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An aviation industry is born Saabs early years

An aviation industry is born – Saab’s early years

13 min read

The year was 1937. The world was on the brink of another world war. Sweden wanted to equip the armed forces and build up its own, strong air force. A major new industry was born out of this threat. From a modest start Saab has developed into a global company in security and defence that is well known for its efficient technology and innovative solutions.

The storm clouds were gathering in the political sky during the 1930s. It seemed difficult to avoid a new thunderstorm between the world’s major powers, even though the horrors of World War I were still fresh in peoples’ memory.

As a neutral state Sweden had not been involved in wars or conflicts for more than a hundred years. To safeguard its neutrality and national sovereignty Sweden required strong defences. The Riksdag therefore decided in 1936 to make a significant investment in defence. A large proportion of the funding would go to that young branch of the armed forces, the Swedish Air Force.

It had already become clear during World War I that modern wars would be won from the air. Military aircraft were capital-hungry projects and in small states such as Sweden limited resources were available to build up the Swedish Air Force. But the lack of funding was not solely a disadvantage. The tight budget gave rise to new, imaginative solutions to difficult problems and helped to develop new technology and daring methods. These were qualities that would become a hallmark of the new company Saab.

An aviation industry is born Saabs early years
During World War II there was an ongoing intense assembly work at Saab's plants in Linköping and Trollhättan. A total of 324 copies were made years 1942-1944. Here is a snapshot dated October 9, 1942. Photo: Åke Lärkert.

Competition and cooperation on the first aircraft

The Riksdag had decided in 1936 that 257 warplanes and 80 trainer aircraft should be procured by 1943 to arm the Swedish Air Force. This therefore involved large orders. Several interested parties were vying for the orders, particularly the Bofors Group and AB Svenska Järnvägsverkstäderna (ASJ).

The renowned mill in Bofors had been developed into a modern industrial company during the early decades of the 20th century, for the production of guns among other things. In Trollhättan, Bofors had also acquired a subsidiary company, Nohab, which manufactured aircraft engines. Bofors therefore argued that the technical expertise was already available there and it decided to found a separate new aircraft manufacturing company, which was named Svenska Aeroplan Aktiebolaget. The actual birth of the company took place on 2 April 1937.

But there was also experience in Linköping, where ASJ had launched an aircraft division in 1930, ASJA, and was already manufacturing aircraft – mostly under licence. In 1932 this company had also acquired Svensk Aero AB at Lidingö, founded in 1921 by Heinkel and an important building block in Swedish aviation industry after the First World War.

The parties were summoned to negotiations in Stockholm. In the end it became clear that Bofors/Nohab and ASJA would form a joint company, AB Förenade Flygverkstäder (AFF), with offices in Stockholm. This company would be responsible for the development and design of the aircraft which the Swedish Air Force ordered and would split production between the two plants in Trollhättan and Linköping.

An aviation industry is born Saabs early years
A new large-scale aerospace industry brought demands for new skills and engineering skills. Before World War II there were also American engineers at Saab. Here is the final assembly of Saab B17, April 14, 1943. Photo: Åke Lärkert

Bofors founded Saab

Saab was therefore founded in Trollhättan by Bofors and it certainly looks today as though everything has gone full circle, since Bofors is an important part of the Saab Group of today. At the end of the 1930s, however, it was commonly referred to as Aeroplanaktiebolaget, but after a few years the abbreviation Saab would become popular and generally accepted.

The initial share capital in Saab came from Bofors/Nohab (SEK 1.5 million) and from the Electrolux Group headed up by financier Axel Wenner-Gren (SEK 2.5 million). Wenner-Gren was also appointed as Saab’s first chairman of the board of directors while the head of Nohab, engineer Gunnar Dellner, was appointed CEO.

In autumn 1937 the first turf was cut for Saab’s production hall in Trollhättan and a new hangar was added in 1939, which brought the total production area to around 10,000 square metres. They had not yet built any of their own aircraft. Instead they started manufacturing the twin-engined bomber Junkers Ju 86k under licence. This was given the designation B3 in the Swedish Air Force.

They hired a large number of skilled people. Several key people joined the company then – these were engineers who would play an important role in the development of the Saab of the future. The first aeronautical technician at Saab in Trollhättan was Kurt Lalander, who later headed up testing at Saab in Linköping for many years. Saab engaged the Austrian Alfred Gassner as its chief designer. He had a background at the German Junkers and Dutch Fokker companies. Gassner operated from the AFF office in Stockholm and had two well-known aeronautical technicians on his staff: Gunnar Ljungström – the subsequent creator of the Saab car – and Sven Werner.

