Aircraft factory works pass

About the object

© Yate & District Heritage Centre (Yate Town Council)
© Yate & District Heritage Centre (Yate Town Council)

Parnall Aircraft

The Parnall Aircraft factory – also known simply as Parnall’s - in Yate, Gloucestershire, specialised in making gun turrets and other parts for aeroplanes. Many people commuted to work there, including Thelma Barlow, who was 18 years old in 1941. Although situated in a rural area, Parnall’s played a vital role in the war effort. The position of the factory alongside the main railway and a main road eased distribution for people and goods, but also made it an easy target for a German bomber to find. Managers knew the factory was a target and made sure it was camouflaged. Many windows were painted black and others fitted with black-out blinds.

Through World War II the factory work force grew from under 100 to over 600 by the end, many of whom were women. Women could be found in departments all over the factory ranging from traditional secretarial work to heavy engineering. They stitched the canvas wings of Whitley bombers, assembled Spitfire airframes, and polished the perspex domes of gun turrets so the gunners on Wellington and Lancaster bombers had good views. Levels of pay were good, but despite the women’s importance, men earned more for the same work – a situation prevalent in most areas of employment at that time.

War work, women’s work

From spring 1941, every woman in Britain aged 18-60 had to be registered for war work; conscription was put in place in December of the same year. Women under the age of 40 were classed either as ‘mobile’, meaning they could be called up and given a choice between joining the services or working in industry, or ‘immobile’ due to responsibilities for caring, in which case they were directed into local war work. Pregnant woman and those with children under 14 could not be made to work, but many did. By September 1943, 90% of able-bodied women between the ages of 14 and 59 were working or in National Service.

Thelma Barlow had joined up for war work before it was compulsory. She worked as a “calculating machine girl”, as she puts it, in the costing department of the factory. Initially, most women worked in clerical roles, but were soon being employed in traditionally male areas such as armaments and munitions, manufacturing of aircraft, vehicles and ships and as drivers of trains, trams and fire-engines. The percentage of women working in industry increased from 17.8% in 1939 to 38.2% in 1943, with aircraft production the area where the increase was largest: by 1944, 44% of aircraft workers were women. Women also worked in the military services. Women continued to work in traditional areas such as teaching and nursing and while some arrangements were put in place to help, they also took the main responsibility for childcare.

The air raid

At 2.30pm on Thursday 27 February 1941, the air-raid siren at Parnall’s, nicknamed Moaning Minnie, went off. A single German plane followed the railway line from Bristol to Yate, using information about the factory from previous aerial reconnaissance flights. There was no time to evacuate as bombs were dropped immediately. The office block, where Thelma worked, was hit, and then shaken by a bomb that went off ten minutes after being dropped. The turret shop was also badly hit.

53 people were killed in the raid, with a further 150 injured. One employee, Maurice Begernie, went back into the factory looking for his fiancée and Thelma’s section leader, Ivy, who he thought was still trapped under debris. Ivy was safe, but Maurice died when the second bomb went off. Thelma herself escaped and returned home with no money and no coat, her hair matted with plaster and water from burst radiators. This works pass was the only thing salvaged from her burnt handbag. Thelma was back in work the next day, housed temporarily in the canteen, but she and her colleagues were very unnerved by the raid and from that day on were out into the fields as soon as possible every time Moaning Minnie sounded.

More information

Industry in Yate
Information on industry in Yate from Yate Heritage Centre.

Personal recollections of the Parnall Aircraft factory raid (1)
Personal recollections of the raid on the Parnall Aircraft factory from the BBC's "People's War".

Personal recollections of the Parnall Aircraft factory raid (2)
Personal recollections of the raid on the Parnall Aircraft factory from the BBC's "People's War".

Women in World War II
Information on women in World War II from the National Archives.

Women at war
Article on women at war from the BBC.

Women and work
Website about women and work with sections about World War II and the post-war years; includes a set of activities.

Next section: A bigger picture

Aircraft factory works pass