Nobel courage of local ladies

Old girls remember the war years

LAST year the majority of Britons sat and watched as Prime Minister Tony Blair ordered our troops into the deserts of Iraq to wage a bloody war against Saddam Hussein.

For most, the landmark event never interfered with everyday life – people continued to work, to shop, to meet up with their friends for nights out – the thought of joining the war effort never entered their minds.

Turn back the clock to 1939 and the beginning of World War Two. Things were very different. Everybody had to pitch in regardless.

One place the war effort was concentrated was in Redding at the Nobels munitions factory.

With most men away fighting, the dangerous job of putting together the munitions that would arm them in battle was left to hundreds of woman, aged 17 and above, who were drafted in to help.

Helen Meikel (87) and Helen Leitch (94), both residents at the Ivybank Nursing Home in Polmont, and Gladys Campbell (83), from Redding, all spent many years working at the factory.

Mrs Meikel, who worked alongside her sisters Euphemia and Lizzie, recalled: "Everyone was called up. You didn't have a choice where you were going to work or what you were going to do.

"Working at Nobels was easier than my previous job in the Fusehead Department, but more dangerous. We were always aware of the danger we were in working with the munitions, but we had to work. It was work, work, all the time during the war."

In 1940 her husband left the family home to fight. For the next six years she didn't see him and working in the factory helped ease the pain of separation.

She said: "It was like a home. People supported each other when they could."

Miss Leitch, originally from Polmont, started work at the factory after leaving school aged 14. Her father, and many of her siblings, also worked at the factory. She spent 55 years at Nobels, many of them as a charge hand in the fuse department.

She said: "We had to be on our toes all the time in those days because we had to work whether we liked it or not."

And Mrs Campbell also joined the workforce aged 14 because "the wages were good and I didn't have to pay for a bus fare!".

She said: "The shifts were the killer. During the war years you worked when there was an order. When it finished there might have been a lull and you were suspended, then brought in when another order arrived."

As the war effort grew the workforce expanded from a few hundred to around 1700, each working eight-hour shifts.

She said: ''We felt quite sorry for the folk working in the foundries as they had to work 12-hour days."

On March 14, 1941, Mrs Campbell volunteered to undertake fire watch duties.

As the clouds cleared and the moon shone down she witnessed hundreds of German planes as they made their way to Clydeside where they would drop thousands of tonnes of bombs. During those fateful nights 528 people were killed and over 600 injured. Of 12,000 homes in Clydebank, only a dozen remained unscathed and over 4000 homes were completely destroyed or damaged beyond repair.

She said: "When we saw them we knew where they were going, but we didn't make a fuss. We were a different generation who just go on with what we were told to do."

And that involved living with the possibility of being scarred for life.

She said: "We had to be careful. One of the girls working on another shift didn't manage to take her hand right out of the machine she lost a finger in the explosion, which was quite common.

"We didn't get a chance to walk about the factory because of the munitions and we weren't allowed to talk as everybody had to concentrate on what they were doing.

''You couldn't get distracted as people were counting thousands of fuse heads and handling explosives."

Mrs Campbell worked in many of the different departments at Nobels because of her experience and expertise, including making grenades and bullets for Hawker planes.

She said: "During the war years there were all these girls who had never worked in a factory, and certainly not in a munitions factory.

''A lot of them were frightened and they sent people who had been in the factory for years to help them.

"I cannot see youngsters these days doing what we did. It was all we had ever seen or heard of.

"Most of the jobs were called up and, once the war was over, many went back to the jobs they had been doing. I went away for a while, came back, but then had to leave when I got married.

"But working in Nobels was definitely an experience that none of us will ever forget."