by Gar Cole
The day of our group tour of the Jaguar factory at Castle Bromwich had arrived. It was slightly bitter-sweet as it had originally been organised as part of "Head Admin" Paul Sweeney's visit to the UK from sunny New Zealand, but due to unforeseen personal circumstances the trip was called off. However we have said this is very much a postponement rather than a cancellation and we look forward to meeting Paul at some point in the future.
Living only 1 mile from the factory that I also worked at for 9 years I decided to take the moggy for a short trip, the tour guide greeted me at the gate with a beaming smile "Been many years since one of those drove through the gates" he enthused. I took my parking space amongst a plethora of F types, iPace's and other exotic machinery in the Heritage centre carpark.
I was greeted by group members Thilo Brill and his partner Eva who had flown in from Germany to enjoy the tour, with the arrival of the Brooks family we made our way into the modern glass and chrome building for breakfast refreshment and to meet our fellow tour explorers who had arrived well before 8.30am.
Introductions made, coffee and biscuits sampled the 14 of us were kitted out in 'V.I.P Visitor ' Hi-Viz vests and radio headphones so we could all hear Andy our tour guide, looking like the security crew for an 80s pop revival concert we headed off to our waiting tour minibus.
Now the spiritual home of Jaguar was and probably always will be the iconic Browns Lane plant in Coventry, Castle Bromwich did not feature in the Jaguar story until much later but it has a fascinating history in its own right and if you have read this far then make yourself comfy and I'll reveal what we learned on this fascinating tour.
The land adjacent to Castle Bromwich Aerodrome was aquired by the government in 1936, with construction starting in 1938 with an estimated build cost of £2 million pounds, the final cost would double to over £4 million, built as 1 of 12 'Shadow Factories' created to quickly change from automotive construction to military application should the political situation in Europe continue to deteriorate.
Castle Bromwich covers a vast 46 acres of ground, the buildings themselves are massively over-engineered using bridge construction methods, huge steel frames make up the roof sections which are supported by thin pillars giving maximum internal working space, this meant if a section was damaged by a falling bomb the hole could quickly be repaired with a new steel truss and the roof patched up, seeing it up close reminds one of a giant meccano set.
Getting comfy on our minibus we all stared a little open mouthed at the scale of these buildings that towered over our little bus, as we drove along the long narrow roadways between them and the exotic modern cars scattered all over the plant. The juxtaposition between new and old was quite stark. Andy our genial host started explaining how the factory built a total of 12,192 Super-marine Spitfires between 1940 - 45, hitting a maximum of 340 per month, mostly in the central C block in the middle of the plant, which happened to be the building I worked in and today serves as body construction for the XJ saloon.
The current workforce totals just over 4000; during the war it was 15000, I was fascinated to learn that 80% of the workforce was female, involved in all areas of construction. Today that figure has fallen to just 12% and JLR are working hard with local colleges and universities to recruit a higher proportion of female employees and to show them what a rewarding career can be had with the company.
In addiction to the 12k-plus Spitfires CB also constructed 200 Avro Lancaster bombers ordered in 1941, reaching a peak production of 25 a month that December. Just over 300 were produced by 1945, also 50 Seafire 45's. Once a plane was completed it was towed by tractor across the main Chester road onto the Aerodrome grounds, where each plane would be tested and delivered to the RAF all over the country by the members of the Air Transport Auxiliary headed by Chief Test Pilot Alex Henshaw. Listening intently to Andy and trying to absorb so much information on the war, we were brought back to 2018 as the minibus came to an abrupt halt and Andy jumped out the side door beckoning us to follow him.
We stood outside one of the various storeroom buildings on the grounds and one I had passed many times paying it no attention, only this time the aged pair of time-worn wooden doors that were always locked were now wide open and a dimly lit descending concrete walkway was just visible.
We followed Andy down the fairly steep ramp and you were immediately taken by the change in atmosphere, as the air cooled rapidly, that unique "old building" smell of damp, dust and rain water, which could be heard dripping onto small puddles on the ground. Rounding a corner at the bottom of the dimly-lit walkway we were greeted by another walkway that descended further underground, my imagination piqued as I felt we were in a John le Carre novel, about to trade some top secret microfilm with our agent in Moscow.
At the bottom of the second walkway a dim blue glow opening up into a larger room awaited us, as we arrived in this room I was stopped in my tracks by the sight of hospital beds. "What on earth?" I'm sure more than one of us thought, on the walls glass cases housing medical equipment and medicines of the era, plus large scale photos of the factory but showing obvious aerial bomb damage. It was quite sombre and we waited to hear Andy explain why a fully functioning hospital ward should be located under a factory.
On the 13th of August 1940 a squadron of Luftwaffe bombers dropped an estimated 118 tons of explosives and incendiary devices on the aerodrome and plant, causing significant damage to several main buildings and the surrounding road network. Tragically 6 workers were also killed during the raid; following this attack production was delayed for only 2 weeks and the buildings were quickly patched up. Tt was decided the plant also needed a hospital area to treat people for day-to-day injuries such as cuts or broken limbs. Health and Safety didn't exist at that time and they obviously expected more casualties from bombing raids as the underground hospital wing also houses a morgue (shown above).
Moving into another part of the underground rooms we glanced upon spotlighted photos of female pilots from the Air Transport Auxiliary. A video showed film newsreel of the time capturing these brave ladies piloting Spitfires, Lancasters and other types of aircraft from the aerodrome to other RAF stations across the country.
Incredibly these pilots received no radio training or evasive flying tactics. They were required by the Air Ministry to fly as low as possible and always be visible from the ground; they had to navigate just using maps and a compass in the ever-changing British weather. Speaking as someone who never travels far without a Satnav my respect and admiration for these pilots is immense. The spirit of the workforce at Castle Brom working 24 hrs a day on 3 eight-hour shifts surely had a major influence on the war.
Chief Test Pilot Alex Henshaw tested over 80% of everything ever built during the war years and would treat the plant workers to amazing displays overhead, at times flying a Spitfire between the buildings upside down just metres off the ground and he remains to this day the only person to have ' barrel rolled ' a Lancaster bomber in front of a live audience at Castle Brom.
As we climbed our way back up the ramps to daylight I pondered my time at Jaguar between 2000 and 2009. I had always known about the underground cellars and often nagged Frank the security guard to show me one when we worked nights "more than my jobs worth young man" would be his reply. I knew some of the history of the plant and what had been built there but like my fellow 13 guests I had just learned about the human side of the story and it left me feeling a mixture of pride and awe.
Once again Andy crackled in our ears and said "Hope you all enjoyed that. Climb aboard the bus and we'll show you how we build cars now 😀"
Part 2 to follow soon. Please note all photos were obtained via a 3rd party on the Albanian border in exchange for lemon drizzle cake, and none of the photos shown inside the factory are in anyway affiliated with members of EBMVBB1985 😎
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