Compound 219


Reprinted from The Royal Pioneer
Issue No. 40, Sept. 1954

WATERPROOFED JEEP (21 K)
A waterproofed jeep with a breather tube.
reproduced from Naval Art Gallery Exhibit on the Normandy Invasion

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 1943.

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.