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Recollections of Alec Lovell at the Royal Ordnance Factory Steeton Nr. Keighley June 1941 - July 1945

by Lovell-Alec

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Contributed by 
People in story: 
Alec V Lovell; Stanley C. Mitchell: W. F. Cutler
Location of story: 
Steeton, Yorkshire
Background to story: 
Civilian Force
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
27 January 2006

Recollections of Alec V. Lovell working at the Royal Ordnance Factory Steeton Nr. Keighley June 1941 — July 1945

Date of Birth: 21st. June 1920
Place of Birth: 24 Lister Avenue, Wakefield Road, Bradford, Yorkshire

Identity Number KBRY 124/3

Father: William Lovell, Professional Baritone and Teacher of Singing
Mother: Ethel Lovell, Nee Peel, Teacher of Pianoforte.

Alec Lovell, Education

Primary: Lorne Street School, Wake [field Road, Bradford 1925 - 1928
Bradford Grammar School: Thornville Preparatory 1928 -1930
Hanson Junior School: 1930 -1931
Hanson High School for Boys 1931 -1936
(Northern Matriculation with six Credits in Chemistry, Physics, Mathematics, English, History, and Geography)
Bradford Technical College
(Special London External B Sc Degree in Chemistry)


Recollections of Alec V. Lovell working at the Royal Ordnance Factory Steeton Nr. Keighley June 1941 — July 1945

In July 1941, after five years at Bradford Technical College, I graduated with a London External Special B.Sc. Honours Degree in Chemistry with Physics as a subsidiary subject and applied and pure mathematics to the intermediate B.Sc. standard. Having been granted deferment by the Joint Recruiting Board I was interviewed again after graduating and with one of my fellow students, S. C. Mitchell, we were directed to the recently opened Royal Ordnance Factory Number 22 at Steeton, not far from Keighley, Yorkshire.

ROF Steeton was an outstation of Woolwich Arsenal and, together with Radway Green in Cheshire, was devoted to the production of 20 mm and .5 in., calibre brass cartridge cases and projectiles. Production at Steeton was mainly concentrated on brass cartridge cases for 20 mm Oerlikon and Hispano Suiza ammunition for the armed forces and particularly the RAF.

The laboratory at ROF Steeton was under the direction of a metallurgist, W. F. Cutler, who had been formerly employed at Woolwich Arsenal. The objective of the Steeton laboratory was to control the quality of the materials used in the manufacture of the various end products. This involved two distinct categories of work:-

a) Chemical analysis
b) Metallurgical and metallographic work

Stanley Mitchell was an enthusiastic and extremely competent analytical chemist and it was natural that he would choose to be responsible for the chemical analysis. My responsibility was for the remainder of the work.

What follows is an account of my working life at Steeton during the remainder of WWII.

June - August 1941.

Stanley and I were hired as temporary civil servants with the title and rank of Experimental Assistant, Grade 3. The starting salary was £150 p.a. plus overtime pay. Because we were eligible for overtime pay we clocked on and off on arrival and departure at the works. At the time we joined the plant the laboratory facilities were still being constructed and it was decided that we should spend some time training at Radway Green ROF not far from Crewe, Cheshire. Our temporary home was a former rectory in Alsager, about 20 minutes walk from the plant. During the few weeks we were at Radway Green we were introduced to the type of work we would later be doing at Steeton. The respective section heads supervising the chemical and metallurgical work, we discovered, were classified as Experimental Assistant Grade 2. There was a substantial difference in pay and the scope of the work was broadly comparable. It was not until more than a year had elapsed that our respective grades and pay were upgraded and this as a result of our intention to leave ROF Steeton and join a branch of the armed forces.

On returning to Steeton, the laboratory building was complete and the finishing touches were being given to the laboratories themselves. My first experience was to receive an electric shock when I touched a metal part of a viscometer I was using. The supply had been wrongly connected. Fortunately my hands were not wet!

A great deal of the work was of a routine nature and it involved quality control on incoming materials. Samples of rolled leaded steel bars were prepared and mechanically tested for ultimate and yield stresses. The results appeared on the Receipt and Measurement Certificates against which payment was made.

The material for cartridge case production was cartridge brass — 70/30 copper/ zinc composition. This arrived in two forms — blanks, and strips from which the blanks were stamped. For each delivery, samples were taken and the quality checked. I was responsible for ensuring that the metal was free from inclusions which could cause failure during manufacture or use.

Manufacturing Process for 20 mm Cartridge Cases.

Blanking, Cupping and Annealing

The brass blanks were first annealed in a continuous rotary, electrically heated, ‘Birlec’ furnace, followed by pickling in concentrated sulphuric acid, washing and drying. The blanks were then pressed into a shallow cup, annealed, cleaned and washed ready for the second stage of five drawing operations.

