The Development of the British Ordnance Industry During the Great War – The National Factory & Shipyard Schemesp

The Organisation of the British Ordnance Industry in 1914:

Prior to the outbreak of the Great War approximately two-thirds of Britain’s military ordnance were supplied under contracts awarded to major and trusted private companies, such as the ones listed below.

  • G. Armstrong Whitworth & Co. Ltd.
  • Head Wrightson & Co.
  • Cammell Laird & Co.
  • Kings Norton Metal Co.
  • Coventry Ordnance Works
  • The Projectile Co. (1902) Ltd.
  • Vickers Ltd.
  • Kynoch Ltd.

The balance of Britain’s ordnance requirements were supplied via the state’s four Royal Ordnance and Aircraft Factories. Each of which had its own dedicated function as noted below.

 Royal Ordnance Factory (ROF)

The ROF at Woolwich comprised an agglomeration of earlier factories. Ammunition manufacture began on the site in 1694 in a part of the works known as the Royal Laboratory (RL). In the following century facilities for gun founding (the Royal Gun Factory – RGF) and for carriage making (the Royal Carriage Factory – RCF) were added to the site. By 1914 the site was utilised for the manufacture of both small arms and artillery ammunition, guns and their carriages, limbers and wagons plus ammunition boxes. Work on artillery pieces also included the manufacture of large calibre naval and shore defence guns.

Output from Woolwich reached its peak during 1918 with over 65,000 people employed in the various factories.

Royal Small Arms Factory (RSAF)

The RSAF at Enfield was established in 1804 and was concerned with the manufacture of small arms.

In 1914 the principal product from the factory was the short muzzle Lee Enfield infantry rifle (or SMLE). The factory was capable of producing around 1,000 rifles per week at the start of the war but this figure was to rise to in excess of 6,500 by 1916.

As with other pre-existing Royal Ordnance Factories, space was limited which challenged their expansion. Much of the additional capacity at Enfield was created by switching to shift work and 24-hour production. Workers were typically required to work 12 hour shifts for 6 days per week and many worked overtime on Sundays. Nonetheless expansion of the site did take place during the Great War. By June 1917, in addition to the extension of the bayonet plant and the erection of a new assembling shop, construction was under way with the erection of a new barrel mill, a stocking shop, an automatic screw shop, a repair shop, browning shop, machine gun shop, oil store, stores for gun stocks and new accommodation for clerical staff.

The machine shop at the R.S.A.F., Enfield, Middlesex

Staff numbers were also substantially increased throughout the war; from approximately 1,800 in 1914 to 9,500 in 1918. A significant number of these new staff (nearly 1,500) were women. As a consequence of both the general increase, and the specific need to provide facilities for female staff, a number of welfare buildings were constructed including large canteens capable of seating up to 1,000 people. A women’s recreation room was also established. This was large enough to host dances and other social functions.

Royal Gunpowder Factory (RGPF)

 The RGPF at Waltham Abbey was established in the 17th century to produce gun powder. By the 1890s the site was significantly altered and expanded to facilitate the production of cordite (the manufacture of gun powder being phased out). In 1914 the RGPF was producing approximately a third of the annual national requirement for cordite, as well as guncotton, and small quantities of Tetryl, an explosive nitramine compound used in the manufacture of detonators.

On the outbreak of war demand for cordite from the RGPF immediately doubled from 70 tons to 140 tons per week. By 1917 this rose to 250 tons per week. A corresponding rise in the number of the site’s employees followed with staff numbers reaching a peak of around 6,000 by 1918. Of these nearly half were women. As at the RSAF, much of the site’s increased production was achieved by running multiple shifts round the clock although the expansion of the works between 1914 and 1918 also considerably added to its increased output figures. As part of the site’s enlargement a variety of additional production houses were constructed. As at other factories these buildings were connected by raised wooden platforms which served as clean walkways for staff, and incorporated tramways on which materials could be moved on hand-pushed trolleys. The new buildings were also separated from the earlier buildings on the site by a substantial concrete blast wall. Other new wartime additions to the site included new facilities for female staff. These comprised changing rooms, canteens, and a women’s hospital which served staff the RGPF and the nearby RSAF at Enfield.

Royal Aircraft Factory (RAF)

Prior to the Great War the only government facility for aircraft manufacture was the Royal Aircraft Factory (later Royal Aircraft Establishment – RAE) at Farnborough. This site had originally been established in 1905 as a military observation balloon factory although after 1913 it concentrated on aircraft as all work on airships passed to the Navy.

Output from Farnborough was small as most new aircraft production remained with private companies. Instead the RAF concentrated on research and development work.

