Base Ammunition Depot was nearby. It made sombre viewing.
Bridge on the Rhine





Wednesday, 22 April 2020

Changes in UK Employment

The table below was taken from data provided by the Office for National Statistics and shows the number of jobs split between Manufacturing (including Construction) [Orange line] and Services [Blue line] between 1978 and 2019 taking each quarterly return.
Service sector jobs increased by 11 million and manufacturing reduced by 4.5 million.

Looking at services the biggest increases were Health and social care 2.3 million, IT and Management Services 1.3 million and Accommodation, food and beverage 1.2 million and education 1 million.

In his book, Social History of Britain - British Society 1914-45, John Stevenson offers some broadly comparative statistics.

In 1914, textiles, coal, iron and steel, and shipbuilding employed almost a quarter of the total workforce. The comparative percentages for 1978 and 2019 are 14% and 2% respectively. The 'new' industries of motor vehicles, plastics and electrics rebuilt manufacturing jobs between the wars and, in the fifties and sixties, making up 11% of total jobs in 1978. They make up 3% in 2019.

If we go back further, David Canadine in his book, Victorious Century, offers again broadly comparable figures. Agriculture came first with just under 2 million, followed by 1million in domestic service. Next came cotton textile workers at half a million; whilst this number was equally split between men and women, men predominated in agriculture and women in domestic service. Next in number came building craftsmen, labourers and then a third of a million milliners, dressmakers and seamstresses, and 300,000 wool workers. There were 200,000 coalminers. Instead of listing the remainder, Canadine observes that there were more blacksmiths than iron workers and more working with horses on roads than with steam on railways. The total employed workforce in 1851 was 8.5 million (out of a total population of 27 million) compared to 31 million in 2019.

I look forward to getting access to hard copy of the Censuses to assess more clearly how employment patterns have changed.

These huge changes are, in a good part, why I am researching this whole area.


Tuesday, 31 March 2020

Engineering Connections with Ordnance and War on Wheels, Lincoln and the Great Exhibition of 1851

I am exploring the companies I came across whilst writing War on Wheels and Ordnance. I have already looked further at many of the people, and more on this soon, I hope.

What of the companies? I have found myself exploring some of the earliest machines, but also the economics that drove people to make them. I have come across names and, as always seems to be the case, connections. Here are just some examples: the number of engineers in the Stevenson family, the generations of Maudslays, and, more generally, the prevalence of families.


One fascinating source is the catalogue to the Great Exhibition, copies of which are in many libraries but which is also available on line. This revealed a connection with the Stokes Mortar, which was invented by the managing director of the Ipswich engineers, Ransomes, who had exhibited the equipment they were making for the railway companies. For Lincoln dwellers there is an entry for Clayton, Shuttleworth & Co with an oscillating steam-engine but with ‘arrangements simple and compact, suitable for working corn mills, sawing machinery etc

My great grandfather was secretary to the committee of Surgical Instrument makers and he managed the business of J Weiss Co at 62, The Strand. He was presented with a catalogue, the cover of which has been preserved.



Wednesday, 18 March 2020

Economic Parallels with 1914-18 and 1939-45

A package equivalent to 15% of GDP is of the magnitude of support for the war effort.

In 1914-18 there were still gold reserves, gold mined in Empire nations and investments overseas. One and a half centuries of industrial growth, during most of which Britain had been the workshop of the world, had built up substantial resources. Even in 1914, when Germany and the USA had caught up in terms of industrial production, British shipyards produced one third of the world’s ships and the cotton mills of Lancashire produced enough yarn and textiles to clothe half the world.[1] The war came at a great economic and well as human cost; some £11,325 million was spent, including loans to Russia which were never repaid. About one third was raised through taxation, £500 million from the sale of investments but the bulk from borrowing; the National Debt increased from £650 to £8,000 million and £1300 million was borrowed from overseas, mainly the USA.[2] All this was needed, amongst much else, pay for incredible quantities of guns and ammunition. Businesses across the country devoted production to the needs of the Ministry of Supply.

The country entered the interwar years much the poorer for having the meet the cost of war. The 1920s saw exceptionally hard times for traditional industries as other countries, not least the USA, took over the industrial and indeed financial lead. The 1930s saw growth in new industries such as cars, but nothing like that in Germany and the USA.

