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County military bases to be sold off

The paperwork officially describes it as ‘estate optimisation’, but what the Ministry of Defence has really embarked upon is a massive cost-cutting property sell-off.

And Shropshire, with its proud military history, is taking its fair share of the pain.

Copthorne in Shrewsbury, Tern Hill in Market Drayton, and Donnington in Telford are in the firing line. Indeed, the ‘optimisation’ in Shrewsbury began months ago.

Clive Barracks at Tern Hill, home to the first battalion of the Royal Irish Regiment, is also to be sold off to make way for up to 600 homes.

And in Telford, Parsons Barracks and Venning Barracks which have been a key part of the ordnance depot at Donnington for more than 70 years, have been named among 13 further sites earmarked for sale.

Who knows what the sell-off will mean for Tern Hill’s landmark barracks on the side of the A41? In Telford, the MoD says it wants to maintain Donnington’s role as a significant logistics depot, and wants the barracks buildings to be used for commercial, rather than residential use.

But it is still a significant fall from grace for the giant ordnance depot which was once the largest of its kind in the world.

For that, you have to cast your mind back to the days before the outbreak of the Second World War.

Long before the blueprint for what would become Telford, the quiet countryside town of Donnington was selected to store a vast arsenal of ordnance that was being built-up to fight the potential threat from Germany.

The original home of the Royal Army Ordnance Corps was at Woolwich Arsenal. But, because it was a mere 40 minutes away from German airbases in World War Two, its contents had to be moved to a safer, more distant base, in the heart of the British countryside.

This was Donnington in Shropshire – nowhere near completion in June 1940. The construction task which had been scheduled to take several years in peacetime was squeezed into just a few wartime weeks.

Many civilian families moved from the Woolwich area up to makeshift housing in Shropshire.

Swarms of builders and contractors, hundreds of soldiers and a constant stream of trucks and railway trains carried on the business of both creating and operating what had become the largest ordnance depot in the world. 

The depot was responsible for the storage and supply of all warlike stores for the army to all theatres of war – guns of all calibres, tracked self-propelled gun mountings, tanks, wireless, radar, and later, all supersonic equipment. 

The full story of the development of the Royal Army Ordnance Corps and how it efficiently supported the British Army in several theatres of war and very different fighting conditions is told in the new book: War on Wheels: The Mechanisation of the British Army in The Second World War by Philip Hamlyn Williams. 

His family has first-hand experience – Philip’s father, Major-General Leslie ‘Bill’ Williams commanded the RAOC in World War Two. 

It’s a fabulous, fascinating read, charting the rise of Donnington in the wake of the Dunkirk evacuation in 1940, which will give encyclopaedic joy to students of Shropshire’s military history. 

The book recalls: “Donnington had been chosen by the War Office as the perfect site for the new depot, exactly the opposite of the depot in Woolwich which it was to replace. 

“There were problems – being located far enough away from vulnerable conurbations might mean safety from bombing, but it also meant being a good distance from the workforce. 

“Hence the need for housing, but that would take time – and time was one thing they didn’t have. 

“One result of the Dunkirk evacuation was that there was no shortage of troops in England and so sufficient numbers were soon drafted into Donnington, but to a life under canvas until Nissen huts could be erected. 

“This was a low priority, given the need to safely store what little hadn’t been left behind in France.” 

Brigadier Charles de Wolff was made commanding officer designate of the new depot – and the book recalls how he managed to persuade Wellington District Council to help create the community we know today, initially building 500 new houses with money made available by the Treasury.





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