It has been 100 years since the first airfield was established in the country town of Yeovil. Since 1915, aircraft have been designed, manufactured and tested at Westland, including the Lysander, used to transport British agents to Europe during the Second World War. In 1948 the company focused solely on helicopters and its aircraft have been sent all over the world since then, used in lifesaving with Air Ambulance and Search and Rescue and deployed in warfare such as Balkans, Iraq and Afghanistan. To celebrate the centenary of the UK’s only major helicopter manufacturer, David Gibbings has collated an anthology of writings that retell Westland’s history and its special relationship with Yeovil, which has rarely been quiet since the first aircraft took off from the airfield that now lies at its heart.
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A Quiet Country Town
A Celebration of 100 Years of Westland at Yeovil
By David Gibbings
The History PressCopyright © 2015 David Gibbings
All rights reserved.
How It All Began
In his book Westland – A History the author Derek James opened with the following: 'on the way in which the Petter family established engineering into a quiet country town, that in turn evolved into the Aerospace Centre it has now become.'
'What's in a name?' asked William Shakespeare in Romeo and Juliet; he then went on to opine that whatever name we give to a rose it still smells as sweet. Most aircraft manufacturing companies originally bore the names of their founders: Sopwith, A.V. Roe & Blackburn, Boeing, Northrop, Loughead & Potez, Fokker, Tupolev, Mikoyan & Gurevich. Others used the location of their factories: Gloucestershire Aircraft, Bristol Aeroplane, Sud Aviation, Reims Aviation, and Fabbrica ltaliana Automobili Torino. Then there was – and still is – Westland, a name first used in 1915 by the wife of Percy Petter who, with his twin brother Ernest, was to establish an aircraft business that retains this name 100 years later – although it is now joined with Agusta, whose history stretches back to 1923.
The Westland story began way back in 1868 when a young Somerset man, James Bazeley Petter, was given a thriving Yeovil ironmongers business as a wedding present at his marriage to Charlotte Waddams. As the business, named Haman & Gillett, prospered, James and Charlotte produced fifteen children, of which the third and fourth were twin boys born on 26 May 1873. They were christened Percival Waddams and Ernest Willoughby. About two years later James Petter took in a partner, the business name was changed to Petter & Edgar and agricultural equipment was added to its activities. Petter also took over the Yeovil Foundry & Engineering Works, which among other things, produced castings for the Nautilus-patented fire grate, its success being assured after Queen Victoria had these grates installed in her homes at Osborne on the Isle of Wight and at Balmoral.
Some twenty-five years before James and Charlotte were married, Somerset was witness to a number of aeronautical events resulting from the experimental work of John Stringfellow and William Samuel Henson, a visionary of air travel and fellow experimenter with Stringfellow. Both lived in Chard and devoted much time to steam-powered models. It was in the year of James Petter's wedding that one of these was credited with being the first heavier-than-air model to fly (although doubts have been cast on this achievement more recently) and was shown at the Royal Aeronautical Society's first exhibition in London's Crystal Palace. The county was also the site for a number of nineteenth-century balloon flights and experiments with model gliders. Without doubt these and other aeronautical activities caught the attention – if only subliminally – of Percy and Ernest Petter.
While still a pupil at Yeovil Grammar School, Percy was developing his engineering skills by building rudimentary, hand-cranked 'vehicles'. On leaving school he worked in his father's Yeovil Foundry and became its manager when he was aged 20. Percy later admitted that he had lacked experience and depended heavily on the foreman, Benjamin Jacobs, a multi-talented craftsman who, in 1894, built a 3hp single-cylinder oil engine to power Percy's 'horseless carriage'. This was an old four-wheel horse-drawn phaeton, a light open carriage named after Phaeton of Greek mythology, who was the son of Helios the sun god and notorious for his bad driving of the sun-chariot! Completed the following year, this motorised phaeton went on show in the Crystal Palace and took part in the 1896 Lord Mayor's Show. The success of Percy's project resulted in his father launching the Yeovil Motor Car & Cycle Co. Ltd in a purpose-built factory at Reckleford. Ernest was given administrative responsibility for this new enterprise, plus the Yeovil Foundry and the 'Nautilus' fire grate businesses. Future prospects looked good and the twins' brother, Hugh, was charged with promoting sales. Percy Petter recorded the following encounter: 'I remember a day when Colonel Harbin of Newton House asked Hugh how the cars were getting on. "We're still pushing them," he replied. "You usually are when I see you out with one," said the Colonel!'
