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 9 December 2021

What next after War on Wheels?

 War on Wheels led me on a voyage of discovery not only into the work of the RAOC and REME in WW2, but also the significant role played by the British Motor Industry. This led me to explore the broader role of British industry in WW1, in Ordnance. From here it was people, and how so many brought expertise to the army from industry; I tell of the lives of such people and those leaders with whom they worked, in Dunkirk to D Day.

I have now grasped the industrial nettle and have spent the last two years exploring just where all these incredible companies came from. Their story I now tell in How Britain Shaped the Manufacturing World, which it to be published by Pen & Sword in 2022.

Friday 26 November 2021

Dunkirk to D Day - as Social History

The book looks at the lives of a group of men born at the close of the 19th century who came together in WW2 when they led a task of monumental proportions.

Their individual stories cast light on Britain in the first half of the 20th century.

My father, Bill Williams, was born in a then pretty new semi-detached house in Dulwich in south London; his father was sixty but his mother was half that age. I record memories he left of his childhood, for example how he rigged up electric shocks to play tricks on his parents and how their washer woman was rewarded by a half pint of beer. He went to school at nearby Alleyns and recalled escaping German lessons by volunteering to clean the master's bike.

He left school at 14 when his father died and went to work as an office boy. At age 20 he grasped the opportunity to join a friend of his father to trade 'manchester goods' in East Africa. He wrote:

"I went on foot from Beira to the Portuguese border near Blantyre, seeking out trade and trading with the natives (sic) groundnuts and mealies. We had brought out with us bales and bales of ‘Manchester goods’, cheap coloured cottons, brass wire and beads." 

In the book, I add his encounter with a cobra and an oily colonial who offered any girl he wanted. Black water fever brought him back to England, but not for long. His next trip was rubber planting in Malaya. He would tell us as children stories of distributing quinine to his workers; he failed to mention the night he was brought home drunk in a wheelbarrow.

Those of the group who were old enough served through the Great War. Jack Omond wrote a revealing account of what life was like behind the trenches for Ordnance officers; I used extracts from this also in my book Ordnance. This is a little of what he wrote:

"From the great crowds outside the Dockyard and Arsenal gates to the tailor’s shops where leather buttons were exchanged at exorbitant prices for brass buttons bearing the regimental arms, work was obviously proceeding at great pressure. Recruits were to be seen in all stages of training and in all manner of garments."

The interwar years saw some men returning to jobs in industry, whilst others continued to serve in the army. My key narrator, my mother who was my father's PA in WW2, was born in the midlands lace making town of Long Eaton. I write of the industrial experience in my piece on Dunkirk to D Day - as Manufacturing History.

WW2 witnessed the mammoth task of re-arming the army for D Day after the loss of most equipment at Dunkirk. As part of this Bill Williams, as Controller of Ordnance Services, visited his opposite numbers in the USA and also built vital relationships with American and Canadian suppliers. My mother kept some wonderful diaries and I record some of these in my piece Dunkirk to D Day - as Travel History

In the post war years, civvy street beckoned Bill and some of his colleagues; others remained in the army before well earned retirement.

You can buy Dunkirk to D Day by following this link. If you would like to order a signed copy, please complete the contact form or DM me on twitter. 

Dunkirk to D Day - as Travel History

My mother kept diaries of the trips to USA, the Middle East and Africa which my father undertook as Controller of Ordnance Services. This is a little of what she wrote; there is much more in the book.

"We all boarded the plane, gosh my tummy felt strange inside, but it was all so thrilling…then came the take off. I was so afraid of feeling ill at this juncture, and crossed my fingers hard…thank goodness it didn’t affect me, I only experienced an enormous excitement...We had to draw the blinds of the plane; I suppose this is in case any of the passengers are spies, and on the look-out for gun sites etc. However, being me, I made up my mind I’d look out, so I peeped behind the blind. We taxied quite a long way on the water, till we came to a good long stretch in the estuary. Then the engines were rev’d up and we speeded up. The plane went at such a speed on the water, before taking off, that the water sprayed up each side like terrific wings, and then – we were up. Peeping though the window blind, I saw the tiny Irish farm houses, looking so sweet and peaceful nestling by the sea shore."

She goes on to describe stop offs in north Africa before his first views of New York. One year later they travelled to the Middle East and Africa to release equipment for the expected land war in the far east. She wrote some vivid descriptions not least of flying across the desert.

‘We flew over miles and miles of this type of country, then eventually sighted the sea. We approached the coast at a point in the Gabez Bay near Mareth, the famous battleground. I have never seen such a beautiful sight as the blue of the Mediterranean Sea near the shore. It is the colour of turquoise, clear and bright and shimmering. We flew for miles and miles in line with the shore and I just lapped up its beauty. I could see the date palm trees below, and the blue-green of the olive trees and the brilliant shining green of the orange trees. The General pointed all this out to me and said “remember this for your diary”.

"How can one write a sunset? I cannot paint it. The words are hard to find to describe the beauty of the sunset tonight. The sky a deep purple blue, lit by a solitary but brilliant star, and then on the horizon ten thousand rainbows rolled into one, red, orange, indigo, blue, purple so blended together that the sky looked like a little bit of heavenly painting - a miracle of beauty and splendour."

