RAF Fauld – Britain’s Largest Explosion

The RAF Fauld explosion on November 27, 1944, remains one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in history, and the largest man-made explosion on British soil ever. During the war it was only beaten by the the atomic weapons tested and used by the US.

Occurring at an underground munitions facility in Staffordshire, England, it was triggered by an accidental detonation of approximately 4,000 tons of high-explosive bombs. The blast resulted in significant casualties, obliterated the underground tunnels, and created the Hanbury Crater. The hillside above the tunnels disappeared, and entire farms were evaporated.

This tragic event prompted a re-evaluation of munitions storage procedures and stands as a somber reminder of the unintended consequences of warfare.


The Munitions Storage at RAF Fauld

Located near Tutbury in Staffordshire, RAF Fauld wasn’t always a storage facility for munitions. Its origin was as a gypsum mine, delving deep into the earth to extract valuable minerals for construction and other industries.

This extensive underground network of tunnels and chambers, which had been shaped and carved over the years, provided an almost ready-made infrastructure that was ideal for for storage wartime essentials: explosives.

As the Second World War intensified and Britain faced increasing threats from the air, there was a growing need to identify storage facilities that could withstand aerial bombardment, protect valuable assets, and reduce the risk of unintentional detonation.

RAF Fauld bombs in the gypsum mines.
Bombs stored in the tunnels below RAF Fauld.

An underground location, by its very nature, offered multiple advantages.

It was less visible to enemy reconnaissance and bombing raids, ensuring that the munitions stored within would remain concealed and protected. Furthermore, the inherent insulation properties of the earth would help to keep the explosives at a stable temperature, reducing the risk of accidents due to thermal fluctuations.

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By the time 1944 rolled around, ordnance filled 180,000 sq ft of tunnels, with estimates suggesting that around 3,500-4,000 tonnes of high-explosives were housed within the subterranean chambers.

In addition, the base was believed to have also contained up to 500 million rounds of small arms ammunition.

A light railway at RAF Fauld, transporting bombs.
A light railway transporting 250 lb bombs out of the tunnels at RAF Fauld, prior to the explosion.

This massive cache of explosives was not only a testament to the scale of Britain’s wartime operations but also underscored the immense trust placed in the Fauld facility to keep these munitions safe.

Given the pivotal role that RAF Fauld had come to play in the larger war effort, the subsequent tragedy was all the more heartrending.

The RAF Fauld Explosion

The 27th of November 1944 started like any other day at RAF Fauld. Workers and military personnel went about their tasks amidst the expansive network of tunnels, surrounded by walls stacked high with munitions.

As the morning progressed, no one could have anticipated the catastrophic event that was about to unfold. At precisely 11:11 am, the day was shattered as a massive explosion erupted from the depths of the facility.

The sheer force of this explosion was unparalleled in British history, rivaled only by nuclear weapons. The detonation released an enormous amount of energy, immediately obliterating the tunnels and causing a catastrophic collapse.

RAF Fauld Hanbury Crater.
RAF Fauld bomb crater. The buildings in the lower-left corner of the image show the immense scale of the blast.

The force of the blast was so immense that it formed a crater 300 meters wide and 30 meters deep (now known as the Hanbury Crater). An entire farm was evaporated, and trees in the vicinity were flattened as if they were mere twigs. The hills above the tunnels simply disappeared.

A thick cloud of dust and debris rose miles into the sky. For those who witnessed the explosion from a distance, the sight was eerily reminiscent of a nuclear detonation, as a gargantuan mushroom cloud billowed upwards, dominating the skyline.

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The repercussions of the explosion weren’t just confined to the immediate vicinity of RAF Fauld. The shockwaves were felt up to 120 miles away, rattling buildings and alarming residents who were unaware of the catastrophe’s source. Seismologists in Switzerland detected the blast’s energy travelling through the Earth.

Hanbury Crater from the air in 1944.
An aerial view of the crater in 1944.

In addition to the shockwaves, a nearby reservoir’s wall was compromised by the explosion’s force, leading to water breaking through and flooding the areas downstream.