However, this venture into motorcars was a financial disaster. An analysis of the company's businesses revealed that engines were the most profitable products and a £7,000 bank loan financed production of 1hp and 2hp oil engines, initially aimed at dairy and agricultural applications. It was in 1898 that Percy Petter publicly revealed his interest in human flight when he presented a lecture on the subject to members of the local YMCA in Yeovil Town Hall using lantern slides and models.
A more worrying financial crisis arose in 1901 when Ernest Petter reported that all three businesses, particularly the engine side, had contributed to a £3,000 loss. This time, friends came to the rescue with loans totalling £4,000 and within the year the company, now renamed James B. Petter & Sons, had reversed its fortunes with a £2,000 profit.
Meanwhile, Percy and Benjamin Jacobs, now the chief engineer, often had ultimately fruitless discussions about designing an engine for an aeroplane. Percy also built a device consisting of a powered vertical revolving shaft with four horizontal arms carrying box kites to carry out experiments to attain vertical lift. These were short-lived due to the need for him to concentrate on the company's engine business. Nevertheless, they were harbingers of rotary-winged flight in Yeovil some fifty years later.
In 1910 Petters Ltd was registered as a public company to carry on the business of making oil engines. As the demand rose so did the need for larger production facilities. There was no more space at Reckleford and another site was sought. One day Percy Petter, along with Mr Hardiman the foundry manager, visited a possible site at West Hendford. 'We went along a narrow lane which terminated in high wooden doors,' recalled Percy. 'Beyond them we saw a fine piece of meadowland sloping up gradually from the Yeovil & Taunton branch railway. It seemed perfect.' The upshot was that seventy-five acres were purchased by a specially formed small private company. Another of the twins' brothers, John, who was an architect, produced plans for a housing scheme, adjoining the foundry and factory, for employees. One afternoon in 1913 Percy took his wife and two small daughters to this field for the first turf-cutting ceremony. Because the site was located to the west of Yeovil, Mrs Petter gave the name 'Westland' to this new development. The foundry and the first part of the machining and erecting shops were completed during early 1914. Today, 100 years later, that building is still in use.
Following the outbreak of the First World War on 4 August 1914, the export side of Petter's business almost disappeared. However, as all talk of 'exports' died, the words on everyone's lips were 'military markets'. Soon this new business became more rewarding. During the autumn of 1914 many people in Britain believed that the war would be over by Christmas, but their hopes were soon shattered. On 21 December a German aeroplane made the first air attack on Britain, dropping two bombs into the sea near Admiralty Pier, Dover. A second attack, on Christmas Eve, resulted in a bomb exploding near Dover Castle. It was not until 31 May 1915 that a German Zeppelin, LZ 38, made the first attack on London, killing seven civilians and injuring twice that number. But before then, during early April, Prime Minister David Lloyd George had revealed to a shocked House of Commons that there was a serious shortage of materials and equipment with which to continue fighting the war, and called for action to remedy this.
This news was received with some alarm in Yeovil and the Petter brothers made an immediate response. They proposed to their Board of Directors that their entire manufacturing facilities should be offered to the Government for the production of whatever was needed. There was only one dissenter so a letter was sent to the War Office – which ignored it – and another to the Admiralty, which immediately asked for a meeting with the Petter brothers. Within days the twins found themselves in London, talking with three Lords of the Admiralty and two high-ranking civil servants. Ernest recorded that the expressed need was for floatplanes, and that he and Percy were asked if they would produce them. Ernest wrote:
We explained that our experience and factory were not exactly in line with their requirements but that we were willing to attempt anything which would help the Country. 'Good,' said they. 'You're the fellows we want; we will send you the drawings and give you all the help we can. Get on with it.' So we got on with it.
The Admiralty instructed the company to send representatives to the Short Brothers' factory at Rochester to see the type of work to be undertaken at Yeovil. Almost certainly it was Oswald Short who explained the techniques involved in the construction of aeroplanes, particularly the Short 184 floatplane. Percy Petter later confessed that when he saw the nature of the work 'My heart nearly failed me', but his brother John and Mr Warren, a Petters foreman, had no doubts that they could organise production of such machines. However, an experienced aircraft engineer was required to head this new Petters venture and, after a diligent search, 46-year-old Robert Bruce joined the company to manage it. Bruce had been manager of the British & Colonial Aircraft Co. at Filton, Gloucestershire, but, as a Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve Lieutenant, he had become an Admiralty inspector with the Sopwith Aviation Co.
