Southampton, 1940

Discover the real history behind the shadow factories in Southampton as we open Howard Brenton's The Shadow Factory in our new venue NST City. As well as coming to see the show, we also have a free Exhibition featuring the visually stunning set by 59 Productions. 







The Real Shadow Factories

  Workers building parts of the Spitfire in factories throughout Southampton during WWII.   
  Southampton Archives  
  Archive Footage  


Southampton tool room  





The Bomb Sites

  Distruction caused during the bombing in Southampton in WWII.   
  Bomb sites  
  Southampton bombing  



Southampton Blitz

In Southampton the problems associated with relocating the workforce did not apply but the lack of machinery and skilled workers did. Also, unlike the other ‘dispersal areas’ Southampton was still a prime target for the Luftwaffe. The raids on Supermarine were only the beginning of Southampton’s ordeal. In November and December German bombing of the city reached a devastating peak. The raids between 22nd November and 1st December (including the two six-hour raids on the 30th November and 1st December) are often referred to as the Southampton Blitz. Much of the city centre was destroyed and many lives were lost as high explosive and incendiary bombs fell across the city.



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The Beginnings

Even before the failed raid on the Woolston Works, on 15th September, Supermarine had been drawing up contingency plans to avoid a major loss of production in the event of an attack. These involved the ‘dispersal’ of production around the city. However, the failure of the ‘Shadow Factory’ in Castle Bromwich to deliver any Spitfires until June, and then only in small (though increasing) numbers meant that Supermarine could not afford any interruption in production so no action was taken.


  Southampton Wool Mill  
  Southampton Jigs  
  Sunlight Laundry  


Southampton Tanks  






  bomb sites  
  Southampton bombing  
  Southampton bomb sites  



Amazingly none of the Supermarine workshops received a direct hit, although Hendy’s Garage in the city centre was put out of action for some time when a bomb hit the neighbouring building. However, the bombing did affect production. Transport, power and water were frequently interrupted, and workers again had to spend time finding places to live or attending to their families. But somehow Supermarine were able to continue.





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.



Woolston Works

  Woolston Works  
  Wing Assembly  
  Woolston Works After bombing  

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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.






Itchen Works


Itchen Works    
Itchen 1939    

Itchen 1939


Southampton Municipal Airport

With no suitable airfield available near the Woolston Works “Southampton Municipal Airport” (although always referred to by locals as “Eastleigh Airport”) was used to complete the "final assembly" of Spitfires before flight testing and delivery to the RAF. The airfield was integral to the Spitfire story from the very first flight of the prototype on 5th March 1936.



Dispersal Sites

  Southampton Airport (called locally “Eastleigh Airport”) showing the two WW1 hangars used by Supermarine for Final Assembly of Spitfires.  
  Eastleigh Airport  
  Final Assembly of Mk I Spitfires in the Eastleigh hangars in 1939.   


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  Eastleigh Flight Shed  
  Eastleigh Factory  
  The Hursley Road Stores in Chandlers Ford, Eastleigh.  
  Eastleigh Store  





Hursley Park


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.

  Hursley House  
  Drawing Office  



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.


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Hursley Park    
Hursley Staff    


  We've teamed up with Southampton Solent University students who have been busy delving into the history of the spitfire, dispersal sites, shadow factories and WW2 heritage.  


Lucy Mahoney - The New and The Old

  Look back in history to the devastation that happened in WWII on the streets that you walk down today in Southampton.   
  Lucy Mahoney  
  The old and the new  
  Southampton Solent University  
  Old vs New photos  




Soeren Pietsch - Up From the Air

  Showing the perspective from the point of view of the German Pilots when they flew over Southampton.   
  Up from the air  
  Solent University  
  Drone Photography  
  Birds Eye View  
  Drone View of Southampton