Buildings that stood close to the epicenter, like those in the nearby village of Hanbury, bore the brunt of the explosion. Many structures were either completely decimated or severely damaged, their foundations shaken by the explosive force.

For the workers and military personnel at RAF Fauld, and for the residents of Hanbury and surrounding areas, this day would forever be etched into their memories. The serenity of an ordinary wartime morning had been catastrophically disrupted, replaced by scenes of unimaginable devastation and loss.

Immediate Aftermath

In the moments following the cataclysmic explosion at RAF Fauld, a pall of dust, smoke, and confusion enveloped the area. Those who were fortunate enough to have survived the initial blast found themselves amidst a moonscape of craters, smoke, fire and water.

Where once there had been familiar landmarks and structures, there now lay a vast expanse of debris, broken machinery, and devastated buildings.

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Rescue operations were initiated with an urgency that mirrored the scale of the disaster. Local emergency responders were quickly overwhelmed, prompting calls for assistance from neighboring towns and even cities.

Fauld Tunnel Entrance destroyed.
This tunnel entrance shows the sheer chaos covering the site.

As news of the explosion spread, help began to pour in. Firefighters, medics, military personnel, and volunteers all converged on the site, each determined to rescue any potential survivors and provide aid to those injured.

The subsequent hours and days would be marked by tales of heroism, as brave souls ventured into unstable and dangerous areas, often risking their own lives in the process.

However, with the scale of destruction being so vast, accurately determining the number of casualties became a daunting task. It wasn’t just about accounting for the military personnel and workers at RAF Fauld; the nearby village of Hanbury had also borne the brunt of the explosion, leading to civilian casualties.


The initial figures were harrowing and would continue to fluctuate as rescue operations persisted.

Parallel to the immediate rescue and relief efforts, an official inquiry was launched to ascertain the cause of the explosion.

The exact cause has never been conclusively identified, but the inquiry suspected that the origin was a worker using a brass chisel to remove a detonator from a bomb instead of a wooden tool.

This seemingly minor mistake would have set off a chain reaction, with the initial detonation acting as a catalyst for the ignition of the vast quantities of explosives stored within the facility.

Buildings near RAF Fauld damaged by the blast.
Nearby buildings damaged in the explosion.

This oversight was not unlikely, as the site was understaffed, under pressure, and had many inexperienced workers, almost 200 of which were poorly-trained Italian POWs.

The tragedy at RAF Fauld was not just a consequence of a singular error but also indicative of systemic lapses that had allowed such an error to have catastrophic consequences.

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The findings from the investigation would play a crucial role in shaping future policies, ensuring that lessons were learned from this somber chapter in British history.

The Hanbury Crater Today

The immediate devastation caused by the RAF Fauld explosion had far reaching consequences, with the landscape forever altered and lives tragically cut short. In total, it is thought that 70 people were killed by the disaster, with many of the bodies never being recovered.

One of the most direct implications of the explosion was a rigorous reevaluation of munitions storage and handling procedures across the UK and, by extension, other nations aware of the incident.

The realization that a single error could result in such monumental devastation necessitated a shift in how explosives were managed.

The tunnels at Fauld today.
The underground tunnels at RAF Fauld today. Many collapsed in from the blast, and are not publicly accessible today. Image by Noel Jenkins CC BY-SA 2.0.

Centralizing large amounts of ordnance, even underground, now appeared as a risky endeavor.

This led to increased diversification of storage sites and the development of more stringent safety protocols. Military personnel and workers were provided with enhanced training, ensuring they were acutely aware of the risks associated with their tasks and the importance of adhering to safety guidelines.

But despite the blast, the site remained in partial use until the mid-1970s.

Beyond policy changes, the RAF Fauld explosion left an indelible mark on the local landscape. The Hanbury Crater still remains today, partially reclaimed and hidden by nature.

Hanbury Crater today.
The crater at RAF Fauld today. It still remains an huge scar on the landscape. Image by Humphrey Bolton CC BY-SA 2.0

It cannot be entered by the public, nor can some of the area surrounding it as there is still a great risk of unexploded ordnance littering the site.

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Reportedly, the site still houses a large cache of buried explosives that are still live. Only time will tell whether these will be left, removed, or a problem.