The year was 1938, and it was getting late, very late indeed if Britain was to save itself from the coming storm which threatened to engulf Europe. Hitler’s armies had marched into the Rhineland (1936), taking it back from Allied control, they had merged with Austria (1938) Adolf Hitler’s native country, in what was known as ‘Anschluss’ (political union) and a significant part of the Czech Republic, known as the Sudentenland, which was mainly populated by ethnic Germans. Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain was thought to have submitted to Hitler’s demands too easily, but in reality, he bought precious time.
The Royal Air Force was desperately weak at the time of the Czech crisis. In 1938, Chamberlain realized the failure of the then Secretary of State for Air, Lord Swinton, to press quickly enough for expansion of the Royal Air Force, and replaced him with Sir Kingsley Wood. Immediate plans to establish new factories and extend existing ones to produce aircraft, aero-engines and other components were put into action. This was known as the ‘Shadow Scheme’ and the factories ‘shadow factories’. This was not to imply that the plants so created were covert, or that they were disguised (although they were all subject to appropriate camouflage schemes when war broke out), but that they were ‘shadowing’ an existing aeronautical company, and learning how to produce their products. Large scale Government grants and cheap loans saw to it that nine new plants were set up and many existing companies expanded; the intent was to treble aircraft production. It became obvious that plants producing motor vehicles were the easiest to convert to aircraft production; it also seemed that their management were best suited to run the new shadow factories. Industrial magnates such as Lord Austin (Herbert Austin, 1st Baron Austin, KBE) and Lord Nuffield who owned large car plants were encouraged to participate. Indeed, Lord Nuffield (William Richard Morris, 1st Viscount Nuffield GBE, CH) was given the new factory at Castle Bromwich, and told to produce 1,000 Spitfires a year! (Needless to say, there were huge problems with this).
Ford had a redundant assembly plant in Trafford Park, Manchester, which had been shuttered since 1931, and welcomed the chance to participate in the scheme. As well, in 1941, they were handed a brand new £6.6 million plant close by; they were told to build Rolls-Royce Merlins - lots of them! At the time, this engine was in the vast majority of British fighters and bombers, including the two which had just won the Battle of Britain, the Vickers-Supermarine Spitfire and the Hawker Hurricane. Other aircraft powered by the Merlin included the De Havilland Mosquito, certain marks of the Handley-Page Halifax, Bristol Beaufighter, and Vickers Wellington, the Fairey Fulmar, Fairey Battle, and the superb Avro Lancaster bomber, built in their nearby Chadderton and Newton Heath facilities.
Ford re-drew the blue-prints for the Merlin, making it more suitable for mass production, and by 1944, over 400 engines a week were flowing out of the plants. Sir Stanley Hooker, later to be Chief Engineer of Rolls-Royce, characterised them as ‘damn good engines’. The final total, from June, 1941 to March, 1946, came to 30,428. This was only 2,000 less than the main Rolls-Royce plant at Nightingale Road, Derby (although there were several other plants producing Merlins in the U.K.). In the U.S.A., the Packard Motor Car Company built 55,523 Merlins under licence, and these were fitted to Lancaster III bombers, Canadian and Australian built Mosquito aircraft, and most famously, the North American P-51 Mustang, transforming this fighter.
Here we see the very last Ford-built Merlin produced at Trafford Park, Manchester and according to the brass plaque affixed to it, rebuilt by company apprentices. It is a Mark 24, capable of producing 1,610 hp at 3,000 rpm, and is on display in the Museum of Science and Industry, Manchester. The Merlin 24 was used in Avro Lancaster I and VII, Avro York I and Handley Page Halifax II aircraft.
The shadow factory system worked so well, that it was also applied to tanks, small arms, shells, and even petrol cans! The 10,000 plus men and over 7,000 women who worked at Fords in Manchester producing the war-winning Merlin engine could be proud of their achievement. It is, however, a strange fact that almost every aircraft enthusiast has heard of a Packard-built Merlin, yet the ‘Ford Merlin’, with a total production close 60% of Packard’s, is almost unheard of!
By the way, the blue-painted fixture the Merlin is mounted in is an original assembly jig, allowing the engine to be rotated during the building process.