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

Sunday 18 December 2016

More positive feedback

Great to receive more positive feedback.

Norman Cherry wrote on Twitter:

'Recently finished reading War on Wheels: a wonderful account of the people and systems necessary to fight a successful war. I really enjoyed reading it. Thoroughly researched, well written, very accessible and suitable for specialist or general reader.'

Another from a couple of weeks ago, and some more on Amazon and Waterstones

Thursday 15 December 2016

Dunkirk and the RAOC

Men of the Royal Army Ordnance Corps played an important role in the Dunkirk evacuation. 

The British Expeditionary Force arrived in France in September 1939 in many ways as the previous generation had done in 1914. An ordnance depot was set up in Le Havre. Ammunition dumps were formed well to the west.

Although twenty five years separated the two events, I suspect the same question was asked of Ordnance: was the army as well equipped as it could be?

In 1914 it was all about guns and the opinions remain divided. Certainly there were not enough heavy guns; there were insufficient high explosive shells and far too few machine guns.

In 1939 it was more about vehicles. Some 60,000 came across and most were left behind at Dunkirk.

Crucially only a handful of tanks arrived in France and they were completely outclassed by the Germans. Much has been written on this, but it is alarming in retrospect that so little seemed to have been learnt from the experiences of  tanks at Cambrai and in the final assault in 1918. 

War on Wheels looks at the BEF through Ordnance eyes. It explores the equipment question but though the eyes of people who were there. It then follows some of them in the retreat and some into captivity after they had been part of the rearguard action. A key Ordnance role was to keep the guns firing; a task later taken on by REME. Finally it looks at the role of Ordnance depots in caring for those who made it home.

Dunkirk to D Day focuses on the leaders of the RAOC and what in their lives prepared them for the task of re-equipping the army after Dunkirk. It looks behind the scenes at the tremendous challenges overcome, mistakes made and lessons learnt. 

In further posts I offer first hand accounts of the withdrawal and the welcome home, I then set out the task ahead

Saturday 3 December 2016

An unsollicted review

A writer friend borrowed a copy of War on Wheels a few weeks ago. I saw him tonight and this is what he said. 

'It was really interesting; I had no idea that children were involved in packing for D Day or that the whole enterprise involved so many places and people around the country. 

I really enjoyed reading it; I hadn't expect to. And, Phil, you write really well.'

So, for once, I am not going to hide my light under a bushel!

You can read other reviews on this link to Amazon

Tuesday 29 November 2016

30,000 page views

My post on a Prequel to War on Wheels attracted over 300 views which pushed the total of page views of this blog through the 30,000 mark.

I hope you continue to view and to enjoy.

Sunday 30 October 2016

USA release date

The significance of the story of War on Wheels is underlined now by the fact that the British National Archives have War on Wheels on their bookshop website

Without the USA, its motor manufacturers and Ordnance, though, there would be little story to be told. A sense of its input can be gained by following this link.

Bill Williams, who lead the British Royal Army Ordnance Corps in WW2, crossed the Atlantic five times and nurtured some vital relationships. He was awarded the  Legion of Merit of the United States of America in the Degree of Commander in November 1945.

Amazon USA have set December, 1 as the release date in the USA for War on Wheels. You can pre-order on their website

Tuesday 25 October 2016

The top ten places where War on Wheels is truly 'local' history

Chilwell families remember the village before Viscount Chetwynd built his WW1 shell filling factory. They remember the munitionettes with their yellow faces, discoloured by TNT poisoning. They remember the derelict site in the late twenties and early thirties, how it blossomed into life in 1935 with the beginning of the army centre for mechanisation and how it grew and grew during WW2.

Old Dalby residents will remember their peaceful village nestling in the south of the Vale of Belvoir and the harsh awakening as builders moved in to create the massive RAOC armaments depot. They would see tanks and Bailey Bridges, they would hear talk of secret wireless equipment.

