Travelling Workshops

The War Office trials and subsequent manoeuvres to further test the suitability of mechanised motor transport proved the inevitability of breakdowns. By definition, breakdowns rarely happened at base, resulting in time consuming recovery operations with vehicles not yet evolved into specialist recovery units.

The first mobile MT Repair Depot was established at Hurley, near Henley on Thames, to support manoeuvres in 1905 under the auspices of the Army Service Corps (ASC). The 'Repair Train' consisted of two roadtrains, each being a tractor drawing two trailers.

Commanded by Major W.E. Donohue, Chief Inspector of MT, one roadtrain was the Rescue Section and the other, Workshop Section. The Rescue Section was a crane with breakdown trucks and the Workshop Section a steam engine and wagons containing repair machinery and stores. A complement of sixty men was employed and in addition to recovery and running repairs, electric lighting for the field bakery was supplied.

Throughout the War Office Trials, trailer based workshops were stationed at divisional bases. These were drawn by steam tractors and used as static workshops for the duration of the trials.

As lorry development continued apace, it was becoming apparent that it would be necessary to have mobile workshops capable of maintaining pace with motor columns, which the steamers were patently unable to do.

By 1908, the Mechanical Transport Committee of the ASC was looking towards using motor lorries as travelling workshops.

A 5" lathe, vertical drill, double-headed grinder and 4KW dynamo were purchased for fitting to a Royal Flying Corps Leyland 30cwt. This fitting was completed at Woolwich Arsenal, who built the body specifically to suit RFC needs.

An extra gear was fitted to the Leyland gearbox to chain drive a shaft on the floor of the lorry to power the tools. The dynamo could also be used to power the tools when the engine or gearbox of the lorry were under repair.

Delahaye workshops on trial with the French and Russian War Departments appear to have been the pattern for the Leylands.

Following trials at Aldershot, it was decided that the larger 3-ton lorry would be better suited and that a separate engine should be used to power the dynamo and tools.

A single cylinder, vertical stationary engine was installed, though this was found to cause so much vibration that it was impossible to use the tools. Attempts to solve the vibration problem included fitting the engine to a trap door in the body which allowed the engine to be lowered to the ground when in use. Belts were used to drive the power shaft on the lorry.

This solved the vibration problem but was too long-winded to set up for field use and an in-line four cylinder petrol engine was chosen as the most suitable solution. Petrol was specified in preference to paraffin to avoid the need for two different types of fuel to be carried.

Initial plans to build the workshops on demountable bodies, which could be left with at a unit base while the lorry was used on other duties appear to have never been implemented.

Sixteen sets of machine tools were purchased, with most fitted to 3-ton chassis, although some were also fitted to the smaller RFC vehicles before the 3-tonner became the standard choice.

When motor lorry supply columns began regular duties after August 1914, it was considered necessary to have one mobile, or travelling, workshop per fifty vehicles in a column. In order to service columns more efficiently, workshops by this time were based predominantly on a lorry chassis with trailers used in a more static capacity at a unit's base.

Whilst a lorry was better able to accompany a column and undertake running repairs, trailers had the advantage of being left at the column's base while the tractor was used for other duties. Trailers were mainly hauled by FWD and Jeffrey Quad tractors, though horses could, and often would, be employed to pull the trailers.

Generally the models chosen as workshops were of the sturdier type, with Thornycroft and Peerless being popular choices for the army. The Royal Naval Air Service and Royal Flying Corps continued their allegiance to Leyland by using Leyland chassis as workshops, which were equipped with specialised tools needed for aircraft. Other known makers included Daimler, Dennis, FWD, Austin, Commer Cars. G Scammell and Nephew also built a few workshops on Foden steamers, for whom they were agents.

The basis for a travelling workshop was a box body fitted to a standard chassis. The sides and rear of the body were split horizontally half way between roof and floor with the top half having windows. All three bottom halves could be folded down onto sturdy, adjustable legs, which doubled the size of the platform. The upper sides were hinged at the roof and could be opened to provide a canopy for the work area. The windows were intended for providing additional light when the body was open as there was little room to work when the bodies were closed for travelling.

