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'Down The Line'

by Lancshomeguard

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27 July 2005

This story has been submitted to the People's War website by Don and Betty Tempest of the Lancshomeguard on behalf of Joan Bromley and added to the site with her permission.
I was fifteen and a half years old when the war started, but when I was seventeen and a half I was expected to either join the Forces or go to work in a Munitions Factory. I decided that I would try for a job in the local factory in Horwich; it was making shells for the Admiralty, for the Anti-aircraft guns on the Battleships, which you can still see today.

When I went for an interview they said that they didn’t usually take anyone under 18years of age, but they let me take a short exam, which I passed and so they took me on. I was put on inspecting Orlican shells and it was quite something. The machines came from America, so they quite expensive. The factory I worked in was the London, Midland and Scottish Railway, where they used to build Railway Engines. Once the war broke out however, they started building tanks. Then the Admiralty took over part of it to make the Orlican shells.

We worked twelve hours each day, six days a week and had one day off. Not the same day every week, they worked backwards, one week Saturday, one week Friday, one week Thursday and so on. You always knew what day you had off so you could plan accordingly. We also did one night shift every 14days. It was very tedious work, stood at a machine every day.

Of course there were hundreds of men working on the tanks, so they outnumbered the women, but nobody was allowed on our shop floor unless they worked there and it was out of bounds to the men.

The ladies toilets and ladies room was what we called ‘Down the Line’, because it was at the end of the Railway Line, which was still being used to shunt steel and material. Everything came down the line. We women were not allowed to go down the line on our own because of all the men working there, so we had to go down in twos. We had to ask the Forman’s permission first so that he knew why there were two empty spaces on the machines. I suppose they couldn’t be too careful, because some of us were very young. I never heard of anything dreadful happening, but I know there were a couple of ‘clandestine’ meetings going on. I suppose that was going on everywhere.

We also did Fire Watching about once a month. We had to wear dungarees and a tin helmet, very chic! When we were on Fire Duty we had to go up on the roof and we could see Manchester burning. It was very frightening, but the bombs never came near us. They missed our factory all together, which, being in Horwich was not far from Manchester.

We usually worked from 7 until 7, but if you were working on a Saturday night you were allowed to start at nine o’clock, so we could have a couple of hours enjoying ourselves. The men used to love Saturday nights because the women came in smelling beautifully of perfume and powder. You had to make the most of the time you had off, because there wasn’t a lot of leisure time.

I was the youngest girl there. Most of the women were married with husbands in the Forces, if one of the husbands was coming home on leave, the Forman would give her compassionate leave so they could spend time together. Before their husbands came home, the women would get to work on the wives. One would take her down to the ladies room, and wash and set her hair in rollers. They would then cover her head with a turban to hide the rollers. Another one would do her Makeup and another one her nails. We would all have a good laugh together. It was what kept us going.

There were eight machines altogether and they were very complicated to work on, as everything had to be precise. The steel would come in six-foot lengths, which were then inserted, into the shaft, which would go round and round. Then at the other end, out would come a bullet, which would be ready to be filled with Cordite. The bullets were then cut to size and smoothed. We had to check the diameter and thread and if there was anything wrong with them we would stop the machine and the too fitter would come and sort it out and get the machine back in working order as soon as possible.

It was quite interesting work really. All the shells had to be counted, so that they knew what the output of every machine was. You had to record the time the machine was stopped and when it was back in service. It was a job you would never have had the chance to do in Peacetime, so it was quite and experience and one I wouldn’t have missed. It was very precise work and everything had to work to a thousandth of an inch. It was very important to get the direction of the bullet absolutely right and the ‘Driving’ had to perfectly straight.

The tool fitters were wonderfully clever men. If the machines were stopped because the bullets wouldn’t go through the gauge, they would look at it and fix it. Sometimes it took several hours, but they would get it back to the right precision. So even though these men weren’t on the front line they were doing a wonderful job.

Sometimes we would get a telegram from the Admiralty congratulating us on the work we were doing, which made us all feel very proud.

After the shells were ready, they were transported to Exton, which was 7 or 8 miles from Horwich, and this was the place where they filled the shells with Cordite, which was a very dangerous place to work in. It was a huge place and the Admiralty and Army both had a place there. When the shells were filled, they were shipped out to the Troops at the Front and we never saw them again.

The shells we made were 35mm, but there was another shop floor at the local works that made quite big shells, which when used, part of the casing fell back and this piece could be used again after being cleaned and knocked back into shape.

After the war they closed the shop and dismantled everything, because after all they were very expensive machines.

I married my husband after he came back from the war and we are still together after all these years.

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