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From socks to scout cars: How to supply the army at war


Anything from socks to eighteen inch guns was the business of Ordnance Services in World War One; in World War Two the socks were still there, but the emphasis had moved from massive static guns to mobile armour. Bomber Command had taken over the business of carrying tons of explosives.

The number of soldiers engaged in Ordnance Services for the British Army grew from 2,500 in August 1914 to 250,000 in August 1945; the number of motor vehicles grew from a few hundreds to one and a half million; the tank evolved from barely an idea to an ever present reality. Throughout both wars many thousands of women worked long and hard in the war effort.

In 1914 the army was highly professional but small; it was the army of empire, the army of cavalry. It took on a war machine and had one way or another to become one too. Almost at the start Ordnance Services descended into chaos with vast quantities of supplies evacuated in the face of the German advance. In the First World War the vital issue was of supply; getting enough guns, enough ammunition to do the job; the scale of which was almost beyond imagination. Lloyd George called upon the men of ‘push and go’, the businessmen, who could produce what was needed. There was much more to it than that, but it was the core, and they did it.

In 1919 a process of forgetting began. The Great War had rocked the western world and much beyond. Somehow the world had to find different ways to deal with conflict and the League of Nations was central to this. Germany had been emasculated by the Treaty of Versailles. The United States had not the remotest intention of taking up arms again. Britain and France had been decimated.

The twenties and thirties witnessed massive change, as old industries declined and new businesses began to spring up and blossom: motors cars, electronics, household goods. Out of the years of depression came hope for a better future. Those in the armed forces were all too keenly aware that they were being starved of resource.

As the mid thirties approached, so too did the threat of a resurgent Germany. The national debate in the UK about re-armament is well known. When it did come, it was too little too late.

An astonishing array of vehicles and equipment crossed to France in 1939, most of which was left behind at Dunkirk. The parallels with 1914 are so strong that the question has to be asked: why had lessons not been learnt? The German advance was spearheaded by tanks, a British invention; but the British had nothing that could compete.

In 1940 Bill Williams, then head of Ordnance Services, turned to industry as Lloyd George had done, but this time it was a search for people steeped in logistics. They came and rose to the challenge, so much so that of D Day, Max Hastings could write in his book, Overlord:

‘To almost every man of the Allied Armies, the predominant memory of the campaign, beyond the horror of battle, was the astounding efficiency of the supply services…for young British soldiers, who had grown up with the legend of the War Office’s chronic bungling, and of the Crimea and the Boer War, Second Army’s administration in Normandy seemed a miracle.’

In between times though much had been learnt and incredible works were undertaken, not least in the USA. In World War One, the industries of the United States supplied the Entente nations and their bankers financed them. In World War Two, they largely held back until the US declared war. Thereafter it was surely the muscle of the United States that provided the tools to ensure the job was done.

None of this happened on its own. Remarkable people did remarkable things. Their finest years, indeed.

By Philip Hamlyn Williams

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