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The Reyrolle Story: Sixteen - The War Years

During World War Two the giant engineering firm Reyrolles adpted its production to the needs of the war machine, as Robert Owen reveals.

To read earlier chapters of The Reyrolle Story please click on http://www.openwriting.com/archives/the_reyrolle_story/

To purchase a copy of his book visit http://www.amazon.co.uk/Reyrolle-Story-History-Co-Ltd/dp/1905295073/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1245678876&sr=1-1

The story of Reyrolle during the Second World War, was one of adapting to the changing industrial needs of the war machine.
At the start of the war, hundreds of workers from Reyrolle were either called up or volunteered for active service. If the individual happened to be a skilled craftsman, it was more likely that he would be returned to the Company to work in a "Reserved Occupation". To replace the semi-skilled and unskilled men, hundreds of women were recruited and trained for machine and assembly work. Accidents were few, but one former employee remembers a female accidentally drilling a hole in the end of her finger. She courageously deposited the end of her finger in the waste bin, went to the Ambulance room for treatment, then returned to drill more holes. She was appropriately named, "Hardy".

Hours of work were modified and many departments worked 24 hours a day on 2 x 12 hour shifts, with overtime at weekends. Retired personnel and volunteers staffed a Fire-Watching Rota at night. Sleep was at a premium.

While the majority of the Company's resources continued to be concentrated on the production of switchgear and associated equipment, there was a major swing to the supply of spare parts and repair of such equipment damaged by German bombing.

Reyrolle switchgear was not made to be bomb proof, but in one particular case, a factory was gutted by fire that badly damaged the sub-station. The roof collapsed on the switchgear, which was buried for several days. After the debris was cleared away, the circuit-breakers were found to be in good working order. However, perhaps the most significant fact about Reyrolle's contribution to the war effort, was how the firm's skilled and experienced workforce was used so extensively to manufacture and repair varied equipment for the armed forces.

Coincidentally, the Company had a serviceman as Managing Director during those difficult years. Bruce Leeson was a retired Lieutenant Colonel in the Royal Engineers. His secretary remembers him very well. Grace Broom (formerly Kippax) recalls, "He was a lovely gentleman for whom I had the greatest regard. I took secret letters from him to Hawthorne-Leslies and government offices in Newcastle."

Even before the conflict started, Reyrolle was approached by the War Office to assist with the production of Sound Locators for the armed services. It was, however, a submarine that brought publicity to the Company in June 1939. H.M.S. Thetis tragically sank whilst on diving trials in Liverpool Bay, with the loss of 99 crew and dockworkers. After salvage work, the control boards and related equipment were brought to Reyrolle for repair and renovation. From that time, the Company received numerous letters addressed to H.M.S. Reyrolle. It took several years before the Admiralty discovered that Reyrolle did not float and compromised with communications addressed to Reyrolle Shipbuilder, Hebburn-on-Tyne.

To those in London, it was perhaps an easy mistake to make because, sandwiched between shipyards and overlooking the river, Reyrolle became part of the Tyne Ship-Repair Facility. Anything that could be unbolted was sent to Reyrolle for repair. Holme's Motors was like an Admiralty repair shop. When it could not be unbolted, fitters went on board and carried out work on all types of marine equipment.

A story is told about a submarine docking in the River Tyne on a Friday night for a generator overhaul. The Captain judged the repair would take two weeks and gave the crew appropriate leave. Reyrolle fitters worked the week end and had the
generator repaired by the following Tuesday. It is not known what the Admiralty said to the Captain!


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