The Fauld Explosion

We launched the Society's season of Autumn meetings with packed attendance for a talk by Graham Shaw on the explosion that occurred at Fauld, near Tutbury on 27th November 1944. This remains the largest explosion that has ever occurred in the British Isles. To understand what happened we need to retrace our steps to the inter-war period when the extensive gypsum deposits were being exploited, principally for the manufacture of plasterboard. Gypsum is perhaps equally as well known as the source of alabaster which is used for statuary, tombs and other decorative work. The drift mine at Fauld, penetrating the hillside on the level, was, and still is, a rich source of gypsum; such that by the commencement of World War II the area contained many large underground caverns. Unlike coal the integrity of gypsum rock is such that no supports are required. Dry, with a stable temperature, what better place could be found to store munitions? Hence, the worked out area of the mine was sealed off from the operational area, then itself subdivided with substantial blast walls for the separate storage of detonators, incendiary bombs and high explosives. Supervised by RAF personnel the store became the main distribution point for a number of military airfields, including RAF Lichfield at Fradley. Italian prisoners of war also worked on site after the surrender of Italy.

So, by 1944, the depot housed no less than eighty thousand tons of high explosive. Yet, on the other side of the blast walls, mining operations continued in the rest of the site. On 27th November 1944 slack working practices, later acknowledged to have caused the disaster, precipitated the explosion. The golden rule that detonators and explosives should be kept in separate areas was broken when two unexploded one thousand pound bombs were returned to have their detonators removed and stored. Use of a brass chisel, doubtless creating a spark, also compounded the situation. The resulting localised explosion set off a chain reaction which detonated forty thousand tons of high explosive. The upward force threw 1.5 million cu. metres of rock and detritus 1.5 kilometres into the air, creating a nuclear-type mushroom cloud. It created a crater one quarter of a mile across and ninety feet deep. The farm above the explosion was totally destroyed and its occupants killed. Seven munitions workers were killed. But by far the greatest death toll occurred amongst the miners nearby, who were either gassed underground or drowned on the surface as the nearby reservoir was destroyed, flooding the gypsum works. In the nearby village of Hanbury the destruction was quite selective. The village hall was totally destroyed and the Cock Inn extensively damaged, yet the church survived virtually unscathed. In all over seventy people died and the bodies of some were never found.

Although such an explosion could not escape being reported in the local press, dissemination of the news was discouraged and, despite rumours that it had been a plot hatched by the Italian prisoners of war (most of whom had conveniently died in the explosion) or a V2 rocket, the real truth did not fully emerge, following an investigation, until long after the end of the war.

But, you may ask, what happened to the forty thousand tons of high explosive that did not explode? Well, it remains buried underground hidden under the re-vegetated crater. Safe, they say and slowly degrading ... perhaps?

Roger Hockney
September 2014