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Bridgend South Wales
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Explosion of Detonators at the Bridgend ROF

Sunday 18 th of May 1941

The Accident.

At 3.35pm on Sunday the 18 th of May 1941 a serious explosion occurred in the detonator assembly workshop building number 3G9.

The consequences were so serious that a board of enquiry was convened at Bridgend on the 21 st of May 1941under the chairmanship of Captain N Fawcett, His Majesties Inspector of Explosives, Home Office.

The following account has been extracted from the report submitted to the Director General of Ordnance Factories at the Ministry of Supply on the 6 th of June 1941.

Sunday the 18 th of May began as normal in shop 3G9; the morning shift had completed their allocation of detonators, when at 1.30 p.m. the magazine keeper brought in a magazine box containing 4025 fuses and these were transferred to a carrying box.

The shift completed 550 of these before the shift ended, leaving 3475 for the following afternoon shift. The morning shift senior overlooker stayed behind to count these as there was some confusion over the remaining number of fuses left for the afternoon shift to deal with.

At this time two maintenance carpenters arrived to repair the linoleum on workbench “C” before the afternoon shift began.

The morning shift senior overlooker claimed that he had difficulty in accounting for some 2000 detonators, and the maintenance crew may have delayed him in this task for he was still counting fuses at the time of the accident 35 minutes later.

Fuses were supplied in 500 off lots loaded into the paper mache’ pots these were loaded into special carrying boxes that held either six or eight pots at a time, 3000 or 5000 detonators in each.

The on-coming afternoon shift had been delayed by problems with the opening of the changing room doors, so it was 3.15 p.m. before they arrived at 3G9 for the start of their shift.

The girls were chatting together when they entered the shop already togged up in their gowns, turbans and overshoes. There was some confusion as the carpenters were still working on workbench “C”. (This was against the General Safety Directions, which stated that no maintenance was allowed in any shop during explosive operations).

The afternoon shift overlooker was concerned with allocating jobs and with accounting for the hand over of the unworked detonators. Instead of traying up for the inserter operators, (and contrary to the G.S.D’s) she left this to the girls to get on with whilst she attended to the jobs above.

At approximately 3.25 p.m. Ms Gardner seated at her workstation on workbench “A” asked Ms Wilding for some detonators. Wilding took the box to Gardner’s work station, and removed a paper mache’ pot of detonators from the box which she handed to Gardner before returning the box to the position she had found it on the floor between work benches “A” and “C”. Following this Ms Wilding left the building to go to another shop, and whilst there she heard the explosion.

Following Ms Wilding’s departure the other girls decided to tray up. Gardner passed the pot onto Ms M. Jones who also potted up 50 detonators before passing the pot across the table to Miss Olive Bugler. She withdrew 50 detonators from the pot before passing it to Miss Audrey Matthews, and it may have been whilst Matthews was withdrawing detonators from the pot the explosion occurred.

This explosion was severe and Audrey Matthews took the brunt of it even though she died four hours later in hospital, Georgina McEllagott to her left was also mortally wounded and died in hospital 4 days later. Olive Bugler who was on Audrey Matthews right hand side and died instantaneously from a head wound from shrapnel.

Three other operatives Ms Gardner, Margaret Harries, and Thomas John Rees were seriously injured in the explosion whilst a number of other occupants were less seriously injured with cuts and bruises from flying shrapnel.

Fortunately, the full force of the explosion was localised to work bench “A”, even so a hole was blown in the roof of the wooden building and a number of the glass window panes were blown out.

The site emergency teams were at the scene within minutes of the explosion, but it was too late to save these three women, such were their injuries.

Casualties.

Olive Doreen Bugler

Date of Birth. 20 June 2023

Age on 18 May 2023 19 years 11 months

Joined the ROF 6 August 2023

Length of Service 9 Months 12 days

Died instantaneously Compound comminuted fracture of the skull & jaw

Audrey Lillian Mattews

Date of Birth. 20 September 2023

Age on 18 May 2023 19 years 8 months

Joined the ROF 24 April 2023

Length of Service 1 Month

Died in hospital 4 hours Both arms amputated, Head and severe

after the accident abdominal injuries.

Georgina McEllagott

Date of Birth. 28 April 2023

Age on 18 May 2023 36 years 20 days

Married

Joined the ROF 22 April 2023

Length of Service 1 Month

Died in hospital 4 days Pepper shot wounds to the face, neck and arms

after the accident died of injuries and severe shock..

Doris Ruth Gardner

Date of Birth. 20 April 2023

Age on 18 May 2023 35 years 1 month

Joined the ROF 21 April 2023

Length of Service 1 Month

Injured Pepper shot wounds to the left hand, Laceration on the right arm and neck. Foreign bodies removed from the eye. Severe shock.

