Royal Ordnance Factory

Last updated

Royal Ordnance Factories (ROFs) was the collective name of the UK government's munitions factories during and after the Second World War. Until privatisation, in 1987, they were the responsibility of the Ministry of Supply, and later the Ministry of Defence.



Prior to the 1930s, Britain's ordnance manufacturing capability had been concentrated within the Royal Arsenal, Woolwich. In the late nineteenth century, the term 'Royal Ordnance Factories' began to be used collectively of the manufacturing departments of the Arsenal (principally the Royal Laboratory, Royal Gun Factory and Royal Carriage Works) which, though they shared the same site, operated independently of one another. This use of the term is seen in the name of the Royal Ordnance Factories Football Club (founded 1893) and it continued through the First World War. The emerging threat of aerial bombing, however, prompted the government to consider dispersing its ordnance factories around the country.


The majority of the ROFs were built during the re-armament period, just before the start of the Second World War, to enhance the capacity of the three ordnance sites that had continued in operation after the end of the First World War: the Royal Arsenal, Woolwich, the Royal Gunpowder Factory (RGPF) Waltham Abbey, Essex and the Royal Small Arms Factory, (RSAF) Enfield. These three sites were in or near London and were considered to be vulnerable to aerial bombing from continental Europe.

The Royal Arsenal designed many of the ROFs and was also the agent for the construction of all of the Rifles ROFs, the Medium Machine ROF and the Small Arms Ammunition ROFs. The Ministry of Supply, the Ministry of Works, and two other private companies were agents for the construction of the remaining ROFs. [1]

Other Second World War explosive factories

A number of Second World War munitions factories were built, and owned, by Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI). These ICI Nobel Explosives owned factories were not considered part of the Ministry of Supply's Royal Ordnance Factory organization, and they were not called ROFs. ICI also managed munitions factories constructed with Ministry of Supply funding. These were known as "agency factories" and three of them became part of Royal Ordnance upon the ROFs' privatisation.

Agency factories

Some of the ROF Filling Factories built later, during the Second World War, were government-owned, but managed, as Agency Factories, by private companies unconnected with the explosives industry. For example, Joseph Lyons & Co ran ROF Elstow throughout the war. [2] Other Filling Factories were run by Imperial Tobacco, Courtaulds, the Co-operative Wholesale Society (CWS), Metal Closures and Lever Brothers.

Siting of the ROFs

The new ROFs were to be built in areas regarded as "relatively safe". Until 1940, this meant from Bristol, in the south, and then west of a line that ran from (roughly) Weston-super-Mare, in Somerset, northwards to Haltwhistle, Northumberland; and then northwestwards to Linlithgow, in Scotland. The South, South East and East of England were regarded as "dangerous" and the Midlands area, including Birmingham as "unsafe". This definition of "safe" area was later changed, and in 1940 ignored in the case of ROF Chorley. [3]

Siting of the individual ROFs north and west of this line was of vital importance. ROFs involved with explosive manufacture or filling needed, on safety grounds, to be located away from centres of population. However, they needed access to good transport links, such as railways; the availability of adequate workers within reasonable travelling distance; a plentiful guaranteed supply of clean process water; and (to avoid the danger of frozen explosives) tended to be located at or just above sea level. Some ROFs located in Wales and Scotland were the result of political lobbying as these areas had high unemployment rates in the 1930s. The ROFs were guarded by what was to become the Ministry of Defence Police.

Responsibilities and functions

The Royal Ordnance Factories were set up with six generic types of factories:

The three main types were: Engineering, Filling and Explosives.

The largest ROFs tended to be the Explosive ROFs and the Filling Factories as these needed an explosives safeguarding zone around the perimeter of the factory; as well as separation, or reduced separation and traverses, between buildings. ROF Bishopton occupied over 2,000 acres (8.1 km2) and ROF Chorley was 900 acres (3.6 km2).

Management of the ROFs

Each ROF tended to be self-contained, apart from its raw materials: with their own coal-fired power stations, for generating steam for heating and process use, and electricity via high-pressure steam turbines if needed; engineering workshops; plumbers and chemical plumbers; leather workers; electricians; buildings and works departments; housing and hostels for workers; canteens; laundries and medical centres.

The UK's ROFs were set up and operated as production factories. The design of explosives, propellants and munitions was carried out at separate government-owned research and development establishments such as the Research Department, which was initially based at the Royal Arsenal, Woolwich and then Fort Halstead, in Sevenoaks, Kent; and at PERME Waltham Abbey, Essex, which later moved to become RARDE Fort Halstead.

