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Westwood Works 1903-2003

Westwood Works in World War 2

Working conditions in Wartime

During WW2, Westwood Works worked round the clock producing guns, mobile bakeries and other items for the armed forces, with both men and women working 12 hour shifts, day and night. At the outbreak of war the Company employed 120 draughtsmen and these were taken off the research and design work that had underpinned the Company's pre-war success, to work on the development of jigs to speed up the production of gun components. Many of these draughtsmen were later seconded to Woolwich Arsenal, Enfield, etc., returning to Westwood after the cessation of hostilities.

Despite this, work on new designs went on and throughout the war, Baker Perkins continued to register Patents. Some of these associated with the Company's bakery machinery business are shown here.

At the special request of the Ministry, the Foundry became a steel foundry and two more of the latest type of electric melting furnace were added to the one installed shortly before war began. The Plating Shop, where peacetime products had merely been embellished, was used to build up worn parts by hard nickel deposit.

The number of machine tools in the Shops nearly doubled. As some of these were very difficult to obtain, Baker Perkins set to and made its own - in incredibly short periods of time (some special lathes being in use within only twelve weeks of pencil being put to paper). With such a highly skilled workforce, "Setters-up" were never a shortage and dilutee labour - very largely women - could be trained and absorbed smoothly.

The main drive motor for a machine tool would be started up at 7.30 am on Monday morning and, running day and night, would not shut down until 4pm on Saturday, resume on Sunday, and start up again on Monday.

During the early part of the war years there was no canteen for the night shift, workers brought their own food and thermos flasks or billycans. Later, canteen facilities were introduced and people were able to eat a proper meal from 2.30 - 3am during a night shift of 8pm to 7.30am.

Bert Slater recalls the long hours worked to meet production targets. Even before production reached its backbreaking peak, there was little time for pausing on the job:

You weren’t allowed to take lunch. You took a few biscuits crumbled up in your pockets. The company never fell short of its targets but plenty of sweat was spent in the process.

There was a board in the fitting shop telling us what the target was for the month. It might have been 50 25-pounders. We would be scratching around at the end of the month trying to meet it. We would get in at 7.30 in the morning and not know when we’d go home. Sometimes it was midnight, sometimes 2am and sometimes even 5.30, starting up again at 7.30. If you stood about for a minute, your eyes would begin to close!

Normal hours weren’t exactly a breeze either: 12 hours a day from Monday to Thursday, 10 hours on Fridays and eight on Saturdays and Sundays – 74 hours altogether. At the beginning of the war, following the destruction of Coventry, a siren would trigger an exodus to the air raid shelters, but soon this practice ceased. Too much production was lost when we spent all night down there”.

Roland Maycock had joined Baker Perkins as an apprentice in 1940 and remembers the war years:

Machine Shop

"You worked on a range of machine tools, machining armament components to very close limits, all jigged and fixtured with special cutting tools. The completed work was inspected by (CIA) Chief Inspector of Armaments. Unskilled labour was used, men and women directed into industry to work on machines under the supervision of a skilled machinist.

Tragically, the Machine Shop had two deaths due to industrial accidents during the war period. A turret lathe operator on the night shift got his work smock wrapped around the bar stock protruding out of the rear of the chuck, this spun him over the bar, hitting his head on a stanchion. The second accident happened during testing 25 pounder recuperator block. These were hydraulically tested for leaks, each end of the block plugged with a screwed plug during the test. A plug blew out, hitting the operator in the stomach".

Cutter Shop

The precision required to manufacture biscuit cutters and moulding rollers provided the skill to produce the percussion lock, part of the breach block, firing mechanism of the 25 pounder field-gun. Work also continued to repair biscuit cutters and moulding rollers keeping biscuit plants in operation during the war years.

Fitting Shop (Special Orders)

Tucked away in the corner of the fitting shop, away from armament production and later moved to the ground floor of the main office building, next to the Apprentice Bay. The department manufactured parts and repaired food machinery to keep customers’ plant on production during the war years. Dedication to the job was exceptional by the few people in this section. The main workshops were not set up for one-off jobs. The department had to make and mend with what they could find.

With the outbreak of war, part-finished machinery on the shop floor was crated and stored, the intention to complete this when the war ended. The SO department raided the packing cases looking for parts urgently required on breakdowns. It had a sting in the tail for me, as my first job in the Drawing Office was to sort out the parts for the biscuit cutting machine that had been stored and build up a specification to complete the order.

The department had four fitters, all elderly and very skilled. I learnt every trick in the trade from these men, one was called Joe. He always wore a brown smock and was permanently bent in the filing position, left shoulder lower than the right, from years working at a vice.

Len Barber was the chaser of paperwork and parts. He would wait for parts to be finished, collect these and often cycle to the Railway Station, despatching the parts for collection by Baker Perkins Outdoor engineer at the destination station. This service to our customers in difficult times prompted the saying 'God must live in Peterborough!'".

The Apprentice Bay does its bit

In December 1938, Baker Perkins was very much involved in discussing munitions manufacturing plans with the Ministry of Supply. The Company was asked to consider manufacturing two items - P.K. Locks and Slide Boxes "Y" - which formed the firing mechanism for most of the heavier types of guns. After seeing what was involved at another company already doing this work, a quotation was submitted and shortly afterwards, an order was received for 640 sets.

It was decided that, if carefully jigged, this was a very suitable job for the Apprentice Bay to tackle. The project was a success and many repeat orders were received, the rate of production being pushed up to reach 200 per month. In total, 6,092 P.K. Locks and 6.124 Slide Boxes "Y" were produced.

Jim Deboo, who joined Baker Perkins on the 18th January 1938, has some poignant memories of Westwood Works in wartime:

"It might have seemed to some that the war was remote, but small things – and some not so small – kept our motivation high. I remember fetching some job cards from the machine shop office and being given these by one of the section controllers who was in tears but carrying on with his work; his son had been killed in a Spitfire. One of the fitters attending to a rectification on a 25 pounder main trail and chassis on my horizontal borer had just lost his son in the Fleet Air Arm. One of the women crane drivers seemed not to be aware of what was going on around her; her husband was missing at sea. And so it went on. Bits of railway line came through the general stores roof and into the auxiliary machine shop from bombs dropped on New England railway sheds; the awful glow in the western sky when Coventry was blitzed; and the determination of the night shift not to spend hours in the air raid shelters during air raid warnings but to continue to work through. I recall, too, on 11th November 1938 and 1939 the whole of the workforce keeping the two minutes silence – all machine tools shut down – not a movement anywhere, except for Albert Allies, a crane driver, but also the conductor of the Salvation Army band, standing on the steps leading from the machine shop into the works office and playing “the last post” on his silver cornet.

Looking back over the years 1938-45 – so full of memories – it is difficult to pick out what some may regard as highlights. We knew at the outset and then after Dunkirk how desperately short Great Britain was of up-to-date armaments, and so the motivation was keen and the effort, I believe, by all and sundry, was wonderful. It was a great time to learn by doing and by experience. Innovation was encouraged and – in contrast to an incident early on in 1939 when I was fined 1/- by my AEU branch for machining five cast iron plummer blocks simultaneously instead of one at a time (making 300% bonus instead of 50% which was usual) – anything we could do to increase production was welcomed."

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