Hush-hush factory that helped to win the war

Teamwork: The factory at Tubney Wood

Teamwork: The factory at Tubney Wood

First published in News Oxford Mail: Photograph of the Author by , Reporter covering Didcot and Wallingford. Call me on 01865 425425

IN THE early 1990s, amateur historian Nigel Dawe visited a friend who was moving into a new workshop at Tubney Wood near Abingdon. It was a simple trip that would take him on a journey into the past.

It took him a while to find the entrance to the site, but once he had got his bearings he was intrigued to see a strange-looking structure on the roof of one of the buildings.

Oxford Mail:

  • A cartoon on the factory wall 

It turned out to be a fire-watcher’s shelter – used to watch out for bombing raids by the Germans – left over from the Second World War and sparked Mr Dawe’s interest in the site’s crucial, but unsung role, in the war effort.

The former car rental company boss, 67, said: “I had been interested in military history for years.

“I was fascinated by details and home front history but when I found out about the factory in Tubney Wood and wanted to know more.”

Oxford Mail:

  • The strange fire-watcher’s shelter which sparked Mr Dawe’s initial interest

A version of his book came out in 1992 and has now been republished by Longworth and District History Society. The updated edition has additional information from people who came forward with new information in the intervening years.

Mr Dawe, who lives in Abingdon, said: “When I saw the fire-watcher’s shelter on the roof of what turned out to be No 2 shop, I knew I had to find out more.

“So many people were ill-informed about what had happened there – they said aircraft were made there – but it was gun barrels for the 40mm anti-aircraft Bofors Gun.”

Tubney was chosen because of its remote location and the dense pinewood would shelter the factory away from any prying enemy eyes, following an air raid on a factory at Coventry.

Mr Dawe said: “One of the places where barrels were made was in Coventry but the factory received four direct hits and a 15-acre site was chosen near Oxford, in Tubney Wood. The Bofors Gun was a superb gun – and it is still used today.”

On D-Day, and soon after, hundreds of Bofors Guns were landed in Normandy, from the landing craft that arrived on the beaches, and many more came two at a time in gliders. The guns were also used on US Navy ships in the Pacific to help combat the Japanese kamikaze aircraft attacks.

In 1937, Oxford car manufacturer Lord Nuffield, as an honorary colonel in the Royal Artillery, learnt that Britain was ill-prepared for aerial attack. He arranged for his deputy to go to Sweden and negotiate an agreement with the Bofors armaments firm.

When the gun was demonstrated to the War Office, the authorities were also impressed and placed an order for five a week to be made.

Mr Dawe said: “The land in the wood was owned by Magdalen College but Lord Nuffield arranged for the factory to be built.

“Most of the workers were women, working shifts night and day and cycling to the factory from Witney and all over.

“It was a tremendous part of Oxfordshire’s war effort and perhaps it has been a little bit overlooked, which is why I wrote the book.”

Thousands of the barrels were made at the factory, which was run by Lord Nuffield.

He added: “I’m delighted that it has now been published by the Longworth and District History Society, and the new edition contains information from people who came forward after the first edition came out.

“The factory was supposed to be secret and that is why it was known as the Hush-Hush Factory.

“I think the buildings were worth saving but unfortunately they were demolished.”

Lifelong friendships and a happy marriage

ONE of the people who got in touch with Mr Dawe following the first edition was Andrew Mansell, who came forward with details about Iris Duckworth, nee Day, his late mother-in-law.

Oxford Mail:

  • Some of the women who worked at the factory and below, Alan and Iris Duckworth on their wedding day 

Oxford Mail:

Mr Mansell found Mrs Duckworth’s notebook from her time working in the Bofors gun barrel factory in Tubney Wood during the Second World War.

She made many lifelong friends working at Tubney before she transferred to work in the MG factory at Abingdon. During the war she also met her husband Alan Duckworth, from Chorley, Lancashire, while he was serving in the RAF, stationed at Abingdon.

Mrs Duckworth told how her husband would cycle with her to the Tubney Wood factory whenever he could.

Oxford Mail:

  • Lilian Coleman, known as Kitty to her friends, is pictured working her lathe at Tubney.
    The couple later married and had their only child, Julie, in 1952.

They later moved back to Mr Duckworth’s home town, where Iris lived until her death in 2010. Mr Duckworth died in 1996.

Following an accident involving the lathe she became manageress of the canteen.

Her son and one daughter live in Oxford while another daughter lives in Devon.

Site became hi-tech industry hub

FOLLOWING the war, the buildings were used by the Ministry of Supply to store surgical items.

The site was then used by Pressed Steel until it was vacated in the 1960s.

Oxfam then used the location as a storage base.

Oxford Mail:

Mr Dawe wrote to the Department of Environment in 1987 asking them to list the site because of its historic past.

But English Heritage did not deem the factory to be of architectural or historical interest, and a decision was taken to demolish the buildings.

New Age travellers occupied the site before a demolition company moved in in March 1992 and started the demolition process almost 51 years since the Hush-Hush Factory started production of the Bofors Gun barrels.

The site is now occupied by engineering firm Oxford Instruments, where staff have received a copy of Mr Dawe’s book.

Chief executive officer Jonathan Flint, pictured above, said: “At Oxford Instruments we are privileged to have a particularly picturesque environment for our worldwide corporate head office here in Tubney Wood.

“I was intrigued to learn through Nigel Dawe’s book that the site has a very long history of being associated with advanced engineering. I am proud that Oxford Instruments is continuing that heritage, providing the tools and new technologies that will protect our future.”

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