Mon 10 Dec 2018 16:53

The History of Supermarine 

Swindon and its neighbouring villages were the hub of a hastily-assembled aircraft industry spread over a number of sites which appeared as if by magic during the Second World War, before disappearing - although not quite as quickly - to leave only a few signposts to a remarkable period in the town's history.

Preparing for war

Aircraft manufacture in the area was first mooted in 1936 when the Air Ministry, with one eye on Germany's re-armament, started to make plans for 'shadow' sites which would provide back-up to the country's leading aircraft factories should they be attacked - and even substitute for them, if they were put out of action.

By 1938, with war seemingly inevitable, South Marston was chosen as a shadow site because of its good communication links, but mostly because it was so close to the large skilled workforce of Swindon's huge GWR factory. With the first planes to be built at South Marston due to be made from wood, the skills of craftsmen from the carriage and wagon shops were to prove vital.

South Marston was to shadow the Phillips and Powis Aircraft Ltd factory at Woodley, near Reading, and by 1940 some of the production of a training plane called the Miles Master was transferred to the new South Marston site.

The South Marston factory was ready by the summer of 1940 - just as the RAF was about to fight and win the Battle of Britain.

First production starts

By the following spring, the first South Marston Master had rolled off the production line and a year later the factory was turning out nearly 80 a month. In all, over a thousand Masters would be produced at South Marston and many Spitfire and Hurricane pilots learned their trade in a Master.

Some Masters could almost match the speed of early Spitfires and Hurricanes and were the first high-powered monoplane trainers with similar handling characteristics to the new fighters.

Stirling bomber

In August 1940, the Short Brothers Ltd factory at Rochester was bombed and put out of action, and when the Belfast factory was also attacked, the Ministry of Aircraft Production (MAP) switched much of the Short Stirling manufacturing to the Swindon area.

Fuselages were built at Blunsdon and fitted out at Sevenhampton, while parts (including wings) were also manufactured in No. 24 Shop in Swindon Railway Works and at a garage in the town centre (later to become Skurray's).

These parts were all taken to South Marston (which also produced some of the wings) for assembly in a new purpose-built factory called FS2.

Take-off and landing facilities were also needed for the four-engined Stirling so two 1,000-yard concrete runways were constructed close to the FS2 site.

These were painted with woodchips dipped in camouflage paint while sections of hedges were also put together to be spread across the runway when not in use to complete the deception.

The first Stirling took off for delivery to the RAF at the beginning of 1942 and soon the factory was completing 16 a month but, between the autumn of 1942 and the spring of 1943, production of both the Master and the Stirling was wound down with the intention of producing Lancaster bombers instead - these plans were then shelved as the factory prepared to play host to the world's most celebrated military aircraft.

The Spitfire story

Demand for the new generation of Spitfires - the Mark 21 - became so great that South Marston turned all its production facilities over to these most famous of fighters and became the shadow factory of the famous Castle Bromwich site in the Midlands and the original Supermarine factory in Southampton (which was extensively damaged by bombing in 1940) where RJ Mitchell designed and tested the original plane.

Much of the workforce received hasty retraining in metalwork as a result and, at first, the factory only carried out modifications on older Spitfires before the first South Marston-built Mark 21 was delivered to the RAF just before Christmas 1943.

South Marston's role in the Spitfire story, however, was short-lived. The new Spitfire was a high altitude fighter and - especially with D-Day on the horizon in the summer of 1944 - the situation had moved on.

In the end only 121 Mark 21s were built at South Marston, although another 50 modified Spitfires bound for naval action (which the Royal Navy called Seafires) were also made there.

Production of later versions of the Spitfire continued after the war before South Marston's last Spitfire (actually a Seafire) was completed in January 1949.

Spitfires also continued to fly out of South Marston after repairs and modifications, with most of these ending up in foreign air forces.  

By the 1950s the South Marston factory was part of the Vickers-Armstrongs (Aircraft) Ltd, Supermarine Division.

Still the spirit of the Spitfire was proving persistent as production turned to the Attacker, a jet version of the Spiteful, which in turn had evolved from the Spitfire.

The Attacker was the Royal Navy's first jet fighter designed for launching from aircraft carriers, in all, 182 attackers were built at South Marston between 1950 and 1953.

Next off the production line in Swindon was the Supermarine Swift, an RAF fighter that had evolved from the Attacker.

This aircraft was destined for the record books when a South Marston-built Swift F.4 (WK198) set the world speed record at 736mph (32mph short of being the first supersonic aircraft), over Libya, on September 25th, 1953 - a record it held for just eight days.

In all, 197 Swifts were manufactured - all of them at South Marston.

The factory also produced Scimitar jets for the Royal Navy, and it was to be a Scimitar that would be the final complete aircraft built on the site, in January 1961.

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, South Marston produced components for a wide range of other Vickers products - and major projects such as Concorde. 

In the mid-1980s, Honda bought part of the site, adapted the runways to become a test track and made way for its 1.5million sq ft car plant by demolishing the original factory.

For many years ‘Vickers’ supported a thriving Sports & Social Club with the clubhouse positioned in the Industrial Estate (Stirling Road) and sporting facilities (for rugby, football, cricket, tennis, archery, bowls and others) dotted around the estate but as Vickers reduced their activity so the link with the Sports & Social Club diminished and the club became independent in the early 1980’s.

As Vickers moved away a new site was purchased just up the road from the old Clubhouse and the Sports & Social Club moved to its current site in the late 1980s.

Sadly the Cricket and Tennis clubs folded in the years that followed but Bowls and Football still thrive as independent clubs on the site whilst the Clubhouse and much of the land is now home to Supermarine Sports Club which is made up of Supermarine Rugby Club and Supermarine Bowmen.