Bruce's immediate task was to build twelve Short 184 floatplanes powered by 225hp Sunbeam engines. It was to take all of his skills and experience to convert Petters' workforce to aircraft manufacturing. This was not so much a milestone in Petters' history as more of a signpost that was to point the path of the company's future in two directions. Petters' board decided that the new business would operate as a separate, but still wholly owned, unit with Bruce controlling the commercial, technical and production activities. As such, it needed a new name rather than to appear to be just another department of Petters. There is a rather romantic little episode which Sir Ernest Petter described in the company's house magazine in September 1936:
Twenty-one years ago last April three men walked down to the corner of a field outside Yeovil where there was a small farm hut. One of the three – the author of this little story – opened the door of the hut and solemnly said, 'This is the Westland Aircraft Works.'
Undoubtedly he had remembered the name Percy's wife had first chosen for the proposed housing and works development. The foregoing story marked the parting of the ways for Petters' diesel engine business and its aircraft interests. The history of the former business is not for these pages; suffice it to say that, having weathered numerous associations, take-overs, the closure of certain Yeovil-based undertakings in 1939, several moves, amalgamations and near closure, diesel-engine manufacture was vested in the hands of Lister Petter Ltd in Dursley through a 1988 merger with this long-established Gloucestershire engineering company.
To meet the 1915 order for floatplanes Bruce needed a workforce. Some employees moved from the Nautilus factory and a number of woodworkers and engineers were recruited from local companies. One of the early pieces of equipment, which Robert Bruce had installed, was a 'wind channel', or wind tunnel, for the technical office. An important appointment was that of Arthur Davenport, a Petters engine designer who joined the new company in June as Chief Draughtsman. He was soon sent to the Royal Naval Air Station at Sheerness to measure and examine a Short 184 floatplane. In addition to Westland Aircraft Works, representatives of four other manufacturers who had been given contracts to build these aeroplanes were also there. They were Frederick Sage & Co. of Peterborough, Mann, Egerton & Co. of Norwich, Phoenix Dynamo of Bradford, and S.E. Saunders Ltd on the Isle of Wight. Their task was to make drawings of the structure and components so that their companies could build these floatplanes.
Production of Short 184 by Westland began early in July with the first aircraft being completed in time for delivery on 1 January 1916. It was dismantled and taken on horse-drawn carts to Yeovil Junction from where it went by rail to Hamble on the shores of Southampton Water for assembly and test-flying. It is believed that this particular aircraft was delivered to the Royal Naval Air Station on Calshot Spit. The fourth Westland-built Short 184, and the only one of its type still surviving, has a special niche in the history of naval aviation. On the afternoon of 31 May 1916 this aircraft took off from the seaplane carrier HMS Engadine during the opening phase of the Battle of Jutland. Despite very limited visibility the pilot, Lt F.J. Rutland, and his observer Assistant Paymaster C.S. Trewin, identified three enemy cruisers and ten destroyers whose position and course were reported to the British fleet. This reconnaissance flight proved a major milestone in naval air warfare. The pilot, who was subsequently awarded the Distinguished Service Order, became quite a celebrity in the Royal Navy and was dubbed 'Rutland of Jutland'. He was commissioned in the Royal Air Force after its formation on 1 April 1918 and became an authority on aircraft carrier operations. However, MI5 records recently made public have revealed that, from around 1934 until the beginning of the Second World War when he was living in the United States, Rutland spied on the US Navy for the Japanese. He returned to Britain and was interned until around 1944 when he was released.
Before the twelve Short 184s had been completed, Westland was given an order for twenty Short 166 floatplanes which were similar to the Type 184 but of an earlier design. Unfortunately Shorts was not able to provide a full set of drawings for the Type 166 and Arthur Davenport wasn't given the opportunity to measure a Short-built example. In addition, the twenty Westland 166s were to be built without the under-fuselage torpedo-carrying gear, which meant that Bruce and Davenport had to undertake some redesign work.
Westland had become an aircraft company.CHAPTER 2
The Westland Railway Siding
'The movement of materials, spares and often, complete aircraft was necessary once aircraft manufacture began on the Yeovil site. In 1915 the movement of such goods was very different to the network of road transport and courier services now available.
