War on Wheels

War on Wheels
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War on Wheels pre-view Chapter 1 The Beginning

An extract from the first chapter of War on Wheels. In the book it is illustrated with some contemporary images.

The Beginning

Had you been a passenger on the omnibus from Nottingham railway station to the little village of Chilwell on a wet November morning in 1934, you may have seen a tall, heavily built soldier fidgeting as he sat, his eyes scanning all that they passed. In his pocket was the letter from the War Office instructing him to visit the site of a former shell filling factory. In his mind there could well have been wild imaginings: a fully mechanised army, light years from that which he had experienced in the four dark years of the Great War. He had been asked to see whether the site could be right for the first Royal Army Ordnance Corps Depot specifically for motor transport and, if so, how he would create it.

In the late 1920’s the War Office had begun to explore just what a mechanised army might look like by setting up an experimental armoured force, however, with the depression, this came to nothing. During the Depression, as government sought to conserve resources and set its face against re-armament, the Royal Army Ordnance Corps had suffered more than most. The role of the RAOC was to supply fighting troops with everything they needed except for food and fuel. It was the Cinderella of the army and it is probably safe to say that it was regarded as a corps of store-men, never to confront an enemy and seldom to leave the safety of the warehouse. This was reflected in the staffing which was overwhelmingly civilian, and even the soldiers were not regarded as combatant troops. The army nickname for ordnance men was ‘blanket stackers’. If the corps itself had suffered, so too had the army’s equipment: there were no more than 4,000 vehicles for the whole army and most of those old and unreliable and with few in the corps able to maintain them; it had only 25 drivers. Now things were going to change.

Bill Williams was a temporary Lieutenant Colonel and had spent six years at Catterick in Yorkshire, a depot that was gaining a reputation for forward thinking in the field of mechanisation. In the aftermath of the Great War, his corps had had the job of clearing up after the devastation of the trenches and Bill had been the last officer to leave, bringing back the final pieces of equipment from the Rhine. He already had a passion for motor vehicles. He had been issued with a motor bike in his role as Machine Gun Officer in the Suffolk Regiment which he joined at the outbreak of the Great War. He later gave it up when he and it met a wall at speed. When he was stationed on Gibraltar in the early 20’s, as both Ordnance Officer for the Army and for the Navy, a US Naval Officer whom he’d met arranged to ship over a model T Ford. This became his pride and joy. At Catterick, his most treasured possession was a Sunbeam. In 1937 he took delivery of a silver grey Jaguar which he would have serviced at their factory in Coventry. There he got to know a man called Dan Warren who then worked for SS Cars to which the name Jaguar was later added. Dan, like so many other talented motor men whom Bill met, would have a significant part to play in the story that followed.

Bill’s passion for motor cars was shared by a great many, mostly young men. Car ownership had spread among the middle classes. It wasn’t just work, cars were about leisure, but above all about speed. It has been said that Battle of Britain pilots were only as effective as they were because a great many had driven cars at speed and so had developed quick reactions. Relatively widespread car ownership was the result of innovative manufacturers who knew how to tempt their customers. It also produced a network of repair garages around the country staffed by men rapidly developing skills as motor mechanics.

Some years later, Bill recalled his first impressions of Chilwell:

My first view of this magnificent depot was of a square mile of junk, weeds, railway lines, one messenger, one civilian artificer with a few maintenance men employed mainly on the heavy guns mounted on railway mountings.

The site may have been derelict, but it was in the right place: good road and rail links, a plentiful supply of staff, but above all close to Coventry. On the outskirts of Nottingham, Chilwell was near the motor industry and that held the key. Wars in the middle of the 20th century would be fought on wheels. The derelict factory, which had been the largest shell filling factory in Britain, had supplied most of the ammunition fired on the Western Front. It had been created by Viscount Chetwynd, a man of great vision, but in 1918 it suffered a disastrous explosion which cost the lives of 134 munition workers and rendered most of the site useless. After the war what remained of the site became a general ordnance depot until it closed in 1926, except for use for Territorial Army camps. One of Bill’s first acts on taking command was to put in place a tradition of honouring those munition workers on each Armistice Day.

Albert Mears, whose aunt had worked in the factory during the Great War, remembered playing in the deserted depot:

Part of the game was to get inside the depot without being spotted by the watchman; once inside it was boy’s paradise. The old mill buildings with their wood runways still stood as did the Press Houses, but the whole area was covered in brambles. The buildings were still painted in camouflage colours and many old canvas buckets, used for carrying the powder, lay about the place but this all changed when builders came. Later when war broke out and we lads joined the Sherwood Foresters our Instructors always said we were better at avoiding the sentries than the rest - we reckoned our journeys into the depot had stood us in good stead.

