The Hackbridge ladies…were old enough to be my mother…
Don Halstead, ex-Marconi Radar and MOGS member
Early in 1995 I realised that we were on the verge of celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the end of World War 2 and that many younger staff would have no appreciation of just how much Marconi contributed to victory. Encouraged by Pam Reynolds, editor of Marconi Radar’s in-house paper News and Views, I generated a two-page spread about Marconi at War. Just before we were due to print I realised I had missed a trick: could Bob Telford be persuaded to add a personal recollection? One gracious phone call later I was promised something within 48 hours – now read on!
In the summer of 1939 I started working as an assistant to the Works Manager at Chelmsford, CJ Strother (those were the days before the Head Office came to Chelmsford when the Works Manager was ‘Mr. Marconi’ as far as Chelmsford was concerned). One of the tasks I was given was to liaise with Airborne Radio Development at Writtle about a potential large order from the RAF for a version of the radio equipment fitted in the Empire flying boats of Imperial Airways. The current RAF equipment was many years old and the RAF was desperate to get the Marconi equipment without which they could not fight the approaching war.
The outbreak of war in September hastened a decision to go ahead and in October an RAF officer visited Writtle to agree the specification with the engineer in charge of the project, CS Cockerell (later to become Sir Christopher Cockerell, the inventor of the Hovercraft). The flying boat equipments were designed for manufacture in tens whereas the RAF equipment would be wanted in thousands (in fact over 70,000 of these T1154/R1155 equipments were made during the war) and thus extensive design change for quantity production was required as were some technical changes including the addition of direction finding facilities. The specification was agreed that day (Christopher claims on the back of an envelope), work went ahead and prototype equipment was produced, flown and approved by mid-January 1940! In parallel a crash order for 1000 equipments was given to Marconi’s to start delivering to the RAF in June followed by larger orders subsequently to us and to 4 daughter companies, Plessey, EMI, EKCO and Mullard for tooling up and subsequent production.
It was decided that manufacture should be at Hackbridge near to Croydon Airport where the Air Radio Division had been located and which had a small highly skilled model shop, and I was told that I was responsible. So began six years of intense effort, and certainly our feet rarely touched the ground nor our heads touch a pillow for the few weeks until the equipments started to be fitted in RAF bombers in June. I suppose there were about 30 of us when I first arrived and this grew to about 1200 over the next year or so as we acquired large premises nearby which had been a silk-printing works. The initial small work-force was all male (and highly skilled) and early on I had to fight and win a battle to bring in women to train for assembly work which was a completely foreign concept in Marconi’s. Later as recruitment grew the age of the ladies we recruited rose fairly considerably and many no doubt had grandchildren and nearly all were old enough to be my mother! But how they worked with cheerfulness and humour and produced the various equipments for the armed forces (including suit-case sets for the resistance and partisan movements across Europe).
One particular incident I will never forget. In autumn 1943 the ‘Buzz-bomb’ assault commenced and the location of the launch sites trained on various parts of London meant that we in the Croydon area were unluckily at a crossing point for at least three of the missile tracks. The main assembly building was of four floors with the majority of the ladies on the top two floors and the air raid shelters were of course at ground level. For the ‘Buzz-bombs’ the procedure, unlike normal air raids, was to identify missiles crossing your area and to evacuate to shelters for the short period whilst the missile passed over (or cut out and dropped!). On a particular day the attacks grew to several an hour with consequent frequent trips up and down stairs. It didn’t take long before a deputation of ladies came to see me and told me in forceful cockney terms that it might be alright for a young man like me but it wasn’t for them. “Guv’nor – the ‘blankety’ bombs might kill us, but as sure as God made little apples going up and down those ‘blankety’ stairs will ‘blankety’ well kill us”. So quite against all the rules and regulations and the expostulation of our Air Raid Wardens I agreed that anybody who preferred to stay could put on their helmets and sit under the work benches which as it happened had wide steel tops.
So peace was preserved!
I remember all who worked there with enormous affection, pride and respect.
Croydon was subjected to very heavy V1 (doodlebug) bombardment. This may have been in part due to the machinations of RV Jones and his colleagues misleading the Germans into programming the V1s to fall short of central London (see R V Jones’ “Most Secret War” plate 24.)
This rather poor copy of plate 24 is included with due acknowledgement to Penguin from whose copy of “Most Secret War” the scan was taken – Webmaster
I persuaded Pam, a Wren based in London at the time, to add her own memories of VE Day. These appear on the following page. To complement the article I staged a mini-exhibition in Eastwood House, its centrepiece being the famous Luftwaffe model of industrial Chelmsford which stood for many years in the foyer of Marconi House. I felt all the effort had been worthwhile when I overheard a new recruit to the company gazing at the model and saying to his colleague “My God, isn’t it scary!”