M/S Factory Dalbeattie - Cordite Loading Station
(NGR NX844625). :
Cordite production at the Factory was merely one part of the dangerous process of producing ammunition in the fight
against Nazi Germany and its allies. The cordite had to be moved safely from Dalbeattie to the ICI Nobel factory at Ardeer
for incorporation into ammunition. In the same way as freight and passenger transport was kept separate, the loading of
cordite into wagons called for special care. Vibration or shock could in certain circumstances trigger an explosion
that could have destroyed many lives and weeks of work. This is why there was a special loading station, as there was at
similar factories in Holton Heath in Dorset and at Caerwent in South Wales.
This aspect of the site was known to the farmer, Matthew Taylor, whose assistance throughout this project has been
Archaeological Evidence at the Cordite Loading Station :
The site has been cleared to ground level and is currently used to feed cattle. The handful of pieces of evidence are
as follows :-
- Flat concrete platform aligned North by Northeast, approximately 53 metres long and 22 metres wide, possibly a barn-like
steel framed structure covered in eith corrugated iron or corrugated asbestos sheeting. Some indication that about 3 metres
of the eastern side may have been a platform, possibly with a veranda above it. Probably the building where the cases of
cordite were inventoried and checked before loading onto the wagons.
- Single or double track goods siding, 13 metres wide, east of the large platform, with no other features yet found
except some fragments of railway ballast.
- Platform about a metre high, parallel to the other two features and about 5 metres wide. The length is 82 metres, the ends
overlapping the large platform by an equal length.
- Wartime air photographs show that the main building had two parallel pitched roofs with three loading bays at the
siding and along the 'roadside' face. It may therefore have been in three sections.
- The secondary building, barnlike in structure, had a wider single pitched roof.
- Building with heavy concrete roof and open end, 4 metres wide by 8 metres long protected by a right angled integral blast
wall on its south west side. On entering this
building, it was found that there was a subdivision about two metres wide, with a low square opening on the face towards the
trackside. Structure interpreted as one of three possibilities :-
- The protected motor room of a winch, with a shaft drive to an endless belt or similar device for moving the wagons.
- A single-storey points control (signalbox) unit associated with the points (railway switches) of the Cordite Loading
Station and the Unit 2 (Edingham) works sidings. This is uncertain, as there was once a building on the north side of the
railway cutting whose plan and location might have been equally suitable as a signal box.
- A blast-protected loose box with feed and tack room for from two to four Clydesdale or Shire horses, for use in the
shunting and loading operations. This is less far-fetched than it seems, in view of other information about the use of
horses here and at Carsegowan Powder works (M/S Carsegowan).
- Two small buildings surrounded by three-sided blast walls that may have been staff toilets or control positions.
- Gate-latches on concrete blocks, located either side of the single-track width towards the main line. The centre block
of the gates had been uprooted and was lying beside the more southerly latch.
- Two twenty or twenty-five person air raid shelters in the west and south sides of the excavated shelf on which this
facility was built. They indicate that as many as 40 - 50 people may have worked in the loading area when it was in use.
Main Line Explosives Rolling Stock and Horse Shunting :
According to Mike Smith's remarkable railway modelling website, the vans used for transporting explosives typically
consisted of a metal body with wooden doors and a wooden lining. In peacetime, no more than five of these 8-tonne 'Iron Mink'
vans could be used within a goods train, but in wartime as many as sixty vans might make up a train. The general rule was that
empty 'barrier' vans or wagons had to go before and behind the group of explosive vans, as some protection for railway
company staff on locomotives and brake vans. Each van would have had black-painted metal 'flags' with the
white letter 'P' (for powder, or gunpowder) fixed to the corners of the van. A warning plate beside the door required
loading and unloading to be done by staff wearing 'nailless overshoes' that could not strike a spark and the vans were not
to be kept in goods sheds. Van loading capacity uncertain, but probably from 6 to 8 tonnes. Peacetime explosives movement
could have been adopted, but it is suspected that dedicated ammunition trains were used, maybe with part-loads from
Powfoot, Drungans and Dalbeattie, for transport to Ardeer.
