When the War came to Yarnfield

Our speaker on April 12th was Shaun Farrelly, who told our audience about the profound impact of the Second World War on a small Staffordshire village.

The Great War was supposed to be "the war to end wars"; but, of course, that was a vain hope. However, World War One had such a strong psychological effect on the British that those in power were reluctant to heed warnings by Winston Churchill, who saw the way Germany was re-arming and urged the Government of the day to take this seriously. Unfortunately, for some time he was treated merely as a scaremonger. Consequently, Great Britain was slow in getting off the mark in preparation for the inevitable coming conflict.

When it finally did so, the style of the war was going to be vastly different to the previous encounter. A major difference would be thanks to the aeroplane. These had been around in World War One, but not as a major machine of war. The Royal Flying Corps (precursor of the Royal Air Force) could manage short hops for battlefield reconnaissance, but their aeroplanes were not capable of long flights. By the start of the Second World War, engineering could produce aircraft that were far more sophisticated, able to fly right into the enemy's heartland. But that meant an enemy could also easily reach our cities!

Towns and cities were the places where people and manufacturing were concentrated. London was home to both and had important centres of munitions manufacture. The Royal Arsenal at Woolwich was the home of heavy engineering; Enfield produced small arms; and Waltham had the Royal Explosives Factory. It now became undesirable to have so much defence manufacturing focussed on a metropolis that was likely to experience heavy aerial bombing.

So, two things became matters of urgency. We had to increase production of the equipment necessary to fight the war and, as far as practical, that production needed to be away from major centres of population. New factories were therefore set up, dispersed around the country: at Chorley in Lancashire in 1935; at Bridgend in South Wales in 1936; and from 1939 at Swynnerton, about 20 miles north-west of Lichfield. Eventually around 44 such factories were feeding the war's appetite for munitions, with some sites only selected after the war had started.

Factories need people to work in them. But while many workers would be needed, the problem was that munitions needed to be kept away from towns. The answer was to use the railway network. The new factories were all located near a main railway line so, while not in a town or city centre, they could still be close to a likely workforce.

In Staffordshire, Swynnerton was an area identified as suitable for a Royal Ordnance Factory (R.O.F.). After an initial site survey in September 1939, construction work on the 1,300-acre site began the following month, with the builders being brought in each day and the manufacture of munitions starting while the complex was still under construction.

Clearly there was a sense of urgency. The necessary funds were also forthcoming: the building cost, measured by today's prices, was over 1 billion, a typical figure for such a factory site or airfield. War is expensive!

R.O.F. Swynnerton was what was known as a Filling Factory. Producing live shells involved three stages. Firstly, engineering dealt with metal fabrication, making shell casings; secondly, explosives production, which was very dangerous and generally done at remote locations; and finally, Filling Factories such as Swynnerton added explosives to the metal parts to produce finished munitions - also very dangerous work! Thousands were employed at R.O.F. Swynnerton on this delicate task. With most able-bodied men called up for military service the workforce was mainly female, though male supervisors were brought in from other Royal Ordnance Factories such as Woolwich.

For safety, all these workers needed off-site accommodation, yet they had to be close enough to commute to and from the factory. The solution was like housing an army: a set of hostels would be built. Delicately described as "Halls", each was in fact just a collection of barrack-type buildings. But to give them some dignity, each was named after a former British Admiral. In total, there were eight of these hostels in the area: one at Swynnerton village; two at Cotes Heath; two at Eccleshall; and three at Yarnfield (Beatty Hall, Duncan Hall and Howard Hall). Poor little Yarnfield had merely been a modest hamlet before this influx; what a shock to its system! Housing for a further 480 families was provided in Stone for staff coming up from Woolwich.

The factory built and its workers accommodated, the third piece of the puzzle was transport. The Ministry of Supply asked the London, Midland and Scottish Railway to build a new station to ferry workers to and from R.O.F. Swynnerton. The L.M.S. went further: it built a new branch line to go with it, at the end of which Cold Meece Station was built. Opened in 1940; this station had four very long platforms and during the remainder of the war it saw about 30 million journeys made to and from the factory.

However, the railway station, offering easy commuting to the factory from further afield, rendered the Yarnfield Halls surplus to requirements. Although their accommodation was very basic, the women living there made them cosy. They felt like home so, when living arrangements were revised and the residents of the Yarnfield Halls were told they had to move elsewhere, they were not best pleased. But leave they did; and in 1942 the "Yanks" arrived. Yarnfield and its Halls became home to a U.S. Army Air Force base until 1945.

Bernice Eisner
June 2023