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.
Outworking is a Ministry of Information film produced in 1944 showing how part-time outworkers are solving the problems of production bottlenecks.
Britain's huge mass-production industry is totally at war. To man the factories, every available man, woman, who is not under arms is at work. Never before in Britain's history has production been so high. They're all in it together. Every man between the ages of 18 and 60 is either in the forces, on essential civilian work, or in the war factories.
So is every single woman between the ages of 18 and 50. So is every married woman, between the same ages, who hasn't young children to look after. Yet still more production is needed. A year ago any new demand for increased output, or rush orders, set a factory an almost impossible problem: where to find the additional labour needed.
In one factory I know a shortage of labour caused a bottleneck in the manufacturing of radio components. These were small carbon cylinders with wires soldered to each end. A deposit of solder was left on each carbon and this had to be scraped off before the next process in their manufacture. A simple but necessary job.
The trouble was there were not enough hands to do all this checking and scraping. Appeals for labour by the management were unsuccessful. Free labour no longer existed in the district and girls who were capable of doing much more highly skilled work had to be put on to relieve the pressure.
Still the work piled up and certain machines were standing idle half the time. Something new had to be tried.
Several small villages lay within a ten-mile radius of the factory, so one weekend the Ministry of Production sent a representative to try to recruit some of the local housewives. An officer from the Women's Voluntary Services helped in the door knocking, and it wasn't long before the village got to know all about it.
A hall was taken and the factory sent equipment. Benches were obtained from a local builder and moved in. This happened on a Saturday. On Monday morning, 31 volunteers turned up.
A demonstrator was sent from the factory to show them the job and get things started. That first day, these village wives and mothers exceeded in checking and scraping 23,000 parts.
Three weeks later they were nearing the end of the bottleneck accumulation. Work was organised in two shifts, morning and afternoon. Pay was at the same rate as in the factory, yet there was no attempt to run things on factory lines. It was recognised that these women had come forward freely and the management were careful not to disturb that voluntary spirit. The volunteers worked close to where they lived, and were able to look after their homes and families. There was no clocking in, and yet there was very little lateness or absenteeism, and output actually benefited from these free and easy methods.
In three weeks the total topped the half million mark, all done by unskilled women working in their spare time. Daily collections and deliveries soon became necessary and the village depot was able to take over this particular job entirely. At the factory the bottleneck disappeared and the girls went back to the machines. That is out-work, taking the work to the workers.
One of the difficulties of the scheme is getting premises but generally a room can be found, even if it's in the village pub. Women keeping a home together find the extra money very useful. One way of making it is by making these frames for packing parachutes. And the home doesn't suffer either. Mrs Huggins's husband is fighting in Italy. She has been Blitzed out of her London home and has three small children to keep, while there are lots of other women in similar circumstances.
On Monday there is usually poor attendance but there is good reason for that. Each woman will make up for lost time later on, the system's elastic enough to take care of that.
In one scattered village a social club next to the school has been taken over as an out-work depot. Mothers who bring their children to school in the morning can then go to work in the depot and pick them up again at the end of the day.
This depot is one of several started by the factory which had absorbed all the local labour and still had to expand. It wasn't long until the out-workers took over this particular work completely: a wiring job for radio sets in planes and tanks. These women know that what they are making is a direct contribution to the war effort. Mrs Wiseman's husband was captured at the siege of Tobruk but later managed to get back to the British lines. She has two children. Mrs Drummond, the mother of a small boy, is very proud of the fact that her husband won the military medal in the Western Desert.
Some village halls can't be reserved entirely for outwork. Thursday night is Home Guard night in this one, but the men lend a hand to clear the place for the evening parade.
Where there is no hall available, small groups get together in private houses or cottages. There are many jobs that can be handled by out-workers, easy or difficult according to the worker's skill. Here's one: a wiring job for use in tanks. Small parties like these take a pride in their work and are just as efficient as the larger units.
Some simple jobs can be done in the home, plenty of people have an hour or two to spare in the evening, it's only a matter of having the work sent to them. Small assembly jobs like this radio component are suitable for what is known as kitchen table work.
But out-work does not stop at the villages, it can be organised in districts which are fairly thickly populated but not normally industrial. Before the war this firm dealt in household furniture. In 1942 they converted one of their showrooms and started a small outwork department with six morning and six afternoon workers. They expanded rapidly and now in several of their showrooms they employ 1100 local housewives. Managers and salesmen took over the job of works managers and foremen and so Green management was able to play its part alongside Green labour.
Most of these woman are wives of men in the forces, who are able to leave their children for three or four hours a day. Winding coils for armatures is one of the more skilled jobs that out-workers tackle. Here is Mrs Saunders, whose husband is in Coastal Command, and whose son has just joined the RAF as an air gunner. During 1943 these part-time workers put in a half-million man-hours and the total output was one and a quarter million coils.
The great advantage of the out-work scheme is that it can be used wherever there are people with a little time to spare. These men, for example, are doing a very good job making mechanical tyre inflators. [bell rings] Yes, the men of the National Fire Service. After the Blitz, when things were quieter, they got browned off waiting around for something to happen. They pressed hard for extra work and now they've got it.
The National Fire Service is not the only organisation willing to do a spot of out-work. Employees of the London Passenger Transport Board spend several evenings a week, after their ordinary work is over, in a disused station which has been converted into an out-work shop. Here, not far from the passing trains, work goes on steadily every evening.
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.