My forthcoming book

My forthcoming book
My forthcoming book

Monday, 8 February 2021

Bob Hiam, COO Caen and Antwerp 1944

 Whilst the Dunkirk evacuation was taking place, Bob Hiam was busy setting up what was intended to be an overflow Motor Transport Depot for COD Chilwell. Soon it became clear that a further massive depot for armaments was needed to support COD Donnington, and COD Old Dalby began to take shape. 

COD Old Dalby as it is today

Bob Hiam had worked in tyre sales and distribution at Dunlop and was one of many such people who had  joined the volunteer reserve and then, on the declaration of war, was commissioned in the RAOC. As I tell in Dunkirk to D Day and indeed War on Wheels, there was a management challenge of some magnitude to mesh those skilled in logistics like Bob, with officers who had made they way up the RAOC many from service in WW1.

Bob was given the job of creating the Old Dalby depot. His success is perhaps evidenced by a visit to the depot by Dunlop management who came away having learnt a lot from the way Hiam had developed Dunlop methods to serve the army.

As a Chief Ordnance Officer, Bob met each quarter with his peers in the depots and their chief, Major General Bill Williams. The photo is of Bob addressing one such meeting in March 1942.

There is evidence in the War Diaries in the National Archives that Hiam wrote more than one report for Bill on methods.

The high regard in which he was held is further evidenced by the choice of him to become the COO of the Advance Ordnance Depot set up near Caen to supply the advance across northern France and then AOD at Antwerp for the final push into German.

After the war he returned to Dunlop as Sales Director in the business supplying tyres to the garage trade. He also, like a number of his colleagues, set up an association for those who had served at Old Dalby and which met right through to the sixties.

Bob Hiam was born in Somerset in 1905 the son of a French born draughtsman who worked for the railways. He died in 1979.

Dunlop and many other companies moved mountains to support the war effort. By releasing people like Bob Hiam, they greatly enhanced the ability of the RAOC to meet the army's needs.

Sunday, 31 January 2021

Vaccines and Arms - odd bedfellows

 I was surprised when I read in the newspaper about vaccine production by Oxford University/Astra Zeneca to discover that the government had backed the development of the vaccine by paying money up front; not just money, but many millions. 

I was reminded of two other periods in our history when government has put is money where its mouth was.

In the Great War, Lloyd George spear-headed an astonishing network of factories built or bought by government money to make the shells so desperately needed on the western front.

In the mid 1930s, a reluctant government began a structure of shadow factories to manufacture desperately needed aircraft. In the end, the greater part of British manufacturing industry leant its shoulder to the war effort.

Astra Zeneca, which was born after the break up of that British institution, Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI), took up the challenge of manufacturing the vaccine developed in Oxford and built the necessary production facilities with advance payments by government. 

Students and Dons from Oxford Colleges volunteered at the Ordnance Depot in Didcot in WW1. Oxford was also the home to Morris Motors which played such a big role in the shadow factory initiative in WW2. 

Friday, 15 January 2021

How Britain Created the Manufacturing World

I'm thrilled that Pen & Sword have confirmed their intention to publish my current work in progress, How Britain Created the Manufacturing World.

The peoples of the British Isles gave to the world the foundations on which modern manufacturing economies are built. This is quite an assertion, but history shows that, in the late eighteenth century, a remarkable combination of factors and circumstances combined to give birth to Britain as the first manufacturing nation. Further factors allowed it to remain top manufacturing dog well into the twentieth century, although other countries were busy playing catch up. Through two world wars and the surrounding years, British manufacturing remained strong, albeit whilst ceding the lead to the United States.

This book seeks to tell the remarkable story of British manufacturing, using the Great Exhibition of 1851 as a prism. Prince Albert and Sir Henry Cole had conceived an idea of bringing together exhibits from manufacturers across the world to show to its many millions of visitors the pre-eminence of the British. 1851 was not the start, but rather a pause for a bask in glory. 

I trace back from the exhibits in Hyde Park’s crystal palace to identify the factors that gave rise to this pre-eminence. I then follow developments up until the Festival of Britain exactly one century later. Steam power and communication by electric telegraph, both British inventions, predated the Exhibition. After it, came the sewing machine and bicycle, motor car and aeroplane, but also electrical power, radio and the chemical and pharmaceutical industries where Britain played a leading part.  

Thursday, 14 January 2021

Dunkirk to D Day

 I am thrilled to post the cover of my forthcoming book, Dunkirk to D DayAt Dunkirk, the British Army had lost most of its equipment, yet of D Day, only four years later, Max Hastings would write in Overlord:

 I am thrilled to post the cover of my forthcoming book, Dunkirk to D Day

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

‘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.

The book is a quest to find who the leaders were, what fitted them for their task and what they did afterwards. It follows the lives of some twenty men and one woman caught up in war. Most of the men served in two world wars, many came together on a course in 1922 (the Class of ’22) when enduring friendships and rivalries formed, some came later from careers in the industrial world. The woman would keep a faithful recorded of their deeds.

The story begins in Victorian south London. It goes out to Portuguese East Africa and then to Malaya, before being caught in the maelstrom of the Great War. Between the wars, its heroes work at Pilkington, Dunlop and English Steel; they serve in Gallipoli, Gibraltar and Malta; they transform the way a mechanised army is supplied. They retreat at Dunkirk - the army losing most of its equipment - and, by hook or crook, re-arm the defeated army. They supply in the desert and the jungle. They build massive depots, and relationships with motor companies here and in the USA. They successfully supply the greatest seaborne invasion ever undertaken: D-Day. After the war they work for companies driving the post-war economy: Vickers, Dunlop and Rootes. Many died, exhausted, years before their time.

