Works Directorate

by Mr Ernest Holloway
Mr Ernest Holloway, CB, OBE, Director-General of Works of the Air Ministry, has held that title since 1939. Prior to that he was appointed assistant director, in 1934. In 1937 he became Deputy Director and Director of Works in July, 1939. He was appointed Director-General in December, 1940 and was awarded the CB in 1941. Born 1887, he was educated in England. In 1915, he enlisted in the RFC, where he served until 1919, during which time the RAF was formed. He entered civil service in 1919 and has followed his profession in that field ever since. His work for the Air Ministry has taken him to the Middle East and Aden. He once was chief engineer, Coastal Command.
Airport construction and maintenance is the responsibility of this organisation.

The man in the boat looked back at the trawler. Half-hidden by arctic rain, she lay head-on to the gale about a mile from the shore. Dirty, cramped, tossed like a cork, she had never looked so inviting as now. For ahead was a long spur of rock, climbed by the swell. His job was to land there. Somehow he had to get his camera, compass and instruments ashore.

The man at the small chugging engine seemed to think all this quite normal. You got alongside, he explained, and waited for the swell. In the trough you had 15 feet of smooth rock above you, but if you judged your jump nicely from the crest of a big one, it was a mere four to five.

The man with the instruments nodded. This was worse than most, but he was getting used to these landings by now. Three hours later, from a high ridge of granite, he was looking down on basaltic rock and peat bog across which an icy mist crawled towards him. Here, in the saddle between two barren ranges, somehow an airfield was to be carved.

No doubt the job would be hard, but he was completely confident. The last two years had taught him that, if you put your mind to it, airfields could be wrought from the most unpromising material. Sand, snowfield, a frozen lake; fenland or mountain valley — given brains, hard work, and a little luck it could be done. As for colossal difficulties, they weren't your chief worry. You could see them a mile off and you knew what to do. It was the unexpected, sometimes quite small snags that plagued you: a beautiful level stretch, and then try as you would not a blade of grass would grow; a perfect hidden valley, no floods in living memory till you were well started, then inundation on biblical scale; or there were dawn mists at odd seasons which the inhabitants forgot to mention; or tricky winds from the hills which you only spotted when your runways were half completed; or sometimes firm land seemed to turn overnight into glue-like mud that no amount of drainage could get rid of — these were the things that made strong men grey at the temples. His own hair, incidentally, had a good deal more grey than that. Doubtless the dive-bombing in a certain fjord had contributed; and there were several summer afternoons during the Battle of Britain which had probably helped.

He set up his surveyor's compass and took a careful bearing. A week later the trawler put in once more. An unkempt figure scrambled along the rocks, slung his equipment down into the boat, and slithered after it. Next day, from a coastal airport, a plane took off for the south. Within 24 hours, in a building not far from Whitehall, a group of experts were considering a concise, informative, and highly confidential report.

It was all set down in black and white before them. Maps, panoramic skylines, climate and meteorology, water supply, possibilities of roads and bridges, details of nearby population, analyses of rock and soil. They sat in judgment at a long table. Meanwhile, a trawler was driving through sleet and spray. The man with the instruments was casting an expert eye on another coast.

One man looks at a desolate island; a dozen view a sheaf of reports. But if their verdict is favorable the huge organisation of that department of the Air Ministry known as Works Directorate comes swiftly into action. Where the lonely figure stood to take the first bearings, soon an advance survey party are setting up a battery of instruments. From that long shelf of rock where the long swell mounted, engineers are blasting a primitive quay. Now it is not a trawler riding the off-shore gale, but a small cargo vessel. Twenty or 30 men are coming ashore.

A month from now there will be hundreds, and in three months time a thousand. First a small camp at the foot of the hills; then gradually, a small town of huts and storehouses. The first rough quay will grow to a miniature port. Across the peat bog, not built — for the peat is too fluid to take a true foundation, runs the first island road.

Lorries go floundering across it, and with them the flow of supplies. Wood, steel, cement — a hundred tons a day; then, as the work grows, two hundred tons. And food for a thousand workmen. Lorry after lorry piled high with food.

As for water, that presents only one difficulty. There's far too much of it. But one by one the streams are dammed and diverted, forced into culverts and channels, drained away from that chosen strip of level ground. And while one lot of men are mastering the water, others are mastering the rock. Lumps that project are blasted and the debris used to fill up hollows. Small cranes appear; then as the foundations grow more solid, large ones. Soon great masses of rock are being slung into the air.

There comes a month of rain. It slashes at the men's faces, swells the hillside torrents, turns the peat to a devouring sea of slime. The road can't take the traffic; it's no use, the lorries can't get through. But if they don't there's an army of men without provisions; and the work will fall behind for want of materials.

