EOD Bomb

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EOD Bomb

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A Short History of Royal Engineer Bomb Disposal

Including that of

33 Engineer Regiment (EOD), the Reserve Army and Territorial Army Units

By Lt Col E.E. Wakeling ERD

 

The first bombs to be dropped on the U.K. were at Hoy, in the Orkneys in October 1939. The first unexploded bombs fell on the Shetlands in November 1939. The four bombs were recovered by the RAF based at Sullom Voe.

They were 50kg and had penetrated to a depth of between six to ten feet. It was soon realised that any bomb dropped in an urban area would have to be immunised and could not be blown up in situ.

The fuzes were sent to the Research and Experimental Branch of the Ministry of Supply who discovered that they were E.C.R. (electrical condenser resistance). This august body, apart from finding out how each new fuze discovered, worked and developing a method of immunising also designed the necessary equipment and authorised its manufacture.

These first fuzes were all No (15) and it was discovered that they could be immunised merely by depressing the plungers, in the top of the fuze, a few times. This allowed the electrical charge in the firing condenser to leak back to earth, thus making it inert – and safe. This simple method of immunising did not last long as the Germans brought out a No (25) fuze. Very similar to the No (15) – an impact fuze – but they had changed the internal circuit a little so that when the plungers were depressed the bomb exploded.

The range of bombs which the Germans had at that time were in three types:-

50 kg

(112 lb)

S.C. or S.D.

250 kg

(550 lb)

S.C. or S.D.

500 kg

(1,000 lb)

S.C. or S.D.

1,000 kg

(2,400 lb)

S.C. (Herman)

1,000 kg

(2,400 lb)

S.D. (Esau)

1,400 kg

(3,200 lb)

S.D. (Fritz)

1,800 kg

(4,000 lb)

S.C. (Satan)

S.C. stood for Spreng Cylindrisch, a thin walled, general purpose bomb.

P.C. stood for Panzerdurchsclags Cylindrisch and was a heavy armour piercing bomb.

The latter used almost entirely against shipping and heavily shielded targets.

The weight ratio of the two most used types were S.C. fifty five percent explosive, whilst the S.D. had thirty five percent.

Later in the war they introduced the Flam 250 and Flam 500. These were the same size as their equivalent in S.C. but were filled with a flammable oil mixture which was spread over a wide area when the three pound burster charge exploded. They were designed to start a fire over a wide area, but frequently just covered it with its disgustingly smelly contents. They also similarly filled S.C. bomb cases with the same results. All of these had simple impact fuzes. Many ‘containers’ – of incendiary or anti personnel bombs – were shaped in a bomb form, presumably to fit into the existing bomb racks. The ‘Butterfly Bomb’ was originally contained in an A.B. 23, which was, more or less, the same shape as a 50kg bomb and contained 23 bombs, hence its title. It had an air burst fuze so that the container opened up soon enough for the bombs to arm themselves before reaching the ground.

A Butterfly BombUnlike bombs from any other country in the world, which used ‘nose’ and ‘tail’ fuzes, the Germans had theirs set in the side of the bomb casing, with a cylindrical fuze pocket running across the diameter of the bomb. The fuze was correctly positioned by a locating ring and held in place by a screwed locking ring. Into the base of the fuze was screwed a ‘gaine’, about one inch in diameter and one and a half inches long. This contained a high explosive called Penthrite Wax. Around the gained was a hollow pellet of picric acid, the remainder of the fuze pocket was filled with solid pellets of picric acid.

When the German armourer loaded the bombs in the aircraft, he clipped a ‘charging head’ on the boss of each fuze. The head had two ‘spikes’ which depressed the plungers in the fuze boss. (There were often two separate firing circuits in a fuze.)

When the bomb aimer pressed the release button, the bombs were unhooked and as they dropped out of their racks a charge of electricity was passed through the charging head into each fuze. The charging heads were on telescopic arms, thus allowing time for the electricity to flow, before disconnecting themselves at the extent of their arms. The electricity first flowed into the ‘reservoir’ condenser, then it passed through a resistance, slowing down the flow before reaching the ‘firing’ condenser thus allowing time for the aircraft to reach a safe distance before the bombs became ‘live’. The electrical charge then remained in the firing condenser until the bomb hit the ground. The shock activated a trembler switch which allowed the electricity to flow into the firing bridge which set off the detonator.

