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Britain's Spitfire heroines

Page history last edited by Ann Vipond 9 months, 1 week ago

 

How scores of young women worked secretly in garages and cowsheds to build the iconic plane out of the sight of Hitler's bombers

 

The picturesque city of Salisbury basked in the balmy autumn sunshine. 

In the shadow of the medieval cathedral, the Wilts and Dorset Bus Company's double-deckers trundled in and out of the Castle Street depot, while nearby the long-established Anna Valley Motor Garage was a hive of activity.

What nobody looking at this everyday urban scene in 1940 could have guessed was that, behind the nondescript facades of these two ordinary businesses, there was an astonishing top-secret military operation under way – an enterprise of breathtaking audacity that would ultimately turn the tide of the Second World War.

In a mission so clandestine that not even their families knew about it, a secret army of civilians was hard at work. Their task? 

What nobody could have guessed was that there was an astonishing top-secret military operation under way in the shadow of Salisbury Cathedral. Pictured: Some of the women who helped to build Spitfires, including Joy Lofthouse (second row,second from left)

 

A race against time to construct Spitfire fighters that were dealing Hitler's forces such a deadly blow in the hard-fought Battle of Britain – and which had already become a symbol of hope and defiance.

The vast majority building the planes were women – teams of hairdressers, typists and domestic workers with no previous engineering experience who had learned new skills in record time, and whose immense contribution to Britain's war effort has been largely unknown and unacknowledged.

Many have since taken their secrets to the grave. 

But a handful of Spitfire heroines remain – grandmothers and great-grandmothers who only now, as the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Britain approaches, have finally told their stories.

 

For Joy Lofthouse, flying Spitfires was a glorious release from the drudgery of life at Lloyds Bank, where she had worked since leaving school

 

After extensive interviews, we can reveal how, following the devastating bombings in Southampton of the two main Spitfire factories, about 10,000 aircraft – more than half of those produced during the entire war – continued to be built across a secret network of garages, bus depots and garden sheds.

At least 65 per cent of those involved in their manufacture were women drafted in to replace men whose lives had been lost in the bombings, or who had been called up to fight.

And a crack team of nearly 200 female pilots flew Spitfires from factories to military airfields ready for combat, with one confessing: 'The Spitfire in the air was an absolute dream. 

'I often went up and played with the clouds, because it was so interesting. I know I shouldn't have done, because fighter pilots were waiting to get these aeroplanes. But I did enjoy it.'

Sleek, brightly painted and with a striking Art Deco design, the headquarters of the Supermarine Aviation Works in Southampton, home of the Spitfire, had been an obvious target for Hitler's Luftwaffe pilots.

On September 24, 1940, 37 Heinkel bombers attacked its riverside factory in a daylight raid, killing 110 people and destroying numerous partially completed fighter planes. 

Two days later, the bombers returned, unleashing 70 tons of explosives that ended the part played by the Woolston factory – and a second Spitfire plant at nearby Itchen – for the rest of the war.

Miraculously, however, the Luftwaffe had failed to land the decisive blow it had hoped for. 

Much of the equipment used to make the aircraft had survived. Even more importantly, the design office of Supermarine, containing all the blueprints of current and future models, had emerged virtually unscathed.

The new Minister of Aircraft Production, Lord Beaverbrook, believed the Spitfire could – and must – be saved. Its value in the war in the air was incalculable.

So he unveiled a bold new strategy. No longer would the fighters be built in one vulnerable, visible military location. 

The wings, fuselages and other sections would be made and assembled across a network of ordinary buildings within a 50-mile radius of Southampton. 

 

The completed aircraft would then be taken to small local airfields for testing.

It was an extraordinary solution. The dispersal of manufacture had never been attempted in the history of modern warfare.

Undaunted, Spitfire engineers set about making it work. Armed with Ordnance Survey maps, they scouted suitable locations: buildings with concrete floors, good-size doors and plenty of room, uncluttered by pillars.

Car dealerships, bus depots and garages were ideal, as were warehouses, cowsheds, mills and laundries. 

Factories making gloves and strawberry baskets were used, too. Within a short time, three new production centres, involving 65 separate buildings, had been established at Salisbury and Trowbridge in Wiltshire, and Reading in Berkshire.

 

At least 65 per cent of those involved in their manufacture were women drafted in to replace men whose lives had been lost in the bombings, or who had been called up to fight

 

While the new centres were formed, Southampton was also coming back with multiple secret factories ready to produce Spitfires. 

The next task was to find workers with the necessary skills. 

As in so many areas of wartime life, the obvious source of labour had been squeezed dry, with men who had worked as engineers pre-war now away fighting.

The answer was to call upon the resourcefulness of the women of Britain. Out of nowhere, an army of volunteers and fresh-faced recruits, with no experience but plenty of enthusiasm, was about to perform a manufacturing miracle.

Talking to these unsung saviours of the Spitfire today, they are modest about their achievements.

Betty Potter, then 19, had volunteered with a friend for the Women's Royal Air Force, but fate took her to a Spitfire workshop in Trowbridge. 'Best thing we ever did. It was wonderful!' she says.

Joyce Hunt, then 18, was another Trowbridge recruit. 'They asked you, 'Would you like to be a Land Girl or in the Air Force?' 

