Why you should care
Because this tragedy ran deeper than most.
“It was a lovely winter morning with a clear sky overhead. At 11:10 a.m., the earth shuddered violently.” So reads an official’s account of an otherwise unremarkable day in 1944. But what was very remarkable was the source of the shuddering: an explosion so fierce it left a crater 80 feet deep and a quarter-mile wide.
The blast of an estimated 3,500 tons of high explosives took out a nearby water reservoir, swallowed a farm and some buildings and killed scores — with seismographs picking up the shock waves as far away as Rome and Casablanca. Just another day of war in Dresden or Cologne? No. To the shock of the Staffordshire countryside, Britain had just endured what the Ministry of Defense tells OZY was the “world’s biggest man-made explosion before the nuclear age,” and one with almost half the force of the following year’s atomic bomb in Hiroshima.
It was indescribable. It was hell.
An unnamed survivor
Near the village of Hanbury, in the West Midlands, bombs were stored during wartime at Royal Air Force Fauld, a former gypsum mine where it was hoped they’d be safe from German bombing raids. But thousands of tons of highly explosive material being moved around by men in a confined space carried its own risks, as villagers learned the hard way on Nov. 27, 1944. Seventy people were killed, including those buried at the mine and, according to Karen Evans in The Grim Almanac of Staffordshire, workers at a nearby plaster mill who died when a damaged reservoir caused local flooding. “It was indescribable,” one unnamed survivor told the Telegraph at the time. “It was hell. The man next to me was killed, and then the water came.”
The dead included military personnel, civilians and Italian prisoners of war. Headlines pointed out that death tolls were fuzzy for weeks, since no one knew precisely how many people were in the area at the time. “Civilians in Ruined Area Disappear Without a Trace” read one, and the MOD admits that 18 bodies were never recovered. Every home in the village was damaged, and hundreds of farm animals perished.
A community grieved, but was drowned out by the final throes of war on the European front. The fact that there were no surviving witnesses to the first massive detonation fed speculation of sabotage. Were the Italians on-site looking for revenge? One survivor’s son even posited that an enemy bombing destroyed the site. But most agreed with the MOD that the blast was caused by an accidental ignition of explosives. Based on circumstantial evidence, says Alan Thomas of the RAF’s Air Historical Branch, the most likely cause was “the misuse of a brass chisel to remove the fuse from a live returned weapon.” This could have generated sparks that ignited the bomb filling — with the initial detonation setting off subsequent blasts in a deadly domino effect.
“Personnel at the depot were potentially undertrained, underequipped and undersupervised,” Thomas explains. Safety procedures of some sort would have been in place, of course, but they were “minimal.” This, combined with the likely complacency of handling bomb materials routinely, elevated the risk. On the day of the explosion, Thomas says there were unused weapons that had just been returned to the site — possibly still armed — and left with a unit that wasn’t prepared to disarm them, close to other weapons. Exactly what happened that day will forever remain buried, along with the 18 unrecovered bodies.
Bomb materials were subsequently removed from the accessible parts of the site, but many explosives still lay deep underground in the precarious mine — deemed too expensive to remove by the British government. Ground-level operations continued at the site until 1966, and between 1967 and 1973, the U.S. Army used RAF Fauld for ordnance storage. The local council tried to get MOD permission to fill the crater with household waste and turn the giant hole into a refuse dump, but loved ones of victims whose bodies were never recovered objected, and permission was denied. In the late 1970s, the area was fenced off, and nature was left to take its course.
The blast may have constituted a mere fraction of what was being dropped nightly over the cities of Germany, and it paled in comparison to the nuclear devastation of Nagasaki and Hiroshima. But it permanently scarred the Staffordshire countryside and exposed critical fissures in British munitions policy, storage and training — prompting urgently needed changes that came too late for too many.