A short history of RAF bomb disposal

The RAF’s specialist bomb disposal unit, No. 5131 Squadron, disbanded last month, with its responsibilities passing to the British Army. Here, we look back on the history of RAF bomb disposal.

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In every bombing campaign since the First World War a proportion of the bombs dropped have failed to go off; even in peacetime there is an ongoing need to deal with weapons that have failed to detonate during training on dedicated ranges, terrorist bombs or munitions left over from previous wars. Over many years an increasingly sophisticated organisation has developed to deal with these weapons, to which all three services have contributed, together with government and civilian agencies. RAF bomb disposal teams have, from the Second World War onwards and alongside their British Army, Royal Navy and civilian colleagues, made a significant contribution to this work. As Dave Lowe, an RAF bomb disposal operator, explained, RAF bomb disposal teams provide ‘specialist knowledge for things like ejection seats and missiles … it gives a subject-matter expert view on air-delivered weapons, on how they operate, how they work and what needs to be done to them’.

In recent years, bomb disposal within the UK has been divided between the Royal Navy, British Army and RAF on largely geographical lines, with the Metropolitan Police providing their own capability in London. Mike Stocks, a former commanding officer of No. 5131 Squadron, explained how ‘We had a call-out responsibility for improvised explosive devices and conventional devices, so we had an area, a patch based around Wittering that we had to respond to, in 10 minutes and 30 minutes respectively for the teams.’

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Bomb disposal within the RAF has a long history, however. During the First World War the bombs used were, for the most part, relatively small and simple in design. In many cases they could be exploded where they fell or made safe by members of the Royal Army Ordnance Corps (RAOC). Although the RAOC had expertise in handling munitions, skilled personnel were not always called on in such situations. Norman Macmillan, a pilot serving with No. 45 Squadron of the Royal Flying Corps in France, recalled how a suspected unexploded bomb on the Squadron’s airfield was dug up for inspection by a team with no training or experience in bomb disposal work – and discovered to be an unexploded British anti-aircraft shell.

By the start of the Second World War, the RAF had developed the armourer’s trade to a much higher level of sophistication, and it naturally fell to these servicemen, with their training and expertise in air weapons, to deal with the RAF’s share of unexploded bombs during the conflict and, more specifically, bombs that fell on RAF airfields or those found in crashed aircraft. Meanwhile, the Royal Navy’s bomb disposal experts specialised, naturally enough, in naval weapons such as torpedoes and sea mines, and the Army’s Royal Engineers took on a great deal of the bomb disposal work that did not fall into the remits of the other two services.

Courses in bomb disposal were run at various locations during the Second World War, including the RAF Armament School at RAF Manby in Lincolnshire. Christopher Draper, a naval officer who attended an early course, recalls how much of the teaching was on British bombs due to lack of knowledge of German weapons at that time:

‘A few weeks previously I had been sent to the R.A.F. Armament School at Manby, in Lincolnshire, for a one week course on “Unexploded Bombs”. This was more amusing than instructive because, at the first lecture, the instructor began by saying: “Of course we know nothing about German bombs yet, so we will give you this brief course on our own bombs and pyrotechnics”. Nevertheless, when, a few days after the blitz on Ford, two holes in the ground were discovered, obviously containing unexploded bombs, “Fish” sent for me and said: “You’ve just done the unexploded bomb course at Manby, so go and dig ‘em up”.’

Mervyn Base, an RAF armourer who trained in bomb disposal at RAF Melksham in 1940, similarly remembered how ‘This course was largely based on the practical knowledge gained by Army personnel in the field, and as a result was somewhat limited’ and that at the end of the course the officer in charge said ‘Well chaps, that’s all we know to date, the rest I’m afraid you will have to find out for yourselves’.

Experience, however, developed rapidly with the rising tempo of German air raids on the UK. One of the best-known RAF bomb disposal experts from this time, Wilson Charlton, was awarded the George Cross early in 1941; the citation published in the London Gazette gives some indication of the intensity of operations through the second half of 1940:

‘Flight Lieutenant Charlton is responsible for all work in connection with enemy bombs in an area comprising the greater part of two counties. Both by day and night, during recent months, he has dealt with some 200 unexploded bombs. He has successfully undertaken many dangerous missions with undaunted and unfailing courage.’

