The story of Central Ordnance Depot Didcot.
The War Office had seen the need to relieve the pressure on Woolwich and also to find a site less vulnerable to attack. The apocryphal story is that a ‘senior officer’ happened to be standing on Didcot station and saw around him acres of land that looked eminently suitable for a major Ordnance depot.
On 15 June 1915 the depot opened under the command of Second Lieutenant George Payne of the Royal Garrison Artillery. Payne was soon joined by Chief Ordnance Officer Colonel C Purchas. Payne described the scene in a letter: ‘The stores started to come in from the various factories and soon we turned the previous wheat acres into a seething mass of MUD, MUD, MUD and water. Never did I see such a wet and dismal situation.’
The Depot was ‘to receive, store and issue stores required to support the British and Commonwealth Armies throughout of the World’ but in particular to accommodate the QMG stores that were too bulky for Woolwich, items such as hospital and camp furniture, barrack stores and vehicles.
Colonel Purchas clearly reviewed the situation and quickly noted that, ‘it was becoming impossible with the force of the Army Ordnance Corps here to receive all the supplies coming in from all sources, and to issue them promptly,’ adding, ‘at my wit’s end I went to Oxford.’ He also approached neighbouring public schools Eton and Radley.
The story came to attention of the Times and this was part of the article read at the nation’s breakfast tables in the autumn of 1915. The headline ran, ‘Zeal at Didcot Dons among the workers. Busy Sunday scenes’, it then continues:
The training corps offered to come in a body the following Saturday, and they were joined by a party of Dons and Undergraduates, making a force of between 300 and 400 volunteers…
The work of shunting and unloading went cheerfully forward all that day and the next. Here might be seen a professor painting a bucket, whilst a renowned historian carried plates…
One Sunday, instead of 300 helpers, nearly 3,000 came over from Oxford, Witney, Banbury, Thame, Reading, Maidenhead, Henley, Windsor, Goring and Streatley, Bicester and Chipping Norton. Mr Mason MP, as he stated in the House of Commons on Wednesday, came over and took command. So well did this amateur army work under the direction of the small regular force that hundreds of trucks were unloaded and the line cleared.
Didcot played a vital role in supply right until the end of the war. It then remained open with much reduced staffing and so was ready when war threatened once more.
The range of stores held by Didcot and its sub depots in the Second World War was huge and included equipment for mountain and snow warfare, airborne equipment, and assault, commando and jungle warfare in addition to bicycles, industrial gases, camouflage equipment, camp equipment and household utensils. In terms of numbers, there were 7,410 personnel in 1943 comprising 1,150 RAOC, 1,000 Royal Pioneer Corps, 850 ATS and 4,410 civilians. Annual expenditure rose from £3 million in 1939 to £75 million in 1945, with the annual tonnage shipped increasing from 18000 tons to 1.5 million tons over the same period.
With the coming once more of peace, COD Didcot became the site for a power station, now demolished.