Brian Spencer investigates the worst military disaster to occur on British Soil.
The Ordnance Survey map for Derby and Burton on Trent shows a strange feature in the countryside near the village of Hanbury, a little to the west of Tutbury, in Staffordshire. It is oval in shape and obviously deep, but too small for a quarry. As it is certainly not natural and as it intrigued us, we had to investigate.
Following the success of D-Day five months earlier, by late 1944, the war in Europe was going well for the Allies; local soldiers from north Midlands’ regiments were slogging their way steadily through the Netherlands and into north-west Germany. Italy had capitulated and a joint task force of American and French air and sea-borne troops, part of Operation Dragoon were clawing their way through Central France, steadily overrunning determined German defences. At home, excitement was building up as pupils from Hanbury’s tiny village school began to look forwards to the December holidays.
In the ground deep beneath strata running roughly east-west between Hanbury and Tutbury is composed of alabaster and gypsum, valuable forms of limestone used for purposes ranging from plasterboard, to plaster of Paris. A worked-out section of this area was used by the RAF as a bomb store. It was run by a labour force composed of RAF technicians based nearby at RAF MU 21, plus civilians and Italian prisoners of war, POWs. Being out of the war and mostly non-fascist, the latter were only too happy to help the allied cause.
The bomb store was a busy place with ordnance personnel supplying bombs for the steady pounding of German industries and cities taking place day and night, almost non-stop, using thousands of tonnes of high explosive and incendiary bombs.
Stores of unprimed bombs came by rail directly from manufacturing points throughout Britain, perfectly safe, that is until primers were installed prior to loading into the bomb bays of heavy bombers such as the famous Lancasters. Unfortunately this system was not fool-proof, unused, but still primed bombs had to be taken back into store with their primers removed, a potential reason for subsequent failure.
On a typically dull November day, with children in the village school settling to their lessons, and everyone going about their everyday work; at 11:11 a.m. on Monday 27 November 1944 a massive explosion rent the air as the RAF bomb storage depot at Fauld near Tutbury exploded with a power that was heard scores of miles away; the seismic disturbance was even recorded at the Moroccan national laboratory in Casablanca.
The explosion was caused by the spontaneous detonation of upwards of 4000tons of high explosive bombs and 500million rounds of rifle ammunition stored in the underground storage depot, in a disused gypsum mine beneath Upper Hayes Castle Farm near Fauld. How it happened will never be known, but it is suspected that it was triggered off by someone accidentally letting a primed bomb fall on its nose, or maybe using a wrong tool to remove the primer from a bomb on its return to store. This triggered off the largest explosion ever to happen prior to the atomic bombs dropped over Nagasaki and Hiroshima. The Fauld explosion is said to have killed around 70 people both above and below ground. The crater when the series of linked explosions finally stopped was about three quarters of a mile in circumference and a hundred feet deep.
Alongside local people as well as the RAF technicians, inexperienced Italian POWs had been drafted in from nearby prisoner of war camps. Whether it was one of these unskilled workers who accidentally caused such a catastrophic explosion will never be known. Maybe one of the live bombs on being returned fell on the floor, or what is more likely, someone was clumsy while unscrewing a primed detonator. Whatever the cause, the result was a huge loss of life. One subsidiary theory voiced during a later enquiry was that it was known for workers unscrewing the detonators to use brass tools rather than wooden mallets as strictly instructed. Metal on metal could easily have caused a spark.
Eyewitnesses on the fateful day reported seeing two distinct columns of black smoke in the form of a mushroom cloud rising several thousand feet into the sky; they also saw flames pouring out of the ground at the base of the column. According to the commanding officer of RAF 21 MU at the time, Group Captain Stores, there was also an open dump of incendiary bombs nearby which caught fire, but it was allowed to burn itself out, causing no further damage or casualties.
All the loss of life and damage was the result of the underground explosion. 52 civilian workers, RAF technicians and Italian POWs were killed outright and another 18 died on the surface. Almost all the houses, together with the village school in nearby Hanbury were severely damaged and the village pub, the Cock Inn had to be completely rebuilt. Upper Hayes Farm that stood more or less directly above the explosion simply disappeared, killing seven people and all the farm animals along with wrecking farm equipment – the farm was literally wiped off the map. A nearby reservoir containing 450,000 cubic metres of water was breached and the subsequent flooding caused further damage to nearby farms and lime works further down the valley. Fields in the surrounding area are still littered by debris contaminated by gypsum, leaving poor grazing where once lush grass flourished.
As bad as it was the explosion could have been far worse if it wasn’t for the fact that the storage areas were separated by impenetrable rock barriers left when the gypsum mine was dug. At the time there would have been upwards of 129,000tons of bombs in store, but only a third of them exploded, enough to cause the biggest explosion ever to occur in Britain.
Since 1944, the land taken up by the crater has been made as secure as possible, but in view of the fact that the number of bombs that exploded will never be known, it is likely there are still numerous unexploded bombs lying all too close to the surface. Nature is doing its best to restore the ground in and around the crater with dense undergrowth of bracken and brambles beneath now steadily maturing trees.
The human side of the tragedy is now marked by a marble column of Novenna stone donated by the Italian Airforce twin of 16 RAF MU Stafford. On it are carved the names of all the military dead, both Italian as well as British, together with the civilian personnel killed underground and above, British as well as Italian, some of whom have no known grave.
During a chat with a couple of locals in the bar of the Cock Inn, one of them quietly told us that his grandfather and an uncle were two of the civilians killed in the disaster. They died, but two other uncles who fought on several fronts during the war, came home without a scratch.