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.