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We Battled with Exeter's Unexploded Bombs

At 5.30 on the morning of May 4, 1942 the phone rang in my quarters at Plymouth and I was told, "There is a bomb on the railway line just outside Exeter Station. Will you come?" Our life consisted of a series of mad rushes, clearing bombs for a few days, then spells of boredom doing odd jobs. This as one of the rushes!

I hastily dressed, and roused Taffy, my batman-driver, who had so many things to say about Hitler and the Luftwaffe and the war in general that he was fully clothed long before he had finished. A few days previously Exeter had suffered a raid and there had been three or four unexploded bombs for us to deal with and to save travelling time. I had billeted my Section in the city; so on this day working parties were already standing-by awaiting our arrival. And as we were exempted from all speed limits and traffic restrictions whilst on priority bombs, we managed to complete the 40-mile journey and contact the railway officials at St. David's Station, Exeter, within, an hour. After a short walk along the track we found the bomb-hole, at the junction of the lines, on the embankment by St. Thomas's goods yard. The hole was about 30 inches in diameter, which gave us a clue as to what lay at the bottom of it.

Avoiding Unnecessary Casualties

We judged it to be a 500 kilogram general-purpose bomb, which is approximately four feet long and 18 inches in diameter – the larger diameter of the hole being accounted for by the bomb wobbling during flight and as it hit the ground. We used a long stick to try to touch it, but the bomb had curved in its downward path and we could not get round the bend. However, it was possible to estimate its position and for our excavation we marked out a shaft six-foot square.

This was done by my Section Sergeant – Sergeant Parrish – myself and the remainder of the working-party remaining behind the brick wall of the goods yard weigh-bridge house about 70 yards away, outside the danger area. The procedure of limiting the number of persons actually around the bomb was always observed to avoid unnecessary casualties should an explosion occur whilst preliminary work was in progress.

The setting-out of the shaft completed, the remainder of the party came up and work commenced with the removal of two rails and half-a-dozen sleepers which were in the way. The working party consisted of one N.C.O. and three sappers, the N.C.O. in a Bomb Disposal Section doing his share of all digging and timbering. We had three shifts in the 24 hours: from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. 2 p.m. to 10 p.m., and 10 p.m. till 6 a.m. This was our normal method of working on a priority bomb when speed was vital. I arranged with the local barracks to have a cook on duty at all hours to prepare hot meals for the men before and after leaving the job. Meanwhile, sandwiches were provided, and enormous quantities of tea brewed by a lorry driver who was standing by with his vehicle

It did not take long to move the rails, then two of the men commenced digging. The other two were busy carrying timber from a stack in the goods yard to the site; as the line was on an embankment the soil would be too loose to hold an its own, so we would have to timber the sides as we went down.

The digging was carried out by the men working in pairs, one with a pick and one with a shovel, for a 20-minute spell, then the other pair took over for 20 minutes, an arrangement which could be maintained throughout the eight-hour shift. As the hole became deeper there was room for only one man on the bottom, and he threw the soil on to a staging half-way up, a man on the staging throwing on to the surface, and one on top shovelling the soil away so that the ground round the shaft was kept clear.

We Decided to Operate Immediately

As we dug down, so the timbering was placed – planks ("runners") varying from eight to 12 feet long and nine inches by one and a half inches section, positioned vertically against the sides of the shaft and held in place by "walling" of nine-inch by four timber which formed horizontal frames wedged against the runners. As we went deeper so the runners were lowered and other frames put in at approximately four-foot intervals. It was on one of these frames that the staging was supported.

Whilst this was going on I had a look around, and saw a small greenhouse (which had collapsed) about 20 yards away in a back garden at the foot of the embankment. I decided to investigate, and found that a bomb had fallen through the greenhouse roof. On probing. I felt something hard about five feet down. I sent Taffy to collect another squad, complete with tools, and they got busy on the debris to clear a working space. This second bomb complicated matters, because the explosion of one would almost certainly cause the detonation of the other and casualties would be doubled. However, our work had to continue.

About two o'çlock in the afternoon I received a message from the Exeter Control Centre that another unexploded bomb had been found, in a public convenience about a mile away; this was causing a large area to be evacuated, and would I go over?

This piece of news was brought to me on the railway line by a police messenger. I left instructions with the N.C.O.s on the railway job as to where I was going, and Taffy and I rushed over in the car to this latest incident.

There was the bomb with its nose buried and the remainder sticking up in the air. We decided to operate immediately. The roads were closed, and my driver took the truck along to a safe spot around the corner and informed the policeman on duty what was happening, whilst I got busy on the bomb, first clearing away some if the bricks and rubble so that I could identify the fuse. After a few minutes fiddling with the latter, which was now nicely exposed in the side of the bomb, I was able to announce all clear. On reaching the truck I found a crowd waiting for the news that they could return to their homes. I told the policeman that the bomb was now quite "dead" and that a squad would arrive later to collect it.

