Bomb disposal during London’s Blitz was a job for the brave—and the lucky.
A little after first light on Sunday, May 11, 1941, a bomb disposal squad threaded its way through the scarred streets of London toward Victoria Station, one of the city’s main rail terminuses. It was cold and sunny, but the sky was still dark with smoke from the previous night’s raid. Near the station, a policeman briefed the squad: Five bombs had dropped in and around the immediate area, but none had detonated. One was on the station forecourt just outside the Windsor Dive pub, a drinking saloon popular with soldiers. Two bombs had landed inside Victoria Station and two more had come down on the tracks beyond, one on Platform 2 and the other on Platform 10. This pair were Category A1 bombs, meaning they were of top priority and had to be defused immediately.
The section officer divided the bombs among his men, delegating the device on Platform 10 to Sergeant Harry Beckingham and two other Royal Engineers. Beckingham led his team through the station and onto the tracks.
“Digging was always the hairiest part of the job,” Beckingham recalled many years later. “But I just kept to my philosophy that if a bomb went off and I was right on top of it then I wouldn’t know anything about it. It would be a nice quick death.”
The unexploded bomb confronting Beckingham was one of 50,000 that Britain’s Corps of Royal Engineers handled during the course of the war. The job was among the most stressful, and lethal, services in the nation.
Every time the British figured out how to defuse one type of bomb, the Germans developed another. Nearly 400 bomb disposers lost their lives during this deadly game of cat and mouse, and another 200 suffered serious injury. Hundreds of others were medically discharged, their nerves shot to pieces. That stress also occasionally bubbled into plain view: bomb disposers Wilfred Hall and John Gale ended up in court, charged in October 1940 with assaulting a policeman while drunk in London. “We have been working at very high pressure,” their commanding officer told the court. “The men are working in the face of death all the time. I know that my own temper has become somewhat frayed. As soldiers, they are of the best.”
Indeed, the two men (who were released) along with their 10,000 colleagues saved hundreds of lives. As importantly, they ensured the Luftwaffe would fail in its attempt to badly disrupt British life—and allow the country to live up to the phrase that epitomized British fortitude during the harrowing months of the Blitz: “Business as usual.”
Beckingham kneeled above the hole of entry the Victoria Station bomb had created, working out the size of the now-buried device with a tape measure. A hole was, on average, two inches larger than the bomb that had carved it and Beckingham’s tape measure indicated he was on the trail of a bomb weighing 550 pounds. “The first thing we did then was to make arrangements for two railway wagons loaded with ballast to be shunted into place on the lines either side of the hole of entry [to act] as a blast wall,” Beckingham said.
Then he and his men cut the ties on the track and scooped away the ballast from around the hole. Beckingham next turned his attention to the hole itself. The path of a buried bomb varied from job to job, but it was rarely straight. Some bombs— the ones with the semi–armor piercing casing known as Sprengbombe Dickwandig (thick-cased high explosive) penetrated as far down as 60 feet. But those with thinner casings, Sprengbombe Cylindrisch, stopped after an average of 20 feet.
In addition, most bombs dropped from German aircraft hit the ground at an angle of approximately 12 degrees, continued straight down for about 10 feet, when the fins were ripped off, and then jinked sideways or forward, coming to rest as much as 10 feet away from a vertical line through the hole of entry. So the first task for Beckingham and his team was to find the fins, allowing them to identify for certain the bomb’s dimensions.
“We found the fins early on with this one,” Beckingham said, “which confirmed it was a [550-pound] bomb. But what we wouldn’t know until we found the bomb was the type of fuse, and that was what concerned us most.”
The fuses were slotted into a pocket on the side of the bombs and their numbers were printed on the device’s head, indicating whether it was an impact fuse, a delayed-action fuse, or, most ominously, an anti-handling fuse—one set to detonate if moved even slightly.
Two years earlier, Harry Beckingham would not have had the slightest idea what kind of fuse he confronted. In the summer of 1939, he hadn’t even been in the army, let alone a Royal Engineer. At the time there had been no such thing in the British Army as a bomb disposal expert.
In the years leading up to World War II the attitude of the British government toward a potential German bombing campaign was perplexing. Officials and citizens alike could clearly recall the German air raids of World War I, when 5,000 Britons had been killed or wounded by 300 tons of bombs dropped from aircraft and zeppelins. A quarter of a century on, the Luftwaffe was the world’s most sophisticated air force and capable—as it had seemingly demonstrated in its demolition of Guernica in 1937 during the Spanish Civil War—of laying waste to a city in a frighteningly short space of time.
