The 'Bombs to Butterflies' Interviews
Interviewees: Lilian Slack
Interviewers: Norman and Audrey Ecob
Date of Interview:
So you did just start to tell me when you did work at the Depot.
The last year of the war, I think it would be, I was redundant from Ashley Moles at Bunny and rushed into there on the AID - Aeronautical Inspection Department. We did, I don't know, it was two or three weeks in the classroom, in the admin, to learn all about explosives and everything and then we went into the site itself to sort of, what we did every aspect of bomb filling from when the empty bombs came in, the empty shell of a bomb came in, from there, to them going out full. We covered every aspect of it. There had to be an AID inspector there at every stage of the filling. You sort of worked probably one department for about three days and then you were moved to another department, so you gradually knew every aspect of the bombs being filled.
Did you say the inspector was RAF?
The immediate boss was a Squadron Leader. We lowly ones never really met him. He was a sort of figure in the distance. It was a very, as you can imagine, responsible job. You were very answerable to all the rules and regulations which govered it. It was interesting.
Did you apply for the job?
Not really, no, I was pushed into it.
You were pushed into it?
I was made redundant, the war was still on. I would be getting on for 20 years of age and I could have been ...
We call that conscription now.
I was sort of conscripted into that but it was far preferable to the actual filling of the bombs but women didn't do that, women at war didn't do that - that was man's work - the filling of the bombs.
The filling of the bombs?
But the supervising of everything rested with us, if they weren't doing it right we had to tell them which wasn't very pleasant sometimes when they had been at the job years and you had only just started to watch them.
It was a supervisory job.
Yes inspection. You see, I don't know whether you want to know about the actual filling of the bombs.
They used to come in empty cases, bomb cases.
Where did they come from?
I don't know. Wherever they were made.
Chilwell or ?
Somewhere like that, probably.
500 Ibs or 1000 Ibs we did both and they came in as empty cases. Funnily enough they had to be all cleaned out. It sounds ludicrous because they are going to be filled with explosives. Anything might cause an explosion had to be cleaned out and then they were brought in...
Who did the cleaning?
They'd got women up there doing the cleaning but they had nothing to do with the filling of them. Then from there they came into the actual place were they were filled and that was very very sort of secretive. The walls were, I don't know, I should think 10 feet thick? They were very solid places and the first place they came into they had to be weighed, the empty weight. This was all done by an overhead crane. Then they were put into position in like wooden jigs and the men then, where the explosive was mixed, it was a mixture there was like six coppers which were two storey. The operatives filling the coppers worked above them and the actual explosives were drawn out at the bottom in buckets and there was a weight in and it was all timed to the exact minute. When the first part of the explosive went in, which was nitrate, and if I remember correctly it was about 15 minutes after that the TNT was put in and I think it was five aluminium powder was put in and all mixed. Boiled and all mixed in. It was right hot when it came out. It was very lethal. Then we had men, getting it when it was ready, we had to tell them when it was ready. That's what inspection of that came in.
How did you know it was ready?
We timed the exact time. We had like blackboards and you put the exact time when each ingrediant went in and we had to tell them, its OK now, you can take that out, it ready. It really seems ludicrous when you talk about it like that (laughter). Then they were mostly Pakistani people who used to do it out in buckets and then, because it was such a secretive place, they had to go through a hole in the wall there was a sort of tunnel they had to dive through there into where they were filling it into the bombs and into the cases. As well as that the liquid there was also what they called it, when the explosive was put into trays, a bit like toffee trays and then it was broken up and used to give bulk to the liquid. It was rather like in the chip shop when they scoop it up from the pot in the front of them and put it in and that is how they filled them. And then it had to be weighed when it was full it had to be weighed again to see that they had the right amount of filling in and if it wasn't, then it was rejected. I think it was week ends when they used to do that, they used to steam all that out of it.
Was that re-used?
Yes. Then the next stage after weighing it was back on to another sort of platform with jigs at the end and they used to seal them with the base plate or whateverl which held the fuse but we did not fuse them and that was were we found it nice on a winter's evening to snuggle up to them, (laughter) you used to get your back between two hot bombs, it was lovely feeling on a cold night getting your back warm. From then it went out of that building altogether to the transit place.
Its not yet been fused? They weren't fused at Ruddington?