In a peacetime job, the worst that could happen would be payment of an agreed penalty for construction falling short of contract time; but this job is part of a war, and if it's late there's no one can tell how great the penalty will be.

Planes from this airfield will dominate a stretch of Atlantic waters which the mainland bases now find it difficult to guard. Across the North Sea, despite the pounding of our bombers, U-boats are still coming down the slipways. We can delay their launching, not check it altogether. But the coming into service of this airfield will mean that one thousand square miles of ocean, or it may be even more, will be subject each day to double or treble scrutiny. The U-boat will be hunted down; the surface raider will be up against shore-based planes. If the work slows down, if it's not seven months but nine before the first planes take off from this island airfield, lost tonnage will measure the gravity of that 60 days delay.

So the column of lorries goes forward over the road which the rains have worked on. The first one gets by, and the second; the third slithers perilously, skids, lurches, and then is halted. One wheel is bogged, and the cumbrous bulk of the lorry is slung broadside across the road.

If 20 men can't move it, send for a hundred; if mechanical haulage can't get a purchase, send for horses; and meanwhile, shore up that other edge, there's just space for the rest of the line to crawl through. They do it, each one making a spurt at the critical moment, tottering on the slippery rim of the roadway, but righting and staggering on. The drivers crouch over the steering wheels, windscreens open to the cutting edge of the rain, their curses and shouts snatched from their lips by the gale that sweeps in from the sea.

A few weeks later there is hot sunshine and the road hardens. A dozen lorries are in the peat bog and three times that number of men are in the rough field hospital — they couldn't be taken off till the gales died down. But not a day's work was lost in the whole bad season; and when the next rains come the road surface will have been strengthened and the drainage bettered. By that time, too, the concrete runways will be sliding away from beneath the wheels of the first fighter and reconnaissance planes.

By then past troubles will have become good stories — the day the big crane started slipping; the time the lorries were all stuck and the supplies went the last half mile on the backs of staggering men; the evening a Heinkel swooped out of the clouds and machine-gunned the jetty; the night the torpedoed supply ship was beached with half her bows blown away.

These stories are all part of the Battle of the Atlantic, a part not often told. But then the same was true of the Battle of Britain. While Spitfires and Hurricanes were shooting the yellow-nosed Messerschmitts out of the blue heavens, some of the men work on the northern island were sweating far nearer home, putting right by night airfields blasted by day; finishing the second-line field against the clock so that the fighters could still fly when their first-line aerodrome was half ruined; then getting the first one leveled before the bombers had spotted the other; eating and sleeping in snatches, bombed and machine-gunned on the job without the satisfaction of headlines to help them on their way.

These were the high spots, of course. Nine-tenths of the job for which the Directorate General of Works is responsible are devoid of thriller trimmings. They are just a matter of accurate calculation, perfect organizing skill and steady drive. The main problem tackled can be summed up in a single American phrase: an air force has to be on the level. Planes may move freely in three dimensions, but for the start and finish of that movement they are tied to a level area. It must be the right size and have the right sort of surface; and if it is not plainly visible special lighting or directional beam apparatus must indicate its whereabouts. The surface may be a ship's deck or a stretch of water, a grassy field in the midland counties or a converted peat bog on a rock-bound island; but it must be level. And the prairie dweller visiting the British Isles would be surprised to notice that good solid level ground is often quite hard to find.

Remember, then, when the radio announces that a thousand bombers were concentrated over enemy territory that prior to the vast organisation which made the raid possible there first came into being that basic essential — a huge acreage of level ground. The Aerodrome Board first selected it. In the days when the present war was still only a vague possibility, it was clear that in airfield space Germany possessed a considerable advantage, though this might be offset to some extent by the plains of France. A policy of self-sufficiency was laid down and gradually implemented.

Every corner of these islands was surveyed from the airfield point of view, and when after less than a year of war Britain stood alone, the wisdom of that prior planning became obvious. Every square yard of airfield surface was precious, and a great increase of acreage was urgently needed. But crops were needed too; never in our history were harvests so important. By careful planning the airfield space was found without diminishing the food producing areas unduly. Today, however, with Great Britain acting as a huge advance air base for the growing strength of the US Army Air Force, the aerodrome problem is increasingly difficult to solve.

The Aerodrome Board submits a report in which a reasoned estimate of the possibilities of each site is given. This goes to the Director of Planning, who consults with the Director General of Organisation and the chiefs of the RAF Commands. At the same time the Works Directorate is examining the problem, so that in the next stage the operational requirements of the Air Force can be balanced against technical difficulties. The final decision is thus based on consideration from every angle, but this does not mean that the process of selection is slow. In peacetime, no doubt, it tended to be leisurely; in time of war it is rapid. From the moment when the trawler’s boat put the first surveyor ashore to the turning of the first spadeful of peat on the northern island may have been a month; it would certainly be little more. And a month is not long to decide how half a million pounds shall be expended.

