COVID-19 - Lessons from WW2
Thu 24th Sep 2020
DAILY TELEGRAPH – Friday April 17
The wartime echoes get louder. First it was the powers assigned to the Government in the Coronavirus Act, not dissimilar to Churchill’s Emergency Powers Act in May 1940. Then it was the Queen, reviving the spirit of those days with her poignant refrain “We’ll Meet Again”. Even Boris Johnson’s illness bore comparison with Churchill’s attack of pneumonia in 1943.
But there is another potential comparison. The Government says it is committed to conducting 100,000 tests a day for the deadly disease. But despite some progress, that still seems a long way off, and calls will not go away to install a powerful new minister – perhaps even with a new department, away from Public Health England – who can concentrate wholly on ramping up “industrial” production of the testing kits which are such a vital weapon in defeating coronavirus.
The playbook is already available. Churchill knew his key weapon to prevent a Nazi invasion was the fighter plane. So he created a new department, the Ministry of Aircraft Production, and asked newspaper magnate Lord Beaverbrook to run it. It had one very simple objective – to build as many Spitfires and Hurricanes in the shortest possible time to defeat the Luftwaffe in the looming Battle of Britain. In our Battle for Britain, we would do well to study the remarkable job done by Beaverbrook. For his lordship, whose department worked out of his London townhouse in the opening months, success hinged on informality, spontaneity and inventiveness.
“Organisation is the enemy of improvisation” was one of three slogans over his desk in Stornoway House. Beaverbrook did not run his department like an administrator or a politician; he ran it as he ran his business interests, off the cuff and with as much personal involvement as possible. Evidence of his unconventional style could be seen throughout the building. Upstairs, secretaries were forced to commandeer beds for desks and answer a multitude of telephones that seldom stopped ringing. Downstairs, air marshals and representatives of every branch of the aircraft industry regularly filed in for interviews in the library, where they would usually find the minister carrying on three conversations at once.
Senior figures in the Air Ministry were pushed into the background, and a group of industrialists were brought in, men Beaverbrook trusted to apply the necessary drive, ruthlessness and knowhow. The most important of these were Patrick Hennessey, general manager at Ford Motors, and Trevor Westbrook, the former general manager of the Vickers-Armstrong aircraft works at Weybridge in Surrey. “It was the most exciting time of my life,” Hennessy recalled. “We broke all the rules.” Beaverbrook formed action squads to enter likely stores of spare parts and remove them. He commandeered aircraft to fly to France to pick up damaged engines for use in repairs. He imposed his will at every level of the ministry. Managers in aircraft plants were liable to be roused at the dead of night and told, “If we’re up, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t be.” Other departments were circumvented in the rush for men, materials and constant production. Beaverbrook’s focus on the aircraft production figures was unwavering. Every Saturday afternoon he would have the weekly charts brought to his room. After reading them, he would send them by dispatch rider to the Prime Minister. If they were good, Beaverbrook would get a reply by letter; if they were outstanding, he would receive a telegram.
He constantly came up with schemes to promote the belief that we were all in it together. So the Spitfire Fund was born, with Beaverbrook appearing on the radio to ask the nation’s housewives to scour their homes for every piece of aluminium they could find and hand it over to the local headquarters of the Women’s Voluntary Service, from where it would be dispatched to smelting facilities and turned into material for fighter planes. Cutting all the corners, Beaverbrook got enough Spitfires and Hurricanes up in the air. Something of the same is needed today in the new war against this killer virus.
Roger Hermiston is the author of ‘All Behind You, Winston – Churchill’s Great Coalition 1940-45’