In his article ‘Liberal Militarism and the British State’ (nlr 185, January–February 1991), David Edgerton questions certain facts, calculations or interpretations of mine in my book The Audit of War about the British aircraft industry between the wars and during the Second World War. Let me take his points one by one.
First. Edgerton does not agree with me that the British aircraft industry in the 1920s and early 1930s was kept alive by a trickle of orders from the Air Ministry, its civil side being backward compared with, say, the German or American or Dutch. But on p. 5 of M.M. Postan’s official history, British War Production (1952), we read: ‘With financial provisions and new output at a very low level, the Air Ministry had great difficulty in maintaining its industrial reserves [circa 1934]. The aircraft firms, including the principal engine firms, found themselves in a position of chronic penury. . .very few could have survived without the tutelage of the Air Ministry. . .[which] had to ration out all new work among some sixteen substantial aircraft firms. . .But for the time being the diet, though just sufficient to keep the bulk of the firms alive, was too meagre to enable them to keep pace with the aircraft industry abroad, especially in the United States.’ At this period the British aircraft industry manufactured no civil or military aircraft of monoplane all-metal construction, like the Junkers 52 or the Douglas dci, and its exports only consisted of light aircraft of obsolescent technology.
Second. Edgerton questions my comparative figures of British, German and American productivity in aircraft in 1944, noting that the figure I gave for the workforce directly employed by the airframe and engine firms (510,000) was taken from a Cabinet Committee memorandum in 1943. In point of fact, this figure (the only one I have found relating to the workforce directly employed in the industry, as opposed to that working for the Ministry of Aircraft Production; that is, including sub-contractors and so forth) is dated November 1943, and Postan points out on p. 313 of his book that ‘the spectacular output of early 1944 could be connected to the high labour intakes of later 1943.’ In any case, Edgerton ignores the further evidence I cite (p. 321, footnote 24), in which a Ministry of Aircraft Production calculation in March 1944 reckoned that with British productivity it would take 17,000 man-hours to produce a Heinkel iii, as against the published German figure of 12,000; and 4,300 man-hours to produce a Messerschmitt 109g, as against the German figure of 3,900.
Third. Edgerton quotes Richard Overy’s book The Air War 1939–1945 to demonstrate how the German aircraft industry was just as prone (if not more so) to the obstructiveness of craft unions with regard to ‘dilution’ and flow-line production methods. But Overy is here referring to 1939–41, not 1943–44. In his book Goering: the Iron Man
I do not, therefore, find Edgerton s points proven. To offer a more general criticism of his article, it seems to me to exemplify ‘academic’ writing at its most pedantically boring, with almost as much footnotery as text, an awful lot of ‘concepts’ and neologisms, and a preference for conducting a debate about other people’s interpretations `la the seminar room, rather than writing in terms of real-life operational problems.
David Edgerton replies: Barnett’s first point restates the position I was attacking; his second does not challenge my central point that his comparative productivity calculation was wrong and misleading. I ignored the additional evidence he cites so as not to appear too nitpicking—the relevant pro file makes clear the figures are dubious. On the third point, I actually say that German workers resisted dilution ‘until 1944’ and Overy makes clear that at the beginning of the war British productivity was ahead of German. My points stand. Since I thought they might be contentious I tried to furnish the references necessary to substantiate them. My short, non-‘academic’ England and the Aeroplane: An Essay on a Militant and Technological Nation (Macmillan) gives the reading public an account of ‘real-life operational problems’ very different from that provided by Barnett.