Drawing Operations

The drawing operations consisted of first draw, second draw, third draw and fourth draw — each stage with i
nter-stage anneal, pickle and wash. During these operations, essentially, the thickness of the base of the component was unchanged whilst the depth of the component was progressively increased.

Fifth Draw and Ironing of the Wall of the Component

This operation was carried out in horizontal presses in which the thickness of the wall of the component was reduced to its specified thickness.

Finishing Operations

The finishing operations involved forming the indent in preparation for the forming of the cavity for the detonator cap. The extractor ring was formed and the shell trimmed to length. Finally the mouth of the shell was given a flame anneal and the taper of the shell case formed in a press operation.

Routine Testing of Samples from all Stages of Production.

Samples were taken from all stages of production and submitted to metallographic examination and to hardness testing using the Vickers Pyramidal number system. There were several of these machines in use throughout the works and it was part of my responsibility to maintain the machines and check the accuracy of their readings.

The hardness of finished cartridge cases at intervals along their entire length was determined and the results plotted in graphical form against the control levels.

The samples to metallographic testing were sectioned and polished in the workshop attached to the laboratory and then the surface etched and the grain structure revealed for control examination.

Brass cartridge cases are susceptible to a form of failure known as Season Cracking in which the shell under certain conditions of storage will fail spontaneously by cracking of the wall. The susceptibility of a particular batch to this kind of failure can be assessed by the mercurous nitrate test. This vital test was carried out as a routine measure.

Support Laboratory Staff

The metallographic laboratory was equipped with three metallographic bench microscopes used by three assistants for routine examination. A fourth assistant was responsible for carrying out the mercurous nitrate testing of the 20mm shell cases. The workshop where metallographic samples were prepared required three people and there was a fourth assistant responsible for the preparation of tensile specimens.

Non Routine Work

The Steeton works was equipped with a first class tool room for the production of the press tools and form tools used throughout the plant. Part of this facility was a heat treatment department under the control of a former farrier/blacksmith. There was a crisis in the recovery levels of tools during heat-treatment with almost 100% of production being scrapped. The Trades Union was enormously powerful and there had been strikes relating to piece work in the tool room. A skilled form grinding machine operator could take home £20 per week! During the first few months the heat treatment room was only partially equipped for hardening and tempering of sophisticated high speed tool steels and yet there was a critical need for success. Vital machines were silent. It fell to my lot, at the age of 21 to address this problem with its complex industrial overtones. The first step was to learn something about the heat treatment of alloy tool steels. This was accomplished by spending a day back at Bradford Technical College with an engineer who had some specialised knowledge. W F Cutler bought Vol. 1 of Bullens Heat Treatment of Steel and I bought Vol. 2! And so we started and slowly succeeded in increasing the number of high quality tools being produced.

Of great help was a former foreman in a textile mill named Harry Thornber. He was a practical type of man who could turn his hand to anything and he became my valued helper in getting the heat treatment shop operating to a high standard. One aspect that really annoyed me was that I was not allowed to keep records of the improvement in the scrapping rate of the numbers of tools during heat treatment and so to illustrate the progress being made. The convener was happy that the problems were solved by non-Union men but could not acknowledge that one of their own members had failed! More than anything the exercise was one of diplomacy in difficult situations and the experience would serve me well in my later career.

Alf and Alf’s Store

Of course working in that environment one met some great characters. I specially remember Alf who ran Alf’s Store from which the machinists could borrow specific pieces of equipment in return for surrendering a token. There was a problem with unaccounted-for items and Alf had a message for anyone who might consider helping themselves in his absence. This was in the form of a message pinned to the door.

“The Lord helps them that help themselves!
But The Lord help them that I find helping themselves
in Alf’s store.”

The Workforce and Working Conditions at Steeton

Of the several thousand operatives and staff employed at Steeton there were only a handful who were experienced in ammunition manufacture. In spite of this and the loss of a cargo of automatic multi-spindle lathes from the USA, by the end of 1942 the plant was operating round the clock and production was high. Most of the operatives were from local towns. There were, however, a significant number of young women from The Irish Republic.

In 1941 I continued to live at home in Bradford and travelled daily to Steeton. This involved a trolley bus ride to Bradford, a bus journey to Keighley, and a transfer to a further bus to Steeton. This required me to leave home at 7.30 a.m. and to return home by about 9.00 p.m. after finishing work at 7.30 p.m. There were no weekends or days off.

