Vital wartime role of Shropshire base that supplied the army

Montgomery and Slim, Williams and Wolffy.

A top brass visit during the war – from left, Major General Bill Williams, General Riddell-Webster and, with the hearing aid, the COD Donnington commander Brigadier de Wolff.
A top brass visit during the war – from left, Major General Bill Williams, General Riddell-Webster and, with the hearing aid, the COD Donnington commander Brigadier de Wolff.

The first two are military legends of the Second World War, their names well known. But the latter two had arguably just as much to do with the eventual victory, or maybe more.

Major General Sir Leslie Williams headed the massive supply organisation which made sure the army had the equipment it needed to do the job, and Brigadier Charles de Wolff had the vision to create a massive stores depot on a virgin green field site in Donnington, correctly judging that being in Shropshire would make it much safer from bombing than the Woolwich Arsenal in London.

The story of that operation to arm the army, and the men behind it, is now being told by Williams' son, drawing on a remarkable archive compiled by his mother, and other accounts including de Wolff's autobiography, held at the Imperial War Museum archive.

Williams, who was known in army circles as Bill or Willie, was head of the Royal Army Ordnance Corps, and on the eve of D-Day was responsible, as Controller of Ordnance Services as well as Director of Warlike Stores, for the supply of all vehicles, guns, radios and ammunition in the forthcoming operation.

In his new book "Dunkirk to D-Day" Philip Hamlyn Williams shines the spotlight on the key personalities, who had the common bond of being forged and shaped by their experiences in the Great War, who formed the supply team which made victory possible.

A Matilda tank at COD Donnington bound for Russia.

Philip's mother Betty became Bill's personal assistant at the War Office in September 1941 and began to compile her record, including diaries of their overseas trips written as a wide-eyed 24-year-old who had never been further than Skegness, press cuttings, and so on. They were destined to marry in 1948 after Bill's divorce – he had first married in 1915.

De Wolff was clearly a man of many talents, as he had written revues. He served at Gallipoli, and then in Salonika where he was badly burned in an explosion in July 1916 which left him in hospital for three months. Afterwards it was discovered he had lost his hearing.

During the Russian revolution he was sent on a secret mission to rescue a Russian princess, Grand Duchess Olga Alexandrovna, a cousin of King George V, who was living under an assumed name in Red Russian territory. For his exploit he was awarded the CBE.

In the 1930s de Wolff foresaw the risk of bombing to equipment stored at Woolwich and recommended relocation to Shropshire. As war clouds gathered, in March 1939 he was ordered to return from Malta to begin to set up his brainchild at Donnington, but when the war broke out he was sent to France.

"De Wolff returned from France in November 1939 to continue oversight of the project which would bear fruit after Dunkirk and for the duration of the war," writes Phil.

Guns under protective covering at COD Donnington.

Central Ordnance Depot Donnington was described as "a new Woolwich" and opened in the summer of 1940, but in those days after the Dunkirk disaster, and the looming prospect of air attacks on London, there was anxiety that construction was not proceeding fast enough.

"The decision was taken to move the contents of Woolwich, together with such arsenal employees who would go, to Donnington. It was a massive operation clogging up the railways for days.

"Even de Wolff took his jacket off to help with the work. It was reported that the concrete floors were barely dry when the Woolwich equipment arrived. Clerks would work in warehouses with no heating all through the ensuing winter. The depot was surrounded by tented camps where the troops working at the depot lived."

It quickly grew to be a massive operation, and by 1943 de Wolff was commanding 15,000 British troops, including 367 officers, 3,200 women of the ATS (Auxiliary Territorial Service) and around 2,000 Italian prisoners of war. There were also 4,000 clerks, all in one massive building.

COD Donnington led to a new community being created on its doorstep as hundreds of homes were built to house the civilians who worked at the depot.

One decision, seen at the time as revolutionary, saw the women of the ATS, the women's branch of the army, doing a vast range of duties and working alongside the men. In his memoirs de Wolff said he had followed the principle of allowing men and women to mix as freely as in their home towns.

"They dance, go to the cinema and theatre and go for walks together," de Wolff said in his memoirs. The result was that "behaviour has never been better."

Phil's book says MI5 compiled dossiers of communist sympathisers working in depots. MI5 officials visited Donnington and de Wolff was asked or ordered to keep the identified soldiers under a watchful eye and to enter details of suspicious behaviour in the dossiers.

"After two years, no entries had been made and, when challenged, de Wolff declared that he had full confidence in the men. He added that they carried out their duties in an exemplary way."

ATS girl Mary Collins (later Mrs Mary Brown) is on a Lister truck being filled with petrol at COD Donnington in 1942 or 1943.

Donnington not only supplied the British army – it played a key role in sending supplies, including tanks, to Russia. Late in the war Brigadier de Wolff moved to an appointment in Italy and command at Donnington passed to Gordon Hardy.

The creation of the depot had changed Donnington forever, which was transformed from a village to a town, with hundreds of houses built for the depot civilian workers, a parade of shops, and services.

Phil's book also highlights the role of the Central Ammunition Depot at Nesscliffe, where 580,000 tons of ammunition passed through during the war.

As for de Wolff, he lived out his final days in Malta where he died in 1986.

"Dunkirk to D-Day" is published by Pen & Sword and costs £25.

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