Derby folk were justly proud of the Rolls-Royce factory in Sinfin Lane and so may not have noticed the huge vehicle depot that sprung up close to it in the early years of WW2. They would have seen the traffic and may have heard from neighbours who worked there what a good place it was to work, how well they were taken care of.
Donnington people must have hated it when the builders moved in in 1939 to begin to erect the massive sheds that would house Central Ordnance Depot Donnington. They may have heard stories about its eccentric deaf commandant. They would have seen row after row of tanks and, each morning in the dark with a lamp to the fore and a lamp to the rear, the marching column of ATS on their way to work.
Corsham mums and dads must have been anxious for the safety of their children when they went out to play, knowing as they did that 100 feet below the surface there were vast caverns storing the ammunition to feed guns and aircraft.
Greenford streets in the mid summer of 1944 would have been buzzing with activity as ATS riding motor cycles would arrive with endless requests for more equipment for the armies advancing across northern France. The bikes would be followed by lorry after lorry on their way to the docks.
Twickenham school children that same summer of 1944 would have felt a quiet satisfaction at the work they did in the previous Easter holidays packing thousands of items ready for D Day. In all 375 million items were packed, many by volunteers like those school children.
Branston residents may have missed the smell of cooking pickles, but they would have seen the hive of activity in the old factory which was then the place that handled most of the army's clothing.
Didcot is now better known for its former power stations. In 1915 the villagers would have seen the building of a huge general stores depot to supply the western front, served by re-routed railways. In 1944 the site was even bigger as all the non-armament stores were assembled for the invasion.

Bicester was a quiet village and is now an out of town shopping centre soon to become a new town. In 1944 it was the most carefully planned all purpose depot geared to supply the troops crossing into France. It had then the biggest tank repair facility anywhere.

Friday 21 October 2016

COD Old Dalby

Following the evacuation at Dunkirk, what remained of the Army's armaments that had not been left behind in France were moved by train to Donnington in deepest Shropshire. It soon became clear that there was still insufficient space and so the planned vehicle sub-depot at Old Dalby in Leicestershire became the second Central Ordnance Depot for armaments.

Bob Hiam had come to the RAOC direct from Dunlops and had been given the job of creating the vehicle sub-depot. In 1940, when the demands of more armaments stores became acute, Old Dalby became a Central Ordnance depot with Hiam as Senior Ordnance Officer.

Old Dalby's role became the storage and distribution of engineering and signals equipment ranging from wireless sets to Bailey Bridges; armaments including anti-tanks guns and Bofors A.A. Guns, small arms and workshop machinery. Old Dalby was also responsible for kitting out ordnance mobile workshop lorries.

Bob Hiam later took his experience of armaments stores across with him after D Day when he commanded the huge Advance Ordnance Depot first in Normandy and later in Antwerp.

In May 1943, the difficulty of obtaining sufficient water for Fire Prevention was reported in Hiam’s monthly War Diary. The writer added that water for domestic consumption had to be brought in daily by rail. He did, however, point to a project, nearing completion, for the bringing of water by pipeline from Leicester. The diary for June 1943 announces that the new supply is now in operation. The supply was sourced from the reservoir

Private John Frost, who had been a territorial before joining up into the RAOC, remembers 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”.

This photograph of the 'Bee-hive' at Chilwell gives a sense of what Frost meant.
On 5 November 1942, Major General LH Campbell, chief of US Ordnance, visited the depot as part of a trip to the UK marking the start of a close working relationship which would reach fruition on D Day 

Thursday 13 October 2016

COD Bicester

In late 1940 it became clear that there was still insufficient capacity in the RAOC depots. Accordingly a brand new depot was to be set up under the command of Brigadier Palmer. This depot was going to break the mould by bringing together all warlike stores including, importantly, motor transport which by then had taken centre stage.

Photographs of Palmer show him always with a pipe, a small man with neatly combed hair. He had been on the first Ordnance Officer’s Course but it seems had not covered himself with glory having failed the ammunition exam paper. He had commanded 1BOD in the British Expeditionary Course. We don’t know whether he sailed on the Lancastria, but it is certain that many of those men who lost their lives had been under his command.

On 13 January 1941 Bill Williams wrote to him with the instructions to build a very large and entirely new type of depot as a key platform for the invasion of mainland Europe. Palmer would go on to be promoted to the rank of Major-General with oversight all the motor transport within the Corps.