When the country went to war in 1939, the treasury was not full, and very soon massive borrowing was needed and has only recently finally been repaid. The cost of WW2, taken from the Statistical Digest of War was some £22,856 million.[3] The way in which this was financed was influenced strong by the writing of JM Keynes in his book How to pay for the War. Essentially Keynes argued successfully that substantial government borrowing was not only necessary but acceptable.
Writing more recently, Adair Turner in Between Debt and the Devil, argues that as a one off ‘money finance’ is acceptable in exceptional circumstances. COVID-19 is surely such a circumstance. [4]
Munition workers in WW1



[1] John Stevenson, Social history of Britain, British Society 1914-1945 (London: Pelican 1984, 1990), p.104.
[2] John Stevenson, Social history of Britain, British Society 1914-1945 (London: Pelican 1984, 1990), p.105.
[3] John Stevenson, Social history of Britain, British Society 1914-1945 (London: Pelican 1984, 1990), p.447.
[4] Adair Turner, Between Debt and the Devil, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016), p.227).

Friday, 13 March 2020

100,000 post views

Today this blog was viewed for the 100,000th time. A huge thank you to my visitors.
I began the blog in 2008, whilst studying on the MA in Professional Writing at University College Falmouth. I hardly used it between 2011 and 2014 (when I was working as Chief Executive at Lincoln Cathedral), but since then have been posting on the military subjects on which I have been writing.
I write this having begun another project. The one I have just completed in draft looked at the lives of some of the men who supplied the army. The project I am beginning looks at the companies which supplied the army, whence they came but also what happened to them, for many have disappeared.

Sunday, 16 February 2020

Moving towards a final draft of ....

I am talking to a publisher and awaiting a contract. We are discussing the title...
(its working title is Soldiers who armed an Army)
In the meantime, I am working through a final draft having received really helpful comments from three wonderful readers. I am using some pieces of contemporary writing which, for me, give a wonderful sense of period. Some, though, are better paraphrased, and that means more work.
I need also to choose the right images. I have hundreds. In War on Wheels and Ordnance I used images of places and equipment. The book the foreword to which I wrote, D-Day Before and After has some wonderful images. The current book is about the people who armed the army, so it has to be pictures of them doing their jobs on official occasions or at play. There are exceptions. The story has a strong link between the RAOC and the Rootes Group well illustrated by this 1950s image of Chilwell. The hat belongs to Major General Bill Williams, then Export Director of Rootes but who had previously founded Ladbroke Hall

Thursday, 24 October 2019

Ronald Weeks - Director-General of Army Equipment 1941-42

At the British Library, reading about an amazingly talented man, Ronald Weeks, who was the first Director-General of Army Equipment in #WW2. He had served in the Rifle Brigade in #WW1 and then worked as a director of #Pilkingtons. He became Deputy Chief of the Imperial General Staff with a focus on organisation and equipment. After WW2, he became executive chairman of #Vickers, a massive job. In the 1930, he was part of Management Research Group No.1 with Seebohm Rowntree. He plays a key role in the book I am currently writing on Soldiers who armed an Army. He was the son of a Durham mining engineer.
The family had been farmers in County Durham for many decades. I am fascinated that Ronald went from school in Durham down to Charterhouse in Surrey and then to Cambridge, where he was an exceptional student.

Saturday, 28 September 2019

Why I write family stories

Families, family stories: we all have them. I found the story for my first two books in some albums in the loft. My latest book, Charlotte Brontë's Devotee really found me, since my name appeared on a family tree a Brontë follower was researching. He wanted to find out more about William Smith Williams, the Reader at publishers, Smith, Elder, who recognised her genius. I am Smith Williams's great great nephew.

My presence on that family tree started an itch, and I had to find out more. I read Brontë biographies, and found a good deal about the five years during which William and Charlotte corresponded, often frequently. I read her letters to him; sadly, for us, only one of his survives. 
I still had to find more: whence had he come and whither did he go. The result is my biography of him, Charlotte Brontë's Devotee, and this reveals a true 19th century 'Renaissance' man as passionate about art as he was about literature, as knowledgeable about science as he was about politics. 

The book has been described as easy to read and well researched. It talks of many of the cultural greats of the mid Victorian era. It was a joy to write the story of an unsung hero of the Brontë story.

I am now researching the lives of some of the key ‘soldiers who armed an army’, the army which, Max Hastings wrote, was so well equipped on D Day. I am looking at the people, their stories. They, too, are unsung heroes. They were all members of families, from massively varied backgrounds from Polish aristocracy to the son of a draper’s assistant. They take the reader from the world of the pony and trap, through two world wars and interwar years of massive change, to the Cold War and the Britain that had never had it so good. 
 Geoffrey Palmer
Bob Hiam

Saturday, 21 September 2019

Arnhem 20 September 1944

Extracts, taken from War on Wheels, from the account of RAOC soldier Ted Mordecai who had been caught up in the desperate fighting in Arnhem:

