ArrowrIcon Home icon

World War Two: Victory! and afterwards


Army surplus sales after World War Two, UK

government surplus from WW2

From 1945 onwards, i.e. at the end of the Second World War, the UK government sold off vast quantities of war equipment at public auction presumably to make money and to satisfy the public hunger for goods that had been in short supply during the war. These items were sold at crazy prices, well below the cost of manufacture, and then sold on to regular shops. This page gives the flavour of their enormous range and quantity and how the public made use of them. In particular, the readily available and cheap electronic parts were intriguing to many a young person and were the beginning of life-long practical interests in all things electronic. The page concludes with one particular surplus item which certainly could not be sold on - bombs!

The cheap electronic components

Shops selling radio and electronics surplus

I was particularly interested in radio and electronics, and Government Surplus shops like HL Smith, Henry's Radio and Laskey's sold such items cheaply. They were in Lisle Street Soho and Praed Street off the Edgware Road. - a long cycle ride for me, but worth it!

Advert for H L Smith, one of the many shops in the Edgware Road selling post-war electronic components

Advert for H L Smith, one of the many shops in the Edgware Road selling post-war electronic components, courtesy of Philip Stokes.

Typical sought-after electronic components

One of the most sought after items was the R1155 communications receiver. If you had the money, a brand new boxed receiver could be had for £7.19.6, a small fortune in those days. These were used by the growing amateur radio fraternity with slight modifications.

The R1155 communication receiver

During the war, the  R1155 communication receiver was used mainly in RAF aircraft and some boats but never in tanks. Tanks mainly used the '19 set' which was also found piled to the ceiling in Lisle street shops!

Graham Phillips

One amplifier in particular was the 'Williamson' amplifier first reaching the public in 1947 by D.T.N Williamson. Its design became a standard for the 'Hi-Fi' DIY enthusiasts of the 1940s and 50s, and its concepts are still relevant as I write in 2014.

Oscilloscope made using a VCR97 display tube from an 'Indicator Unit'

WW2 electronic surplus equipment

I can well remember going to a shop in TottenCourt road to buy what was called an 'Indicator Unit'. Part of my memory was dificulty I had in carrying this as it was bulky and quite heavy. Exactly what it was used for originally I don't know but assumed that maybe it had something to do with radar. For me the important part was the display tube seen in the front of the unit. This was known as a VCR97 display tube. For interest, when writing this article, I did a search for 'VCR97' on the internet and was surprised to see that it is still advertised for sale today. My intent was to make an oscilloscope using the VCR97 to display waveforms from the electronics I was playing with.

Magazines dedicated to radio and electronics

There was a surge of new magazines which gave advice on making good use of the new, cheap range of electronic components, and older magazines started again, having ceased publishing during the war

The best magazine in my view was 'Wireless World' which no longer exists. Articles were contributed by very knowledgeable people such as scientists and engineers. I personally built numerous audio amplifiers with their help, first with valves and later with transistors.

'Practical Wireless' was another DIY constructors' magazine. Another was 'Amateur Radio'.

Cover of Practical Wireless magazine, dated 1932

This copy of Practical Wireless is dated September 1932.
Photographed by the webmaster at a temporary exhibition. Note the old-style valves at the lower left.

As I write in March 2016, 'Practical Wireless' magazine is still published monthly and currently now edited by my good friend, Don Field.

Graham Phillips

All these magazines carried adverts for kits for home construction. Shops like those in the Edgware Road also sold their own versions.

As a point of interest regarding Wireless World. Arthur C. Clarke the famous writer and scientist contributed an article in 1945 describing in some detail the current satellite system we were still using years later. The edition was reprinted - I think around 2005 - as a commemorative gesture to his original thinking.

War surplus items sold for new uses

Small parachutes as toys

An item sold as a toy was a small parachute about three feet in diameter that I used to attach weights to and drop from the upper rooms of the family house into the garden. I think originally they were used as a pilot parachute to enable the main canopy to be opened when deployed in action. If I remember they cost 1/6p from Steels in Burnt Oak Broadway.

Semaphore signalling devices sold for amusement

Another item sold as a toy was a hand-held semaphore signalling device. It comprised of a black plastic/paper case about three inches square by a quarter of an inch thick, and when it was squeezed longitudinally a slatted window appeared depicting a series of alternate black and white bars. I can only think they were used for silent communicating between soldiers in action.

Gas mask containers sold as general purpose bags

I know that surplus gas mask carriers were used by workers to carry their food and drinks when going to work by cycle, but I am sure that these strong bags had many uses.

Penknives and jack knives

Hardware shops in various towns, sold war surplus penknives and jack knives, large knives with folding blades like penknives only bigger. They were displayed openly in a basket outside a shop I knew of the shop and cost 2/6d. They consisted of a di-cast metal case with a folding blade and spike. Could you imagine this being allowed to happen today with current health and safety concerns?

War surplus folding bicycles

The surplus folding bicycles had been made for the army. They consisted of an oval duplex steel frame hinged with a clamp in the middle of the frame for folding and ease of carrying. A TV series dealing with the D Day landings briefly showed a soldier arriving at the beach carrying one of the bicycles.

A second-hand car yard lot called Brook's Motors on the Edgware Road facing Garrett Road bought a pile of these bicycles, re-sprayed them and sold them on. They were very popular because regular new bicycles were unavailable after the war.

A war surplus - but not for sale! Bombs and the bomb dump

Needless to say, there were many surplus unused bombs after the war. They had to be disposed of and certainly not sold on.

Just after the war in late 1945, I went with my parents to see the local 'bomb dump'. This was somewhere in Epping Forest, near Chingford, and was a large fenced-off compound where all of the locally collected unexploded bombs had been brought after being defused. Having wrought so much havoc, they were a source of awe, but I remember being rather disappointed. They seemed so ordinary and flimsy - not at all what I had expected!

John Cole

If you can add anything to this page or provide a photo, I would be pleased if you would contact me.

Text and images are copyright

sources: early 20th century material      sources: ww2 home front and other material     contact
the webmaster/author/researcher/editor     privacy policy

linkedin icon icon facebook icon