How bombs meant for Nazi Germany ended up devastating British village
Britain’s biggest bang: It’s 75 years since a secret weapons depot in the countryside, packed to the brim with bombs destined to be dropped on Nazi Germany, exploded, killing 70 people. But what really happened that day?
- Tens of thousands of deadly bombs were hidden under sleepy Staffordshire village of Hanbury during WWII
- On November 27, 1944 the massive arsenal exploded causing at least 70 deaths and devastating whole area
- Authorities have kept the true cause of this deadly tragedy shrouded in official secrecy for many decades
- Eye-witness Valerie Hardy has now revealed her account of events in a new book Voices From The Explosion
The sound of the explosion was like a thousand thunderclaps. The earth quaked, buildings collapsed — and everyone who heard it in the sleepy Staffordshire village of Hanbury and on the farms around twigged immediately what it was.
As a huge mushroom cloud ballooned up into the air, the same terrible thought possessed them: ‘The Dump’s gone up!’
‘There was a blinding flash,’ a villager would later recall, ‘and the ground I was standing on shook under my feet. Lumps of clay as big as railway engines soared up in the sky.’
At least 70 people died on that grim day — November 27, 1944 — in what turned out to be the largest ever blast in Britain, many times greater than anything that happened in the Blitz, and arguably one of the world’s greatest accidental explosions.
An explosion in Hanbury, Staffordshire on November 27, 1944 killed at least 70 people (pictured, a woman tries to salvage possessions from her home following the explosion). Authorities kept the true cause of this tragedy shrouded in official secrecy for many decades. But we now know a massive underground arsenal containing tens of thousands of deadly blockbuster bombs had been left under the village
The explosion at No 21 Maintenance Unit, RAF Fauld was one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in history and the largest to occur on UK soil (pictured, the aftermath of the explosion – including exploded munitions). Between 3,500 and 4,000 tonnes of ordnance exploded – mostly comprising high explosive-filled bombs, but including a variety of other types of weapons and including 500 million rounds of rifle ammunition
The explosion left a large crater in the village (pictured). The result of the blast in the Hanbury area itself was utter devastation as an entire hilltop was blown to smithereens. One farm, Castle Hays, directly above the explosion, was wiped out as if it had never existed, replaced by a crater half a mile long and 300ft deep
Officially it was designated No 21 Maintenance Unit, RAF Fauld, which sounded harmless enough. But this hid its real purpose — as a massive underground arsenal containing tens of thousands of deadly blockbuster bombs, the biggest packed with several tons of high explosives (pictured, storemen stack 250-lb MC bombs in one of the tunnels at RAF Fauld)
The blast was immense, so loud it rattled church spires in Burton-on-Trent, seven miles away, and shattered glass windows in distant Coventry.
The rumble was heard in London, and seismographs as far away as Morocco, Geneva and Rome twitched, thinking they had detected an earthquake.
And yet the authorities kept the true cause of this tragedy shrouded in official secrecy for many decades.
The explosion didn’t come as a total surprise.
Everyone in the area knew about The Dump and what went on there even though they were not supposed to.
Its very existence was a closely guarded military secret.
Officially it was designated No 21 Maintenance Unit, RAF Fauld, which sounded harmless enough. But this hid its real purpose — as a massive underground arsenal containing tens of thousands of deadly blockbuster bombs, the biggest packed with several tons of high explosives.
Since the outbreak of World War II, bombs had been brought to this quiet corner of rural England from the munitions factories in towns and cities where they were made, and stacked and stored inside a vast labyrinth of subterranean chambers, ready to be distributed to Bomber Command and U.S. Air Force aerodromes across eastern England.
Their ultimate destination was Hitler’s Germany — dropped from the British and American bombers that 75 years ago were devastating the factories and cities of the Third Reich.
Tight security marked the entrance to what had once been an extensive mine, where alabaster and gypsum, the ingredients of plaster, had been dug out since Roman times.
Now the disused workings housed the country’s biggest munitions store and the people of Hanbury were sitting right on top of it, going about their everyday rural lives and with no choice but to turn a blind eye to the potential death-trap underneath them.
