Manufacturer’s aviation role in the Great War

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Leighton Buzzard Writers’ LBO Column. This week by Mike Moran.

It is well known that during the Great War the motor car manufacturing firm of Morgan’s Carriageworks, located off Canal (now Leighton) Road in Linslade built the Vickers Vimy heavy and that 42 were built before contracts were cancelled by the government on the conclusion of the Armistice in November, 1918 which ended fighting (but not the war) against Germany.

What is often forgotten is that the construction of three other types of aircraft also took place at the Canal Road factory of Morgan’s Carriageworks, one of which saw frontline service over the Western Front. Why was this?

The importance of aircraft soon became apparent in the opening months of the Great War, with the need for observing and photographing the trench systems which dominated the Western Front. Fighter aircraft (known as Scouts) were developed to shoot down the observation planes and specialist bombing aircraft began to appear.

Demand for aircraft rose and the existing manufacturers were unable to cope. As a result production was sub-contracted to a host of companies with engineering expertise, of which Morgan’s Carriageworks was one.

The strangely-named Sopwith 1½ Strutter was a two-seater fighter bomber with one forward firing Vickers Gun, synchronised to fire through the propeller arc safely and a Lewis Gun for the observer-gunner. One hundred examples were built by Morgan’s Carriageworks and the type was soon in action with the Royal flying Corps during the Somme Offensive of 1916. Later the type saw action at Arras and in the Ypres Salient in 1917 before being replaced by more modern aircraft.

The second type of aircraft to be built at Morgan’s Carriageworks was the Avro 504. This started life as an observation and bombing aircraft but soon became used for training pilots, remaining in service until 1932. A number of these aeroplanes were built by Morgan’s, although the exact number is unknown.

The next aircraft built by Morgan’s Carriageworks was the De Havilland 6, designed as a cheap training plane because so any student-pilots were wrecking the more expensive Avro 504s and was, even by Great War standards, a very primitive aeroplane. Small numbers were manufactured at the Canal Road factory.

The most famous aeroplane to be built by Morgan’s, however, remains the Vickers Vimy, a twin-engined heavy bomber named after the Battle of Vimy Ridge, fought by the Canadian Corps in1917. The prototype flew in November, 1917 and there were a number of tests using different power plants until finally the Roll-Royce Eagle VIII engines were selected.

Morgan’s Carriageworks was one of those companies selected to build the new aircraft but it was a big beast for its time, with a wingspan of over 68ft, a height of nearly 16ft, and with a take-off weight of over three tons.

Compared to the previous aircraft built by the firm this was a major challenge and a new factory had to be constructed to accommodate this large aircraft.

By 1918 production as well underway, with Morgan’s employing over 800 workers (a massive effort if one considers that the combined pre-war populations of Leighton Buzzard and Linslade was just over 9,000.

When completed the fuselage of each Vimy (minus the outer wing panels and propellers) was towed under police escort along Canal Road, into Bridge Street, up the High Street, around the tight corner into Lake, and along Billington road to a site known as Scott’s Fields.

Here the wings and controls would be connected, the propellers attached and a Royal Air Force pilot would fly the aircraft off without so much as a test flight.

The Vimy did not see action in the Great War, though it remained the mainstay of the RAF’s bomber force for many years and is famous for the pioneering flights: the non-stop crossing of the Atlantic and the first flight from Britain to Australia, both in 1919.

Linslade can be rightly proud of its aviation heritage.