During the Second World War, large quantities of munitions were produced and had to be stored prior to use. In order to prevent the ammunition storage areas being destroyed by bombing, ammunition dispersal sites in areas away from centres of population were established. For this reason, some stretches of road in South West Perthshire were commandeered. Thus, Strathard and other areas such as Doune, became vast explosives dumps when Nissen huts were erected along nearly every road. Estate avenues, with their fine tree cover, were very popular.
The American Experience: One of the major risks was that of an explosion of the stored explosives and this is the main focus of this article. A paper published by the American Meteorological Society in May 1946 described the impact of an explosion in September 1944 at a Naval Ammunition Depot in Hastings, Nebraska. It described as follows: ‘ These hot, rapidly expanding gases often produce high pressures of several hundred thousand pounds per square inch and have an initial velocity of as much as 25,000 feet a second. It creates an “artificial hurricane” which breaks and shatters many objects in its path, until it dies down, usually some distance from the explosion. While the ” hurricane” does not travel a great distance, flying fragments frequently reach several miles from the site of the explosion’.
The RAF Fauld Explosion: On 27 November 1946 there was a military accident at the RAF Fauld underground munitions storage depot in Staffordshire, England. It was one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in history and the largest on UK soil. The exact death toll remains uncertain but it is believed that about 70 people died in the explosion and resulting flood.
While there were several theories as to the cause of the explosion, in 1974 the cause of the explosion was probably a site worker removing a detonator using a brass chisel, rather than a wooden batten, resulting in sparks. An eyewitness testified that he had seen a worker using brass chisels, in direct contravention of the regulations in force.
Meanwhile here in Scotland, in June 1946 it was stated that it would be at least three more years before the vast quantities of ammunition and explosives still stored in various parts of the countryside had been safely disposed of. Brigadier Lonsdale who was the deputy director of Warlike Stores appealed to holidaymakers to be on their guard when picnicking in the neighbourhood of ammunition dumps, all of which clearly marked by warning signs. The main thing to avoid was fire and of course fires were easily started by a cigarette end. At that point about 1500 miles of country roads still had on their verges or in adjacent fields and forests about 800,000 tons of ammunition and explosives. It was reported in The Scotsman on 4 June 1946 that Brigadier Lonsdale gave a list of danger zones two of which were in Scotland and specifically in Aberfoyle and Drymen.
This area of south west Perthshire met many of the requirements of the military because:
- It was sufficiently remote from the centres of population and industrial production which were at higher risk of bombing.
- It was close to the Clyde ports, where munitions were imported and naval vessels supplied.
- It was accessible by rail with good east-west links….at Aberfoyle munitions were loaded and unloaded at the railway station where there were sidings for the import of coal and the export of slate.
- The remoteness of the area meant that security could easily be maintained, with little chance of strangers going un-noticed or unchallenged.
- Local slate quarries meant that there was expertise in handling explosives.
The specific areas that were used were Lochard Road beyond Milton heading toward Kinlochard, the Duchray Road, The Duke’s Pass and the Gartmore Road.
The bulk of the ammunition were shells stored in open ended huts which were situated at about 20 yards apart on all available dry and level stances adjacent to the roads. The more dangerous ammunition was stored on sites between Kinlochard and Inversnaid.
There was a guard post manned by the Home Guard on the main road by the Bailie Nicol Jarvie Hotel and another by the oak tree in Kinlochard. Passes were issued to locals and these had to be shown to the Duty Home Guardsman, who if satisfied would then raise the barrier. An Army NAFFI was erected near the Episcopal Church and manned by members of the WVS on a rota basis. The village hummed with activity with weekly dances and cinema shows.
Between 1939 and 1941, an armed launch patrolled Loch Ard with a crew of an officer and 2 ratings. It was armed with a Lewis gun. The object was to reduce the fear of the Germans landing seaplanes. There were two such boats on the Lake of Menteith. The launches were withdrawn in 1941.
During World War II, Rednock and Cardross estates were commandeered and used as part of the second largest ammunition dump in Britain. The military commandeered two rooms in the Lake of Menteith hotel, which were turned into offices. The Ministry of Defence closed the road between the Port of Menteith and Arnprior and only persons with permits were allowed through.
Perhaps not surprisingly heath fires were a source of anxiety especially after the war when all of the ammunition had not been cleared.
The Doune Explosion:
Doune was another area where there was significant storage with fatal consequences. There were 187 huts between Doune and Dunblane. An explosion took place on the night of Saturday 6 April 1946 when at least 4 Nissen huts full of high explosives blew up on the road between Inverardoch Mains and Greystone Farm leaving two large craters where the road had been. This area is known as Hill of Row.
A local farm servant, Robert McLaren of Wester Row in the Inverardoch Estate and his son Hamish were walking in the area at the time at about 9.00 pm. They were returning from a football match in Edinburgh and were nearby when the explosions happened. Robert suffered fatal injuries and Hamish lost an arm. Hamish managed to alert the wider community and seek help with the assistance of a motorist who came across him amidst a tangle of broken telegraph poles and other debris.
There was speculation that an off-duty soldier had been in the vicinity with a woman and that a discarded cigarette might have been the cause of the explosion. Hamish McLaren spoke of having heard a soldier shout to a girl ‘ Run for your life’ and later on a discarded soldier’s glove was found. The Stirling Observer ( 9 April 1946) reported that it was known that hikers had been caught using the shelters and on occasions were found to be cooking on a primus stove. The huts contained at least 4 tons of gelignite each and the military maintained that the explosion was probably caused by trespassers. On occasion poachers were found to be using gelignite, (a foot in length) to dynamite salmon.
