You are in: Browse

Historical Perspectives

But it was not just large factories that contributed to war production. Garages, formerly servicing private cars, were eventually put to use overhauling army vehicles, while car showrooms were converted into shell-turning shops; the retail motor trade trained thousands of men to be drivers and mechanics for the armed forces. On a larger scale, the Nuffield Organisation (Morris Motors) was responsible, among other war work, for collecting, housing and sorting damaged aircraft components. Some 25 million items passed through its workers' hands, with reparable parts going to repair shops while those irretrievably damaged were scrapped and the metals melted down in the company's Metal and Produce Recovery Depots - the one at Horspath, near Oxford, employed more than 1,500 men and women.

The importance of military aircraft in the Second World War led to the 200 existing airfields being supplemented by 500 new ones. Each required, among other materials, miles of electric cables. The aircraft themselves also needed extensive electric cabling, with four and a half miles in each Lancaster bomber. At the retail store of Perrings in Staines, volunteer (rather than directed) female workers produced the cable preparation for the complete electrical equipment of 1,400 Halifax and Lancaster bombers between 1942 and 1944. According to one account: "The factory still looked like a store and the works office, wages department, girls' restroom and canteen kitchen were housed in the peace-time 'show flat' on the first floor."

The production figures are quite staggering. For example, some 360 million shells, grenades and mines and 12,000 million rounds of small arms ammunition were produced. Factories producing the latter employed well over 100,000, including some 70,000 women. Eventually some 600 firms were involved in the production of Bailey bridges, making over 200 miles of fixed bridges and 40 miles of floating bridges; the longest bridge erected was one of over 5,000 feet across the river Rhine.

By 1945 more than 3 million miles of cable were produced for use in military communications. During the war the Post Office laid cables providing five million miles of underground telephone circuits for the armed forces and other essential services. At their peak, some 38 million radio valves a year were being manufactured. On a more mundane level some 40 million jerricans (steel four-gallon petrol containers) were manufactured and nearly 100 million pairs of standard army socks produced during the war.

The mobilization of the whole workforce, along with central government control of most economic activity, showed most working men and women that the waste of the inter-war years did not have to be repeated. This experience, despite the austerity (including the continuation of rationing for several years after the war), profoundly changed the outlook of the younger generations of workers.

Further reading:

The Times, British War Production 1939-1945: A Record (The Times, London: 1945) ('produced in complete conformity with the authorized economy standards').

Ernest Fairfax, Calling All Arms: The Story of How a Loyal Company of British Men and Women Lived through Six Heroic Years (Hutchinson, London: 1945).
P. Inman, Labour in the Munitions Industries (HMSO and Longmans, London: 1957).

H. M. D. Parker, Manpower: A Study of War-time Policy and Administration (HMSO and Longmans, London: 1957).

(Both Inman and Parker are in the History of the Second World War: United Kingdom Civil Series.)

Angus Calder, The People's War: Britain 1939-45 (Panther, London: 1971).

Asa Briggs, Go to It! Working for Victory on the Home Front 1939-1945 (Mitchell Beazley and the Imperial War Museum, London: 2000).
Page 3 of 3
Go to Page:   Go

Employment during the Second World War by Dave Lyddon