Ninety feet underground — beneath bluebell woods and green pasture — dingy, half-lit tunnels 12ft high and 20ft wide filled with racks of massive bombs snaked out in all directions for two miles.
The death toll was greatest at Ford’s Mine and Plaster Works situated next to the dump and still a working mine. Its sizeable workforce were employed in extracting and processing gypsum and cement. The explosion created a huge mushroom-shaped black cloud which rained millions of tons of earth, rock, boulders and tree trunks back on the ground (pictured, the aftermath)
Buildings on the surface were destroyed in the blast (pictured, a building devastated by the explosion). The mill, the smithy, huts where the plaster was rolled out and a couple of cottages were all destroyed. Twenty-six people died there, either trapped in the twisted wreckage of buildings or buried in the deep sludge as water from the reservoir poured in
Ninety feet underground — beneath bluebell woods and green pasture — dingy, half-lit tunnels 12ft high and 20ft wide filled with racks of massive bombs snaked out in all directions for two miles (pictured, some of the munitions in the tunnels). There were smaller incendiary bombs, too, plus 500 million rounds of rifle ammunition packed in crates
There were smaller incendiary bombs, too, plus 500 million rounds of rifle ammunition packed in crates — all the essentials to deliver death and destruction, tucked away in the unassuming English countryside.
It was a hive of round-the-clock activity down there, with 1,000 staff — half civilian workers, the rest RAF personnel, plus a contingent of Italian prisoners of war co-opted from their nearby internment camp — supervising the constant traffic of weaponry in and out.
It had the atmosphere of ‘an eerie Aladdin’s cave’, according to one observer, but a few in the know who realised the sheer amount of high explosive packed in such a confined space feared this was an accident waiting to happen.
They were proved right when, just before 11am one sunny Monday morning, without warning, the place went up in that monumental explosion, killing, maiming and devastating the whole area — an event recalled by eye-witnesses in a new book, Voices From The Explosion.
Written by Valerie Hardy, who grew up on a farm in the area, it marks the 75th anniversary this year of one of World War II’s little-remembered catastrophes, and one that — while on the other side of the Channel our armies were battling their way through to victory over Hitler — happened on our own shores.
A child of eight at the time, she recalls ‘the terrifying suddenness’ with which the war came to what until then had been a demi-paradise of peace and tranquillity.
The result of the blast in the Hanbury area itself was utter devastation as an entire hilltop was blown to smithereens.
One farm, Castle Hays, directly above the explosion, was wiped out as if it had never existed, replaced by a crater half a mile long and 300ft deep.
‘The whole of Stonepit Hill burst open,’ a local recalled. ‘I saw a tree, roots intact, flying through the air. Stones, bits of fencing and machinery were all jumbled up together. When the blast reached me, it flung me 90 yards into a ploughed field.’
Then came the deadly fall-out.
A huge mushroom-shaped black cloud spewed thousands of feet into the air before raining millions of tons of earth, rock, boulders and tree trunks back on the ground.
And dead bodies, too — of several farm-workers caught in the blast (two were never found), along with 200 cattle and sheep that had been grazing on the pasture. A horse flung into the air lay impaled on iron railings.
Fires broke out everywhere. Craters pitted the land as far as the eye could see. All familiar landmarks disappeared. A thousand acres of farmland were laid waste. It looked like ‘hell on earth’, said one eyewitness. Another recalled: ‘The earth was scorched as if in pain. Where once men toiled, women baked bread and children played, there was devastation, a wasteland.’
Since the outbreak of World War II, bombs had been brought to this quiet corner of rural England from the munitions factories in towns and cities where they were made, and stacked and stored inside a vast labyrinth of subterranean chambers, ready to be distributed to Bomber Command and U.S. Air Force aerodromes across eastern England (pictured, bombs inside the munitions factory after the explosion)
Buildings were devastated in the blast (pictured, a decimated building). A blacksmith was found with his anvil blasted into his back following the explosion. Inevitably, there were also casualties inside the tunnels of RAF Fauld itself, 27 in all, including six RAF personnel and six Italian prisoners of war
As if that wasn’t bad enough, the shock burst the banks of a reservoir, flooding the area with six million gallons of water and turning the fallen earth to a sea of sticky, lethal mud, 10ft deep in places, which reminded old soldiers of the horrors they had seen on the Somme in the Great War and hoped never to witness again.
