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RAF Fauld explosion of 1944

 



oxpete
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Feb 13, 2019, 11:44 PM

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RAF Fauld explosion of 1944 Can't Post or Reply Privately

The other weekend, when up in Burton-On-Trent for the Burton Albion v. Oxford United match, I visited the nearby Hanbury Crater...

https://en.wikipedia.org/.../RAF_Fauld_explosion

...the site of the RAF Fauld explosion of 1944, probably the world's sixth biggest non-atomic man-made explosion ever, and certainly the largest explosion ever in the UK.

The former site of RAF Fauld is on a hill about five miles north-west of Burton, and about four miles north of the St.George's National Football Centre in Staffordshire. The hill is rich in gypsum, a mineral used in plaster and agricultural fertilizer among other things, and which is still mined there today.

During WWII, the RAF used the extensive underground gypsum mines in the hill for the storage of military munitions, believing them to be safe from attack. However, in the months following D-Day, the quantity of munitions greatly increased, while experienced RAF staff were enlisted into front-line duties, meaning that the munitions depot was increasingly being operated by nearly 200 untrained Italian POWs. At about 11.11am on Monday 27th November 1944, with the three most senior officers not on site, an eyewitness reportedly saw an Italian POW attempt to take a detonator out of a live bomb by using a brass chisel instead of a wooden mallet, causing the bomb to explode.

Over the following minutes, two huge explosions detonated over 3,500 tonnes of ammunition inside the mines, releasing a huge mushroom cloud and creating a crater 300 feet deep and 750 feet across. The site exploded with such force that it registering as an earthquake in seismic stations in Morocco and in Switzerland. Debris, including large lumps of gypsum rock, were propelled up to three-quarters of a mile. At least twenty-six people were killed at the RAF site, including RAF personnel, civilians and Italian POWs, some by the release of toxic fumes. Many more were seriously injured. The nearby Upper Castle Hayes Farm was completely destroyed with seven farm workers killed, while other farms and the village of Hanbury were badly damaged. The Cock pub, half a mile away in Hanbury, was demolished by flying boulders of gypsum. The dam of a reservoir on the hill collapsed, releasing water onto the Ford's gypsum mine plaster mill, drowning thirty-seven workers. The final death toll is believed to be between 70 and 90 people. 200 cattle were also killed, with more dying the next day. The tragedy of the day didn't end there, either - many of the locals were fortunately at work at the time of the explosion in the factories of Derby, but a double-decker bus bringing them back home to Hanbury that evening crashed, killing one passenger and injuring another thirty. The disaster was obviously not reported on to much extent during the war, and was quickly forgotten outside the immediate area afterwards, though the American government tended to take an interest during their development of their nuclear bombs during the 1950s, asking questions about the damage caused at Fauld: a mile away, two miles away, five miles away.

Miraculously, only about a third of the munitions in the depot exploded. A further third was moved afterwards, with maybe another third still inside the mines. Despite the damage caused (and the danger of remaining bombs), the site continued to be used for munitions storage by the RAF until 1966, and then by the US Army until 1973. Since then, the site has been fenced off and has become a nature reserve - pine trees now fill much of the crater, and the explosion itself kicked up the seeds of some rare species of crocus flowers that now grow in the area.

Here is a good short film made by Tom Scott...

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vcx7_1yphJI

To get to the crater, I caught the no.V1 Villager Burton/Derby bus to the nearby small town of Tutbury (also served by the no.401 Burton/Uttoxeter bus, and trains to Tutbury & Hatton railway station), then walked the two-and-a-half miles west towards the Hanbury Crater - the path is an easy walk for the most part, cutting down the side of Tutbury Castle, then across the livestock fields next to the River Dove, before climbing up the wooded northern slopes of the hill and past the still-working gypsum works.

From Fauld Lane to the top of the hill is quite a steep climb, passing through the remains of centuries of gypsum mining works, the deposit of much of the earth blown from the crater, and the natural chaotic lay of the land and the woods around here. However, when you reach the top of the path as it meets the western lip, the crater itself begins to open up in front of you, with the western, southern and eastern rim of the crater still incredibly well defined even after seventy-five years. There is plenty of vegetation within the crater itself, but with little leaf to obstruct the views during the winter months, and the land on this side of the crater are still open agricultural fields. To the west you can see the church and the water-tower of Hanbury, while eight miles to the east you can see the five redundant cooling towers of the old Willington power station, and immediately behind them a full twenty miles away are the eight still-smoking cooling towers of Ratcliffe-On-Soar power station near Long Eaton.

Close to the southern lip of the crater is a small garden and memorial. A signpost reads:

"The Fauld Explosion -
At just after 1100 hours on the 27th November 1944 the largest explosion caused by conventional weapons in both world wars took place at this spot when some 3,500 tons of high explosives accidentally blew up. A crater some 300 feet deep and approximately a quarter of a mile in diameter was blown into the north Staffordshire countryside.
A total of seventy people lost their lives, with eighteen bodies never being recovered.
The 21 MU RAF Fauld disaster is commemorated by this memorial which was dedicated on the 25th November 1990, some 46 years after the event. The stone, which is of fine white granite, was a gift, organised by the Commandante of the Italian Air Force Supply Depot at Novara, a sister depot of No 16 MU RAF Stafford, from the firm of Cirla & Son, Graniti-Milano."


