MG at War (1939 – 1945)
Octagon Newsletter … November 1999
By Alan Fraser
One of the many factors that ensured the survival and eventual victory for Britain and her allies in World War II was the ability of many small concerns to carry out critical war production despite shortages in manpower and material and the threat of German bombs. One of these factories was the MG Car Company of Abingdon. With the opening of hostilities in 1939, MG, like all their competitors, closed down car production in anticipation of aiding the war effort with the manufacture of needed wartime material. During the following six years the plant at Abingdon established itself as one of the most successful producers of everything from blood centrifuges to Centurion tanks
With the onset of hostilities and in anticipation of war work, the plant was stripped. Space was found in a disused factory two miles away from the MG factory for the existing inventory of car parts. The first problem was that heavy transport was scarce, so MG constructed a short wheelbase tractor from available parts. It was a unique machine with a Morris radiator and knock-off hubs and used a 10 bhp engine to tow three large wagons which all boasted wire wheels with knock-off hubs. Suitably named 'Bitsy' for its hybrid ancestry, this unique unit faithfully hauled equipment around the plant and to the storage shop for the duration of the war with never a hint of a breakdown. Once the factory was prepared, it sat idle, waiting in vain for the Nuffield Organization to send it contracts. Cecil Kimber decided to send George Propert and Cecil Cousins around to the various ministries to bid on any available work rather than wait for the Nuffield bureaucracy to find work for Abingdon.
The first contracts from the War Ministry were for small pressings, such as ammunition racks and other light items and overhauling Carden-Lloyd tanks, which led to a similar job reconditioning heavier Matilda tanks. The firm almost won a contract to recondition machine guns for Spitfires until some official learned that they had no firing range to test the guns. Another contract was to assemble American Lend-Lease trucks, which arrived at dockside in large wooden cases. As the little pressing shop was heavily into various jobs, space was becoming critical and the wooden packing cases were brought back to Abingdon to form the frames of an enlarged pressing shop. Armoured cars were repaired and tested on the Berkshire Downs, giving the test drivers a completely new experience of testing whilst dodging flour sacks dropped from RAF types practising in the same area.
Looking for even more work, Kimber, with no knowledge of aircraft production methods, successfully contracted to build the forward, or G-1, section of the Albemarle light bomber, a stainless steel tubular structure housing pilot, co-pilot and observer and backed with complicated control gear, the very nerve centre of the whole aircraft. It was this sort of independent contracting outside the control of the Nuffield Organization that led to Kimber's dismissal. Meanwhile, the Air Ministry gave the Albemarle contract to MG, which had no idea how to proceed other than rolling up their collective sleeves and getting on with it. They might have felt less confident about the 'Marble', as they called it, had they realized that three other concerns, one of them actually an aircraft company, had been scratching their heads over this complicated structure for a very long time without making any progress at all. MG succeeded where others failed. They took over all the partially built sections from the other contractors and became sole suppliers of this vital assembly, building a total of 653 themselves and completing a further 285 (McComb).
This was not an easy task. The plant had to make special tools and jigs. Each unit required 3500 hours of work and the shortage in manpower led to hiring many women and establishing a training school, providing bus service for the workers and even a girls' hostel to care for the workers far from home.
The company designed a test rig for all pneumatic, hydraulic and mechanical control gears and electrical and oxygen systems. They were thrilled to discover that they had the only test equipment of its type in the entire aircraft industry and it was subsequently purchased by a leading aeroplane manufacturer.
The next big aircraft jobs were to produce Lancaster bomber engine mountings, interchangeable 'power units' for Rolls-Royce Merlin engines to facilitate rapid engine replacement in the field and the specialized manufacture of complete wing spars for the Tempest II fighter, milling the dual leading and trailing edges on jigs.
At the same time the aircraft work was going ahead, the factory was also constructing Crusader tanks, Oerlikon and Bofers gun turrets and finally the Neptune amphibious tank for the Normandy invasion. Many Sherman, Churchill and Centaur tanks were converted for specialized operations and in just over a month, despite a fire that almost destroyed the line, MG produced 3000 sets of 'wading equipment' to allow tanks to get ashore at Normandy.
No job was too big or too small for the little company, from building 16 ton tanks to making fuel dipsticks. George Propert decided that they made so many of the latter that every British tank in existence must have had a couple of dozen MG dipsticks before the war ended! The tool boxes in subsequent MG roadsters were surplus war-time pressings. When I queried Henry Stone about the enclosed battery box found in the MG TC and the MGY, he chuckled and remarked that the factory had run out of ammo boxes by 1950!
Finally, as the wartime urgency subsided, the Tempest spar shop was cleared and car assembly lines laid down again in anticipation of resuming the work for which the factory was best known.
It was the ingenuity of the many small factories all over Britain that epitomized the spirit of Churchill's inspiring statement "We shall never surrender". This ingenuity was never more evident than in the achievements of the little cottage industry assembly plant at Abingdon.
"What we did before the war", said Cecil Cousins with understandable pride, "was nothing to what we achieved during the war."
MG by McCombe - F. Wilson McCombe, 1977, 2nd Edition
An article by George Propert - The Sacred Octagon, January/February, 1982
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