Origins of Ministry of Supply
During 1919 and 1920 the supply functions of the Ministry of Munitions passed to the Air Ministry and War Office and the ministry itself was wound up in 1921. Thereafter there was no separate supply department until the eve of the Second World War. Some measures were, however, taken to co-ordinate supply for the armed services by setting up in 1924 the Principal Supply Officers Committee as a sub-committee of the Committee of Imperial Defence and by appointing in 1936 a Minister for the Co-ordination of Defence.
From about 1934 proposals were put forward from various quarters for the creation of a supply ministry, but there were several views on what this ministry's functions should be, ranging from a ministry controlling all aspects of supply to all three services to one merely controlling the allocation of materials and resources to the services' own supply organisations. The Admiralty insisted that naval design and production must remain in its own hands, as it had done in the First World War, and the Air Ministry took a similar line on aircraft design and production. Consequently, when the Ministry of Supply was formed on 1 August 1939, it had only restricted functions.
Ministry of Supply, 1939-1959
When the ministry was set up under the Ministry of Supply Act 1939 it became responsible for the administration of the Royal Ordnance Factories and for design, inspection, research and experimental work in connection with the supply of munitions, clothing and other stores to the War Office and Air Ministry, but not for the design and production of aircraft, which became the concern of a separate Ministry of Aircraft Production in May 1940. It was also responsible for the supply of certain common stores to the Admiralty, Ministry of Home Security, Office of Works and subsequently to other government departments.
In addition, the ministry was given powers to control the acquisition, disposal, manufacture and prices of raw materials, and in September 1939 took over from the Board of Trade its Supply Organisation, including responsibility for obtaining information about fertiliser and petroleum stocks and the maintenance of adequate reserves under the Essential Commodities Reserves Act 1938.
To co-ordinate the production programmes of the Ministry of Supply, Ministry of Aircraft Production and Admiralty, a Minister of Production was appointed in February 1942. He was assisted by the Central Priority Department, which until 1941, when it was transferred to the Production Executive, had been located within the Ministry of Supply.
The original organisation of the Ministry of Supply was based on the Department of the Director-General of Munitions Production, which it took over from the War Office and the Board of Trade's Supply Organisation. The various aspects of production were put under the superintendence of a controller general of munitions production in 1941, separate departments dealing with armoured fighting vehicles, ammunition, raw materials and contracts. An Air Division was added in 1946.
General policy was determined by a Supply Council, set up on 26 September 1939. Its numbers and membership varied from time to time, but it usually comprised the minister, various directors general, the senior military adviser, and the parliamentary and permanent secretaries. In 1941 a smaller Executive Committee was formed, and in March 1942 an independent chairman was appointed to both the council and the committee.
In the following October the committee was abolished. From the outset the ministry had representatives in the USA, Canada and other countries to purchase munitions and raw materials, and from these developed a number of overseas supply organisations responsible to the ministry, which also found itself taking control of research and development work in many areas.
After the war the ministry's functions were extended in certain directions and reduced in others. On 1 April 1946 the Ministry of Aircraft Production, which since August 1945 had operated under a combined Minister of Supply and Minister of Aircraft Production, was dissolved and its powers transferred to the Ministry of Supply.
In announcing this merger the Prime Minister stated that the primary duty of the Ministry of Supply would be the furnishing of supplies and the carrying out of research design and development for the fighting services, to the extent that these functions were undertaken by the two ministries at that time. It would also be responsible for the supply, and in many cases the design, of a large range of stores used by the government, and would carry the primary governmental responsibility in the field of engineering previously exercised by the Board of Trade.
However, at the same time the ministry's powers to control raw materials other than iron and steel, non-ferrous metals and light metals passed from the ministry to the Board of Trade and the ministry's Raw Materials Department and its non-engineering Raw Materials Controls were transferred to the board, together with timber supply work taken over from the Forestry Commission in 1941. Certain powers relating to petroleum were also transferred to the Ministry of Fuel and Power.
Under the Atomic Energy Act 1946 the Ministry of Supply took over from the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research the duty of promoting and controlling the development of atomic energy. In 1947 the ministry's responsibility as production authority for the production of building materials and components produced by the engineering industry, other than aluminium houses, passed to the Ministry of Works, and its functions in respect of procurement of medical supplies for the public services passed to the Ministry of Health, the Directorate of Medical Supplies being transferred to that ministry accordingly.
In the same year the supervisory functions of the War Office under the Gunbarrel Proof Act 1868 were transferred to the ministry and in 1949 the ministry's functions concerning ethylchloride and kitchen waste passed to the Board of Trade. In 1951 control of most non-ferrous and light metals passed to the Ministry of Materials and in 1952 responsibility for the official car service, which had been under the control of the ministry from 1946, was transferred to the Ministry of Works.
In 1954 the ministry's responsibility for the development of atomic energy passed to the lord president of the Council and in 1955 its functions with regard to iron and steel passed to the Board of Trade, together with responsibility for the engineering industries except the aircraft, light metal and electronic industries.
In October 1959 the civil aviation functions of the Ministry of Transport and Civil Aviation were transferred to the Ministry of Supply, which was simultaneously disbanded and reconstituted as the Ministry of Aviation. At the same time supply functions, with the exception of those relating to aircraft, guided missiles, radar and electronic equipment, were returned to the Air Ministry and War Office.