ROYAL ENGINEER BOMB DISPOSAL
A short history by Lt. Col. E E Wakeling ERD
Amended and extended by Lt. Col. R I M MacArthur
THE WAR BEGINS
The first bombs to be dropped on the UK 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 ECR (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 two types (SC and SD) in a variety of sizes:-
- 50 kg (112 lb) SC or SD
- 250 kg (550 lb) SC or SD
- 500 kg (1,000 lb) SC or SD
- 1,000 kg (2,400 lb) SC (Herman)
- 1,000 kg (2,400 lb) SD (Esau)
- 1,400 kg (3,200 lb) SD (Fritz)
- 1,800 kg (4,000 lb) SC (Satan)
SC stood for Spreng Cylindrisch, a thin walled, general purpose bomb. PC 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 SC fifty five percent explosive, whilst the SD 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 SC 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 SC 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 AB 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.
Unlike 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 gaine 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 BD 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.
DEFUZING EQUIPMENT IS CREATED
The first piece of equipment produced for the BD officer was the ‘Crabtree’ discharger, which was 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 BD 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.
Another 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 hole cut in the bomb casing, both of which activities would probably have activated the fuze. It was used to much effect later in the war when the fuzes had been immunised but their extraction might have resulted in the bomb exploding, in which case 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.
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 chance to evaluate their bombs and fuzes, little or no thought was given to UK Bomb Disposal at the time. Intelligence of the Spanish bombing was common knowledge, in fact the information was available to anyone who cared to ask, from HM Stationery Office.
THE FIRST BOMB DISPOSAL TEAMS ARE INTRODUCED
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 ECR fuzes had been granted a patent by the UK 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. 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.
Proposals 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 RE teams and they almost became another lost army for this was the period of the phoney war of September 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 thought 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 UK – 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 ORGANISATION IS FORMED
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 RE stores such as hammers, chisels, blocks and tackles, picks and shovels plus a small amount of explosives. BD 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 BD 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 BD 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.
For the first few months, they dug down to the bombs, using what shoring materials were available, often timber and doors from bomb damaged houses, 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, with support and control of the independent sections. These were now 220 in number and they were formed into 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.
NEW COMPANIES RISE TO THE CHALLENGE
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 2,000 bombs were cleared in the first twenty days in the month of September but by now another 3,759 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 BD companies took some time to form.
The first to be ‘active’ was 9 BD Coy at Birmingham, formed on 1st July and commanded by Capt A J Biggs RE. 11 BD 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: 2 BD Coy at Balham, in London commanded by Capt G H Yates RE, 3 BD Coy at Nottingham with Major J R F McCartney RE, 5 BD Coy at Acton, in London, with Capt S A Smith RE and 6 BD Coy at Reading with Major H Mitchell RE.
On 5th September 10 BD Coy was formed at Ashton under Lyne commanded by Major D H Ramage RE, followed by 7 BD Coy on 7th at Bristol under Capt A V Lucas RE. 17 B D Coy was the last to be formed in September, on the 27th under Capt D G McLea RE.
The 2nd October saw six companies formed: 8 BD Coy at Cardiff under Capt J B James RE, 14 BD Coy at Leeds with Capt R C Bingham RE, 15 BD Coy at Boothtown, London, with Capt A Cleghorn RE, 16 BD Coy under Major Windle RE at Cardiff, 20 BD Coy at Tunbridge Wells with Major N E Smith RE and 21 BD Coy at South Woodford with Major W R Seabrook RE. On 5th October 4 BD Coy was formed at Cambridge under Capt Barefoot RE and 19 BD Coy under Major L P Hodgkinson RE at Bedford.
There were just two more companies formed in 1940: 12 BD Coy at Tunbridge Wells under Major S Lynn RE (by this time 17 BD Coy had moved to Sevenoaks) and 22 BD Coy at Brentford under Major M Durban RE.
