When you think of industrial capitals in the UK you probably think of London, Birmingham and Manchester, perhaps Sheffield, Southampton or Liverpool in close seconds. Industrial cities in the UK were the driving force of the British Empire’s economy for hundreds of years and were the cradle of modern industry throughout the world, the revolution started here.
The finest of British inventions rolled out of these factories to the delights of the Empire and the world be it Titanic, lightbulbs, the bicycle or the Spitfire. It may surprise you to learn then, that that last one was not constructed in just the big name industrial cities.
The Spitfire was originally built in Southampton, where Vickers-Supermarine Ltd’s factories were located. In the run up to the Second World War this was recognised as a likely target for bombing by the Luftwaffe and thus the decision was made to disperse production.
Vickers-Supermarine chose 5 sites, two of which were based in Wiltshire; Trowbridge and Salisbury. The Luftwaffe did actually attack both these sites as well but not nearly as frequently or as hard as they could hit Southampton or London.
In October 1940, the first tooling and jigs for building the Spitfire arrived in Trowbridge on low-loaders and lorries. Production was set up on 3 sites; the current Boots store on Fore Street, Bradley Road near the current Bathwick Tyres building and finally at the Barnes Steamroller works on Church Street in Southwick.
These makeshift factories produced parts for the aircraft until a large purpose-built facility was ready on Bradley Road. This enabled complete aircraft to be built in Trowbridge for the first time. This factory on Bradley Road manufactured the main body and wing, with other parts produced elsewhere in the town and brought to the main factory for installation. The completed parts, the fuselage and wings were loaded onto lorries and sent to Keevil Airfield. Here, the Spitfire would be completely assembled and flown by an ATA (Air Transport Auxiliary) pilot, often a woman, to a frontline airfield for RAF use.
Trowbridge factories produced the Mark V, IX, XII and XIV Spitfire, the latter being the first Rolls-Royce Griffon powered version from 1944.
Production continued after the war where, as part of Vickers-Supermarine limited, the factory produced the final version of the Spitfire, the Mark 24 as well as its successor in the form of the Spiteful and the naval variant, Seafang. Production ended in the 1950s when the factory was bought by the engineering firm Hattersley Heaton. The old wartime buildings were eventually demolished to make way for the current retail park buildings.
Eight Spitfires built in the Trowbridge factory survive, 4 of these were found in India in the 1970s. 1 remains in a flyable condition and can be seen in various aerial displays nearly 70 years on. Trowbridge’s Spitfire building history is commemorated in the name of two retails parks built on Spitfire manufacturing sites; Spitfire Park and Merlin Park.
It doesn’t end here though for local history as Melksham, where the Forces War Records office is located, used to be an RAF Station, RAF Melksham unsurprisingly.
The station was established in 1940 and hosted the RAF School of Instrument training and later a branch of the RAF Armament School. In 1942, the Armament School was replaced by RAF Electrical school and towards the end of the war was even training Royal Naval Air Service mechanics.
At the conclusion of the war, the station continued with the Instrument and Electrical schools until its eventual closure in 1965. The site of the station is now the Bowerhill Industrial Estate which bears street names such as Lancaster Road, Halifax Road, Wellington Drive and Bader Park.
There is a rich history of the Second World War in Trowbridge and Melksham which is sadly in danger of being forgotten, as is a lot of the history between 1939 and 1945, time creeps ever onwards and we lose the Veterans who served and the people that lived through it.
Fortunately, they leave us with fantastic stories, cherished photographs and amazing street names to remind us what they did 70 years ago.
Was your ancestor an RAF pilot during the Second World War? Perhaps he flew a Trowbridge built Spitfire? Check out our RAF databases today!