Retro: Corby’s vital role in Second World War effort

Corby steelworks

Corby steelworks

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Stewarts & Lloyds’ Corby plant played a vital role during the Second World War when its steelworkers were employed on the secret Pluto project.

Standing for Pipe Lines Under the Ocean, the project was started by personnel working in Britain’s top secret Combined Operations Unit whose aim was to disrupt and disable enemy operations by any means possible.

Pluto pipeline map

Pluto pipeline map

The unit began looking at how to supply fuel to the Allied Forces during an invasion to take back occupied Europe almost as soon as the war had started.

Pluto was their solution for getting that fuel across the English Channel to keep vehicles used to secure victory in Europe moving.

Stewarts & Lloyds was one of Britain’s biggest steel companies at the time and inevitably became involved in the war effort.

The company was commissioned to help design and produce a pipe suitable to be laid across the English Channel from Britain to France.

When bombs fell on Corby

When bombs fell on Corby

The design was called the Hamel, taken from the names of the pipeline’s designers, Mr Hammick and Mr Ellis. The steelworkers at Corby engaged in the production of the pipeline knew it only as project 99.

An exhibition at Corby Heritage Centre, which is to run until August 31, details the part that Corby steelworks played in the war effort.

It includes an account by George Ralston who worked on the Pluto project.

He said: “My brother Robert and I started work in the seamless tube mill on the 11th January 1943.

When bombs fell on Corby image

When bombs fell on Corby image

“The mill was a very high building made of corrugated iron; the windows were all painted black to prevent light shining through at night time, in case of German air raids. Robert and I were transferred to the Ring Bed. It was a terrible job, very noisy, hot and greasy, we were called Ring Bed boys and it was a very important job, we soaked the tube in oil preventing it sticking and causing long costly delays.

“It wasn’t until some time after the war we learned that we had worked on the top secret Pluto pipes. All we knew was that it was project 99.”

And while the steelworkers toiled, bombs fell on Corby homes. An incident recorded in the Evening Telegraph on May 10, 1941, carried the headline Woman Blown Out Of Bed but the location of the strike, Corby,wasn’t reported due to a security clampdown.

Stephenson Way was the target of a German bomber trying to escape a British fighter plane by dropping bombs to lighten its load.

Queen mum visits Corby

Queen mum visits Corby

Luckily for the residents no one was seriously hurt, apart from resident Mrs McConnell who was blown out of bed.

An unlikely hero of the day was Rex, a small terrier who belonged to a Mr and Mrs Kinloch. The pet bravely leapt on their five-year-old son’s bed protecting the boy with his body. In true Corby spirit, the repair of the houses began almost immediately with repair squads arriving to fix new tiles on the roofs.

During the war, the threat of bombing was always present at Corby’s steelworks. A direct hit on the blast furnaces would disrupt steel supplies for the war effort, effecting shell production, the Pluto project, beach defences and raw steel used in many other industries.

Management set up a series of independent command centres in the works which would allow steel-making to continue in the event of an enemy strike. One of the main air raid protection centres, which is still intact, housed a radio room, control room and telephone exchange designed to keep the steelworks going and to recover quickly from bomb damage.

To find out more about wartime Corby visit the heritage centre in High Street.