“Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards.”
This quotation is the epitaph of a young pilot. Part of his life is still not fully understood looking backwards.
Just when we thought there were no more secrets to be revealed about the Second World War, this mystery has come to the surface. Why was this pilot buried three times? Trying to ascertain exactly what happened all those years ago is proving to be difficult.
The answer is relevant to the next woman pilot to be added to Solent Aviatrix.
Failure so far to get at the truth, is the reason for the delay in telling her story. However, this war-time intrigue, which includes romance, loss, heartaches, politics, aristocrats and spies, has now attracted two Isle of Wight ‘sleuths’ who are on the case.
Hopefully, we will get to the bottom of this in the next few weeks.
Meanwhile, here is a backdrop to the story.
Saunders-Roe War Time Production.
It is a tribute to all the nameless hundreds of men and women who worked throughout the war years at Saunders-Roe (SARO), Isle of Wight. Men like my father who worked the night shift from the start of the war until the end. There were women in my family too who left their shop assistant jobs and domestic positions to answer the call.
Here then is a small introduction to life at SARO in those early war years.
The build up to war.
SARO of Cowes, in common with other large employers, provided a social club. On 15 July 1939, the first annual Sports and Gala Day was held. A large crowd attended and enjoyed a well organised programme of events for parents and children.
The same month Captain H. Balfour of the Air Ministry visited SARO to open the new staff club. He also inspected the ‘Lerwick‘. The Air Ministry had placed one of the largest ever orders for this flying boat. More skilled men were needed to construct them. When war was declared two months later, the struggle to recruit the necessary workforce became a problem.
One year later, SARO came up with a plan to attract workers to fill the shortage from the Island.
In June 1940, SARO reported they had bought a number of houses and converted them into flats. These were used as low rental accommodation for employees.
SARO had opened a training school where unskilled men were taught turning, riveting, milling, metal drilling and aircraft fitting. Most of the men were previously unemployed. But others jumped at the opportunity to join the training scheme and left their former jobs.
They earned while they learned. Once they had completed the course, they transferred to flying boat construction on the factory floor. These semi-skilled men worked along side the fully qualified men. They did not compete for their jobs.
Two months later in August 1940, SARO extended the same training scheme to women. Despite the success of recruiting men, there was still a shortfall of staff on the production line.
Unskilled women were to be put onto an intensive course to teach them to assist in construction of the ‘Lerwick’.
By December the same year, the training scheme was geographically extended. To speed up production of the flying boats for the R.A.F., SARO decided to advertise in other parts of the UK.
The value of this advert to us today is to discover what our ancestors did in their working day – what they learned, earned and how they lived.
December 1940 Advert – Saunders-Roe of Cowes : Pay While Training.
|Scores of persons who have passed through the training school are at the moment employed in the main factories, on such work as detail fitting, sub assembly and main assembly.
During training they are paid at the rate of 11d per hour, plus the national bonus of 15 shillings for a 47 hour week. Those now absorbed into the factories are being paid 1 shilling and 4d. per hour and the national bonus of 15 shillings.
Unskilled women are also being trained for work in the factory. The skilled employees are giving their full co-operation, and there is no ruling as to the percentage of trainees to be passed into the workshops.
Living accommodation, in flats conveniently situated near the factories, is provided at rentals varying from 7 shillings and 6d for a one-bedroom flat, to 17 shillings and 6d for a flat with three bedrooms.
Away from the adverts and Management vision of working life, the reality was a little different. A few war time memories of Saro women, as told to me, are recalled here.
One lady worked there during the war as a fitter’s mate. She worked on ‘Sea Otter‘ flying boats. She was based at the Columbine factory at East Cowes until the day when there was a fire. She was then transferred to the Folly Works down by the river, near Whippingham. Some years after the war she described some of the fitting processes to her family in unexpectedly great detail.
But it wasn’t always continuous graft. Whenever the opportunity arose, she spent some of her time in the ‘ladies room’ doing the other girls’ hair. This was when she should have been working. She said there were good foremen and bad foremen. The difference being the ones that made her work and the ones that turned a blind eye to the hairdressing!
Varnish Shop Girls.
Another SARO woman recounted her war years. “Those planes were made of wood and the skins were linen. We painted them with a type of solvent based varnish (dope) that made the linen shrink and go tight. The smell of that stuff was awful and almost certainly toxic. But it was war time and there was minimal health and safety. It was a terrible job really.”
At the end of the working week, they let their hair down. The SARO advert stated a 47 hour week, therefore a six day week. Once the Saturday shift was over, there was a dance to go to. (Hence the need to have their hair styled during work time!) The Island men had to compete with army lads stationed there on defence duties. There were Polish sailors too from the warships anchored off Cowes, there to defend the town and factories.