Southampton had already come under enemy attack before the Supermarine Works were finally put out of action in late September 1940, and the city was to suffer further and more devastating attacks in the months to come. Yet, amidst it all, the city and the Spitfire survived.
Dispersed across the city and surrounding area in hastily requisitioned workshops and buildings, using a workforce often made up of men and women with little or no engineering experience, it is a remarkable testament to the spirit and ingenuity of the population that they were able to continue.
Getting the Spitfire Into Production
Production was not easy. Supermarine was used to making a small number of finely crafted aircraft, now they had to produce hundreds, fast!
To meet demand the Woolston Works had been expanded and modernised. A new factory, the Itchen Works, was built just up the road and sub-contractors, like Follands in Hamble, were employed to make many of the parts of the planes.
Once all of the parts; the fuselages, wingshughe, tail and engines were finished, they would be transported by lorry to Eastleigh where “final assembly” and flight testing would be performed before the finished Spitfires were flown to their RAF aerodromes by the Air Transport Auxiliary.
By May 1940, the start of the “Battle of Britain”, every Spitfire “scrambled” to face the enemy had been built by Supermarine in the Southampton area.
That had not been the plan.
A massive Shadow Factory had been built before the war, at Castle Bromwich in the midlands, to mass produce Spitfires. Castle Bromwich had the space and tools Woolston didn’t, it was also further away from enemy attack, but as the Battle of Britain began they had still failed to deliver a single aircraft!
The RAF, and Britain, had to rely on the men and women in Southampton.
The Woolston Works were vulnerable, very vulnerable. Their location on the banks of the Itchen, alongside the naval shipbuilder Thorneycrofts and across from the docks and gas works, made it a prime target for the Luftwaffe. Everyone knew it. The air raid shelters, on Peartree Green, were too far away and took time to reach, during which the workforce were exposed and vulnerable.
On 23rd August 1940 a German raid had caught Supermarine Workers out in the open. Joan Tagg, a clerk in the Accounts Department on the fourth floor of the Woolston Works, recalled the events of the day in her diary:
“Very busy at work this morning, but peaceful. However, after dinner, anything but. After an air raid warning we began our trek to the shelters as usual. We had just reached the railway bridge (in Sea Road) when the guns started firing. We began to run and it was very frightening as the gunfire was terrific and we heard the planes overhead. We still had some way to go, so each time we heard the whistle of a bomb, we threw ourselves down beside the railway bank, then ran on and fell down again each time we heard a bomb falling. Someone shouted “They’re machine gunning” so we didn’t wait to find out but quickened oour pace even more. When we finally reached the shelter our legs and arms were stinging – not machine gun bullets, but the result of falling in the stinging nettles on the railway bank. We had not noticed them at the time, but once inside the shelter we suffered. As we looked out we saw German Planes having fun shooting at the barrage balloons, which then came down in flames. We discovered later that bombs had hit houses in the Obelisk Road area of Woolston. Bombs also fell into the river and on buildings on the town side of the river.”
Pilson, I – More Memories of Bitterne
However, on the very day that Joan and her colleagues had been caught in the open and despite the clear danger it presented Lord Beaverbrook, Minister for Aircraft Production, ordered aircraft workers to remain at work when the civilian air raid sirens sounded. As Joan recalled
“We have now heard that because so much time is being lost at work, we are only to get the warning to leave when danger is imminent! This means that we shall have even more perilous gallops to the shelters having come down several flights of stairs from the fourth floor.”
For Beaverbrook the impact that the frequent trips to the shelters was causing on aircraft production (not just at Supermarine but on all of the aircraft manufacturers) was too great and whatever the risk to the workforce production had to be maintained.
For Joan this was just another pressure on a workforce increasingly feeling the pressure
“I must admit that I am getting rather jittery, being constantly on the alert and am also feeling the effects of disturbed nights. Even though planes many not be overhead we do hear gunfire and are constantly up and down to the shelter. “
However vulnerable the workers or the factory might be, the impact of any move on production was considered too high a price to pay. For the time being the workers would have to stay put and hope.
By September 1940 that luck had began to run out.
11th September – Eastleigh,
On 11th September a raid on the airport at Eastleigh narrowly missed both the Supermarine hangars, where Spitfire Final Assembly was being completed, and Flight Shed.
Unfortunately, although the Supermarine buildings escaped the neighbouring Cunliffe Owen factory was not so lucky. Bombs falling on the factory causing serious damage and killing 52 workers.
15th September – Woolston
A few days later, at 17:29 on Sunday 15th September air raid sirens sounded over Southampton as a force of some thirty aircraft, half of them bombers, attacked the Supermarine Works from the east.
The air raid missed the Supermarine works, causing minimal damage to the Works themselves, but many of the estimated twelve tons of explosives devastated the surrounding houses; 125 homes were destroyed or badly damaged and over 1,000 homes were damaged in some way.
