The Tin Plate War of '38

 The Tin Plate War of '38 - A Very Local British Civil War in County Durham

by Durham Wargames Group

Following the Shell Scandal of WW1 the new Minister of War, Lloyd George embarked upon an accelerated building project in order to construct 17 National Projectile Factories. With so many working men at the Front it was decided, at some of the sites, to make use of the profusion of wiry labour including skilled ex-servicemen that Belgian refugees could provide. By the end of the 1914 Britain had taken in over a million such refugees. An autonomous Belgian factory and colony at Birtley was in full operation by early 1916. As with other sensitive governmental installations its identity has always been disguised on Ordnance Survey maps, the collection of industrial looking buildings innocuously labelled as Tin Plate Works. The new town of Elisabethville, created to house the some 3700 workers and their families was likewise never recorded. By the end of the war they had produced over 2,750,000 shells.

In 1919, although most of the refugees returned home to their shattered country, a sizeable proportion decided to remain in Britain and particularly at Birtley. The government poured money into the site and adapted the factory to include other ordnance manufacture. Elisabethville was modernised and this naturally conservative and fiercely pro-monarchy enclave was regarded as a bulwark against the rising tide of socialism and power of the local Trade Unions. By 1938 the inevitable integration and intermarriage had produced a new generation of Birtley Belgians whose little town and its environs was one of the most prosperous areas in the North East.

Having already lost the Small Arms Factory at Fazakerley to the Liverpool Free State who were also threatening to seize the nearby Chorley HE filling facility and terrified of Scottish intervention Mosley’s government decided to take steps to safeguard the Birtley factory and the rail link to the south. They strengthened the garrisons at York, Darlington and especially at Durham where there were known to be strong Anglian League sympathies. They also imposed BUF “co-ordinators” in the factory to help ensure loyalty and to root out troublemakers. Needless to say this did not go down well with the workforce.

Despite the grumblings all seemed well but the seeds of calamity had been sown in late 1937. In November the king had urged Mosley to intervene in the Belgian separatist crisis* in aide of his boyhood friend Prince Karel against the young king Leopold III. Troops had been posted in Zeebrugge and Ostend “to guarantee free traffic” but it was an open secret that they were actively supporting the far right REX party and its affiliate Vlaams Nationaal Verbondwere movement.

Around Christmas 1937 news leaked out that Moseley’s government had surreptitiously invited Nazi volunteers, the Vulture Legion, to Tyneside to prop up the ailing BUF militia.Government forces on Tyneside were being hard pressed by Communists from the Northumberland coalfields particularly from Chopwell and Ashington whose influence was now stretching from north of the Tyne down the coast to Easington and the port of Seaham and even across to the Durham collieries in the west. The veterans in Birtley had not forgotten the Schrecklichkeit that Germany had instigated on their countrymen in 1914.
At 7.30 AM on 11th of January 1938 the workers at Birtley refused to begin loading 300 4½-inch artillery shells onto a government contracted train citing the incorrect completion of Form K28b. The only goods the train took south were the bruised and crestfallen co-ordinators. By the time the news reached the desk of the Minister of Munitions in Whitehall it was already too late.

*The Belgian Expedition by Rudi Geudens in The Fall of The Empire VBCW sourcebook.
For a history of the Birtley Belgians see Of Arms and the Heroes by John G Bygate ISBN 1-870268-44-X

Characters of note in The Tin Plate War.

Lord Percy Bysshe Farthingdale owns large estates in and around Durham and Chester-le-Street and is on first name terms with the Prime Minister, his father, “Spanker” Mosely, having been his fag at Winchester. He lists his pastimes in Debrett’s as “breeding and showing pigs, shooting things & squandering the family fortune.” Indeed he would have long ago sunk into penury were it not for the redoubtable Lady Penelope who runs the household and estates with a rod of iron.

Dr Peachy Tolliver Quilp. Aged tutor at Durham University and renowned pamphleteer Quilp fought with Kitchener in the Sudan. Luckily the fight was broken up before too much blood was spilt and Quilp was sent home in disgrace. A friend and confidant of The Bishop of Durham aka The Fighting Bishop aka Bishop Dave, Quilp is credited with the invention of an early type of magnesium flash grenade of remarkable intensity known as the Durham Lumiere.  

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