The Royal Ordnance Factory
Bridgend South Wales
  Task Ahead
  End War

Mrs Johns A Personal Story

This is a personal account of one individuals experience of war work in the Bridgend ROF known locally as the Arsenal between 1939 and 1946.

Dilys Thomas was born in 4 October 2023 one year after the end of world war one; little did she know what was in store for her twenty years later.

War was declared on the 3 rd of September 1939; shortly there after Miss Thomas received her conscription letter/card requesting her to report to Dr Milne in Bridgend for a medical and then report to the Arsenal on the following Monday where she would be assigned to the TNT section.

Dilys asked her father what TNT was, and he said it was something to do with high explosives, she left home from Brynna on the assigned day not knowing quite what was in store for her.

Each employee was assigned a staff number and Mrs John’s was 196 and she was given overshoes, a gown, and turban as protective clothing.

When she started work there was a single 12 hour shift system in operation from 7am to 7pm for seven days a week, this continued non stop for six months until a three shift system was introduced. This consisted of a week of afternoons, followed by days and nights in rotation with an 8-hour day, there was no weekends off or holidays. These shifts were assigned the colours of RED, BLUE, and GREEN; Mrs John’s shift colour was BLUE.

Dilys was trained on site by Ordnance employees from the Woolwich Arsenal to operate a machine making pellets that were filled with Yellow TNT powder.

In her building (shop) there were 5 operatives comprising of 1 machinist and 4 operatives. She was paid £1 – 9s – 0d per week a lot of money at that time, later on in 1940 her money increased to £3 – 0s – 0d per week following the revelation that Woolwich women were being paid this sum for the same work.

There were two breaks allowed, a tea break of 20 minutes and a lunch break of 45 minutes, these were paid breaks and included in the working day.

The canteen was close by, and hot food and tea were provided, but had to be paid for. A cup of tea and jam tart cost between two and three pence, this is comparable with today’s costs.

Entertainment was sometimes provided in the canteen at lunchtime with someone playing a piano, or accordion, or singing, but usually it was the radio with “Workers Playtime” or “Its That Man Again” (fondly known as Itma) etc. In the TNT section no music was provided in the shops this may have been a safety issue but Mrs John is not sure of the reason.

Pay packets were issued in the canteen, and the girls were issued with small bags that hung round their necks to hold the loose coins so preventing any likelihood of metal coming into contact with explosives; deductions were made for income tax, insurance and war bonds etc. PAYE and bonus payments were brought in at a later stage.

The girls also had their own saving scheme 1-shilling per week each – with a payout for each in rotation from the scheme every 20 weeks giving them a pound extra to spend.

Toilets and washrooms were liberally provided for on the site, most were covered under earth mounds

Her shop was a flat roofed single storey brick built building, with a window at one end, it was surrounded by a grassed earth embankment with a double door on one side about halfway along. There was also a partition, screening the machine from the other 4 girls, with the floor and benches covered in linoleum. Heating was provided for by steam heated radiators fed from a central boiler house, and lighting was from sealed lamps.

Dilys Thomas worked on her machine behind a partition in her shop, and had no direct daylight. But the shop was well lit by the electrical lighting, although at nights the lights would be turned off if there was a air raid siren, and all would down tools and retire to the air raid shelters.

Early on there were quite a few sirens and Dilys remembers one week on nights when they spent the whole week inside the air raid shelters sitting on slatted seats. Following this the girls had a meeting in the canteen and decided that they wanted to continue working during the air raids.

This resulted in the shop windows being blacked out, but at least they didn’t have to suffer being cooped up in the shelter all night with ten other work mates.

Dilys remembers two women that refused to work this new arrangement and they insisted going into the shelters each time the siren sounded, there was a rumour that they were fifth columnists, and not long after they were no longer seen in the works.

The work was not dirty in the accepted sense of the word but the TNT powder was bright Yellow that stained the hands hair and faces, this resulted in them being called Canaries.

Under her White gown with her Blue shift armband, she would wear her normal clothes, she would wear her turban, which was Blue in colour and tied in a bow at the front. Black soft over shoes were provided these were very thin and flat and smooth, these had an arrow stitched in them to identify them as ROF property, the girls were warned not to take them off the property on the threat of being fined.

Some girls did in fact steal them and when they were caught they were asked what they wanted them for most said as dancing shoes, often they had painted them white to cover the arrows.

Her section made TNT tablets of different sizes; these were assembled in specially waxed papers. Other components were assembled in linen bags often in strings for assembly into bombs.

The work was interesting in the beginning but became boring after awhile especially on nights when they had difficulty staying awake, they were able to chat and natter amongst themselves as long as they met their quota.