I heard someone shouting, "Does anybody here know anything about Bren guns." The shouting went on and so I went into a front room covering the street and told an officer that [being RAOC] I knew something about Brens. There was a gunner manning the Bren gun in the window with a corporal acting as his No 2. The gunner said he couldn't fire the Bren as it wouldn't work. I moved into his position and tried the standard procedure of removing the magazine, cocking the gun and squeezing the trigger. I told the corporal that the gun was OK and put the magazine back in and squeezed the trigger. It didn't work as the bolt would not push the cartridge into the barrel, so, removing the magazine, I ejected two of the cartridges, put the magazine back in the gun and tried again. This time it fired. Whoever had loaded the magazine had crammed too many cartridge in it, consequently they were too tight to move. Although the magazine would hold 32 cartridges, it was policy never to put in more than 28. The officer asked me if I would take over the gun...I therefore became the Bren gunner of the last bastion.

Ted manned the gun until the ammunition ran out and he then reverted to his Sten like the others. The mad dashes from one house to the next continued as the Germans followed demolishing houses with the fire of 88mm guns.

There was a lull in proceedings and it was during this period that Jerry called upon us to surrender and a truce was called whilst a discussion took place between the Germans and our officers who were left. The truce last about an hour during which time Jerry agreed to let us hand over our wounded. After the wounded had been evacuated the Germans again called upon us to surrender as we were completely cut off, surrounded and nearly out of ammunition. Jerry was told in Army fashion to "Shove off" but much cruder and when someone threw a grenade at them hostilities commenced once again.

The shelling continued.

I felt a blow like being hit with a stick on the right side of my face and across my right eye as the blast whipped under my helmet. It lifted me off my feet and knocked me flat out and when I came round I couldn't see a thing. Eventually I could make out things in the darkness with my left eye, but all I could see out of my right eye was a blinding glare. I felt my face but couldn't feel any blood and, as the shelling was still taking place, decided to try to find some cover. I crawled over the ground and eventually found a slit trench up against the wall and flopped in on top of another chap lying in the bottom. The shelling kept on all night and there was no reply from any of our chaps at all. They were either lying low or there weren't any left.

Dawn eventually came and everything was very quiet...the chap under me stirred and said he was going to surrender...I stood up in the trench and the first thing that met my sight [through my left eye] was an 88mm shell with a bent nose lying half over the edge of the trench...being careful not to disturb it I climbed out...I waited a while, but couldn't hear any shooting and so decided to give myself up.

When night fell, a small group of us, being walking wounded, were herded into the back of a small truck and transported to hospital.

Later I volunteered to help out one of our MO's...it opened my eyes to the aftermath of battle as I was assisting in an amputees ward which had both German and British patients...Another thing that brought home the horrors of war was seeing a pile of discarded odd boots where they had been thrown after legs had been amputated.

As Jerry had said, "For you Tommy, the war is over.”

A Bailey Bridge had been used to help XXX Corps to reach Arnhem, but to no avail. They arrived too late.




Wednesday, 11 September 2019

Soldiers who Armed an Army

At Dunkirk, the British Army had lost most of its equipment, yet of D Day, only four years later, Max Hastings would write:

“To almost every man of the Allied Armies, the predominant memory of the campaign, beyond the horror of battle, was the astounding efficiency of the supply services”.

None of this happened by accident. It was by dint of hard work, a willingness to learn from mistakes, and an openness to new ideas. 

My mother, then Betty Perks, compiled a remarkable record of the story of the soldiers who undertook this massive task. She was the daughter of a Midlands builder, Frank Perks, who had carried out building work for the Royal Army Ordnance Corps (RAOC) in the 1930s. Frank became friends with the officer with whom he mostly dealt, Colonel Bill Williams, or that mad b****r Bill Williams, as Frank would refer to him.

When Betty left school, she was determined to work, and so went to secretarial college. On gaining her certificates, her father spoke to Bill and a job was found for her at the Army Centre for Mechanisation at Chilwell, which Bill had created. In due course, she became Bill’s secretary. When war broke out, Bill was posted to the War Office as Director of Warlike Stores, but Betty remained at Chilwell. In January 1941, she too was posted to the War Office as Bill’s PA, from which time she began to compile her record. 

That record comprises some twelve albums each three or four inches thick, containing photographs, press cuttings, copies of speeches, invitations, Christmas cards, travel documents – there is even a pressed flower. I drew on them for my book War on Wheels, which tells the story of how the army was mechanised.


Recently I looked at the albums again, and at the diaries Betty kept of hers and Bill’s trips abroad. They are not only a mine of information; they are a delight – written, as they were, by a wide-eyed twenty-four-year-old who had never been further than Skegness. Much later, Betty wrote down the reminiscences, of childhood in south London and early adult life in East Africa and Malaya, that Bill dictated to her, in lucid intervals, during his final illness. Taken together with other diaries, and the obituaries the soldiers wrote for each other, they tell much of what is Bill’s story and that of those with whom he, and indeed she, worked in those dark wartime years. 

