Remembering the Fauld Explosion
THEY called it the 'bomb hole' and for years children used to play in the huge crater sunk deep into Staffordshire farmland. But no one is allowed to go in there any more. Danger still lurks beneath the surface.
The crater was scoured out of the earth on a November morning 65 years ago in an explosion that was heard as far away as Somerset, the shock waves rippling all the way to North Africa.
The Fauld Explosion killed at least 70 people, many being instantly vaporised in the blast which also flattened a village and caused a reservoir to burst its banks – yet surprisingly few people beyond the immediate area know the story.
The explosion made front page news in the Evening Post 65 years ago, because mine rescue teams from Ilkeston and Mansfield were involved in the aftermath. But it has never been mentioned since.
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The scene of this terrible tragedy was an RAF ammunition dump at Fauld, near Burton-on-Trent, where around 500 tons of shells were stockpiled.
It has been said, in various reports, that the accident was waiting to happen because of a lack of supervision and slack safety rules.
At just after 11am on November 27, 1944, an airman, trying to remove an exploder pocket from a 4,000 pound bomb, used a brass chisel instead of a wooden mallet. A spark set off an explosion which detonated nearly 4,000 shells.
The earth heaved, debris was thrown hundreds of feet into the air, blocks weighing more than a ton crashed back to the ground. In a single moment, ten times the tonnage of bombs dropped on Coventry, had exploded.
A layer of dust as thick as volcanic ash settled over the surrounding area. The underground store, which had several deep passages, was partially destroyed... but the nearby village of Hanbury was flattened, not a house escaping the blast.
Nearby farm buildings vanished. Further afield, chimney pots and roofs were damaged in Tutbury, church steeples cracked in Burton.
Even more devastation was caused by flooding as six million gallons of water was released from a local reservoir. A plaster works next to the dump, along with more than 30 workers, was swept away in a raging torrent of mud and water.
In that instant more than 70 people – including RAF personnel, civilians and Italian prisoners-of-war forced to work in the shell store – hundreds of sheep and cattle, and a 1,000 acres of farmland, were lost.
There were some remarkable stories to emerge. A party checking nearby buildings, entered a farmhouse four hours after the blast and found an elderly couple sitting at the table with the remains of their meal, just staring at each other in a state of shock, their food sprinkled with roof debris. After reassurance that there would be no further explosions they were led to safety.
Eye-witness Joseph Foster later told reporters: "The whole face of the landscape was different. Castle Hayes Farm had completely disappeared, and when I walked back from the shaft I found it difficult to get my bearings."
Ilkeston mine rescuers were led by Don Roberts and a Mansfield team by Frank Bates.
One of the Ilkeston men was Les Calladine, who kept a detailed diary of the incident.
When they arrived at the site, the rescuers were faced with a daunting challenge and, because of the obvious hazards, were given the option of turning round and going back home. "Most of the assembled team members chose to assist," he wrote.
Bodies were already being brought out when Les and his colleagues went underground to search for a rescuer who had been overcome by fumes. They found him dead, but getting him back to the surface was a difficult and terrifying task.
"We placed him on the stretcher and began back to the surface although the journey was not an easy one as the floor was strewed with live ammunition, ranging from bullets, Mills bombs, land mines, anti-personnel mines, detonators, small parachute incendiaries and even 4,000lb bombs.
"We tried not to walk on anything but it was impossible not to and we endlessly stood upon them," said Les.
Men from Mansfield recovered the body of a 15-stone RAF sergeant.
"Whilst we were on the surface getting a well deserved cuppa an RAF officer approached us and informed us that we should get ourselves some rubber boots before going into the mine," Les wrote.
"We told him that we had already been in wearing our normal pit boots (complete with metal studs in the sole) and he went mad saying that a single spark from one of our boots could cause the whole site to go up again. He walked away in disbelief."
The mines rescuers spent 20 hours on site, searching for and recovering bodies.
Later, the RAF wanted all rescue personnel to receive a medal, but Mines Rescue were not allowed medals or any sort of gift, so the RAF presented them with a plaque bearing the RAF crest, with the men's names in gold.
Today the crater, 90 feet deep and covering 12 acres, is a tranquil place full of trees and wild flowers. A memorial plaque lists the names of those who perished, including 18 whose bodies were never found.
But it is surrounded by a high wire fence and nearby, a sinister-looking yellow notice board warns people to keep out, providing a chilling reminder of that dreadful day 65 years ago.
It reads: "This land contains unexploded bombs and in the event of an explosion, injury or death could be caused."