Cowley and The Battle for Britain

Cowley’s Civilian Repair Unit was the largest in Britain, repairing over a 1000 planes back into active service.

By David Henwood & Jo Draper

Also known fondly as Orchard Rec given its long arable history beginning as church farmland, and later a manor house’s orchard then allotments, this quiet recreation ground has a significant military history. During the second word war, the Cowley Motors factory turned to building military aircraft – notably the De Havilland Tiger Moth training ‘plane – and open-air space was desperately needed for repairs and testing.

The Metal Produce and Recovery Depot (MPRD) based at the factory and staffed mostly by local residents, salvaged parts from damaged aircraft – many of which pieces were then able to be used by Oxford’s Civilian Repair Unit (CRU)  on the same site in rebuilding ‘planes.

Generations of local families worked in the effort – Doreen Holly left a pharmacy apprenticeship in 1943 aged 19, to join the MPRD – employing her newly acquired chemical expertise. Her father already worked in the MPRD no. 50 maintenance unit – recovering fighter plane wreckage for salvaging. Beyond repairs and salvage, the MPRD had a vital intelligence role in preserving recovered metals from German aircraft to be analysed to identify their metal components and potentially find weaknesses that the Allied forces could exploit. Doreen’s role was in conducting iron analyses of recovered enemy craft.

The CRU was the country’s largest and was headed by Lord Nuffield – the owner of the factory and the designer of the Morris Motor car. Tasked with the necessity of repairing and returning Spitfires and other fighter ‘planes to the front line as swiftly as possible, the unit repaired and dispatched almost 1,000 aircraft in 1940 to serve in the Battle of Britain (MOD letter).

Cowley branch line running between Uxbridge and West Drayton (still used by the car factory for freight) was used to transport parts for repair. What is now familiar as the BMW factory’s Garsington Lane site became known as the ‘Outpatients Department’ and the busy trucks moving aircraft parts around the site were called ‘Queen Maries/Marys’ by the workers.

The former allotment land was chosen as the most suitable site for testing the aircraft, and trees removed to create suitable flat space were rehomed with residents of the recently built Herschel Crescent . Very soon, the land joined the car factory as a vital part of the bustling war effort.

Test pilots working on the former allotments, now used as a test airstrip, inspired awe amongst many of the local residents and factory workers. Pete Church worked for four years with Oxford’s MPRD and recalls: “When I think back to those days, the test pilot Alex Henshaw used to thrill us every time he took to the skies.” Flying legend Henshaw was a household name who had already secured the 1938 King’s Cup victory and held the London-Cape Town speed record.

In his paper “Industry and Politics in Littlemore” Tom White wrote…

‘…Mishaps were few although I remember on a Sunday afternoon a sharp shower on the parched ground which made it like an ice rink [and] caused two spitfires to pull up and somersault over the fence into Long Lane.’

Although aircraft salvage and repair continued at the site past the war, the airfield was used less and less until the Parish Council received a formal proposal to plough over the ‘Morris Motors flying field’ to grow cereal crops. The Council requested a delay to consider while it examined a community request for six acres of public recreational land. Four days later, on 7 December 1947 the Council held an emergency meeting to confirm it would lease the six acres site for five years to provide the recreational land.

Cowley News is now campaigning for better recognition for those men and women that worked at MPRB and CRU.

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply