Workday Wednesday: Was Gran a bomb girl?

In the lead up to ANZAC Day, an intriguing selection of books related to both world wars have come on to our shelves here in the Central Auckland Research Centre.


In particular,  I've been drawn to books written about women and their roles in the war, and one such role in particular. An estimated one and a half million women took part, it was highly secretive and every day  they faced the threat of injury or even death – the job of making the ammunition.
“Bomb Girls,” subtitled, “Britain’s Secret Army: The Munitions Army of World War II” relates the real life stories of these girls and women, called up to the munitions factories during the labour shortage. The work was dirty and boring, the hours long. Because the factories were away from towns in the countryside, the girls were often forced to go miles away from home to live in hostels or lodge with strangers. But most of all, the work was dangerous. One woman recounts working on the production line with the bomb detonators, “picking up the detonator – half the size of an aspirin tablet –   with a pair of tweezers one tiny mistake, the slip of a hand, could be fatal. And if the munitions were to leave the factory incorrectly assembled, the consequences for the front line troops could be fatal, too.” Another relates working in what she called “nitrates” – soaking cotton in pans of nitric acid. “They kept a big barrel of water in the shed. This was because of the acid in case someone got badly burned. If that happened they had to throw themselves in to it to save their skin. But usually the acid just splashed you in the face and you’d have to run like bill-o to get the stuff on to your face to calm it down.”

And of course there was living with the day-to-day threat of being bombed by the Luftwaffe.  The Swynnerton, Staffordshire factory, for example, was targeted several times by the Nazis, albeit unsuccessfully.
Photograph from Bomb Girls, (c) Getty Images
Besides the fascinating stories, there are photos of the women at work. There’s Queen Elizabeth and King George at an ammunitions factory which must have given a much welcome morale boost to the workers, and there are photos of the girls and women themselves working with bombs and bullets.  Of added interest, the final chapter lists the munitions factories with detail, how long they operated, and what they produced.
If your ancestors lived in these areas, maybe you had a bomb girl in your family. Indeed, a main reason the author wrote this book was to make us aware of this crucial role in WW2 that was secret due to the nature of the work. As one worker recounts, “You never told anyone outside your family where you worked. The propaganda was all around us. “Even the Walls have Ears.” So you kept quiet.”

Bomb Girls is by Jacky Hyams and there are borrowable copies at Auckland Libraries.

Joanne

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