The granite memorial itself has a plaque with the names of the seventy known victims.

I first learnt about the Fauld explosion in a newspaper article in 1994, probably marking the fiftieth anniversary, so it has taken me twenty-five years to finally get round to visiting it. I remember the photographs from 1994 showed significantly fewer trees inside the crater then than now. The rim of the crater is protected by a wire mesh fence behind which is a significant sheer drop until the sides of the crater begin to shallow out, along with signs warning of the remaining unexploded bombs probably still inside the crater. This does not seem to have stopped some explorers from entering though, with obvious signs that people still gain entry from somewhere.

I had planned to walk back to Tutbury by taking to the fields to the south-east, but the path very quickly got tangled up in a small wood, so I decided it easier to just retrace my steps back down the northern side, ending up in the excellent 'Cask & Pottle' micropub on Tutbury high street.


Mr. T
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Feb 14, 2019, 1:19 AM

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Post #2 of 8 (3306 views)
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Re: [oxpete] RAF Fauld explosion of 1944 [In reply to] Can't Post or Reply Privately

I certainly remember reading about in the weekend papers in 1994. I didn't know about it before then. A quick google search will turn up plenty of images, including this one, obviously taken within a day or two:




(This post was edited by Mr. T on Feb 14, 2019, 1:24 AM)


jon b
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Feb 14, 2019, 3:08 PM

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Post #3 of 8 (3177 views)
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Re: [oxpete] RAF Fauld explosion of 1944 [In reply to] Can't Post or Reply Privately

I'm supposed to know a fair amount about WW2 and I'd never heard of this incident.

Thanks for your post, a fascinating story with some absolutely astonishing aspects.


DonQuixote
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Feb 14, 2019, 6:44 PM

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Re: [jon b] RAF Fauld explosion of 1944 [In reply to] Can't Post or Reply Privately

Just wait until the 'Monty' goes up in the Thames estuary...bye bye Sheerness.

Plus there's still two(?) to go up on the Somme having failed to detonate
on July 1 1916. They can't find them apparently!




FA Vase semi programme wanted: 2001 Taunton v Clitheroe.



windydcfc
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Feb 14, 2019, 7:25 PM

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Re: [DonQuixote] RAF Fauld explosion of 1944 [In reply to] Can't Post or Reply Privately


In Reply To
Just wait until the 'Monty' goes up in the Thames estuary...bye bye Sheerness.

Plus there's still two(?) to go up on the Somme having failed to detonate
on July 1 1916. They can't find them apparently!



Is Monty that WWII ship in the Thames estuary, that’s absolutely full of live shells?


oxpete
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Feb 14, 2019, 7:28 PM

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Post #6 of 8 (3090 views)
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In Reply To
Just wait until the 'Monty' goes up in the Thames estuary...bye bye Sheerness.


Video by Tom Scott about the USS Montgomery...

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R9u41aeItss

I like the line: "Occasionally some jackass will paddle up to the masts and pose for a photo..."


DonQuixote
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Feb 14, 2019, 7:44 PM

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Post #7 of 8 (3081 views)
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https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wP1kq9H7TYg

Love this bloke's stuff....all his clips are well worth a watch. #thehistoryguy




FA Vase semi programme wanted: 2001 Taunton v Clitheroe.



Mr. T
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Feb 14, 2019, 9:10 PM

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Post #8 of 8 (3053 views)
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Re: [jon b] RAF Fauld explosion of 1944 [In reply to] Can't Post or Reply Privately

Many an incident becomes embellished with time but this one? Blame the reporter! Here are some extracts from the Sunday Telegraph article, 27th Nov 1994:

John Hardwick, 21, was working in a field about half a mile away when the blast happened. He saw a 2½-acre wood go up, rising as steadily as a Saturn 5, until the trees were lost to sight. Farmers ploughing in subsequent years found some of the trees, only they found the roots first, then the trunks, as though they had been thrown in like darts.

Roy Gregson, 17 at the time, said "Yes, I remember the sound. It was an enormous HOOOOOMP and up she went...and up...and up. The sky went black as the soil went up and I could see the boulders rolling about above." A piece of alabaster weighing 20 tons came down three-quarters of a mile away.

Chance played a part in some deaths. The farmer at Upper Castle Hayes (right on top of the mine) was on his way to market but had stayed on at the farm because a delivery of grain was late. He did not die in the explosion but in the wave of rubble which engulfed the car as he drove away with his wife.

...There was so much mud and so many craters that farmers left dead animals where they lay and in the spring collected the skulls and rib-cages left by the foxes...



(This post was edited by Mr. T on Feb 14, 2019, 9:12 PM)

 
 


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