World War One ammunition resulted in a catastrophic explosion that rocked Luton – but it happened 21 months after the Great War had ended.
The events of Saturday, August 14th, 1920, were recorded on the day by the Saturday Telegraph under the multiple headlines: Luton ammunition blaze – Kingsway factory wrecked – Six casualties – Firemen work amid continuous explosions – Millions of rounds involved – Neighbouring works damaged.
With the dawn this morning came one of the most destructive explosions Luton has experienced, with the result that the Kingsway factory of the Thermo Electric Ore Reduction Corporation Ltd, later occupied by the Inter-Continental Trust (1913) Ltd as a breaking down factory for small-arms ammunition, has become a total wreck.
Five men who were working there at the time, together with one member of the Luton Fire Brigade who was subsequently engaged in trying to quell the fire which followed, have received burns or other injuries. It must be regarded as fortunate that no fatalities occurred.
Only by visiting the fearful scene of destruction can it be realised what a wonderful escape the employees had from what must have appeared, on the face of things, certain death. Five men and a lad were in the factory, and the lad was found to be quite uninjured after the catastrophe. The others were all burned more or less severely, the night watchman sustaining the most extensive burns.
The building, a massive affair of exceptionally solid brickwork, which is one of the depots of the Inter-Continental Trust Limited , was completely wrecked, one wall being blown to fragments and the iron girders of the roof twisted into peculiar shapes and hurled hundreds of yards away.
The explosive material involved consisted of -
300 tons of Thermalloy, which gives off a heat of 3,000 deg C;
25 tons of smoke powder;
24,000,000 rounds of small arm ammunition; and, outside the factory,
Large numbers of packing cases, and more live ammunition.
A huge stock of ammunition ignited consequent upon the explosion, and a fusilade equal to a machine-gun barrage of modern warfare was in progress for quite three hours. Bullets spitted around and pattered on the helmets of the firemen as the brigade worked strenuously to subdue the flames, and, unfortunately, one piece of flying metal found a billet in the face of Fireman Giddings, who was injured between the left eye and the nose.
Around the building was strewn a remarkable collection of wreckage, including bricks coated with a peculiar grey residue of oxide of mercury, complete iron window frames, which had been flung bodily for many yards, burning ammunition boxes scattered in all directions; and flying amongst them all were bullets and exploded cartridge cases.
The neighbouring chemical works of B. Laporte Ltd, which are the only buildings in really close proximity to those of the Inter-Continental Trust, became involved, the burning fragments of wood scattered by the explosions igniting some packing around a quantity of chemical carboys which were stored outside the factory, and small fires were started in about twenty or thirty places. The fire brigade directed its first efforts on these, and speedily removed any danger from that source.
The injured men are -
John Carpenter, Dunstable Road, Luton, night watchman - burns on head, face, arms and legs;
Thomas Ralph Hyde, Salisbury Road, Leagrave - contused wounds on right arm and elbow, possibility of fractured bone;
Ralph Robins, Leagrave - slight burns and shock;
Sidney Soper, 133 North Street, Luton – severe burns on back and right arm;
Frederick Ellis, 38 Spencer Road, Luton – burns and shock;
Fireman Stanley Giddings, 18 Wimbourne Road, Luton – penetrating wound between nose and left eye.
The first indications of the disaster were a muffled roar, somewhat resembling the discharge of a heavy gun, followed by two explosions of a sharper character, and then a huge tongue of flame leapt into the air. Smaller tongues of flame followed the force of the explosions along the ground, and then a voluminous cloud of acrid smoke drifted skywards.
This was about six o'clock, and the sun was barely in evidence. The morning was perfectly calm, without a trace of wind, and the explosion was heard in many parts of the town, whilst the slowly ascending smoke cloud was visible in all directions. It was of a peculiarly grey colour, flecked with patches of white like sea foam, and as it rose upwards it twirled and twisted, curled and writhed within itself like some tropical waterspout.
In the immediate neighbourhood people were aroused from their sleep by the noise of the explosions, and accompanying these was the staccato rattle of bursting rounds of ammunition. Most of the awakened slumberers made a hasty toilet and within a few minutes of the occurrence there were crowds of people in the vicinity.