A war and twenty five years earlier, my father had traded in East Africa and planted rubber in Malaya  

Bill and Betty at Mombassa station; Bill was also photographed there in 1911.

You can buy Dunkirk to D Day by following this link

Dunkirk to D Day - as Manufacturing History

 Just as Lloyd George had in the First World War, in the  late thirties the army recruited men and, this time women, with the specific expertise needed. This time, though, it wasn’t just people, it was expertise itself. In the late thirties, setting up the brand new Army Centre for Mechanisation, the then Chief Ordnance Officer, Lt. Colonel Bill Williams, approached hundreds of civilian enterprises to ‘pick their brains’. 

In response to his approaches, he welcomed visitors from some of the leading British manufacturers: Sir Peter Bennett of Lucas, Harold Kenward of Dunlop, Bob Lillico of Lucas, Lord Nuffield, Sir William and Sir Reginald Rootes, Sir Patrick Ashley Cooper of the Hudsons Bay Company, Sir Patrick Hennesey, Sir Roland Smith and Stanford Cooper of Fords. 

Head of the list of civilians who brought their expertise to army service was Ronald Weeks, a director of Pilkington who had also served with distinction in WW1 and then in the territorial army. Crucially he was part of Management Research Group No. 1, which was a grouping of major companies including ICI, Lever Brothers, Standard Telephones and Rowntrees to explore modern management issues. 

A good many joined the RAOC from the motor industry, bringing, in particular, their expertise in distribution. I would highlight two men from Dunlop. Robbie Robinson, who set up the MT depot in Derby before taking over Feltham and then becoming RAOC Inspector overseas setting up uniform procedures worldwide. Bob Hiam set up the armaments depot at Old Dalby and went on to command the depot outside Caen in the month following D Day and then the depot at Antwerp for the final push into Germany.

Reddie Readman was a director of the English Steel Corporation both before and after WW2. He served in the Tank battalion in WW1. In WW2 he commanded the Army Centre for Mechanisation at Chilwell near Nottingham where he oversaw the growth in the number of army vehicles from 40,000 to 1.5 million.

In an article published in the Historian Magazine, I explore the role played by civilians and civilians who temporarily became soldiers bringing with them skills and experience from the essentially non-military world. 

My latest book, How Britain Shaped the Manufacturing World, explores the story of British manufacturing from the Great Exhibition of 1851 up to the Festival of Britain one century later. You can buy it by following this link and find out more about it on my blog  

You can buy Dunkirk to D Day by following this link

Monday 22 November 2021

History Writers Day - Phil Hamlyn Williams

Phil Hamlyn Williams's father, Major-General Sir Leslie (‘Bill') Williams, was head of the RAOC in WW2. His mother, Major-General Williams's secretary and later wife, kept albums, diaries and recollections which recorded the work of the RAOC in remarkable details. Now a historian, Phil has written War on Wheels and Ordnance on the history of the RAOC in the first and second world wars. Dunkirk to D Day explores the lives of the leaders of the RAOC seeking to find what equipped them for their mammoth undertaking.

Bill Williams testing a Sherman tank on his first visit to USA suppliers in 1943

Phil was awarded a BA (First Class) in Humanities from the University of Exeter in 2008 and the following year an MA in Professional Writing at Falmouth University. This period of study initiated his writing career and followed careers in the accounting profession (partner in Price Waterhouse) and in management in the not for profit sector. His next project is an exploration of British manufacturing.

You can buy his books from a variety of outlets including Amazon. If you would like a signed copy, please complete the contact form and I will get back to you. 

Friday 19 November 2021

Dunkirk to D Day is about the lives of those who led the RAOC in WW2 - here are some of them

I have spent the last five years researching and writing about how the British Army was supplied in the two world wars. In my research the same names kept re-appearing. I needed to find out who these people were: what had prepared them for the task they undertook, what they did afterwards and what impact the huge burden they carried had on their lives. 

My father, Bill Williams was Controller of Ordnance Services in WW2. He had served throughout WW1 and joined some thirty others on the first Ordnance Officers Course following the war. Shortly after the course ended, the Duke of York visited and a photograph was taken. I'm sure Bill would have looked at it most days.

Bill would have remembered Dicky Richards, his friend and rival over so many years. They had met in France in 1916, at St Venant, when Dicky commanded an ammunition train and when Bill was Ordnance Officer to the 19th Division, Les Papillons, under his hero, General Tom Bridges. Bill remembered Dicky as the life and soul of the course. He would also have remembered Charles de Wolff, ‘Wolffy’, for they and their young wives had shared digs in Blackheath from where they travelled daily to Woolwich. Bill definitely would have remembered his bicycle, and how Wolffy had played a practical joke by placing a drawing pin, sharp side up, on the bicycle seat; and how he, Bill, did not flinch. 

There were others. Jack Omond, standing next to Bill, who had written a very honest account of the lot of Ordnance officers in the First World War. According to Brigadier C.H.E. Lowther, who wrote his obituary, he was one of the ‘lost generation’. In a sense, most of those mentioned in this book are of that ‘lost generation’ who came to adulthood just before or during the Great War. 

Geoffrey Palmer joined as a private in the Honourable Artillery Company (HAC), and was always very proud of his service in the ranks. Wallace “Picky” Pickthall was commissioned in the West Yorkshire Regiment in January 1913 and crossed to France in November 1914. Cyril Cansdale had served in the London Regiment as a territorial for two years before the outbreak of war. He was commissioned and joined the Army Ordnance Department, as it was then known, in December 1914. The Territorial Army had been formed in 1908 drawing together the former rifle volunteers and Yeomanry. The London Regiment had within it Battalions focused on Great London areas, but also trades and countries of origin. For example, the London Scottish was the 14th Battalion. The HAC was a battalion, but declined to be given a number.

Then there were others on the course who were in the Royal Artillery, and, so, not in the photograph. Gordon Hardy had served in the Royal Garrison Artillery attached to the RAOC. Neville Swiney was army through and through. On graduation, he was Senior-Under-Officer at the Royal Military Academy in 1916 before crossing to France. 

Alfred Goldstein was also not in the photograph, since he was in the Royal Garrison Artillery and, so, not then in the RAOC. He did, however, come top of the course. 

Many other talented men joined the RAOC between the wars. Jim Denniston, a former Seaforth Highlander, undertook the key role of DOS for the 21st Army Group on d Day.

These professional soldiers were joined in the late thirties by men from industry who brought essential expertise from civilian life. Here are just some of them.

Former Steel Industry Director, Brigadier Edgar (Reddie) Readman, ran the massive motor transport depot at Chilwell. Former Dunlop manager, Colonel Bob Hiam, commanded the armaments depot at Old Dalby, which supplied power tools and, famously, Bailey Bridges. Hiam would command the second depot to be set up in France following the invasion and go on to command the depot at Antwerp supplying the final push into Germany. A fellow Dunlop man, Colonel Robbie Robinson, who had commanded the depot at Derby had in 1944 been given the role of Inspecting Officer Overseas planning supply for the invasion of Burma. Former manager at Tecalemit (the garage machinery manufacturer), Colonel Arthur Sewell, was in command of the depot at Feltham, which was at the forefront in developing effective packaging that would become increasingly important in South East Asia. 

I tell more about these people and the task they undertook in Dunkirk to D Day

Some of those from civilian life who did the hard graft of mechanisation

 The story of the mechanisation of the Army could be told with figures and statistics and there is room for some of these. The story is far more about people: men and women not necessarily attracted by soldiering, but called up and finding for themselves and their skills a crucial role in this enormous machine.

James Child was a production engineer at Rootes Coventry and had signed up for the territorials and had been assigned to searchlight duties in Coventry. He was later given a commission and sent on a four month gun course, an expertise he would put to good use in the desert. 

On joining up, Albert Griffiths and the others in the Prestage unit formed in Birmingham earlier in the year, found themselves sleeping on beds with no mattresses on the metal springs and no meal available on the evening of their arrival. Following initial training, Albert was also sent off on an Armament Artificers course at Chilwell, whilst the remainder of the unit left for France and later suffered heavy casualties including the CO. 

James Welford was an apprentice at the Witton works of GEC and, with a number of others, enlisted in the territorials at Fort Dunlop in Birmingham. On the declaration of war they became His Majesty’s 14th Army Field Workshop of the Royal Army Ordnance Corps and in January 1940 sailed to Cherbourg.

Wilfred Beeson had a small motor mechanics business in Chiswick, but on 3 September presented himself at the recruitment centre in North Acton. He was sent down to Hilsea with some 1,000 other volunteers. His skills as a mechanic were identified and he was sent out to France within five days of joining up. He was first part of the 8th Army Field Workshop.

Private John Frost was already a territorial with a searchlight regiment. He was a tidy man probably happiest at a desk or with his hobby of collecting newspapers. A number of companies, Unilever in John’s case, had encouraged employees to join territorial units and emphasis had been given to antiaircraft protection. John remembered peacetime activity as relatively gentle, and in particular being called out at the end of August but then being sent home since ‘nothing was ready’. He returned on the Saturday and he recalled the chill as an officer read the articles of war. The informality of peace had gone and there they were shut in with a guard on the gate. John would later play a number of roles in the RAOC.

Alwyn Ward also joined the territorials in the summer of 1939 and, on being mobilised on the declaration of war, became a fitter in the RAOC. He recalls having to sleep on floor boards in a church hall and then undergoing drill and fitness training until being sent to St Pol as part of the 9th Army Field Workshop in January 1940. He was later selected to join the newly formed REME and became an Armament Artificer with the rank of Armament Staff Sergeant before joining the invasion of North Africa. 

Corn merchant, Douglas Hanson, joined the territorials in March 1939. On mobilisation he was sent out to the Base Ordnance Depot at Nantes. He would later be caught up in the surrender of Singapore.

Another Rootes man, Douglas Postlethwaite, was working for Humber Cars and enlisted at Coventry a little later, in December 1939. He was sent on a fitters course at Standard Cars near Shepherds Bush before being sent out to convoy duty in France. He would later join the field workshop of the 21st Tank Brigade and serve in North Africa.

