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National Aircraft Factory No 1: Part One

A post from U3A group member Bill O’Neill on the rise of the industrial estate around Croydon Airport and the need for production of aircraft in World War One.

NAF From the Air around 1958
The Need for Aircraft
In 1917, the war on the Western Front had reached a stalemate, with both armies dug in and little sign of progress despite the heavy cost in men and materials. The Russians were leaving the war and Germany would be able to consolidate its troops in the west. Submarines were now sinking large numbers of allied merchant ships and our cities were under bombardment from both Zeppelins and German bombers.

Aircraft had been employed by both sides from the beginning of the war, primarily as ‘scouts’ for reconnaissance purposes; locating enemy guns or directing artillery, following soldiers in retreat or discovering troop dispositions. The value of aerial photography was discovered as early as November 1914 with pictures taken over the village of Neuve Chapelle.

Report on the air attacks on London October 1915
Initially, the military view had been that aircraft were needed to provide aerial mastery over the battlefield, but the fierce competition of war had brought about rapid development in the capabilities of aircraft and with it an expanding role in the war.

The fighter plane was developed as a counter-measure to aerial reconnaissance and Scouts were now being sent up to attack enemy planes. Bigger, faster planes were capable of bombing enemy locations, at first locally, attacking trenches, aerodromes and ammunition dumps and then over longer distances aimed at disrupting war production and civilian morale. By 1917, as Britain was suffering regular air raids, questions were being asked in the house as to when we would be doing the same to the enemy. The need for a much larger air force and supply of planes had been recognised.

Government Response
Earlier in the war the government had come in for heavy criticism over the (lack of) supply of armaments for the western front when it became known that artillery shells had been ‘rationed’ and a significant proportion were defective. The government had intervened and set up some 200 armaments factories for manufacture of explosives, filling of shells and so on, to meet the needs of the army and this had been deemed a success.

In 1917, decisions were taken to increase the Royal Flying Core (RFC) from 108 squadrons to 200, with a similar increase to the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) and to greatly increase the supply of planes. The government estimated that, taking losses into account, supplying 100 squadrons in the field would require 1,000 aircraft per month. In addition, it was estimated that a further 500 per month would be needed for home defence against air raids. So increasing the air force to 200 squadrons, this number would need to be doubled. 

At the outbreak of war, the RFC had 63 serviceable aircraft.

The Aircraft Industry (c. 1914)
The problem, of course, was that in 1914 there was no aircraft industry, just a number of small private companies manufacturing a variety of hand-built planes. But from a manufacturing point of view, an aircraft comprises an engine and an airframe (everything else!).

Manufacturing aero engines required engineering and metalworking skills and these could be found in car factories. Many of the engines used were designed by Renault and manufactured both in France and the UK. Manufacturing airframes required different skills, primarily woodworking. So the government pressed into service any suitable factories, particularly furniture makers such as Waring & Gillow.

By 1917 with government support, production had reached 1,229 airframes per month.
Some new companies, such as Airco had started up to build airframes and Handley Page had moved into a purpose-built factory in Cricklewood, but it was hard to see how the projected numbers could be achieved without a significant level of government intervention.

National Aircraft Factories
The government’s response to the shortage of airframes was –
  • To continue to support and subsidise the existing suppliers.
  • To set up the ‘Air Board’ to act as the ‘customer’ for supply and to the standardise the procurement of aircraft
  • To create 3 state of the art National Aircraft Factories, to be built and run by its civilian contractors
    • No1 to be located in Waddon and built and operated by Cubbitts
    • No2 was originally to be built in Richmond and operated by Sopwith but was finally built in Heaton Chapel and operated by
    • No3 to be built and operated by Cunard in Liverpool.
The NAFs were seen as the answer to issues of supply and capital funding, labour shortages and skills training which were seen as key constraints on production.  

Bill O’Neill

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