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Friday, 19 November 2021

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


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