The Royal Ordnance Factory
Bridgend South Wales
  Task Ahead
  End War

The Recollections of G.O. Thomas

Born on the 20 th of July 1921 Gerwyn Thomas had only just turned 18 at the outbreak of war in September 1939. At that time he was employed as an electrician at Wyntarw colliery in Llanharn until December 1939.

In the January of 1940 Gerwyn applied to join the Royal Airforce; his medical was held at the Greyfriars Hall in Cardiff where he was turned down on medical grounds being classified as Grade 4 and he was given a Green exemption card.

Gerwyn and fiancee Doreen Jones both worked in the Bridgend ROF; Doreen as a bookeeper for "Initiators" in shop IE28.

The review board insisted that he return to work in the colliery as that was listed as a reserve occupation. Gerwyn refused on the basis that if he was not fit for military service then he certainly was not fit to work underground.

At a tribunal hearing at Bridgend in January 1940 he forcefully put forward his case and was offered the alternative of working in the new government armaments factory in Bridgend.

Gerwyn accepted this and following his induction in July 1940 he started work as an electrical fitter at one of the sites two electrical power stations.

Initially, Gerwyn lived in the village of Pyle and travelled by bus to and from the Bridgend Royal Ordnance Factory, he was issued with a bus pass to cover his daily transport, and an identity card for the Arsenal called a 53 pass.

Gerwyn worked on the day shift in the Ordnance Maintenance electrical workshop shop number OM8.

There were two power stations on the site that Gerwyn carried out his maintenance work, but not long after he had started an instrument department was set up and Gerwyn was transferred to this department.

Not only were the fully automated power stations within his remit the whole site now became his domain. The power stations he maintained were unique, as they were the first in the UK to employ a smoke stack detector system. If the waste stack emitted too much smoke (which would have been a dead give away to enemy bombers) the photo-cell detectors would operate an alarm so that the operators could adjust the combustion rate and reduce the smoke.

Later Gerwyn moved to Port Talbot and used to travel to and from work by train, in the mornings he caught the train at 6.0 am, and arrived at Tremains halt at 6.30am. After passing through the security checkpoint he was transported on one of the thirty or so Green painted pantechnicon sixty seater buses to the clearinghouse. After passing through the clearinghouse he had time for a quick cup of tea in the canteen before clocking in at the workshop at 7.0am for the start of his working day.

Gerwyn usually finished his working day at 5.30pm when he would once again be picked up by one of the buses on it’s collection route to the railway station where he would de-mount and pass through security before catching the return train to Port Talbot.

His day included a tea break of 15mins around 10 or 11 am when the tea trolley came around and a mug of tea could be purchased. Lunchtime was at the canteen where hot meals could be purchased; Gerwyn usually took his own sandwiches in his old miners Tommy Box.

Cooked meals could be bought for about (1/-) one shilling considered a fair price in war time, the meal consisted mainly of potatoes, a few greens (which were in short supply) and sausages. Entertainment was laid on, sometimes ENSA would put a concert on but mostly it was “Music While You Work” played over the Tannoy system. But of course there were odd characters like Boswell - an itinerant extrovert of the type that you would hear him before you saw him, at lunchtimes he would give a song or two or else he was in the thick of any discussion.

The Tannoy system covered both the Brackla and Waterton sites and was primarily used as a warning system, there was a resident commentator/announcer, so the system was also widely used for general announcements concerning the site operations, and wartime propaganda besides serving as an entertainment medium.

Gerwyn was paid a weekly wage of £3-4s-6d , which equated well with a skilled rate paid to electricians outside. Out of his weekly wage he paid income tax but received no personal allowances. Out of his wages he also had to pay his own insurance and was a member of “The Hearts of Oak” friendly society. As a point of interest his membership number SM7582B served as his NHS reference after the war whilst his wartime ID number became his present day National Insurance Number.

Gerwyn’s recollections on the layout of the site illustrate the complex structure employed in a large-scale munitions operation.

From West to East the site was laid out in an orderly fashion in sections, at the most Westerly point were the main administration buildings followed by the 40mm Mortar section then by the Detonator section. The Primer section was next, the Fuze section was located towards the Northern Road, further East Initiator’s were located followed by High explosives (HE) Pyrotechnics, whilst smoke and phosphorus bombs were made at the Coychurch end of the factory.

All buildings were identified by an alphanumeric code; each building designator indicated its primary activity followed by a sequence number. For example the letter “F” indicated that the operation in these buildings were associated with the manufacture of “Fuzes”. The building number indicated the stage of assembly in the process – by way of example: F1, followed by F2 etc was the beginning of the Fuze process and F(n) a latter stage of the process.