Margaret Doreen Harries

Date of Birth. 21 January 2024

Age on 18 May 2023 24 years 3 months 28 days

Joined the ROF 1 April 2023

Length of Service 1 Month 17 days

Injured Hand injuries and shock

Thomas John Rees

Date of Birth. 11 March 2024

Age on 18 May 2023 41 years 2 months 7 days

Joined the ROF 19 August 2023

Length of Service 9 Months

Injured Face and left eye. Eye to be removed

Audrey Lillian Matthews
Georgina McEllagott
Olive Doreen Bugler
     
     

 

Description of the work of the Building .

Until the 14th of May 1941 the building had been used for the complete assembly of the No. 119 Fuze. After that date the building 3G9 was only used for operations covering, the inserting the detonators into the detonator plug, screwing this plug into the detonator holder, and securing the plug by stabbing.

This operation was carried out on the two adjacent work benches “A” and “B” other tables within the building were used for the stemming of the detonator holders, shutters, and for magazines with C.E. and for discing operations.

At workbenches “A” and “B” the correct procedure was as follows:

One worker is supplied with a tray of detonators which she inserts each one in turn into a detonator plug she then engages the first threads of the detonator-plug assembly into the detonator holder. These are then passed to the two girls one at each side of her.

These girls placed each detonator-plug-holder assembly one at a time into a holding socket behind a guard. They then completed the screwing operation with a special screwdriver before removing it, and handing over the newly assembled part to the C.I.A.

The local chief inspector of ammunition operator (C.I.A.) then completed the operation by securing the detonator/plug in its holder by a stabbing process. In all there were four teams of 4 sited at the two workbenches “A” and “B”.

Possible Causes of the Accident.

In his report Captain N. Fawcett stated that the detonation was caused by some accidental action by either Mathews or McEllagott.

His findings indicate that either Mathews or McEllagott may have placed the detonator box on top of the paper mache’ pot; which would have at this point in time contained some 350 detonators following the traying up by Gardner, Jones, and Bugler.

Capt. Fawcett felt that although this was the most likely cause of the accident he felt that it was difficult to see what caused the detonators to explode in this way.

In his report on the accident he drew attention to the extreme sensitivity of the 5 grain A.S.A. detonators, he comments on Col. R.A. Thomas’ report on an accident that occurred at R.O.F Chorley when the same type of detonators were involved.

In that case the cause of the accident was due to loose composition inside the detonator, and traces of the composition on the outside of them caused the shell to explode. A report by Capt. C.W. Ede on another accident at ROF Chorley on the 5 th of April 1941 also involved the 5 grain A.S.A. detonators.

Observations.

Capt. Fawcett made several observations at the time and commented on these in his report.

A summary of these follows, the detail can be found in the published report listed under SUPP5/1124 at the public records office in KEW.

1. The position of the paper mache’ pot and the carrying box were the focal points because it was in bulk handling that accidents were likely to occur.

2. On the day of the accident the magazine keeper had delivered 4025, more than double the norm 2000 supplied in 4 pots.

3. The magazine was transferred in the shop to the carrying box - a point that Capt. Fawcett considered unnecessary as it would be simpler and safer to leave the full magazine and remove the empty one thereby reducing the possibility of handling accidents.

4. When the work changed in building 3G9 on the 14 th of May 1941 the procedure of traying up by the overlooker or second in charge ceased because there was no table for her to place the box holding the pots underneath.

5. It appears that both workers and overlookers were aware that the practice of traying up by the overlookers was not always carried out.

6. Although not covered by a GSD at ROF Bridgend it was included in the ROF Chorley General Safety Directions under special precautions N. 3/11.

7. Capt. Fawcett considered that all ROF’s carrying out the same operations should employ the same General and Process Instructions.

8. The limit for assembled detonators, and those awaiting assembly had been set at 4000. On the day of the accident 4025 had been delivered, and that these were in addition to the detonators that had been assembled, stemmed and waiting transfer to other buildings.

9. Not enough attention was paid by the workers and overlookers to the GSD’s, and that the instruction for the overlookers to read out the special precautions as set out in the General Safety Directions at least once a week was not done.

The Carrying Box.

There were two types of carrying boxes one held 6 pots the other 8, each pot held 500 raw 5-grain A.S.A. detonators. The boxes were not locked, and were of a poor design that could be easily knocked over. Capt. Fawcett considered that they were unsuitable for this task and should not be employed in a working building.

Capt. Fawcett appreciated that boxes would have to be used by the magazine keeper, but these should have a much lower centre of gravity to avoid the possibility of them being knocked over and thereby causing an explosion in the sensitive 5 grain A.S.A. detonators.

The Paper Mache’ Pot.

