Wimpey was founded in 1880 as a local contractor in London. Up until the advent of the 1914 -18 World War, it had spread its activities into and beyond the Greater London Area.
It established itself as a household name in the field of building and civil engineering and, over the years, extended its capacity throughout the United Kingdom. It carried out road, tramway and bridge construction and developed the modern highway at that time with reinforced concrete foundations, wood paving, granite setts and asphalt surfacing.
The Company's experience in these areas made it an ideal contractor for the country's needs during the Second World War.
In the first World War, planes had been used mainly for reconnaissance, and some air combat resulted; but in the intervening years, in other arenas of conflict in the world at that time, such as Spain, the devastating effects of air bombing had been amply demonstrated. Moreover, it seemed that there was no defence against such an onslaught, until the British invention of radar gave the nation a vital advantage. It meant that fighter planes would have time to challenge bombers before they had the chance to discharge their bombs on an almost defenceless population. This, together with the development of the Spitfire and Hurricane fighters, revolutionised the role of the RAF who, instead of being the 'poor relation' of the Services, by 1939 were allocated more Government expenditure than either the Navy or the Army.
The Government's main requirement was for aerodromes, of which Wimpey built over 90. The few aerodromes which already existed, mostly had grass runways which were not ideal for fighter planes and useless for heavy bombers. The Air Ministry decided to construct the first runways of concrete, six inches thick and this became one of their key decisions of the early war years.
Already in 1936 Wimpey had secured work for the Air Ministry, which led to a contract for a full air station at Great Rissington in Oxfordshire. This meant the construction of runways, buildings and hardstandings on this and many other airfields. In addition, Wimpey built air raid shelters for planes as well as people, gun emplacements for anti-aircraft defence, concrete pill boxes, underground tunnels for ammunition storage and underground oil storage facilities, one of them being the largest concrete structure in the country at that time.
In 1938 Wimpey secured the contracts for seven airfields, which included Tangmere, Biggin Hill, Northolt, and Leuchars in Scotland and acres of concrete were laid, giving hard surfaces for the aircraft that were available at that time.
As heavier and larger bombers, such as the Lancaster, became available, Wimpey were called upon to strengthen these runways with either an overlay of tarmacadam or an additional thickness of concrete as need dictated, which meant that from 1941, new airfields had runways eight inches thick!
Much of the equipment Wimpey used was imported from America and were new to the UK but eventually, became in common usage. These were machines such as bull-dozers, graders, mixers and pavers, which were made by companies such as Caterpillar and Barber Greene.
Neville Chamberlain, our Prime Minister at that time, returned from Munich in 1938 waving his famous piece of paper. This was the Agreement reached on September 29th, 1938 between Germany, the United Kingdom, France and Italy to 'ensure peace in our time'.
It was a hopeful attempt to prevent hostilities. The Munich agreement was generally regarded as the shameful culmination of the Allied refusal (and inability at that time) to confront Nazi aggression. War had been averted, or so they thought, and the Country heaved a sigh of relief but in retrospect it was a fool's paradise. When in September 1939 Hitler's troops marched into Poland, Britain was bound by her treaty with that country and a sure knowledge that she herself would be next. So now the battle was really on to build airfields and train pilots as quickly as possible.
At the outbreak of war, most construction firms formed their own Army units, the War Department theory being that men would be a more effective team working with their colleagues. The Wimpey unit became the "Wimpey" 680 General Construction Company, Royal Engineers. It was lead by Major Little, with Captain Magnus Pearce as second in command. Apart from half a dozen pivot people such as the Sergeant Major and the Quartermaster, they were all Wimpey men, almost three hundred in fact.
Magnus recalled that 'We were sent to France with no training apart from 'square-bashing', and began immediately building an airfield.'
In 1940, Hitler's army over-ran France and the British army retreated to Dunkirk. Major Little had gone ahead to reconnoitre and then was unable to rejoin his Company, so Captain Pearce had to take command. The Wimpey contingent of about 280 men joined the rest on the beaches where thousands were laying helplessly amongst the sand dunes whilst being bombed by Stuka dive bombers which swept overhead every twenty minutes.