A lathe, milling and drilling machines, vice bench, grindstone, small forge and anvil were fitted to the floor of the workshop. A carpenter's bench, bandsaw and a comprehensive range of hand tools completed the equipment. These machine tools were powered by electric motors, served by a dynamo which was powered by a petrol engine or sometimes the lorry's engine. This independent power supply allowed the workshops to be used as totally stand-alone units wherever they were needed. Spare parts were carried amongst the machine tools, on the roof or in a separate vehicle.

Dennis used a specially strengthened 3-tonner as the basis for their workshops. All the machine tools included were exclusively made by Drummond Brothers of Guildford, Dennis' home town. They were powered by a 3hp petrol engine directly coupled to a 700 Watt dynamo with an emergency option of a foot pedal. The Drummond lathe was also capable of milling and boring due to its special table, which gave it versatility that other lathes lacked.

Specialist workshops with tyre presses and carpenter's tools were used solely for replacing tyres and wheel repairs. These would travel to column bases where the fitters worked in shifts, 24 hours a day. Some 40 to 45 tyres per 12 hour shift would be changed, depending on the degree of repair work the carpenters had to do to the wheels.

Running repairs to a column's motor transport were not the only duties the workshops were called on to do. Repairs to anything, such as guns and carriages, horse harnesses, wagons, etc. were within their compass.

Major refurbishment of vehicles, often at the side of the road was essential to the success of supply columns. So too, was the destruction of disabled motor transport. This destruction of vehicles deemed too damaged for repair was necessary to avoid them falling into enemy hands. Equally importantly, it provided a source of spare parts, essential in keeping the columns operating.

Seemingly out of favour with the British war Office, possibly due to their twin propshaft arrangement not complying with the Subsidy Scheme specification, Austin supplied one hundred 3-Tonners to Russia in late 1914. Included in this order, were eighteen travelling workshops and enough spares to build another twenty complete lorries.

The workshops were generally the same as specified by the War Office with the addition of oxy-acetylene welding equipment and the machine tools were powered by Austin's own 7hp petrol engine.

One major difference was the design of the body. Whereas British ones were designed to hinge down to create a working platform, the Austins had fixed sides, although the upper panel containing the windows was hinged at the roof and could be opened and fixed in various positions. This was due to the harshness of the Russian winters, making it impossible to have fully open sides. Saurer travelling workshops were also used by the Russians.

The French army is known to have purchased Austin travelling workshops, but the number is, as yet, unknown.

FWD was the American choice of chassis for workshops and these differed fundamentally from European practice. The bodies were built of steel, rather than wood and specialised workshops were built for artillery repair and for ordnance repairs.

The artillery repair workshops contained lathes, welding equipment and riveting tools suitable for repairs to guns. The ordnance repair workshops were intended for general repair work on all mechanical transport.

It seems that some 7,000 travelling workshops were ordered by the Allies from America, though how many of these were supplied before the Armistice appears not to be recorded.

Not all travelling workshops were designed purely with disabled heavy lorries in mind. In late 1914/early 1915, Mr F.W. Hudlass, Chief Engineer of the Royal Automobile Club designed a workshop with the recovery of cars and the garage trade in mind.

Using a Commer Cars 1-Tonner the body had fixed sides and had the addition of sheer legs at the rear, which could be used for suspended towing or as a crane for engine lifting. A small brazing hearth replaced the forge found on larger workshops and copious cupboards for hand tools replaced the heavier machine tools, although a small lathe was included.

A selection of brass rods, bronze, sheet metal, steel bars of various sizes and wide selection of nuts, bolts, washers, split pins, etc. were included to effect repairs.

The first workshop built was donated to the British Red Cross Society, with Commer Cars donating the chassis and the Red Cross funding the body and equipment. Red Cross records reveal that 15 such workshops were deployed during the war, with 12 destined for France, and one each for the British Isles, Italy and Aden. These records do not determine whether all were based on Commer Cars.

From my original article in Classic Military Vehicle, March, 2007.