Tag Archives: Home Front

The Canaries who helped win the war

This year sees 75 years since the end of the Second World War and no doubt there will be many events to commemorate that fact. Often memorials focus on the soldiers who fought and died for their country, but while the men were away at the front it fell to the women to work in the factories and fields on the Home Front of England. Approximately 950,000 women worked in the munitions factories alone, producing the shells and bullets used by their fathers, husbands, and sons at the front. One of the largest of these factories was at Rotherwas, Herefordshire, which employed up to 4,000 women at its height and produced around 70,000 shells a week. Many of the women who worked there were as young as 16 but others were considerably older, some were even the daughters of women who had worked in the munitions factories during the First World War.

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The job was relatively well-paid for a woman at that time, but the hours were long with the women often working eleven- or twelve-hour shifts to keep the factories running day and night. During these mammoth shifts the workers were only allowed a couple of short breaks, and this went on day after day, seven days a week, with just the occasional leave day granted every now and then. As well as long hours the job was also dangerous. There was the ever-present threat of an explosion, and the women suffered physically due to the effects of the chemicals which they were handling constantly. The TNT reacted with melanin in the body causing the women’s skin and hair to turn yellow, which earned them the nickname ‘Canary Girls’. The effects of the chemicals were more than skin deep however, as any of the women who became pregnant whilst working there gave birth to yellow ‘Canary Babies’. The colour gradually faded away but the women must have been afraid that there might be long term effects on their new born babies.

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Little, if any, training was given to the women who worked in the munition’s factories – they would simply turn up for their first shift and within minutes were filling shells with TNT. It was delicate work as they collected the hot explosives from a huge mixer (something like a cement mixer), filled the shells and inserted the tube to take the detonator which they then had to tap in very carefully in order not to cause an explosion. In other parts of the factory women had to clean the shells ready to be filled, they did this by rubbing a pad on something like an emery board before inserting the pad into the top part of the shell, this was followed by another disc, tiny screwdrivers and screws were used to finish the fuse and  put it in place. It was tedious, and dangerous, work. As well as the constant fear of explosions the workers were also at serious risk from accidents with dangerous machinery. It was not uncommon for women to lose fingers and hands, to suffer burns and blindness. In February 1944 19 workers, mainly women, were in a shed in the Royal Ordnance Factory in Kirby, Lancashire when one of the anti-tank mine fuses they were working with exploded, setting off a chain reaction amongst the other fuses. The girl who was working on that tray was killed outright, her body blown to pieces, other workers were injured, one fatally, and the factory badly damaged. There were also explosions at factories in Barnbow near Leeds, Chilwell in Nottinghamshire and Ashton-under-Lyne.

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To reduce the risk of explosions the women had to pass through the `Shifting House` twice daily – on the way in to work and on the way out again. This was a long building divided down the centre by a red barrier, one side being the dirty side and the other side the clean. Such were the fears that a rogue spark caused by static might lead to an explosion that the women were banned from wearing nylon and silk. On arriving to start their shift their outdoor clothing, jewellery and hairpins were removed along with any matches and metallic items in their pockets (although jewellery was taken off women could continue to wear their wedding rings as long as they were taped up). The women would then be checked for any metallic fasters on their under garments (only lace up corsets could be worn, no bras with metal clasps) before they could pass to the clean side and put on their regulation cream coloured gowns buttoned right up to their neck and tight around their wrists, and their regulation issue hats – a tightly fitted mop cap with as much hair tucked away under it as possible. Of course, at the end of a shift or to leave the danger buildings area for any reason the complete reversal had to be undertaken so to save time the women were not allowed out on their breaks but had to use their own canteen inside the Danger Building where everything was stained the same ubiquitous yellow as the girls.

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If the dangers inherent in the job weren’t enough there was always the threat of bombing by the Germans. The factory at Rotherwas was bombed at dawn on 27th July 1942 when the Luftwaffe dropped two 250kg bombs on the 300 acre site. The women were coming to the end of their shift and ran out when the sirens sounded. To their dismay they found that the air-raid shelters were locked so they sought cover wherever they could. The attacking plane flew in so low that the women could clearly see the black cross on its wings and the bombs falling from beneath it. There was a direct hit which ignited some of the munitions on the ground, the result was absolute carnage – from one unit of two hundred and thirty women only two survived.

