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 29 December 2022

Royal Arsenal Woolwich

The Royal Arsenal at Woolwich features often in my books  

My father attended the first Ordnance Officers course there following the end of #WW1. I call it the Class of '22. It was remarkable in producing eleven future RAOC Brigadiers, but also five future Major-Generals out of a total of less than thirty. A fellow officer recorded a vivid account of the rush to join up in 1914. I include both in Dunkirk to D Day

In WW1, through no fault of its own, the Arsenal couldn’t cope with the demands of war on an industrial scale. Alongside, Lloyd George in effect mobilised the whole of British industry to supply the war effort. I write that story in Ordnance

In WW2, the greater part of the RAOC presence at Woolwich was removed from the danger of enemy bombing to Donnington in deepest Shropshire. I tell the story with some first hand accounts in War on Wheels

The Arsenal played a key role in our manufacturing past. In the wake of the Crimea, it modernised and took on the latest technologies. I tell that story in How Britain Shaped the Manufacturing World.

I am delighted to see the detailed history of the Arsenal taking shape on Royal Arsenal History

With thanks to the RAOC archive


Monday 26 December 2022

MacRoberts Reply is still selling

 I was asked to write this remarkable story by Story Terrace and the resulting book, written in conjunction with Phil Jeffs, was published in 2017 

Jeffs father survived the crash of a Stirling bomber in Denmark.

He survived with the help of the brave Danes who witnessed the crash and spent the rest of the war as a prisoner before enduring the long march home.

The aircraft was given to the RAF by Lady MacRobert as the Reply to Hitler for the loss of her three sons. Lady MacRobert was a great philanthropist and also instituted the MacRobert medal for engineering excellence. This links with my work in progress for it was awarded to the Lincoln team developing gas turbines. 

I was able through archival material to reconstruct what is by any standards a remarkable story drawing also on the work of Marion Miller and her book on the MacRoberts Cawnpore to Crowmar. Phil Jeffs begins the book with his father’s and his rescuers' vivid recollections of the crash. 

Seeing that sales of the book were still coming through, I reread the reviews and can see why!





Monday 12 December 2022

North Africa 1943

 Excerpt from Dunkirk to D Day

On 3 April, Bill Williams (COS RAOC), accompanied by Dick Hunt, took off from Hendon in an American aircraft to Marrakesh via Prestwick. They slept on the steel floor of the aircraft. The itinerary began at Marrakesh where they stayed at the Mamounier Hotel, formerly a Sultan’s palace. They travelled on to Algiers where Bill met with General Humphrey Gale and, one of the Class of ’22, Wallace Pickthall. Gale was then Chief Administrative Officer to General Eisenhower’s Allied Forces HQ, Wallace Pickthall was appointed Director of Ordnance Services at Allied HQ and would gain a priceless insight into allied working for a seaborne invasion. Alan Fernyhough was serving in North Africa and so could see at first hand the qualities of the man which he described in his History of the RAOC:

‘Brigadier Pickthall was not the man to shirk this task even though he was shrewd enough to know that it was likely to get him more criticism than credit. He had all the knowledge and experience of Ordnance work necessary for the appointment, but his chief qualification was that he had qualities of personality and character most needed at that time. His transparent honesty, integrity, friendliness and sense of humour ensured the maximum co-operation. The Americans liked and trusted him. Even those who prided themselves on being hard-bitten, “Vinegar Joe” types found difficultly in keeping up the act. His loyalty to his own staff evoked from them respect, admiration and a determination not to let him down. Yet, he lacked that element of ruthlessness which must be available in such a ruthless war.'

I also write about the North African campaign in War on Wheels.

Friday 9 September 2022

HM Queen Elizabeth II and the RAOC

  My father's archive includes correspondence with Buckingham Palace from not long after her Coronation exploring the possibility of her visiting the Corps of which she was Colonel in Chief. The exchange of letters concluded in 1957 with arrangements for a visit to Deepcut. 

The visit took place on 11 April 1958 and the Queen was hosted by Major General Sir Lancelot Cutforth as Director of Ordnance Services and my father, Major General Sir Leslie Williams, as Colonel Commandant. This is one of the photographs taken of the visit.

There is a film of the visit which I am sure is held at the RLC Museum. There are further photographs in my father's archive which is also held at the museum. 

Following the visit the Queen's private secretary wrote a letter of thanks saying how interesting the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh had found it. The letter is reproduced in Dunkirk to D Day with permission of the Palace.

Sunday 28 August 2022

The British Motor Industry

The British motor industry is one of my earliest memories. After leaving the army, my father became a director of the Rootes Group and he was one who definitely brought his work home. To a small boy it was the delight of the brochures for new models but also exotic characters from export markets who would come down to Sunday lunch, Emile Bustani being notable among them.


A poster from the interwar years

I have explored different aspects of the history of motor manufacturing in Britain in, now, four books. The first was War on Wheels about the mechanisation of the army in WW2 and in an article I wrote for The History Press. This was followed by Ordnance which shifted the camera to WW1 and, of course, the first appearance of the tank. I then moved my focus to people and I wrote about my father and the Rootes Group, but also Lord Nuffield, senior managers at Dunlop who contributed significantly to the war effort and a number of others in Dunkirk to D Day and my article on Civilian Expertise in War. The fourth book, How Britain Shaped the Manufacturing World, was a quest to discover the origins of the companies and how they fitted into the British manufacturing story. It is a story of larger than like entrepreneurs such as Lawson and Hooley working in creative tension with brilliant engineers
The British motor industry has so much to be proud of, not least its service in WW2. I quote from War on Wheels.