An aviation industry is born Saabs early years
One version of the Saab 18, T18B, was adapted for torpedo precipitation. The high speed made it difficult to trap torpedoes. Instead T 18B equipped with two 20 mm automatic gun m / 41 and a Bofors 57 mm automatic cannon m / 47th Photo: Rolf Wall.

Trains gave birth to aircraft in Linköping

While Saab was built up in Trollhättan a parallel development took place in the plains of Östergötland. ASJA in Linköping had already manufactured aircraft for several years, mainly under licence. ASJA’s parent company was Aktiebolaget Svenska Järnvägsverkstäderna, which was founded in Linköping in 1907. The company focused on the production of railway vehicles, as indicated by its name – Svenska Järnvägsverkstäderna (Swedish Railway Workshops).

In the late 1800s and early 1900s a close-meshed network of railways was laid throughout the country. Communities mushroomed around stations. There was a huge demand for locomotives and carriages. The engineering brothers Erland and Carl Johan Uggla realised this. They had learnt about the design and construction of railways at Södertelge Verkstäder, but they now wanted to start their own company. The main financial backer was the brothers’ father, Albert Uggla.

ASJ soon became the dominant industry in Linköping. By 1908 the first assembled railway carriages were sent out of the factory and a royal order for a sleeper for Queen Victoria, the consort of Gustaf V, came in the same year.

After ten years the company had a turnover of nearly SEK 2 million and some 400 employees. A small self-sufficient ‘town within a town’ had grown up in the Råberga area of Tannefors. This would be important to the Saab of the future. There was cheap land and good expansion potential there. It was a good location in relation to its competitors with well developed communications.

In the 1920s ASJ fended off the economic downturn with new products such as buses and locomotives. It also complemented this with a completely different product range such as heating boilers, hot water heaters and heat exchangers, under the Parca brand name.

ASJ also decided early on to focus on aviation. It was perhaps the geographical proximity to the Malmen aerodrome outside Linköping that gave the company’s management a premonition that aviation was the future. The aviator Carl Cederström, ‘the flying baron’, had staged air shows at Malmen as early as 1911 and the following year he started a flying school at Malmen for army pilots.

The armed forces also had their own aircraft manufacturing there at the Centrala Flygverkstaden Malmslätt (SFM). In 1926, Malmen got one of the air forces’ four air corps – which was later renamed the Royal Östgöta Air Force Wing, F3.

The formal decision to set up its own aircraft manufacturing was taken at a board meeting in September 1930. Production would take place in a separate division, ASJA. The business was quite modest at the outset. In 1933, there were less than a hundred employees. There were only 40 people in the workshop, 11 of which were carpenters. Wood was still one of the most important construction components in aircraft.

ASJA built small series of aircraft. Some were to their own design, such as Viking I and Viking II, but most were built under licence.

An aviation industry is born Saabs early years
A new bomber was developed, the Saab 18. It first took of in 1942 and began shipping in 1944. The reconnaissance version made history as the first aircraft type in Sweden, which was equipped with radar. Illustration by artist Holmqvist. Photo: Åke Lärkert

Its own secret project

The idea was that Saab and ASJA would send staff to the AFF office in Stockholm where research and development would take place. But ASJA did not want to share its expertise. The cooperation was creaking at the joints.

In 1938 it was time to develop a new army and marine reconnaissance aircraft. AFF’s proposals were not appreciated by the air force, but at the same time ASJA in Linköping had secretly designed its own aircraft, which could be used both as a reconnaissance aircraft and a light bomber. The aircraft was given the designation L10 (later Saab 17).

The air force management were all fired up by ASJA’s plane and ordered two prototypes in November 1938. At the same time this marked the kiss of death for AFF and thus for the cooperation between Saab and ASJA. The secretiveness and competition could not continue.

Marcus Wallenberg played an important role in further negotiations. He was the principal owner of ASJ and was keen for Linköping to be the hub of the Swedish aviation industry. There were several reasons in favour of this. ASJ had already made extensive investment in aviation manufacturing and had a skilled workforce. There was good labour supply and there was a suitable area for further expansion in Råberga. In addition, there was the long tradition of flying expertise centred on the Malmen aerodrome.

The subsequent twists and turns are not easy to keep up with. There was a real merry-go-round of closures, mergers, name changes and relocations. In spring 1939 AFF was wound up. Instead, Saab formally took over ASJA, which was bought from ASJ. At the same time Nohab’s aircraft engine manufacturing was split off from Saab and formed a separate company, which later became Svenska Flygmotor.

The management of the ‘new’ Saab decided that the company’s management and development should relocate to the ASJA site in Linköping in line with Wallenberg’s proposal. At the same time production would continue as before in Trollhättan.