Britain was meanwhile rallying to save our men from the advancing German forces. Just about everyone who had a boat capable of crossing the English Channel arrived in an Armada to pick them up.
In late May 1940, HMS Express was one of several dozen destroyers ordered to help evacuate the British Expeditionary Force from Dunkirk, and was one of the first to arrive and begin taking troops off the beaches. Later troops were taken off from Dunkirk harbour. The Express and the destroyer Shikari were the last ships to leave Dunkirk with troops before the evacuation ended on June 4th. She brought out 2,795 troops and airfield construction workers over the course of the evacuation. She was damaged by bombing, but was repaired in time to continue taking part in the evacuation.
Captain Pearce did much at the shore end by placing Wimpey men to stop everyone surging forward whenever a boat came in. The Wimpey men also agreed to be the rearguard Sappers if necessary. As Captain Pearce said 'So we were the last to leave, making our escape long after the little boats had all gone. In fact we were very lucky' we were picked up off the Mole two days before it all folded up. Some of our men went on a Belgian fishing boat; the remainder on a destroyer called Express which came stern on to the Mole on the outside, it was quite a jump onto the deck and, since we were under fire, it was not too easy.
The British Government had already established committees comprising Wimpey, Laing, Mowlem and McAlpine. These were the country's largest civil engineering contractors and had the resources to undertake major projects and who could therefore advise the Government on what was possible.
The first nine months of the war had barely touched Britain, the battlefield had been in Europe. Now, however, after the evacuation of Dunkirk, invasion was greatly feared and Churchill called the contractors to London. Military Intelligence pinpointed possible invasion areas and the contractors had to dash off and build the defences.
On the East coast Wimpey planted spikes one hundred yards out and three feet below high water, to catch invasion barges. Tests were tried with barges full of water to give the ballast equivalent to the weight of soldiers, and were considered successful if the spikes went through the bottom. Barbed wire was strung between each spike so that the barges could be caught and fired at from the shore where Wimpey built hexagonal concrete pillboxes to fire from. Concrete cubes were also made and placed on the shore to stop any tanks that may have appeared.
The danger of invasion was very real so trenches were dug in all the open spaces to hinder the anticipated landing of troop carrying gliders.
The invasion was deflected by the crushing defeat of the Luftwaffe during the Battle of Britain. From July to October 1940 the Hurricanes and Spitfires involved in this battle took off from a great many Wimpey airfields all over the country.
Early in the war, a Wimpey team building Lulsgate airfield (now Bristol airport) were on site very early when they heard a plane approaching and assumed it was one of ours returning home. A twin-engined bomber landed nearby, and out stepped four aircrew. When the Wimpey personnel realised it wasnâ€™t an RAF plane at all, but a Nazi bomber, they charged across, without hesitation, and arrested the crew. Apparently, it transpired that the Germans had been on a bombing mission to the North of England, had lost their way back and thought they had landed in France. The plane was intact and was thereafter used by the RAF.
An Air Ministry man once said that without the Air Force we wouldnâ€™t have won the war and without Wimpey we couldn't have flown the planes.
Fund raising amongst the Wimpey staff even enabled them to buy and contribute
two Spitfires to the Air Ministry.
Due to the increase in the cost of living from 1939 to 2006, the value of some of the following contracts may seem insignificant now, compared with the cost of construction work nowadays, but in the thirties and the forties these contracts were worth a considerable sum.
Inflation is a complex topic and subject to so many variables but in an attempt to try and put the value of the pound into perspective during the period of the last war, the salary of a labourer was, £2 per week, a skilled engineer, £3 per week and an RAF pilot started at,£6.54 per week.
The weekly pay for full-time fire service personnel in London during the 'Blitz' of 1940 was, £3/5/0d (£3.25) for men and, £2/3/6d (£2.18) for women.
The great majority of new houses in the London area were being sold at that time for between, £600 and, £1000. Their rateable value was in the range of, £21 - £35.
