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

Thursday 24 October 2019

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

Ronald Weeks 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. He was much involved with the nationalisation and de-nationalisation of the steel industry.
In the 1930, he was part of Management Research Group No.1 with Seebohm Rowntree, exploring management issues which were presented by companies growing ever larger. He plays a key role in my book on soldiers who armed an army entitled Dunkirk to D Day. 
He was the son of a Durham mining engineer. The family had been farmers in County Durham for many decades. Ronald went from school in Durham down to Charterhouse in Surrey and then to Cambridge, where he was an exceptional student. He was one of the first Cambridge graduates to pursue a career in industry. 

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' 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
My father retired in 1956. 
Men from the Rootes Group had played a major role in the corps, the RAOC, which my father led in WW2, so much so that they were nicknamed the Rootes Rifles, alongside the Lucas Light Infantry. I tell a bit more about the role of the motor industry in this linked post, and in my books.
I have written 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. It is titled Dunkirk to Day and is to be published by Pen & Sword in April 2021

Tuesday 6 August 2019

US trip in preparation for the land war against Japan

In June and July 1945, Major-General Bill Williams made his third trip to the USA to meet with his opposite numbers on the US and Canada to plan supplies for the land war against Japan, and to visit the companies producing the equipment that would be needed.

He saw the latest techniques in packaging to protect equipment against the hostile climate of Southeast Asia. He inspected the most recent landing craft and vehicles developed to drive through five feet of swamp. He talked to scientists developing rockets, and saw the rockets in action.

For my mother, Betty Perks who as his PA accompanied him, it was surely dinner with actors Ronald Coleman and Herbert Marshall that was the highlight of the trip. I guess you don't ask for an autograph of your dinner host. So, here is one from an earlier trip of Errol Flynn.

They returned to England on 31 July.
On 6 August the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima and, on 15 August, Japan surrendered.

Tuesday 2 July 2019

Recent reviews of War on Wheels and Ordnance

A Perry wrote reviews of both books on Amazon and had read Ordnance first. This is what was written:
A Good Look at a Something Often Overlooked

A good book, easily read, and with plenty of photographs. This gives an overview of the organisation that developed to support the British Army in the field during World War One. It generally avoids statistics, using instead photographs to illustrate the scale of the effort and particular aspects. The use of short chapters and general layout also makes it easy to read in bursts.
The review of War on Wheels is similar and equally pleasing. 
I should not offer only positive reviews for there is a negative one to which I respond after it:
Misleading title

Entertaining reading, but readers who are seriously interested in the mechanisation of the British army in WWII are bound to be disappointed. If you would like to know, for example, what types and how many vehicles an infantry division had in 1940 or in 1944, or how many vehicles of different types were produced and imported during the war, and the policy decisions behind that, you will not find that information here.
A more accurate and honest title would have been "Some memories of my father's service with the RAOC". It is as if the author emptied a box full of letters, photos, newspaper clippings etc. that he found in the attic, added some text of his own to place them in some kind of context and then just sent the lot to the publisher, including such irrelevant stuff as patriotic articles from "John Bull Magazine".
There are quite a few technical errors too, for example a picture of an AEC Militant Mk 3 recovery vehicle (p. 49) which entered service long after the war, in 1966 to be precise.
I offer a response:
I make it clear in the introduction that the book is about the people who mechanised the army, not the vehicles. It does use my father’s remarkable archive, but at least as much research from other sources including the recollections of ordinary soldiers of the work they did. I thought that quotes from newspapers of the time gave a flavour of the period. I do however apologise for errors.

Saturday 1 June 2019

The impact of coverage in the Telegraph

The article appeared in the Daily Telegraph on 30 May and, by the end of the day, War on Wheels was ranked as No1 Best Seller in its category:
Looking behind the headline, the sales trend was encouraging:

With a knock on for Ordnance:
What matters is that this story is becoming better known. So many thanks to the BBC for including COD Chilwell in their D Day coverage. (55 minutes into the programme)

Friday 31 May 2019

The general who oiled the wheels of D Day

Daily Telegraph journalist, Joe Shute, together with photographer, David Rose, visited me to explore my mother's albums of my father's war and preparation for D Day. Joe had read War on Wheels. They were both fascinated by what they found not least in terms of the numbers: people involved (250,000), items packed (350 million), vehicles and troops crossing to France on D Day and the two months that followed. The full article can be found by following this link. My father, Major General 'Bill' Williams headed up the Royal Army Ordnance Corps which supplied the troops with anything from socks to scout cars. He was always clear that success was down to the team work of very many men and women, professional soldiers, ATS, civilians, school children and volunteers and logistics specialists from British industry. 

On the online version, please note the journalistic exaggeration! Bill Williams and his RAOC did, though, play a vital part.
Dan Snow and the BBC visited COD Chilwell to capture the story of how the invading troops were supplied. 

Tuesday 21 May 2019

D Day in the Telegraph

In the weeks running up to the 75th anniversary of D Day, the Daily Telegraph is running a series of articles about the audacious invasion. 

Thursday 11 April 2019

Middle East and East Africa 1944

My mother left a fascinating account of the trip to the Middle East and East Africa she made in November and December 1944 with my father when she was his PA.

There are vivid descriptions of the places they visited. The account of Christmas Day 1944 is a delight. 

A good deal of tough work was done much in preparation for a long and gruelling land war against Japan. A substantial Ordance infrastructure had grown to support the North Africa campaign. It now had to be cut back. Huge effort was being put into stripping scrapped vehicles for spares, but without regard to demand. The massive depot at Alexandria, dating back really to WW1, had to be closed leaving only Tel El Kebir and Tura.