Palmer was man with 29 years of experience in ordnance and he set to his task with relish at having the rare opportunity of fitting buildings to stores rather than, as had been more usual, of fitting stores into buildings which had been built for other purposes. The depot was to be different in two other important ways. In view of the difficulty in securing sufficient local civilian staff, it was to be an all military establishment. It was also to deal with every kind of supply except for ammunition. It was to have the largest tank repair shop in the country.

Having the opportunity to design the buildings, much thought was given to optimum size. Large buildings of 300,000 to 400,000 square feet such as those at Chilwell or Donnington were thought too generous a target for air attack, whereas the smaller 40,000 square foot buildings favoured by the RAF were too small to be operated with maximum staff efficiency. A happy medium of 100,000 sq ft was selected and worked well. There were to be other ‘special’ features: walls and roofs were to be independently supported. Concrete roofs provided protection from incendiary attack. Rail and road routes inside sheds helped to avoid double handling and having them sunk meant that ramps could be dispensed with. The floors of the sheds would be on slight gradient sloping down from the Receipts end to Issues. Clerical functions were also decentralised to improve liaison between ‘stores’ and ‘paper’ . The covered space totalled 3 1/4 million square feet.

The site was to be between Towcester, Warwick, Cheltenham, Swindon, Oxford and Aylesbury which allowed proximity to a civilian workforce in peacetime and the avoidance of airfields. The place chosen was Bicester just outside Oxford where today thousand flock to shop and is to become a garden city; then it was countryside which those fighting sought to preserve as English.

COD Derby

In 1934 the British government secretly authorised the creation of a centre for army mechanisation on the site of the former shell filling factory at Chilwell near Nottingham. On the outbreak of war, Central Ordnance Depot Derby in Sinfin Lane was created as a major sub-depot to Chilwell by ‘Robby’ Robinson, a former managing director at Dunlop. He was one of many managers brought from industry and with him what was most telling was his approach to man management. Amongst other initiatives, in 1943 he instituted the production of a daily news sheet for the depot which itself tells the story of the lengths he went to build a team

The news sheet gave news of the war, for example, Operation Market Garden, the Arnhem mission, day by day without any hype and not hiding the terrible losses. At a more parochial level, an earlier edition had a piece about gaskets and how they have to be handled carefully (later there is a piece telling how, in view of shortages, some gaskets were being made from wrapping paper.) On the subject of paper, a new recruit is quoted as asking why there is so much paperwork - the answer, ‘it’s all about checking; if everyone took more care it wouldn’t be needed!’

At Derby like most of the depots, both training and education were provided to all staff including motor engineering, building trades, gardening, poultry keeping, accountancy and shorthand, languages, history, politics and science.

Each month Robinson had to send in a report of activities. He reported that Music While you Work was broadcast over the tannoy with some words of introduction by him. There were then reports on education opportunities before getting to the detail of the business of the depot. Even here, there was a touch of civilian management. Photographs of the vehicle, scout car or tank, for which spares were destined were exhibited at the end of the respective rows of bins where the packing was taking place and this ‘greatly stimulated interest in the job.’

March 1944 saw a great increase in the overtime required and a system of redeployment of clerical staff to store duties when needed. As well as Music While you Work, haircuts were offered during working hours, given the demands of overtime. A one point Robinson realised that there were simply not enough hands to pack all that would be needed. Help was found from pupils at Bemrose School in the Easter holidays of 1944. As elsewhere there were poster campaigns but, at Derby, including War Charities and Blood donors.

The book, War on Wheels, makes extensive use of archival material and first-hand accounts to follow some of the men and women who mechanised the British Army from those early days at Chilwell, through the near disaster of the BEF, Desert War and Italian invasion, to preparations for D-Day and war in the Far East. Illustrated with some fascinating photographs from the time, War on Wheels explores the building of the network of massive depots, including Derby, across the UK and throughout the theatres of war that, with creative input from the UK motor industry, supplied the British Army.

The author, Philip Hamlyn Williams, found the story in some albums his mother, formerly Betty Perks of Long Eaton, kept off his father’s war. His father, Major-General ‘Bill’ Williams led the Royal Army Ordnance Corps through WW2.
The background is part of the Derby depot in the sixties. 