So initiators were indicated by a capital “I” followed by a number, and Pellets with a capital “P” with “D” for Detonators, (although it is known that the 5-grain A.S.A detonators were assembled in “G” buildings) etc.

Workshops were identified with the letters “OM” for (ordnance maintenance). These were numbered OM1 to OM16. OM6 was the carpenters & steam pipe fitters shop, the electrical workshop was number OM8, OM9 the lathe shop, OM10 was the tool room, and OM12 was the transport shop that included the garages, the fire-station was also a OM building and this was located near the textile shops.

Also included in the OM series of buildings was the battery charging room for the motorised trailers called Dillies.

Common buildings to all sections were called clearing houses - in these buildings normal clothing would be removed and replaced with special working clothing, after changing the workers would step over a barrier from the dirty section to the clean section. Special shoes were issued with electrically conductive plugs in the heals of the shoes to provide anti-static protection.

Air-raid shelters were likewise numbered, over fifty of these were provided, but nearly all were replaced at the Bridgend ROF by superior shelters following an air-raid on the Woolwich Arsenal when the bombs blew in the protective walls causing the concrete roof slabs to collapse onto the inhabitants. The new air-raid shelters did not carry building numbers, they had blast proof walls, plus roof slab protection and were mounted on double floor concrete slabs with a pitch-blend sandwich in-between to reduce the effects of bomb blasts. In the event of a nearby hit the shelter would tumble, but would not collapse, hammers were provided in the shelter to enable the inhabitants to break out through escape hatches in the event of the shelter entrance being blocked.

Washrooms and Toilets were provided throughout the site, washrooms consisted of a central basin fitted with multiple water sprinklers, and special soap was provide to wash off the chemical contamination from the workers hands.

Site heating was provided by low-pressure steam from the power station, after passing through the building radiators the steam was re-circulated via the water-cooling tower.

The ROF had a unique electrical distribution system that protected the site from electrical blackouts in the event of accidents or air raids causing a disruption to one or more of the buildings. All buildings were supplied by underground cabling that daisy chained between the buildings, and each shed/workshop had its own fuse box outside of the building, these were clearly labelled so isolation and fault tracing could be rapidly effected.

The site was enclosed by a dual security fence, located inside this was the boundary road system, these roads were within the contraband area, which was classified as the dirty area, inside this boundary was a second security fenced area that was classified as the clean munitions manufacturing area. The clean area was criss-crossed by a number of smaller roads and clearways.

The main boundary roads were the South Road and North Road these met at either end of the site, they served as the main internal transport links and were used to bus the workers to and from the railway station and main administration building entrance to their place of work. Within the contraband area were located various storage buildings ancillary offices, the main administration buildings, both power stations, the laundry and sewerage plant.

An under-road tunnel was constructed (to transport reject explosive munitions) under the main Bridgend/Pencoed road (A473) to the burning grounds, were the operatives would destroy the rejected munitions. These rejects were loaded onto special trolleys, which were lowered over twenty feet by a lift. They were then transported via the underground road tunnel to the burning ground area on the opposite side of the main road, the trolleys would then be raised to the surface and then taken to the burning ground for disposal by burning on a bonfire, creating quite spectacular pyrotechnic displays.

The burning ground was located near to today’s police club training area, in this general area some devices were destroyed by using conventional explosives whilst detonators were usually burnt both methods were dangerous and resulted in fatalities.

A mile away on the other side of Brackla hill was the Brackla section of the ROF; this was split into Brackla “A” and Brackla “S” sections. Brackla “A” was used for magazine filling and was also used to store and hold munitions ready for transport by rail and road.

Brackla “A” encompassed the “X” tunnels where Brackla “S” was mainly an administrative section dealing with storage of incoming raw materials and as a finishing and despatch site.

Gerwyn had unique access to all areas of the site through his job as an instrumentation fitter, in this capacity he faced the same dangers as the workers. His job was both interesting and varied, as he was often involved in repairing and calibrating specialised arming circuit test rigs.

One such test rig was for Rocket Projectiles these consisted of long 4 1/ 2” diameter tube with tapered nose and a tail fin. These contained an explosive warhead and a cordite propulsion charge; they were electrically fired by a hot wire filament passing through the propulsion charge. The Brass electrical contacts at the end of the rocket had to be checked for continuity during the assembly process and following the fitting of the tail fin, likewise the test rig had to be checked and tested periodically so that pass/fail Green/Red lights could be relied on.

Life was not always so easy and Gerwyn remembers getting into some serious trouble with Special Branch on one occasion, and he recalled how his curiosity got him into trouble. One of the special test rigs that was used for testing Fuzes was a photo-electric test rig made by GEC Whitton Birmingham England it was used to detect and time the flash from Fuzes.

