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CORSHAM in the Forties

By Fred Em.


Under the wartime re-direction of labour, my father worked at Corsham for Sir Alfred McApine as an engineer in one of the diesel maintenance sheds. In 1943 I found myself at around sixteen years old working as a fitters mate to the chargehand in another diesel shed on the same site. It was my first real job and I was fully immersed in it.

My father and I had 'digs' in the village of Peasedown near Bath and our daily journeys to and from the site were by a war department 'utility' bus with slatted wooden seats, which were very uncomfortable on bumpy roads. There were usually several other men on board when it picked us up on its way to Corsham, but if we were lucky and the bus broke down we would be transported to the site in a very old but very comfortable charabanc.

To describe what I saw or did not see I could start with the equipment I worked on. This was all heavy civil engineering machinery, excavators of different types, bulldozers, cranes and compressors but we also spent some time on breakdowns of two foot gauge diesel locomotives on, under and around the site.

On underground breakdowns the usual procedure was for us to be lowered in a tub or something similar down one of the shafts which were probably somewhere between seventy-five and a hundred foot deep. I never did check as I was a bit frightened and always closed my eyes on the way down. To me they were just big holes in the ground thirty or forty feet across.

At the bottom small tunnels lead off in several directions and were eight or nine feet in diameter with the two-foot rails on the flattened bottom. A pointsman with a brazier to keep him warm was on duty directing traffic in and out of the various tunnels. I can not remember seeing any shoring, just yellow clay or stone, not that I had much time look. After we climbed into an open truck behind the loco with the Irish navvy driver sitting side on and half a dozen material trucks behind us, we tore through the tunnels the tunnels at breakneck speed. These men were on bonus and it showed by the way the throttle stops were always battered and bent at the max. revs. end. They only had one speed—flat out.

The tunnels did not appear to run straight for any distance but maybe it was the speed we were travelling at that made it seem that way. We were thrown from side to side and back and forth for what seemed hours and I felt the wheels leave the track on curves several times. In reality though it was usually only five or ten minutes with the occasional longer trip.

There were small airshafts every so often but the noise and diesel fumes were horrendous and we were very relieved when we finally arrived safely at our destination.

On those longer trips we would suddenly see bright lights ahead. The driver would slow down as we passed through what looked like a station on the underground or metro with a single or double track running down the center flush with the concrete floor.

The areas were probably as long as the normal underground platforms and everything was painted white. I saw no signs or notices anywhere. Both sides looked like rows of offices; the top halves being windows.

There were a few people walking about but many working behind the windows. All wore white coats.

We never stopped in any of these areas so I could never assess what was going on but I did see one odd thing down there; it was a man riding a bike.

The breakdowns were mainly on three types of diesel loco, Simplex, Hunslet and Rushton with the occasional Ingersol Rand compressor. Most repairs were successfully carried out on the spot but in one instance we had to tow the loco back to a shaft in order to carry out a more extensive repair. That is all I really saw on my underground excursions.

At lunch break one day I managed to have a conversation with an engineer who had accompanied us on one of these journeys and suggested that we must have been well on our way to London. “Oh no” he said

“But if we gone on for a few more hours we would have joined up with the GPO network under London”. I thought that could be feasible from what I had seen but I also thought he could be pulling my leg and left it at that.

I did not have a chance to speak to him again as work was top priority, discipline was strict and talking was discouraged. Conversations were mainly about the jobs we had to do and lunch breaks were spent reading newspapers to keep up with the war news.

Something ‘fishy’ happened one afternoon when a dark blue box van arrived in our area. Shortly after its appearance I was told to stop working and put two engineers toolboxes into the van and to get in myself.

A few minutes later the charge hand and the other engineer also climbed aboard. A voice said “No smoking”; the doors were closed and to my dismay, locked.

As we moved off I felt a bit claustrophobic; there were no windows. The only light was from a bulkhead fitting and a piece of dirty celluloid in the roof but at least there was some sort of ventilation, I could feel a draft.

We sat there in silence for some time then the engineer asked the charge hand where we were going. “On a breakdown” was the reply. “I know that but where?” “I don’t know,” said the charge hand, “Probably the same place as last time” “Where was that?” “I don’t know, they never tell me” This sort of conversation went on and on and got really argumentative while I was trying to listen to what was going on outside and hazard a guess as to where we were heading. We had left the site in a northerly direction that I knew but from then on we seemed to be travelling on rough roads that weaved about all over the place.

We slowed a couple of times when other vehicles passed in the other direction but I can not remember doing any right or left hand turns.

About fifteen minutes after leaving the site we stopped. We could hear the driver or his mate talking to someone but we could not hear what was being said. We started moving again and after three or four minutes we stopped again with the same procedure. The third time we stopped the doors were opened and we got out to find ourselves at the dead end of a country lane; the only thing in front of us was a stile. Beyond that we could see the buffers of a two-foot gauge railway line, which ran on into some shrubs or bushes in the distance. On the left hand side of the track a short distance away was a small hut and parked a few yards down the line was a diesel loco, a bit bigger than the types I had worked on.