In the provinces it was possible to buy a house for, £400 with a rateable value of £14 to £26 per annum
What some things cost in 1941
Embassy cigarettes, 10 for 9d (4p)
Wisdom toothbrushes, 2/5d (12p) each
Eve toilet soap, 3d (1.5p) per bar
Palmolive toilet soap, 4d (2p) per bar
Vim, 6d (2.5p) per canister
De Reszke Minor cigarettes, 10 for 6½d (2.5p)
Gibbs Dentifrice, 7½d (3.5p)
Cremola Pudding, 3d (1.5p) per packet
Rowntrees cocoa, 5d (2p)
Cadbury's Ration Chocolate sold at 2½ d (1p) per bar, the supply was very limited, and the weight of the bar was not mentioned.
Gamages shirt (with spare collar) at 6/11d (35p)
A pair of flannel trousers at 15/9d (78p)
A pair of shoes, all leather at 13/9d (68p)
A mans self-lined raincoat for 1 guinea = £1/1/0d (£1.05p
Air Ministry Aerodrome Contracts carried out by Wimpey prior to and during the Second World War.
Approx. Value of Contract
June Tangmere, West Sussex £96,500
1939 July Northolt, Middx £94,500
1940 February Ditto £47,000
1940 December Ditto £76,634
1940 March Skitten, Caithness £356,000
1941 November Ditto £53,000
1940 May Wick, Caithness £168,000
1942 January Ditto £247,000
1940 May Stanton Harcourt, Oxon £210,000
1940 May Hampstead Norris, Berks £233,000
1940 May Alconbury, Hunts £183,000
1940 Sept Kingscliffe, Northants £181,000
1940 Aug Polebrook, Northants £232,000
1940 July Charmy Down, Glos £103,000
1940 July B Throckmorton, Worcs £915,000
1940 Aug B Pocklington, Yorks £640,000
1940 Dec Thruxton, Hants £317,000
1940 Nov Hunsdon, Herts £160,000
1940 Aug B Moreton-in-Marsh, Glos £845,000
1941 Jan B Grafton Underwood,
1942 Feb B £646,000
1940 Nov B Bottesford, Leics£805,000
1941 Jan Langar, Leics £316,000
1941 Feb Castle Camps, Essex £115,000
1941 Sept B Enstone, Oxon £591,000
1941 Oct Rattlesden, Suffolk £352,000
1941 SeptTurweston, Bucks £540,000
1941 Sept Gamston, Notts £468,000
1941 June B Castle Donnington, Leics £728,000
1941 June B Warton, Lancs £298,000
1941 June B Cheddington, Bucks £458,000
1941 June B Lulsgate Bottom, Somerset £309,000
1940 Nov B Edge Hill, Oxon £314,000
1941 Dec Thornaby, Yorks £123,000
1941 Dec B Bruntingthorpe, Leics
1942 Aug £786,000
1941 Dec B Stoneycross, Hants
1942 Sept £977,000
1941 Dec B Dunkeswell, Devon
1943 July £1,107,000
1942 June Ludford Magna, Lincs
1943 Jan £583,000
1942 June B Snitterfield, Warwicks £1,147,000
1942 June Tarrant Rushton, Dorset
1942 Oct £1,000,000
1942 Aug Husbands Bosworth, Leics£893,000
1942 Oct Upton, Lincs £570,000
1942 Dec Cricklade, Wilts £680,000
1943 Mar B Predannack Down, Cornwall
1944 Mar £461,000
1942 Dec Barkston Heath, Lincs £515,000
1943 April B Down Ampney, Glos£700,000
1943 April B Broadwell, Oxon£780,000
1943 May Cottesmore, Rutland £360,000
1944 AprilLakenheath, Suffolk£900,000
1943 Sept Little Rissington, Glos £20,000
1941 Nov Croughton, Northants
1942 April £129,000
1942 Nov North Coates, Lincs £124,000
1943 Feb Dunholme Lodge, Lincs £76,000
1943 April Kelstern, Lincs (Bldgs only) £200,000
1943 Sept/Oct Kemble, Glos £85,000
1943 Sept Wroughton, Wilts £110,000
1943 Dec Barford St. John, Oxon
Edge Hill, Oxon Enstone, Oxon (Bldgs only) £70,000
1944 Feb Saltby, Leics £40,000
1940 June Carew Cheriton, Pemb £137,000
1940 June Chivenor, Devon £172,000
1941 April Templeton, Pemb £556,000
1941 April Winfield, Berwicks £274,000
1941 Dec Anglesey, Heneglyws £500,000
1941 Dec B Felton, Northumbs £534,000
