John Inglis and Bren Production

If I say “John Inglis”, the first two things that probably come to mind for a gunnie are High Powers and Bren guns. Inglis was a Canadian company that made a huge proportion of the Bren guns used during WWII, as well as other munitions. At its peak, Inglis employed 17,800 workers…and yet in 1937 the company was bankrupt and in receivership, employing all of three maintenance caretakers. The story of how the firm went from broke to wildly successful is a story of deft maneuvering by a small group of businessmen – such deft maneuvering that it led to official investigation for corruption in 1938.

Veronica Foster - "Ronnie the Bren Gun Girl"
Veronica Foster – “Ronnie the Bren Gun Girl” – was an assembly line worker at Inglis who was made the subject of a PR campaign during the war.

We have a copy of the formal Report of the Royal Commission on the Bren Gun Contract available for download for anyone who is interested in reading all the details (it’s both pretty dry reading and a complete bureaucratic soap opera). The short version is that an enterprising Major J. E. Hahn (formerly of the Canadian Expeditionary Force) became aware of plans for the Canadian military to adopt the Bren, which it had no domestic capacity in place to manufacture. He put together a group of financial backers along with local politician looking for employment in his district. The collapsed John Inglis company (which had been making steamship turbines among other things until the Depression) was available for purchase, offering Hahn and his backers the illusion of actually being a sound business enterprise.

Hahn was able to adroitly work the War Departments on both sides of the Atlantic to get himself a contract to supply the Canadian army with all its Bren guns and also serve as a backup supplier to the British army. His political connections in Canada made him sound official to the British, and by combining the two orders together he was able to offer the Canadian government a better quantity discount than they could potentially get anywhere else. If the Canadian government somehow wound up under the (mistaken) impression that the British War Department would only be willing to work with the John Inglis Company, and thus it wasn’t worth sending the contract out for competitive bid, well, he didn’t know anything about that.

The Royal Commission that investigated the events didn’t actually find any evidence of corruption or illegal dealings. As far as I can tell, Hahn was both lucky, very skilled, and in the right place at the right time. His investment in Inglis (bought from its creditors for twenty cents on the dollar) became a gold mine, as Inglis grew into a huge industrial concern, and transitioned into household appliances after the war. And to be fair, there were never any major complaints (that I’m aware of, anyway) about the quality of Inglis guns.

Worker welding a Bren magazine at Inglis
Worker welding a Bren magazine at Inglis (much of the work was done by women, as the men who would normally hold these jobs were serving in the military)

You can see many more photos of the Inglis plant both during the war and after at this outstanding archive. The full PDF of the Royal Commission inquiry is here:

Report on Royal Commission on the Bren Machine Gun Contract (English, 1939)
Report on Royal Commission on the Bren Machine Gun Contract (English, 1939)