The Over-Governor of Stockholm, Torsten Nothin, a former chairman of AFF, became Saab’s chairman of the board of directors and Wallenberg was also on the board. The former head of ASJ, Ragnar Wahrgren, became the new managing direct of Saab.

An aviation industry is born Saabs early years
Saab's first aircraft was named the Saab 17 and started to be produced by ASJA Linkoping in 1938. The bomber version was named B17 and the reconnaissance version S17. Seen here is some of the finished aircrafts in 1945. Photo: Åke Lärkert.
An aviation industry is born Saabs early years
A reconnaissance aircraft in the air: Saab S17. The plane was the first Swedish-built modern shell construction entirely of metal and had a retractable landing gear. Photo: Rolf Wall

Its first aircraft: Saab 17

The aircraft which ASJA had secretly designed was given the name Saab 17. Frid Wänström had headed up the work. He later became Saab’s research director for many years. An interesting anecdote here is the fact that US engineers helped with the design work, but they travelled home when World War II broke out.

The aircraft was the first Swedish-built modern shell construction made completely of metal and had a retractable landing gear. It had several unique design details for its time. These included recessed rivet heads which resulted in a low air drag.

The test flight on 18 May 1940 was a reminder that the development of new aviation technology was associated with risks and that the pilots who took part were extremely courageous. The young pilot Claes Smith installed himself at the controls. Immediately after take-off the cockpit canopy flew up and kept moving up and down. Smith succeeded in grabbing hold of the canopy with his left hand and then continued flying using just one hand. Before landing he decided to dump the canopy in a field at Vreta Abbey to make it easier for him to control the plane. The canopy then flew back and struck his face with full force and cut open an eyebrow, and he was forced to land the plane on the ground, with vision through only one eye.

The air force ordered the Saab 17 to use as a bomber and reconnaissance aircraft. The bomber version was given the designation B 17 and the reconnaissance version S 17. A total of 324 aircraft were produced in different versions, which were supplied between 1942 and 1944. There was also a seaplane version with floats.

There was an interesting epilogue to the Saab 17. In the late 1940s and early 1950s the Imperial Ethiopian Air Force bought 46 B 17 aircraft from Sweden. It was the Swedish aviator Carl Gustaf von Rosen and other Swedish officers who assisted Ethiopia in building up its own air force. The aircraft was in full operation until the beginning of the 1960s. The B 17 was also exported to Denmark.

An aviation industry is born Saabs early years
Production of the Saab 21R got started in 1947. A total of 60 planes were manufactured in two different versions. Here is a picture from 15 January 1949. Photo: Almqvist.

New original fighter with ejector seat

The Second World War continued unabated in the rest of the world. War also came close to Sweden. The headlines reported on the Russo-Finnish War (Winter War) and on the German invasion of Denmark and Norway. In June 1940, the radio news was reporting on the German march on Paris and later in the summer on the London blitz.

Work continued at a more intensive pace than ever in Saab’s workshops in Linköping and Trollhättan. A new bomber was developed, the Saab 18, on which development work had also started at ASJA in 1938. It had its maiden flight in 1942 and delivery started in 1944. The reconnaissance version went down in history as the first aircraft in Sweden to be equipped with radar.

The ongoing bombing raids in the war brought to the fore the need for a new fighter aircraft. In spring 1941 Saab presented its proposal for the Saab 21. The project manager here was Wänström again. Many were amazed at the plane’s design. The engine and propeller were mounted behind the pilot. The aim was to centre the heavy machine gun armaments at the nose. The tail unit was made up of twin booms and the plane also had another spectacular new feature: a nose wheel. The satirical magazine ‘Blandaren’ at KTH Royal Institute of Technology wittily called the plane ‘Saab’s bullseye with two booms’.

But the question everyone was asking was how the pilot could leave the plane in an emergency without being torn to shreds by the propeller. The Saab engineers had considered various alternatives. They discussed shooting off the propeller or even the entire engine. But the solution they found was something quite different. Instead, they designed an ejector seat and the Saab 21 was one of the first series production aircraft in the world to have an ejector seat fitted as standard.

A total of 300 Saab 21A aircraft were produced, including three flight test planes and these were on active service in the air force until 1953.

An aviation industry is born Saabs early years
Saab 21R was Sweden's first jet aircraft. The image taken in June 1947. Photo: Rolf Wall.

War over and the jet age awaited

The Second World War war finally over in 1945. The end of the war was a relief, even though the future was uncertain. Were new tensions to be expected or could we look forward to a lasting peace? 

At Saab too there was unease about the future. The hope was to switch over as far as possible to civilian production, while the war had brought to the fore the need for a modern air force with better performance. Now stronger engines, higher speeds and more efficient technology awaited. It was time to enter the jet age in earnest.