Stories of the Battle of Britain 1940 – Lord Beaverbrook, a Week at the Office

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14-31 May, 1940. Dramatic developments in London during May 1940 included the beginning of one of the most peculiar government structures in modern British history - the Ministry of Aircraft Production.

14-31 May, 1940

Dramatic developments which took place in London during May 1940 included the beginning of one of the most peculiar government structures in modern British history – the Ministry of Aircraft Production, or MAP.

MAP was one of Churchill’s creations, who saw the need of specialised supply ministries to response to the problems of armament production so that “to some degree” it could keep pace with the enemy’s. Himself one of the foremost critics of the pace of rearmament programmes set by his predecessors, Churchill was painfully aware about the urgency of increasing the output of munitions for a full-scale conflict which unveiled.

The new ministry was formally established on May 14, 1940, just four days after his nomination as Prime Minister. If Churchill was aware that the country needed substantial increase in production of new aeroplanes, the confrontation with Air Chief Marshal Dowding over the rate of Hurricane losses in France also demonstrated that these aeroplanes were also needed very quickly.

To that end, Churchill’s choices for the MAP were very bold indeed.

First of all, MAP was to be separated from the Air Ministry. The latter, headed by an old Etonian, Sir Archibald Sinclair, was hitherto in charge of the RAF rearmament programme. The separation had an important purpose of not allowing the “old” Air Ministry structures to exercise much influence over the new body. It was a thorn in the side of the Air Council. From Sinclair’s own perspective this was probably just as well: the person about to be appointed the Minister of Aircraft Production could hardly expect to find much favour among his more established peers.

That person was to be Baron Beaverbrook, a bumptious, result-getting Canadian, self-made man with simple manners who rose as a Fleet Street magnate and whose London Daily Express had the largest circulation of any paper – in the World. The political establishment in Britain did not favour him; it has been recorded that King George VI advised Churchill to seek another candidate. Beaverbrook’s life was devoted to one thing: making money, and he was very good at it.  He had used money, not connections, as a key to gain power and influence. When the novelist William Gerhardie asked him whether Max (Beaverbrook’s christian name was Max Aitken) was not an abbreviation for Maximilian, Beaverbrook replied ‘No. Maximultimillion!’

More importantly, Beaverbrook had been one othe firecest supporters of Chamberlain’s appeasement with Hitler.  He even had expressed open sympathy to the Nazi regime, both personally and through his newspapers. In 1938, he write to congratulate Reich’s foreign minister Ribbentropp:

“It is with real pleasure that I hear today of your appointment (…) I know full well that you will take full advantage of your great authority and immense power (…) you will have the loyal support of my newspapers.”

Beaverbrook-controlled Evening Standard leader wrote in September 1937:

‘The chief error in British policy towards Germany is a matter not so much of actions as of attitudes. For years past British politicians have spoken harshly of Nazi Germany purely because it is Nazi … is it not possible to sweep that atmosphere away?’

This was the man who was now needed to help save the country, and Churchill’s resolve in putting aside the differences and employing him for the job was extraordinary. He knew “Beaver” well and considered him a man of “force and genius, combined with so much persuasion and contrivance (as to) sweep aside many obstacles.”. Beaverbrook accepted the job only on assurance of a free hand and full support. The Prime Minister promised him both.

Lord Beaverbrook photographed during an official visit in the United States, 1941
[US National Archives]

Looking back 70 years from today, Beaverbrook’s second week in the office would be nearing its end.

His first week looked unlike any other ministerial introduction in the cabinet.

Immediately after being appointed, Beaverbrook decided that to save time, the new ministry would be run from temporary offices at Stornoway House, which also happened to be his own private home. He had also single-handedly decided that fighter production should have priority over virtually all other types of munitions.

The same day, he went on a three-day tour of England’s aircraft factories, assessing the production status and taking the opportunity to inform the boards that their authority would be suspended for the duration. Many company managers were also replaced by foremen and engineers recruited from the factories and reporting either directly to MAP or personally to the minister. He also adjusted everobody’s production plans, applying his usual practice of setting the goals 15% above what everyone else considered possible.

One of his more mercurial moves took place on May 17th upon his return to Stornoway House. Beaverbrook telephoned Lord Nuffield, the famous founder of Morris Motors.  He was also the Chairman of Nuffield Organisation, the private group in charge of the new Castle Bromwich Aircraft Factory in the Midlands. Without much introduction, Beaverbrook demanded an explanation as to why no Spitfires had yet been produced in the government-funded plant.

Lord Nuffield took time to explain the numerous difficulties in getting on with aircraft production in an organization and production line modelled after car manufacturing. Nuffield was disillusioned by the never-ending shambles with the government officials, trade unions and the Supermarine. He finished by sarcastically suggesting to Lord Beaverbrook that he might like to take control of the Spitfire factory. The latter reacted immediately: “That’s very generous of you Nuffield. I accept!”. Before Nuffield could respond, Beaverbrook hung up, leaving him perplexed, inable to understand what had just happened. But Beaverbrook had already made the decision and moved on. In the next five minutes, he called to Vickers, ordering them to take control of the factory and bring in managers from Supermarine in Southampton to speed the development.

At the end of his first week, Beaverbrook appeared on the radio, broadcasting an appeal to aircraft workers to accept day and night shifts on a seven-day week. He also asked garage workers, then largely out of jobs because of petrol rationing, to enroll as aircraft fitters. Turning to factory executives, he said:

“Let any firm unable to follow this advice for any reason send me a telegram explaining the difficulties and I will do what I can to smooth it out.”

According to newspapers of the time, employment exchanges were overwhelmed by the response to his appeal.

The public response to his pleas indicate that he was everything elese than a management tyrant.  Columnist A.J.P. Taylor wrote about him:

“He had a gift for making you feel when you were with him that you were the most important person in the world. Of course I knew he forgot about me the moment I left the room but it was magical all the same. Max Beaverbrook well knew how to steal the hearts of men.”

Another decision of the week considered RAF’s storage units which were found to have accepted 1,000 aircraft from the industry, but issued only 650 to squadrons.  Following Beaverbrook’s end-to-end approach, MAP took charge over the storage depots. He also decided to set up civilian repair organizations to return damaged aircraft back to service.

It is certain that the new minister made many more decisions that fateful week, but many of them were never documented. His ministry would become notorious for not keeping any records. The functions of most individuals under him were left undefined and business was conducted mainly over the telephone. His telephone. Beaverbrook worked 16 hours a day, 7 days a week, making hundereds of phone calls every day.

His unorthodox management and will power rose up to the challenge. Monthly production of new fighters in May rose to 325 against 256 in April and 177 in March. In June, the monthly output would rise again to 446 fighters, a production level which would be retained throughout the Battle of Britain.  To Dowding and the Fighter Command, these 200 extra fighters each month meant the difference between victory and defeat.

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