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Aycliffe Munitions Factory by Frank Butterfield

In 2005 Hartlepool's Museum and Library Services worked together on a project called 'Their Past, Your Future', which commemorated the part played by local people in the Second World War. As part of the project Frank Butterfield reminisced about his work in the Munitions Factory. This is his story, in his own words:

I was born on 29th March 1923 and I left school in 1937, so I was sixteen when war started. I had four brothers and two sisters, I was the oldest. I remember the night the war started, because everybody had their radios on. Me father sat there and me brothers; me brother thought it was very exciting, he started clapping – me father clipped him because he knew what was going to happen. Within an hour an aeroplane went right across the docks, we all panicked! I always remember that, and that was the night it started.

I was disabled, and they called me up and I had to go to Middlesbrough. They said “strip off, put your top coat on and queue up” and I said to the officer “what’s the point of me doing that?” he said “it doesn’t matter about that, just queue up.” He tested me, and he said “ you’re A1, all but your leg. You can fly an aeroplane.” But I was in engineering at the time, and they took all the men away and I was one of the few left, so they put me into different places. One of me jobs was at the dog track, I had to go and look after that. Funny show, that. And one time the government sent me to Newcastle, and said “you’re on war work”. I went into this place with this officer-type, and I had to sign this declaration “you’re under the Intelligence, now”. Intelligence! I was getting plans, and I had to draw this on a plan and make it – right to this day I never knew what was going on. I tried all sorts to find out what it was for. Some said it was the Queen Mary, she’d broke down and they didn’t want you to know where it was because the submarines were always after it.

This one morning a young chap was sat at my desk, so I sat against him, and I could see he certainly wasn’t in our class. I got rather friendly with him, and it turned out he was Lord Lambton’s son, the Right Honourable Tony Lambton. What a bloke! He wouldn’t go to the canteen for anything to eat. And, you know, then you’d travel miles to get an orange or anything like that. This Butler or something used to fetch a basket in – bottles of lager I’d never seen; there was all sorts of stuff! We had to fill forms in for the Government, Employment Cards and that. He hadn’t a clue, so I used to do all that for him. One time he said he was going away for a weekend shooting, so we went to this menswear shop and he bought some clothes and he said “you have some.” So I got a Harris tweed jacket and a pair of trousers and I had them for years. But in Hartlepool, amongst the lads, and me in great big checks! Every ton of coal that came out of Durham, his family got sixpence off it. I used to argue politics with him. I was the biggest Socialist agitator in the town!

After that I went to the steelworks and I was machine-gunned! I worked in the laboratories and when they started the furnaces up we had to go and tell them if the temperatures were right for the slabs. I had to go early with the furnace men, about seven o’clock one night. A lovely night. Where I sat there was a big steel box where the boiler man kept his things, and me charts were all around that and then we heard the sirens go. I stood there looking down at the four furnaces I had to look after and I saw machine gun bullets coming all the way along the roof, and they were hitting the pipes and jumping off. I jumped in the box out the way.

I lived up Jesmond Road at the time, and we used to watch dogfights on a lunchtime, then you’d go round and pick shrapnel up. We built our Air Raid shelter at the bottom of the garden. Me dad was a real all-rounder, he could do anything. He had it all planked out and bunks in it, we had everything in it, it was beautiful. My mother was deaf and dumb, so if there was a raid she heard nothing, we had to take her in. She just died this March, aged 100. When you have a disability people always think you are inferior. With my mother being like that they thought she was an imbecile. Well, she was a seamstress and she was a wonderful gardener. Me father was the same. During the war we always had a smallholding, up on Cameron’s Bank. We missed fruit the most with the rationing, especially bananas. When they rationed cigarettes, you used to kill for that! My cousin’s father was in the workshops at Richardsons. You could go to him and he could get anything. He opened a cupboard and he had everything. Chocolate, you name it.

I had a cousin at Wingate and Sunday mornings I used to catch the bus at Cameron’s Bank to go up. It was snowing this morning when I got on the bus and this girl I knew called Ethel Lawson was sat there with this girl. I said hello and got talking. I used to go to the Rink for the dances and next time I went I was drunk and I pleaded with Doreen to marry her. She was the most wonderful girl. We got married in 1944, just as the war was finishing. My sister was in the army and she’d married this bloke from Leeds. Our holidays came around so we went down to see our Mary. On the train on the way down I said “why don’t we get married and be done with it?” We’d been courting four year. She was twenty and I was twenty-two. We got a special licence down there and got married and went to Lewis’ Stores for a breakfast. She sent telegrams to her family. We were married 61 years before she died.

After we got married I was sent to the Munitions Factory at Aycliffe, on specialised checking bomb heads. We got some American ones that we’d never seen before so I had to check them out. They had a plastic head on – well we’d never seen plastic on big shells so we cut through and bang! Blew us straight through the blinking door! But at Aycliffe they built the wooden sheds with very thin wood and they piled the soil right round them so when they blew up it went straight up. Mind, the money was good. There were eight factories in one there and I had to go round and take a selection of all the things and examine them and see if they were all right. Women always got the delicate work so me wife was put on detonators. It was damned dangerous. If one fell everything stopped and they had to get it in a bucket of water. I went and told them she was expecting so they took her off it and for the rest of the time she sat and tore paper up.

It was a massive place. People worked there from all over the area and came on the train every day. You could see the bombers going round but they never found it ‘cos they tell me from the height it just looked like mounds of grass. There was a canteen as long as a street and they had eight railway stations. There was Groups One to Eight and there was nearly a mile between each group. There were divisions I knew nothing about – they didn’t seem to have nothing to do with bombs. I was attached to number Three with my wife. The girls were known as the “Yellow Canaries” because of the Cordite. Some of the girls turned bright yellow, their hair was green with the powder. It caused abscesses and some of the girls’ faces that had got caught in an explosion…  These girls, they had presses, and what they did, they get the fuses and they pack them with powder, then they pull a lever and tighten it. You had special rubber shoes and special clothes and you had to keep your wedding ring wrapped up. It got all over the place that powder, very dangerous. You were forever cleaning because it settles all over, and the slightest thing and that was it. Very dangerous. There were explosions all the time, they used to keep a lot of it quiet. We were known as the “suicide squad”. But we got used to it and thought nothing of it.

My father was dead against the war and when he joined up I couldn’t understand it. He said “I’m there to protect me family, not the country”. But he’d been an engine driver all his life and they told him that we’d have to go and live at Liverpool. But they were getting bombed so he decided to go and join the RAF. First they sent him up on an aeroplane – he didn’t want to go up there! So he ended up as the keep fit trainer on the regiment. At the end of the war he was Air Field Controller at Thornaby. My cousin was my age and every time me dad was home he’d come, ‘cos he wanted to go and be a Pilot Officer. Me dad used to say “don’t, son, they don’t last no time, shot to pieces.” However, he got in – Pilot Officer – two flights over Hamburg and gone – just blown out the sky. Awful.

My youngest uncle, he was Regular Army, Royal Scots, he went to Palestine in 1937, he got blew up there then he came home for the war and was over in Dunkirk. He got out of Dunkirk just in a pair of white shorts. He was a good swimmer and he swam out to a boat and got home. Then they pushed him on a train and he came all the way up to the north just like that and he come to our house. What a state he was in. He had to go to his barracks up in Scotland and I think me dad give him some clothes. Then he come on his leave and he said “ oh, they’re giving us a rest, they’re going to send us to Hong Kong.” 1941. Well, you know what happened there – the Japs. When he was captured they put him on that railway line in Burma and from what I can make out he had dysentery and goodness knows what. And that’s where he died. He was a lovely chap.












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