Wednesday 12 October 2016

COD Chilwell

‘Had you been a passenger on the omnibus from Nottingham railway station to the little village of Chilwell on a wet November morning in 1934, you may have seen a tall, heavily built soldier fidgeting as he sat, his eyes scanning all that they passed. In his pocket was a letter from the War Office instructing him to visit the site of a former shell filling factory. In his mind there could well have been wild imaginings, a fully mechanised army light years from that which he had experienced in the four dark years of the Great War. He had been asked to see whether the site could be right for the first Royal Army Ordnance Corps Depot specifically for motor transport and, if so, how he would create it.’

What he found was a square mile of junk, weeds, railway lines, one messenger, one civilian artificer with a few maintenance men employed mainly on the heavy guns mounted on railway mountings.

The site may have been derelict, but it was in the right place: good road and rail links, a plentiful supply of staff, but above all close to Coventry. Chilwell was near the motor industry and that held the key. Wars in the middle of the 20th century would be fought on wheels.

The derelict factory, which had been the largest shell filling factory in Britain, had supplied most of the ammunition fired on the Western Front. It had been created by Viscount Chetwynd, a man of great vision, but in 1918 it suffered a disastrous explosion which cost the lives of 134 munition workers and rendered most of the site useless. A War Memorial was erected to remember them. This links to an article about the factory and explosion.

After the war what remained of the site became a general ordnance depot until it closed in 1926, except for use for Territorial Army camps.

In 1935 all this changed and the site burst into life as the buildings were rendered fit for purpose.

Much more than this, the heavily built soldier, Bill Williams, picked the brains of the motor industry and distribution businesses. He recruited talented people from industry and they created a centre for army mechanisation that would form the hub for all army vehicles in WW2.

This though was only the start, under the leadership of Reddy Readman the depot grew both in size and sophistication and set up sub depots elsewhere in the country notably in Sinfin Lane in Derby.

This and much more of the story of army mechanisation has now been told in a new book, War on Wheels. The author is Bill Williams’ son and the source of much of the story came from albums compiled by his mother, Betty Williams (nee Perks of the Long Eaton builders).

The albums are a treasure trove with newspaper cuttings, photographs and the text of speeches. Most importantly they contained the little booklets that each depot prepared for the quarterly meetings of depot bosses, each of which contains so much of the story of what went on. Among the newspaper cuttings is one from the Nottingham Journal which paints a wonderfully vivid picture: Lumbering Cruiser Tanks rushed by with a noise like a London tube railway, tank engines swinging across huge workshops by the aid of travelling cranes…

As valuable as the albums were recordings and diaries of people who worked in Ordnance whether at UK depots or overseas. These produced some wonderful stories. After Dunkirk the Chilwell sheds were crammed with exhausted soldiers who had been evacuated. Everyone rose to the challenge of feeding and caring for them. In the run up to D Day it was all hands on deck as items had to be packed ready to be taken up the Normandy beaches. Even school children gave up their Easter holidays to help.

It is the story of thousands of ordinary men and women, without whom the army could not possibly have functioned. Chilwell had on site working side by side, soldiers, civilians many of whom had fought in the Great War, and many women both ATS and civilian.

War on Wheels is available from all good book shops and from The author Phil Williams has set up a website to collect any stories that the book provokes and he would love to hear from you.

Saturday 8 October 2016

Christmas card from WW2

The albums from which War on Wheels was written contain hidden gems, like this Christmas card from 1943. There are cards from 1941 and then for each year of the war from units in every theatre of war. 
You can buy my books by following the links Dunkirk to D Day, War on Wheels and Ordnance

Monday 3 October 2016

Book signing and reviews

I am looking forward to heading for the excellent Imperial War Museum North in Manchester on Thursday 6 October 2016. Follow this link to find the details. I will be there from 11am until 4pm.

I'm bringing with me some of Mum's albums in which she documented Dad's war and from which I wrote a good deal of the book.

I now write on 7 October having had an enjoyable day at IMW North with great conversation with school children and veterans. 

This follows a talk and book signing at the Lincoln Book Festival on Saturday - what a great audience!