The experience of Wally Harris was a little different. He was a motor mechanic and had enrolled as a territorial at the Chelsea Barracks. On mobilisation he was called up to join the 1st London Division Ordnance Workshop at a brand new building in Mill Hill. It was so new, it had no equipment, not even work benches. He was billeted at Hendon Golf Club and slept in the changing rooms. There was one rifle between five men and the only vehicles were very old. His was a Thorneycroft lorry with an open cab, solid tyres and a crash gear box. The 1st London became the 56th Black Cats and the Ordnance men were divided up into Light Aid Detachments of 12 men; his was attached to the 168 London Infantry Brigade. The LAD was made up of men with skills ranging from electrician and store-man to mechanic. As he put it, it was the AA or RAC for army vehicles. Only they weren’t obviously army vehicles at all, being butchers vans, delivery lorries all in their original colours. He remembered the feeling of embarrassment when driving these vehicles in convoy. He remembered too that they were very short of equipment; he resorted to bringing his own tools from home. His unit remained in London and the South East and he recalled being very fed up at seeing no action.  

   COD Greenford

Thursday 18 November 2021

Cyril Cansdale - DCOS 1944

Cyril Cansdale was born in Gibraltar and was commissioned in and joined the AOD in December 1914. He was posted to France in 1915 and served there throughout. He was on that First Ordnance Officers Course (the Class of '22). 

Williams, Rivers Macpherson, de Wolff, and Cansdale (seated)

In the interwar years, he was posted to Northern Ireland, Singapore, Scottish Command and the War Office.  

He sailed to France in the BEF in 1939 as DDOS Lines of Communication. Returning to England in 1940, he held a number of senior postings in the War Office until 1943 when he was appointed Deputy Controller of Ordnance Services responsible for Field Operations working closely with Dickie Richards. 

He became DOS BAOR in 1946 with promotion to Major General  

The then Major General Cansdale as DOS BAOR 1946

Robby Robinson - RAOC Inspector Overseas - formerly COO Derby and Feltham

COD Derby was commanded by Robby Robinson who had come to the army from Dunlops. 

In my research, I looked at the monthly war diaries he wrote. The tone and indeed content of his reports were wholly different to those written by his permanent officer colleagues. 

The first matters covered were entertainment and sport followed by depot staff. For example, there was in January 1944 a book week. Music While you Work was broadcast over the tannoy with some words of introduction by the CO. 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 stimulates interest in the job.’ The February report covered the Derby Debating Society on the motion, ‘Conscription should be continued after the war’. In relation to business, the packing of landing reserves and beach maintenance packs was reported. March saw a great increase in the overtime required and a system of redeployment of clerical staff to store duties when needed. Haircuts were offered during working hours, given the demands of overtime. As elsewhere there were poster campaigns but at Derby including War Charities and Blood donors. 

Wolffy, Bell and Robinson at the COO meeting

Robinson was given the job of bringing the former RASC depot at Feltham into the RAOC fold. He was then appointed RAOC Inspector overseas, seeking to raise standards of working methods in the Middle 
East and India in preparation for the expected long and gruelling land war in the Far East. 

His contributions to the RAOC Gazette after the war were immensely helpful in painting the word pictures of many with whom he served. 

Thursday 1 July 2021

Dunkirk to D Day - reviews

Here are some of the reviews and comments received on Dunkirk to D Day 

"Bill Williams’s story, and that of his wife, friends and colleagues, so brilliantly set out for us by Phil in `Dunkirk to D-Day` is history, but I commend it as much for it's relevance to us all, military or civilian alike. Bill's portrait hangs in the RLC Headquarters' Officers' Mess. I have walked past it countless times since I was commissioned into the RAOC in 1973. I wish I had known then what I know now, about Bill and his family, his work and his colleagues, but above all of their accomplishments. I would have been better prepared for my chosen profession if I had."

The final paragraph of the foreword of Major-General Malcolm Wood. Earlier he observed:

"We are allowed to enjoy and share Phil's discovery that alongside his father, there were a group of people, many in the `Class of '22` as Phil calls them, most of whom, having served as young officers in World War I went on to have significant roles in supporting the mechanised Army of World War II. As he puts it, “In my research the same names kept reappearing”. What intrigues us as we read is that this group are a bridge in time from one World War to the next. We feel we get to know them as people; loyal, committed, open to change, driven by a sense of duty and nicely old fashioned." 

“I have the book and delve into it daily. Very interesting too“. - Fred Keogh ex RAOC

From a letter received from Elizabeth Campbell, daughter of 'Cutters' who was second in command of Ordnance Services for the 21st Army Group and later Controller of Ordnance Services:

"It is very special for me to read about all those who I knew who did so much for their country and indeed for them and my father to be commemorated. I shall read it carefully, every chapter and will learn a lot."

Toby Neal, feature writer for the Shropshire Star which covers the area which included COD Donnington, has written a fascinating review focusing on Charles de Wolff who conceived the idea of moving Woolwich away from the risk of bombs and was COO at Donnington to which it relocated for most of WW2: 

''In his new book "Dunkirk to D-Day" Philip Hamlyn Williams shines the spotlight on the key personalities, who had the common bond of being forged and shaped by their experiences in the Great War, who formed the supply team which made victory possible.''

The University where I took an MA in Professional Writing have written about the book as encouragement to the current cohort of students. 

Follow this link to find where you can buy Dunkirk to D Day

Sunday 6 June 2021

What would life hold in store for these young men?

Bill Williams, Rivers Macpherson, Charles de Wolff and Cyril Cansdale (seated) taken in Woolwich following the first Ordnance Officers course after the end of the Great War. 
What would life hold in store? 
By D Day, Williams was Controller of Ordnance Service and Cansdale his deputy; de Wolff was COO of the vast depot at Donnington in Shropshire (Woolwich in the country); Macpherson had retired. Of others on that course, Dickie Richards was Director of Clothing and Stores, Geoffrey Palmer was COO Bicester and Alfred Goldstein was COO Greenford.