Bill Williams had been born in 1891 and, on his father’s death in 1906, had had no choice but to leave school. He worked first at an insurance office before he grasped the opportunity first to trade in East Africa and then plant rubber in Malaya, before returning to a job with the Overseas Daily Mirror. Like many of his contemporaries he joined the territorials, in his case the London Scottish. On the declaration of war in August 1914 he joined the Suffolk regiment but soon transferred to the Army Ordnance Corps as a bomb disposal officer. He was posted to France and, in 1915 at a railhead at St Venant, in the maelstrom of the Great War, he met Dickie Richards, who would become his great friend and rival. Dickie, just one year Bill’s junior, then commanded an ammunition train and Bill was the ordnance officer attached to the 19th Division. They both won an MC. They were both leaders; Bill was perhaps the more organised and visionary and Dickie, in Bill’s words, ‘a law unto himself’ who, later in the Middle East, earned for the Corps a reputation for ‘getting things done’. They would together go on to spearhead the mechanisation of the British Army and transform the way in which troops were supplied.

This was how Bill described the origins of his Corps in a speech for Salute the Soldier week in 1944: ‘My Corps, the Royal Army Ordnance Corps, is one of the oldest Corps in the Army, as in bye-gone days it was responsible for supplying the Army with bows and arrows and armour for the men at Arms. In fact, I believe in the early stages of our history we planted the yew forests, from which the bows were made.’

At the time of the invasion by William the Conqueror, it is probable that the Roman Tower on the Thames (now the Tower of London) housed the Army’s arms. For most of its history the organisation that controlled the arms came under the leadership of the Master General of Ordnance. This was one of the great offices of state, once held by the Duke of Wellington. It was a powerful office: he who holds the key to the armour has power both to support the Crown and to oppose it. It seems that it was also a profitable office and so, inevitably, the time came for Parliament to rein it in.

The story that followed appears to be one of duplication and inefficiency. The key issue was that the ordnance function was to be kept separate from the army itself. There were periods when successful patterns of working emerged, but it seemed that, once a crisis passed, lessons were forgotten. The South African war and its aftermath led at least to a structure for ordnance with an Army Ordnance Corps under the Quartermaster General, but with an Army Ordnance Department under the Master General of Ordnance still responsible for production and purchasing. In logistics terms the Army Ordnance Corps was still separate from transport, which fell in the remit of the Army Service Corps which also fed the troops: hardly an example of efficiency; at least both corps came within the QMG’s department.

The Great War saw an expansion in the Army Ordnance Corps from 30 officers and 1,360 men in 1914 to 800 officers and 38,000 men in 1918. The war, like all wars, was a learning experience, but it was largely a static war notwithstanding the introduction of the tank. Ordnance bases were formed well behind the front with ammunition and ordnance stores brought forward by rail. AOC personnel ran the supply depots behind the scenes but also the line of supply and the field depots which provided divisions with what they needed in order to fight. The officers and men clearly had conducted themselves with distinction since, after the war, General Sir Travers Clarke, Quartermaster General for France, had this to say about the Corps: “Ordnance was the ever-present help of the British soldier in an ordeal of unexampled severity.” The Army Ordnance Corps was rewarded in 1918 by the addition of the word ‘Royal’ to its name.

1920 Woolwich, England

In spite of the great contribution the corps made in the Great War and perhaps because of its history, corps officers were not eligible for Staff College alongside officers in other regiments. Accordingly, the newly named RAOC took the initiative of introducing a course for its own officers. The first such course took place in 1920 at Red Barracks, Woolwich, the old home of the RAOC. Both Bill and Dickie attended and Bill described Dickie as the ‘life and soul’. This was really where their friendship began.

The course results are still in the Corps Archive and show Bill passing out second to Alfred Goldstein who would go on to command the corps in Malta during the siege and then COD Greenford which was to play such a big role on D Day. Other names on that list also re-appear in the story: Charles de Wolff, who would command the massive armaments depot at Donnington in Shropshire, G.A. Palmer who would take on the setting up of Bicester, the key depot that would supply D Day, C Cansdale who would head up Ordnance in the British Army of the Rhine and WEC Pickthall who would become Director of Ordnance Services for the First Army in North Africa.  In subsequent years other names appear, Brigadier Whitaker who would succeed Bill at Chilwell and go on to control provisioning in the Middle East. Brigadier Denninston and Colonel Cutforth who would command ordnance within the 21st Army Group on D Day, and Digger Reynolds, also a Chilwell pioneer, who was part of the corps representation in Washington which paid such a key role in the supply chain.

Herbert Ellis of The Autocar magazine of 16 June 1944 reported on an invasion-eve visit to an RAOC vehicle reserve depot where transport was massed for the assault on France. He began though with a piece of serendipitous history also connected with Woolwich but referring to Chilwell.

