Monday, December 4, 2023

Unsung Jewish engineer was crucial to Britain’s WW2 effort

A forgotten Jewish engineer who fled to London from Nazi Germany played a central part in modernising the Royal Air Force and contributing to the Allies’ Second World War victory, a historian has revealed.

Ludwig Loewy was the driving force in one of German’s leading engineering firms and brought its specialist knowledge and most talented staff to Britain after Hitler’s rise to power. According to Dr Jonathan Aylen, Loewy was a “standout” figure among numerous unsung émigré engineers. The former economist said his story also illustrated how the RAF of the Battle of Britain was built on German know-how.

Describing the impact of Loewy’s arrival, Aylen, honorary senior research fellow at the at the University of Manchester’s Manchester Institute of Innovation Research, said: “What the official history called a ‘new basic industry’ of aircraft production had grown up, and the only place to get the equipment was Germany. So when the leading supplier turned up in 1936, it was like a gift from heaven. It’s one of the most egregious cases of self-sabotage the Nazis were involved in — like getting rid of the physicists.”

Loewy was born in rural Czechoslovakia on March 1, 1887. He graduated from Vienna’s Technische Hochschule in 1912 and starting working for Eduard Schloemann GmbH, a builder of metal-forming machinery in Düsseldorf, in 1913 or 1914. He rose to be chief engineer and technical manager in 1915, when the business was supplying equipment such as shell presses for Germany’s First World War effort.

During the First World War, Germany relied on firms such as Schloemann for machines used in the manufacture of munitions. Photo: public domain, via Australian War Memorial

After the war, Loewy, now a director and the firm’s “brains”, led its diversification into rolling mills for steel and aluminium and an aggressive expansion into foreign markets. Aside from winning orders in the US and Soviet Union, this included supplying machinery to Britain from 1931. One order that would have far-reaching repercussions was for a 1,500-ton extrusion press for the Chesterfield Tube Company in Derbyshire to make stainless steel tubes up to 5in in diameter.

Extrusion involves pushing a metal through a die at high pressure and, often, high temperatures — creating lengths with different profile shapes, as required for different purposes and parts. The metal is materially stronger after extrusion due to changes to its grain structure. Aylen said the Chesterfield commission was the first time a press was used for extrusion of stainless steel — a technology that would prove central to the supply of stainless tubes to the aircraft industry.

Schloemann’s activity was part of a larger trend. German machinery was at the forefront of Britain’s 1930s rearmament efforts — which responded to German rearmament and expansionism. Aylen said that, at this time, German firms had a poor reputation as suppliers of cheap machine tools plagiarised from US designs. However, when it came to rolling mills and extrusion presses for steel and aluminium, and to working with aluminium generally, businesses including Schloemann made important technical innovations.

This was critical in the field of aviation, where rolling mills would produce the aluminium alloy skins for next-generation aircraft and extrusion presses would produce many different parts for airframes and engines. Although Germany’s sale of expertise and machinery to potential enemies appears curious in hindsight, Aylen said it was explained by its acute shortage of foreign exchange. Remarkably, German firms including Schloemann continued to supply British industry right up to the start of hostilities.

Spitfire fuselages under construction at an aircraft factory in the Midlands, circa 1940. Photo: Imperial War Museum, © IWM HU 89805

In fact, a late 1939 editorial in the journal Aircraft Production, cited by Aylen, states: “One of the obvious results of this situation [war] will be the cessation of supplies of tools and equipment from Germany. These supplies had attained large proportions, as shown by the growing import figures for German machine tools. The value in 1936 was just under one million sterling. In 1938, it had risen to £1,355,000, and for the 6 months ended June 1939, it was £827,645.”

Aylen said: “It was an absolutely crucial contribution. You would not have had the Spitfire or the Lancaster or any of those British planes without this German technology. It wasn’t only German plant equipment. It was also know-how. The trade magazines of the era are full of articles from Germany and the Royal Aeronautical Society was always running papers by leading Germans.”

While Germany’s military ambitions spurred on British rearmament, its antisemitic policies caused many Jewish citizens and residents who had the means to flee the country. Loewy’s existing relationships with British individuals and businesses proved a lifeline when he escaped to London in early 1936 along with a number of Schloemann’s brightest employees. The move was evidently carefully planned, although it is unclear whether Loewy had help or direct encouragement from the British state. Aylen said the relevant official files were closed.

In any case, Loewy set up the Loewy Engineering Company on April 1, 1936, with the business model of “Schloemann in exile” — designing and installing presses and rolling mills to customers’ complex specifications. Its headquarters was on London’s Kingsway, close to other steel and engineering firms and the Technical Department of the Air Ministry’s Directorate of Production.

Kristallnacht, or the Night of Broken Glass, on November 9-10, 1938, was an example of state-sponsored violence against Germany’s Jewish population. Ludwig Loewy had escaped to Britain two years earlier. Photo: Deutsches Bundesarchiv, via CC-BY-SA 3.0

As Aylen explains in his study in the International Journal for the History of Engineering & Technology: “It is reliably said that ‘many thousands’ of Schloemann drawings found their way to Loewy Engineering in London. The new firm brought not only a wealth of machinery designs but also brought tacit knowledge on issues vital to users, such as the correct temperatures for extrusion of individual alloys, selection and preparation of dies, and the best production techniques for awkward products such as tubes. The combination of key staff, a stock of engineering drawings, and design leadership meant the intellectual property of Schloemann AG was replicated at Loewy Engineering in near totality. This was a gift for the UK at a key moment.”

