The Dispersal (1940-1941)

Although a partial dispersal of Spitfire production had begun before the German raids of 24th and 26th September 1940 this had been limited to a few locations in Southampton. Following the raids this was transformed into a full dispersal of production across Hampshire, Wiltshire and Berkshire. Southampton remained at the heart of production, design and the Supermarine management moved to Hursley Park whilst new production centres at Salisbury, Newbury, Reading and Trowbridge began to come on-line, but not until after significant teething problems, both in terms of the locations but also the workforce.

Early dispersal in Southampton

Early air raids in Southampton had convinced Supermarine of the necessity to being some limited form of dispersal within the city of Southampton. Denis Webb recalled that this decision had been prompted by a German Reconnaissance aircraft which had flown over the area and the ensuing, but inaccurate, Anti-Aircraft fire had resulted in a piece of anti-aircraft shell falling on ‘K’ Shop in the Woolston Works, narrowly missing a worker.

Responsibility for the works fell to Pratt. He was responsible for a reorganisation of the production facilities in Woolston and Itchen but also for drawing up a blueprint for dispersal, albeit limited.

The result was that several locations in and around Southampton were identified for  Supermarine’s use and for requisition. The first of these were Hendy’s Garage just off  Pound Tree Road and Seward’s Garage on Winchester Road in Shirley.

Additional premises were also identified, primarily for additional storage space (at the Weston Rolling Mills in Southampton, the Brickworks at Bishops Waltham and on Leigh Road in Eastleigh) but also for the accounts at Deepdene in Bitterne Park and Ministry Inspection at Holt House in Chandlers Ford.

The initial intent of these requisitions was not to begin a formal dispersal away from the Woolston or Itchen works, Although Supermarine fully understood the risk to production by concentrating their production in such well known and highly visible sites they actually had little choice. Without the production from Castle Bromwich relieving the pressure on the Southampton Works then demand for aircraft through the height of the Battle of Britain meant that nothing could be done that might disrupt the supply of aircraft.

It was not until June 1940 that Castle Bromwich finally managed to deliver a complete aircraft and even though production did steadily increase in the following months it was still on Southampton that the burden lay.

However, some preparatory work was possible and several of the critical production jigs had already been moved before the German raids of 24th and 26th September 1940. The actual movement of the jigs came in the days following the 15th September when a German raid had failed to damage the works but caused serious damage to the surrounding residential area in Woolston and highlighted that, as Denis Webb described it “the long awaited chop” was imminent.

Additionally the preparatory work in terms of the process of requisition, logistical requirements and lessons learned on working in a ‘dispersed’ production environment were invaluable as the process was rolled out across the Hampshire, Berkshire and Wiltshire.

The “Long Expected Chop” (September 1940)

Although Southampton had already experienced air raids it was not until September 1940 that the Luftwaffe’s attentions turned to focus on the manufacturing base for Britain’s aircraft. On 4th September fourteen Messerschmitt Me 110 fighter-bombers attacked the Vickers-Armstrongs Aviation, Weybridge Works at Brooklands. The raid killed eighty-three, injured over four hundred and halted production of the Wellington Bomber for several days.

A week later, on 11th September in another surprise attack with little warning German fighter-bombers attacked the Cunliffe-Owen factory in Southampton Airport in Eastleigh. The raid killed forty-nine but, as may also have been the case at Brooklands where the Hurricane factories were missed, the raid missed its intended target; the Supermarine Flight Shed (next to the Cunliffe Owen factory) and the Supermarine Final Assembly hangars a few hundred yards away.

Four days later, on Saturday 15th September, German aircraft returning from attacking the RAF fighter station at Middle Wallop attacked the Supermarine Works in Woolston. From the Supermarine perspective the raid was a failure, with only minimal damage and no loss of life amongst the workforce. Although night production was halted that evening whilst the blackout of the factory was restored the raid did little to impact production.

However, the raid did cause damage to the surrounding residential area and it focused Vickers and Supermarine Management on the necessity of immediately proceeding with the planned Southampton Dispersal. Returning from a visit to Castle Bromwich Wilf Elliott authorised the requisition of additional premises in Southampton and to continue with those already requisitioned at Hendy’s and Seward’s garages.

The additional workshops included Lowther’s Garage in Shirley; the Sunlight Laundry on Winchester Road in Shirley; the Hants and Dorset Bus Depot, again on Winchester Road in Shirley and the Hollybrook Stores nearby on Hollybrook Road. Like Hendy’s Garage and Seward’s Garage the requisitioning of Lowther’s Garage did not pose a significant problem as the wartime restrictions on travel and petrol meant that car dealerships and workshops were not as busy and many of the staff could be reemployed.

The Sunlight Laundry also appear to have acquiesced to the requisitioning with little resistance, moving out within a few days but leaving Supermarine with a big job to clean the cotton lint that had accumulated in the rafts before the building could be considered usable.

The Hants and Dorset Bus Depot was to prove more of a challenge but was vital to the dispersal as the additional height required for the buses was needed to be able to fit the wing jigs. Unfortunately the Depot had already been requisitioned to act as a store for the additional sandbags and pumps needed by the Fire Brigade for Civil Defence in the event of an air raid. Supermarine were forced to “negotiate” with the Town Clerk to get the Civic authorities to move their stores and had to rely on the feared “Beaverbrook’s Boys”, the men from the Ministry of Aircraft Production, to ensure the requisition was successful.

Conflicts between rival Ministries, who had already requisitioned sites needed by Supermarine, were not uncommon, but the Ministry for Aircraft Production usually ruled supreme. Backed by Lord Beaverbrook and, ultimately, Churchill aircraft production was paramount; as one MAP man was overheard to cry out as Supermarine gazumped the Ministry for Food Supply “You can’t win a war with bloody pineapples!”.

