WARTIME PRODUCTION AT BSA
In all modern wars there have been two battles: that fought by the armed forces at the front, and that in the factories where munitions are made. BSA had experienced the purely industrial struggle to raise production, both in the Boer war and the First World War, but in the Second World War a new dimension was added by the massive bombing power of the enemy. Death and destruction faced men in the factories as well as those in the front line, and the work of providing arms became, in every sense, the other battle.
BSA was already fighting this battle some time before the war officially began. By then the factories at Small heath, Sparkbrook and Redditch were already producing a considerable number of weapons, and the only effect of the declaration of war on September 3, 1939 was that production went into top gear.
After Dunkirk, employees at Small Heath voluntarily went on a seven-day week. They carried a frightful responsibility, for theirs was the main small arms plant left to oppose the might of Germany. On their ability to re-arm the survivors of Dunkirk with rifles, and to give the Spitfire and Hurricane their ‘teeth’ of machine guns, depended the survival of the nation.
The German high command was well aware of the strategic importance of BSA’s midlands factories; they were specially marked on maps issued to bomber crews. On August 26, 1940 the Luftwaffe struck.
One high explosive bomb and a shower of incendiaries hit the main barrel mill- which was the only one operating on service rifle barrels in the country. No lives were lost, but 750 precious machine tools were destroyed. The only consolation was that some of the barrel machinery had been moved to a basement in another part of the works, only a few weeks before.
Sparkbrook Works, engaged mainly on the production of much needed machine tools, was damaged in this raid, and on October 22, one section was almost completely destroyed. Luckily a factory had been started at Kitts Green, on the south-east boundary of Birmingham, not long before the war- the object of providing room to expand. This building now became of paramount importance, and almost before the roof was on machine tools were being made there.
At Small Heath (which had become the main centre of production for the Browning machine gun, of Battle of Britain fame),much-needed machinery was being installed to replace that lost in the earlier raid, when Hitler’s bombers returned. On the night of Wednesday, November 19, a heavy raid on Birmingham began as darkness fell. The nightshift at Small heath Works stayed at their machines until the last moment, as was their custom, then hurried to the shelters.
From the thump of falling bombs and the thunder of anti-aircraft gun replies, it was obvious that Small Heath and Sparkbrook districts were receiving special attention. And the main target was the BSA works, standing four stories tall and floodlit by the glare of flames from fires all around.
Many incendiaries fell in the factory area, but ARP men had plenty of practice in dealing with those, and they were smothered immediately. But at 9.25 pm a plane came in very low and released three high explosive bombs. Two scored direct hits on the main part of the works, the four-storey 1915 building. The southern end of the block disintegrated in a roaring landslide of concrete, machinery and twisted girders, with dust and black smoke blotting out the details.
When firemen, rescue teams, and first aid workers reached the scene, they found that a large number of people who had been sheltering in one of the machine shops were trapped beneath the fantastic pile of rubble. Minute’s later fire broke out. It reached a nearby ammunition store, and the crack of exploding cartridges mingled with the earthshaking thuds of heavy explosive bombs, which were still falling all around.
Amidst all these dangers the rescuers performed many deeds of heroism that night. Hours after the bombs had fallen survivors were still being brought out of the debris. But at the final count, 53 employees lost their lives in this raid. Another 89 were injured, many seriously.
Two nights later BSA was again the major target for enemy bombers, and more direct hits were scored. This time it was three sides of the gunsmiths’ original 1863 building which were demolished, together with nearby buildings. So grim was the position that the whole factory was evacuated.
Half a mile away, Waverly Works was in flames after HE damage; it was almost completely burned out before daybreak. When the weary men of Small heath came to count their losses on the bleak November morning, 1,600 machine tools were destroyed or damaged- more than were lost in the whole of the Coventry blitz.
While smoke still rose from the rubble, however, plans were put into action for the continued production of Browning guns, service rifles, and other munitions. After all, there was still the Redditch factory and sub contractors who supplied it with component parts for assembly. And there was a huge scheme for the organisation of dispersal units in other parts of the Midlands.
Officials of the company were sent out immediately to find new homes for the vital weapons. In some places their reception was less than friendly; factory owners still engaged on civilian work did not relish the thought that German bombs might follow BSA into their factories. But once they understood the emergency, difficulties disappeared- and the BSA men were determined to get back into the fight. By the end of November eight factories, or parts of factories, had been requisitioned. Another six were added the following month.
Rapid promotions were made to provide management for these new regiments of the BSA army. Fitters became foremen, foremen superintendents, superintendents managers. Out from Small Heath they went, each with a lorry load of machine tools, a nucleus of skilled men, and the order “Get in production- fast!”
How that order was carried out can be seen from the statistics of Browning gun production. The total from Small Heath and its dispersals in December 1940 was 894. In the following March it had risen to 3,750, and at the height of production it soared to nearly 10,000 a month. (Redditch and its sub-contractors supplied almost as many again).
At the peak of its war effort, the Small Heath administration controlled 67 factories, employing 28,000 people and containing 25,000 machine tools. From this organisation came more than half the small arms supplied to Britain’s armed forces during the war.
Other sections of the Group were fighting the same battle. Daimler’s experiences were, in many ways, similar to those of the senior partner. Before the war the Coventry company had been linked with other motor manufacturers in a government scheme for aero engine manufacture, and had been given two shadow factories. Apart from this the company produced the famous BSA/ Daimler Scout and other armoured cars, gun turrets, gun parts, tank transmissions, rocket projectiles, and other munitions.
These activities naturally made Radford Works a target in the Coventry air-raids and it received direct hits on four occasions in 1940.None of these interfered greatly with production, but in April 1941 two more serious raids destroyed half the factory. In all, a total of 170 bombs containing 52,000 pounds of explosives were dropped on the works, not counting the thousands of incendiaries.
Like BSA, Daimler’s next step was to find dispersal units. There were some very odd places: a skating rink, a café, an ironmongers shop a vicarage- but they produced the goods. By June production was back to the pre-raid level.
In the rest of the Group there was perhaps, less drama- but if the blood was missing the sweat and tears were not. Jessops worked round the clock to supply steel castings and forgings for tanks, high duty valve steels, and the highly specialised chrome nickel steel alloys needed for the first jet engines; they also turned out crankshafts for naval craft and aero engines, as well as tons of basic materials for other branches of the war effort. Worthy of special mention were transmission parts for Mulberry Harbour. In Durham the Birtley company produced armoured steel bodies for scout cars and other fighting vehicles, as well as steel fabrications for naval use. A shadow factory at Shirley, on the south of Birmingham, was completed for BSA Guns Limited in 1941 and immediately began making a new model of the service rifle. Even little Monochrome played its part by hard-chroming gun and aero engine components.
Munitions were not, of course, the only product. Without machinery the munitions could not have been made. The thousands of production machines, and the astronomical quantities of drills, reamers, cutters and similar equipment produced by BSA Tools, played as important a part in winning the war as did rifles and machine guns.
At the end of the war every section of the Group could look back on a considerable achievement. We should avoid glorifying war, in any aspect, but it can be said that the men and women of the factories were asked to do a tremendous job- and they did it.
The principal products of the establishments controlled by the Small Heath section of the Group during the war were:
468,098 Browning guns plus spares equivalent to another 100,000
42,532 Hispano 20 mm cannon
32,971 Oerlikon 20 mm cannon
59,322 7.9 mm Besa machine guns
3,218 15 mm Besa machine guns
4,150 2-pounder gun carriages
68,882 Boys anti-tank rifles
404,383 Sten guns
1,250,000 303 service rifles
128,000 military bicycles
126,334 military motor cycles
10,000,000 shell fuses
750,000 anti-aircraft rockets
Contributed by John Cochrane