The Sunderland man’s deadly invention which took hope to our heroes in World War One

A factory worker inspecting Mills hand grenades during the First World War - before sending them off to the battlefields of Europe.
A factory worker inspecting Mills hand grenades during the First World War - before sending them off to the battlefields of Europe.
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THE first of 70million hand grenades designed by a Wearside man was thrown 100 years ago this month on the battlefields of the First World War - bringing a little hope to the Allies.

Scores of Sunderland soldiers lost their lives in May 1915 - mainly at the Second Battle of Ypres - but the invention of the Mills bomb provided a safer way of attacking enemy forces.

Southwick man Sir William Mills - inventor of the Mills bomb.

Southwick man Sir William Mills - inventor of the Mills bomb.

“They were the first modern fragmentation grenades adopted by the British army, and of a classic design - just like a grooved, cast iron pineapple,” said local historian Bill Hawkins.

“A competent thrower could hurl the bomb around 50ft with reasonable accuracy but, when it exploded, the lethal fragments could be thrown across an area much further than that.

“It has been estimated that 70 million Mills bombs were lobbed by the Allies in WWI, compared to 35million other types - which stands as a testament to the popularity of Mills.”

William Mills, the man behind the lethal weapon, was born to shipbuilder David Mills and his wife Sarah Ann Kirkaldy on April 26, 1856, in Wear Street, Southwick.

David had an interest in the Mills shipbuilding firm, which was run by his brothers George and John, but by 1871 he had become a joiner - moving his family to 22 Camden Street.

“Young William signed up as a butcher after leaving school, but switched careers and began a seven-year apprenticeship with George Clarke, the famous marine engineers,” said Bill.

“Once he had finished his studies, the Suddick lad went to sea for seven years with the merchant navy - obtaining a First Class Certificate as a marine engineer in 1884.

“It was during this time at sea that he witnessed lifeboat problems causing great loss of life. This prompted him to start inventing a safer way to engage, and disengage, lifeboats.”

William’s ideas proved so revolutionary that they were exhibited at the Liverpool Exhibition in 1886, where he was awarded a Gold Medal by Mercantile Marine Service’s Association.

And, after learning of his designs, the Board of Trade approved production of his invention - which came into worldwide use in naval and merchant ships.

“William went into business as an engineer after leaving the sea, when he launched the first aluminium foundry in the UK at the Atlas Works, Monkwearmouth, in 1885,” said Bill.

“He was a keen golfer, having joined Wearside Golf Club in around 1892, and it was at the Atlas Work that he produced some of the first aluminium golf clubs in Britain.”

William’s Metallic Golfing Instrument Heads - as his clubs were known - sparked great interest and, in addition to his Wearside firm, he also set up a car parts firm in Birmingham.

Just a few years later, in early 1915, he chose Birmingham to set up the Mills Munitions Factory - manufacturing the new, safer, No. 5 hand grenade, known as the Mills Bomb.

“Up until that time, grenades often proved as deadly to the thrower as to the intended target. Indeed, one of the earliest had a stick which often caught on the thrower’s trench,” said Bill.

“William’s new bomb had a central spring-loaded firing-pin and spring-loaded lever, locked by a pin. A four-second time fuse allowed the thrower to take cover before it exploded - far, far away!”

Millions of William’s grenades were used throughout the war from 1915 by the British and other allies and, for his ideas and conflict supply services, he received a knighthood in 1922.

But, although Sir William produced near four million of the 76million Mills bombs supplied for the war effort between 1915 and 1918, his invention did not make him a rich man.

“He was awarded £27,750 from the Royal Commission for his efforts, but failed to gain tax exemption and later declared he had actually lost money in producing the bomb,” said Bill.

“William died in 1932, but production of his grenades continued throughout World War Two and beyond.”