Leo Mckinstry

How labour unrest nearly lost us the Battle of Britain

How it nearly cost us the war

How labour unrest nearly lost us the Battle of Britain
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‘The nation had the lion’s heart. I had the luck to give the roar,’ Winston Churchill said of his role in achieving victory in the second world war. The idea that the British people were united, steadfast and resolute in the face of adversity is one of the enduring themes of our island story, still cherished more than 60 years after the war ended.

A central figure in this narrative of wartime glory is the Spitfire fighter, which became a much-loved symbol of national defiance through its heroic exploits in the Battle of Britain in 1940. Yet the Spitfire saga is no tale of unbroken success. The early years of the aircraft were traumatic, beset by production problems and political doubts. As I discovered when researching in the official archives, the severe difficulties in manufacturing the plane undermine the fable of a determined people all pulling in the same direction. It is an episode never properly told before, partly because it does not fit the romantic Churchillian myth.

The Spitfire was undoubtedly the greatest British fighter plane ever built, adored by its pilots for its speed, grace and manoeuvrability. When it first flew on 5 March 1936, it marked a revolutionary advance for the RAF, whose fleets were then still largely made up of fabric-covered biplanes. The Air Ministry, headed by the tough Yorkshireman Lord Swinton as Secretary of State for Air, was so impressed that it immediately ordered 310 of the planes from its designer, the Supermarine company based at Southampton. But then the trouble started. Because the Spitfire was such a technologically advanced aircraft, the Supermarine staff initially found it difficult to build. Nor did the company have the capacity for a major government order. Much of the work had to be sub-contracted out to other firms, which led to chaos with drawings and the delivery of parts.

Supermarine had promised the government that the first Spitfires would roll off the production line in September 1937, but by early 1938 not a single plane had been built. With the menace of Nazi Germany now looming over Europe, the situation was desperate. Lord Swinton called it ‘a disgraceful state of affairs’. But he was the one who paid the price. In May 1938 he was forced to resign after the government had been attacked in the Commons over its failure to re-arm the RAF. Swinton’s successor as Air Secretary was the owlish, bespectacled lawyer Sir Kingsley Wood, a sound administrator but an uncharismatic politician. ‘A feeble little creature,’ was the description of him by Lord Reith, head of the BBC.

Belying his image for timidity, Wood immediately took a dramatic step which he hoped would break the Spitfire logjam. He ordered the construction of a vast new factory at Castle Bromwich in Birmingham with the aim of turning out 1,000 Spitfires, ‘the largest single order for one type of aircraft ever placed in this country’, reported the Times breathlessly. But Sir Kingsley Wood made a fatal mistake. He handed over the management of this project to the motor magnate Lord Nuffield, founder of the Morris car empire. Lord Nuffield was regarded by the government as an expert in mass production, but in truth by the late 1930s he had lost his dynamism and grip on detail. One sign of his declining power was the increasing eccentricity in his personal habits. Obsessed with his health, he drank large quantities of bicarbonate of soda, believing that this was an antidote to his chronic wind, though it usually had the opposite effect.

The government lavished £7 million on the Nuffield factory in Birmingham, but the money was ill-spent. Men and machines lay idle, buildings unfinished. Nuffield had claimed he could produce 60 Spitfires a week, but by May 1940 not one had been built. Fortunately, by then, the Supermarine plant was operating smoothly but, with its restricted size, it could not meet the demands of the RAF. The government was in despair at the fiasco of Castle Bromwich, especially because Nuffield refused to recognise the scale of the disaster and constantly bleated about lack of technical support from Supermarine. But one Supermarine worker, Cyril Russell, some of whose colleagues had been sent to Castle Bromwich to provide advice, was scathing about the entire Nuffield operation, including the behaviour of the workforce. The project was ‘bugged’ with industrial action, he wrote later in a private memoir. ‘There were a lot of squabbles over money’ and employees ‘stopped work for financial greed’. Russell even suggested that, following the Nazi–Soviet pact of August 1939, left-wing extremism might have been behind some of the disputes. In his view, bottlenecks were ‘orchestrated by politically motivated persons to delay the output of aircraft that were so vital’ â” action which he believed ‘bordered on treason’.

The mess at Castle Bromwich had become intolerable. When the press tycoon Lord Beaverbrook was appointed by Churchill as Minister for Aircraft Production in May 1940 after the fall of the Neville Chamberlain government, his first action was to sack Nuffield and hand over the plant to Vickers, the parent company of Supermarine. Nuffield was furious, but a subsequent secret report commissioned by Beaverbrook revealed the full extent of the shambles. Written by the aircraft manufacturer Sir Richard Fairey, this study showed that expensive machinery had been unused and the assembly line was in chaos. But Fairey reserved his strongest words for the employees. ‘Labour is in a very bad state. Discipline is lacking. Men are leaving before time and coming in late, taking evenings off when they think fit. In parts of the factory I noticed that the men did not even stir themselves at the approach of the Works Manager.’ Having mentioned that in the week before Vickers took over there had been a petty dispute over pay, he continued, ‘The labour in the Midlands is not “playing the game”. They are getting extra money and are not working in proportion for it.’ One chief foreman at the plant, responsible for the much delayed building work, was described as ‘abusive and resentful’ if given any instructions with which he disagreed.

With commendable speed, the Vickers team began to turn round Castle Bromwich with dismissals and threats of military call-ups. ‘Incidentally, we are sacking 60 jig and tool draughtsmen next week,’ wrote the new Castle Bromwich manager Alexander Dunbar in July 1940. ‘We have tried to find out what they are doing but the answer’s not a lemon. In the meantime, we build the odd Spitfire or two.’ Eventually, under better management, the revitalised Castle Bromwich workforce was turning out more than 300 Spitfires a month. In total over 13,000 of the planes were built there. But in the Battle of Britain, the RAF almost paid a heavy price for not having the number of Spitfires it needed for the conflict with the Luftwaffe. If Nuffield had remained in charge, our finest hour could have become our darkest.