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

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