Initially, the green open spaces at Castle Bromwich were laid as playing fields although prior to the First World War, they were used for flying under the auspices of the Midland Aero Club.
One of the earliest recorded flying activities at the site (which was also used as a golf course) included the Maxfield monoplane (built by Alfred Pericles Maxfield) which was successfully test flown at Castle Bromwich between 24th September and 2nd October 1909. This, one of the first recorded flights in the Midlands earned Maxfield the title of ‘Birmingham’s first flying man’.
In 1914, Castle Bromwich acted as one of the stop-overs on the Great Air Race which ran from London to Manchester (and back) and the Pit Stop attracted an enormous crowd when over 80,000 people came to see all the new flying machines.
There is a story of a French pilot who, when running low on fuel, landed his aeroplane in a farmer's field near Coventry. A lady motorist, who happened to be passing, kindly let him take two gallons of petrol from her car. Unfortunately, it was still not quite enough to reach the official point at Castle Bromwich Playing Fields and he was forced to make a crash landing on Castle Bromwich racecourse and could go no further.
At the outbreak of the First World War, The War Office requisitioned the Flying Grounds and set up RFC operations - the site was designated Number 14 Aircraft Acceptance Park.
By 1915, the Army had also set up an Army Squadron to train aeroplane pilots for the conflict. At first there were only six trainees and four aeroplanes and due to the absence of fixed quarters, flying instructors and trainees had to sleep in tents, using the football pavilion for their ablutions.
However, although the playing fields provided a wide and flat grassy site, the local geography meant it was not the best place for an airfield and trainees had to take care not to land on the nearby railway line or even worse, crash into the telegraph poles alongside. Some of the land at the end of the runway was still being used by Birmingham Council as a Sewage Works and rather unpleasantly it welcomed some pilots who overshot the runway and landed in the sewage tanks.
The trainee pilots tended to be a happy-go-lucky bunch and it was just as well as flying was a very dangerous business in those early days and over 70 accidents were recorded at Castle Bromwich during the First World War; 30 pilots were killed and over 50 were seriously injured. Most of the airmen were British although some came from as far afield as Australia, Canada, India, South Africa and the USA and a number of those who died during training are buried in Castle Bromwich graveyard.
At least ten different squadrons used the aerodrome at different times during the war and the post-war era but the best remembered of them all is 605 Squadron who were set up as a bomber squadron and who were known as the 'County of Warwick' squadron.
By the end of the First World War, the Acceptance Park had thirty storage sheds and hangars and so the War Office decided to keep the aerodrome for military use.
However, access was granted for a return to use for the Midland Aero Club and until 1937 it was also available for private aircraft, especially during the weeks of the BIF (British Industries Fair).
The BIF's were initially staged in London just after the First World War and were intended as a showcase for British products in an attempt to attract investment into industry.
In 1920, a Midlands BIF opened in the aircraft hangars at Castle Bromwich, alongside the railway and had their entrance on the Chester Road next to Castle Bromwich station.
An Air Taxi Service ran from London to the Midlands BIF during 1922 and 1923 and this proved both exciting and attractive to potential city-based investors.
During 1922, the first of the celebrated King's Cup Air Races (an annual race for light aircraft established by King George V) ran from Croydon to Glasgow and once again it featured a popular stop-over at Castle Bromwich.
In 1927, the first Birmingham Air Pageant was held at Castle Bromwich and drew 100,000 people to the aerodrome, paying a shilling (5p) to watch the Royal Air Force teams perform aerobatics and mock battles.
Imperial Airways demonstrated their new deluxe airliner, the AW Argosy designed to carry 20 passengers in comfort between London and Paris. The plane was named 'City of Birmingham’ for the event and the Lord Mayor of Birmingham flew over the city in the aircraft. The air pageants were held at Castle Bromwich until the 1950s.
In 1933, regular air services began between Birmingham, Cardiff and Plymouth with fares in the 6-seater aircraft costing £2 to Cardiff, twice the price of the train. Later, it was also possible to fly to both Liverpool and London from Castle Bromwich opening the area to further industrial development.
Intelligence on the increasing development of German air power during 1936, led to the Air Ministry putting a plan in place to create a network of ‘shadow’ aircraft factories throughout the UK. The Conservative Government, under Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin, financed the building of the new satellite factories which once built, would be supervised by the major industrial manufacturing firms to assemble aircraft specifically designed for British military use.
Five firms agreed to the ‘co-operation’ namely, Austin, Daimler, Rootes, Rover and Standard whilst others such as Morris Motors initially declined. Bad relations between the Chairman of Morris Motors (Lord Nuffield aka William Morris) and the Air Minister (Lord Swinton) and disagreements over the production of aero engines led to a concerted attack on the Air Ministry plans and he fell out of favour.
