I’ve written in the past about my admiration for the Bomb Disposal men who work out in Helmand Province defusing IED’s. I also had the pleasure not long ago of reviewing the excellent book about UXB’s on Malta during the war. Its impossible not to be moved by the incredible bravery shown by these men. This book by James Owen is very much in the same vein.
The cover itself tells a story. A team of sappers are hauling on a huge bomb. One of the men, in apparent disdain for the danger that would never be allowed nowadays, is puffing nonchalantly on a cigarette while only inches away from a mass of high explosive. Somehow its a very British image – danger, hard work and a fag!
The story starts, though, with the German fuze expert at Rheinmetall before the war, working on developing new types of fuzes. This, the fuze, was essentially the major concern of the bomb disposal teams – to make the bomb safe by immobilising the one thing that coud cause the explosive to detonate. Given the multitude of conventional, delayed-action and anti-handling fuzes the Germans would use – some of which were directly calculated to kill the bomb disposal men themselves – they certainly had their work cut out. And they would be deployed in conventional bombs of all sizes, along with incendiaries, Parachute mines, butterfly bombs and the V1 and V2 flying bombs. Aside from being dangerous, unexploded bombs caused disruption do the the enforced closure of roads, railways lines, factories, and making thousands of people homeless, either temporarily or permanently.
The response of the British Government and Armed Forces to the multitude of new problems during wartime was twofold – Ministries and Departments would argue and squabble over whose responsibility it was, and then, at least one committee would be formed, possibly more. Somewhere along the lines several stereotypical English eccentrics would become involved. Bomb Disposal was no exception. The Ministries of Home Security and Supply both had a hand in the research and policy behind disposal of unexploded bombs, but eventually it fell to the armed forces to provide the men to deal with the problem. Particularly during the height of the blitz the men had to learn very quickly indeed.
The men on the ground may have been focussed on the task in hand, but mandarins and whitehall warriors were arguing over petty squabbles, as so often in British history. The RAF refused to give details to the other services of the workings of British bombs. Bomb Disposal duties were strictly parochial too – the RAF handled bombs on airfields, the Royal Navy took care of bombs in water and Dockyards, and the Army everywhere else. Yet the Navy were called in to deal with parachute mines that fell on land, due to their expertise with mines. Its not mentioned in this book, but Chief Petty Officer Reginald Ellingworth GC from Portsmouth was killed in 1940 defusing a parachute mine in Dagenham.
One important aspect that Owen does very well to stress is the relationship between the sharp end and the scientists working in the background. Each new fuse that the German’s deployed – of which there were many, in increasing complexity – required a solution to make it safe. The various contraptions and techniques that were developed are testament to the ingenuity of British science and technology at war. For me, the unsung hero in the book is John Hudson. Drafted into a Royal Engineer Bomb Disposal unit, he submitted a paper to his superiors pointing out his opinions. Having made an impression he was seconded to the UXB Headquarters in London to work as a link between the scientists and the bomb disposal sections. His own personal bravery is shown by how having devised a method of dealing with a new type of fuse, he insisted on being the first to trial it, so as not to endanger others if his method proved no to work.
Sadly not all involved in Bomb Disposal seem to have had the same professionalism. The Earl of Suffolk himself operated as a kind of bomb-disposer-at-large, complete with his own van. Despite his lack of experience in the field, and evidence of a cavalier attitude to safety, he was tasked with retrieving important parts from bombs for experts to study. Eventually the Earl was killed by an explosion, along with a number of Sappers who were assisting. It is hard to escape the conclusion that he should not have been allowed to work defusing bombs – surely its no field for a maverick amateur. Its possible, maybe, that in a Britain still very much deferential to class, no-one wanted or felt able to stop him?
For me, the most poignant episode in the book is the story surrounding the famous bomb that almost destroyed St Pauls Cathedral during the Blitz. The man concerned – Robert Davies – undoubtedly performed a brave deed, but it transpired afterwards that he had been accepting money from civilians and pocketing it for himself, stealing from dead men’s possessions and bouncing cheques. He was eventually awarded the first ever George Cross, but even then, according to James Owen, controversy reigns. It seems that members of his section had over-egged their accounts, which followed through into the press and Davies’ citation for the George Cross. A lesson, if any is needed, that brave men are not always completely scrupulous, and by the same token, crooks can be brave.
This is a compelling story, well told and immensely readable. And like all good books, its inspiring – its impossible not to feel the ice-cool bravery of the bomb disposal men. And on a personal level, it makes me feel inspired to take a closer look at what bomb disposal efforts must have taken place during the wartime bombing of Portsmouth.