The exploding system was that when the detonator in the fuze was fired a flash from it travelled through an aperture into the penthrite wax which then exploded, setting off the picric acid followed by the main bomb filling, usually of TNT (tri nitro toluene.)

When a B.D. officer extracted a fuze, the first thing he did was to remove the gaine from the fuze. The metal of the gaine and the penthrite wax contained therein was sufficient to severely maim or kill should it explode, even away from the bomb.

Recovering a bombThe first two pieces of equipment produced for the B.D. officer were the ‘Crabtree’ discharger. A simple device with two spikes which depressed the plungers in the fuze, when applied. It could be screwed on to the fuze boss and it had a ring fitted in its top to which a piece of string could be tied, thus allowing the B.D. Officer to extract the fuze from a safe distance. When the No (25) fuze was introduced, the two spikes were removed and the Crabtree was still used to extract the fuze. The other piece of equipment was the ‘Universal’ fuze key. This consisted of a steel bar about twelve inches long with two adjustable lugs that could be fitted into the two slots of a locking ring. As it was discovered that the locking rings were standard, no adjustment was needed. Subsequently, a much better fuze key was designed with fixed lugs. By the end of 1940 another piece of equipment was designed, known as the ‘Steam Sterilizer’. Its purpose was to circumvent the fuze by emptying the bomb of its explosive. However it required either the base (filling) plate to be removed or a hold cut in the bomb casing. Both of which activities would probably have activated the fuze. However, it was used to much effect later in the war when, whilst the fuzes had been immunised their extraction would have resulted in the bomb exploding. In which cases the contents were steamed out and the explosion caused by the setting off the fuze pocket(s) was of a small size and minimal damage was done.

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In spite of the fact that in the ‘mid 1930s, there had been a war raging in Spain, in which Germany was very involved, giving their airmen much practise and a change to evaluate their bombs and fuzes. Intelligence of the Spanish bombing was common knowledge, in fact the information was available to anyone who cared to ask, from H M Stationery Office.

Munich, in 1938, concentrated the minds of our Government, but they thought along the lines of Civil Defence precaution, shelters, gas, evacuations, emergency services, etc. Little or no thought was given to Bomb Disposal at the time.

The worst omission was that details of the German E.C.R. fuzes had been granted a patent by the U.K. patents office as far back as 1932. Yet we had to wait until November 1939, when the first unexploded bombs were available for research.

At first it was thought that the Home Office should be responsible had it was planned that missiles should be collected by ARP wardens and taken to a suitable dump. To be disposed of later, probably by the army! No one in the Home Office sought advice from the RAF who could have told them of the impossibility of the suggestion.

Bomb damageProposals were made for specialist teams of ARP which should be trained and equipped for the work, but no decisions were taken by ‘higher authority’ to implement it. Instead the War Office was asked to provide teams until the ARP teams could be trained. It was decided by the War Office that the Royal Engineers would provide the teams, which would consist of an NCO and two sappers their job being to dig down to the bomb and blow it in situ! It was also their job to train the ARP teams but the civilians failed to materialise. There was not a lot of work for the R.E. teams and they almost became another lost army for this was the period of the phoney war of Sept. 1939 to April 1940. During this time there had been sporadic invasion of our air space during which a few bombs were dropped. It was the result of these raids with a few unexploded bombs, which were immunised, that more though was given to the coming problem. It was finally realised that a properly organised, disciplined force would be needed and on 2nd February 1940 the army formally took over the responsibility for Bomb Disposal in the U.K. – Apart from bombs which fell on Royal Navy or Royal Air Force property. The Navy also became responsible for all missiles which fell into estuaries below the high water mark.

The first authorised establishment for Bomb Disposal – Formation Order of May 1940 – created twenty five sections, each of a Lieutenant, a sergeant and fourteen other ranks. The original bomb disposal working parties were absorbed within the new organisation.

