"From Woollen Mills to Flying Machines" - Part 2



I wrote an article several months ago taken from a book called “ From Woollen Mills to Flying Machines” about the exploits of Thomas Bancroft OBE [1897-1985], who was born in Denholme near Bradford and which talked about his early life working in the local mill at the tender age of eleven years of age, prior to his career in the Aeroplane Industry.
Click here to read part 1 of this story.
When war broke out in 1914, Tom joined the Royal Flying Corps at the age of 17 and served as a mechanic in France and Belgium. After the war ended he started work with The North Sea Aerial Navigation Co [ a flying school], based within The Blackburn Aircraft Company in Brough, East Yorkshire.

As World War Two broke out the flying school, of which Tom was Chief Engineer, was closed down immediately with all aircraft taken away and all the instructors and reservists called up. Any surplus staff were transferred to the nearby Blackburn’s factory and Tom was left with an empty hangar. Within days however Blackburns were awarded a contact to build the Fairey Swordfish aircraft at a new factory in nearby Sherburn-in-Elmet…a factory that had not yet been built! and Tom was given the job of getting the whole project off the ground, so to speak!…”Hell!! he thought…I’ll have to throw away my engineer’s ticket and pilot’s licence and find a big desk…There’s a war on!”

A new factory had to be built, without delay, where assembly and testing of the aircraft could be done, and five group members, made up of vehicle garage men, agricultural engineers and railway carriage makers would share the production of the main components together with about two hundred sub-contractors who would be needed to supply minor items.

The first meeting of the group did not start off well. Tom was called in to meet them all at in the boardroom at an office in York and after introductions, he pulled out his packet of cigarettes and threw the wrapper towards the fire. It fell short, landing on the tiles and there was then a shout for ‘Edgar’ from the Chairman. Edgar, and old man, then came in, looked at the paper and then went away for a brush and shovel together with three ashtrays. Tom realised quickly that the Chairman didn’t like smoking!

Tom later made another gaffe, while showing various Naval officials around the factory. One particular chap showed up from one of the aircraft carriers…a Swordfish pilot, who turned up in tatty battledress, giving the impression that he had just clambered out of a cockpit. The Officer introduced himself and was then taken around to meet the various members of the production team where Tom introduced him as Lieutenant Bisto. It was only later that the man said, with a grin on his face “ You don’t seem to have got my name quite right old man: actually it’s Lieutenant Commander Tyndal Biscoe RN!”. A very red-faced Tom went home that night determined not to make a mistake like that again, as he had the highest respect for the Royal Navy. With the help of his son and his collection of cigarette cards, he learned how to tell a sailor’s rank from the amount of gold braid he wore!

Soon after the opening of the factory, a very special visitor, and a truly welcome one, came to call…. H.R.H Princess Mary



The visit went off well, and was a good moral booster to the men and women at the factory. Shortly after her visit, Tom and his boss Captain Blackburn were invited to have lunch with Princess Mary at her home, Harewood House, near Leeds. They were shown into a room by an old manservant to meet Princess Mary and her lady, who were both sitting close up to a small fire. It was a bitterly cold day, and all four sat around the fire in normal conversation with no fuss or formality. Lunch was served in a screened-off corner of a huge dining room, by the old man who had shown them in, as they were short of servants. The four of them sat down to a simple meal without any trimmings. Tom was highly honoured by the occasion but sad about the circumstances…. this chap Hitler had brought the country to a sorry pass when members of the Royal Family couldn’t live in comfort, he thought.



Tom had, from time to time, deal with complaints from the workers about the contract with the Ministry to build the Swordfish….”why were they wasting their time building poor old Stringbags [the nickname for the Swordfish] instead of producing Spitfires and Lancasters?”…Tom, together with his boss Captain Blackburn handled this by inviting The Fifth Sea Lord with a few other Navel Officers to the factory. They brought with them pictures taken from the air, showing the mess that a handful of Swordfish had made of Mussolini’s Navy in Taranto Bay, and in a talk to the staff in the canteen at lunchtime, the Admiral described how a Stringbag brought about the end of the crack German battleship Bismarck. After that visit complaints died down, and the monthly output from the factory rose steadily towards the forty a month target….with Tom secretly keeping his fingers crossed all the time!
[The picture above is of HMS Ark Royal flight deck with her 810 sqdn Swordfish about to launch the attack on the German Battleship Bismarck]



Tom also relates the details in the book, of the day that the War Minister, Sir Stafford Cripps made a visit to the factory to meet the workers and see how things were going. The Minister duly arrived and his first question was “Where’s the Tannoy?” because he wanted to speak to the workers on loud speakers, which were only normally used on special occasions such as Mr Churchill’s speeches. This was a bad start because no one seemed to know where they were kept….the Minister was not amused! Tom introduced Sir Stafford and then sat down and waited for the barracking to start, because he knew there were a few agitators in the crowd waiting to have their say. Sir Stafford started his speech with “Comrades” but before he could utter another word, a loudmouth from the back of the crowd standing up on a chair shouted, “ We, the workers, demand a new management!”Sir Stafford continued with his long speech with a lot of placatory noises and told them what a magnificent job the management were doing, and it might therefore be wise to leave things as they were. Tom didn’t get the sack that day, and he knew that as long as the Navy were happy his job was safe.

