With all the publicity about D Day and the Normandy landings I was reflecting on my own families involvement in WW11. My father was rejected from the army on medical grounds (he died very young of heart attack), one uncle was accepted for the Royal Marines but was deemed an “essential worker” in the cotton mills and was prevented from joining up. My other uncle, who had the worst health problems in the family however, was accepted and served in the Argyle and Sutherland Highlanders, but the farthest he got away from his home town of Leigh was Stirling Castle in Scotland.
As far as my mother was concerned I had always assumed that she continued to work in the cotton mills in Leigh. It was not until late in her life she dropped into a conversation that she had worked at ROF Risley making bombs including the huge 10,000lb bombs.
She seemed very matter of fact about the fact that the Luftwaffe constantly tried to find Risley to bomb it but without any success, although they did bomb Manchester by mistake. The fact that one hit on the factory could have caused untold damage and the casualties would have been horrendous.
They worked 24 hours a day on a three-shift system and my mother said she loved working there despite the fact that all the workers were constantly under the threat of death.
I think it is sometimes forgotten just how much women contributed to the war effort, did jobs traditionally done by men, it is just such a pity that after the war women were cast back into traditional “women’s roles” in society.
With the advent of the Second World War, 927 acres (3.8 km²) of largely heath and mossland, which was part of Risley, village, between Leigh (then Lancashire, now Greater Manchester) and Warrington (then Lancashire, now Cheshire), was compulsorily purchased and within it was built a large Royal Ordnance Factory.
The location was chosen because the low lying mist and cloud helped camouflage the factory from the air; according to a local builder: “It was very lonely and misty at night, and that’s why the factory was constructed there … it was usually covered with a mist or cloud. It was hard to see it in the day time, you know”.
A part of the 927-acre (3.75 km2) site was drained and construction began in August 1939. It took 18 months to complete, but bombs were produced from September 1940.
Risley Royal Ordnance Factory (ROF) was a filling factory. It received the explosives in bulk, usually by rail, from other ROFs where they were manufactured. Risley specialised in filling them into the various casings to produce the finished munitions.
There were 16 filling factories around the country and Risley was known as Filling Factory No. 6. Others in the north west included Chorley (No. 1) and Kirkby (No. 7). One of the features common to all of the filling factories was an area of storage bunkers where the finished munitions were stored awaiting dispatch. The areas within the filling factories were all numbered in the same way.
Storage bunkers were designated Area 9. Risley had 20 such bunkers and Area 9 is roughly in the area of the main field in Birchwood Forest Park today. When the new town area of Birchwood was created, most of the bunkers were demolished, but 4 of them were left in place and can still be seen today.
A number of bunkers were also built to house the munitions, to protect them from potential bombing, and also to segregate the site and reduce the consequences of any accidental explosions during manufacture or storage.
Although these bunkers are on the surface, they are covered with soil and turf and so give the impression of being underground. It had a dedicated rail link to the Manchester-Wigan line, which was used both for bringing in workers and moving materials. Also there was a ‘halt’ on the Liverpool-Manchester line. In the post war years wooden coaches lay derelict there.
The actual layout of the site was far from flat, the site having several pillboxes mounted high up on earthbanks surrounding the mounds covering the bunkers. Some of the rail sidings also had huge earthworks around them.
So whilst it is right and proper that we pay hommage to all those men who fought and gave their lives, particularly on D Day the 6 June 1944, we should not forget the millions of women who supported the war effort which, in many cases involved hazardous and very dangerous work.
So, here is to my mother and all her worker colleagues at Risley ROF.