Each pot held 500 raw detonators, Capt. Fawcett suggested that if they must be used each pot should be limited to 50 or 100 detonators at a time. In fact he felt that they should not be used at all. He quotes the two accidents at ROF Chorley in which the pots were the contributory cause.

Capt. Fawcett put forward two alternate suggestions for dealing with the detonators that would eliminate the mass handling of detonators and thereby reduce the risk of explosions experienced during handling.

The Work Tables.

Capt. Fawcett pointed out two limitations with the workbenches.

Firstly, there were no screens between the workers to limit the risk of explosion to one person. Colonel R.A. Thomas had detailed this limitation in his report on the accident that had occurred at ROF Chorley on the 11 th of February 1941.

Secondly, the beaded edge of the work surface did not prevent powder spillage from falling on the floor and this could trap powder, which could be subsequently crushed between the bead and the table. Capt. Fawcett suggested that the worktables be modified to have a continuous curved tip, as this would prevent spillage of powder onto the floor.

Repairs During Working Hours.

The two carpenters Mr. Evans and Mr. King both received slight injuries at the time of the explosion. Neither should have been working in the building at the time, they were replacing the linoleum on work bench “C”. They had hoped to complete this job between shifts, but this not being possible they had carried on whilst explosive work was proceeding clearly in breach of the Special Rules in the Regulations of filling factories.

Rumbling of Detonators.

A further recommendation was to institute the rumbling process successfully introduced at ROF Chorley as means of improving the handling safety of the 5-grain A.S.A. detonators.

Summary

In his summary Capt. Fawcett made several observations and recommendations most of which have been detailed above, and are itemised below.

1. Special procedures for bulk handling.

A. Detonators to be issued to building in their holder.

B. Detonators be issued in covered trays of a maximum of 50.

C. Abolition of the paper mache’ pots.

D. Reduction of the number of detonators in a pot

2. Use of immovable locked box or cupboard for storing detonators

3. Special Precautions be amended to ensure only overlooker or 2 nd in charge be allowed to tray up.

4. Rumbling be put into operation as soon as practical.

5. More adequate supervision be employed in buildings carrying out detonator operations.

6. Inclusion of protective screens between operators.

7. Review the design of the carrying box for 5-grain A.S.A detonators.

8. Improve the general design of the work tables used for assembling detonators and stemming operations.

9. GSD’s and Special Precautions be identical for all ROF’s employed on the same filling operation.

In concluding Capt. Fawcett drew attention to the extreme sensitivity of the 5-grain A.S.A detonators and suggested that the experimental work that was being carried out on them be expedited as quickly as possible.

Board of Enquiry Members.

A board of enquiry was convened and held at the Bridgend ROF on the 21 st of May 1941, those present were:

Capt. N Fawcett “Chair” H.M. Inspector of Explosives Home Office

Mr. R. Edmunds Superintendent ROF Bridgend

Mr. J. Christie A.D.O.F. (F) Ministry of Supply

Capt. J.B. Sullivan Inspector Danger Buildings

Mr. W. Young Ministry of Supply

Mr. D.E. Cooper Inspecting Officer (Fuzes) C.I.A.

Mr. G. Gallie C.S.R.D.’s Representative

Mr. Morgan Evans Whitley Committee Representative

Authors Comments.

In reading Capt. N Fawcett’s report I have come to the conclusion that there remains a few unanswered questions. These are: -

1. Why wasn’t the building 3G9 re-configured to address the lack of storage for the carrying box.

2. Did the presence of the carpenters in close proximity to the women workers contribute to the accident. The box was located between their two workbenches, and at some point it may have had to have been moved to accommodate the carpenters. Did this contribute to the accident.

3. Why didn’t the foreman or overlooker order the carpenters out of the building when they were clearly in breach of the safety regulations.

4. Was any undue pressure brought to bear on the workers to make up for the lost time due to the delayed start of shift, and if so did this make them cut corners and so compromise their own safety.

5. Why did the magazine provider deliver so many detonators again in breach of the rules.

6. Although Capt. Fawcett rightfully drew attention to the lack of regard for the GSD’s and Special Precaution rules by the workers it should be remembered that two of those killed were the youngest and least experienced members.

No mention was made of their training; was the lack of or quality of the training a contributing factor to their untimely deaths.

7. Why when two similar accidents had occurred at ROF Chorley in Lancashire had not the recommendations been considered for ROF Bridgend, as Bridgend was employed on the same type of detonator work at this time?

J.D.V. Ludlow

Bridgend

15 December 2023

It is hoped that the inclusion in this research document of the following copies of the death certificates of Audrey Mathews, Mrs Georgina McEllagott, and Olive Bugler, will not cause any distress or offence to the families concerned. Author.

 

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