HC Deb 25 July 1950 vol 478 cc41-4W
94. Mr. Manningham-Buller

asked the Secretary of State for War whether he is now in a position to make a statement with regard to the destruction by fire of a large number of rifles at the ordnance depot at Weedon.

Mr. Strachey

The fire at 99, Ordnance Sub-Depot, Weedon, occurred during the night of 13th–14th March, 1950, and as a result two-thirds of storehouse No. 20 was destroyed, together with small arms and stores, to an estimated value of £1¼ million. Storehouse No. 20 was a shed built about 1915, 400 ft. long by 40 ft. wide, and divided by a wooden partition into two rooms, one of which was used as a store room and the other as a workshop. The walls were constructed of corrugated iron on timber framing.

War Department constables and firemen patrolled the outside of the storehouse during the night, and about 0310 hours one of them saw smoke and a flickering light coming from under the roof of storehouse No. 20. He immediately raised the alarm at the depot fire station and then telephoned the main gate to have the general fire alarm sounded and the civil fire brigade informed. The first depot fire appliance was turned out by the duty firemen immediately, and was followed at 0327 hours by a second appliance. The head fireman carried out a reconnaissance and found that flames had broken through the roof of the storehouse towards the workshop end. The county fire brigade arrived at 0352 hours and the divisional fire officer took charge of the fire ground. Civil fire appliances continued to be sent by county fire control, and at 0445 hours the Chief Fire Officer, Northamptonshire, arrived and assumed control of the fire ground. At 0557 hours the fire was finally brought under control.

Subsequent examination of the ruins has produced no evidence of spontaneous combustion or of sabotage, or of a defect in the central heating arrangements. It is thought that the fire was started by a cigarette end which had been dropped under a bench and had started the smouldering of some cotton waste of which traces were found. The fire then appears to have spread by smouldering along the oil-impregnated floorboards until sufficient heat was generated to melt the oil on rifles in barrows, when a flare-up would have occurred probably some distance from the seat of the fire.

The depot fire orders were clearly displayed in the storehouse and made it plain that smoking was not allowed in the building. The storemen, armourer artificers and labourers stated in evidence that they knew that smoking was prohibited there, and the unit fire officer had carried out weekly inspections and had not found any evidence of smoking in storehouses. The fire orders also covered the removal from the storehouse at night of all cotton waste and of drums of preservative which were used for small arms and bayonets.

I am satisfied that the fire orders in force in the depot and the action taken after discovery of the fire were satisfactory. I am also glad to report that the chief county fire officer later commented on the efficient co-operation that was afforded to the civil fire brigade by the military personnel who, he stated, gave every assistance and worked magnificently. The fire fighting equipment and the water supply available were satisfactory.

There are, however, a number of unsatisfactory features. Firstly, there is no doubt that cotton waste, remains of which were found at the seat of the fire, was left lying about in contravention of the fire orders. Secondly, the routine inspection of the hut after closing hours, which was for the purpose of checking its security and seeing that all fire precautions had been carried out, was not performed in a thorough manner. It is apparent from the evidence that the fireman responsible for checking the fire precautions did not thoroughly inspect all parts of the building, and his inspection of the workshop was apparently limited to looking through the door. Had he carried out his inspection thoroughly, if the cause of the fire was as now believed, he would have seen the cotton waste under the work bench, which by this time would have been slowly smouldering. Thirdly, it is clear that, contrary to the Depot fire orders, drums of inflammable preservative had been left near the dipping troughs in that part of the shed which was destroyed. The fireman who made the routine inspection saw these drums, failed to find out what they contained, and made no report.

Action is being taken in connection with these points. In addition, I am not yet fully satisfied about certain other points regarding the construction, stacking arrangements and layout of the shed which was destroyed, and about the arrangements by which personnel in the depot were allowed to carry smoking materials and to smoke in certain places. I have accordingly called for a further report.