One afternoon in 1921, a number of Mark IV and Mark V tanks, which a few years previously had rumbled over the battlefields of Flanders, were delivered at Woolwich Arsenal, the peacetime depot of the Royal Army Ordnance Corps. These tanks were obsolete and clumsy, yet their arrival at Woolwich represented a milestone in the history of the RAOC. It marked the point at which the Corps, not previously concerned with the supply of motor vehicles to the Army, began to set up which is now the greatest distributive system the motor trade of Europe has ever seen or is likely to see.

The London Evening News of 2 April 1941 described Ordnance Services in the context of ‘Q’, the Quartermaster General to the forces who was responsible for all manner of supplies and stores. It was the Quartermaster’s Stores of the old song. The Evening News told how ‘Q’ ‘sees to Tommy’s every need’, like the same ‘Q’ much loved of James Bond. The ‘Q’ activity ranged from the weekly cost of feeding the army abroad of about £1.5 million, including some 925,000 loaves of bread daily, and the weekly petrol bill at home and overseas of £290,000. Then came the three branches of Ordnance Services, the RAOC itself: Clothing, Equipment and Accommodation Stores; Weapons, Radio and Mechanical Transport; and Engineering and Maintenance.

The increased emphasis on mechanical and technical stores changed the nick-name of the RAOC to the Rag and Oil Company and the Corps became a Corps of skilled tradesmen.

1934, Catterick, England

Back at Catterick, Bill would have contemplated the task ahead. In his mind there were perhaps two competing feelings, the first must have been of satisfaction. One memory of that first Ordnance Officers course was of Bill being derided by the others for knowing so little maths. This was a simple result of leaving school at fifteen. The army, though, like the rest of society, was obsessed with status and background. Promotion was based simply on seniority. In Bill’s papers there is a schedule with the names of fellow officers set in order so that he could work out when his time would come. For much of the army this didn’t change until 1944 when Field Marshall Montgomery replaced many long serving officers with younger men of greater ability. Yet now Bill at age 43 had been given the most crucial job in the whole of Army Ordnance. It could be that the powers that be didn’t realise just how vital it was, but Major-General Basil Hill, the then head of The RAOC clearly did. Later, Bill spoke of the support he received from Hill but also from Major-General Lionel Hoare, the Principal Ordnance Officer in charge of Woolwich.

They backed me through thick and thin and when I sometimes had to perhaps break the rules, force the pace, go right over their heads to Finance Branches at the War Office and Treasury, they never criticised me for this because they knew I was doing it for the good of Chilwell and the Army. They pulled my leg of course, quite a lot, but I want you to realise that without the backing of these magnificent men, particularly Lionel Hoare, who was constantly visiting me, I could never have achieved so much in so short a time.

The second feeling was probably of terror; here was a project as monumental as it was crucial and it was down to him.

The Chilwell site was almost exactly one square mile, an irony for Bill, since as boy he had dreamed of working in the other more famous square mile of the City of London. The experience of war had changed that: four years in the trenches of Flanders and the experience of making the line of supply actually work, or, more probably, a realisation of just how difficult it was to supply an army in the heat of battle. But also the potential of what was possible: the vision of a truly mobile army. In the fullness of time this square mile would be filled by vehicles of all types, repair shops and neatly stacked spare parts, but on a scale that would make the motor manufacturers own depots look childlike.

There were already builders on site with a maintenance brief and so it made sense to walk round with them. Bill would have driven down the A1 and then across to Nottingham to meet Frank Perks of the Long Eaton builders, F Perks & Son, whom he already knew well from Catterick. They had clearly developed a sound working relationship and friendship since Frank would refer to Bill as that mad b**** Bill Williams. Frank was a small man of great energy. They made their way through the bramble covered rail tracks, massive sheds with gaping holes in their roofs and then underground to Viscount Chetwynd’s pride and joy, the subterranean chamber formerly used for ammunition storage, perfect to shelter thousands of employees when the German bombers arrived. All this was meant to be secret but, as is so often the case, the local press, The Long Eaton Advertiser, sensed what was going on.

Dame Rumour has a wagging tongue and there are many tall stories told relative to the Chilwell Depot. It is not our job to nail unfounded rumours, but it is quite true that Messrs. F. Perks & Son have staff busily employed at the Depot - on routine maintenance they say. Various instructions issued indicate that in the near future there may be another unit stationed at the Depot, but like many Government schemes “everything is in the air” at the moment….

Bill took up his post in March 1935 and put together a small team in Farnborough where the other part of the corps’ existing vehicles were kept. In the team was Sub Conductor Dick Hunt who would, as an officer, become Bill’s eyes and ears. The rank of Sub Conductor was unique to the corps and was equivalent to Sergeant-Major. There was a long tradition of men from this rank receiving commissions, reflecting the value attached to experience. Alongside Hunt there were soldiers and civilians each chosen by Bill for their particular skill. Others in the Farnborough team were Digger Reynolds and Basil Cox who would take command of the huge depot at Tel-el-Kebir in Egypt and then Didcot with its massive volume of general stores.

