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June 2018

This month's document is chosen by Deputy Archivist, Charlotte Gallant.

I have been looking again at our substantial collection of paperwork from World War Two. In previous articles we have covered the effect the war had on petrol rationing and the development of agricultural machinery and even submarines. While it is common knowledge that during the war the motor industry's factories were turned over to war production, which included aircraft, what happened once the planes were damaged?

While searching through the Sir Miles Thomas papers to answer an enquiry, I came across a number of letters addressed to him mentioning something called the 'Civilian Repair Organisation'. The majority of these letters were 'thank you' letters from members of the Royal Air Force and a number came from manufacturing companies.

Why this document?

Not knowing what this organisation was, I decided to research it further. Not only did I find out more about the work they did, I also discovered a surprising family connection hidden in one of the letters.

The Civilian Repair Organisation was formed following the outbreak of the Second World War and consisted of individual units based at factories across the UK. These were staffed, as the name suggests, by civilians, under the management of the Ministry for Aircraft Production. The first unit (Unit 1) was based at the Cowley factory belonging to Morris Motors in September 1939. Perhaps this is why Lord Nuffield, the founder of Morris Motors and the Nuffield Organisation, was soon afterwards appointed Director General to organise the CRO in its duties.

The CRO comprised 43 separate firms and their factories, which included some of the larger motoring companies of the day. Among them were the Austin Motor Company, Rolls Royce, Rootes and SS Cars as well as London Midland and Scottish Railway, Parker Knoll (Furniture makers) and Pilkington Brothers (Glass manufacturers).

Each of them worked on a specific model (or models depending on the size of the factory) of plane. For example, Austin repaired Fairey Battles and Short Stirlings; Morris worked on Hawker Hurricanes, Miles Magisters and Spitfires as well as producing parts for Tiger Moths; Rolls Royce provided engines for a number of aircraft as well as Hurricane conversions and repaired Bristol Beaufighters. The smaller companies took on smaller aircraft such as Hotspur gliders or the Airspeed Horsa.

So what paperwork do we hold on the CRO? The majority is correspondence from the end of the war, mostly between Sir Miles Thomas (Vice-chairman of the Nuffield Organisation) and various government ministries. But it is clear that he was also good friends with many of his colleagues and he often invites them to lunch in his letters. In March 1945 (not long before the end of the war) Sir Miles Thomas wrote to all the participating companies congratulating them on the repair and return to service of 75,000 aircraft since the organisation was set up in May 1940. At that point, of all the heavy aircraft then flying in the RAF, just over a third had been processed through one of the CRO factories.

Many replied to acknowledge their thankyou letters, and among them was a letter from Vickers-Armstrong Limited (Aircraft Section) based in Weybridge, Surrey which helped to repair aeroplanes built by Vickers, specifically the Wellesley and the Wellington bombers. To my great surprise, when I looked at the signature I recognised it as that of my great grandfather, Hew Ross Kilner. While I knew he worked for Vickers-Armstrong, I had no idea that he was in charge of the CRO unit. Which just goes to show that you never know what you will find when you start to look through an archive!

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