Economic Ideas and Government Policy: Contributions to Contemporary Economic History

By Alec Cairncross | Go to book overview

2

HOW BRITISH AIRCRAFT PRODUCTION WAS PLANNED IN THE SECOND WORLD WAR*

I

The Ministry of Aircraft Production (MAP) was an agency for the planning of civilian activity on a scale beyond anything attempted at any other time by a British government. At peak, over 1,800,000 workers were producing or repairing aircraft and other military equipment under the direction of the Ministry. Yet little has been written on how the work of planning their activities was done. There have been histories of war production by Postan and others which deal at some length with the aircraft industry. But they rarely touch, except in a rather hushed way, on what went on inside the Ministry, being more concerned with the final product and the use to which it was put in aerial warfare. No history of the Ministry is ever likely to be written, in view of the limited information on the machinery of planning which still survives. Of the records of the Planning Department, some files survive in PRO AVIA 10 which I preserved and deposited in the 1980s. The rest were put in a large sack in 1947 and handed over in 1949 on suitable assurances but appear to have been lost. In these circumstances I have thought it worth while to set down some of the impressions left on me by four years’ service in the Ministry.

Accounts of aircraft production in the war usually concentrate on the rapid expansion in output and seek to explain how it was accomplished. It is obviously of great interest to study the problems of industrial expansion on such a vast scale when speed was all-important; employment in the industry grew in a few years in Britain from under 100,000 to over 1,800,000 to the accompaniment of a revolution in methods of production. It is not, however, the problems of expansion with which I wish to deal; most of the expansion had already occurred by the time I joined the Ministry of Aircraft Production in December 1941. My interest is primarily in the problem of planning and

* This article is reproduced from Twentieth Century British History, vol. 2, no. 3, 1991, and a revised version of a seminar paper read to the All Souls Seminar on Recent Economic History. It draws extensively on Alec Cairncross, Planning in War-time: Aircraft Production in Britain, Germany and America (London, 1991).

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