If British industry giants are to meet Boris Johnson’s demand for 30,000 ventilators, they could learn valuable lessons from the inventive manufacturers of the 1940s, write Jacob Thomas-Llewellyn and Vaughan Michell
Wars often generate “inspirational” tales of underdogs overcoming insurmountable odds. But the heroes in question are normally soldiers, risking their lives behind enemy lines. They don’t usually sit in a boardroom, or design musical instruments and furniture, or run a company which produces kitchen tiles. But that is exactly what some of the unlikely heroes of the Second World War did – before they turned their firms upside down and inside out to create wooden fighter-bombers, harbours, airfields and ocean pipelines for the Allied forces.
It was this 1940s spirit which Boris Johnson was trying to invoke when he called on industry leaders to help the country step up production of vital medical equipment and ventilators in the fight against Covid-19. Just as Winston Churchill called on industry to switch to critical fighter aircraft production, the prime minister was surely hoping he could boost the effort by sheer political will.
Over the crucial summer of 1940, Spitfire production was indeed raised just enough to keep ahead of Germany and so survive the gruelling war of attrition in the skies above southern England that became known as the Battle of Britain. Today Dyson, McLaren and Rolls-Royce – as well as smaller independent innovators – appear to be stepping up to the plate in the battle for ventilator production, while debating the virtues of designing from scratch or copying tried-and-tested methods.
Politicians are keen to hark back to the “Blitz spirit” because during the Second World War Britain was forced to rearm from virtually a standing start. The war offers a possible blueprint for confronting current and future crises, and essential lessons in prompt retooling for mass production and the transformation of a supply chain to respond to immediate global demands.
Speaking after the war, the US director of war production William Knudsen declared: “We won because we smothered the enemy in an avalanche of production, the like of which he had never seen, nor dreamed possible.” Behind this statement was a military-industrial complex that in less than six years had transformed itself.
Firms that had previously manufactured furniture for the mass market converted production lines at an unprecedented pace in order to fabricate high-spec components for Allied combat aircraft. Overnight, the country’s housing industry collapsed with a government-led ban on construction in an effort to conserve key materials and direct skilled labour to essential war work.
In the midst of this strategic re-prioritisation, the building firm Wates (under the chairmanship of Norman Wates) recognised the importance of reconfiguring production in order to obtain contracts for vital war projects. From 1940, Wates transitioned from civil housing to building airfields, subterranean bomb shelters, petrol barges and 500 floating pontoons (codenamed Beetle) to support bridging equipment to be towed across the English Channel, forming part of the £2bn project to build artificial Mulberry harbours.