Back to the railway by four o*clock, to discover, much to my relief, that all was well and work proceeding smoothly; by now, of course, the second party had taken over. I had one more call during the day. This concerned a small 50 kilogram bomb which had plunged through the roof of a house and a bedroom floor and was resting peacefully beside the fireplace in the dining-room. After a few minutes' work on the fuse I carried the bomb out on my shoulder, put it in the back of the truck – and that was that.

At 10 o'clock the third party took over, and so into the night, when we had to use lights. As we had to observe the blackout as much as possible we fixed up a temporary timber framework over the top of the shaft and covered it with a tarpaulin from one of the lorries. This looked most unsafe, but it served the purpose. The lighting consisted of a couple of large electric hand-lamps borrowed from the local A.R.P. people.

At 2.30 a.m. whilst I was in the shaft digging with the men, the party working at the greenhouse shouted that they had uncovered the bomb – a 50 kilogram (approximately 1,000 lb.). This meant ceasing work on both jobs, for the parties to take cover whilst I "drew its teeth." Fortunately all went well, and one party departed for bed, whilst the rest of us returned to work. Six o'clock came, and once more the parties changed. By now we were about 15 feet down and still had not touched what we were after. To railway officials paid us periodic visits to see how we were progressing, and about midday we touched what we thought was the bomb. It was another five feet down, making a total depth of 25 feet. Our work went on with renewed zest.

During the afternoon a G.W.R. official came along and, calling me aside asked when I could get the bomb clear as Their Majesties the King and Queen were due to pass through in the Royal Train at 8 p.m. I promised it should to done by 6 p.m. which would leave two hours for the company's gang to fill in the excavation and relay the lines. It was agreed that an engine with truck and crane would be standing by half a mile up the line from 4 o'clock onwards. This I intended to call up to lift the bombs from the holes and take them down into the sidings in the goods yard, to be loaded on to our lorry for final disposal. By now excitement was tense, but when we uncovered what we had hoped was the bomb it proved to be only the tail fins left behind on its downward path. However, we could touch the bomb now, another three feet down, and on we went, racing against time.

Three feet to go and two hours to do it! There was no time for timbering as we "rabbeted" down. We were all absolutely exhausted. Picks and shovels seemed twice their normal weight. And when one of the men working at the bottom hit the timber above his head with his pick he muttered in a very weary voice, "Sorry. timber!" A sure sign that we were all just about at the end of our tether!

At last we uncovered the base-plate, which was just inside our shaft, the nose of the bomb pointing away from it. This meant going down another two feet and tunnelling around the bomb – most awkward in this confined space, but we scratched the earth away somehow and finally reached the fuse In the side of the bomb case about midway between nose and base-plate. It was another 500 kilogram, partner to the one that had wrecked the greenhouse.

The party retired to the safety of the weigh-bridge house for a brew-up whilst I operated on the fuse and made the bomb safe for handling. When this was finished, one of the men went along to bring up the engine whilst the rest of us cleared more soil from around the bomb and loosened it ready for removal. The time was five minutes past six and we had excavated 28 feet, timbered the shaft and dealt with the bomb, besides disposing of the other incidents, in 34 hours.

Up came our special train, the jib of the crane was swung over the hole and the hook lowered. Having made the bomb secure by wrapping the chain around it the weighty missile was hoisted up, swung round, and deposited in the truck. Now we turned our attention to the one which was still lying in the debris of the green-house and treated it in similar manner.

We Cheered as the Train Passed

The bombs clear, a party from the railway company shovelled back the soil the timber being left in the hole for support, the lines were relaid, and within half an hour the first train rattled past. At that time we were rolling the bombs from the railway truck into our lorry, but we managed to raise a cheer as the train passed by. That night, Tuesday, I had a sorely needed wash, a shave and a meal – my first in comfort since the Sunday, as I had never left the job except for the short intervals to deal with other incidents – and straightway went to bed.

The next few days were spent uneventfully in clearing up numerous other bombs in less important places, such as minor roads, parks and outlying districts; one was in a sewage tank, which necessitated working waist-deep in the sludge. Fortunately. during this period we had the assistance of other Bomb Disposal Sections who had been drafted into the city. It was whilst I was hard at work – and plastered with mud – that I received a summons by dispatch rider to report at Exeter Station in half an hour to be presented to Their Majesties the King and Queen for my work on the line. Then back to our station, to await the next call. .

Source - The War Illustrated 'I was there' No 232 May 10th 1946.

This article appeared in the 10th May 1946 issue of War Illustrated. It was written by Lieut. Ronald G Walker GM, Royal Engineers, whose Section was called from its Plymouth base on the morning of the 4th May to defuse several unexploded bombs. A bomb found a few days later was tackled on the railway line near St David's Station by Lieut. Walker.

A UXB An NCO is holding the fins of a UXB which have just been removed. A UXB in Culverland Road An unexploded bomb in Culverland Road.

Other members of the UXB team included:
Sergeant Parrish
Lance Corporal Casey
Sapper Tatlock
Sapper Chadwick
Corporal Woodworth

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