Avro Aircraft Factory, Leeds – The Story of Yeadon’s Hidden War Effort
Avro Aircraft Factory, Leeds
A Hidden Aeroplane Factory During World War II
by Colin Philpott
Today it is an anonymous looking industrial estate alongside Leeds-Bradford Airport. Between 1939 and 1946 it was an industrial production centre contributing to the war effort on a gargantuan scale.
Leeds and Bradford Municipal Aerodrome had opened in October 1931. Regular flights linked it with London and Newcastle. When war broke out in 1939, Avro built a ‘shadow factory’ alongside the aerodrome to contribute to the aircraft production needed for the war effort.
The factory covered a million and a half square feet in area. It was the largest single factory unit in Europe. It was one of a number of shadow factories built around the country for wartime aircraft production. Its size and significance meant that it was at high risk of being a target for enemy bombers.
An elaborate camouflaging operation took place, masterminded by people who had previously worked in the film industry. The camouflage consisted of grass covering the roof of the factory, replicating the original field pattern. There were imitation farm buildings, stone walls and a duck pond in the area around the factory. Hedges and bushes made out of fabric were changed to match the changing colours of the seasons. Personnel moved dummy animals around daily to increase the camouflage. It worked because enemy bombers never detected the factory. It remained untouched throughout the war.
At the height of its operation, more than 17,500 people, mostly conscripts, worked there. The factory was an assembly plant that was in production 24 hours a day. Workers bussed in from all over West Yorkshire and worked 69-hours a week on a three days, followed by three nights basis. Extra homes built in the surrounding towns accommodated the large workforce. Gracie Fields visited the factory to entertain the workers. More than 5,000 at a time crammed into the works canteen for concerts.
Throughout the course of the war, Avro Yeadon produced almost 700 Lancaster bombers, 4,500 Ansons and several other types of aircraft. Service men built a taxiway from the factory to the aerodrome. The taxiway extended so that it could become a test centre for military flights.
The airfield resumed civilian flights in 1947 and subsequently developed into Leeds-Bradford International Airport. The Avro factory closed in 1946 but the site is now the Leeds-Bradford Airport Industrial Estate. The estate’s main building is the same one, albeit modified and without the camouflage, that housed the aircraft factory during the war. The remains of the taxiway from the factory to the main airfield are still visible.
There was also a Royal Ordnance Corps site opposite the Avro factory. Some remains of that can be seen in what is now a secure parking area and caravan park. A plaque commemorating the role of Avro Yeadon is displayed inside the airport’s terminal building. It is still remarkable to imagine, as you drive along the A658 past the industrial estate, that this was once a secret factory that contributed so much to Britain’s war effort.
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