The supply, demand and manufacture of equipment needed to combat the outbreak of coronavirus has been a heated topic in the news; barely a day goes by without hearing about new schemes and projects designed to combat shortages. A number of the reported steps to overcome these problems have reflected those taken during the Second World War, as British brands and volunteers responded to the national war effort. As American author Mark Twain wrote in his autobiography, “There is no such thing as a new idea”.
In late March 2020, in response to a shortage of ventilators, the UK government issued blueprints for the machines to over 60 manufacturing companies. Automotive manufacturers like Vauxhall, Rolls-Royce and Land Rover were among those called upon to support the demands for ventilators.
In 1940, the British government also turned to the automotive industry to rectify a dearth of equipment. British re-armament in the 1930s had largely focussed upon equipping the Royal Air Force and the Royal Navy, and a large number of the already limited supply of tanks were lost during the fall of France in May 1940.
Winston Churchill, in the turret of a Churchill I tank, during a demonstration of the newly designed vehicle at Vauxhall motors in Luton, 23 May 1941.
Prior to the evacuation of Dunkirk, the American motor company Vauxhall, whose British factory was in Luton in Bedfordshire, had experimented with designing a tank suitable for trench warfare, of the kind witnessed during the First World War. The urgent demand for military vehicles saw Vauxhall Motors rush a modified version into production in June 1940, and the first completed models of the Churchill tank (named for the then Prime Minister who had tested the prototype) were delivered in June 1941.
Churchill MK VII tank, manufactured by Vauxhall.
The Churchill tank would go on to become one of the most famous tanks of the Second World War, but its speedy production process was to prove problematic. The tank was plagued with a number of mechanical problems, and a list of faults was even included in the user’s handbook, but by 1944 the design had been greatly improved.
Savile Row and Burberry
From April 2020, a number of fashion brands including Phillip Treacy and Louis Vuitton offered up their services to manufacture much needed personal protective equipment (PPE) for healthcare staff tackling coronavirus. British designer clothing maker Burberry even elected to repurpose a Yorkshire coat factory to produce surgical clothing for patients.
The bespoke tailors of Savile Row supported the demands for military clothing by making uniforms during the First World War, while Burberry’s famous trench coat was another piece of military clothing made for use in the conflict.
Though British Army clothing was re-designed to incorporate more practical, simpler patterns in the 1930s, skilled tailors continued to fashion military uniforms throughout the Second World War. Notably Savile Row tailors made the naval uniform which outfitted the dead body of the fake Major William Martin in 1943 during Operation Mincemeat. And American servicemen in Britain used their famously ample wages to pay for designers to make them jackets.
US Army Air Force Captain Vernon Gayle Alexander wearing a Burberry jacket he had made for him in London, 1944.
Just as it wasn’t only the car makers and the fashion houses that converted to wartime production, it seems likely that we may see other industries called upon to manufacture goods in high demand.
During the Second World War, the tyre maker Dunlop Rubber Company Ltd took on the manufacture of a range of rubber goods from hot water bottles to barrage balloons. They also made protective equipment including a range of anti-gas shoes to be worn by small animals and rubber swimsuits for combat divers, commonly known as Frogmen.
The factory floor at the Dunlop Balloon Factory, Manchester.
Dunlop manufactured Frogman mask worn by Leading Seaman James Joseph Magennis.
Dunlop’s Frogman suit was made of thin, pliable rubber, a vast improvement on earlier designs, which were both bulky and had to be worn with woollen underwear. Leading Seaman James Joseph Magennis of the Royal Navy wore a Dunlop suit while attaching an explosive charge to the Japanese Heavy Cruiser 'Takao' on 31 July 1945, and was awarded the Victoria Cross for taking part in the hazardous mission.
It’s also not just businesses stepping in to make equipment needed by those treating coronavirus. School children turned their hands to assembling visors, while crafty armies of volunteers have sewn hospital scrubs and face masks from their homes.
Women producing radio location components for Belling & Lee Ltd, at an outworking unit in Chinnor, Oxfordshire.
Even with the majority of the population mobilised for war work, industries still faced problems with manufacturing enough to meet demand during the Second World War. From 1942, factories began asking housewives to produce military components from outworking units close to their homes. These part-time workers assembled aircraft parts and checked radio components from their kitchen tables, village halls and local cafes, and the scheme proved both incredibly profitable and eased production bottlenecks. By 1943 there were around 20,000 outworkers supporting factories across Britain.
Is having enough enough?
During the Second World War, distribution was a vast challenge to overcome. Though the USA used its vast resources and capacity for mass production to support its Allies, battle damaged transport networks and attacks on naval shipping made it difficult for much-needed products to reach their destinations.
The UK Government had to resort to strict measures, like rationing, to combat issues with circulation and industries making austerity foods, like powdered eggs and tinned meat, were also developed to maximise the capacity of transport.
Current debates over whether there is enough PPE for all and reports on the progress of shipments containing equipment travelling from overseas, highlight that merely asking companies to make enough equipment to deal with coronavirus is perhaps not all that is needed to combat shortages in supplies. Whether we’ll see the return of tinned powered eggs, however, seems currently doubtful.
Tin of powdered eggs, manufactured in the USA and distributed in Britain.