Picture the scene: It is rural Britain and we are in the midst of World War II. All of our healthy male workforce is away, fighting in the war in France, and there simply aren’t enough people to run our farms. Farming is more important than ever as our nation is beginning to run out of food, and very little can be shipped in due to blockades.
Women have been asked to volunteer for the Women’s Land Army and leave the cities to come to work on our farms. These women become known as “Land Girls,” and their work is now recognised as being instrumental in keeping Britain fed during wartime.
There is a sense of chaos in the farming community: Most of these young female recruits come from cities and they haven’t got much of a clue about farming – and their training is largely inadequate, because you simply can’t teach a person every aspect of farming in just a couple of weeks of training.
Add to this chaos the pressure from the government to produce more crops. Britain was heavily reliant on imported food and we were barely receiving any food from overseas as the German U-boats were patrolling the seas, and farmers were being forced to plough up more and more land to grow crops to feed our hungry nation. Food was rationed, but to some extent, rural folks were luckier as it was easier for them to obtain butter, milk and meat from their neighbours, even if some of these purchases weren’t strictly legal.
I recall one elderly gent (who was a schoolboy during the war) telling me how he would take their homemade butter to school with him to pass onto another child, who would hand it onto his mother. The next day, something else, like a couple of pork chops, might be handed over as payment. That is how a lot of rural people managed to make ends meet during wartime.
Migration of children to the country
Another big change in the rural scene was the arrival of child refugees coming from the cities to escape the Blitz. Our large towns were being heavily bombed and it was generally agreed that urban areas were too dangerous for anyone who didn’t have to be there.
Wealthier families escaped together to the country, but most people felt that they had little choice but to hand their children over to a volunteer at a train station. They would be transported to the countryside, to families who had agreed to take them in. Many of these child refugees were as young as 5 years of age, and the people who they were to live with for the foreseeable future were complete strangers.
No one was forced to send their children to the countryside, but the cities were dangerous and the schools were mostly closed. The need for safety had to override any other emotions. It was heart-breaking for parents saying goodbye to their children at these railway stations, not knowing who was going to be taking care of them, or how long they would be gone.
And it wasn’t always easy for the rural people who took these children in. Some of the children were deeply unhappy and found rural life, away from everyone and everything familiar, very difficult.
Once when I was living at an old farmhouse in West Wales, an elderly gentleman turned up in the yard. It turned out that he had been evacuated from Liverpool as a boy of 7 to this very farm. He was fascinated to look around the place, and it brought back many memories for him, but he had tears in his eyes when he told me how frightening it was that first night in the dark old farmhouse, with unfamiliar adults who spoke only in Welsh, a language he had never heard before.
For Land Girls and city kids, rural Britain was a strange new world
Compared to life in the cities, things were still very primitive in the countryside. There was usually no electricity or running water, food was cooked on fires, and the outdoor work was hard and unfamiliar. The transition was difficult for many, not only the child refugees, but also the Land Girls.
Some Land Girls thrived in the fresh air, the physical work suited them, and many remember it as the happiest time in their lives. For women it truly was a liberating time, as finally they were given a chance to prove themselves, to wear trousers, to get their hands dirty, and to do their bit for the war effort. It was the first time that many people – men and women – realised that, with the right training, women were capable of much more than just domestic duties.
Some Land Girls went on to marry rural men and farmers, and never went back to city life, but generally in World War II there was rather a lack of young male company as most fit young men were away fighting in the war.
Iconic tractors of the war years
The most memorable tractor of World War II is without doubt the Fordson Model N. Fordson tractors were the first mass-produced, affordable tractors to be built in the U.K., and they were extremely commonplace on farms throughout Britain. Built in Dagenham, Essex, the Fordson N tractor was a key player in the gradual shift from horse power to mechanisation on many farms.
Larger farms had begun using tractors decades earlier, but poorer farmers and those who were raising sheep and cattle, rather than growing crops, were often still using horses for farm work throughout the war years and beyond. Ford was not the market leader in the U.S., but in Britain at the time, Fordson tractors were hugely popular and they were sold in vast numbers.
VAK 1 launch almost immediately derailed by declaration of war
There were of course other tractors being made in Britain at the time, like the David Brown VAK 1 built in Yorkshire, England. The David Brown VAK 1 was introduced to the world at the Royal Agricultural Show in Windsor Great Park in July 1939, and by September of that year, World War II had broken out. The David Brown company had been involved in production of tank transmissions prior to the war. Once war broke out, they were again required to focus their attention on essential war time work.
From 1940 to 1945, David Brown produced 10,000 tank transmissions and some 6,000 hydraulic pumps for aircraft. They were also required to produce a heavy-duty industrial tractor for towing aircraft on military bases, tractors that went on to be known as airport tugs, and this war-related work restricted the number of farm tractors that they were able to produce.