1941 started with three companies being formed on 1st January: 1 BD Coy at Newcastle with Capt Stringfellow RE, he had been 2IC of 3 BD Coy at Nottingham earlier, 23 BD Coy at Winchester under Major C R Wood RE and 18 BD Coy under Major R W Johnstone RE which was posted to the Middle East.
25 BD Coy followed on 4th January at Blackheath with Major A C White RE and 24 BD Coy on 7th January at Mill Hill, both in London, with Major A Borlase RE. 27 BD Coy (There was not a 13 Coy or a 26 Coy) was formed on 16th April under Major R H Minty RE and went to Northern Ireland. At least seven of the companies were formed at the Depot in Halifax and moved to their sites as a unit.
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. 1 BD Group was in London, with its HQ at Princes Gate, Kensington, and was commanded by Lt Col E Stanton RE. The companies under his command were: 2 BD Coy at Balham, 5 BD Coy at Acton, 15 BD Coy at Mill Hill, 21 BD Coy at South Woodford, 24 BD Coy at Chiswick and 25 BD Coy at Eltham. Two years later this group was also ‘looking after’ 28 BD Coy, 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 18 BD Coy, which had been out there for almost two years.
2 BD Group covered South Eastern Command and was based at Tunbridge Wells. The CRE was Lt Col S C Lynn RE with 12 BD Coy at Horsham, Sussex, 17 BD Coy at Sevenoaks and 20 BD Coy also in Tunbridge Wells. 3 BD Group covered Eastern Command, was commanded by Lt Col K B Godsell DSO MC RE and was based at Cambridge with 4 BD Coy at Bury St. Edmunds, 19 BD Coy at Bedford and 22 BD Coy in Colchester. 4 BD Group was based at Reading and covered Southern Command, commanded by Lt Col G H Yates MC TD RE. 6 BD Coy was at Tilshead, Wiltshire, 8 BD Coy at Oxford and 23 BD Coy at Winchester. 7 BD Coy 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 – 1 BD Coy at Newcastle, 3 BD Coy at Nottingham and 14 BD Coy in Leeds. They were all ‘independent’ companies as were 9 BD Coy, 10 BD Coy and 16 BD Coy in Western Command. In Scottish Command there was just one BD Company, 11 BD Coy 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. 88 BD section was on Orkney with 89 BD Section in the Shetlands.
Malta originally had just one small BD section, later expanded to two, only 2 officers and 30 soldiers in total. They dealt with 14,600 UXB in 1940-42. In 1942, 8 BD Coy, 15 BD Coy and 17 BD Coy joined the task force for the invasion of North Africa (Algeria). In 1944 five BD Companies were allocated for the invasion of France. They were: 5 BD Coy, 19 BD Coy, 23 BD Coy, 24 BD Coy and 25 BD Coy. In the Far East the Indian Army provided Bomb Disposal Units, although most of the officers were British.
This left the organisation in the U.K. as thus:-
- 1 BD Coy in Newcastle
- 2 BD Coy in London
- 3 BD Coy in Nottingham
- 4 BD Coy in Bury St. Edmunds
- 6 BD Coy in Wiltshire
- 7 BD Coy in Bristol
- 9 BD Coy in Birmingham
- 10 BD Coy in Manchester
- 11 BD Coy in Edinburgh
- 12 BD Coy in Horsham
- 14 BD Coy in Leeds
- 16 BD Coy in Cardiff
- 20 BD Coy in Sevenoaks
- 21 BD Coy in London
- 22 BD Coy in Colchester
- 27 BD Coy in Northern Ireland.
From 1944 V1s began to fall on UK, some unexploded ones dealt with by RE BD units. There were no unexploded V2s in UK but one was recovered by a RE BD unit in Germany in 1945, and it is now in the RE Museum.
Most of the BD Companies remained in their locations until after the war when the disbandment of Companies took place, however 14 BD Coy moved from Leeds to Shoreham in February 1945 and 1 BD Coy moved its HQ to Driffield, to cover its own area and that vacated by 14 BD Coy. 16 BD Coy moved to Alderbury, near Salisbury, for a while and then again to Hursley, near Winchester, in May 1946.
