Contribution to Victory: Southall’s A.E.C. Factory and WWII
By Dr Piotr Stolarski, Ealing Local History Assistant
In most large cities of the world buses, coaches and heavy duty trucks made by A.E.C. Ltd., Southall, can be seen in the streets. A.E.C. who came to Southall in 1926, had already established the production of single and double decker buses, coaches and lorries when they began to design petrol and diesel vehicles of advanced design; today A.E.C.’s hold on world markets is such that the figures in their repeat order book tell how satisfied clients are willing to come back.
(from Southall, Middlesex, The Official Guide and Industrial Handbook, Issued by Authority of the Southall Corporation, Ninth Edition, c. 1956)
A.E.C. in Local Context
Southall has an impressive industrial heritage whose origins date back to the late nineteenth century. Industrialisation was initially influenced by the building of the nearby Grand Junction Canal (by 1805) and later the Great Western Railway (in the 1830s).ººº The most prominent early factory in Southall was the huge Otto Monsted Margarine Works, which opened in 1895, established by the Danish industrialist Rasmus Otto Monsted (1836-1916).
Despite being known as a ‘manufacturing district’ before 1914, Southall only witnessed substantive growth in local industries in the period following the First World War. Land and labour were plentiful at this time. As a result, more than 200 industries were operating in Southall by the mid-1950s, with such factories as Batchelors Peas, Scott’s Emulsion, Taylor-Woodrow (1930), George Wimpey, Crown Cork (1922), and Quaker Oats (1936) providing employment for thousands of residents from the 1920s and 1930s.ºº¹
The A.E.C. (Associated Equipment Company) factory, based off Windmill Lane, Southall, was in its day the largest and most well known among these. Established in 1927, it employed 2,000 people by the early 1930s, in spite of a general depression and shortage of jobs which affected most industrial centres until the Second World War or even later.ºº² The site spanned 65 acres, with the factory itself covering 14 acres, being served by a branch line of the Great Western Railway leading into the Goods Inwards Department.ºº³
In its 52 years in Southall (1927-1979), A.E.C. built railway carriages, including the pioneering W1 model in 1933,¹ºº as well as buses used by London Transport and across the world. Its other products included trolleybuses, lorries, trucks, marine engines and stationary power plants.¹º¹
By 1966, A.E.C. was Southall’s largest employer, with 5,000 workers,¹º² many of whom were Commonwealth immigrants putting down roots locally. A.E.C. was acquired by the Leyland Motor Corporation in 1962, but closed in 1979, as a result of an economic downturn from the later 1960s which continued through the 1970s; the company having experienced several strikes by its workers during this period.
Above: The last truck to be made at A.E.C. Southall, (April 1979)
A.E.C. in World War Two
A recently unearthed spiral-bound book entitled Contribution to Victory by The Associated Equipment Co. Ltd. (produced just after the War) was given to Ealing Local History Centre in September 2015 by Crispin Paine, a volunteer at Chichester Museum.
It is a company publication, including biographical details of senior managers, photographs of vehicles (produced by A.E.C. during the Second World War) and manufacturing processes, as well as a detailed text describing war time production techniques and conditions.
According to this source, having produced vehicles and engines for peace-time use, the A.E.C. factory was in September 1939 declared a ‘Protected Place’ and became subject to the Official Secrets Act, earmarked for production of various vehicles for military use.¹º³ Yet it seems that little re-organisation was required, since the standardised chassis units could be used or adapted for the vehicles envisaged.
Non-military production stopped in 1941, and from then until 1944 A.E.C. produced nearly 10,000 vehicles for the war effort.¹¹º The war years were the busiest ever time for the factory, which handled no fewer than 40,674 jobs between September 3rd 1939 and April 30th 1945. A single job might pertain to a power unit or a complete chassis overhaul, and many were carried out under difficult wartime conditions.¹¹¹
Indeed, on the night of 24 September, 1940, a bomb struck the Southall Service Department which put much of the building out of action for six months. Luckily, no workers were injured, but damage to the building included a destroyed roof, blown out windows and doors, damaged machine tools, and wrecked vehicles. Repeated airraid warnings and minor window and roof damage also dogged production during the war years, but they did not seriously affect it.¹¹²
German pilots’ instructions for the bombing of the Southall factory survive – referring to it as ‘an important works building military vehicles essential to the war effort’ – along with their annotated maps and pictures of the local area.¹¹³ Surface shelters were subsequently constructed on the factory grounds to protect workers from the German bombs,¹²º although A.E.C. was fortunate indeed not to be hit seriously again.
