The Ministry of Supply

The design and production of aircraft became the concern of the Ministry of Aircraft Production in May 1940. In April 1946 the Ministry of Aircraft Production was dissolved and its powers transferred to the Ministry of Supply, whose primary duty was the furnishing of supplies and the carrying out of research design and development for the services.

Firstly, this lead to problems in that the Ministry of Supply was responsible for developing aircraft, but at the same time, it would not be the end user, and thus lacked the incentive to overcome obstacles, and to speed the process along. Secondly, it did not have to operate the obsolescent material that the prototypes would replace, and so here too lacked that final sense of urgency. A third criticism was its industrial policy: projects were often not allocated to firms on the basis of their ability to carry them out, but often given to firms who were short of work in order to keep them busy. Sometimes the rationale behind some of the decisions was hard to fathom. Blue Steel was given to Avro, who had no experience whatsoever in guided weapons and had to set up a division from scratch – a process which must have cost a year or so of development time.

Reginald Maudling was Minister of Supply from 1955 to 1957. He has this to say about the Ministry in his autobiography:

When Anthony Eden became Prime Minister in 1955, he promoted me to Minister of Supply, which was my first full Ministerial post… It was a strange Department, and the target of a good deal of criticism, much of it justified. It was supposed to be concerned mainly with the supply of munitions to the three Services, and this was a large part of the routine work of the Department, but in addition it had responsibility for the aircraft production industry generally. The Government exercised a great deal of influence over the industry because, with the scale of modern projects and the vast amount of research expenditure involved, the industry had to rely heavily on the Government for contracts and for support. In addition, the Ministry of Supply was responsible for the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough, a quite remarkable institution, upon which industry relied heavily for scientific and technical support.

Inevitably we got caught in the middle in all disputes that went on between manufacturer and consumer. This was particularly true in the field of military aircraft, with the Air Force always demanding more from the manufacturers and complaining they were not getting their requirements met, while the manufacturers were saying that they were doing all that was possible and the RAF were asking too much. Relations between the Ministry of Supply and the Air Ministry were not ideal, and indeed I had from time to time considerable battles with Nigel Birch, who was then Secretary of State for Air. I came to the conclusion during the time I was there that the system was a bad one and that the interposition of a third party between customer and supplier, rather than acting as a pacifying agent, merely exacerbated argument. I did, in fact, recommend the abolition of the Ministry of Supply and when Harold Macmillan asked me to continue in that job when he became Prime Minister I naturally refused, because it seemed absurd to continue as Minister in charge of a Department whose existence I did not think was justified.1

Sir Frank Cooper, one of the senior Civil Servants of the time (among many other posts, Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Defence from 1976 until 1982), had this to say about the Ministry of Supply in the context of the TSR 2, although his strictures could be applied more generally:

There was no doubt that relations with the Ministry of Aviation /Supply and the Air Ministry went from bad to worse and that these poor relations spread increasingly to the Ministry of Defence as a whole. The breach itself was of long-standing. The basic cause was lack of trust, particularly as regards the information received by the Air Ministry. The trust was lacking because the Procurement Ministry stood between the Air Ministry as the customer, and industry as the supplier. Moreover nothing seemed to arrive at the right time and at the right price, let alone with the desired performance. The lack of trust was exacerbated by the financial arrangements under which the Ministry of Supply/Aviation recovered production costs from the Air Ministry but was left with the research and development costs. Hence, there was no clear objective against which the supply department could assess performance and value.