Charlton was later sent to the Far East where, under slightly mysterious circumstances, he recovered a number of Japanese bombs and fuzes from China, providing valuable intelligence on a previously unknown area (a fuze was the component of a bomb that causes it to explode. It can work in various different ways, including detonation on hitting the ground, detonation a given time after impact or detonation if the bomb was moved after hitting the ground).

The impact on training of the experience gained in a short time is perhaps illustrated by Alec Haarer, who trained in bomb disposal at RAF Melksham towards the end of 1940. He recalled how:

‘For the most part the course at Melksham gave us a good grounding on bombs and fuzes, on how they acted, on safety precautions, and on some of the methods of bomb disposal such as the use of special machines to cut out discs of metal by remote control. It was intensive training, and being new to the service and somewhat awed by the mass of information we were expected to absorb, we worked hard and soberly. We knew that safety for ourselves and our men depended on our ability to recognize one fuze from another and how it operated.’

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By September 1940, 188 RAF armourer NCOs had qualified in bomb disposal. They were distributed around eighty RAF stations in the UK, known as ‘X’ stations, and were supported by mobile teams, able to move to wherever they were most needed at any given time. The organisation of RAF bomb disposal developed further in April 1943, with the formation of a wing headquarters overseeing the work of six bomb disposal squadrons. These squadrons would continue to serve through the rest of the war, several of them landing in Normandy in 1944 and one – No. 5131 Squadron – would provide the RAF’s bomb disposal capability into the 21st Century before disbandment in 2020.

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The UK’s first unexploded bombs of the Second World War were dealt with by Arthur Merriman, a civilian specialist who had served in the Royal Army Ordnance Corps during the First World War, and Flight Lieutenant (later Squadron Leader) Eric Moxey at Sullom Voe in the Shetland Islands late in 1939. Moxey would later go on to develop an automatic fuze extractor, allowing bomb disposal operators to take cover at a distance during this potentially very dangerous procedure. This did not, however, remove all risk, as the device had to be fitted to the bomb, someone had to approach the bomb to confirm that the fuze had been extracted and it would not, in any case, always work as intended.

The first action of the war leading to the award of a George Cross (although not the first medals to be awarded) was that of Flight Lieutenant (later Squadron Leader) John Dowland and Mr Len Harrison (an ex-RAF civilian armaments instructor) for their actions in dealing with an unexploded bomb in a steamship at Immingham Docks near Grimsby in February 1940. According to the citation ‘The bomb was extremely difficult to inspect and handle as it was wedged with its nose penetrating through the main deck’ and a similar situation was dealt with onboard a trawler in June 1940. These bombs featured a simple impact fuze, designed to detonate the bomb when it hit the ground. If it did not explode on impact it was likely to be due to a fault of some description; it was not designed to catch out anyone attempting to make it safe, but such weapons would not be long in coming.

In the summer of 1940 disposal experts were called on to deal with unexploded German bombs fitted with the Type 17 clockwork time fuze. The clockwork mechanism could be set to detonate a bomb after an interval of anything up to more than eighty hours after being dropped, and there was no way of knowing how any particular bomb had been set; from the point of view of the bomb disposal teams, they could potentially go off at any moment. Methods were, however, developed by which Type 17 fuzes could be made safe, including the use of powerful magnets or the injection of viscous liquids to stop the clockwork mechanism. One significant contributor to this work was Wing Commander Cornelius Stevens, who developed a method of creating a vacuum within a fuze, which would then efficiently suck in the liquid and jam the mechanism. Even so, weapons such as this could cause a great deal of disruption simply by their presence, and introduced a greater degree of danger and uncertainty to the bomb disposal operator’s work; this was even more the case when used in conjunction with other types of fuze, such as those designed to detonate the bomb if it was moved or tampered with.

One example of this was the Zussatzünder (auxiliary fuze) 40, an anti-withdrawal device fitted below a Type 17 fuze. Put simply, if the Type 17 fuze was removed from a bomb, the ZUS 40 would cause it to explode. Squadron Leader Eric Moxey, who had participated in the disposal of the unexploded bombs at Sullom Voe in the Shetlands and made a significant contribution to the development of the automatic fuze extractor, was called to RAF Biggin Hill on 27 August 1940 to deal with unexploded bombs that appeared to have new features, possibly including the ZUS 40. If the fuzes could be recovered intact they would provide valuable information, essential for operators dealing with similar bombs in future. Although he was able to defuse one bomb successfully, the second exploded, killing Squadron Leader Moxey instantly; Moxey was awarded a posthumous George Cross for his actions at Biggin Hill. An example of the ZUS 40 was retrieved for examination only days later in south Wales by Lt Archer of the Royal Engineers.