Yet the first response of the British authorities to this clear threat was to commission a report. Titled “Knockout Blow,” it estimated that any German air attack on Britain would begin with 3,500 tons of ordnance being dropped, followed by 600 tons per day for an unspecified period. This would result in approximately 50 casualties per ton of bombs. In other words, when the assault came, the country could expect 175,000 men, women, and children to be killed or wounded. The Ministry of Health then extrapolated the figures to produce a forecast of 600,000 Britons killed in the first six months of the aerial war, with a further 1,200,000 wounded.
Faced with such an apocalyptic scenario, the government drew up a plan of mass evacuation from the cities to the countryside, then formed the Civil Defence, a volunteer force of fire fighters, ambulance drivers, and air raid wardens. It also published pamphlets, such as the 37-page “The Protection of Your Home Against Air Raids,” in which civilians were advised on how to prepare a “refuge room” in their house where they could shelter from the raids.
But what the British authorities did not do was establish a unit specifically to deal with unexploded bombs, though they must have been aware of this lethal issue. Approximately 30 percent of artillery shells in World War I had failed to explode. Instead, imprecise instructions were issued to air raid wardens about covering the bomb with a few sandbags, then telephoning the police to arrange a convenient time for the bomb’s removal. No one stopped to ask whether a large bomb dropped from several thousand feet that failed to detonate would just lie on the surface, waiting to be scooped up.
It wasn’t until November 1939 that the War Office finally decided to form bomb disposal units, but it took a further six months before the Corps of Royal Engineers was instructed to create 25 Bomb Disposal sections, each one comprising an officer, a sergeant, and 14 sappers (the rank of private in the Royal Engineers, named after the “saps,” or trenches, of past wars).
Harry Beckingham was 19 when war broke out, a young man about to enroll at a university in the north of England to study structural engineering. Instead he joined the Royal Engineers. But when his field company was sent to France a few weeks later he remained in England. “They said I was too young to go to France,” Beckingham said, “so I stayed behind and kicked my heels. In March  we were told we were going to Norway but that never happened. I ended up driving a lorry and delivering rations until one morning our sergeant-major asked if I’d like to go on a course in Sheffield. He didn’t know what the course was but I didn’t really care. I just wanted to do something. When I arrived in Sheffield there were a couple of other sappers and I said to them, ‘What’s all this about?’ And they said, ‘Bomb disposal.’”
Beckingham’s initial introduction to the science of bomb disposal was somewhat rudimentary, with the British military still failing to grasp the complexities of an unexploded bomb. “Bombs would always be lying on the surface, that was the theory,” Beckingham explained.“So we learned how to build a sandbag wall round the bomb, with a hole to crawl through, and how to put a sheet of corrugated iron on top with four more layers of sandbags on top of that. Then we would crawl inside [the wall of sandbags], lay a one-pound charge of gunpowder with fuse, and then detonate it from a safe distance.”
When they weren’t practicing how to defuse conveniently located bombs, Beckingham and his fellow sappers were given a car and instructed to drive around the city familiarizing themselves with the streets, so that when the bombs fell they would know the quickest route to each incident.
By the end of August 1940, the Luftwaffe’s raids on British military installations were intensifying, and the number of unexploded bombs (or UXBs as they had come to be known) awaiting disposal had risen from 20 in June to 1,300 in August. But Beckingham was still in Sheffield waiting to defuse his first live bomb. “We were having the time of our lives,” he recalls. “Driving around Sheffield in this car with no one in control of us, and spending our afternoons in the YMCA playing table tennis.”
On August 24, 1940, a small formation of German bombers lost their way over blacked-out Britain and inadvertently dropped their bombs on London instead of their intended military target. Prime Minister Winston Churchill ordered reprisals and the next night 81 Royal Air Force bombers attacked Berlin. The raid did little damage, materially or otherwise, but Hitler was incensed and promised vengeance. The British authorities ordered bomb disposal units to London in preparation, and Beckingham’s carefree days came to an abrupt end. He was posted south to 35 Bomb Disposal Section under the command of a young lieutenant called Gosmark (his first name is lost to history).
Gosmark and Beckingham were blissfully ignorant of the hell about to be unleashed from above. Neither, for example, knew the difference between a Number 15 fuse and a Number 17, nor did they know that the Luftwaffe nicknamed their 2,200-pound bomb “Hermann”—in wry honor of their portly commander, Hermann Göring—or that the monstrous 4,000-pound bomb was known as “Satan.”
The inventor of the electric fuse was Herbert Erich Ruehlemann, a brilliant scientist with the German company Rheinmetall whose ambition was to create an alternative to the notoriously unreliable mechanical fuse of World War I. He first started work on his project in the 1920s, and in 1932 conducted a series of highly secretive tests with Russian connivance. (The Treaty of Versailles had forbidden Germany from entering the arms race.) Using 110-pound bombs, Ruehlemann’s goal was to pinpoint the most destructive delay between the moment a bomb hit the ground and its detonation. Day after day, aircraft dropped bombs over the strip of ground 500 miles south of Moscow chosen for the experiments, until Ruehlemann declared himself satisfied that a delay of 0.05 seconds was the most effective fuse.
