Horsham Scheme of Patriot Engineers: Horsham’s most remarkable wartime effort, which found international fame

One of Horsham’s most remarkable wartime efforts was that of the Horsham Scheme of Patriot Engineers, according to a 1945 edition of the West Sussex County Times. This team of volunteers, operating a factory in Horsham that was the first of its kind, found international fame during the Second World War.

Inspired by a visit to the Soviet Union in February 1942, the British ambassador, Sir Stafford Cripps, made a radio broadcast in which he gave a glowing account of the Soviet factories and appealed to the people of Britain to make a similar effort ‘to combat a complacency which had been growing’ prior to the fall of Malaya and Singapore to the Imperial Japanese Army.

Among those listening to the speech was Horsham’s chief air raid precautions officer, Captain Pugh, who was immediately struck by the idea of using his men to set up a small factory in town. By this stage of the war, German bombing had subsided considerably from its peak during the Battle of Britain in 1940, and the local ARP had a surplus of manpower in the lull. These men, Captain Pugh thought, could be put to better use.

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The following day he contacted Mr Greenhough, a local engineer with links to the Ministry of Aircraft Production, and that same afternoon Mr Greenhough approached one of the ministry’s senior officers to enquire whether contacts for simple aircraft components were currently being tended out.

Aerial picture of Horsham from September 1983, looking towards Albion Way, during construction of Swan Walk and the multi-storey car park, with a carnival procession underway

Mr Griffiths asked whether Mr Greenhough had a company formed, what equipment he had, how many workers he had or could train, and various other questions. Of course, the scheme was only an idea less than 24 hours old, but this did not dissuade Mr Greenhough. He assured Mr Griffiths that if the ministry would give him a contract, he had no doubt that everything else would fall into place.

The greatest problem Mr Greenhough had to contend with was to figure out what, precisely, a local factory could make – simple, yet vital component parts that ‘relatively unskilled people with average intelligence’ could carry out, but that could also be mass-produced on a shift-work pattern so that when one worker stopped for the day, another worker could simply carry on where the former had left off without stopping production. Furthermore, a suitable organisation was needed to bring the idea into reality.

As a result, Mr Greenhough addressed a meeting of the local Rotary Club the next day, discussing such issues as labour shortage and the need to increase production. He made an appeal for help and donations – not of money, but of personnel, premises and tools. In the following days, a committee was formed and the Horsham Scheme of Patriot Engineers Limited was founded.

The company was to be not-for-profit and staffed entirely by volunteers, with any and all money received to be sent to the Treasury to aid in the war effort. The next task was to contact local organisations and companies to bring the plan into fruition.

Aerial view of Horsham town centre, with North Parade at the bottom and Albion Way on the right. Picture: Allan Hutchings

The Rice Brothers car showroom in Springfield Road, now the site of Albion Road, directly between Springfield House and The Y Centre, was given over to the Patriot Engineers, rent-free, for the duration of the war.

The West Sussex County Times stepped in to give advertising space to the project and a contract was secured from a local engineering firm, H. and E. Lintott Ltd, to outsource the drilling of 1.5million smoke-bomb adaptors. Mr Greenhough’s own company, Thomas Keating Ltd, offered to be responsible for all the initial toolmaking and was among the first to lend its own staff to the scheme.

With the four most important factors – premises, equipment, workers and contracts – now in place, the Patriot Engineers officially opened on June 14, 1942, just four months after Sir Stafford Cripps’ broadcast.

The first rota of workers was provided by men and women of Horsham’s ARP headquarters and immediately commenced a weekly output of 10,000 bomb parts. The original plan was that volunteer workers would give four hours per week in the factory but it was soon found most were demanding to be allowed to work additional shifts.

Within the first six weeks of production, the numbers of people offering their services had grown such that the factory, which until now had been operating only in the mornings, was opened full-time and a full-time supervisor was required to manage the changing shifts. This is when Charles Portwine stepped in to offer his services. He had been a soldier invalided out of the army following wounds sustained during the Dunkirk Evacuation in 1940, and had a natural talent for managing the 150 volunteers seamlessly.

The Horsham factory was the first of its kind and as a result began to attract visitors from other towns interested in setting up their own schemes. The New York Times even sent its chief reporter and a photographer to visit the factory, and an article appeared paying tribute to the ‘little agricultural village’ of Horsham, ‘which was doing so much for the cause of the free thinking people throughout the world’. Further international acclaim came in March 1943 when a Canadian film crew used the Horsham Patriot Engineers in a propaganda film on the Allied war effort.

