IN 1940, with the nation’s future hanging in the balance, men and women toiled 17 and 18 hours a day in Southampton to produce desperately needed Spitfire fighters.

A total of 110 people died in bombing raids in September that year against the Supermarine Aviation Works, as the Luftwaffe sought to extinguish one of RAF Fighter Command’s main suppliers outright.

The factory along the banks of the River Itchen looked like countless others when viewed from the cockpit of a Luftwaffe bomber. It appeared ordinary, much like many of the other buildings lining the Woolston Shore. But German intelligence had confirmed that within its walls was the production line for one of the Luftwaffe’s most formidable opponents.

It was also right next door to the Thornycroft naval shipyard, producing destroyers for the Royal Navy and the whole area was surrounded by fuel depots and aircraft maintenance and construction facilities. In short, a perfect target for the Luftwaffe’s bombers However, unbeknown to the Luftwaffe, in 1939, when the outbreak of war was imminent, and even greater numbers of Spitfires were going to be required, Supermarine's Len Gooch was appointed works engineer to plan a suitable dispersal scheme for the Southampton area.

This included the requisitioning of a bus station and three sizeable garages to support the main Spitfire production centres, Woolston and Itchen, and the final assembly and flight-testing at Eastleigh.

The Spitfire production line thus evolved: Spitfire wings and fuselages were taken on lorries from the main works and the Itchen works in Hazel Road, Woolston, to the assembly hangar at Eastleigh Airport where the Merlin engines were fitted and the assembled aircraft tested. The finished Spitfires were then distributed to the various Squadrons at operational air bases.

By August 1940, more than 800 had been built since full-scale production had started in 1938. Meanwhile, the site itself had become ringed with anti-aircraft defences but that was not going to deter the Luftwaffe and, as a result of their desire to wipe out the Spitfire production line, more than 150 people were killed when German bombers attacked Southampton’s Spitfire factory during September 1940.

Shortly after 5.30pm on the evening of September 15, 30 German warplanes led by commanding officer Martin Lutz dived from 7,000ft towards Woolston. Twelve tons of bombs were dropped on to the Supermarine Works and Thornycroft’s. Yet damage to Supermarine was relatively minor even though six people were killed in the immediate area and many homes destroyed.

During the afternoon of Tuesday, September 24, enemy aircraft approached from the south and drop 29 high explosive bombs and one incendiary.

The Supermarine works was lucky – of the 17 bombs which fell on the site, most landed in the mud of the river, and there was little damage to the buildings. But some of the workers had run into a shelter beneath the railway embankment. This took a direct hit and most of those inside were killed. Many nearby houses were also destroyed with terrible loss of life.

The Luftwaffe tried again two days later with a much heavier force. At tea-time more than 100 fighters and bombers flew high up over the west side of Southampton Water, then dived to a height of 5,000 or 6,000 feet to deliver their deadly cargo.

In spite of anti-aircraft fire, 60 high-explosive bombs were dropped west of the river and 80 on the east side, some of which virtually destroyed the main Supermarine factory and its Itchen annex up-stream. One bomb scored a direct hit on a shelter, but it was unoccupied – with the experience of two days before vividly in their minds, many of the employees had run up the slope behind.

The Supermarine factory was in ruins and it was obvious there would have to be a radical re-think on Spitfire production. The whole process would have to be moved away from the south coast to areas harder to identify from the air.

However production on the Spitfire swiftly continued as Lord Beaverbrook, the minister of aircraft production, immediately ordered a complete dispersal of the entire Supermarine works with many local garages and large store premises being requisitioned to help continue production.

Today an aggregate unloading wharf occupies most of the former Woolston Supermarine Works and a block of apartments has been built close to the old factory slipway. A memorial plaque nearby remembers those civilians – two as young as 14 – who died during the three Supermarine raids.