Reprinted from The Royal Pioneer
Issue No. 40, Sept. 1954
Compound 219 was the means of waterproofing every Allied vehicle in England prior to D-Day, so that its engine would run under water during those critical moments on the beaches when the whole Operation
Overlord hovered between disaster and success. Now for the
first time ten years later, the full story of Compound 219
can be told with the names of the three men who made it
possible. It began when an American Transportation Corps Captain
walked into Room 219 in Cecil Chambers, introduced himself
to the burly man behind the desk, and asked for help. The
man was Mr. F. J. Slee, Industrial and Marine Lubricants Manager
of Shell-Mex and B.P. Ltd., who has been in the lubricants
business for more than 35 years.
Mr. Slee called in his colleague, Mr. H. W. Clark (now Assistant
Manager in charge of Industrial Lubricants), and they set
to work on the problem. The third member of the trinity, Mr
H. W. Humberstone, Manager of Barton Installation and a man
to whom grease is almost a religion, was brought down hot
foot from Manchester. The date was January
And this was the problem set by the American Captain:"The British and ourselves are making wading tests off the west coast of Britain," he
said. "Every vehicle we have must be able to wade ashore
from landing craft, in any depth of water, so long as the
driver's head is clear."
It was decided that the material would
not only have to be waterproof, but have good electrical insulation
properties and be heat-resisting (since it would have to be
applied many miles from the embarkation point and must stay
put on hot engines). It must also be so simple that any soldier
could plaster it on like jam and remove it just as easily
once it had done its job.
The team set to work; a base of asbestos
fibre was decided upon to help bind the grease and act as
an insulator and flow reducer, and "Compound 219"
came into being. More '219' was made and flown to North Africa.
There it was applied to the engines of some vehicles which
were run in low gear with their radiator caps sealed for 100
miles and then driven straight into the sea. Again '219' passed
the test and the substance was used operationally for the
first time in the invasion of Sicily in July, 1943.
As a final test of condition in Northern
Europe, a column of 80 American vehicles of all types were
waterproofed with '219' driven half across England and into
the sea off North Devon, where they waded about happily for
six minutes. The Slee-Clark-Humberstone trio had solved the
problem and the Ministry of Supply place bulk order.
The problem was, how to manufacture
enough of the stuff to meet the vast demands of D-Day, 1944? Mr. Humberstone reorganised the Barton grease plant, and
men from the British and American Pioneer Corps were set to
work alongside civilians night and day. By D-Day 10,000 tons
were available and 15,000 Allied vehicles were waterproofed
in time to join the great Armada. The prosaic code number
'219' meant nothing to the fighting men who sailed for France.
But without it their vehicles could not have got ashore.
Sir James Grigg, then Secretary for
War, later told the House of Commons: "Despite the fact
that many of the vehicles went ashore through five feet of
water in heavy seas, less than two out of every 1,000 were
drowned off the beaches." And these included battle casualties.