Gerwyn interest was such that he wanted a circuit diagram for the test rig so he wrote to GEC asking for the circuit, but his post card was intercepted by the GEC security department, who passed onto Special Branch for investigation.

Gerwyn was grilled by a Special Branch officer who was eventually convinced that he had no ulterior motive save that of professional interest in his work, he was given a serious talking to and the matter was dropped.

From his recollections it is interesting to note that there was little machinery noise in the various munition shops. The only process that was noisy was where the Fuze charges were compacted by a centrifuge using a lathe that resulted in a whine.

In this lathe gunpowder was loaded into the timing ring of an anti-aircraft shell it was compressed so that it would explode at a given height. To test this a special instrument set the capacity and pressure on the powder in a press, this was then fitted into a lathe to imitate an anti aircraft shell to indicate the right capacity - photo-electric cells detected the operation, and measured the timing with chronometers to split seconds. Otherwise the only noise was from the Tannoy or from women singing.

Gerwyn Thomas was now one of the key skilled workers in the ROF, his job was both interesting and demanding, at the Waterton site there were only four instrument mechanics covering this vast complex, compare this with over 30 carpenters, 40 steam pipe fitters, and similar numbers of tool makers and electricians.

His shop was annexed to that of the electricians, they had a shop manager, and although the normal shift period was 7.0 am until 5.30pm, in addition all four instrument mechanics had to cover the site on an out of hours rota basis.

The workshops were large units and were well equipped with machines and tools, electrical motors were rewound, and new tools were manufactured in these.

All hand tools utilised in the munitions sections were non-ferrous (they were usually made of Brass or Wood), if an instrument required a repair that needed a ferrous tool it had to be removed from the munition shop to the site workshop.

Security at the site was tight but not infallible, with so many people arriving and leaving at shift change over it was not possible to check every single person. But all workers arriving at the Tremains halt railway station would have had to show their 53 pass to gain entry into the works. The nominated searchers would then randomly select individuals for contraband (cigarettes, matches, alcohol, and even metallic hair grips) were amongst the main items listed.

Gerwyn remembers being stopped and searched, he had a tobacco tin with taps and dies in it as part of his tool kit. This was treated as contraband simply because the tin had once held tobacco, it was impounded until the end of his shift when he was told he could not to bring it back to work with him.

Nominated male and female personnel conducted the searches, they had the task of selecting and searching the workers. Often women would be caught with a cigarette and match concealed in a hair curler’s.

Some succeeded in getting passed security and would smoke their cigarette in the toilet; but those that were caught were summarily dismissed.

Not only were the workers searched on entry to the ROF they were also searched when they left at the end of their shifts. Items of clothing and even munitions were found by the security staff on one occasion Gerwyn remembers a woman trying to smuggle out thunder flashes and coloured smoke bombs for Guy Fawkes night, she was caught prosecuted, fined and lost her well paid job.

Training was provided on site with apprentices being moved from department to department and from tradesman to tradesman, lectures on first aid were given in the canteens, this included gas and fire training.

The ROF fire brigade was active on a daily basis checking out the fire extinguishers and re-filling the numerous sand buckets (a common hazard for the unwary) that had been knocked over. A gas decontamination centre was provided for the workers in the event of the ROF being attacked with gas bombs.

Accidents were frequent and were mainly in the detonator assembly shops, the main casualties were the young women workers with the unfortunate ones losing fingers or suffering more serious injuries. At this time Gerwyn’s future wife’s brother Trevor Jones also worked at the site rebuilding the air-raid shelters, and Trevor recalled hearing detonators exploding in the small workshops, the most notable effect was that the women would stop singing for a while.

Trevor also recalled seeing a large explosion whilst working on a air raid shelter when the double doors of a large building some 100 yards away blew open and workers came staggering out of the building.

Gerwyn recalled seeing a horrific accident on a cold frosty morning when a young woman was transporting a tray of detonators between shops slipped and shook the tray causing the detonators to explode and blow her breasts off.

Not all accidents were this serious and whilst not really an accident constant blocking of the sewerage pump house main pipes with condoms from the activity of amorous night shift workers did cause major concern to the management.

Every section on every shift had a resident nurse to provide medical assistance to the workers and look after the women’s personal interest.

Air raids were frequent but no bombs ever landed on the Arsenal although land-mines and incendiary bombs were dropped on Coed Y Mwystr and Troes only one mile to the East of the ROF.

The alarm system set up had several inputs, when an attack was expected a policeman would cycle around blowing a whistle this was followed by the wailing sirens when the intention of the air raid was confirmed.