A man in a white coat came out of the hut and approached us as our driver motioned us to go over the stile. We took the toolboxes and climbed over but the man indicated we were to stay where we were. He looked us up and down for a few moments and went back into the hut. When he reappeared he was carrying some white coats and what looked like bootees. He gave each of us a white coat and bootees and told us to put them on; my coat was far too big for me but the bootees were a good fit over my boots.

We walked across to the loco and checked it over only to find the reason it would not start was a common one; fuel starvation. That did not take long to sort out and we were soon back at the stile taking off our coats and bootees. They were only filthy on the inside due to our dirty boots and overalls as the engine had been remarkably clean. The charge hand exchanged signatures and notes with the man from the hut and we climbed back into the van.

On the way back the conversation (the longest I had ever joined in with any of the engineers) was on guessing where we had been, why the white coats and bootees and why all the secrecy.

The charge hand said the site name on his notes was just some letters and a number, that meant nothing to him, but to me, as a sixteen-year-old, the air of mystery was most exciting and something I could never forget. 

When I first started at Corsham I was told no-one under the age of eighteen was allowed to work underground on a permanent basis then after several months I was given a directive which said no-one under the age of eighteen could work more than forty hours a week.

I had been putting in a full six sometimes seven days a week and that meant from thereon I had to finish sometime on a Friday afternoon depending on the hours I had accumulated on the previous four days but as I was dependent on the site buses leaving at five-thirty or six on Fridays I had time on my hands. I spent it wandering around the site dodging the foremen and managers until my bus was due to leave. They were easy to spot. The foremen wore navy blue donkey jackets and flat caps; the managers wore similar outfits but with bowler hats.

There is some thing else I would mention, as I will refer back to it when I give details of a short unintentional visit to the site some three years later.

A small mobile crane had to be collected from another part of the site and brought back to our area and the charge hand and I set off walking to the ‘main road’ hoping to get a lift. We were in luck and got a ride on a dumper that dropped us off just near one of the shafts. This crane had wheels, not the usual tracks and had been lifting damaged or redundant railway line sets (just like gigantic model railway lines) out of the shaft and piling them up on the other side of the road. The two at the top were sticking out a bit precariously I thought but lying between the crane and the road were two sets of lines.

I asked the ‘boss’ if I could move them so that we could get the crane to the road. By now he had realized I had an uncanny knack of getting into anything and driving it and he said yes.

I lifted the tracks one at a time and placed them very gently at the back of the others, drove up to the road and the ‘boss’ took over.

My Friday afternoons wandering about proved quite interesting and a couple of things stuck in my mind. The first thing I noticed in the distance was a hillock with green double doors and railway lines disappearing underneath them, then another kind of hillock, open at the side, where locos were pulling up trucks of clay or rock directly from the tunnels below but none of this was as engaging as lunch times when the better weather arrived.

After grabbing my sandwich box I would go behind the diesel shed to a large car park full of American lorries that seemed to have been abandoned. I never saw any one driving them nor did I see any Americans there. My purpose was to climb onto the roof of a lorry or perhaps up the jib of a redundant crane and watch for the B17 Flying Fortresses returning from their early morning daylight raids.

When they came there were dozens and dozens of them flying so low you see the pilots and gunners quite clearly but nearly every aircraft was damaged in some way. There were big holes everywhere and only half a dozen had all four engines running. I never understood how those badly damaged aircraft had survived the journey home and having since flown aircraft myself I have nothing but admiration for those young pilots who managed to keep them in the air.

Gradually the work in the diesel sheds began to tail off and my father told me I would soon be going home. Before I finally left Corsham I noticed lots of rails were being brought to the surface and a number of what I assumed were access shafts and tunnels were being filled in. My father returned home about six months later.

In 1946 I was called up to do my two years national service. After about nine months of square-bashing and trade training, as part of the final course I was taken by coach, with about thirty others, to see how our part of the job was done in real time. We had been told the code name of the place but not where it was. I was sitting on the right hand side of the coach a couple of seats behind the driver reading a manual and it took around an hour of travelling through the countryside in a westerly direction before the coach began to slow down.

I looked out of the window to see something I had seen before. I have to admit I was a bit startled and disbelieving but there it was, sticking up against the skyline, that pile of two foot railway lines just as I had left them with the top two still balanced at an alarming angle. We pulled off the road opposite the lines and I realized when we had disembarked I was actually standing where the shaft had been but all that was there was a low building.

We were ushered inside and began to descend a spiral staircase going around several floors before entering the floor where we were shown how that part of our job was done for real, and if I remember rightly we also visited another floor.

I must point out that as I have signed the official secrets act I cannot say what we were doing there, as I am well aware of the consequences even though it was over fifty years ago. I don’t think the act has a time limit and the place may still be in use but what I can say is that it had nothing to do with UFOs, aliens, germ warfare or anything of that nature. It was just an ordinary military installation probably put down there as bombproof (in the old sense of the word).


The work carried out at Corsham in the 1940s by Sir Alfred McAlpine was for B.S.A. (British Small Arms) and possibly I think B.A.C. but it could be another firm with similar initials.

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