vol 8, issue 10

Shadow factories of the WW2 British motor industry

14 October 2013
By Christiaan van Schaardenburgh
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Humber armored cars at the Rootes Company in Coventry

The ‘War Effort’ exhibition, exploring how peacetime car manufacturers shifted focus to producing military hardware

Female machine tool operators at Vauxhall in Luton

The number of women working in the factories increased as a result of national conscription

Credit: Vauxhall Heritage
Bristol Blenheim production by the Rootes group at the Speke factory in Liverpool

Factories were vulnerable to attack, especially due to the fact German ‘guests’ were given guided tours before the war

Production line at Thrupp and Maberly in London

Workers assembling staff cars on Humber chassis at Thrupp and Maberly in London

To support the war effort, the British motor industry successfully readjusted itself in the course of the Second World War with the help of the so-called 'shadow factory' scheme.

During the Second World War the British motor industry underwent a major transformation. From manufacturing cars and commercial vehicles, factories switched to turning out military vehicles, tanks, aircraft engines, aircraft and a variety of other weapons for the Armed Forces. The government invested significantly in existing car factories and new 'shadow factories' to increase production. New production processes, changing labour relations and vast new plants had a lasting legacy on the post-war British industry.

In the years leading up to the Second World War, the British government prepared the industry for the mass production of required weapons. The shadow-factory programme formed an important part of the rearmament strategy of the British government from the mid to late 1930s.The term 'shadow factory' came into widespread use to describe duplicated facilities under the direct control of the parent company, as well as distributed facilities managed by other companies with appropriate skills. The motor industry was to play a big role in the shadow-factory scheme, because the British Government believed that the industry had the management experience and ability to turn out complex machines in vast numbers in a short period of time - ideal for the mass production of weapons needed for the upcoming conflict.

In addition to building military vehicles, the main focus of the motor industry during the war was the mass production of aircraft and aircraft engines. During the inter-war period, the government had kept several key aircraft companies in business by placing strategic contracts. These manufacturers were relatively small companies excelling in design and engineering but lacking the mass-production facilities and experience of the motor industry.

Quantity with flexibility

The aim of war production was not only to produce efficiently, but also to produce weapons that would meet demand. There was a balance between efficiency and flexibility: large-scale production was more efficient, but flexibility was essential to accommodate the introduction of new weapons and changes to current products. Shadow factories were designed for mass production, not research or development work.

The main vehicle manufacturing sites were located in the Midlands, Oxfordshire, Greater London, Manchester, Luton and Leyland. The main players that took part in the shadow scheme were Rootes Group, Daimler, Rover, Standard, Morris, Austin, Ford, Vauxhall, Leyland and the Nuffield Group. The highest concentration of shadow factories was in the Coventry and Birmingham area.

Existing car factories were expanded and shadow factories were built by the government in two schemes, so the car industry could duplicate the production of an aircraft or aero engine factory. The government also heavily invested in machine tools which allowed for more efficient automated and standardised production. Most of the factories of the first building scheme (1936-37) were built next to existing ones. This is where manpower and expertise were readily available and existing supply networks could also be used.'Shadow factories, built during the second building scheme (1938-39), were often on the outskirts of the big manufacturing centres for logistical and safety reasons. Some were built much further away from the managing company, for safety or political reasons, to provide employment in deprived areas.

Attacks on factories early in the war showed the vulnerability of large sites in dense industrial areas, so the government urged the factories to disperse their production. This meant that some of the production took place away from the big factories as a back-up in case the main factory was hit. Another way to limit interruption from attack was through subcontracting. Many pre-war factories already had large subcontracting networks, allowing the main factory to focus its resources on the final assembly.

Guided tours for the enemy

We know from existing target maps that all of Britain's car factories had been located and identified by Germany. Many German industrial and military guests were actually shown around British factories before the War. This was intended to demonstrate how well-prepared the country was and to act as a deterrent against attack. Many car factories were bombed during the War, and the threat of this resulted in factories appointing their own Home Guard units and specialist fire fighting teams. Damaged machine tools from bombed factories were often repairable and production was generally able to resume quickly after an attack had taken place.

Factories were visited by members of the Royal Family and high-ranking military leaders as well as politicians, foreign dignitaries, celebrities and active-service personnel. These visits were aimed at keeping up workforce morale and were useful propaganda tools. Morale was generally good among workers as people felt like they were doing their bit for the war effort, and this resulted in quite a sense of camaraderie. There was organised entertainment in the factories including dances and concerts to help keep the workforce morale high.

Thousands of workers were needed for the increased war production and many people moved around the country to meet this demand. Households took in lodgers and in some areas new hostels were built to help accommodate the influx of workers. Although women had worked in the motor industry before the war, the number of them working in the factories increased significantly as a result of national conscription. Initially, the unions were only interested in the protection of male labour, since the vast majority of members had been men. They did, however, start to protect the wages and working conditions of women, but only on the understanding that their jobs would be given back to men once they returned from the front.

In addition to military vehicles, the motor industry built many products outside their normal product range to add to the output of the parent factories. For example, the Nuffield group built Supermarine Spitfires; Austin built Hawker Hurricanes, Short Stirlings and Avro Lancasters; and the Rootes group built thousands of Bristol Blenheims and Handley Page Halifaxes.

Making do

Some products, like the staff cars or lorries, were modified pre-war models, painted green for military service. Other, like armoured cars, were more complex, but stayed within the field of car manufacturing. Some companies duplicated production of complete aero engines and aircraft from the aviation industry through the shadow scheme.

The motorcycle industry contributed significantly by building large numbers of military motorbikes. The vast majority of these machines were pre-war bikes modified for military use. Thousands of BSA M20s, Norton 16Hs, Matchless G3Ls and Royal Enfields were built. Other products, such as steel army helmets, machine guns, shells and thousands of jerry cans were also built by the motor industry.

Not all products were intended for frontline action. Ford built thousands of Fordson N-type tractors for use on the 'home front' to support food production. The motor industry repaired thousands of military vehicles and also assembled vehicles from North America that came as part of the Lend-Lease scheme. Thousands of aircraft were repaired by the civilian aircraft repair scheme under the management of the Nuffield Group.

Peace work

Towards the end of the war, preparations were made to switch the factories over from military-vehicle production back to car manufacturing. Many of the shadow factories provided the post-war motor industry with modern large-scale facilities suitable for mass car manufacturing. Many of the production processes had been fully automated with modern machine tools and better production layouts which boosted post-war production output.

Although many shadow factories in the Midlands have long since gone, there are still some in use today. The current Land Rover factory in Solihull was used during the war by Rover to build aero engines, and the famous Castle Bromwich factory, where thousands of Spitfires and Lancasters were built during the War (initially by Nuffield, later by Vickers Armstrong), now makes Jaguar cars.

The far-reaching effects of the shadow factory scheme and, in particular, the role played by the motor industry cannot be underestimated. Without a doubt, the scheme provided the country with the capability to build weapons vital for war and helped to shape the social, economic and industrial policies in post-war Britain.

Christiaan van Schaardenburgh is curator of vehicles at Coventry Transport Museum, in which 'War Effort' – this year's major new exhibition – is open until 5 January 2014. Admission to the museum, and to this temporary exhibition, is free of charge.

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