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Ministry of Supply Factory, Dalbeattie -
 View of Nitration Hills, Unit 2 (Edingham)

Ministry of Supply Factory, Dalbeattie
World War II Cordite Works

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Fire and First Aid Services :-

Key Facts :-

  • Documentary evidence for at least one Fire Station in the Factory.
  • Fire Station identified in Unit 1 (Southwick).
  • At least two Fire Engine trailer pumps.
  • Location central to processes of high fire risk.
  • Same facility designed to decontaminate staff affected or injured by chemical weapons and to provide First Aid.
  • Emergency Water Supply from Knock Burn reservoirs, Kirkgunzeon Lane burn and possibly onsite ponds.
  • Extensive provision of Fire Points.
  • Architectural design to reduce fire risk.
  • Location in a wet site as a fire precaution.

Unit 1 Fire Station from SW. Writer's car gives scale.
Unit 1 Fire Station from SW. Writer's car gives scale.


Factory Fire Stations and Services :<

The existence of at least one Fire Station in the Factory was confirmed by G.M. Nicholson's document Acids Recovery Plant - Failure of Factory Services - Revised Instructions (15/12/42), in which the Fire Station was to be asked about the availability of river water for process cooling. It had already been evident from the large number of surviving indications of Fire Points, that the Factory had been planned with a commitment to fire safety and that (as at Royal Ordnance Factories) the Factory would have its own Fire Station or Stations. The chemical works at Powfoot near Annan had its own fire engine as late as 1988.

It was suspected that a windowless blast-trapped building in Unit 1 (Southwick) near the Canteen block, was a Fire and Rescue centre or the Factory's control centre or had both functions. Several rooms were definitely toilets, another may have had some kind of switchboard function. At the back (northwest end) is a well-protected garage with an adjacent office, whilst at the front are paired entrances protected by an unusual multiangular blast wall. Oddly, the water tank on the roof is as unprotected as the two on the roof of the Canteen building. Close examination of wartime air photographs has not revealed the silhouette of a Fire Station of similar type in Unit 2, so it is guessed that it was unique, even as both M/S Carsegowan and M/S Dumfries each also only had one Fire/Decontamination Station. Unit 2 had the Laboratory and Office block for the two Units, so it would not be unreasonable for Unit 1 to host a facility of comparable importance.

The northwest end of the presumed Fire Station would have had enough room to park a vehicle in readiness, with the site's two trailer-pumps available in the garage. The rationale behind locating the Fire Station at this point is simple - it would be close to the Acetone Plant and the Boiler House and within a few hundred yards of all Cordite Milling Houses, the Stoving Houses and the Acetone Recovery Units - all the most likely sources of a major threat of fire.

Information from Adam Barber at the former ICI Drungans works at Cargenbridge, Dumfries (now DuPont Teijin Films) revealed that a similar building of identical map silhouette at the Drungans works (M/S Factory Dumfries) had no fewer than three functions. This became clear in a 1948 report on file which fully converted the building into a Fire Station. As constructed in 1939, the structure served as :-

  • Fire Station : Canopy sheltering the entrance to a two-trailer garage, an office and a changing and locker room.
  • Chemical Warfare decontamination unit, providing separate male and female units, with separate provision for removing contaminated clothes, Bath and Toilet, Shower (Spray Bath) facilities and Dressing Rooms.
  • First Aid station in two Waiting Rooms, two Treatment Rooms and a Doctor's Office.
There was a similar facility in the Central Services area of the Carsegowan Black Powder Factory (M/S Carsegowan).

A copy of a surviving 1948 plan of the Drungans building was passed to the writer on 15th August 2006 and proves the Dalbeattie building to be identical, except for a couple of store-rooms that do not link to the rest of the building. The trailer pump dimensions would match the four-jet pumps also used at RNCF Holton Heath, capable of being man-handled or towed to position.

Unit 1 Fire Station, East side - External store-room
Unit 1 Fire Station, East side - External store-room


A Note on Chemical Warfare :

Readers must understand that the use of chemical weapons by Italy, Germany's ally, was used to defeat the Abyssinians in the late 1930s. Germany had also been the first nation in the 1914-1918 First World War / Great War to use gas in the Western Front trenches. There was every reason to expect that Nazi Germany under Hitler would use gas against military and civilian targets and in fact the Germans developed the first nerve gases, Soman and Tabun. Only his own experiences of being mildly gassed in the First World War deterred Hitler from bombing Britain with the almost twelve thousand tons of nerve gas he had by mid-1944 - he feared an overwhelming Allied response. If nerve gases had been used in the V1 and V2 missiles on London, British dead and injured would have been in the millions - a literally nuclear level of mass destruction. British civilian gas masks would have been no defence against nerve agents that could cripple or kill by a minute quantity entering the body through the unprotected skin.

Emergency Water Supplies :

The presence of the Kirkgunzeon Lane flowing through the site and the presence of the two Knock Burn reservoirs, would have made it possible to rapidly pump river water from the Pump House intakes to a fire line. Unit 1, though constrained by a narrow site, had more fire-fighting water to hand than in Unit 2. However, Unit 2 had the direct gravity supply from the service reservoir, even if power failed in the Pump House. There are some interesting wet areas in the lower lying parts of Unit 2 that may have functioned as Emergency Water Supplies in a crisis, but this is currently just a theory.

There are some interesting rectangular ponds to the west of the Nitration Houses on the slope in Unit 1 that may have been the Emergency Water Supply tanks for that critical area of the site, but this has not been proven.

One problem with the abundance of water on site was the risk of flies and mosquitos, but this has yet to be assessed.

Fire Points :

Virtually every building involved in the Cordite production process wasa equipped with a Fire Point, consisting of three buckets, a stirrup pump and a standard fire extinguisher. Judging from the few surviving whitewashed backgrounds and stencilled words, some of the Points may have used sand buckets to douse fires in the areas where Cordite was present.

Defensive Fire Design :

The inclined concrete roofs of most structures would have defeated incendiary Elektron bombs, used in vast numbers by both sides in World War II; most would have rolled off onto the ground, the others might have scorched the concrete but would not have burnt through. At ground level, the three-brick-thick walls would resist some blast and heat, whilst even the verandahs were protected by thin asbestos cement panels.

It is the considered opinion of the writer that the most dangerous threat of fire would come from grass or heath fires, the current healthy growths of brushwood, gorse, reeds and trees, would not have been tolerated. It is not yet clear whether the construction in a marshland area was deliberate, but the Stoving and Steeping/Drying Houses are generally built on massive well-drained foundations three to four feet high, surrounded by reed marshland. Some of the site railway causeways (bogie runs) are equipped with culverts and bridges to allow them to cross drainage channels. The pipe supports ignore the marshland to the extent of their heavy concrete bases crossing areas that must surely have flooded regularly.

Examination of the wartime air photographs shows that the major stands of trees remained in Unit 2 throughout the war, surviving there today.

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© 2006 Richard Edkins, Dalbeattie Internet.