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  • Writer's pictureCaptain Crisp

Secret Files – The Cunliffe-Owen Story

Cunliffe-Owen Flying Wing

Most of Southampton and Eastleigh’s residents will have been familiar for many years with the imposing size of the Ford motor plant – indeed, thousands of residents have worked there for the many years it was in operation, building the Transit, amongst other vehicles. However, not that many people know that the building was originally built not for vehicles, but to build aircraft.

At the time of opening in 1939, it was the largest single-span factory building in Europe, with the geodetic constructed roof trusses designed by Dr Barnes Wallis, an aircraft and airship designer for Vickers-Supermarine, perhaps most famous for designing the ‘bouncing bomb’ and ‘Grand Slam’ weapons, used by 617 Squadron, the ‘Dam Busters’. The Cunliffe-Owen family had made their money in the [then] lucrative tobacco industry, with Hugo Cunliffe-Owen becoming one of the first directors of British and American Tobacco [BAT] upon its foundation in 1902. Over the following years, Hugo became increasingly enamoured with the possibility of expanding his company to include aviation. He was very interested in 1937 in a radical aircraft design, the American Burnelli OA-1 ‘Flying Wing’.

Burnelli Flying Wing

A strange looking aeroplane, it was a twin-boom design, with the flying wing principle being that the entire fuselage was a flat aerofoil, or blended wing, powered by two engines. In 1937, Hugo formed a new company, BAO Ltd, to manufacture the aircraft under license as a twenty seat airliner, to be far more advanced than the existing products on offer to British and colonial airlines. A year later, having secures licensing, the BAT board changed the subsidiary company’s name to Cunliffe-Owen Aircraft Ltd, and built the new factory on a 44 acre site almost adjacent to the small existing Eastleigh [now Southampton] Airport, which was formerly opened by the Mayor of Southampton on 2 February 1939, accompanied the following week by a large spread in ‘Flight’ magazine. The Burnelli OA-1 was now to be built there as the Cunliffe-Owen OA-1 twenty seat airliner, powered by two Bristol Perseus radial engines in place of the American engines.

The Flying Wing under construction

The initial aircraft had been assembled in the new factory from American parts in December 1938, named the ‘Clyde Clipper’, and test flown on 12 January 1939. Such a radical design would naturally attract professional criticism and suspicion, but in the case of the OA-1, critics, and importantly the RAE and A&AEE at Farnborough, were rightly concerned that the aircraft was deficient in many ways, and potentially dangerous. Design-wise, the emergency egress for the two pilots via the cockpit in an emergency would almost certainly meant that they would at the very least be injured by striking the tail booms! The pilot’s visibility was restricted to a forward view only; the instrument panel was poorly laid out and the rest of the crew’s all round vision severely restricted. There were no trim or flap indicators, and the two wheeled retractable undercarriage controls were individually placed either side of the cockpit! Possibly because aviation was a brand new venture both for the company and Burnelli, the airframe had been poorly, if not dangerously constructed.

These were added to a long list both of small and large design and construction faults, giving rise to the concern that the aircraft would, in normal airline usage, not last long, and become very dangerous in an extremely short period of time. Not surprisingly, therefore, a Certificate of Airworthiness was not issued, precluding any production of the aircraft in series.

The Flying Wing ready for flight

Perhaps fortuitously for Cunliffe-Owen, the outbreak of war shortly after this fiasco involved more pressing aircraft production needs for the nation. A large, modern factory on the edge of an existing airfield was an ideal addition to the Ministry of Aircraft Production’s capability, and Cunliffe-Owen were immediately involved in the assembly of a variety of aircraft, initially American ones shipped to Southampton. One of the first was an older design from the early ‘30’s, a Curtiss-Wright Condor, a 15 seat biplane airliner – the transportation of which, even in ‘knocked down’ form made the journey from Southampton Docks to Eastleigh interesting to say the least!

Flat-Packed Bell Airacobra

The individual American aircraft arrived more or less complete, usually for transportation space minus their wings and tailplanes, but requiring to be adapted with British instruments, and changes in avionics and armaments to a greater or lesser degree to the RAF and RN requirements.

During the very early part of the war, civilian Lockheed Electras and the military derivative, the Hudson bombers were assembled at Eastleigh, and also at a subsidiary factory in Scotland, RAF Macmerry, outside Edinburgh. Other American aircraft were assembled and readied for the RAF, and by 1942 for the USAAC/USAAF. Many different aircraft types would be seen on the production lines, including Curtiss Model 75 Hawks, Curtiss P40 variants [Warhawk, Tomahawk and Kittihawk]; Douglas A-20 Bostons and Havoc twin engine bombers; Martin B-26 Marauder medium bombers; Bell P-39 Airacobra fighter; Vought Chesapeake light bombers and the famous Lockheed P-38 Lightning fighter.

Completed Airacobras

Not just American lend-lease aircraft gratefully received, but British aircraft were also assembled, repaired and serviced at the site during the war. Again, many different types were to be seen, shewing the wide variety of skills and adaptation the workforce had to contend with - everything from varying marks of Spitfire [including the majority of the Royal Navy’s Seafires], through Bristol Blenheim and Handley Page Hampden medium bombers to the four engine Halifax heavy bombers. The Cierva Autogiro Company already sub-let part of the factory at Eastleigh, and not only did they update existing and impressed autogiros, but assisted in Cunliffe-Owen’s output. The factory had now become very important to Britain’s aircraft production. It was no surprise, therefore, that the Luftwaffe also considered it a high priority bombing target, as was the Woolston Supermarine factory.