Goods Yard Horse Shunting :
Up to the 1950s (again according to Mike Smith) it was not unusual for working horses to be used to assist in shunting
operations in goods yards, working as either one animal or as a pair in tandem, one horse before the other. Bearing in mind
that a man with a steel 'pinch' bar could start a van rolling on the flat, a horse or pair could easily draw one or several
wagons or vans, empty or loaded. The main disadvantage was that horses could not push a van or back it up. For this reason
the horses could not easily be used in 'dead end' sidings, as they would have to be lead away when finished.
A further complication was that the horses used at explosives yards could not be shod, because of the danger of striking
sparks that could cause fires or explosions. This would have meant that the local blacksmith or farrier would have had to
unshoe the horses and then supervise gradual light working until the horn hardens and the horse is used to working unshod.
Regular farrier's inspection would be needed to look for and treat any splitting an cracking of the walls and soles of the
hooves, but this would only occur if the horse worked too hard on very flinty or gritty tracks. Whether railway ballast would
be a serious problem is not yet clear - possibly smaller ballast could have been used in the goods yards and the loading
Bearing in mind the availability of horses, it is guessed that these were used to draw the vans from the sidings near Unit
2 station and across the main line through the gates to the loading station. It is unclear whether loading took place one
van at a time, or whether up to five vans could be brought over empty, loaded, then removed individually or as a set back to
the sidings. It is suspected that the vans were pulled across empty as a group, but returned loaded one by one, as this would
give greater control and safety.
On reflection, the writer considers that the shunting engine could have been used to move groups of five vans at a time into
the head of the loading siding, the horses moving the vans into and out of the station. This technique would have been safer
for the horses, reducing the risk of hoof injury from railway ballast.
Interpretation of the Loading Process :
This assumes that cordite is treated with the same care as gunpowder and that most of the magazines (14) would be emptied by
one train, at the rate of from one to two explosives vans per magazine.
- Horses taken from loose box and harnessed to flatbed or van bogies on the narrow-gauge railway.
- Cases of cordite stored in the magazines to the south of the Cordite Loading Station loaded onto the bogies
and hauled to the loading station, the cases being unloaded and stored ready for loading into the explosive vans.
- Shunting engine moves five explosive vans across the main line from the explosives siding between Unit 2 station and
the Kirkgunzeon Lade viaduct into the head of the loading siding. The loading siding gates are then shut.
- One by one or as a group, empty explosive vans drawn by the horses into the loading station.
- Loading station platform doors closed whilst explosives vans are brought in, braked to a halt and the horses walked clear.
- Doors to vans and station platform opened, staff in overshoes load cases by hand.
- Doors to vans and station closed and horses brought to loaded explosives vans.
- Either singly or as a group, explosives vans taken by horses back to the gates of the loading
- Signal box called to check up and down lines clear and gates opened. Shunting engine removes loaded explosives vans to
explosives siding for assembly into a train.
- Assembled train either (a) taken by ordinary goods locomotive with other wagons in groups of five explosives vans to Ardeer or
(b) explosives train of twenty to thirty explosives vans taken by goods locomotive with mesh grid on chimney to avoid sparks.
Possible Unloading Function - the Guncotton Problem :
The presumed Guncotton Rooms at Unit 1 Freight Yard have been described elsewhere on this
website. One major problem is that the guncotton (nitrocellulose) would have had to pass beside various sources of fire
before reaching either storage areas or the Cordite Milling areas. Unloading guncotton at the isolated Loading Station would
have placed it near to the Magazines and to the small-gauge rail tracks leading under the Kirkgunzeon Lade viaduct and
so into the mysterious Short Single Chamber buildings area, some tentatively identified as Nitrocellulose storage.
The information to hand has allowed the writer to at the least guess the sequence of operations within the Cordite Loading
Station and the Magazine section of the M/S Factory Dalbeattie. Verifying this hypothesis will unfortunately require more
information which may be present at other sites such as Carsegowan. It remains unclear whether the mysterious building with
the L-shaped blast wall was, as is guessed, the on-duty stable for the horses.
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