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19 November, 2019 - 23 November, 2019
11 November, 2019 - 09 December, 2019
Discover the extraordinary story of the ‘hidden’ Spitfire factories and the people who worked in them across Southampton during the Second World War.
Following on from the successful premiere of Howard Brenton’s The Shadow Factory and the accompanying Exhibition at the city’s new theatre in February 2018, Nuffield Southampton Theatres have coordinated a successful Heritage Lottery funded project designed to share and collect the real history behind this story.
Out of the Shadows aimed to engage a wider range of people with the heritage of Spitfire construction in Southampton. Through a series of engaging and accessible learning and participation activities we have been able to share the inspiring – and often little known – heritage of how, in spite of the Blitz, the people of Southampton continued to work together to build an extraordinary plane.
Working with our supporting partners at Solent Sky Museum, the ‘Supermariners’ at Hursley Park, Southampton City Archives and the Southampton & District Transport Heritage Trust, the Out of the Shadows team have shared, collected and retold stories through a number of different activities, including:
An important aim of the project was to share existing materials with a wider audience and collect new oral histories and other materials through a team of trained volunteers. We are delighted to be able to share some of those memories with you through these webpages.
The Out of the Shadows project would not have been possible without the amazing team of volunteers who supported the events, carried out interviews and researched information.
During the Out of the Shadows project, we have met many people who were involved in this extraordinary period of Southampton’s history. We have also been privileged to listen to many stories shared by the families of those people who designed and built the Spitfire in Southampton and the local area.
With thanks to the contributors, we are pleased to be able to share some of those memories here:
How I survived the Bombing of the Supermarine Factory in 1940
The following account is Phil Pearce’s version of what took place that fateful day nearly 80 years ago. Phil joined Supermarine at that age of 14 as an apprentice Sheet Metal Worker.
“The bombing took place in September 1940 and I had not long celebrated my 18th birthday. I remember hearing the sirens sounding and almost instantaneously the ground shaking and I heard loud explosions. My work bench was on a balcony that ran around the sides of the building and I had to access the exits by way of a staircase. I got half way down the stairs and saw a very large press which I felt would give me more protection, so I quickly crawled under it as there was no way we could risk leaving the building with the bombing already underway.
Another worker joined me under the bench and during a lull in the attack we plucked up the courage to make a dash for the shelters. These were built above ground on the edge of Peartree Common next to the railway line but to get to them we had to leave the relative safety of our bench and cross a road and go through a tunnel under the railway.
We met Margaret who joined us for a Spitfire Story Heritage Tour to Shirley which included a visit to a ‘secret’ Spitfire factory which was based in Shirley Parish Hall. Margaret shared some of her memories with the team of Out of the Shadows volunteers on the tour and then wrote these up when she got back home.
Margaret was working in the accounts department at Vicker’s Armstrong Supermarine factory at Woolston and recalls the events of September 1940:
“The war started in September 1939 and things were quiet to start with but in September 1940 the German air force started daytime bombing raids on our factories and towns and of course as our factory was making Spitfire fighter planes we were an obvious target.
At the Out of the Shadows Community Heritage Gathering event at Hamble, we were delighted to meet the Jackman and Ralph families who had brought a rather special wedding invitation to show us of a ‘double’ wedding that took place in St.James Church in 1942.
The families shared the story with Alan Matlock, an Out of the Shadows volunteer oral historian:
At one of the Out of the Shadows Community Heritage events, we met Mr Bennett who was on his way to do his Saturday shop. Ben shared with us that he had witnessed the bombing of the Woolston factory as a teenager and then went on to make Spitfires at AST in Hamble.
He kindly agreed to share his memories of witnessing the bombing of the Supermarine factory in September 1940 with Liz Webb, an Out of the Shadows volunteer oral historian.
When we exited the factory, we were shocked to see that the railway tunnel had received a direct hit and all that was left was a heap of rubble. We later learned that many of our co-workers who were in the shelters had been killed – so fate had meant we had survived.
