My forthcoming book

My forthcoming book
My forthcoming book

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.

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. 

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