All aircraft built by outside contractors were initially delivered to Farnborough for final inspection and flight testing before onward delivery to the Royal Flying Corps. This latter practice had to be altered after 1915, as the backlog of aircraft awaiting testing grew too large, and inspection was delegated to other regional aerodromes. The RAF also carried out engine research, and in conjunction with this took in significant numbers of engines for repair, a function it continued to exercise throughout the war.

Expansion of the British Ordnance Industry Post 1914:

From the outbreak of the Great War until March 1915 weapons and munitions output significantly increased (by 388%) under the control of the War Office. Despite such increased production the demand from the front lines still vastly outstripped the capabilities of the supply chain which remained woefully inadequate. In May 1915 this situation was critically highlighted by a front line correspondent reporting in “The Times” newspaper. This led to a nationwide outcry in what became known as the “Shell Scandal”. Shortly afterwards Britain’s new coalition government created the Ministry of Munitions (MoM) and passed the “Munitions of War Act”.  The MoM was initially placed under the control of David Lloyd George and later, in 1917, Winston Churchill. In answer to the munitions shortage, and under the provisions of the above mentioned act, the MoM was given far-reaching powers to declare some factories “Controlled Factories”, where workers followed stringent rules and could not strike. In addition the new ministry also established a group of National (Munitions) Factories into which the existing ROFs were added.

A contemporary newspaper cartoon showing Lloyd George burdening the responsibility of providing munitions for the war effort

By the end of 1915 the number of National Factories had reached 73. This figure rose to 218 by the end of the war by which time they were generating a wide variety of products. These included both high explosives and munitions of all types, armaments and weapons, from rifles to cannons, aeroplanes, as well as other strategic essentials such as ball-bearings and even pre-cast concrete slabs. In addition, from 1917 the government created three National Shipyards along the banks of the Severn Estuary to help replenish Britain’s merchant naval fleet that suffered huge losses throughout the war due to the actions of Germany’s U-boat fleet.

Many of the new National Factories were established on large purpose-built “green field” sites while others occupied existing modified industrial facilities. While all were under the ultimate control of the MoM their individual management and operation was placed in the hands of local committees or specialist partnerships comprising established and trusted local engineering firms or national companies. These operated the factories on a “cost plus percentage” basis on behalf of the Ministry.

The new National Factories incorporated “state of the art” production management principles. The production sequences in each factory were broken down into consecutive stages performed by skilled or semi-skilled staff carrying out repetitive tasks, often arranged in “production line” operations. Working conditions in many of the factories were harsh. Shifts were often of 12 hours duration and there was always a constant danger from heavy machinery and in many exposure to harmful chemicals and explosion. Despite this the factories provided certain benefits. They offered  comparatively good rates of pay and included worker’s welfare provisions. These often included in-house health care, canteens and recreation rooms plus organised social events.

Because of the shortage of labour, created by military enlistment and later conscription, a large proportion of the workforce of the new National Factories comprised women. This introduced significant social and economic changes to Britain which later went on to underpin and further justify the Women’s Rights and Equality Movements.

Female munition workers standing by their finished shells ready to be packed, in a factory at an undisclosed location during the Great War © IWM

The new “National Factories” fell into many categories. The principal amongst these are outlined below.

National Shell Factories (NSF)

These establishments, totalling at least 43, were set up to manufacture light calibration shell casings. They were run by Munitions Committees who organised themselves throughout the country. The members of these committees comprised the senior management of smaller engineering firms, many of which had previously acted as sub-contractors to the large national armament companies. The first of the NSFs was established in the Leeds area where a number of engineering companies co-operated with the production of light shells. Each NSF was run by a local board of management that represented the main engineering companies in the area. The urgency of initial demand for shells necessitated that factories were established in existing buildings such as railway workshops, textile mills and tramway depots.

National Projectile Factories (NPF)

These establishments, totalling at least 15, were set up to manufacture heavy calibration shell casings. The large privately owned armament companies were strongly opposed to the Ministry of Munitions setting up new independent production centres for such shell casings and instead agreed to set up their own new factories as an extension to their existing works. The new factories were Government property although the responsibility of their design, construction and management remained with individual armament companies responsible for their operation albeit under government agency. All new NPF designs had to be submitted to the Ministry of Munitions for approval and thereafter their erection was initially supervised by the Office of Works. However, progress on the NPFs was so slow, that in October 1915, John Hunter of Sir William Arrol & Co. Ltd. was appointed as Director of Factory Construction.