1941 Dec B Boulmer, Northumbs £363,000
1941 Dec Haverfordwest, Pemb £727,000
1940 Sept B Ayr, Ayr £740,000
1941 April B Turnberry, Ayr £920,000
1941April Prestwick, Monkton, Ayrs£325,000
1939/40 Cranfield, Beds £970,000
1942 June Poulton, Cheshire £474,000
1942 July B St. Davids, Pemb £l, 200,000
1943 April B Up Ottery £1,200,000
1943 May Waddington, Lincs £360,000
1943 May North Luffenham, Rutland £400,000
1944 May Heathrow, Middx £2,500,000
to Nov 1945
1944 Mar B Brawdy, Pemb £50,000
1943 Jan Skipton, Yorks £204,000
1942 Jan B Winkleigh, Devon£298,000
1943 De B Binbrook, Lincs£30,000
1939 July Leuchars, Fife £102,232
1939 Dec Castletown, Caithness £400,000
1940 July Peterhead, Aberdeenshire £356,000
1940 Oct Grangemouth, Stirlingshire £127,000
1941 JanÂ Fraserburgh, Aberdeenshire £180,000
1941 Mar Charterhall, Berwicks £532,000
1941 Mar Kinnell, Angus £178,000
1939 Dec Turnhouse, Angus£136,244
1940 Dec £76,634
1941 Dec Evanton, Rosshire £176,000
1941 Dec Banff, Banffs £350,000
1942 July B Dallachy, Moray £713,000
1943 Sept Edzell, Forfar £300,000
1942 Dec Brackla, Nairn £110,000
The following are further sizeable contracts carried out prior to and during the Second World War by Wimpey for the Air Ministry.
1937 May Gt. Rissington, Lancs (RAF Station) £560,000
1938 Sept Heywood, Lancs (Storage Depot) £1,650,000
1939 Nov Padgate, Lancs (Sheds)£17,000
1940 April Padgate, Lancs (Air Raid Shelters) £10,000
1940 June Rochford, Essex (Taxi track)£19,400
1940 June Longman, Inverness (Air Raid Shelters) £14,469
1940 Sept Handforth, Cheshire (Maintenance) £1,628,000
1941 June Watnall, Notts (Filter Block)
1941 July Wig Bay, Wigtown (Seaplane Base) £450,000
1941 Dec Dale & Talbenny (Pemb) (Water Main) £15,000
1943 June Drem, E Lothian - (Culvert) £34,000
1943 Sept Dumbarton, Dumbarton - (Slipway) £10,000
1943 Sept Lt. Rissington, Glos (Runways & Taxi) £20,000
1938 Dec Liverpool £316,500
1938 Dec Newcastle £287,000
1938 Dec Warrington £224,000
1939 Feb Sheffield £334,000
1939 Feb Hull £201,000
1939 Mar Manchester £366,500
1939 Mar Glasgow £331,500
1939 Sept Hoylake £528,000
1939 Sept Kirkham £865,000
1939 Sept Wilmslow £604,000
B = Includes Buildings
It is interesting to read that in June 2006, transport experts were considering digging up disused wartime airfields and using the salvaged material to build roads.
A typical landing strip contains more than 60,000 tonnes of concrete and there are many disused sites around the country.
According to the Daily Mail (3rd June, 2006) an ambitious plan has been proposed by a government quango, the Waste & Resources Action Programme. The respected Transport Research Laboratory in Berkshire has been commissioned to look into the issue.
Hi-tech satellite photography has been used to assess how much runway exists at each possible location and cross-checked with construction blueprints to calculate the likely yield. Initial estimates suggest as much as 9.5 million tonnes of concrete and a million tonnes of asphalt could be salvaged.
Please note: We would like to acknowledge that much of the material
in this article was obtained from a Wimpey publication produced in 1980 entitled:-
'WIMPEY - The first hundred years'
Les Hunt -June 2006
Les Hunt (left) and John Cater at RAF Upwood's 1940's weekend Sunday 20th August 2006
IN MEMORY OF LES HUNT WHO DIED ON THE 28th OF AUGUST 2006