DETAILED SYNOPSIS: VOICES FROM THE EXPLOSION
VOICES FROM THE EXPLOSION recalls the people’s story of world’s greatest accidental explosion which blasted out the largest crater in Europe and formed a moon-like landscape in the heart of rural England on November 27, 1944. The explosion occured perilously close to the author’s family home of Fauld House Farm in the Dove Valley. Neighbouring Upper Castle Hayes Farm where the family had been only hours beforehand and which was situated 90 feet above the RAF Fauld underground bomb store which was known locally as ‘The Dump’ and where many thousands of bombs were stored in disused gypsum mines disappeared forever. Shell-shocked survivors including the author’s father witnessed the biggest detonation of conventional weapons occurring in either of the First or Second World Wars when the momentous blast tore apart a peaceful landscape: hills, a reservoir, a wooded valley and Upper Castle Hayes Farm all vanished.
In The National Archives is a report simply signed “Test Pilot” which records:
I was sitting in my office attending to the “paper work” of an aeroplane I had just test flown when it happened. There was a sudden distant roar, windows rattled, the metal office doors creaked and shook and a door opened. I ran outside and saw a huge mushroom-like form rising slowly into the air until it had assumed the shape of a giant umbrella. It seemed to remain there for a minute or two before falling steadily and in streaks back to earth. There were many speculations among those of us who saw it, the most popular being that it was a V2 rocket.
About three hours later I had another aeroplane to test, so decided to go and investigate. I judged the explosion to have been about 25 miles distant and did not have much difficulty in finding it as I was guided by pillars of smoke rising slowly into the air from what might have been a portion of the Siegfried Line after it had been subjected to a 25-hour bombardment by our “heavies” dropping 12,000 pounders.
As I flew round at a height of a 1000 ft. the whole thing seemed unreal and reminded me of some fantastic illustrations of the Moon or Mars, from one of Jules Verne’s books, and indeed, the groups of people I could see working knee-deep in mud might well have been Martians going about their daily tasks in some strange world instead of rescue squads intent on the grim business of searching for the many unfortunate victims of this awful tragedy.
The author’s father led those first on the grim scene in the search for victims and survivors. Later when the family stared down into the vast and awe-inspiring crater it was to experience a highly personal sense of loss. They gazed down into a war grave like none other: a grave which the many victims who were never found still share with an unknown quantity of unexploded bombs.
VOICES FROM THE EXPLOSION is a unique chronicle telling for the first time through first hand eye-witness accounts and personal testimonies of a disaster the nation forgot. Focusing on the experiences of the people who were there the book pays homage to a particular time and place in wartime Britain. Through the people’s memories it recalls a story with a mystery at its core: a story which was hushed up at the time and which remained as an official secret for thirty years. It is a story captured through different windows of memory – the memories of those who were there.
The terrifying suddeness with which the Second World War came to the small village of Hanbury overlooking the Dove Valley on the Staffordshire/ Derbyshire border changed lives and a landscape forever. Today however, the Fauld explosion which made history and changed geography, remains virtually unknown to the nation at large. It seems to have been almost airbrushed from history and become a mere footnote. It remains as a disaster the nation forgot.
A witness at the scene, a veteran of the First World War, had recalled:
“I was in the last war and I’ve seen some sights but nothing like this. We used to think that the ‘Jack Johnson’ shells were pretty bad but they were like kid’s toys compared to this.”
The colossal blast, which registered on seismographs 1,500 miles away in Casablanca and tore open the massive crater also ruptured a reservoir turning falling earth into an enormous mudslide transforming the peaceful surroundings into one of horror and desolation redolent of the battlefields of Passchendale and the Somme nearly three decades earlier. Rescuers at the scene, many of whom were veterans of several campaigns from Dunkirk onwards and who had seen towns and countryside blasted by bombs and high explosives, declared they had never seen such destruction at one blow.
Two days later the Manchester Guardian reported that: “The battlefields of France and Germany are reproduced in this corner of England where a little village was partially wrecked by the force of the explosion.” Two years later it was confirmed that: “The sixth year of war has been noteworthy for the biggest explosion to have occurred in these islands.”
When, at 11.11 am on 27 November 1944, nearly 4000 tons of bombs accidentally exploded it was three times greater than the tonnage dropped over London on the worst night of the Blitz and six times greater than the bomb tonnage dropped on Coventry during its fiercest wartime raid. The Fauld explosion occurred on a military site – Britain’s largest ammunition store – but its effects were principally the destruction of civilian life and property. The true cause of the explosion will remain a mystery for all time as those who would have been able to confirm the cause were among its 70 victims.
In November 1944 RAF Bomber Command was still conducting air-raids over Europe with bombs supplied from Fauld. There is a certain irony in that it was only six hours earlier on that fateful last Monday morning in November that the RAF was bombing Munich when, for the villagers of Hanbury in those same dark hours before the dawn, the war still seemed so very far away.
Wartime censorship meant that an explosion occurring at Britain’s major underground arsenal was little reported at the time and the findings of the military enquiry were not made public for thirty years. The secrecy of war robbed the victims of true recognition that they also died for their country. There were thirty years of rumour and speculation which have continued into the 21st century. Seventy-five years later, apart from those who were living close to the scene, most people remain completely unaware of the catastrophe which struck in an area of understated beauty in the heart of England, an area far removed from the theatre of war.
Eye-witnesses tell of experiences on the surface among surrounding farms, in the village of Hanbury and the Fauld Plaster Works above the gypsum mines which were engulfed in mud from the burst reservoir. They also tell of the experiences of those underground in the still active gypsum mine as well as in the disused mines where the many thousands of tons of bombs were stored. They recall some dramatic escapes and stories of true heroism.
Approaching the end of the second decade of the twenty-first century, the story of Britain’s biggest explosion, told through the voices of those who experienced it, is rather like looking at events through the wrong end of “time’s telescope”. The voices of ordinary people who have told of their experiences of an extraordinary event can now be seen more clearly and in a wider context.