Once the decision is made, Works Directorate takes over. They are responsible for providing the aerodrome complete with all essential services. They purchase or hire the land, design the layout, and go straight ahead. Runways and roadways, piers and slipways, water and electricity, drainage and sewage; cooking, heating and ventilating; petrol and oil storage, workshop machinery and wireless masts — these needs indicate the range of activities which the department covers. Sometimes an entire railway system is necessary; and on more than one occasion complete harbour installations have had to be provided before the airfield construction could start.

Camouflage is clearly an important part of aerodrome design, but many misconceptions exist concerning its basic nature. Before the war Royal Commission on Fine Arts was frequently consulted by Works Directorate when any new scheme was under consideration. The purpose of this liaison was largely to avoid complaint from local residents that aerodrome construction was destroying amenities of architecture or scenery. Nevertheless, it was also known that while skillful painting, netting and similar devices are useful aids to camouflage, the first essential is that the structure to be hidden shall blend in broad outline with the landscape. Such qualities in his subject make much easier the camouflage artist's task. While protecting the RAF from the charge of vandalism, so frequently leveled against Government building in time of peace, the Royal Commission had made a valuable contribution to our wartime security. It was never expected that complete concealment of the average aerodrome could be effected, but in developing the theory of camouflage artists and scientists have joined forces with considerable success. Even in the desert, where nature affords little assistance, their triumphs have been notable.

Difficulty of camouflage is by no means the only problem of work in the desert. If work on the peat bog was complicated by the presence of water, there have been many occasions when its absence presented equal danger. To picture the desert as a huge natural airfield is a very natural error. While it certainly offers maximum chance of safety in forced landings, a loose sandy surface can give rise to appalling difficulties in takeoff. Of the devices by which these are combated little can be said; but those who have seen how often our aircraft are in evidence over the desert at times when the enemy force, of presumably comparable strength, is not, have probably drawn correct conclusions. The achievements of Works Directorate in the desert were based on experience in mandated territory. In this we have the advantage. Fairness demands that we acknowledge the fact. Extensive experience of sand as a substance highly inimical to the operation of aircraft we now share pretty equally with our opponents. But we did have a fairly long start.

Most of the tasks which the Works Directorate performs are based on experience; their details have been worked out by trial and error; so well are their outlines known that a few brief directions can sometimes set the while machinery in motion. On the other hand there have been occasions when improvisation has been necessary, when aerodromes have had to be constructed against the clock from whatever material was to hand.

The advance parties who landed in Norway to prepare for the air defense of that country against the ruthless German advance faced heart-breaking problems. The few Norwegian airfields had been seized by the invaders. If our planes were to operate it was necessary to make use of whatever level surfaces could be found. They were few in number, and with the snows just melting, extraordinary difficulties were encountered in their use. Nevertheless our planes took the air. One squadron operated from a frozen lake, with the German bombers raining down high explosive on the ice.

At another point a level stretch was found but a ploughed strip ran at right angles across the run. Three hundred thousand turves were cut from surrounding fields and fitted into the furrows. Then, to improve the surface, every scrap of wire netting in the district — rabbit wire, fencing, anything that could be found, was laid along the track. Still it was too soft for a takeoff. But the RAF officer in charge would not throw in his hand. The entire wooden fencing of a sports field was pulled up and laid along the run. When it proved too short, hundreds of snow-shields were collected from miles around. At this point German air reconnaissance spotted the work and soon the machine-gun bullets were whistling down. With brief intervals under cover, the workers went on. The same evening our fighters were in the air.

The story of that airfield made from nothing under enemy fire (there was sniping from fifth columnists to contend with as well as bombs) is as fine a tribute to the spirit of "Works and Bricks," as the department is affectionately called, as any praise for their more elaborate achievements, some of which rank as engineering feats of high order. The story sums up the spirit of the men. Whether in the snows or in the desert; whether up to their waists in a peat-bog or tunneling deep into a mountainside; bombed, sniped, or machine-gunned, they have only one creed. It is a creed shared by the whole of the English-speaking world: the job must be done.

This article was originally published in the September, 1942, "Special Royal Air Force Issue" of Flying and Popular Aviation magazine, vol 31, no 3, pp 105-106, 242, 252.
The original article includes a thumbnail photo of the author and 4 captioned photos.
Photos are not specifically credited, but seem to be from the British Air Ministry.

Photo captions: