Catapult Armed Merchant ship (CAM)

Ventile® – A Brief History

We selected Ventile® as a core fabric for our line for both its performance characteristics as well as its heritage which dates back to the late 1930s and the looming Second World War.

In the event of war, the British government anticipated a shortage of flax – a fiber used in fire hoses and water buckets at the time. An alternative was needed and the government launched a research program to evaluate the use of tightly woven cottons to hold in water. The outcome was ultimately successful, yielding a fabric that could serve as an suitable alternative to flax-based material

Fast forward to the entry of the Soviet Union into the Second World War. The Red Army was devastated by the German onslaught in 1941. Hence, there was an urgent need to provide supplies to the Soviet’s under the Lend-Lease program. Allied convoys transported supplies from ports in the United Kingdom and North America to the ports of Arkhangelsk and Murmansk in the Soviet Union via the Barents Sea and often in polar conditions. The Arctic route was the shortest and most direct route for transporting Lend-Lease aid to the USSR, though it was also the most dangerous. A total of 78 convoys made the journey between August 1941 and May 1945 escorted by ships from the Royal Navy, the Royal Canadian Navy, and the US Navy.

Often operating beyond the range of land-based air cover, the Arctic convoys were particularly vulnerable to attack from Nazi U-boats and long-range bombers. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill advocated fitting merchant ships with catapults from which fighter aircraft, specifically Hawker Hurricanes, could be launched to provide much needed air cover for the convoys. Since there was no means of landing the Hurricanes on the deck of the merchant ship, the aircraft were expendable and their pilots were forced to either ditch or bail out and await rescue in the frigid sea.

It was, in essence a suicide mission for the airmen. Life expectancy in the water was measured in minutes and, despite specially designated rescue ships in the convoy, most pilots died from exposure.

There was an urgent need to improve the odds of survival for pilots on the Arctic convoys. They required new, more effective protective clothing that would enable them to function effectively and comfortably in the cockpit under combat conditions, while also enabling them to withstand extremely cold water while awaiting rescue at sea.

There was much trial and error in the development process before scientists at the Shirley Institute in Manchester, England produced the fabric called Ventile®. When made into an immersion suit for pilots, Ventile® increased life expectancy from a mere few minutes to 20 minutes. Rescue was now a real possibility, and 80% of pilots who had to ditch or bailout at sea survived long enough to be rescued.

By the end of the war, some 3,964,000 tons of supplies were shipped by the Arctic route; 7% was lost, while 93% arrived safely, accounting for roughly 23% of the total aid to the USSR during the war.

Ventile® was mass produced for the British Royal Air Force, RAF, beginning in 1943, and it remains in use today in immersion suits for the RAF and other NATO and NATO allied air forces.