New Management for the Works

Following the attacks of 24th and 26th September 1940 Lord Beaverbrook ordered Supermarine to abandon the Woolston and Itchen Works and begin a full dispersal of production. The plan was drawn up by Len Gooch and the Works Department in the Polygon Hotel in Southampton.

Len Gooch had been put in charge following the injury sustained by Pratt during the raid on the Itchen Works on the 24th September. By December Pratt had been formally removed from his role, a move Webb believed to be at least in part orchestrated by Beaverbrook in retaliation for Pratt’s refusal to allow Ministry men into the Supermarine Works before the raids without the proper credentials. Pratt, overworked and suffering from depression took his own life soon afterwards in a shooting incident.

With the Design Office in the Woolston office block wrecked the first job was to move the Design staff and their precious designs to a safer location and they were quickly moved into old WW1 army huts belonging to the University College at Highfield (a move which was almost disastrous as just before they relocated to Hursley Park an incendiary bomb destroyed one of the wooden huts).

At the same time the Works management, now headed by Len Gooch and backed by more of “Beaverbrook’s Boys”, requisitioned the top floor of the Polygon Hotel and began to plan a complete dispersal of production.

Southampton was to remain the prime base for Supermarine but the dispersal also planned to both move some of it further away from enemy attack and allow production to expand. For that to work new locations were required away from the city.

Using the main roads out of Southampton as their starting point and drawing a series of concentric circles radiating out from the city the plan was to find areas capable to supporting self-contained Spitfire production, from sub-assembly to final flight test and delivery, but within 50 miles of Southampton so control and communication could be maintained. The areas chosen were Salisbury, Trowbridge, Reading and Newbury. Each area would have workshops able to make each part of the plane and an airfield at which final assembly and delivery could be performed, just as Eastleigh had done for Woolston. An additional area around Winchester and Chandler’s Ford was linked to the main design base at Hursley Park.

Hursley Park, a grand stately home owned by the elderly dowager Lady Cooper who lived there with her servants, was requisitioned to provide a longer-term base from where the dispersal could be coordinated and to ensure the design team could continue to work uninterrupted. The move of Design and Production to Hursley Park, and Southend House in the village, was made in December 1940, once the initial dispersal plan was well under way.

The plan for the “Full Dispersal” of production

On paper the plan seemed simple; requisition some workshops, move machines and staff to the new location and make Spitfires. In reality, it was far from simple. As in Southampton there was resistance to the requisitions at many of the new sites, not least at Salisbury where the Bishop and Mayor appear both to have been happy to support fund raising for Spitfire’s to be made, just not in Salisbury. Like many, they feared Spitfire factories would result in the Luftwaffe bombing them too. Lord Beaverbrook was reported to have made it blatantly clear to the Mayor that there was no point raising funds to pay for a plane if they couldn’t build them! As ever, Beaverbrook got his way and the requisitions were pushed through, regardless. In Trowbridge an attempt by a Steam Roller factory owner to appeal against the requisition resulted in him being told to share the factory. That night Supermarine workers built a wall down the middle of the factory and got to work!

However, it was not simply finding premises that was the problem. The very act of identifying sites took many senior foremen away from their work to ensure the new locations were suitable. Additionally, the new factories meant new machines and jigs were required. Some machinery was moved from the cleared Woolston Works but that meant it was not available in Southampton.

In the months immediately following the start of the dispersal Supermarine’s Spitfire production fell sharply. Fortunately, the Castle Bromwich ‘Shadow Factory’ was now able to fill the immediate shortfall.

Finding the Workforce

Most problematic was the workforce. Many workers at Woolston and Itchen had been killed or wounded, many more were forced to deal with the aftermath of the bombing on their families and homes. Even when fit and able there was a great reluctance to move to the new dispersal areas away from Southampton. Some of the reluctance was because people simply did not want to move away from their families, particularly when this felt like abandoning them to the bombing. Another reason for the reluctance was the lack of suitable accommodation in the new areas. In the Vickers-Armstrongs Company Reports the need to provide accommodation was almost as high a priority as setting up the factories themselves.

Once skilled Supermarine workers were finally relocated to their new factories a new, semi-skilled at best, workforce had to be trained. Many of the new workers were young men and women straight out of school or older men who had undergone the Government’s basic engineering training. Aircraft production was a level above anything they had done before and that meant guidance, supervision and training. All of this took time.

However, by the beginning of 1941 production was beginning to recover, even if the first planes produced in the new areas were, in part, ones that had not been completed when Woolston was bombed. As the war progressed so the workforce steadily grew and gradually changed as women began to take on more senior roles, including ‘Progress Chasers’ in the factories.

The Southampton Blitz

In Southampton the problems associated with relocating the workforce did not apply but the lack of machinery and skilled workers did. Also, unlike the other ‘dispersal areas’ Southampton was still a prime target for the Luftwaffe. The raids on Supermarine were only the beginning of Southampton’s ordeal. In November and December German bombing of the city reached a devastating peak. The raids between 22nd November and 1st December (including the two six-hour raids on the 30th November and 1st December) are often referred to as the Southampton Blitz. Much of the city centre was destroyed and many lives were lost as high explosive and incendiary bombs fell across the city. Amazingly none of the Supermarine workshops received a direct hit, although Hendy’s Garage in the city centre was put out of action for some time when a bomb hit the neighbouring building. However, the bombing did affect production. Transport, power and water were frequently interrupted, and workers again had to spend time finding places to live or attending to their families. But somehow Supermarine were able to continue.