However in 1938, two new and separately amended schemes (J & K) were proposed. Unfortunately, neither came to fruition due to the pressures regarding finance and available manpower. The difficulties caused Lord Swinton to resign from the whole project on 16th May 1938.
He was replaced by Sir Kingsley Wood who resurrected negotiations with Nuffield and successfully convinced him to take part, offering him the opportunity to construct the largest of the factories to produce the new Vickers Supermarine Spitfire.
The Nuffield Organisation was an enterprise well-versed in the disciplines of mass production within the motor industry and although Wood initially wanted the factory to be built in the Liverpool area, Nuffield insisted that it must be in the Midlands where there was an ample and willing workforce plus it was nearer to the major component manufacturers (such as Dunlop) and boasted suitable airfields such as the one at RAF Castle Bromwich.
Birmingham City Council quickly agreed to sell the land and almost immediately Morris Motors took over the aerodrome site and preparatory groundwork commenced.
On 15th July 1938, Sir Kingsley Wood broke ground and the Nuffield Organisation commenced full construction work on the enormous 345-acre site. The project was a lucrative deal for the Nuffield Organisation which also included famous names such as the aforementioned Morris Motors, Wolseley, Riley, M.G. and the SU Carburettor Company. Their pedigree within the motor industry was beyond question although as it would turn out, much of their management skills were not transferable to the construction industry.
Despite this, the Ministry immediately placed an official order for the immediate production of 1,000 Spitfires to emphasise its growing confidence in the ability of Nuffield to fulfil their expectations.
The factory build was headed by Oliver Boden (Vice Chairman of Morris Motors) and despite exceptionally wet weather conditions in the latter part of 1938, the foundations were laid in record time. By November, steel erection commenced on the first of the 6 major production buildings, often continuing overnight under floodlights.
With war looking inevitable, aircraft assembly began despite the buildings being incomplete and at times production had to be halted to allow the installation of overhead steel beams and equipment whilst partially completed airframes (which arrived daily from the Supermarine Works at Woolston) sat below.
One must remember that at this point many of the new workers had never even seen a Spitfire before let alone have the skills and knowledge to build one!
By May 1939, most of the major buildings were finished and on 20th June the Director of Aircraft Contracts issued the full authorisation for the supply of components to CBAF (Castle Bromwich Aircraft Factory) - the facility was now officially in business.
With the outbreak of war in May 1940, the pressure grew on CBAF to fulfil Ministry requirements for new aircraft and things came to a head when Lord Beaverbrook (the newly appointed Minister of Aircraft Production) called Nuffield to ask why they had not completed their first Spitfire. The reality was that Nuffield had ignored the tooling and drawings supplied by Vickers Supermarine in favour of purchasing new machinery which resulted in need to alter some component designs.
This was a critical error, given the need for high levels of precision required by the stressed-skin construction methods employed on the Spitfire. The 'local workforce' had also become difficult with management ignoring claims for increased wages in return for their newly acquired skills. This led to the threat of strikes and slow-downs, all of which made for a totally confused assembly system.
Nuffield tried to make several excuses regarding the 'need for modifications' to production methods and the expensive 're-tooling' which had raised the total cost of the whole project from just over £1 million to well in excess of £4 million. Beaverbrook was no fool and an argument ensued to the point where Nuffield offered to relinquish his position in charge of the project – Beaverbrook called his bluff and accepted.
Vickers Armstrongs were given immediate control of the factory although it was testament to the managers and workforce that few changes in personnel were made.
Alex Dunbar of Vickers Armstrongs was appointed as Managing Director and it wasn't long before their first aircraft (P7280) was sent for trials at Boscombe Down in early June 1940. The second aircraft went immediately for flight test and took to the skies on 15th June 1940, flown by a young Supermarine Test Pilot who would become inextricably linked with the Vickers Supermarine Spitfire, a 28-year old named Alex Henshaw.
Gradually the workforce learned to overcome their difficulties with the help of key personnel from within the aircraft industry, they soon became skilled craftsmen and women.
As production numbers rose, it soon became apparent that sending aircraft for final assembly and flight testing at remote airfields was highly inefficient and so, with the influence of Vickers Chief Test Pilot Jeffrey Quill, Henshaw was promoted to resident Chief Test Pilot CBAF. Assembly of complete aircraft at CBAF was thereafter, followed by immediate test flying and direct dispersal from the adjacent aerodrome.
By the end of September 1940, the factory had built 125 Spitfires with the total increasing to 354 by the end of the year. Maintaining this level would become vital as both Woolston and Itchen factories had been devastated by air raids.
CBAF itself had been a target during August 1940, when it was attacked from the air. The raid killed 11 key workers and injured 111 more.