Bill Williams, now Deputy Director of Ordnance Services (MT) at the War Office, went to Chilwell that morning to lead a group of senior serving officers meeting, possibly for the first time, the newly called up members of the Army Officers Emergency Reserve. These latter included ‘Reddy' Readman who would take over as COO at Chilwell, Bob Hiam, who would command the depot at Old Dalby, Robby Robinson, who would command the depot at Sinfin Lane, Derby, and Dan Warren who would take a lead role in scaling, the dark art of estimating the quantity of spare parts needed to maintain vehicles in battle order.

Also on that Sunday in Birmingham the executives of the Nuffield Motor Company met to put into action the plans they had prepared for war. Through the various parts of the Nuffield Group it would over the next five year contribute aircraft and weapon production in addition to a great many vehicles. The remainder of the big five motor companies had been working with the Government on preparations for war, mainly the manufacture of aircraft. On that Sunday, though, the car plants themselves were placed on a war footing. The men who arrived for work the following day would be instructed to complete those cars already started, but then to leave the shop floor ready for war production. In many cases the contracts were slow in coming and the companies had to keep their workforces occupied one way or another; some had to be laid off. The motor industry, because it was set up to manufacture on a production line largely from metal and because it had a broad range of other skilled men, would be more than busy for the next five six years.’

Friday 17 June 2022

Who made the kit supplied to our army?

In each of War on Wheels, Ordnance and Dunkirk to D Day, names of businesses appear which for me are laden with associations. They are names from childhood, from an earlier age. I knew the names, but so little about them. 

This sent me on a quest. I traced the origin of companies to their birth and young life. 

My great grandfather had exhibited at the Great Exhibition of 1851 and I found a copy of the catalogue. It was an astonishing event held through the summer in a vast glass building in London’s Hyde Park. In the catalogue I found many of the same business names but many more. 

I explored endless avenues and the result is a book How Britain Shaped the Manufacturing World. It has just been published by Pen & Sword. I hope you will find it as interesting to read as I did to write. Here are links to other blog pieces on the subject: Motor Industry, Clothing

I am now on a quest to discover what happened to those companies, for so many have faded from view: Vickers, ICI, Ferranti, Marconi, Plessey, GEC, John Brown, Hadley Page, AVRoe, Supermarine, Alvis… 
Some though have prospered: Rolls-Royce, Johnson Matthey, Glaxo, Unilever, Jaguar, Dennis, Babcock…
So, added to my quest for what happened, is the question: why did it happen?
For the defence industry, much of the ‘What’ is to be found in BAE Systems but also Babcock. Yet nothing is that simple. 


Sunday 20 March 2022

COD Branston army clothing

In WW2 clothing was dealt with in a former pickle factory at Branston near Burton on Trent, to which it had moved from Pimlico in Central London. Harold Crosland, a businessman and TA officer from Berkshire who had won an MC in the First World War, would command the depot at Branston for the duration of the war. 

In WW1, the provision to the army of appropriate clothing was a huge challenge. Pimlico, near Victoria Station, was where army clothing production and distribution was centralised. The choice of further depots in places like Leeds made sense because they were near to Bradford and other places where the cloth was woven and the uniforms made up. The trench coat would become associated with the First World War. For these, Burberry used their patented Gaberdine waterproof material, and Aquascutum the water proof cloth that they had patented. The cotton mills of Lancashire had maintained their pre-war level of production with a workforce in 1914 of over 600,000. The rationale behind this was that the war was going to be short and Britain’s role would be that of armourer funded by its export earnings from textiles. As is clear, this is not what happened. What is odd is that the mills didn’t shed labour to where it was needed in the forces and armament factories. 

By the end of the thirties man-made fibres had joined cotton and wool and so ICI, Courtaulds, Dunlop and British Celanese amongst others would supply alongside the mills of Lancashire, Yorkshire and Northern Ireland.

I write about the British textile industry and its role in two world wars in How Britain Shaped the Manufacturing World.

Ordnance tells the story of supply in WW1. War on Wheels focuses on WW2. Dunkirk to Day explores the lives of the leaders, most of whom served in both wars. 

Friday 18 February 2022

150,000 blog visits

 For an historian, people finding interest in their research is reward enough. In May 2014, I found an incredible archive and since then I have endeavoured to tell its story.

I have now taking up a strand of my research for my next book, How Britain Shaped the Manufacturing World, to be published in June 2022

War on Wheels and Ordnance are available to buy from The History Press and Dunkirk to D Day from Pen & Sword, also from Amazon and good book shops.






Tuesday 8 February 2022

Civilian Expertise in War - article in The Historian

 When I think of war, I immediately see men and women in one of three uniforms: Royal Navy, RAF and Army. My research over the past seven years into how the British army was supplied in two world wars tells a rather different story.

In my article I seek to explore the role played by civilians and civilians who temporarily became soldiers bringing with them skills and experience from the essentially non-military world. Rather than look at this in its generality, I focus on the story of a small number of individuals who ended up playing key roles.


My article is published in The Historian, the magazine of the Historical Association

I tell more of these men in my book Dunkirk to D Day