The Rugby Club

Founded in 1958 as a Vickers Armstrong factory side primarily through the efforts of one determined employee Norbert (Bob) Little. Bob was the driving force and sole reason the club got off the ground despite initial resistance from the Vickers Armstrong management.

All of the initial fixtures had to be played away, as they would not grant us anywhere to play, and certainly nowhere near the clubhouse, which housed all the other sports with pitches attached. Eventually having been badgered by Bob every week, they finally allowed pitches to be established on the airfield, about ½ mile along the Highworth Road. Even then things were not straight forward as management were concerned the posts would attract birds, so they had to be taken down after every game.

In 1966 Vickers dropped the Armstrong and became Vickers (Swindon) Ltd. It was decided the rugby club would omit the Swindon part as it could have aligned us to another club in the town.

1980 started a total shift in the fate of the club, Vickers Properties sold the airfield to Honda UK, and started negotiations to sell the factory site.

As Vickers were no longer going to have a presence in the town, instructions were that we would need to have a name change and Supermarine was born after the Vickers Supermarine Spitfire which was produced during WW2 at the Highworth Road Factory.

1982 saw the start of the mini and junior section. From humble beginnings of around a dozen kids and a few enterprising dads, it now boasts 300 plus kids, from six years old and upwards, and an army of qualified coaches. Two of the original minis Stuart Cock and Rob Thorley are still involved as coaches in the section with children of their own now playing.

1985 Honda started production on the site and we became nomadic as far as pitches were concerned. For 2 years we played on a patch of land outside the Honda perimeter fence, affectionately known as “the rockery”. One other drawback was if the ball went over the fence we had to wait for the security patrol to come along and retrieve it.

1988 and a new home, where we are today. As with the rest of our chequered past it was not straight forward. During construction of the clubhouse many of the the drainage channels on the pitch area were broken by heavy machinery and the top soil was replaced with clay, which meant the pitches flooded at the slightest hint of rain. With heavy rain there was a serious risk of drowning. It was a far cry from the manicured surfaces we enjoy today.

In 1990 a group of hockey players put an article in the local paper looking to try rugby. We thought it a great idea and invited them to come and join us and the Ladies section was born. The main protagonists were 3 sisters, the Jellymans. One got more than she bargained for when she married the club captain, a certain Mr Steve Bartlett. Ladies rugby has come a long way since its formative years, producing two international capped players and now flying the club flag in the Championship (one league down from Premiership level).

The Rugby Club continues to flourish both on and off the pitch and we are well known as a family friendly club who play with passion and sportsmanship at every level.


The Archery Club

Vickers Supermarine Bowmen had their beginnings at Hursley Park (near Winchester) where Vickers Supermarine had their main design centre. When the design centre was moved to South Marston in 1958 some of the original members of the archery club at Hursley Park decided to re-form the club at South Marston. Initial shooting took place at lunchtimes with the first evening session taking place on 31st July 1958. The club quickly became established and hosted the West of England field championship (at Stanton Fitzwarren) in 1960. The Marston Arrow tournament began the following year with a trophy manufactured in the apprentice training school.

By 1963 members were participating in open tournaments including the Dorset & Wiltshire County Championship and one Mr Pete Heads (champion of Middlesex in 1961) joined the club and subsequently became Dorset & Wiltshire County Champion in 1965 – Pete remains an active member today.

The Bowmen were granted permission to build their own pavilion on the sports field and over a period of two years a small band of volunteers worked to put this together with work being completed in 1969. At this time shooting alternated between the cricket field and football pitch depending on what games were being played. A recruitment drive was also initiated around this time with beginners equipment purchased and training provided by the established members during the summer months.

By 1971 membership and playing standards had improved markedly with three members selected for the Dorset & Wiltshire County Team. Indoor facilitites were found at Park North Junior School and increased storage facilities added to the back of the pavilion.

In 1973 the club entered the British Archer Indoor League with some notable successes being achieved, including by Nigel Baker at just 10 years of age and in 1974 the club won its first team trophy (at the Bradley Vale Open tournament) with members also taking part in the National Indoor Tournament at Cosford.

By 1975 medals were being won at various tournaments and Sue Wright became the clubs first Master Bowman whilst Sue and her husband Dave both shot for Dorset & Wiltshire. Sue also won the Indoor Dorset & Wilts Ladies County Championship (breaking the national record on the way) whilst Dave came second in the mens and Nigel Baker second in the juniors.

In 1977 Nigel went on to win the Bath gents trophy at the age of just 16 and subsequently because Junior Champion DWAA in 1978 and equalled the national record in winning both the County and Open awards at the County Indoor Championship in 1979.

In 1982 the bowmen started holding indoor shooting sessions in the function hall and this continues during the winter months to this day.

1985 saw the plans for the current Sports Club site being presented and also saw the amalgamation of Supermarine Bowmen with Wyvern Bowmen bringing stalwart Joan Griffiths to the club. The Marston Arrow was held at the new site for the first time in 1987 and the Archery Club were designated an exclusive area for their outdoor range but it was 1988 before the Archery Club pavilion was re-erected at the new site. The distance from the Clubhouse meant there was no electrical supply to the pavilion – something that was finally resolved when supply was established to a new pavilion during 2017.

Titles, trophies, records and recognitions continued over the years with many members contributing to this success culminating in the club being selected to hold the G.N.A.S National Junior Championships in 1992. Despite awful weather the event was a huge success due to the concerted efforts of the members and the Club were invited to hold the Championships again in 1999.