IT IS one of the most inspiring stories of the Second World War - and one which has remained largely hidden for 80 years.

After the Spitfire factories in Itchen and Woolston were wiped out by Nazi bombers in 1940, production of the famous fighter aircraft was switched to dozens of secret sites across the south.

An assortment of everyday buildings within a 50-mile radius of Southampton were turned into tiny versions of the former Supermarine works.

Barns, bus depots and warehouses were used to make components for Spitfires, enabling the manufacture of R J Mitchell's iconic creation to continue.

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Unlike the easily identifiable Supermarine complex, with its distinctive Art Deco design, they appear to have gone unnoticed by the German planes that continued to target the UK.

The company's head office and top-secret design facilities were moved to Hursley Park, a huge stately home near Winchester.

The property was owned by the recently-widowed Lady Mary Cooper, who welcomed the new arrivals with a floral bouquet in the shape of a Spitfire.

Now the story of how the Nazis failed to halt the production of the plane that helped secure their defeat is revealed in a new book, Secret Spitfires. Its three authors include former EastEnders star Karl Howman, 66, who also appeared in the BBC comedy series Brush Strokes.

Daily Echo:

About 10,000 Spitfires were built at sites tucked away in Hampshire, Berkshire and Wiltshire, all of which became part of a unique assembly line.

It was a fully-fledged version of a scheme that swung into action after the first bombs were dropped on Southampton in the summer of 1940.

Following the initial decision to disperse production the first buildings selected were Hendy's Garage off Pound Tree Road, Southampton, and Seward Garage in Winchester Road.

The clandestine operation was ramped up later that year following the devastating raids on Supermarine itself.

Daily Echo:

Engineers were told to find locations capable of meeting the necessary criteria. They had to have concrete floors, good-sized doors and a large area of floorspace free from pillars.

Car dealerships, bus depots and garages were deemed to be ideal candidates, with warehouses and laundries also high on the list.

Supermarine selected sites outside cities to ensure secrecy, which presented the company with the challenge of staffing a large number of mini aircraft factories.

Many of the workers were reluctant to leave Southampton, while others were dealing with mental or physical injuries caused by the bombing. Another issue was the lack of suitable housing.

Supermarine solved the problem by employing women who lived near the new factories, having previously worked in non-technical occupations such as hairdressing and retail.

Daily Echo:

Described by the authors as a secret civilian army, the women were expected to quickly master the tools and techniques needed to produce Spitfires and help keep the Nazis at bay.

They had to cope with deafening noise, 12-hour shifts and the burden of handling heavy machinery.

According to Secret Spitfires they "built, assembled, fitted and finished thousands of fuselages using new and demanding processes never before employed on a such a scale in any one factory - never mind in widely dispersed smaller units."

The makeshift production facilities were a closely-guarded secret and stayed that way - despite the nature of their work.

In a foreword to the book Maggie Appleton, chief executive of the RAF Museum, says: "The thrill and sheer impertinence of these dispersed Spitfire factories, 'hidden' in plain sight, was clearly a story begging to be told.

"It is remarkable that until very recently these women remained silent about their extraordinary contribution."

Secret Spitfires, by Karl Howman and Ethem Cetintas, with Gavin Clarke, is published by The History Press at £20.