I said, 'No, I couldn't milk a cow!' And I said to my mate, 'What shall we do?' and she said, 'We'll go in the Spitfire factory.' 

'So that's what we did. We started with small things and worked our way up.'

It was painstaking and precise work, but immensely rewarding, says Joyce Kolk, who helped construct wings at the Wilts and Dorset bus depot before moving to the Wessex Garage, also in Salisbury, where her focus was wheel housings. 

'I enjoyed it because it was more like man's work,' she says. 'We all put our heart and soul into it. We were told one year by a pilot, "Whatever you do, we have got very few Spitfires. Please keep the work up." That's what we did.'

But she also admits: 'There was no chance of sitting down during 12-hour shifts – that's why we developed varicose veins.'

Pat Pearce had been a shop assistant at Woolworth's and Marks & Spencer before being assigned to the Wilts and Dorset depot to make Spitfire parts. 

'I shall never forget the day I started,' she says. 'It was frightening. We all had different little jobs. Then it got so noisy you could hardly hear yourself speak.'

For these young women, many still in their teens, it was a baptism of fire. 

Working gruelling 12-hour day and night shifts in pairs, they had not only to master swiftly the required tools and techniques, but to learn how to handle heavy machinery in a noisy and fume-filled environment.

Yet they adapted and thrived, spurred on by the thought of those they loved who were far away fighting. 'Most of us had husbands and brothers in the Army, Navy or Air Force,' says Joan Little, who worked on the Spitfire production line in Trowbridge.

'We all put our hearts into it because we knew it was going to help the war. It was the happiest time of my life.'

There were plenty of light-hearted moments, too. 'They gave me dungarees and I said, "I'm not wearing those," ' remembers Bette Blackwell, who was a 20-year-old hairdresser when she began working on the Spitfire production line as a riveter at the Wessex Motor Garage in Salisbury.

 

Working gruelling 12-hour day and night shifts in pairs, women had not only to master swiftly the required tools and techniques, but to learn how to handle heavy machinery in a noisy and fume-filled environment

 

But she went to change in the cloakroom and now recalls: 'The crotch came down to my knees. 

'I had to roll the dungarees up and up and up, bottoms and all, and they kept falling down. So I took them home and cut them off. The crotch was still too low, mind.'

Central to the success of Beaverbrook's plan was the fact that the Spitfire, unlike its German counterpart, the Messerschmitt, was made of more than 300 parts, meaning that the dispersal scheme was easier to manage.

But few workers actually saw the fruits of their labours completed. 'I never saw a finished Spitfire,' says Joyce Hunt. 'The wings [we'd made] were taken away and the next lot brought in.'

Joan Burrough was one of the team at Chattis Hill, a small airfield about 12 miles east of Salisbury where ten Spitfires were lined up in two rows of five for testing.

'One of my jobs was to wirelock these bits all the way around the propeller,' she remembers. 'When I saw one of the Spitfires being flown up for the test flight, I thought, 'I hope that prop stays on!' Of course, they were all inspected first.'

In December 1940, the Spitfire design team moved to the secluded grounds of Hursley Park in Hampshire. 

The recently widowed Lady Mary Cooper welcomed them to her Queen Anne-style home with a floral display in the shape of a Spitfire. 

The ballroom was used as a drawing office, technicians occupied the billiard room in the north-west corner, while Lady Cooper's cook provided meals.

However, the hostess became increasingly frustrated with staff loitering and she decided to leave.

As well as as the women making Spitfires, about a fifth of Britain's so-called shadow air force – pilots who ferried Spitfires and other aircraft from factories to the front line – were female.

These were civilian flyers of the Air Transport Auxiliary whose tireless work, risking the dangers of enemy attack without live weapons, were praised by Beaverbrook as 'soldiers fighting in the struggle just as completely as if they had been on the battlefront'. 

Among them was Mary Wilkins-Ellis, who in her early 20s had flown 16 Hurricanes, among other aircraft, by the time she climbed into her first Spitfire.

Anxious about taking the controls, she says: 'The man from the ground crew helping me asked, "How many of these have you flown?" I said "None, this is the first one", and he fell backwards on to the ground!'

Once aloft, however, the nerves fell away, as she says: 'The Spitfire was the most wonderful thing ever made. 

'It was so light – you just needed a little touch and it would do anything.' In all, Mary delivered 74 Spitfires from Chattis Hill to locations across the country.

For Joy Lofthouse, flying Spitfires was a glorious release from the drudgery of life at Lloyds Bank, where she had worked since leaving school. 

'They were delightful,' she recalls. 'You practically breathed on the controls and it did what you wanted. It was the nearest thing to having wings.'

Whenever bad weather prevented flights, there was a lot of waiting around, playing games and chatting. 

Joy recalls: 'There was always a bridge school and somebody would have material spread out over the floor and would be cutting out a dress. Then suddenly the weather cleared and we had to fly.'

For all the Secret Spitfire women, their motivation was the same: the opportunity to serve their country when it needed them the most.

As Stella Rutter, who worked in the design office at Hursley Park, says, she was never tempted to talk about her work or the company. 

'I knew I was given privileged information and I just kept quiet. I didn't even let my parents know what I was doing. You worked for the country, not for yourself.'

 

© Howman & Cetintas with Gavin Clarke, 2020

Secret Spitfires, by Howman & Cetintas with Gavin Clarke, is published by The History Press

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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