In the village school, the 30 pupils cowered under their desks as the blackboard crashed down and rocks and roof tiles fell around them. To keep spirits up, their teacher, Miss Farndon, led them in choruses of There’ll Always Be An England.
Miraculously none was hurt. Many children, though, returned that night to a cottage where a father caught up in the disaster would never be coming home.
The death toll was greatest at Ford’s Mine and Plaster Works situated next to the dump and still a working mine. Its sizeable workforce were employed in extracting and processing gypsum and cement.
Buildings on the surface — the mill, the smithy, huts where the plaster was rolled out, a couple of cottages — were destroyed. Twenty-six people died there, either trapped in the twisted wreckage of buildings or buried in the deep sludge as water from the reservoir poured in.
The blacksmith was found with his anvil blasted into his back.
Below ground there was carnage, too. Twenty-one men were working at the rock face or manning the narrow-gauge railway that carried out the gypsum when the explosion happened in the adjoining tunnels of the military dump.
Separated from it by a massive concrete wall, they survived the initial blast, though it knocked them off their feet. But no evacuation alarm sounded, so they carried on working — until they were enveloped in a cloud of lethal carbon monoxide gas generated by the explosion.
Five choked to death, felled as they tried to escape; heroic rescuers managed to get the rest out just in time, many unconscious. Of the dead, one was the father of eight children, another a father of seven.
Inevitably, there were also casualties inside the tunnels of the dump itself, 27 in all, including six RAF personnel and six Italian prisoners of war.
Airman Ken McCleod was among the last to get out alive. He had been working in a cavern with four Italians feeding boxes of ammunition onto a conveyor belt while he and three of his RAF colleagues were inspecting the contents as fit for use.
Suddenly, he said, ‘there was a terrific explosion and I was thrown against a wall. The lights went out and there was a second explosion, worse than the first.’ A huge lump of alabaster fell from the roof and just missed him. They held hands in the dark and groped their way out along the railway track.
When, coughing and spluttering, they reached the entrance, the first thing he saw through the dense smoke billowing from the tunnel was a sentry with his head blown off by the blast. The rescue effort that day was heroic, as firemen, servicemen from the nearby RAF station and members of the local mines rescue group battled flames in the maze of fractured tunnels, knowing that a stockpile of 10,000 bombs lay perilously close to the blaze and could also go up at any minute.
Men who had only just managed to make their way to the surface turned and plunged straight back in to look for survivors. Everybody in the small community piled in to help, showing outstanding courage, notably Mary Cooper, who cleaned and scrubbed the makeshift mortuary set up in the village school and took on the grim task of undressing the bodies.
One of the first she had to deal with was that of her own husband, gassed in the mine.
For nearly three months, the search went on for bodies amid the wreckage and far-flung debris, but not a trace was found of 18 people who had gone missing in the explosion and its aftermath. They were presumed dead.
And yet, it could have been much worse, given the sheer scale of the operation at No 21 Maintenance Unit. Mercifully it was only one part of The Dump that went up that day — a section containing just short of 4,000 tons of bombs.
By some miracle, the conflagration did not spread to the major part of the munitions store, where more than three times as much high explosive was unscathed. Pillars of rock stood firm and shielded it against the blast.
If that section had exploded, too, the devastation would have been massively bigger, the damage infinitely more extensive.