His Majesty’s Explosive Factories (HMEF or NEF)

While the NSFs and NPFs ensured a provision of empty shell casings it was also necessary to provide explosives to fill and propel them. The production of these chemicals and materials was the function of the NEFs. These were purpose-built chemical works whose layouts and designs were specific to the batch chemical process required to manufacture the high explosives Trinitrotoluene (TNT), Lyddite, Amatol, Ammonal, Tetryl plus the propellant Cordite. The latter being produced from a mixture of nitro-glycerine (NG) produced by the nitration of glycerol, and guncotton, or nitro-cellulose (NC), produced by the nitration of pulped cotton waste.

The need to secure outside sources of supply for high explosives had been realised early in the war by the War Office. Shortly after the passing of the Defence of the Realm Act the British Government commandeered the Rainham Chemical Works for the purification of crude TNT. Prior to this date there was practically no industrial capacity for the production of TNT for military use other than that produced at the RGPF at Waltham Abbey (the manufacture of high explosives was never a function of the Royal Ordnance Factories).

The first new NEF for the manufacture of TNT was established at Oldbury in 1915. This was managed by a firm of acid manufacturers, Chance and Hunt. In July 1915, four more National Explosives Factories were established by the Ministry of Munitions, including a huge purpose-built facility at Gretna for the production of cordite. This site was so large that it had to be divided up into a number of “Areas”. These consisted of Dornoch Area (1,203 acres) and contained the nitrocellulose and nitro-glycerine sections making a cordite paste which was transported eastward to the Mossband Area (1,381 acres). Here there were 8 ‘ranges’ where the paste was made into cordite. The finished cordite was then sent to the magazines situated in the Longtown Area (258 acres). Other Areas included the Central Electric Power Station Area at Rigg (10 acres) and Reservoirs and Filters Area (14 acres). Townships for 19,772 workers were built at Gretna (431 acres) and Eastriggs (173 acres).

Over the course of the war the MoM was responsible for the governance of 36 National Explosives Factories located throughout the nation.

 National Filling Factories (NFF)

These establishments, totalling at least 29, were set up for the filling of shell casings with their explosive components, attachment of fuses and gaines (an intermediate explosive used to help initiate the main explosive charge), and for assembling ammunition (e.g. artillery rounds such as the 18 pounder where the shell was factory-fixed to a brass cartridge case).

Prior to the war the above filling and assembly functions had been carried out by the Royal Laboratory at Woolwich. Five private British companies had capabilities for shell-filling, and some had fulfilled contracts during the Boer War (1899 to 1902), but none were in production in 1914. In July 1915 the same shell shortage which had led to the establishment of the National Shell and National Projectile Factories, led to the consideration of expanding capacity for filling, to keep pace with the new potential for empty-shell manufacture.

A meeting was held between the Ministry of Munitions and the various armament firms to solve the problem. A series of factories was proposed, some under direct Ministry control, and others run by local Boards of Management. The first two factories were established at Aintree and Coventry. By the end of the war 18 such facilities had been established across the nation.

The work of the NFFs were sub divided into different types and calibre of munitions, i.e. heavy or light calibre artillery or trench mortar shells, plus high explosive or chemical fillings. The latter included not only poisonous gases but also smoke and pyrotechnic rounds such as flares. A further distinction between the various types of filling factory was also created by the methods required for physically putting the various explosives into the shell cases. Lyddite (or piric acid) had the advantage that it could be warmed and melted, and then easily poured into shell casings. TNT could similarly be melted, however it was comparatively costly to produce and was increasingly used in a mix with ammonium nitrate to form Amatol. High TNT content amatol, with a ratio of 60% TNT could still be melted and poured, but the preferred mix of only 20% TNT did not melt satisfactorily and had to be filled by pressing in powder form, by screw-filling as a paste, or by making pre-formed blocks of explosive the same size as shell into which they were to be added.

The actual process of shell filling was a relatively simple process but highly dangerous. It was mainly performed by unskilled women workers known by the collective “war work” title of “munitionettes”. Apart from the risk of prematurely detonating a shell during the filling, assembly and subsequent handling processes further hazards associated with shell filling was the risk of toxic jaundice resulting from TNT poisoning. This condition was known to turn the skin of the female workers yellow resulting in them being given the nick-name “canaries”. Additional symptoms of such poisoning was the development of facial rashes and the changing of hair colour. While the symptoms were largely reversible extreme poisoning proved fatal in the case of many workers.

A shell storage warehouse at the N.F.F. No.6 at Chillwell, Nottinghamshire

In 1915 the frequency of premature shell explosions, while in flight over the battle field, led to the discovery that a large stock of gaines sent from America and subsequently used at the Hayes NFF had a left-hand screw thread instead of a right-hand thread. It was discovered that these tended to come unscrewed in the shell as it rotated in flight. To prevent this from happening, the screwed-in gaines had to be stabbed in two places by the munitionettes using a chisel and hammer to break the thread and hence prevent them from unscrewing. This could be extremely dangerous, for if a trace of the fulminate explosive were ignited by the blow, the gaine would explode.

