The War Years 1914-18 & 1939-45

World War I

Suddenly, motoring or what used to be called pleasure motoring, receded into the background. The Austin Motor Company found itself, like many other firms, confronted with new problems, which included not merely those usually associated with the motor industry, but problems new to the engineering world generally because of the shear volume of production needed. No precedents were available, they had a well equipped motor works with a work force of about 2,800, and were in the act of calmly preparing for the November Motor Show with their new models. But all that was about to change as war contracts became the order of the day. There was an immediate and insistent demand for cars, lorries, aeroplanes, aero engines, guns, shells and munitions generally on a colossal scale.

The scale of deliveries of munitions, vehicles, planes etc is staggering. (See end of article)

Doubling the original size of the works was, however, only the commencement of the growth. The need for armaments grew by leaps and bounds, and the response of Austin grew with it. So it was necessary at the end of 1914 to enlarge South Works to build a new shop to make the 18lb shells along with the 9.2in shells. Starting in April 1916 this big shell shop in two months had reached an output of 2,000 shell per week. This output was slowly increase over the following months so that by March 1917 the output had reached 5,000 shell per week. More new buildings comprising of a forge, stamp shop, two more machine shops (No 2 & No 3) along with a bond room and various erecting shops.

North Works 1914-8

The following year a large building was constructed and called Block No 9. Because the land was sloping, a large amount of earth had to be removed, in fact 150,000 cubic yards. Further building Block No 6 was finished in 1917 which comprised aeroplane erecting shops, dope and sewing room. Further on the South side was a aero engine machining and assemble shop along with testing facilities.

1914-8 North Works, Thomas Seabright Superintendent
(Seated 4th from Left second row)


Austin decided that with the wealth of experience in building motor vehicles, they could design an armoured car with some unique features. The name given to this vehicle was ‘Dreadnought’ It was capable of traveling at 50 MPH on a good road. With a complement of six men, the vehicle had a couple of machine guns and searchlights. It’s main role was to get men to the front line as quick as possible, and to return for more. You could say that it was a miniature fort with it’s two shrapnel-proof / bullet-proof turrets which housed the machine guns. It had the unique ability to be driven and steered from either end. The driver had a pair of Periscopes front and back to see where he was going and should the outside glass get broken a new one could be easily replaced.

Armoured Cars at 'K' Gate

Notice the different tyre tread patterns

Austin Armoured Car

Note the Larger Rear Wheels on this Version

Austin Armoured Car Polish Army 1920

AEROPLANES (link for more information)

Aeroplanes were produced, the first government contract was given for the RE 7 plane with production commencing September 1915. Fifty two planes were delivered, a revised version called RE 8 was developed and a order for 300 placed. In 1918 a order was placed for 350 SE 5 planes, the order was revised several times, ending with a total of 1550. At the start of this contract the delivery schedule was one plane per day (24hrs). With the larger numbers required, production rose steadily to an average of 30 per week. From Monday 3 June to Saturday in six days they turned out sixty three planes. Aeroplanes construction in those days was very much like aero modeling. The body of a plane contained thousands of separate and accurately made pieces of wood which were then assembled together. One of the grey arts was the ‘doping’ of the canvas, because if not done correctly the canvas skin would be too tight and so was libel to tare, if loose it was not very aerodynamic and would also tare. The Austin dope-room was regarded as the best in the country because it was fully ventilated along with a controlled temperature. At this time all this experimental work and production need skilled men who could manufacture the aircraft, At the time Longbridge had about 130 aircraft carpenters and about 200 riggers and fitters.

Attached to South Works was a hill called Cofton Hill this was levelled off giving an area of seventy three acres. The airfield was laid out like spokes of a wheel, with runways pointing in different directions connected by a perimeter road. This was a brilliant design as planes were able to take off what ever the wind direction

Aeroplane Production in the Wood Shop

SE 5a Biplane Production South Works

.July 1916 work on North Works commenced for a huge shop measuring 850ft x 270ft together with a long building to house the new forge, running along side with a machine shop. By Christmas the buildings had been completed and by March 1917 the forge was producing its first blanks. Production steadily rose with the forge producing 20,000 blanks per week with the machine shop at 15,000 shells per week. There were two immense bays devoted to the machining of 4.5in howitzer guns.


The total production of 18 lb shells during the war period was amounted to six and a half million, to produce his quantity you needed 80,000 tons of steel bar. It is difficult to envisaged what 6.5 million shells look like. Somebody worked out that if you put them end to end they would stretch from Lands End to John o Groat’s and half way back a distance of 867 miles. At the height of the production, 1,200 tons of steel bar was used every week, which meant two train loads each day. Production of the shells was so prolific that they were running out of storage space. In one week they dispatched no less than 150,000 shells and a daily rate for a nine and a half hours was running at 13,000.

Machine Shop 18 Pounders

In December 1916 the demand for munitions was still rising, so work commenced on the land opposite the Bristol Road which became known as West Works. It was an exceptionally hard winter, so building work was particularly difficult, but by working continually day and night with flares used to help at night, the building was ready for fitting out in June 1917. Large foundation were made to accommodate the heavy machinery that was to be installed including presses which could exert a pressure of 750 tons. A large machine shop measuring 660ft x 330ft was soon machining 100,000. 18lb shells per week.

