The Suicide Squad: Memories of Risley Munitions

DURING World War 2, many local women were sent to the Royal Ordnance Factory at Risley to fill and prime bombs that were needed for the war effort. There were 16 such sites around the country and Risley was known as Filling Factory No. 6. It was dangerous work for all concerned. One lady who was sent there was Mabel Dutton of Atherton. Here, in a chapter taken from his superb autobiography The Thirty-Bob Kid, her son Dave Dutton gives an insight into what life was like there.

A old map of Risley’s Royal Ordnance Factory which has been overlaid on a recent satellite image (Courtesy of Paul Oakes).

Originally, Mam was supposed to work at a local engineering factory but when she went to the local Labour Exchange, she was told she was being sent to the Royal Ordnance Factory at Risley, near Warrington which was 11 miles away. That was heartstoppingly bad news.

Under the tuition of experts from Woolwich Arsenal, hundreds of thousands of bombs and mines were made there, mainly by young women conscripted from surrounding towns who packed the bomb cases with explosives.

It was a massive countryside site covering around 1,000 acres which had taken 18 months to build and was chosen because it was on Risley Moss and often covered in mist: thus providing cover from the German bombers who amazingly never managed to find it during the whole course of the war.

Mabel Dutton with her son Dave.

At the tender age of 19 she was thus forced by law under threat of imprisonment to work at this virtual hellhole of a place and, even worse, was allocated Group One which was nicknamed the Suicide Squad on account of the many poor unfortunate girls and women who had been blown up, killed; maimed or blinded in that department. She didn’t realise that she had been sent to the worst place possible in Risley.

There, she was given the task of working with highly volatile explosives making detonators. She noted that the woman who accompanied her as a guide on the first day only had one hand and a finger missing off the other one!

On young Mabel’s first afternoon there, she was put in the Experimental Shop where she had to test the powder by weighing it on brass scales and sealing detonators one at a time, wearing only goggles and leather gauntlets for protection. Think of that for a moment.

A teenage girl, miles away from home is given a job that could blast her to bits at any moment with only gloves and goggles to keep her “safe”. Health and Safety then? Forget it.

She was just a kid who, like many others at the time, was forced by the Government to work in munitions because had she refused, she would indeed have been thrown in jail. She told me she often fretted if the bombs she had worked on had killed innocent women and children, which they probably had.

One day she was given a mysterious red box to carry while one person walked in front of her and one behind waving red flags to warn people to keep their distance. She revealed: “I didn’t know what I was carrying. There was a massive explosion from an adjoining room. I dropped the box in shock and was horrified to see a young woman thrown through a window with her stomach hanging out. I was sickened. Luckily, for some reason, the box, which contained detonators, did not explode or we would have had our legs blown off’

When she got home that evening, she told her sisters Alice and Phyllis she was never going back to Risley. They laughed sardonically because they knew she had no choice.

Sometimes, German planes flew over Risley speculatively dropping incendiary bombs and flares to light up the sky for the bomber planes. Mam had the job of banging furiously on a big metal triangle to warn everyone to hurry into the shelter, then follow them all in afterwards. The last person in.

The pressure proved too much for some of the young conscripts. One poor girl went mad and put detonators under her fellow workers’ lavatory seats. Luckily, Mam said they had been told to lift the board up with their feet for hygiene reasons and in this way a terrible fate was avoided.

Strange things happened there in the dark and mist. There was a resident ghost of a lady called Madam Weatherby, who had been murdered centuries before, which was seen on many occasions. She also told me of two Irish girls who ran in one night very upset claiming they had seen two banshees wailing on top of a workshop. These were spirits which presaged a disaster. Sure enough, shortly afterwards, that building had been blown up with the loss of the life of a young man from Mam’s home town and many others were injured.

Some of the Suicide Squad – Mabel, second left, with some of her Risley Munitions workmates.

The Risley women wore smart functional uniforms consisting of white trousers and a coat with a mandarin collar and buttoned down front. In the canteen, they had lunchtime concerts to relieve the stress and some of the bosses joined in.

Once as a treat, some Max Factor makeup artists came over from Hollywood demonstrating the latest lipstick and pancake makeup and gave free samples to the very grateful young ladies. But these lighter moments could have hardly compensated for the constant threat of death and injury.

If there was an explosion in the magazine or workshops, they had to go immediately to the canteen for a cup of tea and two cigarettes while clearing up operations took place. The other girls begged Mabel for her fags as, up to then, she didn’t smoke.

One day, a young girl came into Mam’s workshop to sharpen a pencil. She had just gone out when there was a loud explosion. Everyone except Mabel rushed out to see what had happened. The girl had just walked in through the door of the other workshop when the explosion happened and to steady herself, she put her hands on the wall. One hand dropped off, along with the fingers of the other hand. She was also blinded. As they wheeled her past on a stretcher, Mabel saw the young girl’s curly auburn hair had turned straight and white. Seeing how shocked Mabel was, a group nurse lit a cigarette and told her to smoke it to calm her nerves. She did the same the following day after another explosion. It was the start of a lifelong habit.

One night, a very tired Mabel was desperately trying not to nod off and was spotted by a fellow worker.
“Here luv. Take one of these” she hissed – slyly slipping Mam a tablet.
“What is it?”
“Get it swallowed. It’ll help you keep awake”.
It was an amphetamine wakey-wakey pill which RAF bomber pilots took on missions to keep them alert.
She said it kept her awake for days afterwards and as far as I know, that’s the last time she ever “dabbled”.

Abridged, from ‘The Thirty Bob Kid’ by Dave Dutton.

Construction began on ROF Risley in August 1939. It was 18 months before the site was fully operational but bombs were produced there from September 1940. After WW2, the site allegedly (according to Wikipedia) became the design offices and laboratories for the UK’s fledgling nuclear weapons and nuclear power programmes. Birchwood Forest Park now stands where much of ROF Risley stood. 

The Thirty Bob Kid by Dave Dutton is available now from Amazon. Born to Mabel, a single mum who worked in a Lancashire cotton mill and lived in a two up two down in a cobbled street, the book takes us on a journey through the many phases of Dave’s career from journalist to Ken Dodd’s chief joke writer to writing songs for some of the North West’s biggest folk acts and appearing in some of the UK’s biggest soaps and television shows, including Coronation Street and Emmerdale. It is humorous, touching and thought-provoking in equal measure.

Click on the logo to hear Dave Dutton talk more about Risley Munitions, his years spent working with Ken Dodd and his hugely popular ‘Lanky Spoken Here’ book and LP (audio courtesy of Radio Warrington 1332AM).