Ruehlemann’s invention evolved through the 1930s so that by the outbreak of war there were three main types of electric fuse: combined direction action (instantaneous) and short delay; long-delay, with a clockwork mechanism; and antihandling (booby trap).
The first mass air raid on the British civil population occurred on Saturday, September 7, 1940, when 350 bombers attacked London, killing 900. On October 9, Winston Churchill sent a memo to General Hastings Ismay, his chief military assistant, asking to be updated on the progress of disposing of the unexploded bombs. “I have a sort of feeling that things are easier in this respect,” Churchill wrote. “Let me have a report showing how many have been cast upon us lately, and how many have been handled successfully or remain a nuisance. Is the easement which we feel due to the enemy not throwing them, or to our improved methods of handling?”
Churchill received his answer a few days later in a report that bore out his belief that there were indeed fewer unexploded bombs being reported (2,608 for the week ending September 21 compared to 1,273 for the week ending October 12). The report stated the reasons for the diminution: “When the intensive raiding on London began there were only twelve Bomb Disposal Sections in London. Today there are fifty-five Sections and these are being further increased so that by the end of next week the total will be eighty-eight…. There has also been considerable improvement in the arrangements made by the civil authorities for reporting unexploded bombs and in dealing with dislocation of traffic and communications…. The result is a reduction in the number of false reports by wardens and police, which caused useless journeys for Bomb Disposal parties.”
However, the report contained bad news as well. There were indeed more Bomb Disposal sections operating in the capital but some of these contained men who had been rushed through training. As a consequence there had been a steady increase in the number of Engineers killed in the line of duty, from nine fatalities for the week ending September 21 to 21 deaths for the week ending October 12. The report added that the bomb disposal sections were being continually increased in numbers but that “conditions have also had to be improved to relieve the strain from which all ranks were suffering.”
Following his minimal bomb disposal training in Sheffield, Harry Beckingham was posted to Wanstead in northeast London. He had survived the first few terrifying weeks of the London Blitz, though not without using up one of his nine lives.
“We’d been called out to deal with a bomb in someone’s back garden,” he recalled. “We tried to shift this bomb but couldn’t, even when we put a rope around it and tied it to our lorry. It just wouldn’t budge, so in the end we said, ‘To hell with it. Let’s go home and come back to finish the job in the morning.’ So we threw our picks and shovels in the back of the van and set off home. We hadn’t gone far when it exploded.”
Fate had been kind to Beckingham but not to many of his colleagues. Initially the officer in a Bomb Disposal Section was the only member of the unit permitted to defuse each bomb after his sappers unearthed it. But the sheer number of unexploded bombs soon made that impractical, so sappers also started to defuse. Nevertheless, the average life expectancy of a bomb disposal officer in the first months of the Blitz was 10 weeks. Some died from ignorance, some from error, some from fatigue, and some were just plain unlucky.
In one respect the dead were the lucky ones—at least they no longer had to endure the psychological torment that each UXB unearthed in the minds of its disposer. By the end of 1940 this mental pressure prompted the Royal Engineers to introduce a provision whereby every bomb disposal expert could transfer to another section of the Corps after six months active service. Few men took up the offer, preferring to stay with their Bomb Disposal Unit rather than leave for a “cushy” job elsewhere.
Not that the Germans appreciated such resilience. Soon the Luftwaffe was fitting their bombs with ever more elaborate fuses. When they had begun bombing British targets in June 1940, many of their bombs carried a Number 15 fuse, an impact fuse that could be rendered safe with an instrument called a Crabtree Discharger. The tool had two pins that depressed the spring-loaded plungers on the fuse head, enabling the sappers to remove the fuse. Shortly later, the 25 fuse appeared—a more sensitive variation on the 15 impact fuse— and the first bomb disposer to use the Crabtree Discharger on it was blown to bits. Unaware of what they were up against, the Engineers decided for the time being to tie a length of string to every fuse, unwind it out a couple of hundred yards until they were behind a blast wall, and then tug out the fuse.
Providently, they eventually extracted a dud 25 fuse; it was rushed to the Unexploded Bomb Committee at the Ministry of Supply. Their examinations revealed a small screw-headed switch on top of the fuse; the setting needed to be moved from position I to II before defusing with the Crabtree Discharger could commence.
Then came another challenge: the Number 17 fuse. Described in the British Army’s official bomb disposal handbook—a 100-page manual published in 1942—as a long-delay clockwork fuse, the 17 had a maximum time setting of 72 hours. It was designed, as the Luftwaffe’s chief of bomb equipment said after the war, to “cause disruption to the enemy’s armaments industry, to transport and to the general public, and would tie up considerable bomb disposal resources.”
