It seems very strange that one of Lakeland's most important but short-lived industries was only allowed to develop on the strict understanding that all traces of it would disappear for ever once the factory had fulfilled its function. Even before the first prefab arrived, at Short's Aircraft Factory,it was decreed that the huge site would be dismantled within years.
And it seems even stranger that on the lakeshore site where caravans and chalets now rest, just fifty years ago was one of the biggest aircraft hangars in the world, three huge workshops, offices, stores, a canteen and two large boiler houses.
Hundreds of local people worked at Short's for the duration of the last War. Some thirty-five Sunderland Flying Boats were built; yet almost nothing remains now, hardly even a photograph. Security was strict and the secret of White Cross Bay carefully contained, so that the factory never became a German bombing target.This week, "The Way We Were" looks at one of Lakeland's most extraordinary industries; so little was left behind, only the memories of those who worked there can convince people today it ever really existed at all.
Buses from Kendal, Windermere, Ambleside and Langdale brought hundreds in daily to join the Rochester workforce hurriedly housed at Troutbeck Bridge. A 48-hour week paid one school leaver 13/1d; by the time he left, his wages were #7 weekly, with an excellent canteen, lunchtime dance bands, a good medical centre and plentiful supplies of cigarettes. The odd looking flying boat itself was enormous, and so was the hangar:
"The hangar was a big as a football pitch, easy I would think, and I think the span of this actual aircraft was 112 feet, which for its day was a big thing."
The aircraft was built on floats, and the hangar doors themselves were 70 feet high:
"And you could get two or three of these things into the triangle at least while they were working on them, so you can tell the size of the hangar. I know they were heated by great big fans in the roof blowing hot air down. There were four overhead cranes ran along this, and they could lift ten ton each. I think they had a race across the hangar one day, quite unofficially. If they had fallen, it would have brought the hangar down, it was a tremendous building."
But what was the function of these huge craft, capable of flying or floating, and painted two tone, with grey on top and duck egg blue beneath for the most effective sea/sky camouflage?
"If they could get down they were virtually impregnable because they had a front gun turret and mid upper gun turret and a rear gun turret, and they used to take a piece out of the side and put a Browning or some such Lewis gun on a track and it used to whirl round and round...I suppose they really were bristling with guns for what they were, they were used to do command work obviously on sub spotting and chasing subs ....and the actual tales of them picking seamen up, virtually picking up the whole crew of a cargo ship - they picked up 40 or 50 instead of a helicopter's five or ten..."
The actual framework of the plane was made at White Cross Bay from bare metal, but the wings arrived mysteriously by road from somewhere else unknown, with the big petrol tanks sealed inside, and the engines were made at yet another secret site. But the launching and testing was always done on Windermere:
"The only way you could fly them off was to launch them off Windermere. You used to get one of these hot-headed Short's test pilots up, and they used to think nothing of just saying - "That's it!", setting four engines off and going, because you used to have to clear the Lake and the main launch would go out, right down the Lake and clear as much Lake as they thought necessary." The workforce who put so much into building each Sunderland never knew where it was destined for - in fact, they never saw each one again, unless it was brought in for repair later in the War, or eventually axed when the Sunderland had outlived its usefulness.
For a young boy passionately interested in the War and its weapons, working at Shorts was bliss. With the exception of the rivetting workshop, the work was never montonous and workers were allowed to move freely from section to section, making different parts. As many as a dozen basic flying boat skeletons were being built at one time, constructed on boat trailers which could be moved round from process to process until the whole craft was fitted together like a jigsaw puzzle:
"And the one that was finished, or nearest finished, it got all its skin on, and they would drag this off with the tractor, with men round the wheels, and they would put it again into where they were going to put the main plane on, and the tail section which was always built separate, so it was built in the main hull, tail section, then you'd the fin, the two tail wings, the main spats and as I say, they used to lift these things on and fit them on quite happily like a jigsaw puzzle,'cos from a boy's point of view, Oh God! It was out of this world, especially when you got interested! Then they'd come along and spray it, finish it, beautiful duck egg blue."
If there was a fault in a new Sunderland being tested, or when older models came back to White Cross Bay to be repaired, they were gently launched into the water and parked there, or across in Wray Castle Bay, and winched up a slipway when they were needed on dry land again. Flying off from White Cross was somewhat easier than landing back there:
"It was one of the narrowest parts of the Lake there. If you think the plane was coming in from Troutbeck so it was actually flying over the hill over the Windermere-Keswick road, and came across there over the top of the hangars and down on to the Lake, he hadn't much room for error, in fact he'd no room for error because he'd never have got it up the other side."
Many Sunderlands were brought back home as scrap:
"They'd chop them up with big axes. They came back to Troutbeck Bridge and they broke a lot of them in the end. They used to take out any equipment that they could salvage which was of any use, and the rest went as pure scrap. They just chopped it up with felling axes."
However, the staff left jobless when Short's was dismantled were anything but scrap; many people used their wartime job experiences to start afresh in local engineering and electrical concerns, using their new skills. And even if only thirty-five Sunderlands flew off from Windermere to represent the total White Cross Bay output, there were other manufacturing sidelines to use up the waste metal:
"...I don't know, there's much argument to this, they reckon there were more cigarette lighters made than there were Sunderlands...which wasn't difficult, as there were only about thirty-five.I've been told off as a boy for doing nothing by the general foreman. "Why aren't you doing something?" Well, I've got nothing to do, Sir. "Well, rather than do nothing, go and make yourself a cigarette lighter, at least you're using tools!"
Shorts may be gone without trace, but some memories never fade:
"Some of it was more like a cartoon when you look back, like the Home Guard who was trying to shoot out the moon one night. He thought somebody had got a light on the Lake, he was trying to shoot it out. It was quite true,quite happily trying to shoot the moon out till somebody stopped him. He had been in The Sun Hotel, yes, went on a certain duty so they'd gone and had one or two..."
So, too, did the stubborn male swan which repeatedly roosted in the hangar just before a launch was due. But a piece of cake soaked in ethyl glycol ice remover sent it off down the slipway:
"This swan was absolutely paralytic, it waddled down the slipway with both legs crossing quite happily one way and the other, sitting down, it didn't know whether it was going down or sideways, it thought it was really hilarious...the mad things, sad things that boys used to do..."