Why was Loewy’s arrival so welcome just then? Aylen said: “Because there was now an indigenous source of supply for the most crucial bottleneck equipment. If you read British government reports of the 1930s, they are always banging on about extrusion [machinery] as a bottleneck. Loewy’s engineers knew how to design it, how to procure it, how to install it, and, above all, how to get it running smoothly and successfully. It’s a bit of a black art, to be honest.”

The new business’s staff included British designers and engineers, Loewy’s fellow émigrés and specialists recruited from Czechoslovakia. Loewy gave two of his brothers, Siegmund and Alfred, administrative roles. Another brother, Erwin, sold Loewy equipment in France and later built up the Loewy Hydropress Company, which would make a momentous impact of its own in US aircraft production. After his arrival in Britain, Loewy’s 45 per cent shareholding in Schloemann was effectively seized by the German state and he was charged in his absence with theft of the firm’s intellectual property and drawings.

Ludwig Loewy’s machines played an important role in supplying the Royal Navy, including with torpedo parts. This image shows the submarine HMS Unison leaving harbour in Malta. Photo: Imperial War Museum, © IWM A 14541

Remarkably, the London business won two orders within a month of its launch. The first was from Northern Aluminium at Banbury, for a small 750-ton vertical press to make pistons for aeroengines. This Oxfordshire firm would become the country’s largest supplier of aluminium components for aircraft by the outbreak of war in 1939. The second order was from the Yorkshire Copper Company, a subsidiary of ICI Metals, which would become a major Loewy customer.

The breakthrough contract, however, was for a heavy tube plant for Loewy’s old contacts at the Chesterfield Tube Company. This was to manufacture heavy seamless steel tubes up to 20 tons in weight. Crucially, it would reduce the Royal Navy’s reliance on foreign sources for torpedo parts and fixtures such as warships’ boilers and condensers. The plant was inaugurated on December 8, 1938, by the First Lord of the Admiralty and leader of the House of Lords, Lord Stanhope, with Loewy acting as a guide and honoured guest. The event was covered by The Times and BBC.

Less than a year later, Britain declared war on Germany. On September 9, 1939, the Air Ministry asked Loewy to move his firm’s operations out of London due to its importance to the war effort. As a result, the business moved to Poole, in Dorset. By then, in addition to the tube plant that helped supply the British fleet, Loewy had provided scores of presses and rolling mills for construction of aircraft parts. Fighter aircraft such as the Supermarine Spitfire and later models of Hawker Hurricane had numerous parts made with Loewy machines or Schloemann machines developed under Ludwig Loewy’s leadership.

As ground staff work on another Spitfire, Squadron Leader Stanislaw Lapka of No 302 Polish Fighter Squadron roars low over the airfield at RAF Hutton Cranswick, March 1943. Photo: Imperial War Museum, © IWM HU 87562

After war broke out, Loewy Engineering played a vital role in equipping new factories to make aluminium components for aircraft including heavy bombers. The High Duty Alloy Plant at Distington, Cumberland, alone produced some 2,000 propeller blades and a million general components a month. Other Loewy equipment that supported British forces included presses for cartridge cases and shells — an echo of the Ludwig Loewy’s contribution to the Kaiser’s army a quarter of a century earlier.

In addition to all this, Loewy was a technical advisor to the British government’s production programme for aircraft. According to Aylen, he had a “magnetism” that drew the best people to him and got things done.

If Loewy hadn’t come to Britain, how different might things have been? Aylen said: “It’s a fair estimate that supply of aircraft would have been pushed back a year to 18 months, because they would have had lots of bottlenecks. One of the great features of the Battle of Britain was that the British always had a surplus of aircraft — it was pilots that they were short off. Well, that wouldn’t have happened — there would have been a shortage of planes as well as pilots, and they might have had to press into service more obsolete aircraft than they did. The difference was that he ensured the surplus of planes so that when pilots bailed out and were dusted down and debriefed, they had a brand new Spitfire to go to.”

“Loewy Engineering not only supplied the crucial equipment that built the planes that won the Battle of Britain, particularly the Spitfire. It then carried on like a juggernaut and supplied enormous amounts of equipment that built Lancaster and Halifax bombers for Bomber Command. Yet few people have heard of Ludwig Loewy today and the number is diminishing. “

Manufacture of Lancaster bombers at the AV Roe & Co Ltd factory, Woodford, Cheshire. Photo: Imperial War Museum, © IWM TR 1386

The great engineer never witnessed the victory he helped to secure. He died from stomach cancer on Saturday October 10, 1942, aged 55. That weekend, his firm’s offices received around 80 telegrams of sympathy from politicians and officials. Weeks later, the Allies won the Second Battle of El-Alamein — a turning point in which the RAF played a significant part.

Loewy, who was a workaholic and never married, had received British citizenship earlier that year. He is buried in the Jewish section of Boscombe cemetery.

Aylen, a recent president of the Newcomen Society, which promotes and celebrates the history of engineering and technology, stresses that Loewy was one outstanding figure among hundreds of German-speaking engineers who contributed to Britain’s war effort as exiles.

He added that, in telling Loewy’s story, the millions of Jews and others who could not escape Nazi persecution must not be forgotten. “However, this isn’t about victimhood. Loewy and his colleagues made the very best of a bad situation.”

The photograph at the top of the article shows Mark XIV Spitfires on patrol over England, circa November 1944. Image: public domain, via Australian War Memorial

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