How 4,000 Tons Of Bombs Tore A Massive Crater Into The Ground In Britain’s Biggest Ever Explosion

It’s November 11, 1944, and the Second World War rages on. Britons are accustomed to attack from the air, with the German Luftwaffe dropping incendiaries and high explosives on cities, towns and villages up and down the country. But a massive explosion that now erupts on this November Monday is far from run-of-the-mill.

This explosion was not the result of enemy activity, though. The scene is an old mine in the English county of Staffordshire. Fauld mine is less than a mile from the village of Hanbury, which is about 150 miles north of London. It’s a rural settlement where the local church, St. Werburgh’s, has elements dating all the way back to the 12th century.

For all its timeless rural charm, though, Hanbury had a decidedly modern military facility on its doorstep. This was the Royal Air Force base of Fauld. But this RAF base wasn’t a place with Spitfire fighter planes or Flying Fortress bombers taking off and landing. It was in fact a huge munitions dump.

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Of course, this large store of high explosives and ammunition was an important element in the British war effort, so there was every reason to maintain a high level of security and secrecy. But it seems that the site employed more than 1,000 people at the time of the explosion.

And the installation at the Fauld site was huge, covering a total of some 38 acres. It also came with a honeycombe of tunnels. The RAF bought the former gypsum mine in 1937 for the express purpose of using it as a munitions store. Obviously, such a large undertaking couldn’t be hidden from residents of the surrounding area. Locals knew it simply as “the Dump.”

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The Fauld site, which had its own underground railway system, stored a staggering 26,500 tons of munitions, including detonators, high explosive bombs and incendiary devices. The depot acted as a distribution center with armaments dispatched to RAF airfields up and down the country. It also housed a workshop where damaged bombs could be repaired.

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By November 1944, when the huge explosion at Fauld happened, the leading Axis powers, Germany, Italy and Japan, were on the back foot. British and American troops had flooded into France on D-Day in June 1944. In addition, the U.S. had the upper hand in their fight against the Japanese in the Pacific. It was increasingly clear that the Allies were on track to win the war. But for Britain, this had been far from the case back in 1939.

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Hitler had rampaged all across Europe. As a result, the British lived in genuine fear that the Nazis would cross the English Channel from France to invade their country. But in 1941, the Fuhrer’s attention turned to the east. He made a move against Russia, invading the country in June. An invasion of Britain, therefore, no longer seemded a priority for the Germans. But that was hardly the end of wartime misery for the British.

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Indeed, the Luftwaffe conducted a major bombing campaign against Britain, which made the country’s air defenses all the more crucial. The RAF, of course, was one of the main ways that British cities and towns were defended from German bombers. And that meant a constant flow of munitions to fuel the fight against the Nazis in the air.

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As the war continued and Britain and her allies went on the offensive, intensive bombing of Germany was a key part of the effort to defeat the Nazis. Both the RAF and the U.S. Air Force dropped many tons of bombs on Germany. Precise casualty numbers, however, are hard to come by. But anywhere from 305,000 to 600,000 German civilians died due to Allied bombing. German bombing, meanwhile, killed more than 60,000 British civilians.

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This massive strategic bombing campaign against Germany was a monumental feat of logistics. And that was where arms dumps like Fauld had a crucial part to play in supplying the Allied war effort. Around three million tons of Allied ordnance rained down on Europe during the war. Half of which landed on Germany.

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Before the war even started, though, the RAF had expanded its munitions dumps. In the mid-1930s, it bought two sites, the former mine at Fauld and a quarry in Chilmark in the county of Wiltshire. The purchase of a third site, another quarry at Derbyshire’s Harpur Hill, quickly followed. At Fauld, the RAF spent some £635,000 preparing the site for use. That’s in excess of $56 million in today’s money.

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The Air Force developed further sites during the war, largely because predictions of the capacity needed were far exceeded. In 1936, the RAF estimated that space for 98,000 tons of munitions was necessary. By 1941, that figure had increased massively to 632,000 tons. A change of practise, however, solved this particular problem. Indeed, many factories simply started to supply munitions directly to depots near the airfields.

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Nevertheless, Fauld continued to play an important role as a central point for munitions storage. In fact, the site had a long history of industrial use. As we’ve heard, before the RAF took over, the site was a gypsum mine. Gypsum, along with alabaster, which the mine at Fauld also produced, were used in construction and sculpture.

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And this mining around Fauld had been going on for a minimum of 850 years, since Norman times, in fact, and possibly as far back as Roman times. Indeed, there is a Norman church in the nearby village of Tutbury called St Mary’s, which features exquisitely carved alabaster. However, by the 1930s, the mine was largely exhausted.

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But some mining continued in the area. And that explains why a plaster processing plant, Peter Ford & Sons, was still in operation next to Fauld, even in 1944 when the explosion occurred. And, as we’ll see, the plaster factory was one of the prime casualties of the catastrophe that engulfed the site that November.

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As we’ve seen, on the day of the disaster there were around 1,000 people working at the Fauld munitions dump. Surprisingly, 189 of those workers were actually Italian prisoners of war. It might seem strange to have enemy POWs working at such a sensitive site, but the British made extensive use of POW labor during WWII.

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After British military successes in the Middle East in 1941, many Italian POWs arrived in Britain. And when their home nation surrendered in 1943, the British invited those prisoners to become “co-operators.” Basically this meant they agreed to work in return for extra privileges. They were even allowed to mix with the locals.

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So it wasn’t, in fact, unusual that the Fauld labor force included some Italians. And what was about to happen on the morning of November 27 at 11:11 a.m. would frighten the life out of everyone at and around the site, no matter what nationality they were. The blast that now erupted was, by all accounts, mind-blowing.

