ROGER HERMISTON on the parallels between now and then…
The wartime echoes get louder. First it was the new powers assigned to the government in the Coronavirus Act, not dissimilar from Churchill’s stringent Emergency Powers Act in May 1940. Then on Sunday night it was the Queen, reviving the spirit of those days with her poignant refrain ‘We’ll Meet Again’.
Now calls are growing – Tony Blair’s was the latest – for a new ‘Minister for Testing’, who can concentrate wholly on ramping up ‘industrial’ production of the kits which are our prime weapon in defeating coronavirus.
The playbook is already available. Wind back eighty years again, and Winston Churchill knew his key weapon to prevent a Nazi invasion was the fighter plane. So he created a new department, the Ministry of Aircraft Production, and asked his great friend, newspaper magnate Lord Beaverbrook, to run it.
It had one very simple objective – to build as many Spitfires and Hurricanes in the shortest possible time to defeat the powerful Luftwaffe in the looming Battle of Britain.
In our Battle for Britain, Jeremy Hunt – or whomever would be appointed – would do well to learn the lessons of history and study the remarkable job done by Lord Beaverbrook. For his lordship, whose new department worked out of his own London townhouse in the opening months, success hinged on informality, spontaneity and inventiveness.
‘Organisation is the enemy of improvisation’ was one of three slogans over his desk in Stornoway House. Beaverbrook did not run his department like a trained administrator or a politician; he ran it as he ran his business interests, off the cuff and with as much personal involvement as possible.
Evidence of his unconventional style could be seen throughout the building. Upstairs, secretaries and typists were forced to commandeer beds for desks, set up typewriters in the bathrooms, and answer a multitude of telephones that seldom stopped ringing.
Downstairs, air marshals and representatives of every branch of the aircraft industry regularly filed in for interviews in the big bow-windowed library, where they would usually find the minister carrying on three conversations at once and, in spare moments, talking into his Dictaphone. Beaverbrook’s world was a ‘diverting comedy of bell-pushing, a loud harsh voice, and abrupt orders for men and papers’.
Senior, well-established figures in the Air Ministry – of which the Ministry of Aircraft Production was an offshoot – were pushed into the background, and a group of industrialists were brought in to replace them, men Beaverbrook trusted to apply the necessary drive, ruthlessness and knowhow. The most important of these newcomers were Patrick Hennessey, general manager at Ford Motors, and Trevor Westbrook, the volatile but brilliant former general manager of the Vickers-Armstrong aircraft works at Weybridge in Surrey.
‘It was the most exciting time of my life,’ Hennessy recalled. ‘We broke all the rules.’ Beaverbrook formed action squads to enter likely stores of spare parts and remove them, despite furious protests. He commandeered aircraft to fly to France to pick up damaged engines and components for use in repairs.
He imposed his will at every level of the ministry. Managers and foremen in aircraft plants were liable to be roused at the dead of night and told, ‘If we’re up, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t be.’ Other departments – notably Ernest Bevin’s Ministry of Labour and Herbert Morrison’s Ministry of Supply – were often circumvented in the rush for men, materials and constant production.
Beaverbrook’s focus on the aircraft production figures was unwavering. Every Saturday afternoon he would have the weekly charts brought to his room at Stornoway House. After reading them, he would send them by dispatch rider to the Prime Minister, who would usually be at Chequers. If they were good, Beaverbrook would get a reply by letter; if they were outstanding, he would receive a telegram.
With his fertile mind and flair for publicity, Beaverbrook constantly came up with schemes to promote the belief that we were all in it together, that this was a ‘People’s War’. So the Spitfire Fund was born, with Beaverbrook appearing on the radio to ask the nation’s housewives to scour their homes for every piece of aluminium they could find – from pots, pans and kettles to vacuum cleaners, bathroom fittings and cigarette boxes – and hand it over to the local headquarters of the Women’s Voluntary Service, from where the donations would be dispatched to smelting facilities and turned into material for Spitfires and Hurricanes, Blenheims and Wellingtons.
It was a close-run thing, but cutting all the corners, Beaverbrook got enough Spitfires and Hurricanes up in the air. Something of the same is needed today in the new war against this killer virus.
Roger Hermiston is the author of All Behind You, Winston – Churchill’s Great Coalition 1940-45