They were not fused. I didn't mention that each AID inspector had a stencil, a small stencil with a number on and you kept that, that was your individual number. And when they had done each or part of the filling whatever to your satisfaction then you stencilled this number with yellow paint onto the side of the bomb so that when it got to the transit shed it had got a series of AID numbers in yellow all the way down. It got to the transit shed and each one had a number and you sort of checked that all these stencils had been put on so that each operation had been supervised. And then when it was all to your satisfaction you recorded all these numbers on a big chart. When it was all done to your satisfaction then you painted all those out (laughter) in the same colour as the bomb. So when it had gone it had gone but you had got all those stencil numbers on there. Each bomb case had a lug on it probably two on the first ones I don't rightly know.
A lug (irrelevances). And they all used to be in line with bombs ready to be loaded on to railway trucks or lorries. We used to, another thing which fascinated my grandson, if the stencils were sort of round the side and you couldn't get to them, then we just got your foot and gave it a little kick (laughter) and they rolled it. So that was quite fascinating, it was an operations that you got used to. It had got to be done. When you think the last thing in the line is going to be thrown out of an aeroplane it may sound silly but they have got to be weighed and weighed back and all this sort of thing. Those are not the only bombs we did, they had cluster bombs as well. We still use cluster bombs, they were very lethal. They were small.
Did you deal with those?
Yes, yes. They were about 20 Ib in weight, each individual one but they were assembled in metal cases. A sort of I suppose it would be kit form on a trolley about the size of this room. There were two operatives and the AID inspector. These bombs would be assembled on this trolley. There would be the metal case to form the bomb and there would be the jig was there and they used to put two bottom parts in and then the bombs were laid into there and they had a parachute at one end and a fuse at the other. The parachute had a wire to it and that had to go through the fuse and that was at the dangerous stage when the parachute was there during the fuse they were not allowed to be moved again. They were in there you see and we put the top two pieces on, two end plates and the metal structure that was a complete cluster bomb. About 14 in one or 20 depending upon what size they were doing at the time. It was a fascinating job (irrelevances). On the face of it when you think, a bombs a bomb a 500 Ib or 1000 Ib all the preparation, the filling and everything had to be exact. We all wore special shoes when we went in. (irrelevances).
You were just telling me you were all special shoes. (irrelevances)
When we first clocked in to do our shift - we did three shifts. I think if I remember correctly they were about 7 till 3, 3 till 10 and 10 till 7 the next morning. You did three shifts and after you clocked in the first thing you did you took off all your outdoor things, shoes everything, any hair grips, any rings which wouldn't come off had to be covered with a piece of bandage. No sweets, no cigarettes, no matches you couldn't take anything through with you. Then you went into the changing room was divided into two - clean side and the other side. You went into the other side and you put on the trousers, a sort of coat overall; no buttons or anything, all ties, ties on the trousers. In the AID case, they had a pocket with AID on the pocket. A turban for your hair, hair tied up in a turban, brown shoes on which was obviously on the pathways to each working area, they were called cleanways so obviously these shoes were not going to cause any sparks, anything that could cause a spark was ruled out. Like in a thunderstorm, if there was going to be a thunderstorm then you stopped work and went to the canteen. Oh yes. So why did everybody pray for a thunderstorm? (laughter). I suppose they were all precautions which had to be observed not only for your own safety but for the safety of everybody else and the village. If it would have had gone up the whole village would have gone.
Did you wear any goggles or anything?
We didn't no. But the TNT was yellow but that was why, you wouldn't realise it at that time, a lot of the girls who were on the cluster bombs especially would have yellow streaks in their hair at the front where their turbans ... Oh yes that was quite common. And in the toilet blocks there was always powder and cream that you could put on your face. It was Coty powder.
A barrier cream was it?
Yes, to stop all this ...
Was that a must or something you would choose to do?
It was something you either did or didn't. If you didn't then you took the risk that your hair went yellow. Everybody knew you worked there if you had yellow hair.
Like a heavy smoker?
What arrangements were there for washing before meals or at the end of the day?
You had got these huge toilet blocks and shower blocks. You could go and have a shower. But usually there were so many people wanting them you had to more or less take one when it was offered. They would come to you in the middle of the night and say would you like to come and have a shower - would you want a shower in the middle of the night.