BOMB DISPOSAL IN PEACE TIME
With the peace came demobilisation and a drastic reduction in all army units. Bomb disposal did not escape. 14 BD Coy disbanded in February 1946, followed by 20 BD Coy in May. By April 1948 only nine BD Companies remained in the UK.
DBD (Directorate of Bomb Disposal) had been accommodated in Romney House, Marsham Street, London, 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 BD Companies were disbanded, leaving just 2 BD Coy, 7 BD Coy and 16 BD Coy, plus a plant Squadron. By now the ‘Companies’ had been renamed ‘Squadrons’. They were dispersed as follows: HQ 2 BD Sqn RE at Richmond Park, London, HQ 7 BD Sqn RE at Long Ashton, Bristol, HQ 16 BD Sqn RE at Hursley, Winchester, Plant Sqn plus a BD Tp at Broadbridge Heath Camp. The three Squadrons maintained detachments at: Well Camp, Well, Alford, Lincolnshire, Fraserburgh Airfield, Aberdeen, Castleton Camp, Newport, Monmouth, North Park Camp, Wareham, Dorset and Sandown Barracks, Sandown, Isle of Wight.
In December 1949 a ceiling for BD Personnel (UK) was set at 60 all ranks and on 1st January 1950 the three BD Squadrons were also disbanded.
The BD organisation was restructured into an HQ, still in London, with five operational troops, plus a plant troop. These were based at: 1 BD Troop RE at Richmond Park Camp, London, 2 BD Troop RE at Hursley, Winchester, 3 BD Troop RE at Arminghill Camp, Norwich, 4 BD Troop RE at Huyton, Liverpool and 5 BD Troop RE at Portbury, Bristol.
By the March 1 & 3 BD 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 August. It was now reorganised into an HQ plus two operational Troops, 1 BD Troop being based at Whetstone in North London and 2 BD Troop in Fort Widley, on Portsdown Hill overlooking Portsmouth. Some time later, 1 BD Tp moved to Mundesley taking over responsibility of minefield clearance, whilst 2 BD Troop was responsible for all UXBs found in the UK.
Whilst the regular army contracted rapidly after the war, the TA still continued to form Bomb Disposal units so that by 1951 there were six independent TA BD 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 and 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 1950 an Army Emergency Reserve was created. 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 BD (AER) Regiment, 137 BD Regt (AER) was formed with Lt Col RO St J Marshall OBE RE as its Commanding Officer with No 346 BD Sqn under his command. By the Summer of 1952 it was four Sqns strong, 347 BD Sqn, 348 BD Sqn and 549 BD Sqn being added. These Sqns were considerably more successful than the TA units and it was decided to disband the latter.
In 1953 a second regiment, 142 BD Regt (AER) was formed taking under its wing: 290 BD Sqn RE (AER) from the old 290 BD Sqn RE (TA), 551 BD Sqn RE (AER) and 547 BD Sqn RE (AER), both the latter being newly formed units. This regiment was commanded by Lt Col W Parker MBE GM RE.
On 1st January 1955 a third Regiment, 144 BD Regt (AER) was formed and Lt Col W G Parker MBE GM RE took command. Lt Col B S T Archer GC RE took over 142 BD Regt from him and Lt Col P J Hands MBE RE now commanded 137 BD Regt. In spite of all this reorganisation, two TA units remained, 579 BD Sqn RE (TA) at Chatham and 583 BD Sqn RE (TA) at Dover.
THE 1960s AND ONWARDS
In 1962 HQ Bomb Disposal Units (UK) RE took over the responsibility for Battle Area Clearance, whose HQ had been based in Newhaven, Sussex. This was renamed 3 BAC Tp, with an organisation of a Capt, Sgt Maj, three Staff Sgts, three Cpls 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, spent most of their working lives swinging a bomb or mine locator in all sorts of weather over some of the most desolate and exposed locations, in potentially hazardous conditions, and it would have been difficult to find a more loyal, friendly and phlegmatic group.