Above: Heat treatment shop, A.E.C., Southall (date unknown)
Supply and personnel shortages were a major concern of the management during the war, however. Some 36 per cent of the staff at A.E.C. Southall were called up to military service, and replaced largely by women and youths, who had to be trained up. In October 1939 alone, the A.E.C. company magazine included a list of 72 employees who left for active service or full-time duties in the civil defence forces.
Many joined branches of services which would have benefitted from their high technical expertise or knowledge of transportation, such as the logistically-orientated Royal Army Ordnance Corps, Royal Army Service Corps, and the Royal Air Force.¹²¹ Ultimately, the total proportion of wartime staff was 63.5 per cent men, 22.5 per cent women, and 14 per cent youths.¹²² Sadly, some of these workers subsequently died in unrelated bombing raids.
Apart from their vital war work, employees of the factory were involved in the wider war effort. An ‘A.E.C. Factory Battalion’ of the Home Guard began to be formed in June 1940. In time, two of its members – Sgt.-Major G. Turner, and Corporal H. T. Morris – were awarded the British Empire Medal for ‘conspicuous service’ in combating the effects of incendiary bombs during a night raid. (The A.E.C. Home Guard unit subsequently stood down on 3 December 1944, after ‘four-and-a-half years unbroken service’.)¹²³
An official uniformed A.E.C. roof-spotter was another example of similar activity, patrolling with binoculars to fore-warn colleagues of air raids. Indeed, Mr. E. H. Jones, the A.E.C. works manager, was awarded the M.B.E. by the King in November 1945, no doubt in recognition of the wider role played by the factory during the war years.¹³º Just how many factory staff additionally contributed to the war effort as air raid wardens or volunteers of various kinds we may never know.
While Southall was the main factory site during the war, A.E.C. depots in Nottingham and Bradford also undertook vital maintenance and repair work. Other A.E.C. depots, in Southampton and Exeter, were destroyed by German bombers. Another site in Park Royal, was used in wartime by A.E.C. to produce components for military vehicles.
Wartime Production at A.E.C. Southall
A.E.C.’s wartime output included various vehicles for military use, many adapted from peacetime designs. The Matador, for instance, was a highly-regarded 4-wheeled drive medium artillery tractor, renowned for its reliability and high performance.²ºº 9,620 Matadors were designed and built for operation in every field of war, and the vehicle was in use wherever the British Army was in action, including in North Africa, Italy, India, the Far East, and Western Europe.
Above: A Matador truck
It was a truck whose main role was to haul artillery pieces and to transport stored shells, but it could also carry military personnel such as artillery crews, as well as hauling a range of other loads,²º¹ such as aircraft or tanks. Considered to have a good off-road performance and manoeuvrability, it was commonly used to tow the 5.5-inch medium gun and the QF 3.7-inch AA gun. Some 150 Matadors mounted with a swiveling 6-pounder gun protected by an armoured shield were sent to the Middle East and nicknamed ‘Yellow Devils’ by British troops there.²º²
The Matador was also adapted for many other roles including carrying a 25-pounder gun,²º³ a crane-carrying salvage vehicle, an armoured command vehicle, a minelaying vehicle, and a special Signals vehicle used by the R.A.F.²¹º A detailed article in the A.E.C. Gazette from March 1945, available at Ealing Local History Centre, describes the Matador, dubbing it ‘the best in the opposing armies’.²¹¹
Above: AEC 0854 tanker refuelling an Avro Lancaster bomber (1944)
Some 1,514 A.E.C. 6-wheel 2,500-gallon refuelling tankers, known as the ‘AEC 0854’, were delivered for service with the Royal Air Force, again seeing service around the world.²¹² They were used to refuel transport planes as well as bomber aircraft such as the Lancaster, Stirling, and Mosquito.
The design was based on a cross between A.E.C.’s Matador and the firm’s 6-wheel Marshal general purpose lorry²¹³ (600 of which were additionally produced for military purposes during wartime – one even being used by Army Chaplains as the mobile church of St. George in North Africa²²º). Lancaster bombers required 2,254 gallons of aviation fuel at a time.
Six A.E.C. tankers were typically used to service the average bomber station in England which could have as many as 57 bombers in need of refuelling every twenty-four hours.²²¹ Thus, Southall’s A.E.C. factory was crucial in providing logistical support to the massed bombing raids over Germany and other Axis territories, which played an important role in winning the war.
151 6-wheeled armoured command vehicles were built for service overseas in World War Two by A.E.C.²²² These were designed to transport and protect commanders of military formations in the field, or their staffs, besides stowing communications equipment, and maps and plans.
