How did Britain produce aircraft on a mass scale during the Second World War? David Rogers explores the ‘Shadow Factories’.

Shadow FactoriesBefore I started writing books I worked for a multi-national company for over 20 years. Every now and again I was sent on an assignment into the manufacturing division from my home in the research laboratories. During each of the manufacturing assignments I came across lots of jargon, some of which led down interesting paths…

On one occasion I was introduced to the concept of capacity. In other words, when the manufacturing plant was working flat out there was no capacity to take on extra orders. The game then developed into: How can we do something about it? Speed up the processes was one method of solving the problem. In some cases however, that just created a different set of issues needing resolution. After all these years I have never forgotten the concepts. It turns out that what was relevant then was also something facing the government in the mid-1930s…

As the threat of war grew ever greater, the ministers of the day were faced with a dilemma. Simplified, the discussions would have – indeed did – concerned the need to manufacture (in this case aircraft) by a process that could be dismantled after the war. The ministers knew that there was insufficient capacity to produce the necessary aeroplanes using the traditional aircraft manufacturers, unless they helped to increase the size of their respective businesses. Of course that was an option, but it would have led to an increase in capacity that could not be sustained once the impending war ended. The potential risk was, therefore, that each firm the government helped would face bankruptcy in the extreme case or severe downsizing as soon as the war ended.

Another route was to buy aircraft from elsewhere. This did indeed take place. Through the Lend-Lease scheme developed between our government and those in the United States and also Canada, we arranged for thousands of aircraft to be manufactured in the North Americas and flown or shipped over to Europe. This was only a partial solution.

What the ministers decided to do in England was to ask for help outside of the aircraft industry and to approach the motor car manufacturers. They couldn’t ask them to turn over their factories to produce aircraft instead of cars because they needed them to make trucks, jeeps etc. The discussions between the motor manufacturers and the government centred on something totally different. Simply put, the government proposed to build bespoke factories for aircraft production adjacent to the car manufacturers and asked that these new factories be managed by managers from the motor factories.

Agreements were drafted and details thrashed out, and the process started. It became known as the ‘Shadow Factory’ scheme. A few hiccups in the early days eventually led to the manufacture of much of the homemade aircraft. Of course some of these factories made parts or engines or, indeed, wings etc. – aircraft being assembled elsewhere. There was always the fear of a stray German bomb landing on a factory so a dispersed manufacturing system seemed appropriate.

Once established, the system worked well until the end of the war; at which point the government sold-off their stake in these factories (often to the motor industries, which by that time, needed the extra capacity for car manufacture). Some of the ‘Shadow Factory’ buildings still exist today. If you are ever passing the Jaguar plant in Castle Bromwich, spare a thought for the many thousands of Spitfires made there during the war…

Shadow Factories, Britain’s Production Facilities During World War II by David Rogers is available to pre-order here.

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