RAOC War Memorial at Deepcut

RAOC War Memorial at Deepcut
RAOC War Memorial at Deepcut

Wednesday, 11 September 2019

Soldiers who Armed an Army

At Dunkirk, the British Army had lost most of its equipment, yet on 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
I would greatly value anything Rootes enthusiasts can tell me of this period. He retired in 1956. 
I am writing 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.

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. The footage is about one hour in if you follow this link to the BBC mini documentary

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

Fascinating day writing up my mother’s 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.

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.

I plan that this and other material I am working on will appear in a third volume of my trilogy on Ordnance.


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