Not being personal, but would you like to go and have a shower? (laughter)
You had to go in two's at night. And you would be in the shower and lovely and warm in there with the crickets chirping like mad out there. You wouldn't get one every night you know, it was when your turn came.
When your turn?
Yes. There was a war on! (laughter) Didn't we know!
What happened about laundry?
They did all the laundry. You left the things you'd been wearing you left over on the other side before you changed into your own things and that was all your overalls and trousers everything...
Right. I think we can pause there as I've got a map, where you could possibly identify buildings.
We're up near the farms.
We are near Moor End Farm, gone round the perimeter road. Moor End Farm is there.
So you're way out in the country.
On the far bottom corner, the Asher Lane corner looking towards there.
I would say that's what those two are.
The two mounds? Very similar to a horse shoe.
Grass banks in case of blast. You couldn't see the buildings. From a distance you wouldn't know the buildings were there but that is were they did the actual filling.
And this seems to be a main building with railway lines coming off each individual one and linking them together in fact. So they had to be for the weight of the bombs? This snakes round all over the place. Does this make sense to you?
So this is a dismantled railway part, look there and there is another line comes up here and runs all the way along to here and then snakes into this building here and goes all the way round a kind of central complex.
They did have a railway running to bring the employees in and they had their own station. There was a little station.
Station inside the site?
Yes. There was a little station, platform whatever. When they had, after the war, when they had all those vehicles on Asher Lane, there was a railway which came round the back of those.
Do you know what this part is here, where it says Depot with some buildings on the corner? There were some hangers, when you used to come along Asher Lane, you used to see some hangers.
Taylor Woodrow. I worked there, I did work there.
In the hangers.
Taylor Woodrow, I would imagine. Is that Asher Lane.
This is Asher Lane and the allotments.
Right, right. And the railway. Right Taylor Woodrow.
Prefabricated houses, storage depot.
Just storage was it?
I went there, when the depot finished, I first went there, when the war finished. There again I was pushed off (laughter). It was Taylor Woodrow.
You got no say in anything
Well, at least I didn't get the sack. I mean it wasn't my fault the war finished. Yes, Taylor Wood row, prefabricated house distribution centre and I worked in transport office which was on probably that little bit, Asher Lane. It was only a small place but it looked out on to Asher Lane (irrelevances). That would be Taylor Woodrow's prefabricated houses. We used to send them out all over the country.
Were they in operation at the same time as the site?
So what would be there when the site was in operation when they were making bombs? They look like kind of hangers.
They were hangers.
They wouldn't be planes, would the?
Oh no, no. I doubt whether they were in operation when the war was on. Couldn't have been. I know they had German prisoners of war working there when I was there when I was in transport at Taylor Woodrows. They used to bring them in every morning in lorries.
But wasn't this after the war was finished. Did they still have prisoners of war working here after the war was finished?
That had finished, that finished when the war finished. And then I was shipped up to Taylor Woodrow's. That's when they started to bring in the prisoners of war to load the lorries ..
They were still here for some time then? In Colwick woods. Prisoners of war.
Oh yes, prisoners of war in a sauce bottle. Any building all you would see is these big... and round each building there was a sort of pathway between the building and the grass mound.
What's these kind of flags here? That looks as though its a run off from the railway. Solid line all the way round the depot. Up here, the grass mounds, and this is the perimeter road, this corner here is where all the... A JCB out then!...
Quite an interesting.. Look at the little dots. They did have grass banks round each of those because they'd still got bombs in them, explosives, only small ones and I think those are were we did cluster bombs.
What the smaller ones?
Yes and each one had its own grass bank and each one came of the main cleanway. There was a path to each one.
That's this solid line?
That's right, I feel sure that's probably what they are.
Cleanways, there's even one down this bottom left.
They went all over the place. They were painted green so that they didn't get any foreign matter on their shoes. They had grass on either side and you were not allow to go on that grass in case you picked up a stone or anything which could cause an explosion.
Yes, you could get a flint or something like that and still get a spark.
I think this here you were on to the explosives section. I think that's what that is.
But you can't qualify any particular one?
No. You see there were a number of small places like this. I think that's what they are.
And the smaller would be for cluster bombs?