This and other material appears in a third volume of my trilogy on Ordnance, Dunkirk to D Day.

The photograph is of a boot factory at Nakuru in Kenya

Preparing for D Day

For Ordnance, the preparations for D Day had begun probably in 1941 with the setting up of the network of depots, including the new purpose built Bicester, capable of supplying a vast invading  force. The Ordnance  team working as part of the 21st Army Group, lead first by Brigadier Swiney and then by former Seaforth Highlander, Brigadier Jim Denniston, had by April prepared plans and carried out live training.
One major problem remained, they were desperately short of spare parts for the thousands of vehicles and tanks which would cross the channel. Politicians had placed emphasis on the headline number of finished vehicles produced and had ignored the massive need for spares.
Bill Williams, armed with a letter from General Montgomery, boarded a plane at Hendon on 20 March on a mission to persuade bosses and workers at the big US motor companies to shift  production on to spare parts. It is said he also persuaded a ship builder to produce a ship specifically to transport those spares across the Atlantic.
In the course of three weeks he visited all the major companies including having meetings with Henry Ford senior and junior. He went to General Motors, Chrysler and Continental Motors. Mr Hoover acted as host when Bill visited the tyre companies, Firestone and Goodrich.
He ended up at the Pentagon where a year earlier on his first trip he had had the same argument about spares. This time it succeeded.

Sunday 7 April 2019

COD Weedon

I was thrilled to find that the Royal Ordnance Depot, dating from 1803, is still standing and with a wonderful visitor centre and great bookshop. Its buildings, known as The Depot,  are in use for a whole range of activities.

Weedon began life as barracks with associated powder magazines and pavilion. The troops left at the time of the Crimea and Weedon was used for storage of uniforms. In 1885 it became the centre for the distribution of small arms and it was to this use that the depot was put in both world wars. It handled millions of weapons for our front line soldiers.

In Ordnance, I wrote:

The Army Ordnance Department already had one historic depot at Weedon in Northamptonshire. There had been barracks and powder magazines at Weedon since 1803. The records show that in 1808 the following announcement appeared in the National Register: ‘We learn from undoubted authority that the Government is about to establish an Ordnance Depot at Weedon in Northamptonshire of extra-ordinary magnitude and importance.’ Weedon was principally a small arms depot, however, during WW1 it took some of the burden of clothing supply from Pimlico. It had one shed full only of boots.

In War on Wheels, I added:

The central location in the country was a particular attraction. In WW2, Weedon became the centre for the supply of Small Arms and Machine Guns to the whole Army at home and abroad. Weedon worked with its fellow Central Ordnance Depot at Old Dalby in Leicestershire and locally with sub-depots at Northampton, Long Buckby and Heyford.

My current work in progress is looking at some of the men of the RAOC who served in both world wars. Weedon again features.

On 18 December 1941 a good number of these men met at Weedon to say au revoir to Colonel McVittie, who had served in Selonika in WW1, who had joined up again in 1939 but who had reached retirement. McVittie’s son, also an RAOC officer, was a prisoner of the Japanese having been captured in Singapore.

In August 1942 the Quartermaster General and Director of Army Equipment both visited Weedon with the Director of Warlike Stores, my father Bill Williams. In Bill's archive there is a programme of the visit. The programme has a fascinating list of the range of arms, obsolescent and otherwise, in the depot at the start of WW2: Rifles, .303; Bren Guns, .303; Boys Anti-tank Rifle, 0.5; Lewis Guns, .303;

Tuesday 1 January 2019

A glance back and an attempt to see ahead

Publishing Ordnance was something I really wanted. Writing it had taught me so much about a terrible period in our history, in particular about ordinary men and women who had done extraordinary 'ordinary things' for those they loved. I wanted more people to know the story. I gave four talks on the book and found audiences thoroughly engaged.
Lincoln Drill Hall is inextricably linked with the Great War; it was where the Lincolnshire Volunteers mustered before beginning their journey to France. It was wonderful to introduce the only BBC Prom outside London, the highly appropriate Soldier's Tale. It was a privilege to be part of the Commemoration of Lincoln in WW1. It was wonderful to welcome Michael Morpurgo's Private Peaceful and then Sir Michael himself as part of the Lincoln Book Festival.
With thanks to Phil Crow
War on Wheels and Ordnance were inspired by my father who fought in both world wars. It was thus both appropriate and wonderful that I was invited to the RAOC Officers Association dinner to mark the centenary of the founding of the Corps to which my father devoted his life. A few weeks later I was at the Chilwell War Memorial on the centenary of the Armistice where my maternal grandfather had worked as supervisor on the Shell Filling factory and where my father had founded the Army Centre of Mechanisation in 1935. Unforgettable occasions.
William Smith Williams comes from a different age and a different world. To have an article on my research of him accepted by Bronte Studies was a great compliment; to have completed a draft of his biography was an achievement of which I am proud. Let's hope a publisher agrees!

The year ends with another work in progress. I had been struck by the massive impact on people's lives of serving in two world wars. I saw them as a Blighted Generation. I had noted that many I had written about had died young. They hadn't been killed in the trenches, on the beaches or in the POW camps but they had worked under massive pressure for years on end and this had taken its toll. I am seeking to tell some of their stories.

So, that is the glance back; what of the year ahead?

I so hope I can publish William. I will complete a Blighted Generation and explore publication options. I think I will have some work for Story Terrace writing some family stories. Beyond all else I hope we can find a viable path forward to my beloved Drill Hall.
Lincoln Drill Hall