Saucepans, sources and bombers

Sometimes you’re blind to things close to home…  When I wrote about war and logistics I wasn’t aware of my colleague Matthew Evenden‘s excellent work on the supply of aluminium in the Second World War.  How I missed it I have no idea.

Matthew’s essay, ‘Aluminum, commodity chains and the environmental history of the Second World War’, appeared in Environmental History 16 (2011) 69-93.  Reading it made me realise that Martin van Creveld’s classic account of ‘supplying war’ misses a crucial dimension: the technical transformations of modern war constantly draw new materials (and frequently distant sources) into the supply chain.   Creveld is right to emphasize the importance of what he calls ‘the products of the factory rather than the field’ to modern war, but those products are moving targets in more ways than one.

Aluminium provides a brilliant example.  As Matthew says, its strategic importance was tied to the expansion of the air war: aluminium was lightweight, flexible and durable, and an essential component of the new generation of aircraft.  According to Leo McKinstry‘s Lancaster (John Murray, 2009), the production of each Lancaster bomber required nearly ten tons of light aluminium alloy (‘the equivalent of eleven million saucepans’).  The production process was remarkably intricate: each aircraft involved half a million different manufacturing operations spread out over 10 weeks. (For images of production lines in aircraft factories on both sides of the Atlantic, by the way, see the show-stopping series here; as far as I’m aware, there’s no British equivalent to Bill Yenne‘s The American aircraft factory in WWII [Zenith, 2006]).

McKinstry’s equivalence between saucepans and bombers was entirely appropriate.  As the demand for aluminium sky-rocketed, so wartime campaigns to recycle aluminium were started on both sides of the Atlantic: you can hear a satirical radio treatment of “Aluminum for Defense” in the United States, complete with crashing saucepans and “collection parties” (the antecedent of Tupperware parties?), here.  In Britain too saucepans and even milk bottle tops were collected for their aluminium, a campaign that began immediately after the fall of France in 1940.  According to one contemporary report:

‘Although these contributions were to be voluntary, the timing of the appeal, its tone, and the manner in which it was put forward left the impression that the country’s need for scrap aluminum was urgent. As a result, the response from the housewives was immediate and their contributions were reported to be of quite considerable proportions.  Almost as prompt were the criticisms and complaints raised from trade and parliamentary quarters, as well as by some groups of skeptical housewives. Thus many scrap metal merchants became indignant when the appeal was made, calling attention to the tons of scrap in their yards for which they were unable to find a market. To this objection it was pointed out in Parliament that not all aluminum scrap was suitable for use in aircraft production. This limitation was especially true for the scrap held by these dealers, whereas that obtained from household utensils was excellent for this purpose.’

Incidentally, those who yearn for a time when air forces have to raise funds through bake sales might contemplate the “Wings for Victory” campaign, and its enlistment of children to contribute savings stamps for the purchase of new bombers.  When one of these aircraft was exhibited in Trafalgar Square in 1943, children lined up to plaster their stamps all over a thousand-pound bomb.  Here – as in the clarion call for the nation’s saucepans – war becomes domesticated, even homely.  War enters the domestic interior in countless other ways of course – through air raids, conscription, evacuation, and rationing, for example – but the enrollment of everyday objects, like savings stamps and saucepans, contrives to make violence not ‘harmless’ exactly but certainly ordinary, mundane, as this photograph from the Imperial War Museum shows.  Here two women factory workers fill bombs covered in savings stamps in what, to my eyes at any rate, looks like a ghastly parody of cooking; the biggest so-called ‘blockbuster’ bombs were called “cookies”, perhaps not incidentally, and aluminium was a vital component in many explosive mixes too.

Aluminium was needed for aircraft besides the Lancaster:

‘Saucepans into Spitfires’ (Imperial War Museum)

And, given the demand right across the sector, the British had to look further than their doorsteps and kitchens, though surprisingly McKinstry says nothing about this in his otherwise fascinating discussion of the production process (Chapter 12: “At the machines all the time”).  The British government soon realised the need to bring domestic aluminium production under state control, and by the early 1940s an intricate system of Acts, statutory Orders and commercial contracts had extended the security of the supply chain across the Atlantic to Canada (there is an excellent, if dry account in Jules Backman and Leo Fishman, ‘British wartime control of aluminum’, Quarterly Journal of Economics 56 (1) (1941) 18-48, from which I took the previous quotation about domestic recycling).

Matthew describes in detail a commodity chain that started in British Guiana (which provided most of the bauxite used in North America’s smelters), and reached across the Caribbean to the eastern seaboard of the United States, where it was transported by rail into Quebec for smelting.  The ingots were then shipped out to rolling mills and fabricating plants in Canada and the United States, across the Pacific to Australia, or across the Atlantic to Britain.  As he emphasises, the chain was militarised at every point, and a primary concern was to secure the supply chain by providing air cover or convoy escorts: the great fear was of a U-Boat attack.  The map below, taken with permission from Matthew’s essay, “reminds us of the unprecedented capacity of the Second World War to gather and scatter materials with untold human and environmental consequences, linking diverse locations with no necessary former connections.”  And here too, as I argued in a previous post, the friction of distance is no simply physical effect: it is shot through with political, economic and strategic calculations.

Not so trivia:  When Sir Charles Portal, Arthur Harris’s predecessor as commander of Bomber Command, retired from the Royal Air Force he became Chair of British Aluminium.  And the roof of the new Memorial for Bomber Command in Green Park is made from aluminium recovered from a Halifax bomber that was shot down over Belgium.

One last note: Matthew’s article is a much richer argument than I’ve conveyed here, and his primary interest is embedding this supply chain in a wider environmental history – so in a future post I want to turn my attention to some of the connections between modern war and ‘nature’…

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