As a result, there were then three clear roles for RE Bomb Disposal: First, to dispose of any German aircraft bombs outside RN and RAF property or above the high water mark on the sea shore; Second, to clear any remaining anti-invasion beach mines, anti-tank mines, airfield pipe-mines and bridge charges, including dealing with land mines washed up on beaches; Third, to clear redundant Army ranges and training areas, including those which had been handed back for civilian use, but where a change of land utilization caused a requirement for further clearance.
The beach minefields remaining uncleared were mainly in Norfolk on cliff tops, where sea erosion had broken into the perimeter of the minefields. By 1965, the deliberate search for their contents virtually ceased, the role being limited to call-out when mines were washed up. Consequently, it was no longer necessary to have troops permanently deployed on site, such as that at Mundesley.
In 1965 a Bomb Disposal Squadron was formed to command the operational Troops. In 1966 it was given the title of 49 BD 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.
That same year saw a major review of the Reserve Army. The level of support for Bomb Disposal was no longer considered to be justified and as a result on 31st March 1967, all three AER BD Regiments were disbanded. The COs at the time were:
- 137 BD Regt RE (AER) Lt Col H Jones ERD RE
- 142 BD Regt RE (AER) Lt Col EE Wakeling ERD RE
- 144 BD Regt RE (AER) Lt Col A C Morgan GM ERD RE
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 HM the Queen, expressing our continuing loyalty. She was gracious enough to reply. The two TA BD Sqns were also disbanded and a new T&AVR specialist team was formed on 1st April 1967, as 590 Specialist Team RE (EOD)(V).
In 1969 49 BD Sqn RE was renamed 49 EOD Sqn RE and HQ Bomb Disposal Units (UK) RE, which having already lost (UK) from its title, now became HQ EOD Units RE – EOD standing for Explosive Ordnance Disposal, in accordance with NATO terminology as being more descriptive of the work done. Lt Col F W B Carter RE was the Commanding Officer, during these changes.
The rate of discovery of World War Two bombs did not decline with time; during the 1960s 101 bombs were recovered while 155 were recovered in the 1970s, perhaps reflecting the pace of civil engineering excavations. Amongst those were 5 in the 1970s on the centre line of the M25 motorway construction. There were too many actions to record them here in detail; many were most interesting tasks; many placed those concerned in danger. Awards were made of the George Medal to Maj G R Fletcher RE and WO2 S D Hambrook in 1969, and the Queen’s Gallantry Medal to Maj A S Hogben RE in 1974. Maj Hogben later became the Custodian of the EOD Technical Information Centre (EODTIC) at Lodge Hill.
Several Royal Engineer Bomb Disposal teams were also deployed from UK to tasks overseas. In 1965 a detachment of one officer and one sergeant was sent to the Gilbert & Ellice Islands, in the South Pacific, where they supervised a party of convicts and local labourers clearing 100 tons of UXO. As a result both Maj H P Qualtrough MBE RE and Sgt H Cooke BEM were awarded the George Medal.
In 1968 a Joint Service BD Team was sent to Penang for similar UXO clearance and later moved on to clear UXO from the Borneo campaign. Maj M J V Hoskins RE was awarded the George Medal whilst SSgt J C V Wood and Sgt G Duncan were both awarded the British Empire Medal.
Other RE BD/EOD detachments worked in Sardinia 1970, Cyprus 1973 & 1974, Malta 1974, the Falkland Islands 1975, West Germany 1969-78, the Solomon Islands 1978 & 1984, Jersey 1979, Trinidad 1981 and Bahamas 1984.
In July 1972, 71 EOD Sqn RE was formed at Shoeburyness, with the specific task of the clearance of Maplin Sands, the site of the newly proposed ‘third London airport’. Maj R I Radford RE was the first OC. 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 T&AVR specialist team, 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. In the March 1975 the two Specialist teams combined, to become 590 EOD Sqn RE (V) and became the first volunteer squadron as a sub unit of 33 Engineer Regiment (EOD). This Squadron was commanded by Maj A J Spark TD RE(V).