Above: AEC 6-wheeled armoured command vehicle
A.E.C., working with South African Captain Abraham du Toit, also helped develop a prototype Flail Tank, for mine clearance, known as the Matilda Baron. Whilst innovative, the Baron's problem was that the rotor was powered by external, auxiliary engines that made it too wide to cross a Bailey bridge and which had to be removed if it was to be transported by rail. Curran Brothers of Cardiff constructed 60 Barons, but they were only used for demonstrations and training. Alternative flail tanks based on the Sherman tank model were developed around the same time, independently of A.E.C.
Above: Matilda Baron
Armoured cars were vehicles typically used by units of Reconnaissance troops, tasked with scouting and probing the enemy’s defences. They also provided close support for infantry, and a cheaper and faster alternative to tanks, albeit with less armour protection and usually a smaller calibre main armament. Based on the Matador chassis, the A.E.C. Armoured Car was developed initially as a private venture and shown to officials in 1941 during Horse Guards Parade in London, where it made a favourable impression on Churchill and 629 vehicles were produced from 1942–1943.
A.E.C. tried to build an armoured car with fire power and protection comparable to those of contemporary tanks. The first version carried a Valentine Mk II turret with 2 pounder gun. Subsequent versions received a 6 pounder or a 75 mm gun. The vehicle also carried two machine guns, smoke grenades discharger and No. 19 radio set.
The Mk I was first used in combat in the North African Campaign late in 1942, where a few vehicles were reportedly fitted with a Crusader tank turret mounting a 6 pounder gun. The Mk II and Mk III took part in the fighting in Europe with British and British Indian Army units, often together with the Staghound. The vehicle remained in service after the end of the war until replaced by the Alvis Saladin.²²³
Above: AEC Armoured Car Mk 3
Apart from vehicles, A.E.C. produced over 4,000 engines,²³º and many other components, for British tanks. The Valentine tank was powered by a 9.6 litre A.E.C. oil engine, whereas the Mark I Matilda infantry tank was powered by a 6.6 litre 6cylinder engine. Both were used extensively early in the war by British forces, particularly in France and North Africa.²³¹ Further adapted versions continued to be used throughout the rest of the conflict. A.E.C. also made thousands of gear box components for Cromwell tanks, and turret parts for both the Cromwell and Crusader tank models.
The Crusader played an important role in North Africa between 1941 and 1943, but was then replaced by the Sherman and the Cromwell. The Cromwell was a successful fast tank deployed from June 1944 in France, used by the 7th Armoured Division and the 1st Polish Armoured Division. Repair work to military vehicles and machines was also undertaken by A.E.C. employees during the War.²³²
Considerable experimentation and technical developments continued during the war at the Southall factory’s labs and workshops. For example, A.E.C. developed a mobile flame-throwing²³³ vehicle; mobile oxygen plants; and generators for the man-made Mulberry Harbours³ºº used in maritime landing operations during the D-Day Landings from 6 June 1944.³º¹
Captured technology such as the German Panzer II tank were evaluated in the Experimental Department. Work was also done to develop better methods of preservation and packaging for machine components, to counteract climate and humidity for example.³º² In addition, A.E.C.’s existing bus, coach, and lorry models continued to be used throughout the war, both at home and abroad.
Above: The Laboratory, A.E.C. Southall (date unknown)
Testimonies from the Front
During wartime, numerous soldiers wrote back to A.E.C. to praise its vehicles, most especially the Matador. Here is a small sample:
A.E.C. Southall – and by extension, the residents of Southall employed in the factory – had indeed made a significant contribution to victory. On 25 November 1945, with the war won, A.E.C. switched back to peacetime activities.³º³ The company continued to produce new models of buses, coaches, trolleybuses, lorries, oil tankers, and rail cars.
Above: Iconic Routemaster bus
A.E.C. Gazette [company magazine; Ealing Local History Centre holds copies from the years: 1930-1931, 1932-1934, 1935-1941, 1945, 1946, 1948, 1949]
Contribution to Victory by The Associated Equipment Co. Ltd. (undated) [available at Ealing Local History Centre]
Various stories concerning A.E.C. from local newspapers on microfilm. See: Newspaper Index at Ealing Local History Centre.
Wikipedia articles: ‘AEC Armoured Car’, ‘AEC Matador’, ‘Associated Equipment Company’, ‘Cromwell tank’, ‘Crusader tank’, ‘Matilda I (tank)’, and ‘Valentine tank’ (www.wikipedia.org).