The book is also appearing in shop windows in Lincoln where I live;

A couple of helpful reviews have also appeared online as well as this in The Truck and Driver:
and this in the Shropshire Star which covers the area of COD Donnington, at massive armaments depot:

and the Derby Telegraph. Also this piece connected with the possible closure of the MoD presence in Shropshire.

The University of Exeter had this to say.

Wednesday 28 September 2016

The role of the USA in supplying the British Army


Bill Williams visited the USA on five occasions, the first two in the run up to D Day.

The RAOC already had good working relationships with the UK motor industry, but with so many supplies now coming from the US, new links had to be built and quickly.

In April and May 1943 Bill Williams had visited North Africa to learn at first hand the problems which faced Ordnance in the three opposed landings in North Africa, Sicily and Italy. The difficulties stemmed from the invading forces needing to be able to carry out immediate repairs to equipment in the field, under fire. This meant that the right spares had to be packed, that they must be in a size of box that can readily be carried or transported up a beach under fire, that the box can be stacked so as to be accessible, that they are clearly labelled with their contents and that the contents is preserved from damage from sea water or rough handling. Spares will not be handled with care.

Armed with this feedback from users he set out for a two month long trip to the United States, the purposes of which were to build relationships with the manufactures, to see for himself US war production, to stress the importance of spare parts and to explain his new proposals for the packing and preservation of stores. His PA prepared a full report of his visit and it is possible to read between the lines. The British were regarded as brave but possibly second class when compared to the much better organised and equipped US Army. Bill was, by his own admission, overawed by the US: New York was quite simply unlike anything he had ever seen. Nevertheless, he was not to be outdone and his tour showed a man genuinely interested in what he saw and keen to learn. Subsequent visits would see him giving very much as good as he got.

He visited Ford, General Motors, Chrysler, Firestone and many other manufacturers as well as the massive US Ordnance Depots. He watched tanks on production lines and in tests. Henry Ford had been a pacifist but joined in the war effort with great energy once the USA joined the Allies. The first priority for Ford was Fordson tractors to address food shortages. 

The San Francisco News reported of Bill that , ‘he left North Africa six weeks ago, having gone there to get what he calls “the customer viewpoint” about how the equipment is proving out under actual campaign conditions’. They quoted him as saying of the Allied victory in North Africa, “a magnificent example of United States, British and French co-operation and a tribute to American equipment.” He singled out the Sherman Tank and the Jeep, “especially when driven by a WAAC, but who doesn’t!” The Los Angles Examiner put it even more strongly, “American made weapons played the major role in the Allied victory in North Africa. General Sherman tanks are the best in the world. They completely smashed Rommel’s panzer divisions.” 

Saturday 17 September 2016

WW1 Tanks and the RAOC nickname

Men of the Army Ordnance Corps had the nickname of 'blanket stackers' in WW1. In WW2 this changed to the Rag And Oil Company.

The reason may be serendipitous.

The Autocar magazine of 16 June 1944 reported on an invasion-eve visit to an RAOC vehicle reserve depot where transport was massed for the assault on France. The article began though with a piece of serendipitous history connected with Woolwich but referring to Chilwell.

'One afternoon in 1921, a number of Mark IV and Mark V tanks, which a few years previously had rumbled over the battlefields of Flanders, were delivered at Woolwich Arsenal, the peacetime depot of the Royal Army Ordnance Corps. These tanks were obsolete and clumsy, yet their arrival at Woolwich represented a milestone in the history of the RAOC. It marked the point at which the Corps, not previously concerned with the supply of motor vehicles to the Army, began to set up which is now the greatest distributive system the motor trade of Europe has ever seen or is likely to see.'

Shropshire Star - beginnings of 'Dump' COD Donnington

COD Donnington played an astonishingly important role in WW2. At one time there were 20,000 soldiers, ATS, civilians and PoWs working on site. It must have truly astonishing.

Quite a number of local people have told me their stories and many of these are in the book, giving it a flavour of those remarkable times.

Toby Neal has written this review of the book

Thursday 15 September 2016

The First Tank in action 15 September 1916

I wonder if he saw it?

Bill Williams, my Dad. He was Ordnance Officer to the 19th Division which saw action on the Somme.