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It is a credit to the Canary Girls that despite all that they endured they rarely complained about the terrible working conditions, they were proud to know that they were doing their bit for the war effort and saw it as a patriotic duty. These women were putting their lives on the line every bit as much as the men who had gone to war, yet the numbers of women who were killed or seriously injured whilst working in the munitions factories is not known, and few people know of the work that they did and its lasting effects on their lives. Although the Canary Girls lost their yellow colouring when they left the factories the women often suffered with illnesses in later life ranging from throat problems to dermatitis, the most debilitating was a liver disease called toxic jaundice caused by prolonged exposure to TNT, which often proved fatal. As we celebrate 75 years since the end of the war this year, I hope we take time to remember all those who served, including the Canary Girls of the munition’s factories.

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Will the real Captain Mainwaring please stand up

I have always loved a good comedy, Dad’s Army and ‘Allo ‘Allo included. No one, for even one moment, thought that the French Resistance was in anyway like the ‘adventures’ of Rene, yet many people seem to think that the bumblings of Captain Mainwaring and his men somehow epitomised the Home Guard during the Second World War. So, who were these men really?

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It was on 14th May 1940 that Anthony Eden, in his first speech as Secretary of State for War, asked for volunteers to join a Local Defence Volunteer force (LDV) with the aim of fighting the Germans if they should successfully land on British shores. In his speech he said ‘We want large numbers of such men in Great Britain who are British subjects, between the ages of seventeen and sixty-five, to come forward now and offer their services in order to make assurance [that an invasion would be repelled] doubly sure. The name of the new force which is now to be raised will be the Local Defence Volunteers. This name describes its duties in three words. You will not be paid, but you will receive uniforms and will be armed. In order to volunteer, what you have to do is give your name at your local police station, and then, when we want you, we will let you know…’ Later in the year Winston Churchill changed the name of the volunteers to the Home Guard, saying “Such a force is of the highest value and importance. A country where every street and every village bristles with resolute, armed men is a country against which the tactics that destroyed the Dutch will not succeed…a country so defended would not be liable to be overthrown

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Early 1940 found most of the British public expecting an invasion. Many men had already been called up to serve their country. Some who wanted to fight were either too old, too young, not fit enough or serving in reserved occupations which were vital to the war effort. These men all wanted to do their bit too, to defend their homes and families from the Nazi invaders. They saw the LDV as just the place for them.

The numbers of men who wanted to serve caught the government off guard. They expected around 150,000 volunteers in total yet, just twenty four hours after Eden made his broadcast, 250,000 men had signed up and, by the end of June, there were just under one and a half million men in the LDV. Numbers did not fall below one million until the Home Guard was stood down in December 1944. In the first wave of volunteers, approximately 40% had served in the First World War. The age limit for joining the LDV was from 17 to 65, although these limits were often quietly ignored. For example, P. D. Willeringhaus, aged just 16, was mentioned in dispatches for brave conduct; and Alexander Taylor, who signed up when in his eighties, had previous served in the Sudan in 1884. (I wonder if these men were the inspiration for Pike, Godfrey and Jones in Dad’s Army?)

PKT3310 - 235917 1943 H.G. TRAINING Lessons on Spigot mortar, anti tank and personnel gun.
Lessons on Spigot mortar, anti tank and personnel gun.

Initially all members of the Home guard were volunteers, but as 18 was the conscription age for the army, it was decided towards the end of the war that conscripting 17 year olds into the Home Guard would give them training and acclimatise them to the military life before being called up to serve in the regular army.

We are used to seeing the Home Guard portrayed as infantry units, but this was not the whole picture. There were mounted units and waterborne units such as the Upper Thames Patrol, there were factory units formed by workers to protect their factory during an emergency, there were coastal defence units and anti-aircraft units, motor transport and bomb disposal.

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Over 1,600 members of the Home Guards died whilst on duty, four of whom were decorated posthumously.* Approximately 1,000 other medals and commendations were awarded to men serving in the Home Guard. Anyone who had served in the Home Guard for three years was entitled to receive the Defence Medal, other medals for service during World War 2 were not available to them as they had not served overseas. If a man had served less than three years but was killed on duty, or left the Home Guard because of wounds received on duty due to enemy action, he would also received the Defence Medal.

Whilst some aspects of the TV series Dad’s Army are highly fictionalised, there are others that are accurate. When first formed, the volunteers had whatever weapons they could find – shotguns and air rifles, pitchforks and scythes, knives and bayonets tied to the end of pieces of wood – before eventually being issued with real weapons. These ‘new weapons’ were, however, mostly relics from the First World War and hardly the best choice to hold back an invading army. Volunteers trained in the evening in unarmed combat, basic sabotage and weapons handling. Training was amateur and ad hoc, leading to many accidents, and it was not long before the government saw the need for more formal training. The first guerrilla warfare school for members of the Home Guard was set up at Osterley Park in London; three mores such schools were soon to follow.