Accommodation became available in early 1942 in the workers hostel known as Howden Hall. This was designed, primarily for women workers, and was situated in Silsden, about two miles north of the plant. It comprised six dormitory blocks, each under the care of a “housemother”. One of the wings was allocated to housing men. Because there were fewer male occupiers than rooms I was fortunate enough to occupy a twin bedded room in Wharfedale H Block. Good breakfasts and evening meals were provided and, together with lunch in the works canteen, we were well nourished. Most of the women were on shift work at the plant. There was also a group of Irish lasses and a number of Land Girls there. Also being housed were some male engineering apprentices from Keighley.

The Howden Hall facilities included a hall with a stage where dances and amateur productions were held. There was a handicraft room with facilities for doing leatherwork under the direction of a lady named Miss Crawley. The examples had thin skiver linings and were held together by leather thongs. I still have the case I made for my 10 in. Faber slide rule.

Music While You Work was broadcast twice a day in the production shops and was very popular. On a regular basis there would be entertainment on Fridays in the works canteen. I remember one of the local regimental bands performing some stirring music and finishing with the trumpeters playing the Post Horn Gallop.

Working seven days a week continued for about two years and, gradually, it was possible to have Saturday afternoon and Sunday off. My main form of recreation was cycling and hill walking. Steeton was close to Skipton and virtually in the Yorkshire Dales. It was possible to cycle to Malham at the head of Airedale and to be there within two hours. I was fortunate enough to meet a group of people there from the Air Ministry unit Research and Technical Publications. These people included P C Gray, a mathematician who had been at Pyestock Cove with Whittle the inventor of the jet engine. Another was Charles Hurford who produced “exploded” illustrations of engines for training purposes.

The Home Guard.

The Home Guard Company at ROF Steeton formed an essential part of the security system and was under the command of a retired army major who was also head of the works security. An account of my service with the Steeton Home Guard Unit appears in the appendix.

In 1945, on the war front the demand for ammunition lessened and this was reflected in a reduction in the activities of ROF Steeton and, eventually, in May 1945 production came abruptly to an end. Its products, so important at one time, were no longer needed. People still came to work but the permanent civil servants were redirected. For those remaining it was chaos.

I had immediately applied for a job with a local company and had been referred to the Research Department of the Metal Box Company in London where I took up an appointment in July.

Concluding Thoughts

The experience gained at ROF Steeton during the war making cartridge cases was to prove of great value in my later career in the can making and packaging industries. Shell cases are seamless and are made by progressive drawing and ironing. The future was for aluminium and steel food and beverage cans and in the use of the cupping, redrawing and ironing process producing seamless can bodies. My work in collaboration with the tool making shop provided me with vital insight into the production of press and cutting tools

But, above all, it was having the direct experience of being part of an organisation comprising people drawn together by wartime circumstances, collaborating and making ROF Steeton the vital producer it became of 20 mm shells for the war effort.


The Home Guard at Steeton

I was born in Bradford, Yorkshire and when war was declared I was at Bradford Technical College doing a London External Degree in Chemistry. My military service was deferred until I graduated in June1941. At this stage a Royal Ordnance Factory located at Steeton in the Aire valley, just west of Keighley, was coming into production and was seeking two graduates. One was required to manage the chemistry laboratory and the other to look after the metallographic and metallurgical side of things. Having both gone before a Joint Recruiting Board we were assigned to R.O..F. No. 22. where I worked on the metallurgical aspects of the plant commencing in July 1941.

The main purpose of ROF 22 was to produce 20 mm cannon shells, Hispano-Suiza and Oerlikon, and projectiles for the RAF. The empty cases were filled at specialized explosives plants. The success of the plant was vital to the war effort and operated round the clock for almost four years.

The plant was designed to be defended and there was a system of Block Houses at strategic points around the perimeter At the centre of the site there was an armoury and a secure store for rifles and grenades. This was under the control of a Company Sergeant Major from the West Riding Regiment (Duke of Wellington’s) Halifax headquarters.

Soon after arriving, volunteers were invited to join the Home Guard and to be trained. I do not remember the total complement of the unit but it was quite large - 60 to 100 soldiers. Initial training started with foot drill, marching and handling rifles and bayonets. Then followed training in the arming and preparing hand grenades, and actually throwing live ones on a range under the supervision of experienced men.

We had experience in the use of wire-reinforced 303 calibre rifles as cup projectors for grenades. Bayonet practice was part of the training.

After attending a course on poison gas identification at Leeds University, my colleague and I were appointed Gas Identification Officers for the plant. This resulted in my promotion to the rank of sergeant having the same responsibility for the Home Guard unit.

Early in 1945 it was clear that invasion of Great Britain was unlikely and in May the unit was stood down and the uniforms and equipment were handed in.

For me the Home Guard experience was an excellent one. I became an excellent shot and was a member of a Rifle Club in West Acton where I was employed for four years after the end of the war.


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