They were soldiers who armed an army. Most of those she mentions fought in and survived the Great War. Some were brought together in the early 1920s on a course at Woolwich where many friendships and rivalries would be formed (The Class of ’22). In the interwar years, these soldiers were posted to far flung parts of the globe, but also in the UK where serious work was being done in mechanising the army. They were later joined by men from industry, some of whom also had fought in WW1, but had returned to their civilian careers. Together they took leadership roles in WW2. They were not front-line troops, although they were frequently in action and in danger. Their job was to ensure that the fighting solider had all he needed to do his job (except food and fuel which were supplied by the Royal Army Service Corps).

Had they failed, the invasion, of which Hastings wrote, would have failed.

I wanted to find out more about these people: my own father, but also those who had worked alongside him. Their stories take us from a world of horses and traps, through two world wars, an interwar period of massive change and into a world of the Cold War and the Britain that had ‘never had it so good’. This is their book.

Monday, 9 September 2019

One Small Island and Two World Wars by Wilfred Collings - written by his daughter Juliet Campbell

This is really two books; rather good books. 

The first is a first hand account of one officer’s experience in WW1 in Gallipoli, but, most particularly, Mesopotamia. Of great interest to me, it tells of the early steps of mechanisation. The second is a well researched account of the same officer’s experiences of WW2 in North Africa, the Middle East and, very interestingly, Greece. The book as a whole sheds helpful light on the vital role of the Royal Army Service Corps in a period of rapid change from horse to petrol powered transport.

My book, War on Wheels, tried to tell the story of the men and women who mechanised the army in WW2. I talked about the Royal Army Service Corps, but perhaps not enough. Juliet Campbell goes some way to redress the balance by relating the work of the RASC in Basra after WW1. 
This short book is available to buy on Amazon 

Saturday, 31 August 2019

RAOC and the British Motor Industry on declaration of War 1939

Sunday 3 September 1939

Bill Williams, now Deputy Director of Ordnance Services (MT) at the War Office, went to Chilwell that morning to lead a group of senior serving officers meeting, possibly for the first time, the newly called up members of the Army Officers Emergency Reserve. These latter included ‘Reddy' Readman (English Steel) who would take over as COO at Chilwell, Bob Hiam (Dunlop) who would command the depot at Old Dalby, Robby Robinson (Dunlop), who would command the depot at Sinfin Lane, Derby, and Dan Warren (SS Cars) who would take a lead role in scaling, the dark art of estimating the quantity of spare parts needed to maintain vehicles in battle order.

Also on that Sunday in Birmingham, the executives of the Nuffield Motor Company met to put into action the plans they had prepared for war. Through the various parts of the Nuffield Group it would, over the next five years, contribute aircraft and weapon production in addition to a great many vehicles. The remainder of the big five motor companies had been working with the Government on preparations for war, mainly the manufacture of aircraft. The Rootes group had set up a massive shadow aircraft factory in Liverpool and would over the next six years manufacture both aircraft, armoured cars, Hillman ‘tillies’ and Humber staff cars, among much more. 

On that Sunday the car plants themselves were placed on a war footing. The men, who arrived for work the following day, would be instructed to complete those cars already started, but then to leave the shop floor ready for war production. In many cases the contracts were slow in coming and the companies had to keep their workforces occupied one way or another; some had to be laid off. The motor industry, because it was set up to manufacture on a production line largely from metal and because it had a broad range of other skilled men, would be more than busy for the next five six years. 

The 1939 Motor Show was cancelled and very few domestic cars would be produced until the war ended.
Bob Hiam addressing a meeting with Bill in the chair

Wednesday, 21 August 2019

The Rootes Group

The Rootes Group was part of my childhood. My Dad had a Humber Hawk and then a Super-Snipe. My mother had a Hillman Minx, and my sister and I learnt to drive in a Hillman Husky. My uncle rallied Sunbeam Rapiers.
My father, Leslie Williams, became a Director of Rootes in 1946, and was given the task of creating Ladbroke Hall, a state of the art depot for commercial and domestic vehicles.

Once Ladbroke Hall was up and running he was moved to the export division. My mother kept albums recording events from this time with many photographs, invitations, copies of speeches, travel documents. The Middle East was the key market and he went on a UK Trade Mission in 1953. One name that keeps appearing is Emile Bustani
I would greatly value anything Rootes enthusiasts can tell me of this period. He retired in 1956. 
I am writing a third book to sit alongside my books War on Wheels and Ordnance, looking at some of the key people who served the RAOC in both World Wars.