Submitted by David Warmington
As a child, growing up in Castle Bromwich on the outskirts of Birmingham in the 1960s, walks with our dog and playing out with mates sometimes included a climb to the top of what was believed to be the remains of a motte and bailey castle, known locally - and typically unpretentiously - as "Pimple Hill". The view from there took in an elevated stretch of the new M6, a meandering River Tame, and beyond that the tower blocks of Castle Vale housing estate, together with the low mass of a giant factory producing car bodyshells.
I already knew that the factory, then owned by Pressed Steel Fisher and later by Jaguar Cars, and now referred to by locals simply as The Jag, had once produced something infinitely more exciting. And with my schoolboy's imagination, the Airfix kits I'd painstakingly assembled came to life when I pictured the real thing being wheeled from the factory, across the Chester Road and out onto Castle Bromwich airfield where those flats now stood. The brand new Spitfires would be parked in front of giant hangars - the Flight Sheds were still there until the 80s - and then test flown for the first time before delivery to operational RAF units. Standing on top of Pimple Hill, I would silently curse the fact that I'd been born 20 years too late.
Moving away from the Midlands to
study art and design in the South West, I subsequently pursued a career in
graphic design that led me eventually back to the Midlands. I had never lost my
interest in aeroplanes, and when I saw the factory again, the view was barely
altered. However, with the wisdom that comes with maturity I'd developed a new
respect for the generation that lived through the 1940s. I'd also learned the
story behind the Vickers Supermarine Spitfire legend, about the difficult mix
of technology, politics, finance and personalities that led to the fighter
almost being late for its place in history.
The Castle Bromwich Aircraft
Factory was one of the largest and best equipped facilities of its kind when
erected at a cost of over Â£4,000,000 between 1938 and 1940. The giant shadow
factory was part of Britain's belated efforts to prepare for an air war, and
would enable mass production of the fighters initially designed and built on
the South coast by Supermarine a subsidiary of the Vickers organisation.
Difficulties in developing the complex new fighter had even led to a situation
where other aircraft were being considered for production at the huge Midlands
plant. It was believed that the Government contract could take advantage of the
manufacturing experience proffered by Morris Motors, the works initially being
under the control of the autocratic industrialist Lord Nuffield. However,
producing advanced fighter aircraft under the pressure of an impending Blitzkrieg
proved more difficult than manufacturing cars, and frustrated Government
ministers only managed to replace Nuffield staff with Vickers management as
late as May 1940.
The desperate evacuation of
Dunkirk was already complete, and what became known as the Battle of Britain
about to begin - and not one Spitfire had left the factory at Castle Bromwich.
Vickers test pilot Alex Henshaw had been asked to fly the first off the
production line, and when it was finally ready in June, he recalled in his book "Sigh For a Merlin" that this was an opportunity to raise diminished moral at
the factory at same time as showing the performance and ability of the
Spitfire. In the brand new aircraft, he executed one of the most precise and
breathtaking aerobatic performances in front of the assembled workers.
The story of Castle Bromwich
Aircraft Factory offers fascinating insight into an episode of economic and
social history. This one, massive yet unassuming collection of buildings brings
together a fascinating blend of national heritage, local interest, and personal
reminiscences. My Dad had recalled how he would watch from the perimeter fence
as new Spitfires were flight tested from the Castle Bromwich airfield, in the months before he interrupted
his studies at Moseley Road School of Art in Birmingham to join the army in
1941. And he was sure it was Henshaw at the controls because "he shot up in a
vertical climb off the ground like a bat out of hell". After surviving the
fight across Europe to the end of the war, Dad would take evening walks from
Erdington with Mom, past the airfield to Castle Bromwich village, before buying
their first home there. Millions of "ordinary" people lived through and were
touched by the shadow of wartime, from students that became soldiers like Dad,
to 17 year old girls working in factories. We pass people from their generation
in the street every day.
Though relatively well paid and protected by trade unions, workers at Castle Bromwich toiled under the immense pressure of wartime production demands and many would have experienced the loss of a family member in the armed services. The factory was an obvious strategic bombing target, and workers could arrive at stations amid scenes of sickening destruction and loss of life at the end of a night shift. Forty percent of workers were female, and Megan Rees' personal story published in 2005 within the BBC People's War website is a remarkable snapshot of life as a worker at the Spitfire factory. Birmingham's newspapers have carried many articles with contributions from readers recalling personal memories of the Spitfire factory. Preserving these personal stories creates a vital link with members of that generation, enabling others to share and reflect upon their experiences.
The main, low-rise bulk of the Spitfire factory at Castle Bromwich is partially hidden today by modern retail parks, and recent extensions include the reception and showroom of the present occupiers. It is hard to believe that the plant now "quietly" turning out Jaguars once employed 14400 people and built what is one of the great icons of British history. I wonder if the chairman of the Indian conglomerate Tata really appreciates what they bought when they acquired Jaguar Cars! Just along the road from the gleaming leaping cat on a plinth that marks Jaguar's main entrance, a striking and stark grey steel sculpture represents several climbing Spitfires, mounted slightly incongruously in the centre of a traffic island. This is a most visual reminder of the historical significance of the adjacent site - after all, the building, if it's not listed and so protected, could easily disappear at some time in the future.