It is one thing to authorise the formation of units, but it is another to find the men, equipment and transport. All of which were in short supply. The sections were issued with standard R.E. stores such as hammers, chisels, blocks and tackles, picks and shovels plus a small amount of explosives. B D equipment was still almost non existent.

In the event of the organisation was unworkable. Although belonging to the Corps of Royal Engineers, they were ‘War Office’ controlled – by a department called the Inspector of Fortifications, headed by a Royal Artillery General. Fortunately, the Minister of Supply formed an Unexploded Bomb Committee, whose purpose was to consider all problems relative to bomb disposal.

By the end of June 1940 it came apparent that the twenty five B D sections already formed would in no way be able to cope with the expected deluge of bombs that would result from the withdrawal of our forces through Dunkirk and elsewhere. Another 109 B D sections were authorised. Volunteers were called for and a few came forward. In the main the Other Ranks were just ‘posted in’. Most of the young officers came straight from a Royal Engineers OCTU (Officer Cadet Training Unit.) Some had received an immediate commission as a result of their technical or professional qualifications. All ranks were informed that they could, after six months service in bomb disposal, elect to transfer to another branch of the Royal Engineers. This offer was made because it was thought that the strain would be too much. Very few took up the offer and many served with distinction throughout the whole of the war.

A timber shaft being dug down to an unexploded bombFor the first few months, they dug down to the bombs, using what shoring materials were available. Often timber and doors from bomb damaged house, corrugated iron. Anything, in fact, they could lay their hands on. When they got down to the fuze, the officer would probably use a hammer and cold chisel to unscrew the locking ring, often withdrawing the fuze by hand or by tying a piece of string round the fuze boss which enabled him to do it by remote control. The bomb was usually rolled over to empty the fuze pocket of the picrics, then loaded on a truck and taken to a dump. In those days a ‘truck’ would not have been an army issue but an ‘impressed’ van, through a cattle truck to, if you were lucky, a normal lorry of the time.

Up to the end of July 1940, bombing had still been light and the sections had been coping with the volume, if not the new fuzes which were appearing and causing many deaths. It was agreed that there should be a better organisation, support and control of the independent sections. There were now 220 in number and they were formed in to companies, each of ten sections plus a company headquarters. The Gunner General was replaced by a Sapper, Maj Gen G B O Taylor and the department was renamed Inspector of Fortifications and Director of Bomb Disposal. This change took place on 29th August 1940. The very day that the Luftwaffe started its offensive on London.

It was to prove almost too much for the newly formed poorly trained sections, who were at the receiving end of the unprecedented scale of bombing, never experienced before by any population. They were overwhelmed, casualties rose and the number of unexploded bombs waiting to be dealt with increased in leaps and bounds each day.

In June, just 20 unexploded bombs were dealt with. This rose to 100 in July and up to 300 in August. By then over 2,000 bombs awaited their disposal. It says a lot for the officers and men involved and the speed with which they were organised in that the 2,000 bombs were cleared in the first twenty days in the month of September but by now another 3759 had to be dealt with.

In the 287 days between 21st September 1940 and 5th July 1941, 24,108 bombs were made safe and removed.

As has already been said, it is one thing to take decisions but something else to put them into effect. Whilst, fortunately, some sections already existed, to meet the onslaught the 25 authorised B D companies took some time to form.

Lt Richards and section with the Hull Marketplace bombThe first to be ‘active’ was No 9 B D Coy at Birmingham, formed on 1st July and commanded by Capt A J Biggs RE. No 11 B D Coy at Edinburgh was formed on 28th August 1940, under the command of Capt R J H Minty RE. Four more were brought on stream on 1st September. No 2 B D Coy at Balham, in London commanded by Capt G H Yates RE No 3 B D Coy at Nottingham with Major J R F McCartney RE. No 5 B D Coy at Acton, in London with Capt S A Smith RE and No 6 B D Coy at Reading with Major H Mitchell RE.

