Oral Answers to Questions — Explosion, R.a.F. Depot, Burton-on-Trent

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 30 November 1944.

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Photo of Mr John Gretton Mr John Gretton , Burton 12:00, 30 November 1944

(by Private Notice) asked the Secretary of State for Air if he can make a statement to the House concerning the disaster which occurred on Monday, 27th November, at an R.A.F. maintenance unit near Burton-on-Trent.

Photo of Sir Archibald Sinclair Sir Archibald Sinclair , Caithness and Sutherland

The accident took place shortly before noon on 27th November, at an ammunition depot near Burton-on-Trent, when an explosion occurred in part of an underground storage depot containing high explosive and incendiary bombs. The depot includes a number of tunnels running into a hillside from various directions; the section where the explosion occurred is widely separated from the remainder. This section is very seriously damaged but the main part of the depot and the administrative buildings received no significant damage and issues of bombs to meet operational requirements are proceeding. The total loss of bombs is less than 4,000 tons no more than has been dropped in a single raid on Germany.

I deeply regret that this disaster has been attended by severe loss of life and damage to private property. The latest information available indicates that 7 Air Ministry employees lost their lives in the explosion and that 20 more are missing and are presumed to have been killed. In addition, 10 have been injured and detained in hospital for treatment. I am informed by my right hon. Friend the Minister of Home Security that the casualties among other civilians living and working in the vicinity are as follow:

Missing, believed killed23
All possible assistance was immediately organised by the R.A.F. authorities in conjunction with the Regional Commissioner and British soldiers and airmen, American soldiers, contingents of the Civil Defence and National Fire Services and other helpers were untiring in their efforts to rescue the injured. Steps have been taken to relieve the immediate distress caused by the accident and to convey help and sympathy to the injured and the bereaved. Repair to damaged houses will be arranged as speedily as possible. A court of inquiry has been ordered to investigate the circumstances of the accident, but there is no reason to think that it was due to enemy action.

The House will wish me to express its deepest sympathy with the relatives of all who have lost their lives and with those who have suffered injury.

Photo of Mr John Gretton Mr John Gretton , Burton

While thanking my right hon. Friend for his reply, which I am sure will be much appreciated by those living in the vicinity of the disaster, may I ask him to give a definite assurance that those who have suffered loss will be treated, in every respect, as if the cause of the disaster was enemy action?

Photo of Sir Archibald Sinclair Sir Archibald Sinclair , Caithness and Sutherland

There is a technical difficulty in that matter. If the disaster was due to enemy action, the responsibility for compensation would not rest with me, but if the preliminary impression that it was not due to enemy action is correct, compensation to civilians for the loss of life and property will be the responsibility of my Department. In the meantime, officials have been sent down to give help, and payments, to those who have suffered, and who urgently require help.

Photo of Mr Reginald Manningham-Buller Mr Reginald Manningham-Buller , Daventry

May I ask my right hon. Friend to bear in mind the treatment which was extended towards those who suffered in the Bethnal Green disaster, even though that was not due to enemy action?

Photo of Sir Archibald Sinclair Sir Archibald Sinclair , Caithness and Sutherland

I cannot do more. I have sent officials down there with money in their pockets, and they will ensure that advance payment of compensation which is due is made promptly.

Photo of Viscount  Turnour Viscount Turnour , Horsham and Worthing

Subject, of course, to security, will a full report of the inquiry be published as soon as possible after it is received, together with a clear statement of the Government's policy as to how compensation is to be paid to these people?

Photo of Sir Archibald Sinclair Sir Archibald Sinclair , Caithness and Sutherland

I think the statement is quite clear. Action has been taken promptly to provide compensation to those who require it. As regards the publication of the report of the inquiry, I should prefer to wait until I see it.

Photo of Mr Irving Albery Mr Irving Albery , Gravesend

May I ask the Prime Minister whether this is in any sense a matter for a departmental reply as it is one which may concern any part of the population at any time? While appreciating that it may not be possible to give a detailed reply at the present moment, may we have some assurance that these people will be treated on the same level as any one who has suffered from enemy action?

Hon. Members:

Hear, hear.

Photo of Mr Winston Churchill Mr Winston Churchill , Epping

I thank the House very much for their courtesy and kindness.

In answer to the question of my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesend (Sir I. Albery), it would seem in accordance with broad justice that, through whatever channel relief is administered, the result should be practically the same to the victims. I am not able to say straight away whether that is the way in which our existing Regulations will work, but we will go into the matter, and if there is a discrepancy between them, it will be for the House to express its opinion on it.

Photo of Mr William Thorne Mr William Thorne , West Ham Plaistow

If the inquiry proves that workmen were responsible for the explosion, will not the Government be responsible?

Photo of Mr Winston Churchill Mr Winston Churchill , Epping

I do not know whether we should assume that anybody was responsible. These dangerous explosives sometimes have spontaneous action.