As we were now in the open we quickly searched for some form of shelter and we could only find a small section of beach alongside the river between our factory and the next building, so we laid down there. Soon after, I heard an aircraft and looking up saw a German bomber flying very low over the river and the next thing I knew was the shingle on the beach flying up around me and I could see the rear gunner as he was strafing the area. It all happened so fast and the plane soon flew on down the river and out into the Solent. Thinking back, I am sure that if the Itchen Bridge had been built then the pilot would have had to fly under, that’s how low the plane was.
It was nothing short of a miracle that we escaped unharmed for the second time that day.”
With thanks to Brian Chalk for enabling us to use extracts from the article that he wrote on behalf of Phil Pearce.
I remember it was a Tuesday when the first raid on Supermarine happened. We were all working on the 5th floor of the building and there was no warning until we heard the roar of the planes and we knew instinctively they were German bombers as they sounded different from the British. I was pushed under a solid desk as there was no time to get to a shelter. I saw through the window bombs coming down and falling waste ground beyond the factory but thankfully they missed our building. I cannot recall if there was any other damage around but I cannot imagine everyone escaping scot-free. However, the factory was safe for the moment.
On the Thursday, the German bombers came again and succeeded in bombing the factory. This time the air raid siren gave us warning but not everybody managed to get to the shelters in time and some of the workforce were killed. In fact, one of the air raid shelters got a direct hit from the bombing. I, with some of my work mates, ran alongside the factory across a single railway line and up a hill to a pub and into their deep cellar where we stayed. It seemed like hours while the factory was being bombed. The bombs made the pub shake, plaster was falling off the ceiling and we were all very frightened.
Eventually the all clear sounded and we emerged from the cellar disoriented and shattered but lucky to be alive. We could see the factory in ruins and I then had to get from Woolston to my home in Swaythling near the airport... that morning I had cycled to work but in the aftermath of the bombing my bicycle was nowhere to be seen... I do remember walking home on my own in a bit of a daze and my poor parents [were] frantic with worry.”
In the days following the bombing, Margaret was relocated with the Accounts department to Deepdene House in Bitterne until she was transferred to Hursley House near Winchester.
Our thanks to Margaret for enabling us to share her memories.
Sisters Daisy and Florence joined Supermarine in 1939 and, having been told they were too young for the Workshop floor, they joined the General office on account of their neat handwriting, which meant they wrote the letters and bills the company sent out.
They were to meet their future husbands at Supermarine: Reg had worked for the company since 1934, working on the Walrus flying boats as well as the first Spitfire. He was one of the team of 14 people who pushed the first Spitfire out of the hangar at Eastleigh Airport. Roy had moved from Cornwall to join Supermarine and became a Tool Maker.
Having survived the bombing of the Woolston factory, Daisy and Florence moved onto the production line working at the Sunlight Laundry and Austin House Garage. Roy and Florence would eventually move to work in the dispersal factories which were set up by Supermarine in Trowbridge.
A double wedding was decided due to save costs and it was intended to be a quite small affair. Unbeknown to the couples, the Foreman closed the dispersal factory (perhaps for the only time during the war) and their colleagues were waiting to welcome them outside the church.
Brian Jackman recalled his parents sharing a memory of the occasion:
“there were so many workers that it completely blocked the road in front [of the church] and the Police had to be called out to actually clear the workers to allow the traffic to go through.”
Our thanks to the Ralph and Jackman families for sharing these special memories with the Out of the Shadows team.
“Do you remember the bombing of the factory at Woolston?”
“Yes, I actually saw the bombing of the factory... I was on Peartree Green and I was looking down the Itchen and I noticed some spots coming up. They come up Southampton Water, the bombers, and they turned up the Itchen. When I saw them, they were just spots and they were getting closer and you realised they were bombers. They came up in formation, they followed the Itchen up, they were not attacked by any aircraft guns, they were not attacked by any fighters. Whether they were attacked by fighters after they’d bombed Supermarine, I don’t know but the formation of bombers stayed as a Squadron. They didn’t move, they kept in formation all the time. They bombed Supermarine in formation and then they flew away, and I don’t know what happened, whether they were attacked by anti-aircraft or fighters I don’t know. All I know was seeing them come up the River and bomb Supermarine.”
“Did it frighten you, seeing them?”
“No, I was a kiddy, you don’t not really feel frightened when you’re … not really unless something lands right alongside you, you know, you don’t realise what’s happening. I was only 14 at the time.”
“Did you take shelter?”
“No, I just stood there and just watched it happen.”
“Amazingly brave at 14?”
“Well you’re not brave, you just don’t realise … you’re only a nipper at the time, you think ‘what’s going on?’ you know.... I know it was a lovely sunny day. We had a lovely hot summer that year, 1940.”
Our thanks to Mr Bennett for sharing these – and other - memories with the Out of the Shadows team.
Supermarine had been making flying boats in their workshops on the banks of the River Itchen since their earliest days. They had gained a reputation for high speed flight, winning the Schneider Trophy for Britain in 1931 with their S6B seaplane, but as the clouds of war grew ever darker the Woolston Works took on a new importance. However, it was not a flying boat but a land plane, a small aircraft they knew simply as "The Fighter", to which all eyes had turned.
The following photographs show the Woolston and Itchen Works both before the raids in September 1940, and afterwards.
Visible in the foreground of the "Woolston Works, 1939 Wing Assembly" photograph are the vital jigs, the frames in which the wings were made.
From it's very first flight in 1936 it stood out. A rare combination of beauty, design and purpose. "The Fighter" was soon to get a name which still resonates today. That name was "Spitfire".
For the British government, desperately rushing to equip the RAF with fighter aircraft capable of matching the German Luftwaffe, the Spitfire was vital, and the Spitfire meant Woolston.
Visible in the background of the "Itchen Works, 1939 fuselage Assembly Stage 2" photograph can be seen Supermarine Stranraer and Walrus aircraft. Although neither as beautiful nor as famous as it's cousin the Spitfire, the Walrus played its own vital role as a reconnaissance plane for the navy but also performing Air Sea Rescue including recovering Spitfire pilots who had been shot down.
The raids on the Woolston and Itchen Works in September 1940 not only affected the production of Spitfires but also had a direct impact on the Design and Production Departments responsible for the continued development and management of Supermarine.
Following the death of R.J. Mitchell in 1937 responsibility for all further development of Supermarine aircraft, not only the Spitfire but also the Stranraer, Walrus, Sea Otter and Supermarine’s proposed heavy bomber, fell to Joe Smith and his team in the Design Office. Located on the top floor of the new art-deco office block built in the late 1930s, the Design team had been lucky to escape from the 26th September raid relatively intact; at least one bomb had passed through the Drawing Office, out of the window and into the mud on the river bank below, another went straight through the floor without exploding. Miraculously the majority of the designs also survived and the men and women of the design team were quickly moved to temporary accommodation in old WW1 army huts, being used by the University College in Highfield.
The Production Team moved to the top floor of the Polygon Hotel and began, under the leadership of the new Works Manager Len Gooch, to plan the formal ‘dispersal’ of production around Southampton and beyond. Gooch had become the de facto Works Manager following the 24th September raid when the then Manager, H.B. Pratt, had been wounded and badly traumatised by the scenes of carnage. One of the tasks that Gooch and the dispersal team had was not only to find alternative locations to restart and expand Spitfire production but also to find more suitable and permanent accommodation for themselves and the Design Team. By October a site had been identified and the requisition process initiated.
The site chosen was a large stately home to the north of Southampton called Hursley Park. The owner of Hursley Park, Sir George Alexander Cooper, had recently died, leaving his widowed wife, Lady Mary Cooper, living alone with her servants in the mansion house. Her son, and Sir George’s heir, lived nearby in Merdon Manor. An American by birth Lady Cooper had intended, as she had done in the First World War, to offer her home as a hospital for wounded Officers. The Ministry of Aircraft Production thought otherwise and requisitioned the House and part of the grounds for Supermarine.
We would like to thank the following:
Solent Sky Museum
Southampton & District Transport Heritage Trust
Heritage Lottery Fund