War on Wheels

War on Wheels
Book cover

COD Chilwell - John Thomas Perkins

John Thomas Perkins (1903-1981)
Former civilian transport driver at Chilwell Depot, Nottingham.

Our father began working as a non-established driver at Chilwell in 1940 having previously been employed on site whilst working for a civilian contractor. Despite his lack of reading and writing skills he managed to find his way around the country something of an advantage when all sign posts had been removed! In fact it was dad who regularly led convoys due to his sense of direction. He never put pen to paper so these reminiscences are those remember from brief conversations with him up to his death in1981.

 The activities of the civilian drivers at Chilwell and other large ministry sites, is something that has been lost sight of during the intervening years.  It could be a dangerous and hazardous activity, but not without humour as will become apparent!

Chilwell was the central clearing depot for all military vehicles from tanks (A vehicles) through to Earthmoving equipment (C vehicles) plus all trailers and towed equipment.

Dad told me that many hours were spent in convoys and returning on the  train from destinations ranging from Cornwall to the far north of Scotland delivering to Army, Navy and Air Force sites.
Vehicles were also returned to Chilwell for repair and servicing. Chilwell was a huge operation of which dad was a small part.

During the long London blitz he told me they were regularly stuck in long lines of trucks just sitting there waiting for the bombs to drop: no motorways then, everything went through London.  He was also on the road in the midlands the night of the big raid on Coventry. There were a few Army Depots in the Warwickshire area Long Marston being one of them. His biggest scare was not from the Luftwaffe but from one of his fellow drivers. They were bringing large flat back American Diamond T transporters from Glasgow docks into England via Carlisle and Shap Summit. The front truck (which dad was driving) had one on the back and one on tow a hefty load going down Shap. The driver of the rear vehicle was supposed to use his brakes to help control the descent but he did not! The week before this driver had lost is family in a bombing raid and did not care whether he lived or died so thought he might end it there with a runaway down Shap. This was very selfish not considering dad up front or any other road users but must be given some sympathy due to his mental state. Mental state or not the trio of diamond Ts ran away down the old A66 dad could not hold it with just his vehicles brakes they ran for miles and miles brakes smoking.

He managed to take some speed off by running into and out of ditches and stone walls his new Diamond T was becoming very battered! Eventually they came to a halt dad grabbing the other driver telling him [You might want to die but I don’t] !

Sometimes dad drove alone and on one such occasion he was moving through Thetford Chase when he needed to answer a call of nature. Dad always wore a black peaked cap with a crown on he must have picked it up somewhere as it was not an issued item. It looked like one that prison officers or the “D” Specials wore in Northern Ireland. As he moved into trees he noticed a movement ahead it was a poacher with a brace of pheasants. On seeing dad and his D special hat the poacher dropped the brace and ran like hell thinking he was about to be nabbed by a bailiff. The ill gotten gains did not remain on the ground being whisked off to add a little spice to a war time diet at 73 Midland Crescent, Nottingham.

The other humorous incident involved the same part of the country this time Sandringham where dad had parked up his convoy on a large grassy area on a very foggy day. As the fog cleared it became apparent that it was not just any old piece of grass but a well looked after expanse of greenery. To top it all a lady approach telling him “You cannot park there my man”. One look convinced them to move the lady was according to my father HM the Queen ( late Queen Mother)  herself he couldn’t see if the King was about but they quickly left the area! They never heard anymore about it.

On the run up to” D” day he told me that for months before they were constantly on the road delivering anything on wheels to the marshalling areas between Cornwall and Kent sometimes just parking up under  the trees and camouflage. Then heading for the nearest station destined somewhere else for another convoy. He intimated that days after the invasion some of them went over to France to help clear the vehicle and supplies off the beaches.

After the war it was almost everything in reverse with vehicles being redistributed across what were still large military commitments in Africa the Middle East and Far East nearly all the vehicles being sent back to one of the Central Ordinance Depots for refurbishment or sale. Chilwell was still the main location for vehicle logistic movements.  Sometimes dad was on relatively local runs to one or more of the Chilwell satellite depots.  Amongst these local depots were Ruddington, West Hallam, Castle Donnington, Church Broughton, Old Dalby, Newark and Hilton. Her once took me to Old Dalby picking me up on the old Loughborough Road not far from where I now live in Ruddington. Sometimes he had to go to the Royal Ordnance Factory in the Meadows so it was a night at home for a change with an army truck, sometimes a half track parked outside on Midland Crescent!  Another overnight layup was off Isabella St /Edward St in Nottingham where the former Peoples College now Central College car park is now situated.

 On these occasions it was a 47 trolley bus to the bottom of Essex St then a walk up Kings Meadow Road. As a child in the early 1950s, I remember this area off Castle Hill as a fascinating location with British, American and Canadian vehicles parked up for a bit of R&R on the town. At that time Nottingham was a very lively place with all three nations and others out on the town mixing and brawling with the locals! One of dad’s grimmer memories was in the winter of 1947, driving trucks without windscreens, bound for hot climate. His own personnel anti-frost procedure was to encase himself in card board a bit like a armoured vest then put his clothes on top, it is surprisingly effective.  The White Post Inn on the Ollerton road to Nottingham was a place where one particularly bad day the steep hill got the better of them and could not be negotiated due to frost and snow. And this in a half track! Cromwell tanks had to be sent out from either Proteus Camp or Chilwell to get everything up the hill. When I worked on the railway it was this particular winter that was always spoken of in awe by the older hands. With a job to do, conditions for men like dad it must have been horrendous. You couldn’t even think about that nice coal fire at home as you couldn’t get the coal but sometimes dad could get wood on his travels and somehow got it back you can get a lot of logs  in back of an army truck.

Some of the drivers had what might be termed interesting backgrounds one an Irishman ( no name for obvious reasons) told dad he could not go back to Ireland as he had been in the Black & Tans during the trouble after independence as there was a price on his head. Another driver always drove close to the kerb, where there was one ruining many a front nearside tyre, regularly holding up the convoy.

Dad finished at Chilwell around 1964 and went to the ROF, Nottingham as a Car park attendant and Ambulance driver.

He could make that old black ambulance move, rushing down King Meadow Road with bell clanging away no blue lights or sirens then.

Jim Perkins
19. September .2014

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