Rover Turns to War Production.
By Kevin Phillips
In April 1936 Rover was approached by the Air Ministry' with a proposal to become involved in a 'Shadow Factory" scheme. The term 'Shadow Factory' meant that these new buildings would live in the shadow of the aero-engine specialists, but would contain the same type of machinery and produce the same products to the same standards as the parent company. In this case the new factory would be built by the British Government at Acocks Green and would initially be set up to produce parts for Bristol Hercules radial engines.
At this stage world events were heading towards another world war and although everything possible was being clone to avoid this eventuality, the truth was that to many people war appeared to be inevitable.
Production at this new factory would start at a low level at first but in the event of a serious national emergency, the production rate could be very rapidly built up. Production commenced in July 1937 with deliveries to Bristol starting immediately.
By April 1939 all hope of continued peace had gone and Rover was again approached by the Air Ministry who were planning a second and much bigger shadow factory. In this case Rover would undertake the erection, equipment and management of an additional plant that would be three times the size of the original shadow factory at Acocks Green. In this case it would employ up to 7,000 workers and would look after the manufacture of complete Hercules radial engines. This new factory was to be built on 65 acres of requisitioned farmland immediately to the north of Solihull. Very prudently, the company also took up the opportunity to purchase nearly 200 acres of agricultural land surrounding the new site - a brilliant long-term move that would pay dividends for Rover's expansion many years later.
Once Rover had taken over management of the Solihull project building work started immediately. General site excavation began in June 1939, foundations were laid in July, and the first Hercules components were machined in January of 1940. The first completely Rover built Hercules engine was being tested by October 1940.
By the time that war was declared in September 1939, the Rover factories in both Helen St. and Tyseley were carrying out servicing and repair work on Armstrong Siddeley Cheetah aero-engines. Within a short period complete manufacture of these engines would be undertaken, along with manufacture of components for Pegasus aero-engines.
Car production had ceased by May of 1940 and by July the body erecting shops had begun production of airframe components for Albemarie aircraft, and would soon be involved with the construction of wings for Lancaster and Bristol warplanes. By this stage all thoughts of car production had virtually disappeared but a service facility was maintained throughout the war years as many of the long-lasting Rover cars were being used on essential war defense business.
The night of l4th-l5th November 1940 really brought the war home to Rover with much of Coventry's historic city centre being raised or burnt, and many factories being seriously damaged or destroyed by the Luftwaffe's heavy bombing raid that night. Rover's Helen St. plant to the north of the city centre was badly damaged by blast bombs and incendiaries, so much so that Albemarie production was halted and the cheetah section gravely inconvenienced.
As a result of this calamity, dispersal of production was instigated with a group of disused cotton mills in Lancashire and Yorkshire being turned into manufacturing plants for wartime production. By the time expansion was complete in 1942, Rover's control extended to 18 different factories, of which six were 'shadow' premises owned by the Government.
The size and scope of the much expanded Rover Company resulted in a workforce of nearly 24,000 by 1944. Rovers own employees including all staff totaled 3,780 with the dispersal factories and fee-contracted work for the Air Ministry accounting for another 20,000. This was a far cry indeed, from the run-down motoring concern that Spencer Wilks had joined in 1929.
One of the shadow factories was a highly secret underground plant at Drakelow near Kidderminster, which was one of several built during the war. This was more accurately an 'under-hill factory' with the factory floor space comprising of a network of large corridors being cut into the hillside.
The object of this type of construction was to make the factory invisible and impregnable from air attack. It had first been discussed with Rover management early in 1941, with 27 different sites being considered before a choice had finally been made. Blakeshall Common, near Kinveredge, north of Kidderminster was decided on. Excavation started in July 1941, machinery was installed in September 1942 with production commencing by the end of the year. The site covered more than 50 acres and was intended as a back-up and feeder plant for Acocks Green and Solihull.
With the start of production at Drakelow, parts for Pegasus and Hercules engines were all machined underground, with Centaurus engine parts being produced later on. The factory consisted of a series of long corridors bathed in artificial light. There was no production assembly line at this site, only dozens of machine bases with the plant being completely given over to machining operations. The factory was a very important part of Rovers war effort providing crucial machinery for Britain's defense and ultimate victory. This installation was hurriedly closed down in 1945 at the end of hostilities, but like many similar wartime installations, could be re-commissioned in times of need.