For many people today, the unmistakable gruff roar of a Rolls Royce Merlin engined Spitfire and that neat, graceful shape " almost too attractive to be a fighting machine " still stir the emotions. When finally I had the time to start my first ever oil painting for pleasure, after years in art and design, I decided to create an image that would celebrate the story of the Castle Bromwich contribution to the Spitfire legend. I was determined that it wouldn't just be another Spitfire picture. Hopefully, the detail will fascinate the Brummies that remember the Castle Bromwich area in the 40s. It may also interest those that know the location today, but had no real concept of its significance nearly 70 years ago.
In depicting an aircraft, I had to satisfy the accuracy demanded by classic aviation experts. The lack of squadron codes identify it as a brand new machine undergoing flight testing and prior to delivery to the RAF. It could be one of the ten in June- the first Mark II Spitfires to be built at the factory as production finally started climbing. Workers would eventually turn out 300 aircraft per month and achieve the highest output of any aircraft factory in Europe during the wartime. However, it's worth noting that losses could also be high: the ill-fated British raid on Dieppe in 1942 resulted in 90 Spitfires being destroyed or badly damaged in one day. The RAF's Battle of Britain Memorial Flight preserves the oldest airworthy Spitfire in the World, believed to be the fourteenth aircraft built at Castle Bromwich, entering RAF service in August 1940. This could be it!
No story about Castle Bromwich or the Spitfire is complete without acknowledgement to Alex Henshaw. This remarkable aviator, celebrated for his record-breaking, still unequalled solo flight from England to Capetown before the war, he became one of the best exponents of the Spitfire after being employed as test pilot by Vickers. During his work at Castle Bromwich, he flew more Spitfires than any other pilot, and his exacting standards and endless stamina set standards that inspired others. In later years, during a film about the Spitfire and wartime production, he paid emotional tribute to the ordinary people that strove to maintain the supply of fighting aircraft under difficult conditions, saying that "this was their finest hour."
On completion, the last job was
to give the painting an appropriate title. "A Merlin Over The Midlands" seemed
to evoke the sound and set the scene for the subject well enough. But I never
imagined that I was about to meet, by pure chance, a delightful 88 year old
gentleman, now living quietly in residential development near my home in
Staffordshire, who had once flown Spitfires. I was able to show him the
finished painting, and share his reminiscences of a career in the RAF, from
training and instructing in Rhodesia, to action with Spitfires in Italy and
peacetime with Meteors, Sabres and a host of other aircraft, meticulously
recorded in a batch of yellowing pilot's flight log books. He graciously
commented that my depiction of the Spitfire looked right though the
afternoon spent with him was reward enough.
I have recently made available limited edition prints from "A Merlin Over The Midlands". Readers may contact me direct on 01827 383093 for further information, or write to me, David Warmington at "Bramble Lodge", The Shrubbery, Elford, Staffordshire B79 9BX. Of course, I would be delighted to hear from anyone with connections to Castle Bromwich and the factory.
NORTH ARDEN LOCAL HISTORY SOCIETY
All dates are Second Thursday of the Months
June 11th Entertainment in the 18th Century Dr Chris Upton
Meetings are held in the Spencer Lounge Bar at Arden Hall, Water Orton Road
Castle Bromwich 7-30/7-45 pm for 8.00pm start
Like most places in
the pandemic caused 240,000 deaths, in Warwickshire alone 2,400 people
died as a result. Worldwide it is estimated that between 40 and 100
million people died.
Official advice was given out via the newspapers which suggested that everyone should:
and pathologists of the period had seen flu before, but they knew they
were dealing with something unique in 1918. On initial infection, the
symptoms were much the same as any other flu, but a proportion of
people who succumbed to the virus didn't improve as expected on the
fifth or sixth day, and in fact they got worse. Doctors noted an
unusual feature of the disease that spelt grave danger. Those patients
who developed a lavender-grey hue over their face and ears, or
heliotrope cyanosis as it is called, were facing imminent death.
Pathology reports from 1918 describe very distinctive changes in lung
tissue that were the likely cause of death in many victims and probably
contributed to the heliotrope cyanosis. Healthy lung tissue is like a
sponge filled with air, but in flu victims the lungs were filled with
fluid containing red blood cells and immune cells – causing death by
newspaper report suggested that one doctor tried to treat this lack of
oxygen circulating around the body by inserting tubes into a man’s
chest to enable him to pump in oxygen from a cylinder. The report
states that he left a nurse supervising the procedure who unfortunately
fell asleep. When she awoke, the report claimed that the man had
swollen up like a balloon, but with no lasting ill effects, the
treatment apparently worked and he survived.
Another unique feature of the 1918 flu pandemic was the age profile that it attacked. The first wave of flu, at the start of 1918, was largely only fatal in the very young and the elderly. In the middle of 1918 there was a sudden change and the virus began killing healthy adults between the ages of 25-40. And then by 1919 the virus had reverted back to its old ways, targeting the very young and the elderly. This strange pattern of virulence is one of the mysteries of the great flu pandemic of the First World War.
Unlike today, when reports of bird flu infections are broadcast round the world in minutes, in 1918 there was no early warning system, no vaccine and no way of telling who might be next.
No one knows precisely where, when or how the 1918 pandemic began. The first recorded case came on
The flu pandemic left barely a family untouched. It is reported that it drove many a woman to suicide following the death of their husbands. Why it occurred and why it ended is still something of a mystery, although there are many theories. “The disease simply had its way. It came like a thief in the night and stole treasure.”