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.