You can preorder Dunkirk to D Day from this link to Pen & Sword. It is to be published on 30 April. 

Monday, 11 January 2021

United Africa Company

I am working on a book about how Britain created the manufacturing world, and have explored the story of British manufacturing industry. There were, however, other ways in which Britain was creating manufacturing industry elsewhere. 

In the mid 1930s, investigations had been made to assess the possibility of setting up industrial production in Kenya to remove the necessity of importing so many manufactured goods. The place chosen, Nakuru, was conveniently located on the Kenyan communication system both for the collection of raw materials and distribution of finished goods. With the coming of war and the entry of the Italians in 1940, Nakuru was mobilised to produce what was needed to defend the northern frontier. There was a tannery capable of producing five tons of leather a month, a whole plant for the manufacture of blankets, shoe machinery and a soap plant. 

Perhaps in parallel with this initiative in East Africa, Lever Brothers had acquired the Niger Company in 1920 to secure supplies of palm oil. In 1929, the Niger company merged with the African and Eastern Trade Corporation Ltd, to form The United Africa Company Ltd. From the late thirties, through the war and into the later forties, the UAC shifted is focus to provide African countries with what they needed to set up local manufacturing.


Monday, 16 November 2020

120,000 blog hits and two new books

 Dunkirk to D Day is to be launched next month, with the reveal of the book cover. It tells the story of the lives of those who led the RAOC supply of the army in WW2  

Now under contract, is How Britain Created the Manufacturing World. This began as an exploration of the many companies which supplied the army in both world wars. It has grown into something far broader. My research continues. 

Sunday, 1 November 2020

Some of the characters in Dunkirk to D Day - Jack Omond

 Dunkirk to D Day is about some of the leaders of the RAOC who together achieved the astonishing supply success of the D Day landings.

It follows the lives of some twenty men and one woman caught up in war. Most of the men served in two world wars, many came together on a course in 1922 (the Class of ’22) when enduring friendships and rivalries formed, some came later from careers in the industrial world.

In the months leading up to publication, I plan to highlight some of these remarkable people. 

Jack Omond, born in 1884 son of an Edinburgh historian, wrote a remarkably frank account of his service in the Great War and later in Gallipoli. I drew on his writing in my book, Ordnance, and tell more in Dunkirk to D Day. He was a DADOS (Deputy Assistant Director of Ordnance Services - essentially the ordnance officer for a division) and served in France. He witnessed the first tank, and the panic caused by the German advance in the spring of 1918. His writing describes the day to day life of a young officer struggling to keep his division supplied. He had been one of the older men to attend the Class of '22.

He was stationed in Gallipoli in the early twenties and saw evidence of the horrors that had taken place during the disastrous WW1 campaign. In the run up to WW2 and during the early years of that war, he commanded the RAOC Training Centre. 

Friday, 14 August 2020

VJ Day 75

The expectation of a long and gruelling land war against Japan was firmly in the minds of British soldiers fighting in the Forgotten Army, but also those wrestling with the massive problems of how such a war might be supplied.

I wrote about this in the final chapter of my 2016 book, War on Wheels. Over the last two years I have researched further and have uncovered material which I include in my forthcoming book, Dunkirk to D Day.

Much of the material is personal, since it was in my father's archive. In 1943, as Controller of Ordnance Service, Major General Bill Williams was asked by General Auchinleck to visit India and report on the Ordnance Services he found there. This is some of what he found:

There were ordnance bases spread right across the sub-continent from Bombay in the west to Calcutta in the east, and Madras in the south to Chaklala in the north, with Delhi, Agra, Jubbulpore and Cawnpore in the centre. Bill’s first point was that this spread was fine for general stores and ammunition, but for all other warlike stores (except complete vehicles) a single base depot, where all such stores are concentrated providing access in one place to all that is available, is the most efficient. Experience in North Africa had exposed the weakness of some stores being held at base A and some at base B. His recommendation did not completely follow, given the nature of India, and was for the Panagarh Calcutta base to form the main depot, but with a further base ordnance depot at Avadi near Madras. The space requirements would be considerable, with 2 million square feet of covered storage at Calcutta and 1.5 million at Madras. 

Many hundreds of officers and men would be sent out from the UK to provide the necessary expertise.

The task was massive and had to be undertaken whilst preparations were being made for D Day and whilst the 8th Army was fighting its way up through Italy. 

Aside from the bigger picture, the detail mattered massively. Packaging became really important given the hostile climate of the Far East. These efforts were championed at COD Feltham.

Thursday, 30 July 2020

Dunkirk to D Day - printer’s proof

It is all coming together. The proof of the text is just about there, as are the images and the index. Yesterday I received the text of the foreword from Major General Malcolm Wood, President of the RAOC Association. It is wonderfully affirming of my efforts, but, more so, of the remarkable story I seek to tell. 

Wednesday, 24 June 2020

War on Wheels and Ordnance still selling, and the third volume on the way

I had always hoped that War on Wheels and Ordnance would be of continuing interest. So it is heartening to see Amazon putting both back to full price, nearly four years after War on Wheels came out. Heartening too since the proof of third book, Dunkirk to D Day, has arrived from Pen & Sword, and I'm working through it. The story of a group of men, many of whom served in both world wars, is remarkable.

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.