Observers were sited at a number of vantage points surrounding the Arsenal these were manned by members of the Observer Corps and by volunteers.

On the roof of the Bridgend ROF administrative block were fire-watchers that doubled as air raid observers. They were equipped with binoculars and wore headsets that were connected to the ROF control room located in the underground basement of the admin block. The control room and adjacent telephone exchange room gave excellent communications to the whole ROF thereby giving the site workers ample warning of an impending attack.

Connected to the ROF control room (by telephone link) were the field observers located at the hostel (later to become “The Island Farm POW Camp”) and other vantage points.

Gerwyn’s future brother-in-law Trevor Jones manned the hostel site as part of his evening duty, his recollections of the air raid warning system detail the actions carried out immediately prior to, during, and following an attack.

On receipt of the code Yellow warning of an impending attack the siren Key would be activated generating the general warning siren. If the attack materialised in his area the status would change to code RED signalling imminent danger, and he would change the siren console key to Red, altering the siren to a warbling note.

When the attack was over and the danger passed (status White) he would remove the Yale key from the warning console and insert it into the all clear console to operate the continuous all clear siren sound.

Trevor recalled a night time experiences when the German Luftwaffe attempted to bomb the Arsenal and narrowly missed it hitting instead the nearby villages of Coed Y Mwystr and Troes. Hundreds of people stood out in the Arsenal and surrounding villages to watch the firework display oblivious to the danger from the German bombers.

Of the many thousands of bombs and incendiary devices dropped on Glamorgan by the German Luftwaffe during the war none ever landed on the Arsenal site.

Absenteeism was another issue, especially in a munitions factory during wartime, the workers were warned that they would be helping the Germans if they were absent from work. Gerwyn confirmed that no payment for loss of time was made, and that overtime rates were not paid until the lost time had been made up.

If workers were absent from work without due cause, the threat that they would be dismissed and liable for call up into the armed services was held over them.

Gerwyn provided his own clothing and in the main wore a boiler suit, he was issued with a dust coat to wear in the clean area’s, this item was laundered on site.

Unknown to many workers at the Arsenal was a secret section of back room Boffins who worked under the auspices of Her Majesties Office of Works (HMOW). They were located in wooden buildings near to the current day police headquarters and the SONY tube factory. They came up with some crazy schemes, Gerwyn remembers on one occasion having to make blank imitation electrical brushes for the works electrical alternators that could be inserted into the alternators if the enemy had invaded to deprive the works of electricity, and so bringing it to a production halt.

Life outside work was not easy for Gerwyn, he had started courting Trevor Jones sister, and she lived in Pencoed whilst he lived in Port Talbot, he only saw his future wife at weekends when he used to cycle the 15 miles to meet her.

During the week he only arrived home after 6.30pm too late to make the journey after his evening meal. As a young man Gerwyn did not drink and his activities during the week were gardening – growing vegetables (planting for victory was one of the government’s motto’s at the beginning of the war), and an occasional visit to the Plaza cinema in the next street.

Gerwyn acknowledges that the war changed the social structure somewhat with women working and earning big money. When the American servicemen arrived many would go into the pubs with them (a thing unheard of before the war), they often left the pubs drunk late at night and could be seen staggering on their way home. At work some of the women who were seeing American solders would feign sickness to be sent home early so that they could go to the pub or to the pictures or dances with them.

Along with this new-found independence women also began smoking in larger numbers, and they would often go out on their own at night without a chaperone.

He also remembers long walks to the farms to queue for fruit and veg during the summer months. Others however were more fortunate, the Arsenal management had formed a pig farm syndicate, they arranged for the waste food to be collected from the ROF in bins and transported by lorries to their farm in Ogmore by Sea, their reward was a ready supply of pork. It is not known if anything illegal took place but it was unfair to the people who were less privileged.

As the war drew to a close production at the Arsenal was reduced, and following VJ day it ceased all together. So it was in August 1945 that Gerwyn was made redundant, fortunately, his skill as an instrument mechanic served him well and he started work the following week as an instrument mechanic at the Llynfi Power Station.

Now aged 81 his recollections of his time at the Bridgend Royal ordnance Factory give an extraordinary insight into the day to day working conditions inside one of the UK’s largest wartime munitions factories.

For this we thank him.

J.D.V. Ludlow


19 th September 2002

Authors note:

When I interviewed Gerwyn he was with his brother-in-law Trevor Jones who also worked at the Arsenal for Gee Walker and Slater replacing the air raid shelters. I was impressed with Gerwyn’s memory of the events and with the clarity of his statements, Trevor was able to substantiate many of the points and recollections made during the interview.

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