Aero Engines

USAF Museum

x x x xXXX X X X X X X x x RAF 1a V8 Aero Engine

Such was the demand for aero engines that British manufactures were having difficulty in supplying, so other firms were given contracts to supply. At the time there were two engines that the Austin was awarded contracts for. One was for the RAF 1A which was a air cooled V8 and produced about 90 HP, this was a very successful engine and the Longbridge plant made about 2,400. The second engine called the Arab had been designed by the Sunbeam Company, this was also a V8 which had a power output of just over 200 HP. Austin was awarded an order but from the outset there was a major design fault so in the end only about 100 were actually built.

Aero Engine Production South works

Ambulances Lorries etc

Making vehicles for war situations is not the same as in peace time, and initially some components would fail under these tough conditions. But a lot of knowledge was gained on the stress and strains that components were subjected to. A specially strengthened 20hp chassis was used for a variety of jobs. This was the backbone for the various bodies that were mounted including Ambulances, X-Ray apparatus, Field kitchens and General stores.

Delivered by the Austin Motor Co to HM Government and Allied Governments from October 1914 to the end of contracts in 1918.

13 : 25,000
15 : 100,000
8.0in : 980,000
210mm : 60,000
9.2in shells 350,000
18-pounders 6,500,000

Guns 650
Lorries 2,000
Ambulances 148
Aeroplanes 2,000
Trace Troughs 34
Electric Motors 25
Armoured Cars 480
Night Tracers 506,399
Pumping Equipment 40
Shrapnel Heads 47,768
Percussion Tubes 682,808
Burster Containers 167,791
Working Trailer Wagons 3,405
Electric Generating Sets 4,762
Touring Cars, Light Vans etc. 750
Switchboards and Resistances 4,423
Aeroplane Engines (various kinds) 2,500

Along with large quantities of spare parts for lorries, aeroplanes etc.

Austin Roll of Honour 1914 - 1918

Roll Of Honour 1914-18 Text
The above information supplied by Mr A Eves


World War II

Its a fact that many people suppose that, during the war, Car Manufacturers merely continued the business of producing automobiles, supplying them solely to the Government for the Fighting Services. This was so far from the truth, motor vehicles were still been produced in the war, in fact nearly 100,000 came of the production lines in this period.

It was a very difficult time as output for peace had to continue, but the possibilities, at least, of war production began to unfold and the country had to be ready. As it became clearer that war was only just around the corner the first phase was the building of the Flight Shed at the corner of Lowhill Lane and Grovelly Lane. A
contract for the erection of the Flight Shed, Low Hill Lane, Longbridge, between Austin Co. acting for the Secretary of State for Air and the builder Messrs Wilson Lovatt & Sons Ltd was signed early in 1937, work starting immediately. Next came the building of the Shadow Factory, Cofton Hackett Factory, but called the Aero by all who worked there. People who worked there were issued with square enamalled badges which were in deferent colours depending on which department you were working in, this meant you were not allowed in any other department. The badge shown below is rather unique in that it is round. (if anybody can give me a reason for this, please contact me) Although most people called it "The Aero" it tended to be called East Works after the War. The first aeroplane to be built, were the Fairey Battle. It was in September 1938 that the first plane built, took off from the flying ground.

Main Door where the Planes Emerged

Hurricane taking off from the Longbridge airfield

East Works with the Sand Bags

But the actual diversity of products and components was staggering, the Longbridge site provided anything from a simple machined shaft to a Lancaster Bomber.

Some of the war time products were large, many were small, but all were vital to the war effort. In a normal year of peace, Longbridge would manufacture nearly 100,00 vehicles which would range on the car side from 8 HP to 28 HP, and commercials would be from small vans up to 3 ton trucks, also including industrial and marine engines.

Marine Engine for Life Boats

It is, therefore, not surprising to learn that Austin vehicles during the war met a large part of the transport needs of the British armies, and every week up to 500 army and other vehicles came off the production lines, ranging from 8 h.p. utility cars to 3-ton trucks, including four and six wheelers drive. Army breakdown and fire fighting vehicles. Along with Ambulances, R.A.F. tenders and troop carriers, Signals and Workshop units. By the end of the war the total number of such vehicles was over 120,000.

6 x 4 Austin Chassis

For the war in the air, Longbridge has also to its credit a formidable list of aircraft products. These ranged from balloon cable cutters to Beaufighter and Miles Master wing and centre.sections and Horsa glider fuselages, representing in all 5,000 aircraft. Additionally, Austin production included oil and fuel tanks for four.engined bombers to the tune of 15,000 incorporating 2,500,000 square feet of light alloy, and numerous small assemblies ranging from landing gears to components for Rolls Royce engines and Rotol propellers.

