Wednesday, 30 July 2014
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This week in 1943: Repairing damaged WW2 aero-engines

A report from 11 June 1943 gave an in-depth look at the Bristol Aeroplane Company’s efforts to restore bomber engines damaged by enemy action or crash landings.

The Engineer in the depths of World War Two was a much thinner publication than in recent years. Indeed, owing to paper restrictions, the magazine had to refuse new subscription requests. But if you had been one of the lucky subscribers in June 1943 (and hadn’t gone off to the front line), you would have been able to read about the efforts of the Bristol Aeroplane Company (BAC) in repairing damaged engines.

The company’s multiple repair facilities were established soon after the outbreak of war (though The Engineer did not give away their location, of course). BAC not only made damaged engines usable once more but also salvaged components from those machines too broken to ever fly again and investigated alleged failure of engines on request from the Air Ministry – such engines were taken to the “mortuary” where an “inquest” was held.

The article focused on the example of Bristol “Hercules” engines, which were used on bomber aircraft such as Short Stirlings and Wellingtons but also the Bristol Beaufighter. It described the process of stripping, cleaning and inspection the damaged engines went through before their sub-assembly and erection into working machines once more. The company claimed the process was so effective that a repaired engine had a life expectancy equal to that of a new one.

Images from the article showing the scale of damage to the incoming engines suggest what a challenging job this must have been. Although the sub-assembly process was the same as that of new engines, the BAC employees even had to overerhaul accessories such as the magneto (electrical generator) that were not even made by the company and which required a highly skilled, specialised repair team.

The photos also remind us of the social changes the War helped bring about, showing men and women working alongside each other on technical tasks. The article itself, however, reveals how true equality was still a long way off.

To start, it notes with interest that an entire 50 per cent of the workforce were female. But the roles allocated to the different sexes were not the same. ‘Engine cleaning is almost wholly carried out by female labour,’ the article reported.

‘Every component, even nuts and washers, is most carefully inspected, the smaller and simpler parts being inspected by female labour under male supervision.’ And again: ‘Through the engine erection operations, inspection checks are made, the simpler operations being performed by female labour.’

The situation, and the comments themselves, probably reflect the attitudes of the day but perhaps also the lack of technical opportunities (and therefore experience) that had previously women had. Thankfully, many things have changed over the past 70 years. Although you’d probably be hard pressed to find a British engineering plant that had a 50 per cent female workforce today.

To download a PDF of the full article click here.


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