They came from every part of the country. Many were rural teenagers who had only ever worked in poorly paid domestic service.
Some were already war widows or had husbands posted overseas, destination unknown. Others had never worked before. Yet their work, a vast enterprise conducted in total secrecy in newly built complexes and factories, sometimes in areas vulnerable to bombing raids by the Luftwaffe, was one of the most dangerous, dirty and exhausting jobs of the Second World War. For these were the Bomb Girls, the million-plus British women who worked in the munitions factories until victory in 1945.
They worked round the clock seven days a week in perilous conditions on the production line, frequently in mind-numbing routine jobs, helping to make the bullets, the bombs, the tanks, the spare parts and the weaponry that the country needed so badly. Without their effort, the outcome of the war could have been very different indeed.
‘The danger faced each yet they were very much a hidden army. Unlike others in the Forces or the Home Front they were not distinguished by a uniform, so covert was the nature of wartime munitions work. factories Other than their loved ones and families they were not allowed to tell anyone where they worked. Yet the danger they faced each day in the factories and even on their way to work during nighttime bombing raids in the blackout was huge.
In a vast munitions factory complex safety rules and regulations dominated everything. Every person working on the factory floor risked their health and their life working with highly toxic chemicals. One tiny mistake or slip-up at work could blow everyone to smithereens and wreck Britain’s war effort. Each day carried the risk of sudden, accidental explosions, causing disfigurement, blindness, loss of limbs or worse.
The women handled chemicals that turned their skin yellow, discoloured their hair or caused rashes, breathing problems or asthma. Some went home with acid burns. An unlucky few went off to work in the morning but didn’t come back at all. Yet it is only now more than 70 years later that their secret stories of courage are being told for the first time.
“When you signed up they really didn’t tell you too much,” says Margaret Curtis, 91, a process worker at the huge explosives factory at Bishopton, just outside Glasgow, for more than three years. She had been a lowly parlour maid until she volunteered with her best friend Mary for munitions work. “They told us we’d be earning £2 a week which was a lot more than I’d ever earned.”
“On my first day I was told I’d be working in gun cotton, making squares and plugs out of the cotton. Mary was sent to the cordite section. We didn’t know it but cordite was extra dangerous, working with highly explosive nitroglycerine in underground buildings.
“When you arrived at work you went into a special area to change into white jacket and trousers, a white turban and rubber boots or Wellingtons, summer or winter. You couldn’t leave the plant in your wellies and there were lots of things you were forbidden to take into the building. No metal anywhere, no safety pins, hairpins, no matches, no cigarettes.
The tiniest spark put everyone at risk from explosion.”
The factories employed “danger building men” who would carry out spot checks on the workers for any dangerous items. Just after she’d started Margaret was stopped by one of these men.
“He had spotted a Kirby grip in my hair. I had forgotten to remove it. ‘Do it again and you’ll be suspended,’ he said. A few days later we heard about a person who’d been cleaning a big machine with a brush. Somehow a single hair from the brush got into the mechanism. It caused one spark and everything went up. We didn’t know if anyone had been killed. You just had to get on with what you were doing.”
Betty Nettle, 88, worked in Europe’s biggest munitions plant in the Welsh Arsenal at Bridgend, Glamorgan, pasting and wrapping circular pellets containing yellow powder, an explosive component called tetryl. It was boring and repetitive work.
“But when you had finished your shift the powder had stuck to you,” she recalls. Many Bridgend girls like Betty became known as “canaries” because their skin and hair became discoloured from the powder with which they worked. “If the powdery stuff got into your hair it changed colour. Even if just a little bit of hair crept out from under your turban and cap it went green if you were blonde. Black hair went red and your skin was yellow. It went through your clothes and on to your body. If you perspired at night you would find yellow all over the sheets. It was so bad you would think you’d had jaundice.
“The shift work was exhausting. For some people it meant a 12-hour working day if they needed to travel to work two hours each way by foot, bus and train. Thousands of single women were sent off to work in arms factories in extremely far-flung locations, to live in purpose-built hostels for munitions workers or in local billets.
Maisie Jagger, 91, from Essex, was sent away to work making gun cartridges in a small-arms factory in Blackpole, Worcester.
“Leaving home was a shock, living in a strange house in a different part of the country. I missed my family all the time I was there. I hated the noisy factory and the night shifts. It was very tiring. In my break I would go into the toilets and fall asleep for 15 minutes or so, no pillow or anything. That’s how exhausted I was.”
Maisie, used to her mother’s home cooking, also had difficulty with the food her landlady served up. “It wasn’t her fault – there was a war on. People just had to make do with what there was. So I lost a lot of weight.”
After 18 months Maisie was so thin that the factory doctor decided that it would be better if she went home. “They said that I wasn’t healthy enough to carry on doing the factory work.”
Maisie spent the rest of her bomb girl years in a Dagenham factory, helping to make parachutes and inflatable dinghies. Like so many the camaraderie she found there made a real difference. “The girls were always laughing and joking. They would even put little notes inside the dinghies for the fighting men saying silly things like, ‘I’ll be waiting for you to come home.'” Ivy Gardiner, 90, worked at the Port Sunlight Lever Brothers factory in the Wirral, Liverpool, converted to munitions work through the war. Initially she assembled jeeps and was later trained as a lathe turner, making undercarriages for bombers.
“Once on night shift I yawned without thinking and a piece of copper spat on to my tongue. ‘Drink milk,’ said the nurse. Everyone around me thought it was funny. ‘That’ll teach you to open your mouth, Ivy,’ they joked.”
But there was no laughter when Ivy saw for herself the severe consequences of ignoring the safety rules. “This girl who worked near me would never tuck her hair under her hat as she was told. One day I saw her bend over to look at something and the drill caught her hair. It scalped her. She screamed the place down, there was blood everywhere.
The drill had yanked her hair out by the roots so it would never grow after that. The ambulance came but we never saw her again.”
Recognition for the value of their work has been a long time coming but even now – despite all they faced – the surviving bomb girls don’t see themselves as heroines. All insist that in wartime everyone else in the country was busy “doing their bit”. “Perhaps because so many of us were young and fairly innocent, that helped,” says Laura Hardwick, aged 92, of her time making bullets and detonators in two huge munititions factories in Aycliffe, County Durham and Swynnerton in Staffordshire.
Laura still retains one very clear picture of those days in her mind’s eye. “I can still see us all now getting off the buses, going through the factory gate, linking arms and singing Bless Them All at the tops of our young voices as we went on to the noisy shop floor.
“We were just tiny wartime cogs, the girls who made the thingummybobs as the Gracie Fields song put it. But at the same time we had each other and we had our youth. There are some very good memories of it all to look back on even now. We all knew that you had to make the best of it, you see.”
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