From the outset Westland maintained its own railway siding, which remained in operation until 1967, when the Yeovil to Taunton line closed.' – Working Yeovil to Taunton Steamby kind permission from the author, Derek Phillips.
A private siding agreement dated 29 March 1913 was made between the Great Western Railway (GWR) and the well-known Yeovil firm of Petters Ltd, makers of stationary, portable and traction petroleum engines, combined pumping engines, electric lighting and power transmission plants. By 1912, Petters were running out of room at their Nautilus works in Reckleford, Yeovil, and so they purchased some land on the western side of Yeovil, near the GWR Yeovil to Taunton branch at Hendford, on which they built a new factory. This was named 'Westland'. The firm began to trade as Westland Aircraft Works, Westland Foundry, and the 'Petters' name was reserved for their famous engines. During the First World War munitions were made at the factory, and the first aircraft – seaplanes designed by Shorts – left by rail, as the airfield wasn't ready until sometime in 1917. In the 1920s the Petters oil-engine business was moved to Westland from the Nautilus works.
The first locomotive purchased by Petters was a Manning Wardle 0-4-0 saddle tank, named 'EVA' and dating from 1866, which arrived sometime in 1920. Petters followed the GWR tradition and painted the engine green with yellow lining and a brass chimney cap. A Fowler diesel mechanical 0-4-0, works number 19425, was purchased in 1931, and fitted with a Petters 'ACE' three-cylinder engine. The locomotive was subsequently named 'ACE'. The Manning Wardle tank, 'EVA', was kept until 1935 and then sold for scrap. In 1935 Westland Aircraft Ltd was formed to take over the aircraft production from Petters, and more changes took place in 1938 when John Brown and Co. Ltd gained control of Westland Aircraft Ltd and Petters. Shortly after the takeover Petters was sold to Brush Electrical Industries Ltd, and the oil-engine division went to the Brush factory at Loughborough in 1939. The Fowler diesel, 'ACE', was transferred to the Brush sidings at Loughborough and stayed there until 1962. To replace her, Westland Aircraft Ltd purchased a four-wheel Howard locomotive to shunt the sidings. This locomotive was purchased second hand, and after a history of breakdowns, its engine was replaced by one from a Fordson tractor. Various engines were loaned to Westland by the GWR during periods when the Howard was out of service in the Second World War, when production was at its peak. These included, in 1940, an 0-6-0 saddle tank, No. 2195, built by Avonside in 1905, and in 1945 a Terrier AIX 0-6-0 Tank, No. 5 'Portishead', was on hire from the GWR from 14 to 19 July.
Excerpted from A Quiet Country Town by David Gibbings. Copyright © 2015 David Gibbings. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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Table of Contents
1. How It All Began Derek James,
2. The Westland Railway Siding Derek Phillips,
3. The RAeS at Yeovil Dr G.S. Hislop,
4. Saga of a Widgeon Harald Penrose,
5. What on Earth is a Wapiti? David Gibbings,
6. Wapiti Aircrew James Kightly,
7. Flight Over Everest David Gibbings,
8. Pterodactyl Harald Penrose,
9. Lysander Harald Penrose,
10. Spitfire and Whirlwind Harald Penrose,
11. W.E.W. Petter 1908–1968 Glyn Davies,
12. The Bombing of Yeovil Dilip Sarkar,
13. The Good Neighbour Graham Mottram,
14. Normalair Mike Bednall,
15. Helicopters O.L.L. Fitzwilliams,
16. Here be Giant Killers Jack Sweet,
17. Wyvern Harald Penrose,
18. Rationalisation David Gibbings,
19. Westland 1947–1968 John Fay,
20. Lynx – The Making of a Thoroughbred David Gibbings,
21. The Procurement Dilemma David Gibbings,
22. Exocet Jim Schofield,
23. Airborne Early Warning Jim Schofield,
24. Going for a Song David Gibbings,
25. Ode to the Wessex David Baston,
26. Putting the Record Straight David Gibbings,
27. The Westland Affair David Gibbings,
28. Working with the Italians/English,
Peter Dunford and Fiorenzo Mussi,
29. Airfield Noise! David Gibbings,
Appendix 1: Aircraft List,
Appendix 2: Westland People,
Appendix 3: Pictures of Westland,