April 2020

Spitfire Makers in landmark BBC Radio series and podcasts.

We are massively pleased to announce the ten part BBC World Service radio programme that Spitfire Makers have been helping with is now set to go out starting next week to coincide with the virtual VE Day celebrations. Along with Dave Key’s “The Supermariners” website we have provided info, photos and stories about Spitfire Makers. I anticipate that there will be links to BBC webpages with material from “The Supermariners”, my own research, and the Nuffield Theatre’s “Out of the Shadows” project. A timely reminder of Supermarine’s extraordinary achievement in unprecedented circumstances. https://www.bbc.co.uk/mediace…/latestnews/2020/ws-spitfire

The “Starfish” Enterprise           

If you missed my talk at Nursling before the Covid 19 crisis came here’s a bit more about the Starfish…

In late 1940 the first of 237 decoy sites, was set up to divert German night bombers away from their intended targets. These sites, codenamed SF (for Special Fire) were masterminded by the Directorate of Camouflage, with a team of engineers, set designers and special effects experts based at Shepperton Film Studios.

A starfish site consisted of light arrays and fires, controlled from a nearby bunker and laid out to simulate a fire-bombed town. Southampton was one of around 80 towns and cities with “SF” (hence Star Fish) sites in the nearby countryside and one of these was at North Baddesley.

When an air raid was underway a team, usually RAF servicemen, would light coal fires and, after the initial pathfinder incendiary bombs had been dropped, pipes from oil tanks were opened to simulate a burning town. When the second wave of bombers arrived, they would see these flames and divert their high explosives away from the real target. Water was released into the burning oil creating ‘explosions’ of steam adding to the illusion.

Just as with the dispersal programme, secrecy was key to the success of the decoy sites. Even one of the Supermarine managers who lived within a few miles of the Starfish site on Baddesley Common didn’t know about it. Denis Webb, in “Never a Dull Moment” says, “We gathered subsequently that the country between us and Eastleigh was some sort of decoy area where, by some means or other it was hoped to decoy German bombers in the belief that they were over the docks – whether this tale was true I never found out – but it didn’t add to our peace of mind.

Dummy airfields, docks and factories were also constructed. By the end of the war it was estimated that nearly 1,000 tons of bombs had been diverted saving perhaps 2,500 lives. Another study showed that the Luftwaffe dropped more bombs on dummy airfields than on real ones! Photos show a wartime Starfish site in action; the RAF team assigned to the Baddesley Starfish and what remained of the site 50 years later (courtesy Ray Cobern); a map of Southern England showing decoy sites.

Image of Baddesley Common War Time Decoy courtesy of Ray Coburn

Secret wartime signatures take a step towards the light.

Through a number of sources, I had heard about handwritten names on the whitewashed walls of the cellars of Marwell Hall (the Tudor mansion where the Zoo now is) and how they were left there by ATA (Air Transport Auxiliary) pilots during WW2.

Marwell Hall – Image by Alan Matlock

The owner of Marwell at the time was Rex Morley Hoyes, a most colourful character and a director of the Cunliffe Owen Aircraft Company. They had contracts to build planes designed by other companies at their factory next to Southampton Airport which later became the Ford Transit Works.

Southampton Airport was so busy with Spitfires and other plane movements that Hoyes decided that he would build a dispersal airfield in the grounds of his country estate. This was surrounded by numerous hangars where aircraft construction was carried out including a contract to convert Spitfires to carrier borne Seafires.

The below-stairs rooms in the big house were apparently used as a mess by the ATA ferry pilot when waiting for their next flight. I was sent some photos of these and there are dozens of names, some dated – and many of these recording dates around early June 1944…

I was planning to visit Marwell Hall (and other ‘still standing’ Supermarine-linked locations) last week with a BBC researcher who is making a ten-part World Services programme, “Building The Spitfire”.

That plan had to be shelved and a remote recording session set up. It was lovely to get some very positive feedback: “this recording is REALLY GREAT, top quality! I’m so pleased! This is normal radio 4 broadcast quality, and I can’t believe we (you!) managed to put this all together so quickly”

It‘s hoped to get the programme ready for later this summer. I’ll let you know when it is going to be broadcast.

In trying to set up the visit to Marwell I got a reply from the Zoo’s new Commercial Director, Sean Mannie: “…in my previous role, I had a senior position at the Royal Armouries National Museum, at HM Tower of London and Fort Nelson, near Portsmouth. Essentially, my previous background is heritage management and I seem to have been segued into looking after Marwell’s listed building and history as a sideline. Unfortunately, I have not had a lot of time for research outside of my day job.”

However, he didn’t lose time getting into this role and, great news, reaIising the potential importance of the pencilled markings in the cellars, had all the graffiti “professionally photographed with hi-res images a few months ago.”

Sean is a self-professed ‘Spitfire nut’ who says that, a few years ago, “would have been able to run through the entire start-up, take-off and landing procedures for a Mk1 Spitfire from memory.”

When we get the ‘all clear’ from current restrictions, he would like to invite Spitfire Makers over to investigate further.

Anyone interested coming along for a bit of ‘off the wall’ research let us know!

(Photos below show the location of the wartime airfield, one of the ‘Robin’ hangars still in use on Thompson’s Lane, two sections of the writing on the cellar wall and the Hall itself.)

Can YOU connect Spitfires and Strawberries?

At the end of WW2 one of Supermarine’s managers (Denis Webb) was asked to sum up the dispersal programme that had seen Spitfire production continue and eventually increase after the bombing of the main factories in September 1940.

In his memo, to the Works Superintendent, Wilf Elliott, he listed the “unlikely workshops” that had been taken over and repurposed to produce Spitfire parts small and large:

“… laundries, garages, bus stations, glove factories, steam-roller works, and strawberry basket works…”

The location of these is now fairly well-known and it is the aim of the Spitfire Makers Charitable Trust to honour the women and men who worked in them by placing memorial plaques at each site.

We thought we’d tracked down Webb’s “strawberry basket works” and you can read about the detailed research on The Southern Basket Co. here: https://supermariners.wordpress.com/the-places/the-dispersal-works/southampton-area-dispersal/sholing-stores/

However, over the course of the past couple of years we have heard of other basket works which may have had links to Supermarine.

The strawberry growing industry was a huge enterprise in the late 18- and early 1900s. Fields to the east and west of the town were given over to their production and, during the twenties and thirties the fruit known in the trade as “Southamptons” was recognised as being the best in the country. At its peak more than one and a quarter million baskets left Swanwick Station for London, Glasgow, Aberdeen and even Dublin, making it for a short season, the busiest station in the country.

Various factors caused the decline of the industry during the Depression years of the 1930s: overuse of the soil, “root-rot” disease, late frosts in 1938 and finally the onset of war. Some production did continue with Land Army girls picking the crop at Solent Court Farm near Warsash.  but the demand for the ‘chip baskets’ from the factories in the area was also affected. However, it would seem that the premises on Botley Road that became Supermarine’s Sholing Stores was not the only one that was made use of.

In Tony Ennew’s reply to a recent Spitfire Makers post, he said that after the bombing of the main factories in Woolston in September 1940 his mother and father moved house to the relative safety of Hedge End and “subsequently worked on Spitfires at the basket factory in Swanwick Lane” – just the other side of the river Hamble.

There was a “Swanwick and District Basket Factory Ltd” very close to the station in Duncan Road, Swanwick (The former MOJ Engineering when the name was still just visible).

So far there is no evidence of a requisitioned basket factory in Swanwick Lane. Perhaps it was the present Esprit Electronics Bursledon site just off Swanwick Lane, in Coal Park Lane, SO31 7GW?  The original buildings there would seem to be of the correct period.

Tony added that he was born at a Nursing Home which was also in Swanwick Lane. Could this have been what is now Glen House, the Hampshire Adoption Services building in Glen Road?

In addition to these strawberry basket works there was another one in Sholing called the Hampshire Chip Basket Works, that was taken over for war work, possibly by Supermarine, in what is now the small industrial estate at 362b, Spring Road, Sholing. (see aerial photograph)

Any help with any of these loose ends would be greatly appreciated.  Thanks

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