Continuing our series of blogs called ‘Behind the Episode’. Our resident aviation expert, Kirsty, will be looking further into the real history threaded throughout our audio drama, particularly the aircraft featured in each episode.
One could be forgiven for thinking that the idea of crowd funding is a relatively recent phenomenon. In fact, it is a concept that has been successfully employed for many centuries to raise money for projects that might otherwise not have seen the light of day. Amongst other things, crowd funding has been used to aid the publication of books, to fund music and the arts, to pay for worthy civic projects such as the plinth for the Statue of Liberty and by the use of War Bonds, even to finance military conflict. And it was an idea that was to be used to great effect when, in May 1940, Lord Beaverbrook was appointed Minister for Aircraft Production.
Still reeling from the aftereffects of the First World War and the Great Depression, Britain was in a poor financial state as, for the second time in a generation, it embarked upon war with Germany. Fiscal constraints had left its armed forces ill prepared and ill equipped to take on the massive demands now being placed upon them. The Royal Air Force had been particularly hard hit, a lack of funds for new equipment forcing it to retain many obsolete aircraft in frontline service. The Luftwaffe, on the other hand, had enjoyed massive investment and had been able to gain invaluable combat experience by its involvement in the Spanish Civil War.
The no-nonsense, bombastic management style of Canadian media tycoon Lord Beaverbrook was exactly what was needed to ramp up aircraft production. Immediately upon his appointment he set about cutting through red-tape and streamlining working practices in order to derive the maximum efficiency from the factories. Many existing managers were dismissed and replaced by foreman and engineers recruited directly from the shop floor. At the end of his first week in office he broadcast an appeal to all aircraft factory workers to accept new rotas which called on them to work both day and night shifts on a seven-day week. He also appealed for redundant garage workers to come forward and join the cause. These actions had the desired effect and within several months monthly production had increased by 200 aircraft. Air Chief Marshall Sir Hugh Dowding, head of Fighter Command during the Battle of Britain, would later comment that these extra fighters were the difference between victory and defeat.
The British public had taken the Spitfire to their hearts from the outset and as war ramped up there were numerous unsolicited enquiries as to how additional aircraft might be financed. Lord Beaverbrook was not slow to recognise that a Government endorsed fund-raising scheme would be a great way to both raise morale and unite the public in a common cause. Thus, the rallying cry went out and the Spitfire Fund was born.
Government Propaganda set the tone; posters adorned with slogans such as “A Spitfire a day keeps the Nazis away”. It also became the custom to inscribe the engine cowlings of aircraft so financed with names chosen by the benefactors, the inscriptions being in 4″ yellow lettering. Whilst most names would reference the village or town who had raised the funds, various sponsoring companies or organisations gave rise to some ingenious names. Woolworths, with their policy of nothing in store costing more than 6d (2 ½ p in today’s money), raised funds for two Spitfires; “Nix Six Primus” and “Nix Six Secundus” whilst the Kennel Club had “The Dog Fighter” (Mrs Holt would be pleased!)
Anxious not to price the aircraft beyond the reach of most respective fund-raisers, Beaverbrook listed the cost of a Spitfire as being £5,000. In reality, the actual cost was closer to £12,000. It is a problem that Katherine Winters touches upon in a conversation with her sister Ruby:
“Cost of fuselage, two thousand five hundred pounds; cost of engine, two thousand pounds; wings, one thousand eight hundred; undercarriage, eight hundred; guns, eight hundred; tail, five hundred – Propeller, three hundred and fifty; petrol tank (top), forty pounds; petrol tank (bottom), twenty five pounds; oil tank, twenty five pounds; compass, five pounds; clock, two pounds, ten shillings; thermometer, one pound, one shilling; sparking plug, eight shillings – So even if we raise the grand total of, what was it – one hundred pounds? We can donate just under one third of a propeller”.
Fortunately, most fund-raisers did not break it down in these terms and were quite unfazed by the challenge.
The call had gone out to individuals, towns and businesses alike and many came up with ingenious ways to fund their own Spitfire. In the Wiltshire village of Market Lavington a life size silhouette of a Spitfire was painted in the square and residents were challenged to fill it with coins, a task that was completed in a matter of days. Numerous raffles and sponsored events were held throughout the country with local communities outbidding each other in their attempts to raise the most. Many campaigns were backed by the local newspaper, a fund launched by the Midland Daily Telegraph on 5th July 1940 raising £18,000 in just three weeks, enough to pay for three Spitfire Mk. IIa aircraft. The first of these, christened “City of Coventry I” would serve throughout the war before succumbing to the scrap man in 1946. The other two, “City of Coventry II” and “City of Coventry III” would be less fortunate and would be written off when they collided with each other over Edenbridge on 28th November 1940, sadly claiming the life of one of the pilots.
As to the success of the scheme, depending on whose figures you believe, enough money was generated to pay for approximately 2,600 aircraft, although all donations would have gone into a common government pot rather than paying for a specific Spitfire. It is questionable whether it made any difference to the outcome of the war but it undoubtedly did much to unite the nation in their hour of greatest need.