Thursday 3 June 2021

The first week in June

 We remember the flotilla of little ships in the same week that we commemorate the largest sea-born invasion ever undertaken. Admiral Bertram Ramsay, more than anyone, must have been struck by the coincidence. 

Of those leaders of the RAOC, Dickie Richards as Director of Clothing and Equipment, Geoffrey Palmer as COO Bicester and Cyril Cansdale as Deputy Controller of Ordnance Services were all there at the sharp end of Dunkirk, and in 1944 had their reply. In 1940 Bill Williams was at the War Office and would have witnessed the absence of all the vehicles he had so carefully amassed at Chilwell for the BEF. His anxiety in the first week of June 1944 must have been off the scale, but then the immense satisfactory of an extraordinary job well done. 

Thursday 20 May 2021

D Day supplies

For D Day many thousands of telegraph poles and miles of wire were taken to France in anticipation of the retreating Germans having destroyed their communications.

This abandoned pole near what was COD Old Dalby may have been in use then. 
This was but the tip of the iceberg. In all some 300 million items were packed in Ordnance depots around the country by RAOC men and women plus volunteers from many walks of life including school children.  

Tuesday 11 May 2021

Where you can buy Dunkirk to D Day

Here are links to some of the wonderful bookshops selling Dunkirk to D Day

Lindum Books, Lincoln


Browns Bookshop Hull

The Portobello Bookshop Edinburgh

Foyles Charing Cross Road, London


WH Smith


Byrd Books  Bethel, Connecticut, USA

Island Bound Bookstore Rhode Island, USA

Dymocks Australia

The Nile on line Australia and New Zealand

You can also order direct from Pen & Sword where it is also available in Kindle and ebook versions, and Amazon

Friday 30 April 2021

Publication Day

Dunkirk to D Day is released today, and many thanks to Pen & Sword 

It comes at the end of a seven year quest to answer the question so many boys of the forties and fifties asked: Dad, what did you do in the war? My quest grew into a project, which expanded into something much bigger as I began to grasp the sheer magnitude of the task he and his colleagues undertook. 

For me it began with Mum's albums, some twelve five inch thick scrap books. My mother had been my father's PA and had recorded the activities of the RAOC from his viewpoint as Controller of Ordnance Services. When I first looked at them seriously, I was struck by the images of vehicles massed at Chilwell in 1938 should the need arise. 

This sent me off to the RAOC archive at the RLC museum and thence to the National Archives and Imperial War Museum where I found wonderful first hand accounts by soldiers who had done their bit in the RAOC. All this became War on Wheels and many thanks to the History Press for that. The focus was very much the motor companies and the role of the RAOC in supplying them. I wrote an article on this aspect for History Press.

It was clear from my research that for many of those whose story I wrote, this was not the first war in which they had served. I needed to find out about their experience and this led to Ordnance and again many thanks to the History Press. Ordnance explored the broader picture of how the British army was supplied and this time the RAOC archive itself had vivid first hand accounts. I also wrote an article on Ordnance for History Press.

The research for these two books left a big question mark, for what I had found was essentially ordinary men and women doing quite extraordinary things. I needed to find what in their lives had prepared them for the enormous task they undertook and so I dug deeper to find the people behind the names. This time the focus was on those who led the RAOC, not least my own father who had been Director of Warlike Stores in addition to becoming Controller of Ordnance Services. My mother also had left some delightful diaries and had painstakingly recorded my father's memories recalled during his final months. There were records of a number of the other leaders which helped to add flesh to the bare bones. I wrote an article for the Pen & Sword guest blog.

I feel affirmed in my efforts by the kind words of Major General Malcolm Wood who wrote a foreword to Dunkirk to D Day:

"We feel we get to know them as people; loyal, committed, open to change, driven by a sense of duty and nicely old fashioned."

The photograph is of many of those in the story with one woman, my mother, without whom I could never have told it.

Sunday 25 April 2021

Dunkirk to D Day and the USA

It was clear after the withdrawal at Dunkirk that there would be a massive task of re-equipping the British army. It was even clearer after the Battle of Britain and the start of the air campaign waged by Bomber Command that the power of British industry would be directed primarily to aircraft production. Who would meet the army's need? 

Photo taken at Aberdeen proving ground

The answer came on 7 December 1941 when the USA was drawn into the war by the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbour. It is therefore interesting that the US Ordnance Chief, General Wesson, visited the UK and the massive RAOC armaments depot at Old Dalby in Leicestershire in September 1941. He was shown a state of the art depot run by former Dunlop Rubber Company director and now soldier, Colonel Bob Hiam. The General was impressed.

Old Dalby depot - now an industrial estate

The next reference to the USA in the albums, which I used as my main source material, was in July 1942 when Betty Perks wrote "the Yankees are here". Betty was the PA of the head of UK Ordnance Major-General Bill Williams, and on 17 May 1943 Bill and Betty set off for a six week visited to the USA taking in Ordnance establishments, the Pentagon and motor and armaments manufacturers. They were hosted by Major General Levin Campbell Wesson's successor as head of US Ordnance. Betty was aged 24 and had never previously flown or left English shores. What she did leave was a diary of her vivid and sometimes charmingly naive description of this and other trips, and I use extensive quotes in the book.