If not 100 years ago today, then certainly later he would have seen these beast in action. It must have influenced his thinking on army mechanisation when he set up Chilwell in 1935 and persuaded the powers than be that all types of vehicle, including tanks, should come within its remit.

Friday 9 September 2016

Our debt of gratitude to the British Motor Industry in WW2

The History Press has published on their website an article I wrote on the British Motor Industry's contribution in WW2 in which Coventry played a major part.

The more I think about it, the more open mouthed I become.

These companies made motor vehicles; they made guns, jerrycans, tin helmets. They made aircraft. The story of the Stirling Bomber, the MacRobert's Reply, which I have written with Phil Jeffs for Story Terrace, has centre stage a Stirling Bomber made by Austin.

The motor industry in the 1930s had been exciting, but far from secure. The Rootes brothers saved Humber and Hillman by buying them.

I am struck by the contrast with the American motor companies where Ford, for example, was turning out massive numbers of vehicles using the techniques of mass production.

Rolls Royce built Merlin engines by hand.

Pictures from the Chilwell depot show similar hand techniques.
With so many men joining the armed forces, many women joined the industry and worked to great effect under the careful eye of those men too old to be call up.

The result was phenomenal. We owe a huge debt of gratitude.

Sunday 4 September 2016

Voices of the time

Part of the joy of writing War on Wheels was to pick up on voices from the period. Here is an extract from the Sunday Pictorial, a popular magazine of the time.

'By 1944 there were established ATS units at most depots and the women themselves had become fully skilled at the tasks they undertook.

'They are dressed in grubby fatigue suits - boiler suits more or less to you - with an old piece of rag to tie up their hair.

'Like twenty-year old Beryl Barnes, for instance. People in Rainham, Essex, probably know her by sound. She used to say, “number please?”, at the end of their telephones.

'Until her particular Second Front started at this depot, which nourishes our armies in the field with nuts and bolts, Beryl was a clerk in the office. She used to watch the trains load and unload, rather bored with the whole thing, if the truth be told.

'Then her Second Front started. “May I leave the office?” asked Beryl. “I would like to work out there.” Perhaps the fact that she’s engaged to an officer in the Sherwood Foresters had something to do with it.

'I know it did in Doris Atkinson’s case. This twenty-two year-old ATS wife from West Mailing is married to a Marine who fought at Narvick, Matapan and Crete.

'Yes, these are men and women we tend to forget. But when the historical moment arrives when we set foot on the first stage of the march to Berlin, I suggest you remember this. Remember that without the sweat and toil of thousands of unsung heroes like them your son and husband would have nothing to fight with. Their private Second Front is almost over. They can do no more.

Wednesday 10 August 2016

Pre-publication copy

There is something very exciting about seeing your book 'in the flesh' for the first time.

It is of course an old friend, affection being rekindled by the distance from periods of agony in its creation! I had of course seen the pdf file sent off to the printers. I had seen all the photographs. The total result though was so much better: the clarity of the images especially.

Thank you, History Press for a job well done.

There was one small glitch which has been bothering me. In the 'blurb' on the back page a couple of words have been omitted. I wrote, 'through the near disaster of the BEF, Desert War and Italian invasion, to preparations for D-Day and war in the Far East.'

The words 'the BEF' are missing from the back cover and so it reads, 'from the near disaster of the Desert War and Italian invasion...'

It made me wonder whether, from a supply point of view, the Desert War and invasion of Italy were near disasters.

Neither was perfect. The start of the desert war demonstrated all too clearly the challenges of supplying a mechanised army. The invasion of Italy showed up the drawbacks of having the place of command far removed from the action.

I don't think they were disasters.

The BEF could have been a total disaster, had it not been for Dunkirk. Yet, from a supply point of view, the vast amounts of equipment left behind certainly represented a near disaster.

Having said all this, it is all too easy to be wise after the event.

What was happening in WW2 was all a learning process. It had never been tried before. Had there not been failures, you could argue that those concerned weren't trying hard enough.

The final result though is for me the proof of the pudding as Max Hastings puts it 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.’