On 5th September No 10 B D Coy at Ashton under Lyne – Major D H Ramage RE. Followed by No 7 B D Coy on 7th at Bristol under Capt A V Lucas RE. No 17 B D Coy was the last to be formed in the September, on 27th under Capt D G McLea RE.

October saw six companies formed on 2nd – No 8 at Cardiff under Capt J B James RE. No 14 at Leeds with Capt R C Bingham RE, No 15 at Boothtown, London with Capt A Cleghorn RE, No 16 under Major Windle RE at Cardiff, No 20 at Tunbridge Wells with Major N E Smith RE and No 21 at South Woodford with Major W R Seabrook RE. On 5th No 4 was formed at Cambridge under Capt Barefoot RE with No 19 under Major L P Hodgkinson RE at Bedford.

There were just two more companies formed in 1940. No 12 at Tunbridge Wells under Major S Lynn RE – By this time No 17 B D Coy had moved to Sevenoaks – No 22 at Brentford under Major M Durban RE.

1941 started with three companies being formed on 1st January. No 1 at Newcastle with Capt Stringfellow RE – he had been 2IC of No 3 at Nottingham earlier –

 

Soon after it was decided that for greater efficiency, control and command, those companies which were covering a specific area together should form a ‘Group’. Probably the equivalent of a Regiment or Battalion in other branches of the Army.

No 1 B D Group was in London, with its H Q at Princes Gate, Kensington and was commanded by Lt Col E Stanton RE. The companies under his command were; No 2 at Balham, No 5 at Acton, No 15 at Mill Hill, No 21 at South Woodford, No 24 at Chiswick and No 25 at Eltham. Two years later this group was ‘looking after’ No 28, commanded by Major G H Bradbury RE, with eight sections, which was based at Chelsea prior to it being posted out to the Middle East to join No 18, which had been out there for almost two years.

The Staff of Northern Command Bomb Recce SchoolNo 2 B D Group covered South Eastern Command and was based at Tunbridge Wells. The C.R.E. was Lt Col S C Lynn RE with No 12 Coy at Horsham, Sussex, No 17 at Sevenoaks and No 20 also in Tunbridge Wells.

No 3 B D Group covered Eastern Command and was commanded by Lt Col K B Godsell DSO MC RE and was based at Cambridge with No 4 Coy at Bury St. Edmunds, No 19 at Bedford and No 22 in Colchester.

No 4 B D Group was based at Reading and covered Southern Comman, commanded by Lt Col G H Yates MC TD RE. No 6 Coy was at Tilshead, Wiltshire, No 8 at Oxford, No 23 at Winchester. No 7 was also in the area, at Brislington, Bristol, but did not come under their jurisdiction.

 

They were the only Groups. Northern Command had three Companies in its area – No 1 at Newcastle, No 3 at Nottingham and No 14 in Leeds. They were all ‘independent’ companies as were Nos 9, 10 and 16 in Western Command.

In Scottish Command there was just one B D Company, No 11 which was based in Edinburgh. It had the usual ten sections covering the whole of Scotland and were based at Edinburgh, Aberdeen, Inverness, Glasgow (two sections), Dundee, Perth and Stirling. No 88 section was on Orkney with No 89 in the Shetlands.

In 1942, Nos 8, 15 and 17 B D Companies joined the task force for the invasion of North Africa (Algeria).

In 1944 five B D Companies were allocated for the invasion of France. They were:- Nos 5, 19, 23, 24 and 25.

This left the organisation in the U.K. as thus:-

No 1 in Newcastle

No 2 in London

3 in Nottingham

No 4 in Bury St. Edmunds

No 6 in Wiltshire

No 7 in Bristol

No 9 in Birmingham

No 10 in Manchester

No 11 in Edinburgh

No 12 in Horsham

No 14 in Leeds

No 16 in Cardiff

No 20 in Sevenoaks

No 21 in London

No 22 in Colchester

No 27 in Northern Ireland.

Most of the B D Companies remained in these locations until after the war when the disbandment of Companies took place, however No 14 B D Company moved from Leeds to Shoreham in February 1945 and No 1 B D Company moving its H Q to Driffield, to cover its own area and that vacated by No 14. 16 B D Company moved to Alderbury, near Salisbury, for a while and then again to Hursley, near Winchester, in May 1946.