There was also a shortage of raw materials during the war years, so much so that any metal railings which were not being used to protect fruit, vegetables or grains were removed by the authorities and melted down to make munitions. Still today, when you walk around old British city streets, you will see the marks along the tops of walls and on the sides of gardens where railings have been sawn off and removed during wartime.
Fighting an uphill battle
Despite the rather unfortunate timing of having introduced their tractor right at the beginning of World War II, the David Brown VAK 1 continued to be produced right up until 1945. These striking red tractors were good, reliable workhorses, but they were produced in far fewer numbers than the Fordson.
This was largely because of David Brown’s commitments to produce tractors and gear systems for military use, but also because Ford was a well-known and trusted manufacturer of motor vehicles and tractors, whereas David Brown was a relative newcomer on the tractor scene.
David Brown had already co-produced the Ferguson-Brown tractor, a joint project with Harry Ferguson, but the company was not as well-established in the tractor scene as Ford was, and although David Brown’s roots go back to 1860, its work had always been more “behind the scenes,” producing gears and gear systems for a variety of industrial applications.
Hampered by war-time production, VAK 1 built in low numbers
The VAK 1 was David Brown’s first solo foray into the tractor market, and wartime Britain probably wasn’t the best time to market a brand new tractor, especially one that appeared so different from those that everyone was familiar with.
The David Brown VAK 1 was unique looking. It was bright red and it had a curved wrap-around fairing that both offered wind protection for the driver’s hands and gave the tractor a stylish, eye-catching shape. The David Brown VAK 1 even sounded different: The overhead valve, 4-cylinder engine had a different roar to it.
It took a brave sort of buyer to choose one of these unusual looking tractors over the reassuringly familiar Fordson N. But with their 3-point linkage system and PTO as standard, the VAK 1 was a modern and reliable tractor. Just over 5,000 VAK 1 tractors were built during World War II, and these relatively low figures are due more to the company’s wartime commitments than to any public lack of faith in the tractor itself. The fact that the David Brown VAK 1 was never mass-produced in the way that the Fordson was means that today it is a very collectable tractor.
Lend-Lease Act delivers tractors
Another reason for the Fordson N tractor’s success in Britain was that because it was considerably more affordable than other tractors, smaller companies could not begin to compete with Ford. Other British-built tractors like Marshall (whose Model M tractor was produced in 1938) were available, but with our engineering industry engaged in production of military machinery for the war effort, no new machinery was being designed, and we were largely reliant on old and outdated tractors.
It was a case of “all hands on deck.” Farmers dragged out their old and obsolete machines, relics that had been in work during World War I, as anything that could be used to plough or to power a belt was better than nothing. Under the 1941 Lend-Lease Act, a supply of American tractors was shipped to Britain to help boost our farming industry.
Some farm implements were also shipped over to the U.K., but most of what arrived on our shores were tractors, to aid with the cultivation and harvesting of crops. Tractors like the Oliver 90, the Minneapolis-Moline UTS and the McCormick-Deering W-4 were loaded onto ships and sent to Britain. These cargo ships were easy targets for the German U-boats, and great risks were taken to deliver these vital machines to our country.
Those tractors that did arrive safely were soon put to good use, though one can only assume that these unfamiliar tractors had a few British farmers scratching their heads. Most of the Lend-Lease tractors were more powerful than our older British-built machines, so the extra power came as a pleasant surprise to many farmers.
But by far and wide the biggest sensation to arrive from America was the Caterpillar tracked tractor. In the steep and hilly regions of the British Isles there was a great deal of land “going to waste,” as the government saw it, and the only tractors capable of turning these slopes into arable land were tracked machines like the Caterpillar D2. Rough ground, steep slopes and damp terrain were easily conquered by a crawler tractor, and these “go anywhere” machines enabled farmers to cultivate land where no tractor had been before.
Steam engines come out of retirement to boost farm production
When it came to threshing time, it was a common sight to see a Fordson Model N, or indeed any tractor with a belt pulley, powering the threshing machines. But it was by no means unusual to see old steam traction engines powering threshing machines too, as steam remained a viable option for stationary farm work during the war years.
Threshing was labour-intensive work and with the healthy male workforce away fighting in the war it was left to women, elderly men and prisoners of war to do this vital work. German and Italian prisoners of war were put to work on farms throughout Britain, and they assisted with work like threshing, haymaking, wall building and vegetable harvests. Amazingly, some of these prisoners opted to stay in Britain after the war ended, and went on to marry local women. A small stone cattle barn on the edge of my property was built by prisoners of war; it remains in use as a shed today.
We are lucky in that we, as a country, still have many of our old World War II tractors of both British and American origin. These historic tractors are cherished by today’s collectors and enthusiasts, because to be able to say that your tractor played a part in helping to keep Britain fed through World War II is truly something special. These wartime tractors that we depended on so heavily through some of our darkest times will always have a special place in our hearts. FC
Josephine Roberts lives on an old-fashioned smallholding in Snowdonia, North Wales, and has a passion for all things vintage. Email her at email@example.com.