Wednesday 3 August 2016

Getting the right mix of people

One of the big challenges for the RAOC in WW2 was to get the right skills, and this meant looking to industry, motor manufacturers and distributors and the big retail groups. Those recruited from these companies would have to become soldiers and work alongside seasoned regulars. An regular officer later recalled the challenge.

'The climax came when I received a draft of 350 privates who were mostly ‘departmental managers’ from a vast chain store. Their Managing Director had dug himself into the War Office and was now a field officer with one month’s service. Their wives had driven to the camp in expensive limousines and parked them around the parade ground while they searched for billets….The mutterings among ex-corporals back from France became a steady rumble, especially when one private, with a foreign name, announced incautiously that he expected to be a sergeant in three day’s time…That evening I heard on the telephone the high-pitched voice of the deaf commandant, “I understand you’ve got in your company a Private X who handles a million pounds’ worth of packing a year for Fuchs and Bieber.?”

This man was found and his skills put to good use, nevertheless good management was needed to integrate these skilled men into an Army.

Brigadier de Wolff with the Queen at COD Donnington

Tuesday 26 July 2016

The formation of REME

In 1942 Sir William Beveridge chaired a committee to look at making the best use of the technical skills the army had. As part of this the committee recommended that:

There should be established in the Army a Corps of Mechanical Engineers. The success of the Navy in making use of mechanical engineers is not due solely to the fact that the naval problems are simpler to those of the Army. It is due also to the fact that the Navy had had for so long an engineering branch of high authority and has had other technical branches specialised on torpedoes and electricity or ordnance. The Navy is machine minded. The Army cannot afford to be less so. The Navy sets engineers to catch, test, train and use engineers. Until the Army gives to mechanical and electrical engineers, as distinct from civil engineers, their appropriate place and influence in the Army system, such engineers are not likely to be caught, tested and trained as well as in the Navy; there is a danger that they will be missed by men who main interests and duties lie in other fields.

They proposed that the technical elements of RAOC, RASC and Royal Engineers should be combined in the newly formed REME which in future would carry out all major repair work. The RAOC would take over all vehicle and spare part provision.  The RASC would focus on its transporting activities, since, at the same time, it lost its catering activities to the newly formed Army Catering Corps.

From this recommendation REME was born and went on to work closely with the RAOC for the duration of the war.

Post script:
My researches into WW1 indicate that the AOC, as it then was, had extensive repair workshops behind the trenches dealing mainly with artillery. In the early part of WW2 the RAOC had major repair capabilities, not least in setting up the army centre of mechanisation at Chilwell.

Wednesday 13 July 2016

Possible prequel to War on Wheels

A possible prequel to War on Wheels.

My father, Bill Williams who lead the mechanisation of the army in WW2, was ordnance officer to the 19th division on the Somme in WW1. He would have seen the Lincoln Tank in action, possibly images like these:

The images are taken from a weekly magazine that my grandfather collected.

Bill's friend and rival Dickie Richards commanded an ammunition train, the core means of transport.

I am researching to see what records and images exist to help tell the story of how the British Army was supplied  in WW1 and am finding some remarkable material.

Friday 8 July 2016

The story after the Lincoln tank

My Dad was ordnance officer in the 19th division on the Somme. He would have witnessed a scene such as this
On 15 July, at Lincoln Drill Hall, I will be telling the story of how this experience influenced the mechanisation of the army in WW2

Friday 1 July 2016

The Somme July 1916

On 7 March 1916, Lieutenant Bill Williams, as he then was, was appointed DADOS to the 19th Division.

The Deputy Assistant Director of Ordnance Services (DADOS) had the job of insuring that the troops in the trenches were properly supplied with everything they needed to do their job apart from fuel and food: so armaments and ammunition, boots and uniforms, periscopes, bicycles, pontoon wagons. Speed was of the essence in making sure what was lost was replaced without delay.

It was a front line job, often under fire and immensely hard work. Bill received a letter from General Sir Tom Bridges, who commanded the 19th Division in the battle of the Somme. It said, 'I should like ot have seen you to thank you for the great services you rendered the division since you joined.'

The 19th Division had been held in reserve on the first day of the battle. In a Special Order of the Day dated 4 August 1916, General Bridges wrote 'I thank all ranks of the Division for the way in which during the last 10 days, they have upheld the best traditions of discipline and hard fighting. The Division leaves a name behind it in the Fourth Army which will never be forgotten.'

