In 1937 John Hannaford was a young apprentice architect. He moved to London from Devon to his first job helping to plan the seating for the coronation of King George VI in Westminster Abbey. He dared to sit on the coronation seat and be crowned with a paper crown. He was ready for any adventure.
“London was a frantic place,” John said, “full of preparations, edgy, still at peace, but no one knew for how long.”
John became directly involved in the mass preparation for war when he and a team of architects and planners were relocated many miles north in Lancashire at the Royal Ordnance Filling Factory at Chorley.
It became known as the No 1 Filling Factory in the country, John said it was the biggest munitions filling site.
It was an offshoot of the Royal Arsenal in Woolwich, 220 miles from London, hidden away and safer from enemy bombing raids. John loved the new job and his team in the planning department. He described it as a hive of activity, an important place to be for the war effort and officially opened by King George VI.
In his Imperial War Museum interview he explained the three processes of making shells – producing explosive chemicals, then filling shells followed by priming the shells ready for use – were all kept a safe distance apart. The shell casings were often made in cotton mills or iron foundries nearby.
The chemicals used for the explosives were made by separate chemical companies and the explosives were placed well away from cities and towns with a good rail link to the filling factory.
ROF Chorley had its own private railway station. The dangerous work of filling and priming the shells with the explosives was completed there.
John spent two years working in the planning office as the building was constructed on the immense site. His team were very aware of the danger and volatility of the processes to be carried out. Safety considerations were paramount. The design, style and spacing of individual production buildings meant that they were separated by wide, open spaces.
Depending on the work being carried out, there were approximately six metres-high grassed embankments with thick reinforced concrete walls and overbridges. These were built to deflect any explosion skyward rather than outward to any adjacent buildings or structures.
The site was built with extensive underground magazines. One day John remembered seeing a man sitting on a ladder polishing the pointed end of a huge bomb. He said it was surreal.
There was also comprehensive lightning protection and individual buildings linked by paths, roads and railways. John could remember curved entrances where the highly volatile chemicals were used and a scientist working there told him he used a mirror to work round corners from a distance and that even the touch of a feather could cause the materials to explode.
The components were lead azide, fulminate mercury, RDX and TNT, the most dangerous explosives most widely used in the Second World War.
The vast, 928-acre site, had a nine-mile perimeter fence and was heavily guarded with massive six metres high brick boundary walls around the railway station. As a further safety precaution there were separate entrances to the explosives site.
There was an administration site and a larger area of the site divided by the railway line that was the main explosives filling site.
It had its own fire station, police station and medical centre. John said the management took great pride in looking after its workforce. There was a canteen for workers equipped with a stage that was used for concerts and other entertainment.
While he was there he enjoyed a lively social scene with dances, competitions and concerts. John’s favourite entertainer who came to perform was Gracie Fields. “She was wonderful,” he said. She sang all her popular hits, ‘Sally, ‘Falling in Love Again’, ‘Sing As We Go’ which they all joined in with. Her funny songs like ‘The Biggest Aspidistra In The World’ and ‘I Took My Harp To The Party’ were hilarious and everyone cheered her. Her laughing as much as her singing was a great morale booster for John and his friends.
Work continued night and day and John remembered being amazed to find that a road had been built outside his window overnight.
Attention to detail was ever present, which suited John who was trained in detailed and precise technical drawing skills, which were measured to the minutest detail for planning. All of these skills and experiences were to come in very handy, sooner rather than later.
He enjoyed the company of his team, young men caught up in wartime preparations, like him. They were all trying to live in the moment, not thinking too far into the uncertain future.
Even before ROF Chorley was finished it was realised that it would not have the necessary capacity to meet Britain and the Commonwealth’s needs for ammunition. In all, some 20 Government-owned filling factories were built, but none was so large or employed as many people as Chorley. The new factory employed more than 1,000 production workers by the outbreak of the Second World War. By June 1940, the numbers employed there had risen to nearly 15,000 and, at its wartime peak, ROF Chorley had more than 28,000 employees. John heard the cost of the plant was £13,140,000. He said: “It was a staggering amount then.”
The evening war was declared John met his cousin. They talked long into the night about their hopes and fears, their families and the country. John said, “My cousin was to join the RAF and pilot planes and go up in the air, I was to join the RE Bomb Disposal and go down into the ground.”
They spent months listening to the news of the Nazi onslaught. The sound of Adolf Hitler ranting became a familiar cinema sound track as the German army relentlessly marched towards the Channel.
After the swift and unexpected fall of France the nature of the war changed. Suddenly Britain was standing alone and the enemy was just a few miles away across the English Channel.
The bombing of British towns and cities began.
John enlisted in October 1939 and waited to hear where he would be posted. Finally he received his call up papers while still working at Chorley on March 5, 1940.
He had wondered about trying for the RAF like his father and cousin but was told that they were only recruiting rear gunners not pilots. Everyone knew they only had a short life expectancy.
So he decided on the Royal Engineers. He wrote, “Nice safe job, I thought.”
* Pat Strickson's book Time Stood Still In A Muddy Hole charts John Hannaford's life from making weapons in Lancashire to working on the deadly frontline world of bomb disposal. It is available from Brown Dog Books priced £9.99.