At the start and end of each shift the workers were searched for contraband (cigarettes, matches, cameras, even hair clips, and jewellery etc were not permitted). Work and home clothes were stored in wire lockers, initially these were not lockable, but after many the girls were stopped taking their turbans home (to prevent picking up head lice) the management had locks provided for the lockers.

At shift change over the outgoing shift were cleared off the site before the following shift were allowed in this way the security personnel were able to effectively control the mass of workers at shift change over. Body searches were carried out by female security staff on women and by male security staff on the fewer male workers.

At work there were a few characters and there was a good spirit of comradeship between the girls,

Lord Haw-Haw used to broadcast on the German Radio each morning - often mentioned the girls working at the Arsenal and saying - you so called Angels in White coatsyou think we don’t know where you are - but you are wrong we do and we will get you.

Dilys can only remember one accident during her period at the Arsenal where two people were killed and that the workshop was destroyed.

Some of the girls suffered badly from exanthema with Red rashes and scabs all over their arms, girls who suffered in this way were transferred to a different section and had to work elsewhere in the works.

Dilys remembers being off work for a fortnight with a bad case of tonsillitis - she had to send a doctors paper into the Arsenal, and did so via one of the girls who worked in her section. Daily attendance was checked by a lady clerk who came round to check whom was in work, and she would ask the girls if they knew of a reason why someone was absent. At this time clocking machines were not in use so attendance had to be checked manually.

Shift working had its down side for all of the girls as it affected their social life. Very few had boy friends as most of the young men were in the services so their spare time was often spent making their own fun, when they were on morning shift they spent the evenings going to dances with each other or they went to the pictures.

The Palli de Dance hall was frequently attended by a number of the girls, and later on when the Americans arrived the girls would go to dances with them. The Yanks would teach them how to do the new jitterbug dance, which was quite different to the waltzes the girls were familiar with.

Afternoon shifts were a drag, the day was a long one, and at best the girls would be able to go to the morning showing of the movies. Most of the cinemas had morning shows so that the shift workers could see the latest films.

Nights were tiring as often the girls would be up early in the morning and would be out in the early evening before going to work again for another long night shift.

However, they would sometimes go to the early evening showing at the cinema before starting their shift.

Sometimes organised trips for the girls were laid on by the ROF and Dilys remembers such a trip to Llandow Aerodrome when they were shown around the RAF bomber and fighter planes.

But there was an upside to this work, the money was good and they had plenty of it. They were able to buy themselves new clothes, although clothing coupons were rationed (each persons allowance was 20 coupons); they could buy unused coupons from family or friends at a shilling a time. They would then have enough to buy a new coat (which would use 18 coupons), or be able to buy new blouses or stockings.

Dilys remembers that cigarettes could be bought at a shop outside the Arsenal near the bus station, usually they bought these on their way home, however, they had to be surrendered before entering the works and were kept in named pigeon holes for collection at the end of their shift.

Travelling to work was by special “Western Welsh” buses these were laid on for the workers, and they took them to the main gate. The girls were issued with passes, which had to be shown as they boarded the bus going too and from the Arsenal.

Other girls travelled from as far afield as Swansea and had to get up at 4.0am in the morning to travel by train into the Tremains halt railway station.

After they had been checked for contraband those young women that worked at the far end of the works were bussed by special buses which took them to their section, the others had to walk to their shops.

Winters were worse with cold, wet days and nights. Often many would leave home when it was dark, and only get home after dark. The street lights were almost non existent, and those that were illuminated had special shades fitted to them that only illuminated pools of light at their base – giving small comfort to a young girl walking home on her own late at night. Dilys remembers getting used to the dark nights and the trips home on the blacked out buses.

Notwithstanding all of this the girls were a cheery bunch that felt that they were doing their bit to help their country in a time of need.

As the war drew to a close production was cut back at the Arsenal and by the end of 1945 it was only producing a fraction of its peak 1942 output. Early in 1946 Dilys was made redundant and had to sign on the dole and received dole payment for a few weeks.

After the war was over Dilys married and lost contact with all of her work mates, but remembers a chance meeting many years later on a boat trip to Weston Super Mare with her husband when she met one of the Arsenal nurses. Both were pleased to see each other and spent a happy hour exchanging tales of their wartime experiences at the old Bridgend ROF.

For Dilys John now in her 83 rd year the events of 60 years ago often bring back memories of those difficult days. She has no regrets about her six years of compulsory work at the Arsenal as she felt that she too was doing her bit for her country in its time of need, and is proud to have served her country in this way.

To her and the many like her who worked at the Bridgend Royal Ordnance Factory our country owes it’s gratitude.


J.D.V. Ludlow

24 June 2023


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