War is not just about front lines or decisions made in secret meetings. It touches all walks of life and workers in North Staffordshire were given some of the most dangerous non-combat duties of all during World War II.
Countless tons of artillery shells were fired by Allied forces. Eighteen British factories filled these cartridge cases with explosive powders, and No. 5 was the Royal Ordnance Factory at Swynnerton, near Stone.
It first became operational in 1940 while still under construction and was completed in 1942. Over 1,500 buildings littered the site at its height, each surrounded by a belt of land – in the hope that if one exploded in a crash or German air raid, the others could continue.
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Nine vast underground chambers stored the finished work, ready to be shipped to theaters around the world. Decontamination units for gas attacks, explosives disposal safe areas for substandard products, redundant boiler rooms – it was a key cog in the Allied war machine.
It is estimated that around 18,000 people worked at ROF Swynnerton at its peak after 1942, working shifts around the clock to keep everything moving. There was accommodation on site for key and specialist workers, but the rest would have been transported from around the county, including Stoke-on-Trent.
These worker trains were kept off public records, to slow down potential spies. The purpose-built station, Cold Meece, was not on any timetable and did not appear on maps until the 1960s.
To drive home how important places like the Swynnerton factory were, the Staffordshire Sentinel sent a shout out to workers in 1943, after the successful conclusion of the Battle of Tunisia. “Thanks must also be given to the workers in the factories, whose long and arduous work…enabled our men to defeat the enemy.”
This was one of the few mentions of filler factories in The Sentinel during wartime, which isn’t unusual – you don’t want to give too much away. No explosive accidents seem to have been reported either, although a curious problem has arisen at the factory – theft by workers.
A widow, whose husband was killed in the line of duty, has been fined £5 for stealing just over 19 shillings worth of cutlery and linen from factory inns. “There was a lot of looting” in Swynnerton, a court said in 1942, and the Ministry of Supply was eager to get it.
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After the end of the war with Germany, as well as the immediate threat to Britain, we begin to see more in the newspapers about Swynnerton – and the dangerous conditions. One incident involved a woman carrying some sort of distress signal into one of the gunpowder workshops.
An exposed switch on the device grazed a shirt sleeve, tripped it and ignited powder in a “serious explosion”. The woman was hauled into court to answer for badly burning five other workers – the case was dismissed, but she was paid costs of almost £4.
Two men were killed in an explosion in 1948 while dismantling old shells. Walter Meakin, from Newcastle, was also injured in the blast, the second such escape he had had – two fellow servicemen were killed in an explosion alongside him in Italy while serving in the war .
It seems likely that many more were killed and injured in harsh conditions that we may never hear of. A simple lack of concentration during a long day of constant anxiety, surrounded by half-finished weapons of war, seems too easy.
Over the years, parts of the factory were turned into bunkers and the rest into an army training center. But for almost two decades, it was like an industrial city in its own right.
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