Damage at the factory including Captured He111

An initial bombing raid on 21 August 1940 did not cause any significant damage, however the heavy raid by Luftflotte 3 on 11 September 1940 was a very different matter. A precision dive-bombing raid by eight Messerschmitt Me 110’s caused the death of 28 employees, and severely injured another 70 when a shelter received a direct hit. A memorial ‘Roll of Honour’ naming all those who died was placed in what became the Ford Southampton chapel – upon closure of the plant, the ‘Roll of Honour’ now has pride of place in Solent Sky Museum’s ‘Blitz’ exhibition. Several relatives of those killed are welcome every year on the anniversary of the raid to pay their personal respects, and to see that their relatives are remembered and that their loss is not forgotten.

At the end of the Battle of Britain, the Luftwaffe turned to night attacks, and Cunliffe-Owen was again attacked on 8th October, and for three successive nights in November.

P40 Warhawks at Eastleigh

By early 1941, the Eastleigh factory complex was running at full stretch. Aircraft still needed to be assembled, repaired, serviced and then flown in and out of Eastleigh, however the growing ‘forest’ of barrage balloons over Southampton and Portsmouth, while helping to hinder enemy aircraft, was beginning to cause delays to test flying and transportation of aircraft to the extent that it was becoming of paramount importance to find an additional factory site not too far away from the main complex – but where? Fortunately, the problem was solved internally. The Company’s Managing Director, Mr R Hayes, owned an impressive pile, Marwell Hall, close to the village of Fair Oak, only 3-4 miles north of Eastleigh. The extensive grounds provided an ideal location for a satellite factory and accompanying airfield, had a good road access, was close to the main factory, and importantly was in a rural enough location to allow for good camouflage of the site.

Marwell opened in September 1941, eventually having about 20 hangars adjacent to the busy road. Aircraft were ferried in and out by ATA pilots who were mainly from the mostly female No 15 Ferry Pool at Hamble.

The grass runway usually had enough length for most aircraft to land and take off from, but when the site became the main site for fuselage modifications to incorporate the new H2S radar in Coastal Command Halifax and Liberator bombers, the tree line and some hedges adjacent to the road had to be cleared to give enough room for these large aircraft. These four-engined bombers were also painted in their mainly white Coastal Command markings at Marwell, and flown by the girls from there to RAF St Athan in South Wales to have the secret radar fitted. Later in the war, Cunliffe-Owen gained a large contract from Supermarine to build Seafires – the naval carrier-based variant of the Spitfire, with the bulk of over 500 of these aircraft being built at Marwell.

By 1944, the end of the war was potentially in sight, and Cunliffe-Owen decided to hand over the Marwell site to AST, who used the facility to service North American’s B-25 Mitchell bombers and P-51 Mustang fighters, as the Eastleigh factory was deemed a safer location for the main company due to the reduction in air raids. With the war finally coming to a close, Cunliffe-Owen looked to the future, especially in the civil aviation market, and forsaw a need for a small [10-14 seat] modern feeder airliner. Designed by W. Garrow-Fisher, their smart aeroplane was to be named ‘Concordia’.

Sadly only two were built and flown in 1947 – the capacity was, frankly, too small for commercial use, especially as there were numerous ex-military DC-3 type aircraft flooding the market, and Vickers had already entered the civil market the year before with their 21-34 seat Viking, of which they sold hundreds, including the military Valetta and Varsity versions. The cancellation of the six Concordias being built, and the loss of the wartime military contracts accelerated the company’s winding up in November 1947. Although the company had sub-let part of their complex to the Cierva/Weir autogiro/helicopter concern earlier, they were still contracted to build two examples of an unusual aircraft – the giant W.11 ‘Air Horse’ – at the time the world’s largest helicopter. Intended for military transport and indeed crop spraying, the aircraft was inherently unstable. The first prototype crashed in 1950, killing the test pilots, and Saunders-Roe then took over the Cierva/Weir designs and factory.

The Air Horse

The Cunliffe-Owen factory, such a shining example of modernity in the aviation industry when it had opened with such promise less than ten years before, was sold to a motor factors – Briggs Motor Bodies of Doncaster in 1949, who were in turn bought by their main contractor, the Ford [Europe] Motor Company in 1953, who used it for light car, and from 1965 the ubiquitous Ford Transit light van was produced there until July 2013. And the Cunliffe-Owen/Burnelli OA-1 ‘Clyde Clipper’? She did finally receive her Certificate of Airworthiness in Novermber 1940, and was impressed into RAF service in May 1941. She didn’t see RAF service as such, but was given to the Free French Air Force in North Africa, delivered by ATA pilots including Jim Mollison [the late Amy Johnson’s husband] for use as General de Gaullle’s personal transport……!

Despite being damaged in an accident, she actually survived the war, and ended her days rather ignominiously as part of a bonfire celebrating VJ Day at El Kabrit in Egypt – a possibly fitting Wagnerian end for what had – in theory – good idea. Although Cunliffe-Owen wasn’t perhaps the most financially astute aviation company, it was certainly no worse than many others. The Cunliffe-Owen employees undertook a tremendous amount of wartime aircraft assembly and construction without some of the glory attached to more famous manufacturers, with many brave employees losing their lives during the bombing raids. They are remembered at Solent Sky Museum with reverence and pride.

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