Ford at war: Fighting seen from both sides
By World War II, Ford found itself building engines for British airplanes and trucks for use by the German army
Converted Ford vehicles or products built at Ford factories played a prominent role in the fighting.
During World War I, Ford's production facilities were located almost entirely in neutral or Allied countries. With only a sales office in Hamburg, Ford of Germany played no part in the Axis war effort.
But Ford's Trafford Park factory in Manchester supplied the British army with 30,000 Model Ts as ambulances and transporters of troops, water and munitions carriers. British campaigner T.E. Lawrence of Arabia once called the Model T and the Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost the only two cars suitable for desert warfare. The factory's mass-production skills were also used to manufacture shell casings.
More Model Ts were supplied to the Allies by the Ford plant in Bordeaux, France.
But World War II was very different. Ford's network of European plants were on both sides of the hostilities.
Ironically, there was probably closer coordination of Ford's Continental European facilities during the war than in peacetime. Ford plants in the German-occupied countries of France, Belgium and Denmark were controlled by Ford of Germany based in Cologne.
Cologne had laid its plans after the 1938 Munich crisis. Robert Schmidt, a German national working at Ford world headquarters in Dearborn, was appointed general manager in Cologne.
After war was declared in September 1939 and France, Belgium, Holland and Denmark all quickly fell under German control, the German High Command appointed Schmidt as Verwalter (administrator) of Ford companies in occupied territory.
But during the war, production at Axis-controlled Ford plants was hampered by Allied bombing raids, raw material shortages, sabotage by workers in occupied countries, and tight security measures.
Belgian workers making trucks, for example, substituted steering columns made from poor material that would break in service. The Antwerp employees took home the genuine steering columns, painted them green and used them as garden stakes.
At Ford Germany, Schmidt refused a government order to produce tanks and armored cars. The operation did build some 14,000 Maultier (Mule) half-track trucks, but they proved unreliable in service, with a transmission too weak to cope with the caterpillar drive. Problems like this prompted German Field General Erwin Rommel to issue a directive: "For desert reconnaissance, only captured English trucks are to be employed, since German trucks stick in the sand too often."
Ford employees everywhere in Europe tried to preserve the production facilities with a view to resuming normal operations after the war. Circumstances sometimes dictated otherwise. During the air campaign after the Allied invasion of Italy, for example, the Ford agricultural tractor plant in Bologna was destroyed. Ironically, even during the war, most German-controlled Ford plants continued to use English as the in-house language. Belgian Ford employee Nestor Casteleyn said workers in Antwerp and the German plant manager spoke in English.
"We were of course Ford men, and he was a Ford man," he said.
Casteleyn played a more dangerous double role himself, gathering intelligence for the Resistance while traveling across Belgium, northern France and Germany purchasing production parts.
Ford of Germany built a total of 80,000 trucks for the German army during the war. Meanwhile, the Allies could draw on not only Ford plants in European Allied countries, but Ford's global resources including the USA and plants as distant as India. Within Europe, Ford's Dagenham plant played a leading role.
Over 250,000 Dagenham-built Ford V-8 engines were used in powerboats, landing craft and military vehicles of all kinds, including 14,000 Bren Gun Carriers built at Dagenham. Ford built 185,000 vans and trucks for the Allies.
Ford Britain also helped the Allied air war effort. Production Manager Patrick Hennessy was seconded to the Ministry of Aircraft Production. Hennessy devised a production plan for the British aircraft industry before the 1939-1940 Battle of Britain.
Ford also built a new factory at Urmston, England, to produce Rolls-Royce Merlin aircraft engines starting in June 1941. By 1945, Ford had built 30,000 of the supercharged V-12 engines - more than Rolls-Royce built at Derby - to power Hurricane and Spitfire fighters and the Mosquito and Lancaster bombers.