My most recent book

My most recent book
My most recent book

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."

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 due to be 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 next 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 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.