On 1st April 1979 591 EOD Sqn RE (V) was formed, coming under the command of 33 Engr Regt (EOD). Its Officer Commanding was Maj J Ford TD RE(V). Two more squadrons were formed on 1st April 1981 – 579 EOD Sqn RE (V) and 583 EOD Sqn RE (V), the Officers Commanding the new Sqns were Maj J R Manley RE(V) MBE and Maj M Weedon RE(V) respectively. The four squadrons were based at Brighton, Gillingham, Dartford and Rochester.
By 1975, 49 EOD Sqn RE had been reorganised so that 1 Troop (based at Colchester) and 2 Troop (based at Tilshead) were the Area Clearance Troops, each troop comprising three sections of some 20 civilian searchers, supervised by RE NCOs. In 1977, 2 Troop moved from Tilshead to Cove. By this date, each Area Clearance Troop had mostly British civilian searchers, but each still had one section of Ukranian searchers. There was no accommodation for the 2 Troop Ukranians at Cove, so this section was swapped for one at Colchester, thus co-locating all of the remaining Ukranians. 3 Troop was all regular, based at Lodge Hill Camp, Chattenden, and specialised in disposal of WWII German bombs.
In addition to these roles, 49 Sqn EOD Sqn had two IED teams and a diving team. IEDs in UK had traditionally been the responsibility of the RAOC, but they were heavily committed in Northern Ireland and the IRA had commenced a bombing campaign in mainland UK, including blowing up the Horse & Hounds pub in Maidstone, not far from 33 Regt HQ at Lodge Hill. The Metropolitan Police already looked after London, with their own Bomb Squad, and it was therefore decided that the RN and RAF EOD teams would be responsible for civilian areas around their main bases, whilst 33 Engr Regt (EOD) took responsibility for IEDs in Kent and Sussex, with 49 EOD Sqn having a primary and secondary C-IED team on standby. The Sqn also had a Support Troop (again all regular personnel) with heavy equipment and based at Lodge Hill. At that time 49 EOD Sqn RE was commanded by Maj R I M MacArthur RE.
A TV series made by Thames Television in 1979 Danger UXB about the activities of a fictitious RE BD company during the Second World War stimulated public interest in BD. It also produced a number of calls for investigation, particularly after one episode which showed the anti-personnel “Butterfly Bomb”, and resulted in calls from towns and villages in Lancashire, Leicestershire, Lincolnshire, Oxfordshire and Yorkshire as well as many from South East England, all of which had to be followed up.
THE FALKLANDS WAR
In April 1982 Argentina invaded the Falklands. A British Task Force was rapidly put together to recover the islands. This Task Force included a small team of two RE EOD personnel, whose role was envisaged as disarming any unexploded bombs on Port Stanley Airport, once this had been recovered. However, as the Argentinians began to bomb the ships of the Task Force, the RN EOD Team asked their RE colleagues to help. The RE team successfully defused bombs on HMS Argonaut on 22 May. Next day, the team tackled two more bombs on HMS Antelope, but one exploded, killing SSgt J Prescott and severely wounding WO2 J H Phillips.
SSgt J Prescott was posthumously awarded the Conspicuous Gallantry Medal and WO2 J H Phillips was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. The award of these RN gallantry awards to Army personnel is unique. Despite the loss of his left arm, John Phillips remained in 33 Engr Regt (EOD), initially as RSM, later as QM, retiring as a Captain.
After the Argentine surrender, British reinforcements arrived including a strong team from 49 EOD Sqn RE, led by the OC, Maj G Lucas RE. They carried out Battle Area Clearance of UXO and began to clear minefields. However these were poorly recorded and poorly marked, which led to a number of RE EOD casualties. It was decided to just fence the minefields off, and this remained so until 2008, when the task of clearing them was contracted to a civilian mine clearance company, whose Chief Executive was Guy Lucas, the former OC of 49 EOD Sqn in 1982.