For cluster bombs.
What about the larger ones lower down on the bottom.
Would those be for the heavier shells?
Probably. Those, I wonder if that's were they did the shells. I was on that one and that one.
What you were on the top left hand corner?
On the, well moving around actually. Cluster bombs were on B section. Explosives, the actual bombs were C section.
That's that mound at the front?
Yes. Then they had an A section.
Where would that be?
Could be those.
What the bottom?
Yes. I was only C and B, clusterbombs and bombs. ....................................
One final question, do you recall any emergencies at all, fire?
The only emergencies that I can recall, you see our shift finished
mornings at 3 o'clock on a Saturday afternoon and the next shift on would
be 3 o'clock on Sunday afternoon. There was only that space in between, 24
hours. So these cluster bombs I was just telling you about, if the wire from
the parachute didn't connect up with the fuse - you see the fuse had a cap
on it and then they laid in the bombs with the parachute on then they had
to take the cap off the fuse but it could only be done while it was lying
in the bomb. It couldn't be touched again after that, cos they were live.
(irrelevances) But if the wire wasn't perhaps long enough and it slipped out
of the fuse or anything like that so then it was live so it was a case of
evacuate the building, close it down and then on a Sunday morning you'd get
the bomb disposal, I don't know, experts would come through a sky light, they
would operate through a sky light and remove that bomb you see. Very tricky
business, but it was done on a Sunday morning
when there was no workers on the site. So it was very...
Did that happen very often?
Depended upon how quick the men were on their bonus (laughter). If they wanted to get a bomb finished, they would perhaps hurry it and accidentally pull the wire out and then it was emergency and out you go and close the doors and leave it for.
It was ludicrous really. Were you nervous at all?
Do how much they were paid?
Can't think, I honestly cannot...
About three and six? (laughter)
Peanuts I should think.
And you were in charge.
Oh yes. It was our say so. If we said a bomb was not filled properly then it wasn't filled properly that was it .
How many people worked in this section?
About 8 men I should think.
Then you would have the inspector and then you would have some weilding the explosive, I know they had to be pretty nippy they went down through ahole in the wall and about three buckets and explosives white hot on a wooden trolley thing and you had to whip it through quickly through this hole in the wall which was about 6 or 7 feet thick and through a hole about 5 ft high and they had to whip that through to the operatives. I think they had one or two minor accidents, well minor, it wouldn't be very minor if you got a lump of that stuck on you would it. It wasn't very nice.
So you don't remember any floods or anything like that, going back to emergencies?
What about any funny incidents?
You see you had to be extremely careful, keep to the rules because otherwise you could have caused some nasty incidents.
Was there any characters at all, that stood out? Kept their heads down and did the work?
They got on with the work, they really did. You see if you've got supervisors coming along all the time to make sure things were running smoothly, every rule was being observed. One thing you couldn't do, funny enough, you couldn't live at a pub. There were 150 something rules in the rule book and one of them was that you were not allowed to live on licensed premises because.
You haven't got the rule book have you?
I didn't keep anything like that. You see we signed the official secrets act. (irrelevances)
Surely this must be documented somewhere?
You see living at a pub, you see the poster, 'Walls Have Ears'.
So you don't talk. It was all very hush hush. I bet a lot of people didn't
know what they were doing up there.
We didn't really. We lived when we first got married just on the perimeter fence.
I was there until it finished in 1945. The victory in Europe I think that was when we stopped. It was interesting. It was a job and once you got used to it that was it. .. Then you see from there I was shipped up to Taylor Wood row's (laughter)
Oh that was the Ministry of Works, Taylor Wood row's, that section. Taylor Wood row's came under the. Ministry of Works. I can remember that.
What were the three fabricated buildings for?
Houses. Sections of houses. They did everything from there. From Taylor Woodrow, distributed, everything from the baths, the sinks, the walls, the roofs, the doors, the windows. You name it, it was shipped out from there.
Like the ... estate prefabs.
That's right, prefabs, they were still standing.
Built to last for 10 years?
That's right. And they lasted - we got married in '48 and that was when Taylor Woodrow finished. You see another depot finishes and thows me out. What can you do. (irrelevances)
Thanks very much, I've enjoyed it. Fascinating that.
Interviews > Interview with Lillian Slack