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De-mining with water jetsWith the peace came demobilisation and a drastic reduction in all army units. Bomb disposal did not escape. No 14 Company disbanded in February 1946, followed by No 20 in the May. By April 1948 only nine B D Companies remained in the UK.

DBD (Directorate of Bomb Disposal) had been accommodated in Romney House, Marsham Street, throughout the war. In April 1948 it was renamed HQ Bomb Disposal Units (UK) RE and commanded by Lt Col M D Maclagan RE and subsequently moved to Ashley Gardens in Victoria.

In the August of 1949 three more B D Companies were disbanded, leaving just Nos 2, 7 and 16, plus a plant Squadron. By now the ‘Companies’ had been renamed ‘Squadrons’. They were dispersed as under:

HQ No 2 B D Sqn RE at Richmond Park, London.

HQ No 7 B D Sqn RE at Long Ashton, Bristol.

HQ No 16 B D Sqn RE at Hursley, Winchester.

Plant Sqn plus a B D Tp at Broadbridge Heath Camp.

The three Squadrons maintained detachments at:

Well Camp, Well, Alford, Lincs.

Fraserburgh Airfield, Aberdeen.

Castleton Camp, Newport, Mon.

North Park Camp, Wareham, Dorset.

Sandown Barracks, Sandown, Isle of Wight.

In December 1949 a ceiling for B D Personnel (U.K.) was set at 60 all ranks and on 1st January 1950 the three B D Squadrons were also disbanded.

The B D organisation was restructured into an HQ, still in London, with five operational tpoops, plus a plant troop. These were based at:

No 1 BD Troop RE at Richmond Park Camp, London.

No 2 BD Troop RE at Hursley, Winchester.

No 3 B D Troop RE at Arminghill Camp, Norwich.

No 4 B D Troop RE at Huyton, Liverpool.

No 5 B D Troop RE at Portbury, Bristol.

By the March Nos 1 & 3 troops had moved to Whetstone, London and Gainsborough, Yorks, respectively. Detachments were now at Freshwater (Isle of Wight), Arminghill, Norwich, Axminster and Honiton in Devon and RAF Camp, Millom, Cumberland.

In the August, HQ Bomb Disposal Units (UK) RE, moved from London to Horsham, (Broadbridge heath Camp) still commanded by Lt Col M D MacLagan RE, but he handed over to Lt Col G V Micklam RE on 24th. It was now recognised into an HQ plus two operational Troops. No 1 being based at Whetstone in North London and No 2 in Fort Widley, on Portsdown Hill overlooking Portsmouth. Some time later, No 1 Tp moved to Mundersley taking over responsibility of minefield clearance, whilst No 2 was responsible for all UXB’s found in the UK.

Whilst the full time army contracted rapidly after the war, the TA still continued to form Bomb Disposal units in that by 1951 there were six independent TA B D Sqns. They were:

243 BD Sqn (TA) at Paisley (Scotland)

272 BD Sqn (TA) at Shipley (Yorkshire)

290 BD Sqn (TA) at Birmingham

572 BD Sqn (TA) at Cambridge

579 BD Sqn (TA) at Dover

583 BD Sqn (TA) at Rochester.

They all had a full complement, mainly due to the Z Reservists. These men had a mandatory commitment to attend two weeks training each year.

In the October of 1950 an Army Emergency Reserve had been formed. This was designed in order to form technical or specialist units, which could not be manned like a TA unit, from local resources. Members had a commitment of two weeks training a year.

The first B D Regiment RE (AER) was formed with Lt Col RO St J Marshall OBE RE as its first Commanding Officer with No 346 B D Sqn under his command, by the Summer of 1952 it was four Sqns strong. (Nos 347, 348 and 549 being added). These Sqns were considerably more successful than the TA units and it was decided to disband the latter.

In 1953 a second (No 142) BD Regt (AER) was formed taking under its wing:

    No 290 B D Sqn RE (AER) from the old 290 B D Sqn RE (TA)

    No 551 B D Sqn RE (AER)

    No 547 B D San RE (AER). Both newly formed units.

