RAF Fauld explosion
|RAF Fauld explosion|
|Staffordshire, England, UK|
Aerial view of the crater and damage to the surrounding area caused by the explosion, taken by the RAF on 4 December 1944
The RAF Fauld explosion was a military accident which occurred at 11:11 am on Monday, 27 November 1944 at the RAF Fauld underground munitions storage depot in Staffordshire, England. It was one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in history and the largest on UK soil.
Between 3,500 and 4,000 tonnes of ordnance exploded, mostly high explosives. The explosion crater with a depth of 100 feet (30 m) and 250 yards (230 m) across is still visible just south of Fauld, to the east of Hanbury, Staffordshire. It is now known as the Hanbury Crater. A nearby reservoir containing 450,000 cubic metres of water was obliterated in the incident, along with several buildings including a complete farm. Flooding caused by the destruction of the reservoir added to the damage directly caused by the explosion.
The exact death toll is uncertain; it is believed that about 70 people died in the explosion and the resulting flood.
The cause of the disaster was not made clear at the time. There had been staff shortages, a management position had remained empty for a year, and 189 inexperienced Italian POWs were working in the mines at the time of the accident. In 1974, it was announced that the cause of the explosion was probably a site worker removing a detonator from a live bomb using a brass chisel rather than a wooden batten. An eyewitness testified that he had seen a worker using brass chisels in contravention of the strict regulations in force.
No. 21 Maintenance Unit RAF Bomb Storage dump consisted of old gypsum mine workings which had been made into storage for a variety of ordnance; in addition to shells and bombs, the specifications included several types of weapons and up to 500 million rounds of small arms ammunition. Up to 4,000 tonnes exploded, including 3,500 tonnes of bombs packed with high explosives. At 11:15 hours on 27 November 1944, two huge explosions took place at the dump. Eyewitnesses reported seeing two distinct columns of black smoke in the form of a mushroom cloud ascending several thousand feet, and a blaze at the foot of the column. According to the commanding officer of 21 M.U., Group Captain Storrar, an open dump of incendiary bombs caught fire and it was allowed to burn itself out without damage or casualties. Property was damaged within a radius of 3⁄4 mile of the crater.
Debris and damage occurred to all property within a circle extending for 1,420 yards (1,300 m). Upper Castle Hayes Farm completely disappeared and Messrs. Peter Ford's lime and gypsum works to the north of the village and Purse cottages were completely demolished. The lime works was destroyed by the flooding after the destruction of the reservoir dam. Hanbury Fields Farm, Hare Holes Farm and also Croft Farm with adjacent cottages were all extensively damaged. Debris also damaged Hanbury village. The crater was 300 yards (270 m) by 233 yards (213 m) in length and 100 feet (30 m) deep, covering 12 acres. Approximately one third of the RAF dump exploded, an area of 65,000 square yards (5.4 ha), but barriers of rock pillars between No. 3 and No. 4 sections held and prevented the other munition storage areas from exploding in a chain reaction.
At the time, there was no careful tally of the number of workers at the facility. So, while the exact death toll is uncertain, it appears that about 70 people died in the explosion. The official report said that 90 were killed, missing or injured, including:
- 26 killed or missing at the RAF dump—divided between RAF personnel, civilian workers and some Italian prisoners of war who were working there—5 of whom were gassed by toxic fumes; also 10 severely injured. Six are buried in military graves.
- 37 killed (drowned) or missing at Peter Ford & Sons gypsum mine and plaster mill, and surrounding countryside; also 12 injured.
- Approximately 7 farm workers at the nearby Upper Castle Hayes Farm.
- One diver was killed during search and rescue operations.
Two hundred cattle were also killed by the explosion. Some live cattle were removed from the vicinity but were dead the following morning.
A relief fund organised by the local people made payments to victims and their families until 1959.
Much of the storage facility was annihilated by the explosion, but the site itself continued to be used by the RAF for munitions storage until 1966, when No. 21 Maintenance Unit was disbanded. Following France's withdrawal from NATO's integrated military structure in 1966, the site was used by the US Army between 1967 and 1973 to store US ammunition previously stored in France.
By 1979 the site was fenced off and the area is now covered with over 150 species of trees and wildlife. Access is restricted as a significant amount of explosives are still buried deep in the site; the UK government has deemed their removal too expensive to be feasible.
On 13 September 1990, 46 years after the initial incident, it was announced that a memorial stone was to be built to commemorate those who died, to be paid for by the public because Hanbury Parish Council did not have the necessary funds. The stone used for the memorial was donated by the Italian government and flown to the United Kingdom on an RAF plane. It was unveiled on 25 November 1990. A second memorial was dedicated on the 70th anniversary of the explosion, 27 November 2014. A tourist trail leads to the crater from the Cock Inn pub in Hanbury, which was damaged by debris from the explosion.
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- Grid Reference: SK182277
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