It was a sign of things to come but production had to continue. The superficial damage caused to the factory only resulted in a single night-shift being lost as the Works were made “light-tight”.
These raids had however made the management and government finally realise that something had to be done, and quickly!
A plan was set in motion to requisition suitable workshops and premises to prepare for a ‘dispersal’ of production in and around Southampton. Some stores had already been moved to nearby villages at Botley and Bishops Waltham and provision for the Accounts to move to Deepedene House was underway.
Two garages, Lowther’s and Hendy’s, were requisitioned along with the Hants & Dorset Bus Depot (Bus Depots were needed as they had the roof space required to make the wings) on Winchester Road in Shirley.
Workers began the careful task of moving jigs (the vital frames needed to make the actual aircraft assemblies like fuselages and wings) and the tooling machines to the new locations.
Initially the jigs and tools that were moved were ‘spares’. Despite the risk it was still vital that production continue.
There was also some resistance to the requisitioning of the Hants & Dorset Bus Depot as this had already been requisitioned by the local A.R.P. to store sandbags and other fire fighting equipment and Supermarine were not able to move in immediately.
24th September – Itchen
At 13:35 on Tuesday 24th September the Luftwaffe returned to Southampton. A force of thirty-seven bombers with fighter escorts, attacked the Gas Works and Electricity Power stations in Chapel and near the Central Railway Station, on the western side of the Itchen river, as well as Supermarine’s Itchen Works on the eastern bank.
As on the 15th, little or no warning was given and the bombs were already falling as the Supermarine Workers attempted to reach their designated Air Raid shelters.
Phil Pearce, a young sheet metal worker at the time recalled the events (the following extracts were recorded as part of the “Out of the Shadows” oral history project with thanks to Brian Chalk for the extracts):
“The bombing took place in September 1940 and I had not long celebrated my 18th birthday. I remember hearing the sirens sounding and almost instantaneously the ground shaking and I heard loud explosions. My work bench was on a balcony that ran around the sides of the building and I had to access the exits by way of a staircase. I got half way down the stairs and saw a very large press which I felt would give me more protection, so I quickly crawled under it as there was no way we could risk leaving the building with the bombing already underway.
Another worker joined me under the bench and during a lull in the attack we plucked up the courage to make a dash for the shelters. These were built above ground on the edge of Peartree Common next to the railway line but to get to them we had to leave the relative safety of our bench and cross a road and go through a tunnel under the railway.”
The air raid shelters were a long row of surface shelters erected in the meadow to the east of the railway line on Peartree Green. To reach them workers had to funnel through a narrow passage under the railway embankment separating Peartree Green from the Itchen Works on Hazel Road. The lack of warning and the distance to the shelters was to have tragic consequences.
Phil Pearce continued …
“When we exited the factory, we were shocked to see that the railway tunnel had received a direct hit and all that was left was a heap of rubble. We later learned that many of our co-workers who were in the shelters had been killed – so fate had meant we had survived.”
“As we were now in the open we quickly searched for some form of shelter and we could only find a small section of beach alongside the river between our factory and the next building, so we laid down there. Soon after, I heard an aircraft and looking up saw a German bomber flying very low over the river and the next thing I knew was the shingle on the beach flying up around me and I could see the rear gunner as he was strafing the area. It all happened so fast and the plane soon flew on down the river and out into the Solent. Thinking back, I am sure that if the Itchen Bridge had been built then the pilot would have had to fly under, that’s how low the plane was.”
“It was nothing short of a miracle that we escaped unharmed for the second time that day.”
Shelter and Tunnel hit
Again little major damage was done to the Works themselves but more devastating was that a stick of bombs had fallen straddling the railway embankment. One air raid shelter suffered a direct hit and workers still trying to reach the shelters, were caught out in the open trying to shelter in the passage under the railway embankment,
Many were buried alive and the scenes of carnage were never forgotten by those who witnessed it. Denis Webb, working in the Supermarine Woolston Works at the time, later recalled that
“Elliott suggested that I scramble over the railway embankment to see if there was anything I could do and when I did so I could see the full tragedy. The bombs had missed the target (the Works) as usual and instead had landed on some of the shelters which in one case had turned into a heap of soil and sand with arms and legs sticking out. Rescuers were already desperately digging in the hopes of that some people might get out alive.”
The raid was also recorded in their diary by another Southampton resident.
