The Work of the Ministry of Aircraft Production

by Sir Archibald Rowlands
Sir Archibald Rowlands, KCB, MBE, Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Aircraft Production. Former Second Deputy Under-Secretary of State, Air Ministry. From 1937 to 1939. he was adviser on military finance to the Government of India. Born December 26. 1892. Sir Archibald was educated at the University College of Wales and Jesus College. Oxford. He served in Mesopotamia in the last war. He served as Private Secretary to successive Secretaries of State for War (Viscount Hailsham, Viscount Halifax, Mr Duff Cooper). He was created a Knight Commander of the Bath in 1941.

The Ministry of Aircraft Production was born of the exigencies of war. It was brought into being in May, 1940, by an Order in Council, which defined its functions as being:

  1. the supply and repair of aircraft, munitions of war, stores and equipment required by the Secretary of State for Air or the Air Council for the purpose of the discharge of their functions; and
  2. the design and inspection of, and research and experimental work in relation to, any articles required by the Secretary of State for Air or the Air Council for the purpose aforesaid.

Previously, both in peace and in the early part of the war, these duties had been carried out by a special department of the Air Ministry, but they were expanding so rapidly that the Prime Minister decided to entrust them to a separate Ministry — leaving the Air Ministry free to devote its attention to the administration of the Royal Air Force and to the conduct of the war in the air.

A description of the principal departments of the Ministry is given in separate articles of this issue. From these, it will be gathered that the Ministry does not itself produce aircraft. It decides, in consultation with the Naval and Air Staffs, what kinds of aeroplanes should be produced, how many of them should be made up to the full limit of the resources which can be made available for the purpose and where they are to be produced. It lays down, controls, adjusts and watches over the fulfillment of the master plan of production, but leaves the actual manufacture to industry. It has spent hundreds of millions of pounds on the construction and equipment of new, or on the adaptation of existing, factories; but it manages none of them. The management is entrusted to private firms.

In brief, the primary task of the Ministry on its production side is to create the optimum conditions required to achieve the maximum output.

This has involved not only an enormous expansion of airframe and aero engine plants, but also the creation of corresponding capacity for the manufacture of the fabricated material, the instruments, the armament, the equipment and the many other thousands of separate items which go to make the modern combat airplane. The manufacturer who turns out the finished aircraft or aero engine has to be assured of his supplies, and it is the job of the Ministry of Aircraft Production to see that they are available at the right time and in the right quantities.

It is to the Ministry, too, that the contractor and subcontractor look for the machine tools, the plant, the labor and the premises, which they are unable to obtain by their own unaided efforts, for all these things are in short supply.

The task of trying to overtake the almost overwhelming numerical superiority in aircraft and military weapons with which Germany entered upon this war has entailed the sacrifice of all nonessential industries and the severe restriction of those engaged in supplying the minimum civilian needs of the country. A factory formerly making musical instruments is now making gun turrets and tail planes; a factory once making coffins is now making aeroplane wings. Automobile firms are making aero engines. Indeed, the automobile industry was the main instrument for expanding the output of aero engines. Railway workshops do airframe repairs and make tanks; piano firms are making RAF pyrotechnics and Army ammunition boxes; aerated water firms are making oxygen and wireless apparatus; the large clerical staffs employed by the football pools, which formerly catered for the sporting interest taken by the British working man in the results of football matches on Saturday afternoons, gave up their typewriters and computing machines to take over sewing machines for the making of barrage balloons; furniture makers are making gliders; and so on.

Not only have the main aircraft firms, which constituted the prewar aircraft industry, grown to an enormous size, but it has also been necessary for them to subcontract a large percentage of their work to existing smaller engineering enterprises throughout the country; so that almost every available garage and workshop is engaged on subcontracts for the larger factories. The advantages of this scheme are manifold. First, machine tools already available are brought at once into production. Secondly, the work is taken to where the labor is available, instead of the labor having to be brought to the work, with the consequential transport and housing problems involved. Indeed, it is not too much to say that the expansion in output which has been achieved would not have been possible but for the comprehensive subcontracting scheme laid down by the Air Ministry before the war and developed by the Ministry of Aircraft Production.

But it is not only to the plants producing new aircraft that we look to maintain and increase the first line strength of the RAF. We have had to create a large industry for the repair of damaged aeroplanes, aero engines and equipment, and the product of this new industry provides a powerful reinforcement to the output of the main factories.

Special mention should be made of two pieces of organisation evolved to meet the aerial bombardment which struck these islands in the Summer of 1940, and which continued with little respite until the end of May, 1941. These are not the least among the great improvisations of Lord Beaverbrook, the first Minister of Aircraft Production. The first is what we know as the Emergency Services Organisation of the Ministry of Aircraft Production-although it looks after the needs of the other supply departments as well. The job of this organisation was the rapid repair of factories damaged by enemy bombing so that full production could be resumed with the least possible delay. In all the larger industrial areas, Panels were set up, composed of engineers, architects, industrialists, representatives of public service utilities, etc. All give their services free. There was little sleep for these men during the critical months of late 1940, and early 1941. The results of their labors are still apparent in the towns and cities that were hardest hit — in boarded walls and windows and tarpaulin roofs, under whose shelter the workpeople carried on with their tasks.

The second was the organisation which wrought marvels in the speedy dispersal of factories from highly vulnerable areas. It had long been settled policy to have more than one source of production for each separate item and component required by the aircraft industry, but the opening of the Blitz on this country showed that a much greater measure of dispersal was necessary and that, in many cases, it would be prudent to break up larger plants into smaller units. This policy was carried out with almost incredible speed and efficiency. The problem involved was not merely a physical one of transport of machine tools to a new district, but there were all the connected problems of the movement of the workers, with the attendant difficulties of billeting, housing and feeding.

We are never completely satisfied at the Ministry of Aircraft Production with the results of our efforts, but we do derive a little satisfaction from some of the things we have done. What we take most pride in is that we have been able to help the manufacturers, the designers and the workpeople in the aircraft industry. Between us we have not only maintained the technical superiority of equipment which enabled us to survive the Battle of Britain, but we have also reached numerical parity in the air with our principal enemy.

To this achievement the women of these islands have made an outstanding contribution. Hundreds of thousands of British women who have never been in a factory before are now engaged in making aircraft and scores of thousands are still being recruited each month, for we have not yet reached the peak of production. A large proportion of these women are married and they have to look after their homes as well. We are a small country; geographically we are smaller than the state of Oregon. Our people have lost all their luxuries and much of what, in times of peace, would be regarded as the necessaries of life. Thousands have been killed, thousands more have been maimed as a result of enemy bombing. Many thousands have lost their homes and many thousands more have forsaken their homes to move to other parts of the country where airplanes and their components are being made. Above all they have worked. They have worked to produce aeroplanes in quantities which, added to the flood now pouring out from the plants in the United States, will soon make our enemies rue the day when they set out to impose their barbarous domination upon the peace-loving peoples of the world.

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 157-158.
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: