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Inter-War British Aviation Industry

The following firms received orders for aircraft for the Royal Air Force during the years 1929-1935:
After 1930, the Great Depression placed many planebuilders under considerable financial stress. Officials of the British government responded by encouraging aviation leaders to reorganize their industry into fewer but stronger companies. Thomas Sopwith, chairman of Hawker, took the initiative by drawing on profits from sales of Harts as he raised capital of £2 million, some $10 million. He then bought up other firms: Gloster Aircraft, Armstrong Siddeley Motors, Armstrong Whitworth Aircraft, Air Service Training, and A. V. Roe. In 1935 he reorganized these holdings as the Hawker Siddeley Aircraft Company. These mergers placed those firms on a good financial footing, at a time when war was only a few years away.

In 1933 when Hitler came to power in Germany, the standard RAF bombers were wire and fabric biplanes like the single-engine Hawker Hart and the twin-engine Handley-Page Heyford. These venerable aircraft still equipped frontline squadrons as late as 1937. Between 1932 and 1935 the Air Ministry issued new specifications that resulted in the production of monoplane aircraft, including the single-engine Vickers WeUesley, the twin-engine Bristol Blenheim, and the Fairey Battle. The new twin-engine mediums (or heavies, as they were known at that time) were the Handley-Page Hampden, the Armstrong Whitworth Whitley, and the Vickers Wellington. These aircraft equipped Bomber Command squadrons during the rapid rearmament of the late 1930s. Both the underpowered Wellesley and the Battle were obsolete and recognized as such long before the outbreak of war. The Air Ministry issued specifications for the true heavies in 1936. Pressure to ann rapidly and ensure against the failure of anyone design led to the purchase of three different models. The Air Ministry issued the first orders for them in 1937, and each suffered from a variety of engine and airframe development problems. Because they were the largest and most complex aircraft of the period, their manufacturers experienced a host of development problems, and the heavies did not even begin trickling into squadrons until 1940 and 1941.

The year 1937 witnessed largest Air Estimates that had ever been presented. The net figure of £82,500,000 can be compared with an average figure of some £18,000,000 asked for by the Ministry in pre-expansion years. It exceeded by £32,000,000 the total Estimates of 1936. Except for the larger aircraft of the Fleet Air Arm, the monoplane, which approaches most nearly the ideal of stream-line form, was almost entirely replacing the biplane. The difficulties of providing wings of adequate stiffness to prevent them from bending or twisting delayed this change for many years. They had been overcome by a variety of methods of stressed skin construction. By continuous attention to details such as surface smoothness, we have been able to reduce considerably the drag of our latest types of aircraft. The net result of all this was that the striking power of our new types far surpasses that of corresponding types of two years earlier.

As regards the delivery of aircraft, there had been delays, but the deliveries were based upon the forecasts of manufacturers. These forecasts were necessarily framed on inadequate experience of production difficulties with the latest designs of aircraft, and the result was that many of these forecasts proved optimistic, and manufacturers had not been able to deliver up to schedule. The Air Ministry had done everything they possibly can to develop plans for increased production.

The delays were due to various causes. There was a shortage of labor. There was a distinct shortage of skilled draughtsmen. Firms had very little post-War experience of production on a large scale. They had to extend their shops, rearrange their lay-out, re-organise their whole system; and, concurrently with that, they had to put out their maximum production from their existing plant. The necessity for the simultaneous development of quite new quantity production methods also tended to cause delay.

The large increase in demand coincided with a most remarkable advance in aeronautical technique and design. The Air Ministry took the risk—a deliberate risk—of placing production orders for new types before their prototypes had been built and tested. This met the objective of reducing the length of time that it took to put a machine into production. Under this policy it was inevitable that some of the "teething troubles" which are usually associated with the prototype should manifest themselves in some of the first production machines.

The number of workmen employed increased from 30,000 in 1935 to over 90,000 by the year 1938. In 1938 it was planned that by March, 1940, the Metropolitan Air Force, that is, the squadrons at home, would have attained a first-line strength of approximately 2,370 aircraft. Oversea squadrons would have increased to a first-line strength of approximately 470. Provision was also made for the expansion of the first-line strength of the Fleet Air Arm, which would be increased to not less than 500 as ships and carriers are ready to take them. This aggregate of aircraft, therefore, represented a first-line strength of something approaching 3,500. At that time, the program which was commonly known as Scheme F under which a first-line strength of 1,750 aircraft was to be reached by 31st March, 1939, was well up to schedule.

By 1939 the following firms received contracts for construction of aircraft in England
The Air Estimates presented in March 1939 reached a sum of over £205,000,000, the largest sum in the history of the Air Ministry. This heavy expenditure was due mainly to the large number of modern aircraft coming into the squadrons, the cost of providing additional manufacturing capacity, and the construction of new stations. In 1934 the Air Estimates were about £18,000,000. The 1939 figure was about twelve times that of the Estimates in any of the years from 1929 to 1934, and roughly double the aggregate expenditure on the three Defence Services in each of the years 1932 and 1933. The increase in 1939 of some £74,000,000 in a single year, which came on a succession of previous increases, was equal to the total of all the Defence Estimates in 1913.

The peace treaty that ended World War I prohibited the manufacture of military aircraft in Germany. Nevertheless, several German aircraft firms were founded during the 1920's. They included the famous Heinkel and Messerschmitt companies. In the mid-1930's, Heinkel, Messerschmitt, and other German firms, such as Dornier and Junkers, secretly made hundreds of bombers and fighters for the German air force. On Sept. 1, 1939, German dive bombers attacked Poland, and World War II began. One European country after another fell to the Germans. Finally, the United Kingdom was left nearly alone to fight off the German air force.

In May 1940, Lord Beaverbrook, Minister of Aircraft Production, ordered all production concentrated on just five military aircraft to close the gap between German and British air strength: two fighters, the Hurricane and Spitfire; and three medium bombers, the Blenheim, Whitley, and Wellington. Resources that could not be effectively employed on these high-priority programs could be used on aircraft expected to be available by 1941.

British aircraft companies, such as Avro, de Havilland, Handley Page, Hawker, and Supermarine, quickly increased their production of warplanes. British aircraft companies had small design staffs, compared with those of American finns, that were unable to handle a large volume of major changes effectively. The temporary restriction of aircraft production to a limited number of current models in 1940 also inhibited redesign efforts. Bomber Command itself was not without fault, issuing mutually incompatible requirements at different times.

From May to September 1940 in the Battles of France and Britain, the Luftwaffe lost 3,064 aircraft, 65 percent of its force. In September 1940, the month that Germany lost more planes than it produced, Hitler ordered that planned aircraft production be cut; that year British aircraft production outstripped Germany's. During the Battle of Britain British aircraft production rates outstripped German production by a wide margin and also comfortably exceeded loss rates. The best data available for aircraft indicate the British had 708 aircraft available in Fighter Command and were producing approximately 500 more from their fighter aircraft production lines in July 1940. The Germans had approximately 1089 fighter aircraft but could only add 220 more from July’s production lines.

However, the Royal Air Force was below establishment in pilots at the start of the conflict, and the training of new pilots failed to keep up with losses at the height of the battle. The situation might have been untenable had not the battle taken place over Britain, where pilots who bailed out of stricken fighters frequently were able to fly again -- in some cases even on the same day. In sum, during the campaign England produced 2,354 fighters to Germany’s 919. Most telling is the aircraft strength of both air forces. The British ended the campaign with approximately the same strength it began, as opposed to the Germans who lost about one quarter of their strength.

In 1937, British inventor Frank Whittle built the first successful jet engine. The first jet airplanes were developed for military use. Germany flew the first jet aircraft in 1939. By 1942, both the United Kingdom and the United States had developed experimental jet planes for military use.

The UK built over 130,000 aircraft during War War II, sustaining production rates of over 26,000 aircraft in both 1943 and 1944. During World War II, the UK concentrated on the production of fighters and bombers and relied on the USA for the supply of military transports: a decision which gave the US aircraft industry a competitive advantage in civil airliners at the end of the War. The years after 1945 were a time of triumph and and then tragedy for the British aviation industry.

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Page last modified: 09-05-2013 17:37:41 ZULU