The courageous bomb disposers of Britain played a deadly chess game with the German engineers.
One of the characters in We Never Stood Alone ends up working with a bomb disposal unit in London. Led by the likes of Stuart Archer and Charles Howard, the people who defused German bombs had a unique brand of courage that allowed them to play a deadly game of technological chess with the German bomb engineers.
Not every bomb that fell from a German plane exploded. Some were duds, some were ‘this close’ to going off, and as the war went on, more and more were time delayed. It soon became clear to the British that these unexploded bombs posed a massive danger. According to Wikipedia:
the British realized that they were going to need professionals in numbers to deal with the coming problem. 25 sections were authorized for the Royal Engineers in May 1940, another 109 in June, and 220 by August. Organization was needed, and as the Blitz began, 25 “Bomb Disposal Companies” were created between August 1940 and January 1941. Each company had ten sections, each section having a bomb disposal officer and 14 other ranks to assist.
But personnel along could not solve the problem. Knowledge and technique were also crucially important. At the beginning of the war the Germans used a type of bomb fuse that could be relatively easily defused by re-depressing the arming plungers. The Germans soon realized their error and changed the design to require careful removal of the fuse, which could go off at any time in response to movement.
Then the Germans began to use time delayed bombs. These increased fear, delayed needed repairs and tied up valuable resources isolating the bombs until they exploded. If a bomb fell in a critical spot, where it trapped survivors or endangered crucial locations, it would have to be defused. Pioneers like Stuart Archer and Charles Howard got into the business of not only defusing the bombs but recovering the fuses. These would be studied in order to devise safe defusing techniques.
Stuart Archer was an ordinary Bomb Disposal officer, but his curiosity and courage made him a hero. He was able to identify new fuses and took great risks to recover them intact for examination. As he describes one such event:
We got a call to go to the oil refinery north of Swansea. There were four unexploded bombs in a line, a couple of hundred yards from each other. I looked at them and decided that the one to tackle was beside a big oil tanker. There were flames 50 yards away to our left and we began to dig, two men digging at any one time. While we were doing this, one of the other four bombs went off — on a delayed-action fuse. Then another one went off and then the third all while we were still digging. When I got down to see the face of the fuse, it had been tom off on impact so I couldn’t see what the fuse.
I did the most unusual thing — I unscrewed the base plate at the back of the bomb and exposed the inside of the casing. I found that the explosive was a powdered explosive. I reached down with a trowel and dug out the whole of the powdered explosive from the back of the bomb until there was no explosive at the back. It took about half an hour and it exposed the fuse pocket running from side to side. I grabbed hold of this and with brute force and bloody ignorance, I managed to get the whole of the fuse pocket out of the back of the bomb complete with its clockwork fuse and all the booster charges.
Archer won a George Cross for this and other exploits. He lived to be a hundred.
A second notable figure in Bomb Disposal was Charles ‘Jack’ Howard (20th Earl of Suffolk). After a daring escape from France in June 1940, during which he rescued 130 scientists along with diamonds, machine tools and France’s entire supply of ‘heavy water,’ Howard went to workfor the Ministry of Supply as a Research Officer learning how to defuse bombs of new and unknown types. The Earl served as part of an unexploded bomb detachment in London during the Blitz. The detachment consisted of himself, his secretary Eileen Morden, and his chauffeur, Fred Hards. As Wikipedia says:
He looked on each bomb as a new challenge – examining it from all angles, listening to it, his fingers exploring the metal shell and dictating his conclusions to Eileen Morden and the method he proposed to use in disarming the bomb when the time came for her to take shelter. If anything went wrong, then at least others would not make the same mistake.
Winston Churchill memorialized him in Their Finest Hour:
One bomb disposal squad I remember which may be taken as symbolic of many others. It consisted of three people, the Earl of Suffolk, his lady private secretary and his chauffeur. They called themselves ‘The Holy Trinity’. Their prowess and continued existence got around among all who knew and 34 unexploded bombs did they tackle with urbane and smiling efficiency, but the 35th claimed its forfeit. Up went the Earl of Suffolk in his Holy Trinity. But we may be sure that, as for Mr. Valiant-for-Truth, all the trumpets sounded for them on the other side.
How does one defuse a bomb? The following two clips, taken from a BBC documentary show some of the techniques described. For all types of German bombs, the fuse could be removed by fastening a device called the Crabtree to the fuse, unscrewing the locking ring and lifting the fuse out, preferably from a distance in case the bomb was booby-trapped:
But for delayed action bombs, one had to first drill a hole in the fuse and the put an acidic or glue-like liquid into stop the timer. One of the fluids used was sugar water, but the bomb squads kept using up the sugar in their tea, so a less appealing adhesive was substituted. The video shows the use of an acidic mixture:
Before the blitz ended over 750 bomb squad officers had been killed in the course of disarming bombs. It may not have been the most dangerous job in the war, but it was certainly in the top few.