D Block was severely damaged although the workforce was proud of the claim that not even the Luftwaffe had managed to stop aircraft production.
Additional satellite sites around the Midlands were acquired alongside another test and dispersal facility at South Marston, near Swindon. Eventually, a complete dispersal network was created incorporating some 36 sites throughout the United Kingdom, all developed to support CBAF production.
Alex Dunbar was succeeded as Managing Director by Sir Hew Kilner for a short period although he was later replaced by BWA Dickson who headed the organisation for the rest of its existence.
Production of the Vickers Supermarine Spitfire II continued until June 1941, when it was replaced by the new Mark V. This was also quickly upgraded and in 1943, CBAF switched assembly to the Vickers Supermarine Spitfire Mk.IX. Production numbers continued to rise as the workforce skill levels grew and grew with 50 aircraft being completed every week.
1943 saw the RAF emphasis swing towards bomber aircraft as the offensive against German cities grew in its intensity. Consequently, plans for production of the Avro Lancaster at CBAF were instigated and Blocks A and B were re-equipped for assembly of completed fuselage sections, transported by road from Woodford.
However, adoption of the skills associated with bomber production was slow and it was not until October 1943, that the first aircraft (Avro Lancaster Mk1 - HK535) was test flown by Alex Henshaw.
Totals vary regarding the total number of Avro Lancaster aircraft finally built but informed sources suggest that it was between 300 and 305.
Two production lines were dedicated to bomber production and overall some 15,800 people were employed at CBAF. Alongside the Lancaster activity, Brooklands Aviation Ltd carried out repairs on several Wellington aircraft at Castle Bromwich and Alex Henshaw reports in his biography ‘Sigh for a Merlin’ that the Castle Bromwich Flight Test Department flew seventy-one Wellington aircraft after they had been repaired.
The Vickers Supermarine Spitfire Mk.XVI (which in effect was a Mk.IX with an American Packard Merlin engine) saw production rates rise dramatically and by the second quarter of 1944, CBAF had delivered over 900 Spitfires (at a rate in excess of 100 per month). This was in addition to the 20 Avro Lancaster aircraft per month.
Construction of the Vickers Supermarine Spitfire Mk.21 (with the Griffon 65 engine) started in July 1944, and the initial order was extended to incorporate a naval equivalent, the Vickers Supermarine Seafire 45. The Vickers Supermarine Spitfire Mk.21 was superseded by the Mk.22, although the closing months of World War II saw a big reduction in the RAF requirements and orders began to be cancelled.
May 1945, saw CBAF still operating at full production levels although it was fast becoming clear that the future lay with jet propulsion. In October of that year, the fateful decision was made to cease aircraft production at Castle Bromwich and the last Spitfire Mk.22 (PK614) was test flown on 30th November 1945 - production finally ceased at the end of December. A final batch of 54 aircraft were transported by road to South Marston where the last CBAF airframe was completed as PK726.
The total number of Spitfires built at Castle Bromwich ranges from 11,555 to 11,939, dependent upon the reference source. Alex Henshaw reports that 11,694 Spitfires were built under the control of Castle Bromwich with production split between Castle Bromwich, Cosford and Desford (the vast majority of these being built at Castle Bromwich).
What is indisputable is that Castle Bromwich was responsible for the construction of more Vickers Supermarine Spitfire aircraft than all the other factories combined.
Decommissioning followed, with the doors finally closing on a truly epic period in British aviation production on 31st March 1946. The factory buildings lay dormant whilst the equipment and tools were either sold off or scrapped. The airfield suffered from the smoke of Birmingham and had a balloon barrage on three sides. There was also power station cooling towers less than three miles to the east and so any thought of further aviation use was abandoned.
Castle Bromwich airfield closed in March 1960, and the site was developed into the Castle Vale housing estate. The main factory is now the home of Jaguar Land Rover.
|1909||Alfred Maxfield debuts his monoplane|
|1914||Great British Air Race stopover|
|1914||Airfield requisitioned by War Office for the Royal Flying Corps|
|1920||Airfield returned to local authority ownership and hosts British Industries Fair|
|1927||Birmingham Air Pageant|
|1936||Birmingham City Council sell nearby land to the War Office|
|1939||Castle Bromwich Aircraft Factory completed|
|1940||Control of CBAF given to Vickers Supermarine|
|1940||Castle Bromwich Aircraft Factory produces its first Spitfire|
|1943||Castle Bromwich Aircraft Factory produces its first Lancaster|
Castle Bromwich Aircraft Factory closes
|1947||Site decommissioned and sold to Fisher & Ludlow (Car Bodies) and subsequently BMC|
|1977||Site taken over by Jaguar Cars (Now Jaguar Land Rover)|