A Telegraph representative who arrived at the spot with the Fire Brigade a few minutes after the disaster found the building a roaring mass of flame. The exploding ammunition and the general noise of the fire made conversation impossible, and Chief Officer Andrew, who was in charge, had to shout orders into the ears of his men.
A motor engine was run along the grass field to the corner of the fence separating Messrs Laporte's works and the factory area, and a hydrant was speedily fixed in Kingsway.
As it was obvious that nothing could be saved as far as the ammunition works were concerned, the firemen directed their first attentions to the burning portions which were strewn amongst the buildings of Messrs Laporte. There were scores of little fires to be dealt with. Blazing boxes were lying in all directions, some on the roofs, others amongst outdoor machinery, and many had fallen between glass containers of chemicals which were stacked close to the fence, and the straw packing around them was burning fiercely. The danger was apparent, and some had already burst, giving off fumes of a throat-gripping nature which made the firemen cough and splutter as they worked with the hose. It was particularly unpleasant work dealing with these outbreaks, and breathing was exceptionally difficult.
Half-an-hour's hard work sufficed to clear Messrs Laporte's works from danger, and then the brigade were able to give concentrated attention to the ammunition factory.
Another Telegraph representative who was early on the spot writes:
People in the vicinity were up and out at an unwanted hour. They were, the majority of them, suddenly awakened ; but by what they could not tell. Then they heard a heavy roar like a train running along the Dunstable line, but when the roar continued and, in fact, became more intense,
suspicions were aroused.
The squeak of opening bedroom windows in every street, and in almost every house, was followed by peering heads of persons in early morning neglige. Everybody became friendly and neighbourly; alarm and enquiry were writ large on every face, and a large, ominous cloud high up against the blue sky added colour to the feeling that something unusual was occurring.
The cloud, which was apparently the aftermath of the first explosion – described by those who were near as a deep, muffled roar, could be traced by a narrow strip of vapour to earth, and at the spot where it touched earth was the wreckage of the works where the explosion had occurred.
Dwellers in the neighbourhood had often heard the rat-tap-tap of the breaking down of ammunition; what they now heard was the familiar sound intensified to the Nth degree, and they realised very soon, as the fusilade continued and worsened, that this was something beyond human control, something catastrophic and destructive.
Windows were closed, clothes were hastily donned, and soon from all directions a stream of people concentrated on the spot. At a quarter to seven every spot which enabled a favourable view of the building to be obtained, was covered with a mass of onlookers. From the top of Kingsway there was a clear view, and at one time the building was a fiery furnace made more dramatic in its aspect by the terrific roaring rattle that rent the air.
“It's like nothing on earth,” said a spectator, “...except a thousand machine guns gone mad.”
He had to shout the words, for even at this distance the clamour of the million explosive bullets drowned the voice of ordinary conversation.
Red-hot missiles could be seen shooting up through the roof, which was soon perforated with numberless holes of all sizes and shapes.
A nearer view was obtained by the crowd which collected on the footpath by the side of the railway, and at one point the noise here was ear-splitting. At times the whole building was hidden in a mass of smoke of several colours, and the firemen could be seen flitting in and out like creatures in an inferno. Then for a moment the air would clear, and through the broken windows heaps of burning boxes could be seen spluttering with vivid flashes, like an uncontrolled firework display.
Debris in the field where the spectators stood told of the force of initial explosion, portions of the asbestos roof being strewn everywhere. The most remarkable evidence of the explosive power that blew the end of the building to destruction, however, was found on the distant Downs. Here in all directions were charred portions of ammunition boxes, and before nine o'clock this morning many children, always quick to salvage something useful for the home, were carrying away burnt wood by the armful.
A hard, stern task confronted the firemen when they turned to cope with the inferno which raged in the interior of the wrecked building. Every few minutes the steady and continuous cracking of exploding cartridges would be augmented by louder reports of bursting boxes, and fragments were flung about their heads.
In the centre what was left of the building, was a heap, many feet in height, of blazing explosives. Red hot metal spurted from this, looking peculiarly like a continuous stream of tracer bullets, and shattered cartridge cases with dangerously jagged edges dropped all round them.
The following Thursday's Luton News reported that fire brigade vigilance was needed at the site until the Sunday evening.