Two men stand inside a crater caused by the explosion (pictured, a digital positive image generated from original glass negative taken two days after the accident). Craters pitted the land as far as the eye could see. All familiar landmarks disappeared. A thousand acres of farmland were laid waste
The crater as it appeared two days after the explosion. Seventy-five years on, Hanbury is rebuilt, the dead are buried (those who could be found, that is) but not forgotten and the crater remains
The crater (pictured two days after the explosion) is not just a hole in the ground but a permanent reminder of the day the violence of war scarred this peaceful corner of the English countryside. The explosion could have been far worse, given the sheer scale of the operation at No 21 Maintenance Unit. Mercifully it was only one part of The Dump that went up that day — a section containing just short of 4,000 tons of bombs
An investigator reckoned the town of Burton-on-Trent, with a population of 50,000, would have been reduced to rubble. But if the catastrophe was contained, news of it was not.
Rigid wartime censorship was in force, yet, despite Ministry of Information and War Office attempts to enforce a blackout, the front page of the Derby Evening Telegraph read: ‘Many killed and buried by explosion: Ammunition dump disaster traps men underground: Countryside blitzed.’
The first reporter to arrive on the scene recorded how he stood on a mass of churned earth that had once been a road and looked on a scene which was as bad as any battlefield.
‘Anxious relatives wait for news of their menfolk. Good tidings reached some. Their men were known to be safe and working with the rescuers. Other women just waited. Roofless houses were being patched with tarpaulins but many people were homeless.’
As the news spread nationwide, the Manchester Guardian commented: ‘The battlefields of France and Germany are reproduced in this corner of England.’
The authorities were furious, complaining that by ignoring the embargo, the Press was damaging public morale — which seemed partially justified when German newspapers picked up the story and the Anglo-Irish Nazi propagandist William Joyce (known as Lord Haw-Haw) made capital out of the explosion in one of his insidious radio broadcasts.
He fuelled rumours that the damage had been caused by a German V-2 flying bomb hitting the site, a claim that refused to go away though it was a lie.
A number of eyewitnesses said they heard the sound of an aircraft overhead shortly before the explosion, which has never been fully explained.
Another vicious rumour was that the explosion was an act of sabotage by the hundred or so Italians working at the site — for which there was also zero evidence or credibility.
Shortly after the blast, a military court of inquiry was convened in secret to determine its cause, but this went unreported.
A civilian coroner’s inquest into the deaths opted for a vague verdict of ‘accidental death’, but did not go into details.
The crater remains in Hanbury to this day (circled in red), overgrown now with trees and bushes, but still unmistakeable. This lasting scar, the Hanbury Crater, is a reminder of when the 4,000 tonnes of bombs and ammunition kept in the underground storerooms of RAF Fauld, Staffordshire, detonated in a single, deadly moment
The clampdown continued even when the war was over, with official papers sealed, a dearth of information leaking out and questions in Parliament going unanswered.
Meanwhile, the hardy people of Hanbury and beyond mourned their dead, picked up the pieces and got on with their lives, though for many it would never be the same again.
The damaged tunnels of the dump were sealed off, but the untouched section was deemed safe and continued to be used by the RAF to store ammunition and explosives until the Seventies. The plaster mine re-opened and operates to this day.
Thirty years went by before the Government gave up its secrets, releasing from the archives its official papers on the incident.
The findings of that secret court of inquiry back in 1944 were at last revealed.
It had been unable to reach a definitive conclusion about the initial cause, such was the devastation at the seat of the explosion, but its tentative finding put the disaster down ‘in all probability’ to simple, slipshod human error.
Apparently, a defective bomb (a not unusual occurrence) had been returned to the store, and a busy technician — overworked because staffing was under-strength and in defiance of regulations — was thought to have used a brass chisel rather than a wooden mallet to remove the live detonator from its steel casing.
It was so simple. The clash of metal on metal caused a spark, setting off the initial detonation, which then spread to a row of 1,000lb bombs.
A chain reaction of explosions did the rest, turning an individual’s moment of folly and carelessness into a conflagration the like of which had never been seen in this country before or since.
Seventy-five years on, Hanbury is rebuilt, the dead are buried (those who could be found, that is) but not forgotten and the crater remains, overgrown now with trees and bushes, but still unmistakeable — not just a hole in the ground but a permanent reminder of the day the violence of war scarred this peaceful corner of the English countryside.
- Voices From The Explosion by Valerie Hardy is published by YPS at £15. To order a copy, visit yps-publishing.co.uk
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