The money set aside by the Treasury for the new depot, £22,000, was laughable and that was an early task. It took endless argument, hours spent waiting outside offices in Whitehall and diplomacy on a grand scale. Bill made a point of getting to know the junior civil servant who actually looked after the file and then making a fuss of him. It was pointless going to his superior; far more effective to get the bright young man on side to tailor the argument.

Steadily the £22,000 grew. Sappers came on site alongside the Perks men and the site was cleared of rubbish. New rail tracks were laid and a massive nine acre building for stores constructed. Much midnight oil was burned trying to work out how much space would be needed for spare parts; there was just nothing to go on. As areas of the site were restored the existing vehicles moved in.

Bill visited the Royal Army Service Corps vehicle depot at Feltham, the old ordnance depot at Weeden with its stores of small arms, Didcot with its general stores, and, of course, Woolwich with its arsenal of armaments and technical stores, but all that was for yesterday’s battles, Chilwell needed something entirely new. This war was going to be about more than guns; it was about a large range of vehicles demanding a range of spare parts running into ten of thousands. Had he a crystal ball, he might have seen an Amazon distribution warehouse. In fact what they created was the blueprint from which all modern logistics stems. It was the largest motor distribution business in the world.

His relationship with Jaguar prompted him to write to its Managing Director, Sir William Lyons, but also to the leaders of the other major motor companies, asking to ‘pick their brains.’ How were those letters received? Shock; the Army, which knows how to do everything, asking for help! Shock was followed by a warm willingness to help. A warm response came from William Rootes.

The Rootes Group disappeared in the 1960’s, although its marks of Humber, Hillman, Sunbeam continued a little longer as part of Chrysler and then Peugeot. In the 1930’s Rootes in many ways led the British Motor Industry. William Rootes was chairman of the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders. His company was very profitable and he lived on an estate in Berkshire where he rubbed shoulders with the great and the good. I am sure it wouldn’t be totally unfair to say that he saw benefit in being public spirited, in offering his expertise. But he offered it well beyond what was expedient.

He invited Bill down to the Humber works at Coventry where Bill could see at first hand the operation of a production line. There were other trips too, Dagenham and Ford, Vauxhall at Luton, Austin, Morris and Wolseley, and of course his beloved Jaguar. It wouldn't just be cars, it was also key components and so trips to Fort Dunlop, Lucas and Triplex. Trucks would play huge part and so visits to AEC and Commer. These trips were reciprocated by senior motor industry men visiting Chilwell: Sir Peter Bennett and Bob Lillico of Lucas, Harold Kenwood of Dunlop and Sir Patrick Hennessy, Sir Roland Smith and Stanford Cooper of Fords. One result of these visits was the building of a comradeship between the Chilwell officers and the civilian firms who would supply them that would last for the duration of the war and beyond.

Another highly influential visitor was Lord Nuffield who had been to see Chilwell and had told the War Minister, Mr Hore Belisha, about all that was happening. So, when in the summer of 1939 the question of an appointment as Deputy Director of Ordnance Services (MT) came up, the War Minister asked, ‘why not Williams at Chilwell?’

Motor Industry expertise was a prerequisite, but only if a system could be found to enable stock to be located quickly and monitored effectively. It would be pointless having vehicles and all the necessary spares if the men had to scrape round to find them. The big retail stores would help with this and so more letters and trips to Marks and Spencer, Woolworths and Harrods. His friendly civil servant suggested that the Metropolitan police had good system. Everything was up for grabs. The choice that Bill made was controversial since it ignored the mechanical and electronic systems that were emerging; he decided to use Visidex, a manual card system that reduced duplication but but could be used both in depots and in the field, a factor that would prove decisive.

1938, Chilwell, England

Chilwell marked a dramatic transition from the army of old to something entirely new. Mr BH Shepherd was one of 1300 civilians worked there in 1938 and he recalled the day when the Royal Artillery stabled their horses for the last time:

The Chestnut Troop RA reported to the Vehicle Kit Store in smart riding breeches and with spurs a-jingling on their boots, whips under left arm, chin straps in position with service cap on head. At a command from the Battery Sergeant-Major they marched in file, halted at the Kit Store, stood at ease and received the keys to the new mechanical horses and a maintenance kit also. Standing outside the store were olive green 4-wheeled drive Quad-Ant Tractors made by Guy Motors, for towing guns and limber - mechanisation had arrived for them. The RA was now on wheels and bound for Salisbury Plain; in future the cost for the loss of any item of kit would be deductible from the Gunner’s pay!

The Chilwell project had taken three years and by 26 April 1938 it was ready to be revealed to the public.

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