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It’s said that the munitions that detonated that morning caused one of the biggest non-nuclear blasts ever seen and certainly, the largest in the U.K. Of course, the blast was eclipsed soon after by the atom bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. And the devastation around Fauld was, of course, horrifying. But it could have been much worse.

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Somewhere between 3,800 and 4,400 tons of munitions went up in the explosion, but there was actually a total of 26,500 tons of explosives and ammunition stored at the site. Fortunately the design of the dump meant that the exploded material was isolated from other ordnance. Otherwise, the results would have been even more destructive.

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At the Fauld dump itself, the effect of the detonation of the munitions, including 500 million rounds of ammunition, was cataclysmic. How many people died at the store, however, is uncertain, since record-keeping at the facility was poor. Nevertheless, the figure of 26 is most commonly cited, with a further ten suffering serious injuries.

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But the casualties were actually worse in the area around the dump. The largest single death toll came at the plaster factory we mentioned earlier, Peter Ford & Sons. But the cause of fatalities there wasn’t the original explosion. In fact, the impact of the blast destroyed a dam holding back the waters of a nearby reservoir.

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The resulting deluge of some six million gallons of water, plus a torrential flow of mud and detritus overwhelmed the factory, drowning 37 of the workers and injuring 12 others. And the devastation didn’t end there. It utterly destroyed a nearby farm, Upper Castle Hayes, causing the deaths of seven workers and 200 head of cattle.

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The destruction from the explosion spread far and wide. It damaged farmland of around 1,000 acres to a point of being beyond use. As well as obliterating Upper Castle Hayes, the detonation extensively damaged the buildings of three other farms. Even the village of Hanbury, less than a mile from the Fauld mine, suffered from the effects of the blast.

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In fact, almost every building in Hanbury took serious damage, including the local pub, the Cock Inn, which lost a large section of its roof. In fact, the pub needed complete reconstruction, so severe was the damage to it. The good news is that it still stands today, ready to serve you a pint of best English ale.

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And the blast didn’t just effect Hanbury. In nearby Tutbury, almost two miles from the Fauld depot, chimneys and roofs were damaged. Even further from the mine, six miles away, two church steeples in the town of Burton upon Trent were damaged. One of those had to be pulled down.

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There were even reports that those as far away as the city of Coventry, which is almost 40 miles to the south of Fauld, heard the blast. Some even claimed that people in Weston-super-Mare, a resort town on England’s west coast around 140 miles from the dump, felt a tremor from the mighty explosion.

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When the dust settled after the huge explosion, it was apparent that the conflagration hadn’t consumed the entire mine. In fact, only about a third of the munitions dump was destroyed in the blast. But that alone covered over half a million square feet. Thankfully, the thick walls that divided different sections of the store had done their job by limiting the size of the inferno.

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Nevertheless, the hills above the part of the dump that had exploded were gone, blown sky high. And in their place was an enormous crater. This huge gash in the landscape measures around 100 feet deep and 900 feet across at its widest point. It covered an area of some 12 acres.

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And in the crater’s making, some 70 people lost their lives. The utter devastation of the site, in tandem with poor record keeping, however, meant that a precise number of casualties was never established. Of course the pressing question now was, how on Earth had such a catastrophe happened?

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As you’d expect, an official investigation began soon after the event, conducted by an RAF Court of Inquiry. But its findings were kept entirely secret from the public up until 1974. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it seems that the authorities were anxious to avoid scrutiny. So they drew a veil of secrecy over the whole incident.

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In the absence of any official word about what had happened at Fauld in November 1944, local rumors were rife. Some said that a German V2 missile had hit the munitions dump. Others said that those Italian POW workers we heard about earlier had committed an act of sabotage.

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With the release of the report in 1974, the cause of the explosion was clear. And it had nothing to do with German bombs or Italian saboteurs. According to the RAF investigation, the likely explanation for the detonation was, in fact, an incredibly negligent and dangerous act carried out by two of the workers at the munitions dump.

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These unnamed workers had apparently been hammering away at a bomb, trying to remove its detonator. Any type of action in modifying or repairing bombs was supposed to be carried out using either wooden or copper tools. This was a safety measure designed to limit the possibility of any sparks being generated.

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For obvious reasons, workers in a store containing 28,000 tons of bombs and ammunition needed to avoid sparks at all costs. But, as a witness at the inquiry testified, these two men were apparently using a brass chisel to remove the detonator, against regulations. The predictable result, that sparks flew, caused the subsequent detonation.

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It’s easy enough to blame these two careless workers. But the RAF inquiry found wider problems at the Fauld dump. Positions at the munitions store went unfilled, including a managerial job that had been vacant for more than a year. In addition, management had been generally lax and poor working practices went unchallenged.

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In fact, the RAF report was quite clear in its conclusion. “An airman was permitted to perform a dangerous operation in the mine,” the report stated. “This indicates negligence on the part of the supervising staff present in the mine, due either to lack of knowledge, lack of a proper sense of responsibility, or lack of proper direction from senior authority.”

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After the explosion, it took some three months to clear up the site. Conditions at the old mine were treacherous with toxic gas, 10,000 tons of debris and millions of gallons of water from the destroyed reservoir hindering work. Nevertheless, parts of the Fauld site stayed in use as an RAF munitions store right up until 1966. The U.S. military then used it for the same purpose until the dump eventually closed in 1973.

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Were you to visit the Fauld site today, you would still see evidence of that 1944 disaster. The crater made by the biggest blast ever seen in the U.K. is still there, although it is now densely wooded. A fence and stern warning signs surround the hole since it almost certainly still contains unexploded ordnance. So if you do visit, keep well back.

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