Labour relations were quite often difficuly at the factory, and at one point Tom was faced with his first real strike. The large assembly hall was filled with a crowd listening to a man standing on a bench. A fight broke out and the crowd let Tom through to speak. He jumped on the bench, which he had to say took him about a minute and shouted “ There’s a war on….no work no pay”!! He knew straight away that he had broken the rules by his actions because he should have invited a few of the men and women to a meeting in the conference room to discuss the matter, and negotiate, in other words… given in, but instead he put the matter back to the foreman responsible to sort it out, and no doubt helped by the ‘no pay’ picture, the wheels were turning again before the end of the day. Tom knew that he had been lucky that day to get away with it, but it had worked!

Due to the nature of what they were making, the factory obviously had to have fairly tight security, and was therefore surrounded by a high wire fence with guards wandering around. Tom quietly knew that security was being broken regularly by a few of the thirsty workers preferring a pint and a sandwich at the local pub, rather than canteen meals. The lads had two escape routes, one was a tunnel under he wire, and the other was a heap of boxes to help them over the top! This arrangement had been going on a while without abuse until after lunch one day, a security official turned up unannounced to do a spot check and report back on security. It goes without saying that he did not like what he found!, and so that was another unpopular task Tom and his staff had to sort out!

In total 1699 aircraft were built at the Blackburn works in Sherburn between 1940 and 1944,and at its peak the factory had 60 aircraft a month rolling off the assembly line.
A further 692 were built at Fairey’s factory in London.



The Swordfish Aeroplane was nicknamed the "Stringbag", not just because of it’s jungle of bracing wires making up its construction, but also because crews likened it to a housewife’s string shopping bag due to it having no fixed shape, and could therefore adjust to hold any shape or number of packages. Like the shopping bag, the crews felt that the Swordfish could carry anything, and often carried an endless supply of stores and equipment.
It’s role was as a Torpedo-bomber for the Royal Navy and went into full scale service in 1936, with primary users being The Royal Navy, The Royal Air Force, The Royal Canadian Air Force and The Royal Netherlands Navy.
Although the design was thought by some to be outdated by the start of war in 1939, it outlived several other aircraft types intended for its replacement and remained in front-line service through to the end of the war in Europe. It utilised folding wings as a space-saving feature for aircraft carrier use and achieved some spectacular successes during the war, notably the sinking of one, and then damaging a further two battleships of the Italian Navy in the Battle of Taranto.
It was also famous for crippling the Bismarck, which at that time was the largest and most feared Battleship in the German Navy. On 24 May 1941 the new carrier HMS Victorious launched nine Swordfish to intercept the Bismarck in the North Atlantic Ocean, but with bad weather conditions the aircraft only scored a single hit. On 26 May 1941, 15 Swordfish were launched by the carrier HMS Ark Royal in a storm carrying torpedoes armed with contact detonators, they scored two hits on the German battleship: one did no damage, but the other struck the Bismarck's steering gear. None of the aircraft were lost in the attack, though a German officer said: "It was incredible to see such obsolete-looking planes having the nerve to attack a fire-spitting mountain like the Bismarck." The Bismarck was sunk by gunfire from the Royal Navy Fleet the next day.
In its anti-submarine role, the Swordfish were very successful, and usually flew in patrols at night, patrolling between 145km and 40km ahead of the convoy. Targets were located with radar, and investigated by dropping flares.
It was finally retired from service in 1945, gaining the distinction of being the last biplane to see active service.



I just want to finish with a few words from the preface of the book, written by his daughter Pat, which I think make a fitting tribute to Thomas Bancroft OBE:
“ Tom Bancroft recounted incidents in his life that were usually meant to amuse. In later years I asked him to record his memories, which he did, but with no notion of turning them into book form. It seemed a shame that these accounts of how life was for many at the beginning of the 20th century should be lost forever, and with the growing interest in ‘things past’ I decided to publish them. My father was a hardworking, conscientious and fiercely patriotic person, a good husband and father, who never saw any hardship in working half-time in the mill and half-time at school at 11 years of age, nor indeed working a full-time 53 hour week in the mill at the age of 12…..this book is about life as he saw it.”

[The book " From Woollen Mills to Flying Machines" is now available from Amazon's Kindle site, and can be ordered here.]
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