Bomb Disposal Unit

The Air Raid Precautions (ARP) had the problem of dealing with unexploded bombs. It is estimated that one in ten of the bombs dropped on Britain did not explode. Warden would arrange for all premises to be evacuated and all roads within a 600 yard radius of the unexploded bomb.

At the beginning of the war these bombs were not too difficult to deal with. The A.R.P. would inform the Bomb Disposal Unit (BDU) and skilled men would be sent to remove the fuse of the bomb. However, in 1940 the Germans manufacturers began to build in anti-handling devices. The bomb was now designed to explode if anyone attempted to remove the fuse. Members of the BDU therefore had the more difficult task of cutting a hole in the casting and removing the explosive contents.

Primary Sources

(1) In 1945, T. P. Peters, an Air Raid Warden in East Grinstead, wrote about his experiences during the Second World War in his book, Reminiscences (1945).

Unexploded German bombs were very dangerous. The Chief Warden and I would go and inspect the holes armed with rods, to enable him to fill up the necessary forms, etc., for the Bomb Disposal Unit. Once when going to Gulledge Farm to inspect an unexploded bomb, we were informed it had just gone off. Next came the Hoskyns Farm bomb, where a one-ton unexploded bomb fell only ten feet from the house. It was decided to evacuate the area at once. The BDU arrived and confirmed this and stated no one must go near it for ninety-six hours.

(2) John Miller, Saints and Parachutes (1951)

The policeman waved his hands towards the rosebed which edged the path. There, at full length, almost entirely buried in the soil, was lying one of the largest types of magnetic mines, badly damaged and in an exceedingly dangerous condition.

We had everybody out from all the houses at once.

Unfortunately, the fuse was underneath the mine and I had to make one of the cold-blooded calculations which are so common on these occasions. The houses, though charming, were worth perhaps £1500 each and if they were completely destroyed no harm would be done to the war effort. The mine, I could see, was a standard type and was not likely to yield any secrets. In other words, it was a case, in the jargon of the Service, where "damage could be accepted".

It would be possible to request one of my officers to dig a hole under the mine, crawl in, and work on it from underneath.

Alternatively, I could call up a boiler and a steam hose, and request my friend to stand over the mine and dissolve the explosive filling with steam, till so little was left that if it did go up nobody would lose anything but a few windows. But either method was so dangerous that it would only have been justified if the mine had been lying in a vital spot, a power house, an important telephone exchange, a water works, or something of that sort. I decided to trust to luck and an ordinary municipal steamroller.

It is a cardinal principle of mining that you should carry out every possible process from a distance of 200 yards, under cover. Certain operations have to be performed actually straddling the mine, and these cannot be avoided, but there is a surprising amount that can be done at the end of a 200-yard line. My plan of action was to make fast one end of a wire cable to a projection on the mine and the other to a steamroller, and then very gently back the roller down the hill, heave the mine out of its hole and expose the fuse for attention. The joy about these operations is that everybody is keen to help, everybody wants the mine cleared, and I have never asked in vain for any piece of apparatus which was needed, however bizarre. The answer was always 'Yes'. A steamroller was immediately produced; there was an excellent driver in charge, who grasped perfectly what he had to do and quite understood that there must be absolutely no jerk at any stage of the proceedings. We made fast the wire, took cover in a position from which we could watch and signalled the driver to let his roller slide slowly down the hill. The wire took the strain sweetly, the huge bulk of the mine heaved slowly up out of the rosebed; when suddenly there was an appalling explosion.

When the dust subsided, there was practically nothing left of the circle of houses. The curious thing was that the people were angry. They said that the thing had been lying there a week and if we had only left it alone, they would never have lost their property.