Every unexploded bomb with a 17 on its fuse head—all weighing 550 pounds or more due to the fuse’s complexity— was cordoned off while the authorities waited for it to detonate, which could take three days. Residential houses and business premises were evacuated and the disruption, as the Germans hoped, was immense. The British needed to get their hands on an intact 17 fuse to work out how to neutralize it; in short, they needed a stroke of luck.
That stroke came one day in August 1940, when Lieutenant Stuart Archer and his bomb disposal section were called to an oil refinery in South Wales to defuse four bombs that had landed among some steel fuel tanks. Amid the smoke and heat from other fuel tanks aflame nearby, Archer and his men dug down to the first bomb. When they reached it, they saw the fuse head was detached from the casing so they could not determine what sort of fuse was inside. Archer decided on another course of action: “I unscrewed the [bomb’s] steel base plate and found that this exposed the explosive. It so happened that the explosive was powdered, so with a trowel, digging away, I got the explosive out and that exposed the fuse pocket…. The fuse pocket was just attached to the bomb case by a little spot weld and that wasn’t a very strong one. So by moving and getting my arm down inside the bomb, I was able to hold the fuse pocket and with brute force and bloody ignorance bang it back and forth until I got the whole thing free.”
Archer had the fuse pocket in his hands, but when he tried to extract the fuse it wouldn’t move. So he picked up a pair of pliers and pulled with all his might. Out came the fuse and on the back end of it a ticking 17 clock. “Lots of people had pulled them out before,” Archer explained, “but they had been blown up, whereas I hadn’t. This was luck, luck, luck.”
The UXB specialists at the Ministry of Supply were beside themselves with glee at Archer’s good fortune (they confirmed later that water had seeped into the pocket, causing the 17 fuse to malfunction). In a matter of weeks the magnetic clock-stopper was born, an unwieldy invention that nonetheless, as bomb disposal officer John Hudson described it, stopped “the clock by applying a magnet, which would draw the steel spindles in the clock up against the bearings and create enough friction for the spring not to be able to turn the cogs.”
But as this apparatus came into service the Luftwaffe sprang another nasty surprise, one that the British bomb disposers had feared—the anti- handling fuse. It bore the number 50; a movement of just a millimeter—the smallest of vibrations, such as those made by a passing bus 100 yards away—would activate its trembler switch. The Germans began to fit the 50 fuse in conjunction with the 17 fuse so that when the magnetic clockstopper was connected to the bomb it ignited the trembler switch and wrought devastation.
Now fully engaged in this explosive battle of chess, the Unexploded Bomb Committee countered the German move with an ingenious device that was the brainchild of Major C. A. J. Martin and Flying Officer John Rowlands: the B.D. (for “Bomb Disposal”) Discharger.
The discharger was a transparent cylindrical container with a rubber tube attachment at one end and a pump at the other. To disarm the 50 fuse, the bomb disposal expert attached the rubber tube to the fusehead and turned the three-way cock counterclockwise as far as it would go. He then filled the cylindrical container with 20 cubic centimeters of a liquid composed of salt, benzol, and alcohol, and gave one full stroke of the pump. It took approximately 25 minutes for the liquid to discharge the bomb, and was effective against all fuse numbers except the clockwork 17. But the B.D. Discharger was crucial in neutralizing the 50 fuse, located in a separate pocket from the 17 fuse, and once that had been done the magnetic clockstopper could be attached.
Ironically, as British expertise in defusing bombs increased, the intensity of the Luftwaffe bombing waned. The German planes raided London every day or night from September 7 to November 3, 1940; then they changed strategy, reducing the frequency but increasing the intensity of raids. They also switched their attention to other British cities, including Coventry, Liverpool, Glasgow, Hull, and Plymouth. For the first two months of 1941, the notorious British weather came to the aid of its people, and low clouds prevented all but a handful of small raids. The Bomb Disposal Sections used the time well, defusing the thousands of bombs strewn across the country. There were several ferocious raids on British cities in the spring of 1941, but the last major attack on London came on the night of May 10 in a savage assault that left 1,436 people dead. Thereafter the Luftwaffe began heading east to prepare for the invasion of Russia.
On Sunday, May 11, Harry Beckingham’s luck held firm. The bomb 20 feet under Platform 10 of Victoria Station weighed 550 pounds and had the number 25 on the fuse head—an impact fuse that had failed to discharge presumably because the aircraft that dropped it had been flying too low. Beckingham disposed of it with a B.D. Discharger, and while he waited the 25 minutes for the liquid to neutralize the fuse he remembers climbing out of the hole and joining his comrades for a cup of tea 300 yards away. “We lost no one in our section,” Beckingham reflected. “We were lucky, that’s all I can say. Back in those early days a bomb disposal expert owed more to luck than to skill.”
Originally published in the February 2011 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.