This regiment was commanded by Lt Col W Parker MBE GM RE.

On 1st January 1955 a third Regiment (No 144) was formed and Lt Col W G Parker MBE GM RE took command. Lt Col B S T Archer GC RE took over 142 B D Regt from him and Lt Col P J Hands MBE RE now commanded 137 B D Regt.

In spite of all this reorganisation, two TA units remained. No 579 B D Sqn RE (TA) at Chatham and No 583 B D Sqn RE (TA) at Dover.

In 1962 HQ Bomb Disposal Units (UK) RE took over the responsibility of the Army Battle Clearance, whose HQ had been based in Newhaven, Sussex. This was renamed No 3 BAC Tp, with an organisation of a Captain, Sgt Major, three Staff Sgts., three Corporals and 113 civilians. The civilians were all Ukranians. Originally POWs, either unwilling or unable to return to their homeland. They had been so employed since 1946.

In 1965 a Bomb Disposal Squadron was formed to command the operational Troops. In 1966 it was given the title of No 49 B D Sqn RE.

Also in 1966 HQ EOD Units RE moved from Broadbridge Heath to Lodge Hill, Chattenden. Lt Col A G Townsend Rose RE was CO at the time.

On 31st March 1967, all three B D Regiments were disbanded. The C.Os at the time were:

At that time there was an Honorary Colonel of the Regiments. Col B S T Archer GC OBE ERD. All four officers signed a telegram sent to H.M. the Queen, expressing our continuing loyalty. She was gracious enough to reply.

The two TA B D Sqns were also disbanded and a new T & AVR unit called a specialist team was formed on 1st April, called 590 Specialist Team RE(EOD)(V).

In 1969 No 49 B D Squadron RE was renamed 49 EOD Squadron (EOD) as was HQ Bomb Disposal Units (UK) RE, which had already lost (UK) from its title, it now became HQ EOD Units RE. – EOD standing for Explosive Ordnance Disposal – In line with NATO agreement as being more descriptive of the work done. Lt Col F W B Carter RE was Commanding Officer, during these changes.

In July 1972 No 71 EOD Sqn was formed at Shoeburyness, with the specific task of the clearance of Maplin Sands, the site of the newly proposed ‘third London airport’. Major R I Radford RE was the first O.C. The unit had a complement of four officers and twelve other ranks. It also had 110 civilian Explosive Ordnance Searchers, Drivers and Admin staff. The proposed project eventually fell through and the squadron was disbanded in April 1974.

In 1973 a second (No 591) Specialist Team RE (EOD) (V) was formed.

Also in 1973, with Lt Col R C Plummer RE commanding, the title of HQ EOD Units RE changed, yet again, to 33 Engineer Regiment (EOD), which it remains to this day.

Steaming the explosive out of a bombIn the March of 1975 the two Specialist teams combined, to become No 590 EOD Sqn RE (EOD) (V) and became the first volunteer squadron as a sub unit of 33 Engineer Regiment (EOD). This Squadron was commanded by Major A J Spark TD RE(V).

On 1st April 1979 No 591 EOD Sqn (EOD) (V) was formed, coming under the wing of 33 Regt. Its Officer Commanding was Major J Ford TD RE(V).

Two more squadrons were formed on 1st April 1981 – Nos 579 and 583, the Officers Commanding the new Sqns were Major J R Manley RE(V) MBE and Major M Weedon RE(V).

The four squadrons were based at Brighton, Gillingham, Dartford and Rochester

It was then decided that the four (V) Squadrons warranted their own HQ and in June 1988, 101 Engineer Regiment (EOD) (V) was formed, commanded by Lt Col J Marsh RE.

In 1993, under the command of Lt Col I M Daniell RE, 33 Engineer Regiment (EOD) moved from Lodge Hill to Carver Barracks, Wimbish, where it remains to this day.

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First published in 1997 by BD Publishing, 6 Wendover Rd, BOURNE END, Bucks. SL8 5NT

Copyright Eric Wakeling

Copies are available from the publishers at £1.50, including postage.