 Government Cartridge Factories (GCF)

In the spring of 1916 demand for small arms ammunition reached new heights. At this time ammunition was supplied by both the ROF, Woolwich and under contract from private companies. It was estimated that 150 million rounds per week were required, and plans were drawn up for National Factories to supply up to 30 million.

Using a similar method to that used for establishing the NPF, existing manufacturers were funded to create additional factories near their existing production facilities, which they would then run as agents for the Ministry of Munitions. Four factories were established:

  • GCF No.1 – Blackheath, Staffordshire. Managed by the Birmingham Metal and Munitions Company with a production of 2,000,000 rounds per week.
  • GCF No.2 – Woolwich. Managed under the auspices of the ROF at Woolwich with a production of 6,000,000 rounds per week.
  • GCF No.3 – Blackpole, Worcestershire. Managed by the King’s Norton Metal Company with a production of 6,000,000 rounds per week.
  • GCF No.4 – Edmonton, London. Managed by the Eley Brothers with a production of 6,000,000 rounds per week.

Four other sites were also controlled by the Ministry of Munitions in connection with the supply of small arms ammunition. These were the specialist incendiary ammunition factory, established at Coundon near Coventry, the brass rolling mills in Southampton, and two small workshops in Sheffield concerned with bullet manufacture.

National Aircraft Factories (NAF)

By 1917 it became apparent that increased aircraft production capacity was needed in addition to the major private companies that worked in association with the RAF at Farnborough. As with other National Factory types it was realised that the issuing of further contracts to an additional number of smaller firms would be inefficient and what was needed were a few large purpose-built factories. Following the model established to set up the NPF, approaches were made to existing major and trusted manufacturers to create large new plants. Three NAFs were established. These were located at Croydon, Heston Chapel (Manchester) and Aintree (Liverpool).

Workers in the N.A.F. No.1 – Croyden, Surrey. 1918

Other National Factories

In addition to the above primary facilities the following were also established under the National Factory Scheme.

  • National Small Arms Factories
  • Government Rolling Mills
  • National Aero-Engine Factory
  • National Radiator Factories
  • National Balloon Factory
  • National Timber Drying Kilns
  • Chemical Warfare Factories
  • Anti-Gas Factories
  • National Gauge & Tool Factories
  • National Factories for Salvage, Repair & Rectification
  • National Box Factory & Sawmills
  • Mine Sinker Assembly station
  • National Machine Gun Factory
  • National Factory for Optical Munitions
  • National Concrete Factories
  • Steel Billet Breaking Factory
  • National Rifle Factories
  • His Majesty’s Cotton Waste Mills
  • National Ball Bearing Factory
 National Shipyards (NS)

In addition to the “National Factories” the British Government also established three National Shipyards.

In 1916 the German U-boat fleet in the North Atlantic was sinking over 300,000 tons of merchant shipping each month. The only counter-measure was limited and largely ineffectual aerial detection of U-boats by airships, and the Government resolved to build more cargo ships quickly so as to help maintain supply routes. In May 1917, Sir Eric Geddes was appointed as First Lord of the Admiralty, and later that year the War Cabinet, acting under the Defence of the Realm Act 1914, agreed to establish several National Shipyards. These were to be built to construct large numbers of “standard” cargo ships as rapidly as possible. Three shipyards were built at Chepstow, Beachley and Portbury, on the rivers Wye and Severn, with a total of 41 slipways. The intention was to develop 8 berths at Chepstow, 18 at Beachley, 8 at Portbury, and a further 7 at Chepstow through taking over the adjacent Finch’s Yard.

National Shipyard No.2, Beachley, Gloucestershire. 1918

It was intended to develop the yards for the construction of prefabricated merchant ships. Parts were to be manufactured in other areas of the country, and moved to the shipyards by rail for assembly. The combined output target for the three shipyards was 78 merchant ships per year. The first ships were scheduled to be launched in October 1918. Ironically too late to make a contribution to the outcome of the war.

The shipyards themselves were built by the Royal Engineers and German prisoners of war, with the ships being assembled by civilian labour.

References & Further Reading:

  1. Kenyon, D. – First World War National Factories: An Archaeological, Architectural and Historical Review. Historic England. Research Report Series No. 76-2015 2015. ISSN 2059-4453 (Online).
  2. Anonymous – The National Factory Scheme List. Download document from the website “Britain From Above” (www.britainfromabove.org.uk).

 Foot Note:

Additional details concerning various individual National Factories and Shipyards can be found in the appropriate pages within this web site’s “Token Gallery”.