On 14 May 1940, Winston Churchill appointed the Canadian-British Max Aitken, 1st Baron Beaverbrook, as Minister of Aircraft Production (MAP).
Beaverbrook, or Max Aitken has he was then, entered Parliament at the general election of December 1910, when he was elected the Liberal Unionist member for Ashton-under-Lyne.
Ennobled in January 1917, he served out the last few months of the Great War as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Minister of Information.
In November 1916, he acquired the controlling interest in the Daily Express, though it remained a secret until late 1918. Under his leadership, the Express was transformed within 20 years from a poor imitation of the Daily Mail selling 350,000 copies a day, to the country’s top daily with a circulation of 2,329,000.
Beaverbrook transferred those same organisational skills to MAP. Trevor Westbrook of Vickers Armstrong (Aviation) Ltd was brought on board.
There were others. Horace Clarke, who worked in the development of alloys became Director of Light Alloys (Aluminium and Magnesium). George Usher was appointed Controller General of Materials Production.
Francis Banks, an aero-engine fuels specialist who had been in charge of fuel for Britain’s entrants in the Schneider Trophy races, was put in charge of aero-engine production. A. H. Hird, on secondment from Vickers-Armstrong, held sway at the Machine Tools Directorate.
Beset by problems, the incomplete shadow factory at Castle Bromwich had yet to complete a single Spitfire, despite promising 60 a week from the beginning of April.
Industrial relations were so abysmal that workers were threatening strike action, management skills were poor, and an indifference to using tooling and drawings supplied by Supermarine defied logic.
The plant was supposedly being run by the Nuffield Organisation. Only three days after taking office, Beaverbrook effectively conned Lord Nuffield into placing the plant under direct ministry control.
Incensed at being outmanoeuvred, Nuffield complained to Churchill. Unfortunately for Nuffield, Beaverbrook sent in Sir Charles Fairey of Fairey Aviation, who compiled a damning report on the place.
Beaverbrook brought in managers from Supermarine and handed the factory over to Vickers Armstrong (Aircraft). Air Chief Marshall Hugh Dowding and Beaverbrook were both convinced that, in the short term, the RAF was going to need fighter aircraft rather than bombers.
Castle Bromwich’s bomber contracts were immediately cancelled, and priority given to building Spitfires. Ten Mk II Spitfires were completed during June 1940, 23 in July, just under 40 in August and nearly 60 during September.
Though Hurricane and Spitfire fighter production had priority, they formed part of Beaverbrook’s ‘Five Types’ project. The others were three bombers – the Bristol Blenheim, the Avro Wellington and the Armstrong Whitworth Whitley. The output of other types of aircraft was scaled back as materials were redirected.
Almost immediately upon taking office, Beaverbrook cancelled deliveries of all training aircraft from the United States to the UK, insisting that valuable space on merchant ships be given to bringing over fighter aircraft.
Writing for the London Gazette in September 1946, Dowding summed up Beaverbrook’s appointment. “The effect of this appointment can be described as magical, and thereafter the supply situation improved to such a degree that the heavy aircraft wastage which was later incurred during the Battle of Britain ceased to be a primary danger, its place being taken by the difficulty of producing trained fighter pilots in adequate numbers.”
The ministry reorganised aircraft repairs by establishing the Civilian Repair Organisation (CRO). Fighter aircraft with light damage that could be rectified within a few hours were to return to base for repair by RAF personnel.
Those with damage likely to take around 24 hours to rectify but still flyable were directed to land at improvised repair depots established about 30 miles west of London. The pilot would wait for the repairs to be completed, then fly the aircraft back to base.
Those too shot-up to fly to a repair depot were moved by road. Badly damaged aircraft were sent for rebuilding or to be stripped of anything and everything that could be reused.
Civilian Repair Units (CRUs) were set up, often at civil airfields, though part of the LMS Locomotive Works at Derby became a CRU dedicated to repairing Hurricane wings.
Some CRUs specialised in salvaging repairable components from crash sites. The system allowed even quite small businesses to play vital roles in returning aircraft to the front line. By the end of the war, the CRUs had repaired and returned to service 82,000 aircraft and 167,000 aero engines.
In recent years, claims have been made that aircraft production was increasing regardless of Beaverbrook’s role. However, it was Beaverbrook who galvanised it into action and created a functioning aircraft repair system.
In 1939, the UK produced 7,940 aircraft for the Services. Nearly double that number were produced during 1940 with 15,049 aircraft. In 1941, production passed 20,000 for the first time. By the end of the war, the Services were receiving 2,500 new aircraft of all types every month.