The USA played a major role in supplying the British army as I tell on this link

It is clear that Bill and Betty, as well as falling in love with each other, fell in love with the USA. I am their son and had an American godmother, the wife of the head of ordnance in Pennsylvania. 

After the war, Bill and a number of colleagues were honoured by US decorations; Bill was created Commander of the Legion of Merit. Levin Campbell was created honorary Knight of the British Empire. 

Saturday 24 April 2021

Jim Denniston - DOS 21st Army Group

James Guy (Jim) Denniston served first as private in the London Scottish, and was then commissioned on 13 August 1915 in the Seaforth Highlanders. He served in France and then in Egypt. He transferred to the RAOC in the late twenties and attended the 7th Ordnance Officers Course. 

In the thirties he was posted to Singapore where he is credited with the major expansion of the RAOC depot there. In WW2, he 'marched with the 8th Army' in North Africa, before a posting with RAOC training. 

He was appointed DOS 21st Army Group. In my blog piece for Pen & Sword, I describe the scene when he addressed the assembled leaders of the RAOC in the final preparations for D Day. This is how he began his speech:

‘We in the Expeditionary Force are the “happy few.” Let us remember that there may be, in our bases behind, many who are thinking of our good fortune; let us remember that they, too, would very willingly take our places in the front.'

He led Ordnance in the 21st Army Group until Cyril Cansdale took over when it became BAOR. Denniston was then posted back to the Middle East until his retirement. This final posting had coincided with a difficult phase of economic re-organisation which was made still more difficult by receding manpower, reduced estimates and a certain element of doubt and indecision. 'General Denniston (as he became) met all difficulty with indomitable courage and unfailing cheerfulness’

Denniston, Williams and Clarke (DDOS 2nd Army)

Monday 19 April 2021

Wolffy - COO Donnington 1944

Charles Esmond de Wolff, always know as Wolffy, is surely ‘the’ character of Dunkirk to D Day. He left two volumes of memoirs ‘not to be published’; I have honoured his wish but drawn on his memories, not least those that had been published in the RAOC Gazette. 

His grandfather served in the French cavalry, but, by the time Wolffy was growing up, his family lived in Wimbledon. On leaving school, Wolffy trained as a solicitor attending evening classes at Birkbeck College in London  

In WW1, Wolffy served in Selonika suffering damage to his ears which would require him to wear a hearing aid, a rather cumbersome device. 

At the end of the war he was posted to Russia to liaise with White Russian forces. It was then that he rescued a Russian princess, for which he was awarded a CBE

He was one of the Class of ‘22, and shared a house with Bill Williams on whom he played a celebrated practical joke, of which I tell in the book. 

In the interwar years he served in Malta, the island where he would eventually retire. With his deteriorating hearing, he considered moving to a civilian job  We can thank his boss, Basil Hill, for taking a different view and giving him the job of creating 'Woolwich in the country' safe from enemy bombing, a project Wolffy himself had conceived.

At COD Donnington, Wolffy commanded some twenty thousand people, gaining a reputation for effective and sensitive management. He had a most wonderful collection of stories many  of which I tell in Dunkirk to D Day  

Wolffy with the Queen on a visit to COD Donnington

Sunday 18 April 2021

Dunkirk to D Day - talking about my incredible source material

 Dunkirk to D Day looks at the lives of the leaders of the RAOC in WW2. Key to this was the progression towards becoming a fully mechanisation. This began in earnest in the mid thirties when my mum began collecting press cuttings for her boss, later Controller of Ordnance Services. Soon photographs were added together with copies of speeches and information booklets. Later there were diaries of overseas trips to build relationships with vital suppliers from the USA and Canada. I talk about these albums in this video  

Thursday 8 April 2021

Dickie Richards - a human cyclone

 Dickie Richards was larger than life. He was described as 'a cyclone in human shape'. Dickie had served first in the London Regiment and then in the AOD and, at least at one period, had commanded an ammunition train. There is an intriguing piece of evidence suggesting that Dicky had travelled much further afield, for he was awarded a Japanese medal. Japan had joined with the Entente in 1914, and soon took possession of the then former German colonies in the eastern seas. Dicky was awarded an MC. 

He was on the First Ordnance Officers Course and, in the interwar years, his postings included York and Egypt, the latter as an adviser. 

In 1939, he set up a massive general stores depot in Le Havre, returning to the UK after Dunkirk albeit briefly, before being sent out to join General Wavell in Egypt where he ran Ordnance Services until 1943. This was a massive task as Ordnance learnt how to supply a mobile army, with repeated advances and retreats. 

He returned to the War Office as Director of Clothing and Stores bringing with him a wealth of experience of supplying a mechanised army. Of his depots, the largest for clothing was COD Branston and for general stores, COD Didcot.

Dickie and Bill in lighter mood

In 1946, he succeeded Bill as Controller of Ordnance Services.

I tell much more of Dickie Richards and his fellow RAOC officers in Dunkirk to D Day 

I write about the textile industry and its contribution to the war effort in How Britain Shaped the Manufacturing World.

Wednesday 31 March 2021

Reddy Readman - COO Chilwell 1944

A feature of the world wars was the crucial role played by people from civilian jobs.

Edgar Readman worked in the steel industry in Sheffield before serving as a lieutenant in the South Staffordshire Regiment. He was posted to the Tank Battalion, being promoted to captain on 30 November 1917. After the war he returned to the steel industry in what became English Steel. He remained in the territorial army during the interwar period and was called up in the RAOC on the declaration of WW2. He succeeded Bill Williams and then Harry Whitaker as COO Chilwell in 1940, and ran it and the Motor Transport activities of the RAOC until he returned to English Steel after the war.

I looked at the management style of a number of the officers who had come from industry.

Reddy Readman at Chilwell wrote his management report with a focus on numbers; we might view them as Key Performance Indicators. In April 1944 he reported that during the month some 17,573,206 items had been packed in cartons bringing the total to date to 143,643,187 using some 6,265,340 cartons. The packing operation was extraordinary, with volunteers from all walks of life including school children helping the military and civilian staff of the depots. 

He reported on the printing of labels which was saving many man hours. The printing department at Chilwell had expanded into an operating employing some 250 people.  

It is also clear from his report that the field operations were being put together ready for transit on and after D Day. The Advance Ordnance Depots were staffed and supplies were being earmarked. The same was the case for the Forward Trailer Sections and Ordnance Field Parks as well as for the Landing Reserves and Beach Maintenance Packs. Of crucial importance he reported that work on Wading and Ventilation Equipment was complete and so the department could stand down. 

Civilian packers at Chilwell on an visit by the Queen

Friday 26 March 2021

Alfred Goldstein - COO Greenford 1944

Alfred Goldstein was commissioned from the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich, “The Shop”, to the Gunners; he served from 1916 until the end of the war in France with the 154 Siege Battery RA, and there he rose to the rank of major, in command of the battery, at the age of twenty-two. He was twice wounded whilst in action with the battery and he carried a number of pieces of shrapnel in his arm for the rest of his life. 

He passed out top of the First Ordnance Officers Course at Woolwich (Class of '22). In the interwar years he served at Catterick and Didcot; in both postings introducing modern management methods. 

He was posted as COO Greenford on his return from Malta having served there during the siege. Greenford’s main functions were the receipt of warlike stores from manufacturers, their storage, maintenance and issue to units at home and overseas. The depot also assembled complete units from many thousands of single parts. As with the other depots, there were workshops working alongside.

Greenford played a major role following D Day, as the focus for armaments and technical stores and the first port of call for demands from the Advance Depots over the channel. 

Goldstein with the Queen on a visit to Greenford

Friday 12 March 2021

Geoffrey Palmer COO Bicester 1944

Geoffrey Palmer always took great pride in the fact that he had risen through the ranks. He had served during the Great War in the London Regiment rising to the rank of captain. He then transferred to the RAOC and was one of the group of officers to attend the first Ordnance Officers course (the Class of '22) to be run at Woolwich after the war. His service during the interwar years included a three year posting to Palestine.

On the declaration of the Second World War, he returned from Palestine to become Chief Ordnance Officer at 1BOD in Nantes supplying the British Expeditionary Force with warlike stores. In June 1940 men from the  Nantes depot were evacuated together with RAF ground crew and many others on the SS Lancastria which was sunk by enemy fire with the loss of three thousand lives. It is not clear whether Palmer was a survivor, but there is evidence of him suffering trauma. 

In 1941 he was given the task of creating a whole new depot at Bicester near Oxford. This combined armaments and vehicles and boasted the largest tank repair shop then in existence. He commanded Bicester until the end of the war, when he was moved to Chilwell to head up all Motor Transport activities with the rank of Major General.

Geoffrey Palmer in conversation with Bill Williams at the Chief Ordnance Officer's meeting in March 1942

Monday 8 February 2021

Bob Hiam, COO Caen and Antwerp 1944

 Whilst the Dunkirk evacuation was taking place, Bob Hiam was busy setting up what was intended to be an overflow Motor Transport Depot for COD Chilwell. Soon it became clear that a further massive depot for armaments was needed to support COD Donnington, and COD Old Dalby began to take shape. 

COD Old Dalby as it is today

Bob Hiam had worked in tyre sales and distribution at Dunlop and was one of many such people who had  joined the volunteer reserve and then, on the declaration of war, was commissioned in the RAOC. As I tell in Dunkirk to D Day and indeed War on Wheels, there was a management challenge of some magnitude to mesh those skilled in logistics like Bob, with officers who had made they way up the RAOC many from service in WW1.

Bob was given the job of creating the Old Dalby depot. His success is perhaps evidenced by a visit to the depot by Dunlop management who came away having learnt a lot from the way Hiam had developed Dunlop methods to serve the army.

As a Chief Ordnance Officer, Bob met each quarter with his peers in the depots and their chief, Major General Bill Williams. The photo is of Bob addressing one such meeting in March 1942.

There is evidence in the War Diaries in the National Archives that Hiam wrote more than one report for Bill on methods.

The high regard in which he was held is further evidenced by the choice of him to become the COO of the Advance Ordnance Depot set up near Caen to supply the advance across northern France and then AOD at Antwerp for the final push into German.

After the war he returned to Dunlop as Sales Director in the business supplying tyres to the garage trade. He also, like a number of his colleagues, set up an association for those who had served at Old Dalby and which met right through to the sixties.

Bob Hiam was born in Somerset in 1905 the son of a French born draughtsman who worked for the railways. He died in 1979.

Dunlop and many other companies moved mountains to support the war effort. By releasing people like Bob Hiam, they greatly enhanced the ability of the RAOC to meet the army's needs.

Sunday 31 January 2021

Vaccines and Arms - odd bedfellows

 I was surprised when I read in the newspaper about vaccine production by Oxford University/Astra Zeneca to discover that the government had backed the development of the vaccine by paying money up front; not just money, but many millions. 

I was reminded of two other periods in our history when government has put is money where its mouth was.

In the Great War, Lloyd George spear-headed an astonishing network of factories built or bought by government money to make the shells so desperately needed on the western front.

In the mid 1930s, a reluctant government began a structure of shadow factories to manufacture desperately needed aircraft. In the end, the greater part of British manufacturing industry leant its shoulder to the war effort.

Astra Zeneca, which was born after the break up of that British institution, Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI), took up the challenge of manufacturing the vaccine developed in Oxford and built the necessary production facilities with advance payments by government. 

Students and Dons from Oxford Colleges volunteered at the Ordnance Depot in Didcot in WW1. Oxford was also the home to Morris Motors which played such a big role in the shadow factory initiative in WW2. 

Friday 15 January 2021

How Britain Created the Manufacturing World

I'm thrilled that Pen & Sword have confirmed their intention to publish my current work in progress, How Britain Created the Manufacturing World.

The peoples of the British Isles gave to the world the foundations on which modern manufacturing economies are built. This is quite an assertion, but history shows that, in the late eighteenth century, a remarkable combination of factors and circumstances combined to give birth to Britain as the first manufacturing nation. Further factors allowed it to remain top manufacturing dog well into the twentieth century, although other countries were busy playing catch up. Through two world wars and the surrounding years, British manufacturing remained strong, albeit whilst ceding the lead to the United States.

This book seeks to tell the remarkable story of British manufacturing, using the Great Exhibition of 1851 as a prism. Prince Albert and Sir Henry Cole had conceived an idea of bringing together exhibits from manufacturers across the world to show to its many millions of visitors the pre-eminence of the British. 1851 was not the start, but rather a pause for a bask in glory. 

I trace back from the exhibits in Hyde Park’s crystal palace to identify the factors that gave rise to this pre-eminence. I then follow developments up until the Festival of Britain exactly one century later. Steam power and communication by electric telegraph, both British inventions, predated the Exhibition. After it, came the sewing machine and bicycle, motor car and aeroplane, but also electrical power, radio and the chemical and pharmaceutical industries where Britain played a leading part.  

Thursday 14 January 2021

Dunkirk to D Day

 I am thrilled to post the cover of my forthcoming book, Dunkirk to D DayAt Dunkirk, the British Army had lost most of its equipment, yet of D Day, only four years later, Max Hastings would write in Overlord:

 I am thrilled to post the cover of my forthcoming book, Dunkirk to D Day

At Dunkirk, the British Army had lost most of its equipment, yet of D Day, only four years later, Max Hastings would write 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.’

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.

The book is a quest to find who the leaders were, what fitted them for their task and what they did afterwards. It follows the lives of some twenty men and one woman caught up in war. Most of the men served in two world wars, many came together on a course in 1922 (the Class of ’22) when enduring friendships and rivalries formed, some came later from careers in the industrial world. The woman would keep a faithful recorded of their deeds.

The story begins in Victorian south London. It goes out to Portuguese East Africa and then to Malaya, before being caught in the maelstrom of the Great War. Between the wars, its heroes work at Pilkington, Dunlop and English Steel; they serve in Gallipoli, Gibraltar and Malta; they transform the way a mechanised army is supplied. They retreat at Dunkirk - the army losing most of its equipment - and, by hook or crook, re-arm the defeated army. They supply in the desert and the jungle. They build massive depots, and relationships with motor companies here and in the USA. They successfully supply the greatest seaborne invasion ever undertaken: D-Day. After the war they work for companies driving the post-war economy: Vickers, Dunlop and Rootes. Many died, exhausted, years before their time.

You can preorder Dunkirk to D Day from this link to Pen & Sword. It is to be published on 30 April. 

Monday 11 January 2021

United Africa Company

I am working on a book about how Britain created the manufacturing world, and have explored the story of British manufacturing industry. There were, however, other ways in which Britain was creating manufacturing industry elsewhere. 

In the mid 1930s, investigations had been made to assess the possibility of setting up industrial production in Kenya to remove the necessity of importing so many manufactured goods. The place chosen, Nakuru, was conveniently located on the Kenyan communication system both for the collection of raw materials and distribution of finished goods. With the coming of war and the entry of the Italians in 1940, Nakuru was mobilised to produce what was needed to defend the northern frontier. There was a tannery capable of producing five tons of leather a month, a whole plant for the manufacture of blankets, shoe machinery and a soap plant. 

Perhaps in parallel with this initiative in East Africa, Lever Brothers had acquired the Niger Company in 1920 to secure supplies of palm oil. In 1929, the Niger company merged with the African and Eastern Trade Corporation Ltd, to form The United Africa Company Ltd. From the late thirties, through the war and into the later forties, the UAC shifted is focus to provide African countries with what they needed to set up local manufacturing.