By the spring of 1943, the engineers had also gained another contract to produce terminal leads for aircraft engines. However, things began to head into difficulties as the summer arrived. Having now completed the majority of their contracts, the scheme failed to secure further work and the entire project looked in doubt.

Multiple public meetings were held to discuss what should happen and the organisation’s secretary began to flood government departments with letters – some 3,000 in all – appealing desperately for work to be sent to the engineers.

As a result, The Morgan Crucible Company, a large manufacturing company based in Battersea, put in an order for the urgent production of thousands of radio parts used by merchant seamen and the Royal Navy to send out automatic SOS signals when a ship had been torpedoed or struck a mine. It was the female engineers who specialised in making these radio components under back-breaking conditions.

Finally, in the autumn of 1943, the Ministry of Aircraft Production appealed directly to the Patriot Engineers to fulfil a contract for aircraft engine bolts. These bolts required a pair of small holes, each no thicker than the diameter of a sewing needle, to be drilled at an angle on two opposing corners so that both holes met perfectly in the centre.

All other contractors the ministry had approached were unable to successfully find a way to manufacture the bolts and as a result, a dangerous bottleneck was being created in the supply of these small but vital pieces to the aircraft factories.

Sure that the bolts would not be a problem for the Horsham Patriots, the company launched an internal competition for the volunteer workers to come up with some way of being able to mass produce these bolts. It did not take long for a solution to be found and many distinguished visitors from various government departments made their way down to Horsham to marvel at the method the factory had invented.

Subsequently, in spring 1944, a contract was signed with Vickers Armstrong to drill two million bolts for use on their aircraft, the famous Vickers Wellington bomber, designed by former Christ’s Hospital student, Barnes Wallis.

Although a way to drill the bolts had been discovered, it just was not fast enough to meet the demand, and so Victor Scutt, a local garage owner, invented a new machine that part-automated the process and by the time the war came to an end, 1.5million bolts had been completed. Mrs Pyke alone completed 192,000 bolts within just ten months.

In October 1944, the Horsham factory received a personal visit from the scheme’s inspiration, Sir Stafford Cripps and Lady Cripps – Sir Stafford by now having become the Minister of Aircraft Production. Sir and Lady Cripps expressed genuine sincerity to the Patriots but their visit also had another motivation. As had been the intention from the outset of the project, all profits made by the engineers was to be paid directly back to the government, and thus a cheque for £3,000 (today: £106,654) was presented to the minister by Mr Greenhough. A second cheque for £1,500 was presented to Air Vice Marshal Jones on September 15, 1945.

From June 1944, the air war against Britain had increased with the advent of Hitler’s V-Weapons and Horsham found itself on one of the main flight lines for the V-1 Flying Bomb. In total throughout the war, the Horsham Urban and Rural Districts (equivalent to the northern half of the present-day Horsham District) sustained 717 air raid alerts, 349 high explosive bombs, 26,692 incendiary bombs, 24 flying bombs, ten crashed enemy aircraft, 2,676 properties damaged or destroyed, 22 residents killed and 102 injured. Nonetheless, despite the ‘anxiety on the occasion of the bumps and explosions that that could be heard’, the factory remained fully staffed and maintained full production throughout.

At its peak, the Horsham Patriot Engineers had 150 regular volunteers, including schoolmasters, admirals, colonels, grocers, bankers, and many women. A maths teacher alone maintained an output of 50 parts per hour. In total by the war’s end, the little Horsham factory had turned out 1.5million bomb caps, 2million bomb pins and 1.5million ‘banjo’ bolts for aircraft engines.

However, this was not the only factory putting out vital war material in the town, with a top-secret facility at Langhurst Wood working on some of the war’s major inventions, including the Churchill Crocodile tank and rockets, and Lintott Engineering Ltd going on to manufacture world-beating technology in the post-war years.

Eddy Greenfield is a historian and author based in Sussex. He is the author of A-Z of Horsham (2019) and Secret Arundel (2020) and his next book, Battle of Britain: West Sussex is due out in September 2021. Facebook: @EddyGreenfieldBooks. Twitter: @EddyGreenfield.