As a consequence of the explosion there were 6 craters which were 25 feet deep and at least 30 feet wide. One tree was uprooted and crashed to earth some 50 yards away and it was falling limbs from the tree which caused the fatal injuries to Mr. McLaren. The explosion was heard in Edinburgh and Ayrshire as well as in Glasgow and Perth. There was some damage to ceilings in Doune and Stirling but even more damage on Dunblane and Stirling. Cinemas were evacuated in Stirling although there was some reluctance on the part of attendees to leave the premises. Mr. G. Smith from Dunipace described his experience as he was walking in the vicinity of Murray Place in Stirling. He said that the whole sky was lit up from west to east by what seemed like a huge flash of lightening. A couple of seconds later there was a tremendous thump as if a ‘ ten-ton bomb had been dropped on the town’.
Shortly afterwards a military court of inquiry was established and met on the Monday following the incident. In view of the fact that a question was to be put in the House of Commons regarding the explosion, no public statement was issued in case it might prejudice the ministerial answer. Also, on the same day, the finance committee of Perth County Council decided to send a telegram to the Secretary of State for War, The Secretary of State for Scotland and Mr. W.M.Snadden, Unionist MP for Kinross and West Perthshire. The telegram expressed grave concern about the possibility of further explosions and asked the Government to ‘ arrange the immediate removal to a place of safety of all ammunition stored in the county as being a potential source of danger to life and property.’ The response from Captain Frederick Ballenger was one of sympathy but he pointed out that at least 70% of the ammunition was considered to be safe. He also pointed out that the resources of the army were being reduced and that he hoped that the government would be able to deal with the situation by 1949.
The Aberfoyle Explosion:
Despite the previous reassurances from the Secretary of State for War, Aberfoyle was to the focal point of yet another fatal incident. On 16 October 1947, 8-year-old Allan Rae Culbard had been playing with some friends near the curling pond at the Inchrie Hotel when some ammunition he picked up exploded. Alan was described as a very quiet and likeable boy. His friend Ian McFadzean suffered serious injuries and was admitted to Killearn Hospital. Peter Dick, the 6-year-old son of an Army Captain who was residing locally escaped unhurt. The accident was discovered when Ian had visited a doctor and told him that he had hurt himself by falling from a tree. However, an x-ray at Killearn Hospital found that the injuries were caused by shrapnel and then a search party went out and found Allan’s body lying in a burn. Parts of hand-grenades and noses of shells were found near the spot. In addition, two long, brown ,oblong-shaped cylinders were picked up.
Allan’s funeral was largely attended by his many friends and neighbours. Unfortunately, Allan’s father was in hospital at the time recovering from surgery.
On the following Monday a mass meeting was held in the Church Hall and it was agreed unanimously to sign a petition to be forwarded to Parliament through the local MP Mr. W. McNair Snadden urging the government to remove all ammunition in and around the district as soon as possible. The petition was signed by some 500 local residents. The issue was raised in the House of Commons on Tuesday 28 October when the response from the government was that the dumps were being removed as quickly as possible. Some 66,000 tons of ammunition was stored in the county of Perth with an average rate of removal of 2,250 tons per month. The Secretary of State for Scotland also reinforced that serious effort would be put into limiting public access to the areas of greatest risk. The local County Councillor Major Cameron raised his concerns at the Perth and Kinross County Council Meeting in October and December 1947. Similar sentiments were expressed by the Fatal Accident Enquiry Jury held on 2December 1947 in Perth. Despite this the War Office reply was as follows: ‘ Your council’s concern at the continual storage of ammunition in Perthshire is appreciated but there is little hope of its removal for some considerable time’.
After the war one of the Aberfoyle’s stationmaster’s work was to supervise the loading of wagons loaded with surplus ammunition. The army did all the loading and the ammunition was sent off, it is assumed to be dumped at sea. Disposal of ammunition at sea was seen as an acceptable method of disposal. Beaufort’s Dyke, an underwater trench 50 kilometres long, 5 kilometres wide and about 250 metres deep, which runs within 10 kilometres of the Scottish coast. Between 1945 and 1976, the MoD dropped about 1 million tons of munitions into and around the trench, making it by far the largest known British military dump.
Recent Developments: Project Cleansweep was set up in 2007 to provide assurance that residual contamination caused as a result of the manufacture, storage, handling or disposal of chemical warfare agents (principally mustard agent) on sites in the United Kingdom does not pose a risk to human health or the environment. It was known that clearance would have been carried out on sites in the UK associated with chemical warfare agents when they were closed (often many decades ago) but there was no scientific evidence that all harmful traces of the agents were removed or disposed of. Project Cleansweep initially carried out a desk study of a large number of sites across the UK where there was evidence of some prior connection to chemical warfare agents. This list was eventually reduced to 14 sites (mainly in private ownership) which merited investigation to quantify the risks and any necessary management measures required. One of these was US Army chemical weapons store No.25 Aberfoyle,
Smoke generators were disposed of by burning at a location near Torrie Forest, approximately 3km south of Callander.
Until harvesting activities undertaken by Forestry and Land Scotland cleared the area there were the ruins of huts near Kinlochard.
In 2019 there was yet another reminder of the dangers that are perhaps never too far away. A primary school pupil came across an explosive device in a burn a short distance from Dounan’s Outdoor Centre near Aberfoyle. Police attended the scene and specialist engineers from the Explosive Ordnance Disposal Unit removed the item to a safe distance and carried out a controlled explosion.
Reflections: The role that Aberfoyle No. 25 played during World War 2 is not to be underestimated and as indicated above even in current times there are reminders.