Northern Ireland had created a requirement for Search, that is finding terrorist munitions, documents and other equipment, in addition to locating their bombs and booby traps. The background of the Sapper, firstly as a soldier trained to deal with mines and booby traps, and secondly with his understanding of building construction principles linked to technical or artisan trade training placed the Royal Engineers in a unique position to lead on this. All Arms Search courses were run at a newly formed Search Wing of the RSME, later to become the National Search Centre at Lodge Hill, training not only the Army but also the Police. Furthermore the Royal Engineers specialised in High Risk Search, where there was either an increased chance of finding terrorist munitions or a high probability threat of an IED. This forged the beginning of the close relationships with the RAOC (later RLC) ATO teams; there was a mutual dependency for personal safety.
The combination of Falklands War and the increasing importance of High Risk Search was the trigger for an expansion in RE EOD. Initially 58 EOD Sqn RE was formed in 1983, with a role involving both EOD and Search. Following the Falklands War, both 5 Airborne Brigade and 3 Commando Brigade wanted integral RE EOD teams. In 1985 this resulted in the original 1 & 2 Troops of 49 EOD Sqn being detached into a separate Explosive Ordnance Clearance (EOC) group, directly under 33 Engr Regt, and two new Troops being formed within 49 EOD Sqn: 1 (Para) Tp and 2 (Cdo) Tp. This was followed in 1986 by the conversion of the former Sp Troop 49 EOD Sqn into a full squadron as 22 HQ & Sp Sqn (EOD) RE.
As a result of this expansion 33 Engr Regt (EOD) now comprised three regular Sqns, plus the EOC group, and four TAVR Sqns. It was therefore decided that the four TAVR Squadrons warranted their own RHQ and in June 1988, 101 Engineer Regiment (EOD) (V) was formed, commanded by Lt Col J Marsh RE. Traditionally the Squadrons of 101 Engr Regt had been numbered in the 200 series, and some Squadron re-numbering took place in order to achieve this in the resurrected Regiment. 579 EOD Sqn RE (V) became 222 EOD Sqn RE (V), 590 EOD Sqn RE (V) became 221 EOD Sqn RE (V) and 591 EOD Sqn RE (V) became 220 EOD Sqn RE (V). During this reorganisation 583 EOD Sqn RE (V) was disbanded but a new 223 HQ & Sp Sqn EOD RE (V) was formed.
During the Second World War there was concern that, if the Germans invaded, they could use captured airfields to fly in reinforcements and supplies. To prevent this pipe mines were buried below the runways of all RAF airfields in South East England. These were pipes full of explosive, one foot in diameter, up to 40 yards long. For some reason these pipe mines had not been cleared at the end of the war, but 33 Engr Regt was tasked to do so in the 1980s and 1990s as Operation Crabstick. Many of these airfields were now in civilian use with the pipe mines still in place. The pipe mines were dug up using remote controlled Hymac excavators with the operator safely in an armoured vehicle 200 yards away. Many airports were temporarily closed during this process, including Southampton and Gravesend.
In 1987 33 Engr Regt (EOD), at that time commanded by Lt Col A A Wilson RE, was tasked to clear a former ammunition depot at Bramley, as Operation Apple. This was the only place in UK where stocks of First World War poison gas weapons had been stored, and some buried, but now it was planned to sell it to a developer to build a housing estate. The RE EOD teams had to work in gas masks and protective suits, which was very hot and uncomfortable. Hundreds of items were returned to Porton Down containing chemical munitions that included mustard gas, phosgene and lachrymatory agents. During the clearance one of the lachrymatory grenades exploded whilst being lifted – the chemical medical evacuation and decontamination system was tested for the first time with live chemical agents and contaminated casualties. The system proved to be most successful which gave enhanced confidence to all involved. The lessons learnt there were adopted and proved valuable in the Gulf War.
