I have written, in War on Wheels, the story of a quiet revolution which transformed a vital part of the British Army. During the interwar years it had been made moribund by cautious civil servants and dithering politicians. It became the muscular artery which ensured that the troops landing on D Day had all they needed to do their job.
The organisation was the Royal Army Ordnance Corps whose job it was to supply the Army with all it needed, apart from food and fuel.
The story begins with a massive leap forward from the trenches of the First World War to the motorised world of the 1930’s, a time when companies like Ford, Austin, Hillman and Vauxhall were transforming people’s lives and the economies of towns like Coventry, Luton, Dagenham and Cowley where their factories were located.
It continues through the stuttering attempt to make real the benefits of mechanisation in the British Expeditionary Force which crossed the channel in support of France but was miraculous rescued by the armada of small ships from the beaches of Dunkirk.
Dunkirk is where the story of Donnington really begins. From the declaration of war Whitehall had paid lip service to the need to relocate the great arsenal from Woolwich in east London to a place safe from German bombers. So there was a plan, there were contractors, but progress was painfully slow. This was until they began to load railway trucks at Woolwich.
There were to be three vast sheds at Donnington, but in June 1940 only one was near completion and even then lacked the vital overhead crane and lighting! No 2 shed’s floor was still being concreted as the trucks started to arrive. The 1500 houses that would be needed for civilian staff was still in a civil servant’s in-tray.
Unloading 500 railway trucks in 48 hours was its baptism of fire for Central Ordnance Depot Donnington. The story goes that everyone from the Brigadier downwards took off jacket and rolled up sleeves to clear the railway lines that had become jammed with the Woolwich trucks and the Dunkirk evacuation.
Donnington in the Shropshire countryside had been chosen by the War office as the perfect site for an armamentsdepot, exactly the opposite of the depot it was to replace. There were problems. Far from vulnerable conurbations might mean safety from bombing, but it also meant distance from a work force. Hence the need for housing, but that would take time and time was one thing they didn’t have. They say good comes out of bad. One result of the Dunkirk evacuation was that there was no shortage of troops in England and so sufficient numbers were soon drafted into Doddington but to a life under canvas until Nissen huts could be erected, a low priority given the need safely to store what little ammunition there was that hadn’t been left behind in France.
That was the beginning. Under the command of Brigadier de Wolff (‘Wolffy) Donnington grew into a huge depot employing some 15,000 soldiers, 3,200 ATS, 2,000 Italian prisoners of war and 4,000 civilians. It was state of the art and hugely effective in doing it job. It suppled many tanks to Russia. It had some of the first mobile radar. de Wolff had reputation for discipline and he used this well as he blended together the essential business skills of warehousing and distribution with soldiering. An Ordnance depot must have been like a vast ‘Amazon’ distribution warehouse but without computers. Delivery wouldn't be by courier who’d leave card if the customer was out; it was by soldiers often under fire and always under pressure. The King and Queen visited in June 1942.