“Fine all day, but some heavy cloud at times. Rather cold. Evening fine and clear. Worked until seven this evening. Soon after dinner heavy gunfire suddenly developed without warning. Everyone rushed to shelter, but on looking out of the shop door I saw a crowd of bombers nearly overhead. I yelled out to the others and dived under a bench, just as the first bomb fell, the explosion rocking the shop. Three or four more bombs fell nearby, and as soon as the planes had passed over I rushed out and saw just up the road at Quayside a heap of debris. With a war reserve policeman I ran up and found that a bomb had demolished the end of a shelter in Rheas yard, and one or two men were trapped. I ran back to the yard for shovels and called the others and soon a willing band were digging them out. Three men were taken to hospital, while most of the others had superficial wounds. Bombs had fallen on various parts of the town, including the Supermarine. I was worried for a time about Bill. Later in the day another raid took place and more bombs were dropped in Woolston. Later I heard that Cramers house in Radstock Road was down also bombs were dropped on Pear Tree Green. When I arrived home I found that Bill had been trapped in a shelter at the Super but had dug himself out. He had a slight head wound. He was unable to tell me much of what had happened but he fears many are dead.”
Another worker, sheet metal worker Harold Snook, was also buried alive and had to be dug out by rescuers. His son recalled how he had been greeted by his rescuers with the comment that “if they’d known it was him they’d have left him there!” The grim gallows humour reserved for truly horrific situations.
Others were not so lucky.
Around twenty-nine men & women were killed that day at or near Supermarine’s Itchen Works, the wounded and dead brought to the First Aid Posts at White’s Shipyard, slightly further up the Itchen from the Works, and then the bodies transferred to a makeshift mortuary at the Itchen Secondary School.
The oldest was 59 year old Charles Strugnell. The youngest: 14 year old ‘Shop Boy’ Douglas Cruikshank. The Town Clerk’s record of Civilian War Dead indicating that Douglas’s body had not been recovered from the rubble until the following day.
Also amongst the dead was ‘Peggy’ Moon, a popular young clerk who had been know to Cyril Russell and his workmates as ‘The Girl in Green’, who had been killed sheltering under the railway.
It is hard to be precise as to exactly how many Supermarine Workers were killed in the raid for several reasons. The numbers listed often vary between sources and who was a “Supermarine” worker is not always clear. With these reservations the following list is based on those in the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website.
|EVANS||Evan Eiryn William||29|
|MOON||Margaret Annie||20||The Girl in Green|
|THORNE||Philip James John||35|
|WATERS||Sydney Albert Richard||40|
26th September – Woolston & Itchen
Two days later, at 16:30 on Thursday 26th September, the Germans returned, hitting both the Itchen and the Woolston Works as well as the Gas Works and Docks on the other side of the river.
In the intervening days more of the vital tools and jigs had been removed to newly requisitioned locations like Seward’s garage, where workers involved in the move could only watch from the roof of the garage as the German planes attacked their colleagues in Woolston.
This time the attack involved over sixty bombers with fighter escorts.
Riveter “Dinks” Diaper recalled
“There was hardly any time between when the air raid siren sounded and the bombs started falling. I came running out of the factory’s F-Shop onto Hazel Road. Then up Sea Road under the railway arch. The resident publican of the “Red Lion” would leave the cellar doors open on the forecourt and I dived down into it for shelter”
For young wages clerk Ellie Dewey the raid came only a matter of weeks after joining the company. Forced to wait to leave the factory, because of the bottleneck as workers struggled to get out through the doorway to the new office block, the bombs were already falling as she reached Hazel Road. Diving for cover a male colleague threw himself on her to protect her from the blasts and debris. Her next memory was sitting in one of the long air raid shelters as dead and wounded workers were brought in.
She, however, was fortunate. For many others, caught, in the open en route to the shelters as the bombs began to fall, the railway arch across Sea Road appeared to provide the only available cover. Sadly the arch was to prove no protection and at least six people were killed there trying to escape the bombs..
Although the fabric of the factories was badly damaged and some aircraft destroyed (including the prototype four engine bomber), miraculously most of the vital jigs and tools still in the works were undamaged, but it was clear the days of the Woolston and Itchen Works were numbered.
Considering the ferocity of the raid it is remarkable that ‘only’ around seventeen workers were killed, despite another shelter taking a direct hit. In part the fear of being killed in one of the shelters, as on the 24th, had led to many workers to ignore the shelters, choosing instead to find their own, “safer”, areas away from the works, like on the top of Peartree Green, and as a result the destroyed shelter was empty.
In total some fifty-five men, women and children were killed in the raid on Southampton with the Gas Works, Docks and Melbourne Street on the western side of the river taking the worst of the attack.
Arriving soon afterwards Lord Beaverbrook, the Minister for Aircraft Production, ordered the immediate abandonment of the Works on the Itchen and a full dispersal of production.
Woolston had paid a heavy price. Not only had the works been made unusable much of the surrounding area had been destroyed, Itchen Ferry effectively ceasing to exist. But it had done what was required.
By the time it was abandoned the Shadow Factory at Castle Bromwich was finally producing aircraft. The dispersal, against all odds, proved a remarkable success, spreading out from Southampton to Trowbridge, Salisbury, Reading and beyond. However, in the vital days when Britain most needed the Spitfire, it was the workers of Woolston who had delivered, for many having paid the ultimate price:
|Louis Edward Harold|
The Fatal Railway Arch