Post-war history

Closures of temporary ROFs

A number of the ROFs were designated temporary, for use during the war's duration only. They closed shortly after the end of the Second World War. Other ROFs were designated permanent and they remained open into more recent times. In 1957, a Defence White paper led to a reorganisation of the aircraft industry, a restructuring of the British Army and a concentration on missile systems. A number of the permanent ROFs closed in the late 1950s, after the end of the Korean War, and others closed in the 1970s. The largest of these, based at the Royal Arsenal in Woolwich, formally closed on 31 March 1967. [4]

The temporary ROFs, or ROFs which closed in the 1950s and 1970s, tended to be taken over by other government departments. Some closed ROFs and Admiralty explosive sites, such as the Royal Navy Propellant Factory, Caerwent, were retained by the Ministry of Defence as ammunition storage areas; others became government industrial estates or trading estates; others were used as brownfield sites to build prisons or open prisons.

Part of ROF Thorp Arch became the Boston Spa depository of the British Library. Three of the seven hostels that served ROF Swynnerton became a training school for General Post Office (GPO) Telephones, which later became British Telecom, and is now the Yarnfield Park Training and Conference Centre and run by Accenture. ROF Elstow was taken over by the CEGB and became a storage depot. The site has been cleared; and, as of 2008, is in the process of becoming the new town of Wixams.

Trading fund

In July 1974, the Royal Ordnance Factories were set up as a trading fund, under the Government Trading Funds Act 1973. [5]

Privatisation of the remaining ROFs

As part of its privatisation process in the 1980s, the UK Government transferred some of the, formerly separate, research and development capability of the Defence Research Establishments into the ROFs. Other parts of the UK's defence research and design capability were later closed down; remained with the UK Ministry of Defence, as Dstl; or became part of QinetiQ.

On 2 January 1985 the majority of the Royal Ordnance Factories were vested in the UK government-owned company Royal Ordnance plc; it was bought by British Aerospace in 1987. [6] The Ministry of Defence Police left most of the ROFs on or within a few years of privatisation.

The small number of ROFs involved in nuclear weapons production, ROF Burghfield and ROF Cardiff, were removed from ROF management and did not pass over to Royal Ordnance upon privatisation. They were transferred to the control of AWRE; which later became the Atomic Weapons Establishment.

See also

Related Research Articles

Cordite family of smokeless propellants

Cordite is a family of smokeless propellants developed and produced in the United Kingdom since 1889 to replace gunpowder as a military propellant. Like gunpowder, cordite is classified as a low explosive because of its slow burning rates and consequently low brisance. These produce a subsonic deflagration wave rather than the supersonic detonation wave produced by brisants, or high explosives. The hot gases produced by burning gunpowder or cordite generate sufficient pressure to propel a bullet or shell to its target, but not so quickly as to routinely destroy the barrel of the gun.

ROF Bridgwater

Royal Ordnance Factory (ROF) Bridgwater was a factory between the villages of Puriton and Woolavington in the Sedgemoor district of Somerset, UK that produced high explosives for munitions. It was slightly above sea level, between the 5 and 10 metre contour lines on Ordnance Survey maps. BAE Systems closed it when decommissioning was completed in July 2008.

Royal Arsenal former arsenal in Woolwich in south-east London, England

The Royal Arsenal, Woolwich carried out armaments manufacture, ammunition proofing, and explosives research for the British armed forces at a site on the south bank of the River Thames in Woolwich in south-east London, England, United Kingdom. It was originally known as the Woolwich Warren, having begun on land previously used as a domestic warren in the grounds of a Tudor house, Tower Place. Much of the initial history of the site is linked with that of the Board of Ordnance, which purchased the Warren in the late 17th century in order to expand an earlier base at Gun Wharf in Woolwich Dockyard. Over the next two centuries, as operations grew and innovations were pursued, the site expanded massively; at the time of the First World War the Arsenal covered 1,285 acres (520 ha) and employed close to 80,000 people. Thereafter its operations were scaled down; it finally closed as a factory in 1967 and the Ministry of Defence moved out in 1994. Today the area, so long a secret enclave, is open to the public and is being redeveloped for housing and community use.

ROF Glascoed was initially a UK government-owned, Royal Ordnance Factory (ROF). It was designed as one of 20 munitions filling factories. It was planned as a Permanent ROF with the intention that, unlike some other similar facilities, it would remain open for production after the end of World War II. After privatisation of the Royal Ordnance Factories in the 1980s it became part of Royal Ordnance plc and later a production unit of BAE Systems. It was served by the Great Western Railway's Coleford, Monmouth, Usk and Pontypool Railway from its opening in April 1940 until 1993.

ROF Bridgend,, located in Bridgend, South Wales, was one of the largest of sixteen World War II, UK government-owned, Royal Ordnance Factory munitions Filling Factories. Of great significance to the Britain's war effort, at its peak of production it employed around 40,000 people — said to be the largest ever factory in Britain's history.

