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History of Bilston - Part 15

Bilston Steel Works - The Second World War.

At this point our source should, in chronological order, contain an account of the works during the Second World War. But our source is silent upon it, except where it incidentally mentions, in respect of the cogging mill installed in 1907, that it “was to remain in service until the late 1950s and performed yeoman service d uring the Second World War, rolling 22 ton ingots of armour piercing steel for the production of 25-pounder shells”.

We can make up the deficiency from Stewarts and Lloyds own publication, a book entitled: “The Industrial War Record: A Review of the Activities of Stewarts and Lloyds Ltd., 1939 – 1945”, nd [1946]. “Our company is primarily engaged in the manufacture of iron and steel and all types of steel tube and pipe”. All of these were vital to the war effort and had to be continued. The company was involved in special war work (more of that later) but “Proud as the Company is of its special war effort, it must be said that the major contribution came from the Iron, Steel and Tube Works”.

At the time the company had 22 works around the country but in this area of its work Bilston must have been of leading importance. Some idea of what war time working conditions were like comes from this: “All industrial effort under war conditions is arduous, but particularly so in hot metal plants. Blackout reduces ventilation to a minimum and in hot weather imposes a heavy strain on the operators. There were several occasions when temperatures in some of the hot metal crane cabins exceeded 140 F.”. Most of the iron and steel production went into the making of tubes. This may be surprising until you consider the very wide range of uses to which tubes are put. The company’s book provides a list of such uses – many of which are based not on the use of tubes to carry liquids but on the strength of tubes (for their size and weight) and the structural uses to which they can therefore be put. The company picks out some of the more interesting of these uses for special description.

The boom defences mentioned in the list were “complicated barriers about 20 ft. high, built up of tubes and tubular fittings, which were anchored on the beaches and festooned with barbed wire and other more dangerous forms of obstruction”. The auxiliary fire fighting water mains were tubes laid along kerb sides in towns and cities in order to supplement and provide a back up system for the supply of water for fire fighting in towns subjected to the blitz. Basement supports were props made out of tubes, used to reinforce basements of buildings.

Tubular structures ranged from the small to the large. At one end of the scale were aeroplane service platforms. During the war it was quickly discovered that planes should be distributed around the sides of an airfield, not all gathered together in the centre or in hangers, where they were more prone to enemy attack. This meant taking the servicing facilities out to the planes, not bringing the planes to the servicing facilities. Tubular steel platforms on wheels were designed and constructed for this vital purpose. But at the other end of the scale hangars could be built out of tubes, covered with canvas and camouflaged. Tubes were also used for ships masts, derricks, davits, conveyors, service huts, gun mountings and a myriad other things.

Pluto: this famous feat of engineering and logistics, Pipe Line Under The Ocean, was a major special war project to which Stewarts and Lloyds made an important contribution. An oil pipe line grid was built during the war all round the UK. When the invasion of Normandy was being planned it was decided to extend this system under the Channel to supply the D Day forces – and then to extend it as the invasion rolled forward. This was PLUTO. For this purpose Stewarts and Lloyds produced 80 miles of steel tube of 3 inch outside diameter, of an inch thick. The steel for all of this was produced at Bilston. The company then devised a away of winding immense lengths of tube on to immense drums so that it could be unwound again from the back of ship and laid across the channel floor. The whole operation was n outstanding success and made a vital contribution to the invasion.

Shells and ammunition: much of the book we are referring to was taken up with a description of this aspect of Stewarts and Lloyds wartime work. “The story starts in 1936 when the Government, who were beginning to think in terms of re-armament, asked Stewarts and Lloyds if they could produce shell forgings. The Company had no experience eof this sort of work but the then Chairman, Sir Allan Macdiarmid, impressed by what he saw as the Nazi threat to Europe, instructed the Company to get to work on the problem. This they did, not only using their own technical expertise and research skills, but even spying on equivalent companies in Germany.

"Up to then British shell casings had been made by forging the shell and then machining the inside. The company’s idea was to produce a forging system that would do away with the need for inside machining. This they eventually did. The first plant they set up for the purpose was the New Crown Works at Wednesbury. They formed a subsidiary company called New Crown Forgings Ltd. – which they later regretted when this grew into a large and famous organisation which no one identified with Stewarts and Lloyds! It was at Wednesbury that the system was tested, developed and perfected. When war came the company became responsible for installing these shell forgings plants in many other parts of the UK and even in the USA, India and Australia.” “The company also did a great deal of work on developing and producing ammunition and shot. They were, throughout the war, the major producers of 6-pdr shot; developed tank and anti-tank shot; invented and produced steel cartridge cases when brass became in short supply; and produced many other things such as armour piercing shot of all types. All of this work was scattered, for security reasons, over many different works”.

“During peak demand periods we employed on ammunition production around 9,000 people, of whom 56.6 per cent were women. The work done by women deserves special mention. Most of them had never been inside a factory before, yet they stood up to long and arduous hours on night and day shift. It is not often realised that women on some operations were handling one and a quarter tons of shell per hour, and in many special cases this physical effort was exceeded only in shell manufacture, but also in our steel and tube plants. The work was accomplished under blackout conditions, often during ‘alerts’ and with all the irritations and afflictions which total war brings to the domestic circle.

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