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Re-enactment - Bomb Disposal

Re-enactment - Bomb Disposal

The Home Front is a popular theme among re-enactors who do not want to depict a military unit, whilst also providing an opportunity for collectors who are interested in the social history of this unique period of the war. Although the term has come to be seen as describing the experiences of the civilian population, and how they coped with the Blitz and food rationing, it also covers the duties of the emergency services. By extension, the roles of the Air Raid Precaution (ARP), Royal Observer Corps, Women’s Institute (WI) and the Women’s Voluntary Service (WVS), were all vital in keeping the country running.

Danger – UXB

When the Germans attacked west in May 1940, their fleet of bomber aircraft was used to attack centres of civilian residences such as Rotterdam and Calais. Then, in early July, after the Dunkirk evacuation, the Luftwaffe was ordered to attack targets on the British mainland. At first, it was the airfields used by the RAF, later extending to port facilities such as Portsmouth and Dover. After these attacks, clearance parties would move in to repair damage and clear away the rubble, but in doing so they revealed a new danger in the form of the unexploded bomb. These were referred to as ‘UXBs’ and had to be dealt with by trained specialists.

At first, these objects, lying dormant either due to a delayed fuse or having failed to detonate, were a cause for concern to mainly military targets. However, when the Blitz against towns and cities across the country began in earnest with the bombing of London on 6/7th September 1940, the threat from UXBs spread to include civilians. Between 1940 and 1942, 16 major cities, including London, Liverpool, Belfast, and Cardiff, were bombed, and required the services of specialists to make safe those devices which had failed to explode. Initially, there were just a few dozen officers and Sappers from the Royal Engineers, who dealt with hundreds of types, ranging from 50kg high explosives to 1,800kg bombs, known as ‘Satan’.

The quiet heroes

As the war progressed, the design of German bombs became more sophisticated and increasingly powerful. The Royal Engineers responded by training more technicians, who were sent to other theatres of war to deal with UXBs, including Malta. Responding to the spreading danger, the Royal Navy formed its own bomb disposal squads, as did the RAF with units such as the 5131 Bomb Disposal Squadron.

It was discovered very early in the war that conventional tools, such as spanners and pliers, would not work, so a whole range of specialist items were developed for the unique purpose of defusing UXBs. Some of these were made from brass and other non-ferrous metals to reduce the risk of accidentally detonating bombs. Even doctors’ stethoscopes were used to listen for any sound of ticking, which would indicate the bomb was live and armed.

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These men were the quiet heroes of the war and today their work is remembered by some re-enactment groups who present displays at some events. They are often accompanied by a commentary to explain what is happening. Examples of the specialist tools used by the bomb disposal squads have become collectors’ items. Even the specialist badge, comprising a stylised bomb on a red background, worn by army technicians on the sleeve of their uniform, have become objects sought after by collectors to add to their display.

The size of any display depends on the resources available and never more so than with a specialised subject such as bomb disposal. Some groups are only able to mount a small display, either due to lack of space or because they are limited by the range of items within the collection held by the re-enactment group. Some events are held at sites where buildings can be incorporated into a display to serve as a backdrop for added realism. With a bit of imagination and organisation, along with some extra material, such as bricks and rubble, a passable rendering of a bomb-damaged building can be recreated. Add a couple of official-looking ‘Danger! Keep Out’ signs and everything is ready for the live-action display to demonstrate a bomb disposal unit in action.

A difficult and dangerous job

These brave men were quite literally going into the great unknown when tackling an unexploded bomb. Firstly, it had to be exposed, which required the Sappers to dig down to where it had come to rest. This phase could involve removing tons of earth as shafts were dug to access the bomb. Then, a trained officer would set to work to remove the fuse. This was not always a straightforward job, because the fuse could be stuck, and it may have been of a type that was not known. There were so many variables, and a good commentator in these demonstrations can build up the tension.

The list of medals awarded for bravery to men in the bomb disposal units is long, from the Military Medal to the George Cross. Any collector who is lucky enough to obtain an award presented to a bomb disposal technician is most fortunate because the detail behind it is one man’s unique wartime record. For example, Sapper George Wylie, Royal Engineers, was awarded the George Cross for his part in helping recover and safely dispose of a 2,000kg German bomb that had fallen in the vicinity of St Paul’s Cathedral in London in September 1940. Together with his team, it took three days to dig out the bomb, which was defused by Lt. Robert Davis, who was also awarded the George Cross for the same action.

The work goes on

It was not just the cities that were bombed, harbour installations, such as Portsmouth, were attacked and even small, unimportant towns and villages were also hit by bombs. These events were largely the result of aircraft returning from a raid and jettisoning their remaining bombs. For example, in the early hours of 29th September 1942, a German aircraft dropped a stick of bombs on the small town of Somerton in Somerset, killing nine people, injuring 37, and destroying a number of buildings. A similar incident happened near the coastal town of Beer in Devon on the night of 27th March 1944, when a badly damaged Heinkel He III jettisoned a 500kg bomb before crashing. The bomb was dealt with years after the war and a replica is today on display in the town, along with full details in a building known as the ‘Bomb Shelter’.

On 9th April 1942, the church in Mosta on the island of Malta was hit by a 500kg bomb, which pierced the roof and entered the main part of the building. Fortunately, it failed to detonate. The device was dealt with by a Royal Engineer bomb disposal squad and today a replica of the device is displayed in the church. Even today, over 80 years since the Blitz on London and Liverpool, unexploded bombs are still being uncovered and are being dealt with by Royal Engineers. The work of the ‘quiet heroes’, which started in 1940, continues, and even though the number of incidents requiring the services of the bomb disposal unit is decreasing, they will still be needed for some time to come.