Many chemists did important work during World War II, often under difficult circumstances. My father, Robert Hopkins, who recently died at the age of 100, was one of them. As a taste of the times, here is a small selection from his memories.
I was nineteen and in the middle of a chemistry class at Regent Street Polytechnic in London when the war broke out. The course was sped up by increasing the number of lectures at the expense of practical work, and the final exams were held in the summer of 1940. The hands-on exams were held in a one-story wooden building in South Kensington, and we were regularly divided into a more solid place where the exam observer thought planes were too close. The gas pressure for the bunsen burner was low and the job was difficult even if you knew what to do.
After receiving my release papers, I was allowed to take up a position in the laboratory of the De Havilland Aircraft Company in Hatfield. The January 1941 lab was very small and consisted of the aircraft department metallurgist (‘The Boss’), an apprentice, and me. The laboratory was getting bigger and bigger and staffed with different skills or none at all. My closest colleague was also a chemist, and we weren’t allowed to cross main street together if we were both knocked down.
The work we have done has been varied. Process control included heat treatment, electroplating and surface treatment, and we got to know some of the process operators quite well. One, a perfect gentleman, who addressed me as “Mister Robert” had been a Rolls-Royce chauffeur before the war and was still using wire cutters marked RR. Another man, a former miner, handled a variety of uncomfortable treatment baths with care and efficiency. I have a precious memory of the tool hardener who sits on a metal drum and pours out his coffee. The drum contained a quarter of a ton of cyanide. Health and Safety in the Workplace?
We should give an opinion on everything. The weight of the fabric, the moisture content of the wood, the strength of an adhesive bond: “What’s wrong with this sheet metal / wire / hose / paint?” Most of the time we made it, but assessing the problem with a milk sample from the canteen was really a mystery to us. The boss had a drink and made a vague remark that he was glad to be so good at home.
In 1941, the main aircraft in production was the Airspeed Oxford, which De Havilland introduced to the black art of spot welding aluminum alloys. The process took up a reasonable portion of the laboratory effort. One of the secrets was to get a uniform finish on the aluminum, which we used two malicious solutions on. Handling a pint in the lab was one thing, but 300 or 400 gallons in the shop was quite another. We were lucky not to have any serious accidents, especially since the tanks that were originally delivered were not overly robust and had to be replaced fairly quickly.
The production in Oxford made way for the mosquito that was the reason for the new laboratory in Hatfield. The idea of building a bomber that is faster than any other fighter, be it English or German, and made of wood (birch, spruce, balsa) could be sold to the authorities, but it was in due course. Low temperature thermometers were used to find out how cold it was at high altitude. These thermometers did not contain mercury, which would have frozen, but a red colored spirit so that it could be seen. When they returned, the dye had been bleached from high altitude ultraviolet light. To protect the aircraft from these conditions, there was a layer of pigmented aluminum paint under the camouflage. There was a layer of fabric underneath, linen on top of the plane, fine cotton on the rest.
The increase in production required more space, so we moved to factories whose businesses had disappeared during the war. There were also subcontractors to work with. It was difficult to bend sheet steel and asked if something less strong could be supplied. CWS furniture made wings and felt it was unreasonable that a 50 foot wood structure should be made with a tolerance of 1/10 of an inch. Hoopers, the coachbuilders at Rolls-Royce, were completely different. They worked out a way to speed up the setting of the synthetic glue by heating it, which we had to approve. Early planes were glued with goat milk casein glue, but synthetic resin glue, based on technology brought in from Germany in 1939, was much more water-resistant.
My father continued to work as a chemist for the rest of his working life, but I think he looked back on that time with particular satisfaction.