George Cross following munitions factory explosion

Mrs D Cheatle from Sheffield operating a capstan lathe at a munitions factory in Yorkshire during 1942.

Mrs D Cheatle from Sheffield operating a capstan lathe at a munitions factory in Yorkshire during 1942.

The War Effort: In an underground munitions factory at Liverpool, the Pressing Bay Forewoman, Mrs M Porter, gives out shell caps for pressing.

The War Effort: In an underground munitions factory at Liverpool, the Pressing Bay Forewoman, Mrs M Porter, gives out shell caps for pressing.

The war produced a seemingly insatiable appetite for ammunition of every type. The Ordnance factories expanded dramatically and became major employers for women, just as they had in the First World War. Although dominated by women a few men remained.

Arthur Bywater had tried to join the RAF at the beginning of the war but had been refused because of his expertise with ordnance. He was to rise to the occasion when an explosion killed one female worker early on the 22nd February 1944.

The citation for his award was remarkably brief, for reasons of wartime security, when little could be said about munitions factories:

The KING has been graciously pleased to award the GEORGE CROSS to: — Richard Arthur Samuel Bywater, Factory Development Officer, Ministry of Supply Factory.

For outstanding heroism and devotion to duty when an explosion occurred in a factory.

London Gazette 26th September 1944

The most complete account of this incident comes from his obituary:

On February 22 1944, in one of the buildings of the Royal Ordnance Factory at Kirby, in Lancashire, 19 operatives, most of them women, were at work on the last stage of filling anti-tank mine fuzes. Each operative was working on a tray of 25 fuzes, and in the building at the time there were some 12,000 stacked on portable tables, each holding 40 trays, or 1,000 fuzes.

At 8.30 am that morning, one fuze exploded, immediately detonating the whole tray. The girl working on that tray was killed outright and her body disintegrated; two girls standing behind her were partly shielded from the blast by her body, but both were seriously injured, one fatally. The factory was badly damaged: the roof was blown off, electric fittings were dangling precariously; and one of the walls was swaying in the breeze.

The superintendent arrived with Bywater, his factory development officer. It seemed quite likely that the damaged fuzes, and others which could be faulty, might cause an even larger explosion. The high wind at the time, or any vibration, could set off further detonations over an area of half a mile.

Bywater cleared the building so that the maintenance crew could shore up the walls. He then volunteered to take on the dangerous task of removing all the fuzes to a place of safety where they could be dealt with.

Having selected some volunteers, he started at once. Bywater and his colleagues worked for three days moving the fuzes to a position close to the exit and then transporting them to a site about a mile away, where they were destroyed. By the end they had removed 12,724 fuzes from the factory.

Bywater gave instructions that he was to be given any fuzes that looked defective, and 23 were passed to him. On each occasion, he made his colleagues take cover while he removed the fuze and put it into a tray well away from the others. He then placed the tray on a rubber-tyred flat trolley and, with one colleague carrying a red flag 50 yards ahead, and another 50 yards behind, he slowly pushed the trolley to the destroying grounds.

There he personally laid out the fuzes in specially prepared pits. He placed sandbags on each of the pits and connected the electrical detonator and gun cotton primer. Not until he was certain that the operation had been made as safe as possible did he delegate to his colleagues the task of destruction, which went on for seven days a week for a month.

One fuze, Bywater judged, was in such a sensitive condition that it was too dangerous to be carried to the destruction site. He knew of two instances in which men trying to handle such a fuze had been blown to pieces. But to destroy the fuze inside the factory would cause enormous damage.

Selecting a location a short distance from the building, Bywater had an iron safe placed there with plenty of sandbags around it. Then, having sent all his colleagues out of the danger area, he carefully picked up the fuze, tip-toed across the grass and gently placed it in the safe. The sandbags were piled on, everyone withdrew out of range and the fuze was detonated.

In the investigation that followed, it was discovered that the original explosion at the factory had been accidental, caused by a defective striker. A faulty design in the stamping machine which marked the fuze heads with the lot numbers and dates of filling had damaged the striker stems.

Read the full obituary at the Daily Telegraph which includes an account of how Bywater earnt a George Medal for his role in evacuating the factory following another explosion later in the year. Arthur Bryant became the only civilian to earn both the George Cross and the George Medal.

HM Queen Elizabeth is fitted with special shoes by a munitions worker before she can enter the 'danger' area of ROF Thorp Arch. The area of the factory where workers change from their outdoor clothes (the 'dirty' side) into their factory clothes and stepped across a low barrier onto the 'clean', factory, side is known as the 'shifting house'. Strict rules were in operation on the 'clean' side due to the highly dangerous nature of work in filling factories.

HM Queen Elizabeth is fitted with special shoes by a munitions worker before she can enter the ‘danger’ area of ROF Thorp Arch. The area of the factory where workers change from their outdoor clothes (the ‘dirty’ side) into their factory clothes and stepped across a low barrier onto the ‘clean’, factory, side is known as the ‘shifting house’. Strict rules were in operation on the ‘clean’ side due to the highly dangerous nature of work in filling factories.

HM King George VI talks to a munitions worker at her machine during a visit to ROF Thorp Arch.

HM King George VI talks to a munitions worker at her machine during a visit to ROF Thorp Arch.

A Royal visit to the Leyland Factory, England, UK, 1941

A Royal visit to the Leyland Factory, England, UK, 1941

A munitions worker shows off the largest and smallest of shells produced at this British shell factory.

A munitions worker shows off the largest and smallest of shells produced at this British shell factory.

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