An Explosive ROF was a UK Government-owned Royal Ordnance Factory (ROF), which specialised in manufacturing explosives during and after World War II. Note: In World War I, the name used in the UK for Government-owned explosives factories was National Explosives Factory; and the Cordite factory at Gretna was known as HM Factory, Gretna.

ROF Thorp Arch was one of sixteen Second World War, UK government-owned Royal Ordnance Factory, which produced munitions by "filling" them. It was a medium-sized filling factory.

A Filling Factory was a manufacturing plant that specialised in filling various munitions, such as bombs, shells, cartridges, pyrotechnics, and screening smokes. In the United Kingdom, during both world wars of the 20th century, the majority of the employees were women.

Royal Ordnance Factory (ROF) Elstow was one of sixteen UK Ministry of Supply, World War II, Filling Factories. It was a medium-sized filling factory,, which filled and packed munitions. It was located south of the town of Bedford, between the villages of Elstow and Wilstead in Bedfordshire. It was bounded on the northeast by the A6 and on the west by a railway line. Hostels were built nearby to accommodate the workers who were mostly female.

ROF Bishopton

The Royal Ordnance Factory was a WW2 Ministry of Supply Explosive Factory. It is sited adjacent to the village of Bishopton in Renfrewshire, Scotland. The factory was built to manufacture the propellant cordite for the British Army and the Royal Air Force. It also later produced cordite for the Royal Navy. The Ministry of Works were responsible for the site. It was the biggest munitions factory the MOD had, with up to 20,000 workers.

A World War I explosive factory, which was to be later known as NEF Pembrey was built, by Nobel's Explosives, with British Government approval, near the village of Pembrey, Carmarthenshire, Wales. The factory was built on a site consisting of mainly sandhills and sand dunes to provide some protection against damage caused by an explosion. Its main product was TNT (Trinitrotoluene) used for shell filling. The same site was used in World War II to build another explosive factory ROF Pembrey, which also made TNT.

ROF Chorley was a UK government-owned munitions filling Royal Ordnance Factory. It was planned as a permanent Royal Ordnance Factory with the intention that it, unlike some other similar facilities, would remain open for production after the end of World War II; and, together with ROF Bridgend, would replace the Royal Filling Factory located at the Royal Arsenal, Woolwich. It was built adjacent to the village of Euxton, but was known as ROF Chorley.

The Royal Ordnance Factory, ROF Patricroft, was an engineering factory was classified as a Medium Machine Shop. It was located in Patricroft, near the town of Eccles, in the City of Salford, Greater Manchester, England, adjacent to both the Liverpool and Manchester Railway and the Bridgewater Canal.

ROF Kirkby, was a large World War II Royal Ordnance Factory filling munitions. The factory was based in the rural area of Kirkby, on the outskirts of Liverpool, Merseyside. The rural location was to reduce the potential damage from any accidental explosions. Munitions were produced from September 1940 to March 1946.

ROF Risley, was a large World War II Royal Ordnance Factory filling munitions, including the Grand Slam bomb, in the UK. It is located roughly halfway between Liverpool and Manchester.

Royal Ordnance plc was formed on 2 January 1985 as a public corporation, owning the majority of what until then were the remaining United Kingdom government-owned Royal Ordnance Factories which manufactured explosives, ammunition, small arms including the Lee–Enfield rifle, guns and military vehicles such as tanks. It owned some 16 factories; and employed about 19,000 staff.

Royal Ordnance Factory Leeds, first opened as a munitions factory in December 1915 and opened as an ROF in January 1936, was one of a number of Royal Ordnance Factories created at the start of the Second World War.

ROF Rotherwas was a Royal Ordnance Factory filling factory, No 4, located in Lower Bullingham, Herefordshire, England.

National Filling Factory, Banbury, officially called National Filling Factory No.9. was a British Ministry of Munitions filling factory, constructed during World War I and located in Banbury, Oxfordshire. The production of filled shells began in April 1916 and ended when the factory closed in 1924



  1. Kohan (1952).
  2. Bates (n/d).
  3. Hornby (1958) Chapter IX.
  4. Saint, A., Guillery, P. (2012). Survey of London, Volume 48: Woolwich. Yale Books, London. ISBN   978-0-300-18722-9. p. 184.
  5. Nevell, Roberts and Smith (1999), Chapter 5: "From Royal Ordnance Factory to Plc, 1957–1984".
  6. Vickers, John and Yarrow, George (1993). Privatization: An Economic Analysis. Cambridge Massachusetts and London, England: Massachusetts Institute of Technology. ISBN   0-262-22033-4, page 173.