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Danger UXB by James OwenDanger UXB: The Heroic Story of the WWII Bomb Disposal Teams, James Owen (Abacus 2010; paperback 2011)

“Unless I got clear, I had exactly twelve seconds to live.” It’s not difficult to make a book on bomb-disposal an interesting read. And a disturbing one:

As we stepped over the rope, there was a vivid flash and a deafening explosion. The houses seemed to rock, and above the bomb site there appeared a red haze, changing to a moving pattern of red and black smoke from which descended debris, human fragments and a dew of blood. (ch. 10, pg. 151)

James Owen describes how the disposal of UXBs – Unexploded Bombs – wasn’t as dangerous as it was popularly supposed to be, but it took a special kind of psychology and courage and it was a job where practice did not make perfect. Fuzes – “the spelling used by engineers to distinguish the complex initiating mechanism of a bomb from a simple fuse or delay such as the cord in a stick of dynamite” (ch. 1, pg. 3) – evolved to become more dangerous as the war went on. An experienced bomb-disposer encountering a new type of fuze suddenly wasn’t experienced any more.

And old types of fuze could behave in unpredictable ways. They could seem harmless and not be. The tools of a bomb-disposer’s trade could also turn against him, like the liquid oxygen used to freeze the battery of the deadly new “Y fuze”, which was specifically designed to kill anyone attempting to remove it:

Two days later [Major Cyril] Martin went to a house where another Y fuze was lying at the bottom of a deep and ill-ventilated shaft. It was being frozen by Frank Carlile, the officer who had brought in the first example, and he had just begun to extract this one when he was engulfed in flames. The highly oxygenated atmosphere had spontaneously ignited a substance in the shaft, which then started to belch fire. … Carlile was terribly burned, but by August he was back on duty. Later that month he was killed by a fuze that exploded at a bomb dump at Horsham. He was forty-two. (ch. 17, “Y Fuze”, pg. 265)

So he was old for a bomb-disposer:

Up came the bulk of the bomb until it was suspended a couple of feet above the hole. It began to swing a touch freely and Blaney stepped forward to cushion it with his hands. As he did so, it exploded.

In the evidence that he later gave to a military inquiry, [Staff-Serjeant (sic)] Fox noted that the bomb could not have been in a more lethal position. In a microsecond it was transformed into a searing blast of noise, light and heat that tore outwards at supersonic speed, clawing at flesh, pulverising bone, annihilating all in its path. Max Blaney and Richard James died instantly, as did Charlie Roberts, Lance-Corporals Doug Mills and Stan White, Sappers Joe Maycock and Ted McClaren, and Drivers John Pickering and John Lauchlan. Most of the men were in their twenties. (ch. 1, “Danger UXB”, pg. 7)

That was on Friday 13th December 1940. The early year is significant, because an important lesson was still being learnt: bomb-disposal should endanger as few people at a time as possible. The ideal is one man against one mechanism, not a crowd. That way, only one man dies if it goes wrong. But often that ideal wasn’t possible: bombs had to be dug for, lifted or pulled into new positions. Disposal required brawn as well as brain. Bullshit too, in some cases: bomb-disposers got involved in propaganda, sometimes for the service they represented, sometimes on their own account. Bob Davies, dubbed “the hero of St Paul’s” for supposedly saving the cathedral from an enormous UXB, received the George Cross from the King in the same week of February 1942 as he was “placed under military arrest” for “fraud and dishonesty of the gravest kind” (ch. 16, “Conduct Unbecoming”).

Success in war is sometimes owed not to courage, but to psychopathy. Psychopaths don’t mind inflicting violent death and don’t fear suffering it. Perhaps that explains Davies, who reminds me of a character in Evelyn Waugh’s novel Put Out More Flags (1942), set at the beginning of the war:

“You’ll be in more danger crossing the Atlantic than staying in London,” said Basil. “There won’t be any air raids on London.”

“For God’s sake don’t say that.” Even as she spoke the sirens wailed. Poppet stood paralysed with horror. “Oh God,” she said. “You’ve done it. They’ve come.”

“Faultless timing,” said Basil cheerfully. “That’s always been Hitler’s strong point.”

Poppet began to dress in an ineffectual fever of reproach. “You said there wouldn’t be a war. You said the bombers would never come. Now we shall all be killed and you just sit there talking and talking.”

“You know I should have thought an air raid was just the thing for a surréaliste; it ought to give you plenty of compositions – limbs and things lying about in odd places you know.” (Put Out More Flags, 1942)

Basil Seal was right: an interesting composition appeared when a V1 – the first of Hitler’s Vergeltungswaffen or “Vengeance Weapons” – struck a trolley-bus “crammed with home-going workers” in 1943:

“The roof and upper deck, together with the passengers, was blasted away. Standing passengers on the lower deck also were flung against the fronts of houses on the other side of the road. The lower deck passengers were all dead.” Although many of the victims had been decapitated, they were still sitting down, as though waiting for their fares to be collected. (ch. 19, “Hitler’s Last Hope”, pg. 281)

But the quote beginning this review is from someone who almost certainly wasn’t a psychopath: sub-lieutenant Jack Easton, who had worked as a solicitor before the war. He’s describing what flashed through his mind when he heard the “whirr” of a parachute mine arming itself for explosion. He had less space to get clear than his companion, Ordinary Seamen Bennett Southwell, which was why he ducked behind a “brick air shelter” rather than sprinting down the street like Southwell. It’s also why he survived: Southwell’s headless remains weren’t found till six weeks later (ch. 11, “For Gallantry”, pg. 167).

Parachute mines and an “1800-kilogram bomb” nicknamed Satan were two of the biggest challenges faced by bomb-disposers; the two-kilogram butterfly bomb was one of the smallest. And most cunning:

One of the first anti-personnel cluster bombs, it was dropped from containers that held two dozen of the coffee-jar-sized devices. As they fell, their cases fell open, forming a pair of rudimentary hinged wings that rotated in flight like a sycamore seed. This armed the device by twisting out a spindle as it twisted to earth.

The tactical intent behind its use was to cause deaths and injuries among those rushing to put out fires started by the incendiaries with which the Splitterbombe was dropped, so hindering efforts to fight the flames. The butterflies weighed just two kilos and their disc-like wings would become caught up on telephone wires, roof gutters and tree branches, waiting to be triggered. (ch. 18, “Butterflies”, pg. 270)

The butterfly bomb was small, cheap and highly effective, whereas the V2 was just highly effective. The V-weapons are described at the end of the book: the V1, a subsonic pulse-jet, was frightening because it announced its own arrival; the V2, a supersonic rocket, was frightening because it didn’t; the V3, a kind of super-cannon, was never completed. Explosives are one of the most horrific weapons of war but also one of the most interesting. The story of bomb-disposal combines engineering, chemistry and electronics with psychology, surrealism and violent death, which is why this is such a memorable and disturbing book.

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