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Home Guard duties were varied, ranging from acting as sentries to checking identity papers, from questioning strangers in their local area to removing road signs to confuse the enemy if they should invade. In the spring of 1944, around 100,000 men from the Home Guard were working on anti-aircraft batteries, mainly aiming to down V1 rockets before they reached populated areas.

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The “Home Guard Handbook” published in 1940 stated that the main duties of the Home Guard were:

  • Guarding important points
  • Observation and reporting – prompt and precise.
  • Immediate attack against small, lightly armed parties of the enemy.
  • The defence of roads, villages, factories and vital points in towns to block enemy movement.

Every member of the Home Guard was expected to know:

  • The whole of the ground in his own district.
  • The personnel of his own detachment.
  • The headquarters of his detachment and where he is to report for duty in the event of an alarm.
  • What the alarm signal is.
  • The form of reports concerning enemy landings or approaches, what the reports should contain, and to whom they should be sent.

By the end of 1944 the tide of the war had changed. The Allies were on mainland Europe and pushing towards the German homeland and a ‘Home Gard’ was no longer needed to repel an invasion. Therefore, on 3rd December 1944, the Home Guard was stood down and became an inactive reserve unit. They were finally disbanded on the last day of the year 1945, and the Home Guard, Dad’s Army, ceased to exist.

As recognition of their role, the Home Guard were asked on the first anniversary of their formation, and again on their fourth, to the mount the guard at Buckingham Palace. This is an honour which many regiments have not held in the centuries of their existence, and goes to show just how important and well respected these volunteers were.

In my novel, Heronfield, I wanted to show that it was not just soldiers, sailors and airmen who served during the war, but that everyone had a role to play. That is why I created the character of Joe, a young man who tried to join the army but was found unfit so he joined the LDV the day after Eden’s speech, protecting the aircraft factory in which he worked. The description of what Joe experienced during the bombing raid on Coventry on 14th November 1940 is an amalgamation of some of the work done by members of the Home Guard, and is my tribute to them.

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*Posthumous decorations for Home Guard members

Section Commander G. W. INWOOD – George Cross

“Immediately following an intense air raid on the night of 15th/16th October 1940, Section Commander Inwood was called upon by the police to assist in rescue duty in Bishop Street, Birmingham. Taking charge of a party of six volunteers, he found that several people were imprisoned in a gas-filled cellar. A small hole was made and Section Commander Inwood was lowered into the cavity. With great bravery he succeeded in bringing up two males alive. Although nearly exhausted, he entered the cavern a third time and was overcome by fumes. He was dragged out by one of his comrades, but despite the attention of a doctor and nurse, it was impossible to revive him. He showed the highest form of cool courage and self-sacrifice for others.”

Section Commander Inwood died on 16th October 1940 and is buried in Yardley Cemetery, Birmingham. His widow received his George Cross at an investiture on 10th October 1941.

Lieutenant W. FOSTER, M.C., D.C.M. – George Cross

“When Lieutenant Foster was instructing a class in throwing live grenades a Mills bomb rebounded to the firing position. Without hesitation Lieutenant Foster threw himself on the bomb one second before it exploded, thus saving the lives of his comrades nearby. This officer’s gallant action was not carried out in the heat of battle, but deliberately in cold blood, and with full knowledge of the consequences. As a result of this action Lieutenant Foster lost his life.”

The incident in which Lieutenant Foster was killed took place on 13th September 1942. He is buried in St. Mary’s Churchyard, Alderbury, Wiltshire. His widow received his George Cross at an investiture on 2nd March 1943.

2nd Lieutenant W. COOK – King’s Commendation for Brave Conduct

“On 3rd April 1943 2nd Lieutenant Cook was instructing in the throwing of live No. 36 grenades set with four second fuses. One grenade fell short, struck the parapet and dropped back into the bay at the feet of the thrower, who stooped to retrieve it. 2nd Lieutenant Cook, realising the danger of delay, dashed into the bay, pushed the man to safety, and himself seized the grenade but before he was able to throw it from the trench it exploded. He was mortally wounded and died three hours later. By his unhesitating action this very gallant officer, at the cost of his own life, undoubtedly saved that of one of his men.”

2nd Lieutenant Cook, who died on 3rd April 1943, is buried in North Merchiston Cemetery, Edinburgh.

Lieutenant L. B. BRUDENELL – King’s Commendation for Brave Conduct

“For bravery and devotion to duty in saving life at the cost of his own during live grenade practice.”

Lieutenant Brudenell died on 28th February 1943 and is buried in Porchester (St. Mary) Churchyard, Fareham, Hampshire.

Record of medals awarded to members of the Home Guard