The experience of very much the sharp end of ordnance work would help equip Bill for the enormous task that would lay ahead for him in WW2. I tell his story and that of his colleagues in Dunkirk to D Day

Sunday 15 May 2016

Innovation and the mechanisation of the army in WW2

Will Hutton’s article in the Observer 15 May 2016, Great companies are precious. But to be the best they need a guiding light,  brought to mind many parallels with the mechanisation of the Army in WW2.

Hutton was writing ahead of the publication of the Big Innovation Centre Purposeful Company interim report. He suggested that ‘successful companies are defined by their capacity to deliver and pursue clearly defined visionary corporate purposes - to be there best, to do business that is sustainable, to serve humanity, to stretch every muscle to innovate.’

The key principle was obvious, but could so easily have been ignored, especially in an army not known for its humility. If you set out to do something completely new, talk to as many people as you can; not just any people, but people who have been down similar paths. So Bill Williams talked to motor companies, component companies, distribution companies and he sought to recruit people who actually worked in key areas. Having brought the team together, he set them off to put into practice what they knew, but not just in one place, but in a number, in their case, of depots- let many flowers bloom.

Allow no room for selfishness, compare and share your ideas: each month each senior manager  (Chief Ordnance Officer) had to visit another depot to see what they were doing. Every quarter all COOs came together, at each major depot in rotation, to receive a presentation on what had been done, to question, challenge and learn.

Ideas evolve: for example the insistence that no lorry makes its return journey empty; this is now obvious but wasn’t then. The biggest example was packaging where skills were sought from many disciplines and then shared and implemented at top speed.

Mistakes will be made. I am sure that the commanders of the BEF in 1939 believed that this time they were ready. They were ‘run off the park’, to take a sporting analogy. So they learnt. In North Africa new approaches were tried, but failed. Amendments were made; things improved, but still failed. Major revisions were tried and began to work. Bill Williams went out and listened to customers (the fighting troops) and took back what he had learnt. He took it back not just to his own team but to a whole raft of suppliers in the UK and the US and Canada. He learnt what the other Allies were doing and they in turn learnt from him.

There were battles, and not just with the enemy. As ideas developed they had to be pursued with steely determination. Old ways had to be challenged. New blood had to be brought in. From time to time different sections of the army and different allies had to be reminded that they were on the same side.

I was going to say that they all had a single purpose, but that wasn’t entirely true with inevitable jealousies. These jealousies had to be challenged.

With the single objective which was met:

‘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’ Max Hastings in Overlord

Hutton was at pains to emphasise the need for trust within the organisation and in the leader. He or she may not be liked, but they must be trusted.

Saturday 23 April 2016

War on Wheels preview

During the Second World War the British Army underwent a complete transformation as the number of vehicles grew from 40,000 to 1.5 million, ranging from tanks and giant tank transporters to jeeps, mobile baths and offices, and scout cars. At the same time the way in which the army was provided with all it needed was transformed – arms and ammunition, radio, clothing and places to sleep and wash.

War on Wheels is the story about the men and women who achieved this extraordinary feat.
The following extracts from the low resolution pdf publisher's proof give a flavour of the book which is of 65,000 words and 120 images divided into these chapters:

The Beginning
The British Expeditionary Force
The UK Motor Industry
The Depots and Mechanisation
The Desert War and Italy
Preparing for D Day
D Day and the battle for Europe
The Far East

It was published by The History Press on 8 September 2016 and is available from all good book shops and direct from The History Press

The Beginning

Had you been a passenger on the omnibus from Nottingham railway station to the little village of Chilwell on a wet November morning in 1934, you may have seen a tall, heavily built soldier fidgeting as he sat, his eyes scanning all that they passed. In his pocket was the letter from the War Office instructing him to visit the site of a former shell filling factory. In his mind there could well have been wild imaginings: a fully mechanised army, light years from that which he had experienced in the four dark years of the Great War. He had been asked to see whether the site could be right for the first Royal Army Ordnance Corps Depot specifically for motor transport and, if so, how he would create it.