Munitions factories relied heavily on women. The Royal Ordnance Factory (ROF) Aycliffe was built at Heighington Lane, Aycliffe, County Durham during the early 1940’s. It opened as ROF 59 (Filling factory 8) in the spring of 1941. It operated 24 hours a day, employing some 17,000 workers in three shift groups and was operational for just over 4 years until the end of World War II in 1945, by which point it had produced some 700 million bullets and countless other munitions. The factory was designated as a “Top Secret” installation and surrounded by high fences with barbed wire. During its existence, the factory produced millions of finished munitions including bullets, shells and mines. 17,000 women came from the surrounding towns and villages to work at the factory filling shells and bullets and assembling detonators and fuses for the war effort. Workers were transported from surrounding areas onto the factory site by bus and train, with the most local workers arriving on foot or by bicycle.
The workers, mainly women, became known as the “Aycliffe Angels”. The name comes from William Joyce, known as Lord Haw-Haw who (although born in America) was a British traitor working for the Nazis during World War II. Joyce broadcast Nazi propaganda over medium and short wave radio to Britain and the United States. In numerous broadcasts he had said, “The little angels of Aycliffe won’t get away with it” and promising that the Luftwaffe would bomb them into submission.
By its nature the work was very dangerous and many workers were killed and injured during the manufacturing process; however due to the secrecy surrounding the factory and its workers, many incidents went unrecorded and unreported in the news and their efforts went unrecognised.
AN AYCLIFFE ANGEL by the late Nancy Horsman (nee Brown) originally written February 2011
From the age of 18, I was employed at Aycliffe Munitions Factory. There were 2 plants, one in Aycliffe and one across the railway line at Heighington. I worked at Aycliffe.
There was a 3 shift system – 3pm – 11pm; 11pm – 7am and 7am – 3pm. The Evenwood girls were picked up by a special Blue Belle bus which collected people from Woodland, Butterknowle, Cockfield and Ramshaw before going onto Aycliffe. Others that I recall from Evenwood and Ramshaw were Elsie and Ethel Watson, Edna and Hilda Bennett, Hazel Hewitt, Nora Corner, Renie Nicholson, Elsie Smith, Lizzie Waller, Ethel Coates, Madge Etherington, Irene Parkin but she worked in the offices. Harry Welford also got on our bus but he was fireman.
My main job was water proofing the heads of the shells which was relatively safe. The plant over the other side of the railway was the more dangerous factory where they dealt with explosives and some girls did come out “yellow” after working with cordite and other materials. I recall a woman from Bildershaw being killed but I can’t remember her name. There was censorship so things would have been hushed up.
My mother didn’t like me working there. I got my non-schooling education there! Woman and girls came from all over. Those lasses from West Hartlepool taught me a lot – I said nothing, just listened. I learnt an awful lot from them. Surely they exaggerated!
I asked my mam a question about miscarriage to which she answered:
“Is that all you buggers talk about at Aycliffe?”
She wasn’t happy.
I didn’t dare tell her the rest!
Aycliffe Angels – Nancy Brown is third row, far right
Note: Nancy’s brother Ray Brown was killed in May 1940 & Ethel and Elsie Watson lost their brother Tom Watson in December 1941.
Certificate awarded to Ann Alderson – Mrs. Laverick, Fred’s wife