In August 1990 Iraq invaded Kuwait. A large coalition force of 29 nations was assembled in Saudi Arabia, the British element of which was based on a reinforced 1st Armoured Division. The allies crossed the border into Kuwait on 25 February 1991. The RE component included 49 EOD Sqn RE, commanded by Maj N H Larkin RE, who provided the initial EOD support. Battle Area Clearance was co-ordinated by Lt Col M H H Brooke RE, a former CO of 33 Engr Regt (EOD). The Iraqis had booby-trapped the hospitals, power stations and oil refineries, and set fire to the latter. RE EOD teams cleared these to enable these vital services to be restored.
In May 1991, 49 EOD Sqn RE were replaced in Kuwait by the newly formed 21 EOD Sqn RE, commanded by Maj J P Watkinson MBE RE. They were supported by elements of 22 EOD Sp Sqn RE, commanded by Maj J Castle RE. The RE EOD Teams cleared over 500,000 UXO before they in turn were replaced by Royal Ordnance civilian teams. These civilian teams contained a high proportion of former RE EOD personnel, and many of these went on to work in humanitarian mine clearing operations in trouble spots all over the world, including Angola, Cambodia and Afghanistan.
Immediately after the Gulf War, there was an uprising in the Kurdish region in the North of Iraq, which was brutally suppressed by the Iraqi Army. An international task force was deployed in order to secure a safe haven for the Kurds. The British element of this was based on 3rd Commando Brigade, including 59 Indep Cdo Sqn RE and 2 (Cdo) Tp 49 EOD Sqn 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. The Defence EOD School, EODTIC and the National Search Centre remained at Lodge Hill for a few more years.
A further change in 1993 was the re-titling of all EOD Squadrons, regular and TAVR, as Field Squadrons (EOD).
In 1991 fighting had broken out in the Balkans, and in 1992 a United Nations Force, including British personnel was deployed to Bosnia-Herzegovina, in order to facilitate delivery of humanitarian aid. There were several changes of organisation but by 1994 the RE component of the force was a composite RE Regiment, including an EOD Troop from 33 Engr Regt. There were numerous EOD tasks, for example 2,750 mines or UXOs were disposed of during one four month tour in 1995.
In late 1995 a new UN mission was established, this time with a peacekeeping, as opposed to purely humanitarian role. The size of the British contingent expanded to a Division, including a Canadian Brigade. The enhanced force included HQ 49 Fd Sqn (EOD) RE, commanded by Maj R J Marsh RE, with an EOD Troop supporting each of the two brigades. The British commitment continued until 2007.
In 1999 the situation in Kosovo had deteriorated into brutal ethnic cleansing and a NATO force was tasked to enter the province to restore order. The British element was a reinforced brigade, and this included 21 Fd Sqn (EOD), commanded by Maj A Phillips RE. The EOD force commanded by 21 Fd Sqn (EOD) was joint and initially included seven RE teams, three RLC teams and four RAF teams. The actual advance into Kosovo was led by a team from 21 Fd Sqn (EOD). Within 3 weeks 21 Sqn had dealt with more than 1,600 tasks, one third dealing with ‘land service ammunition’, including mines, grenades, projectiles and mortars; a quarter was search and route proving; one fifth was for air dropped weapons. Booby traps, IEDs and false alarms made up the rest. Unexploded cluster submunitions were a particular hazard – it was reckoned that some 10% of those dropped had failed to explode.
RE EOD teams continued to be deployed to other world wide commitments, such as the British Contingent to the UN Force sent to Rwanda in 1994 which included a four man team from 33 Engr Regt (EOD). A similar four man RE EOD team was included in the UN Mission to Angola in 1995 and a two man RE EOD team was attached to the Gurkha unit sent to East Timor in 1999.
To be continued for period 2000-2014.
Original history written by Eric Wakeling in 1997
Amended and extended by Rod MacArthur in 2014