Oil and Fuel Tank Production

Also the process of digging out deep shelter tunnels in 1936 to accommodate up to 15,000 personal. The main tunnels were in the South Works and driven under the Flying Ground through the sandstone, a task undertake by mining engineers. As can be seen from the picture below they were larger enough to accommodate a 3 ton lorry. The ones in South Works were mainly built to act as a air raid shelter although some machining etc was also carried out. The ones next to the Shadow Factory were built for the main purpose of assembling Bristol Aero engines although it did have a Ambulance Station. So by the time September 1939 had arrived, the main tasks were in place and Longbridge could take its place promptly and efficiently to produce the items of War.

One of the Tunnel Entrances

For months before war was declared, production was slowly been changing so that it could be ready to meet the needs of our armed forces. It was a bit of a balancing act as the needs of peace time had to continue. By September 1939 the major infrastructure was in place, and Longbridge was now ready. The first task was the need to camouflage the factory and although everything had been planned in advance, this mammoth undertaking was achieved in just three day. So from the air the factory roofs of 120 acres disappeared into the countryside. The Lickey Hills is very close to the factory and people at the time would go and look at the panoramic view of the factory, were amazed to see how it blended with the countryside even down to having a road going across the site.

Aerial Picture taken by the Germans

As you can see from the aerial picture East Work and the Flight Shed have blended well with the countryside around. The Air Field is not so good, but note that the runways are like the spokes of a wheel, this was a brilliant idea as aircraft could take off what ever direction the wind was blowing.

It was now necessary to re-plan the tooling and production areas for the change over to munitions etc. Employment gradually rose, as contracts from the government came in and production increased so that Longbridge was employing over 32,000 workers. Even though the factory was well camouflaged, the Air Ministry was sure that an air raid was on the cards, as the Luftwaffe planes only had to follow the railway line. In fact only one daylight attack took place on North Works by the railway when a few employee was killed. To protect the site from attack some workers in overtime would be assigned to the Air Raid Precautions (ARP) and later with the Home Guard.

Because of the requirement of the Air Ministry, every new contract given often meant that new machinery had to be brought in, tooled up and the labour retrained. this was a ongoing event, which at times must have been soul destroying.

So what did the Longbridge plant turn out.

One of the necessities of war was the service helmets produced by the Austin presses to the tune of 500,000. The Jerrican which enabled the safe storage of fuel, and with its ease of pouring should have won a design award. Most of the 600,000 supplied to the forces were assembled at a factory in South Wales. The rest were assembled at a factory unit in Kings Norton, with all the pressings supplied from West Works Longbridge.

The Jerrican

Over 110,000 bogey suspension units and a large number of driving gear units for Churchill tanks were another ‘sideline’ so to speak. Although most of the Longbridge production was geared to the Army and Airforce, parts were also made for the Royal and Merchant Navy. Mine mechanism plates and depth charge pistols came to a staggering total of 440,000 units. Magazines for the Navel ‘Oerlikon’ gun amounted to over 110,000.

The Civil and Nation Fire Service were equipped with over 5,000 Austin 2 ton lorries of various body styles. Industrial engines of which about 20,000 were produced, with nearly half coupled up to drive a fire pump.

K2 Ambulances Finishing Line

Austin 10hp Tilly taking part in the London victory parade in 1946

Exhaust Ring Production
Longbridge produced over 122,000 exhaust rings for the Bristol aero engines.

Although most of the items produced were fairly large, there were small items made that were vital, such as tails for 2501b., 1,0001b. and 4,0001b. bombs, some 300,000 Vickers and Hispano machine gun magazines were produced for aircraft atmament. One of the small items was the humble bilge pump which was with each airborne Life Boat on every Bomber. This very simple construction of a semi-rotary pump was designed and produced at Longbridge. It was self priming and should it draw up debris into the pump itself, by rotating the cover plate using the metal strip as shown any obstruction could be easily removed.

Bilge Pump

For the land war, additional to vehicle output' armour.piercing ammunition of 2-pounder, 6-pounder and l0-pounder types were produced to a total of 1,350,000 rounds ; allied to this was the output of 3,350,000 ammunition boxes. Magazines for machine or tommy guns also loomed large in the Austin contribution to the Army's needs' as with the Bren Sten and other magazines, upwards of four millions of these units were turned out'

Ammunition Boxes

Bren Gun MKI

The Bren Gun which was manufactured in Enfield London was rated as the finest light machine gun every adopted as it was reliable, robust, simple and accurate. It was in the West Works that a shop was set up to produce the magazine that held 30 rounds, with over half-a-million been made.

Bren Gun Magazine production West Works

Oerlikon & Bren Gun Magazine Assemble

The gun got its name from the designers (R. V. Shepard and H. J. Turpin) and the Enfield arsenal where they worked. Although it was ugly and crude, but been of simple design proved to be very reliable in the field. It was produced by the Enfield factory and also the BSA factory in Birmingham. The Sten magazines produced at Longbridge reached an incredible total of 1,759,000.

Sten Gun MKIII

Sten submachine gun magazine production

Lewis Gun

This gun was originally supplied to the Royal Air Force as an observers gun. It was later taken up by the Special Air Service (SAS) often been used mounted on a Jeep. The early version used a 60 round magazine, with the later version having a 100 round magazine, which was the one produced at Longbridge. The total of 100 round Lewis magazines produced at Longbridge was over 421,000.

100 round Lewis gun magazine production