b. 03/11/1913 Birmingham. d. 06/04/2005 Scone, NSW, Australia.
DATE AND PLACE OF GC ACTION: 22/02/1944 Kirkby, Liverpool.
Richard Arthur Samuel Bywater (1913-2005) was born in Birmingham on November 3rd 1913. He was the son of Walter Bernard and Amy Bywater (nee Mould). He was educated at King’s Norton Grammar School and Birmingham University. Shortly before sitting his Higher School Certificate exam, he said later, “I was comforted by my chemistry teacher’s remarks that I would never pass an external examination in Chemistry.” Yet he was awarded a First at Birmingham and was offered a post-graduate scholarship in the university’s research department.
In 1936 he gained his Master’s degree, and later that year was appointed chief chemist at Boxfoldia, a post he held until 1939, when he became a technical assistant at the Royal Filling Factory at the Woolwich Arsenal. After the outbreak of the Second World War, Bywater tried to join the RAF, but was refused entry on the ground that he was in a reserved occupation. He returned to Woolwich and was put in charge of the experimental department.
In the summer of 1940 he was appointed manager of the fuze section. There were periods of heavy enemy bombing, and he became very impressed with the cheerful stoicism of the local people. One morning, on the way to work, he was travelling down Plumstead High Street when he noticed a row of shops that had been badly damaged in the previous night’s raid. A small barber’s shop, completely boarded up, displayed a large sign: “We may have had a close shave but we can still give you a good haircut.”
In September, bombing forced the Royal Filling Factories to move to Kirby, where Bywater became factory development officer. The new factory, built for £8 million, had more than 2,000 workers who, operating in three shifts around the clock, turned out shell, mortar and 150,000 anti-tank fuzes each week.
On February 22nd 1944, in one of the buildings of the Royal Ordnance Factory at Kirby, in Lancashire, 19 operatives, most of them women, were at work on the last stage of filling anti-tank mine fuzes. Each operative was working on a tray of 25 fuzes, and in the building at the time there were some 12,000 stacked on portable tables, each holding 40 trays, or 1,000 fuzes.
At 8.30 am that morning, one fuze exploded, immediately detonating the whole tray. The girl working on that tray was killed outright and her body disintegrated; two girls standing behind her were partly shielded from the blast by her body, but both were seriously injured, one fatally. The factory was badly damaged: the roof was blown off, electric fittings were dangling precariously; and one of the walls was swaying in the breeze.
The superintendent arrived with Bywater, his factory development officer. It seemed quite likely that the damaged fuzes, and others which could be faulty, might cause an even larger explosion. The high wind at the time, or any vibration, could set off further detonations over an area of half a mile. Bywater cleared the building so that the maintenance crew could shore up the walls. He then volunteered to take on the dangerous task of removing all the fuzes to a place of safety where they could be dealt with.
Having selected some volunteers, he started at once. Bywater and his colleagues worked for three days moving the fuzes to a position close to the exit and then transporting them to a site about a mile away, where they were destroyed. By the end they had removed 12,724 fuzes from the factory.
Bywater gave instructions that he was to be given any fuzes that looked defective, and 23 were passed to him. On each occasion, he made his colleagues take cover while he removed the fuze and put it into a tray well away from the others. He then placed the tray on a rubber-tyred flat trolley and, with one colleague carrying a red flag 50 yards ahead, and another 50 yards behind, he slowly pushed the trolley to the destroying grounds. There he personally laid out the fuzes in specially prepared pits. He placed sandbags on each of the pits and connected the electrical detonator and gun cotton primer. Not until he was certain that the operation had been made as safe as possible did he delegate to his colleagues the task of destruction, which went on for seven days a week for a month.
One fuze, Bywater judged, was in such a sensitive condition that it was too dangerous to be carried to the destruction site. He knew of two instances in which men trying to handle such a fuze had been blown to pieces. But to destroy the fuze inside the factory would cause enormous damage. Selecting a location a short distance from the building, Bywater had an iron safe placed there with plenty of sandbags around it. Then, having sent all his colleagues out of the danger area, he carefully picked up the fuze, tip-toed across the grass and gently placed it in the safe. The sandbags were piled on, everyone withdrew out of range and the fuze was detonated.
In the investigation that followed, it was discovered that the original explosion at the factory had been accidental, caused by a defective striker. A faulty design in the stamping machine which marked the fuze heads with the lot numbers and dates of filling had damaged the striker stems. Bywater was invested with the George Cross by King George VI at Buckingham Palace on October 24th 1944.
A few months after the exploit for which he was awarded the GC, Bywater was involved in another explosion in the same factory. This occurred on a dark, rainy night during the filling of ammunition, and the initial blast was followed by others which put out all the lights. The only illumination at the site was provided by the numerous fires.
As soon as they heard the sound of the explosions, rescuers ran to the factory from all the nearby buildings, and those workers who had made their escape returned to bring out their injured friends. While the fires blazed and bombs exploded, the casualties were extricated. By daybreak, the fires had been extinguished, the salvage work was finished and a team was needed to clear the wrecked building. Bywater and three colleagues volunteered. The ammunition which had caused the accident consisted of anti-personnel, anti-disturbance and time-delay bombs which were scattered through and beneath the debris and were in danger of detonating without warning.
The movement of wreckage posed a constant hazard: ignorance or a moment of carelessness by any member of the team could imperil the lives of the others, but the clearance operations were completed without casualties. Bywater was among 11 people who were awarded the George Medal, receiving his decoration from King George VI at Buckingham Palace on November 6th 1945. He was the only civilian to earn both the GC and GM.
After the war, Bywater became works manager of RN Coate and Co, the cider makers, at Nailsea, near Bristol. Arthur Bywater married, in 1947, Patricia Ferneyhough; they had a son and a daughter. In 1954 he emigrated to Australia and took Australian citizenship. After helping to set up an ordnance factory in New South Wales, he joined the Reserve Bank of Australia in Melbourne as general manager of the note-printing branch.
Bywater retired from the bank in 1976 and acquired a farm on the Murray River. In 1980 he moved to Scone, New South Wales, where he and his second wife helped their daughter-in-law with her dressage business. In 1999 he wrote Some Reminiscences of a Non-combatant, an account of his wartime experiences. Arthur died on 6th April 2005 in Australia, aged 91. He was laid to rest in Scone Lawn Cemetery in New South Wales. His medals were sold at auction on 25th April 2018 and purchased by a private buyer.
LOCATION OF MEDAL: PRIVATELY HELD. (SOLD AT AUCTION 25/04/2018)
BURIAL PLACE: SCONE LAWN CEMETERY, NEW SOUTH WALES, AUSTRALIA.
SECTION B GRAVE 382.
Harry Willey – Image of the Bywater GC Grave Plaque in Scone Lawn Cemetery.