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A further, even more dangerous, development was the German No 50 fuze, first identified by the British in September 1940 and an example of this was also obtained by Lt Archer. This featured highly sensitive switches that would detonate the bomb at the slightest movement after impact. When combined with the ZUS 40 anti-withdrawal device and the clockwork timer of the Type 17 fuze, all of which could be fitted to the same bomb, this created a complex problem for a bomb disposal operator to deal with. The Y fuze, first dropped on London in 1943, was another development, specifically designed to kill bomb disposal operators, and it was only due to luck, in that the first bomb encountered was faulty, that officers of the British Army’s Royal Engineers were able to retrieve an example and develop a procedure for dealing with it. Experiments showed that, if the temperature of the fuze could be lowered sufficiently through the use of liquid oxygen, the batteries would cease to provide power and the fuze could be safely removed.

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Alec Haarer, an RAF bomb disposal officer, recalled the danger posed by German ‘Butterfly bombs’, small anti-personnel weapons which – once dropped – could be so sensitive that even the slightest movement would set them off. Examples were urgently wanted for examination and for use in training British bomb disposal personnel, and this was greatly facilitated when Flight Sergeant Handford discovered several bombs that had failed to arm after being dropped on RAF Harlaxton in Lincolnshire in August 1941.

Bomb disposal specialists also had to be fully aware of traps built into British bombs. Eric Chadwick recalled how the “No 37 pistol” – a fuse fitted to some British bombs – had been designed to catch out an unwary German who might try to dismantle it. According to Chadwick it was ‘easy to identify but not to deal with’ and a number of British Army bomb disposal specialists were lost to it, in addition to its intended German victims.

The work of the bomb disposal teams did not finish with the end of the war. Huge numbers of unexploded weapons remained on battlefields and in bombed cities, and it was some time before enough of these had been dealt with that the wartime bomb-disposal teams could begin to disband, leaving a smaller number of specialists to continue into peacetime. Nor was this work without risk; on 20 August 1946, personnel of No. 5140 (Bomb Disposal) Squadron were overseeing the loading of German bombs into ships at Luebeck when a bomb was accidentally dropped and exploded, killing six people and injuring twelve. The Squadron’s commanding officer, Sqdn Ldr Hubert Dinwoodie, assisted by Corporal Roland Garred and LAC John Hatton, then established that several more bombs of the same type were more dangerous than had been realised and was able to make them safe, averting a potentially catastrophic accident.

Second World War bombs have, however, continued to appear up until the present day and there has, since 1945, been an ongoing need to deal with these weapons as they are found. Probably the largest of these was a 12,000lb ‘Tallboy’ bomb, discovered when the water behind the Sorpe Dam in Germany was drained for repairs. It had been dropped during an attack on the dam in October 1944, and was made safe by a German specialist, Walter Mitzke, working with Flt Lt J M Waters, officer commanding the RAF’s No. 6209 Bomb Disposal Flight.

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Alongside their ongoing work on ‘legacy’ munitions left over from previous wars, and the disposal of unexploded weapons dropped during training, the smaller conflicts of the Cold War period also provided work for bomb disposal teams. Two RAF bomb disposal specialists, Ted Costick and Alan Swan, each awarded the Queen’s Gallantry Medal, highlight some of this work.

In 1974 Flt Lt Ted Costick was serving at RAF Akrotiri in Cyprus as Officer in Charge of the Explosives Servicing Flight of the Weapons Engineering Squadron. Turkish air attacks during the conflict of 1974 provided a considerable amount of work for Costick and his bomb disposal teams, including a bomb buried in mud, a 750lb bomb in a 6th-floor hotel room in Famagusta and the clearance of a number of unexploded weapons from Nicosia International Airport.

In 1982 an RAF bomb disposal team was sent to the Falkland Islands as part of the task force following the Argentinean invasion. Flt Lt Alan Swan, commander of the team, was called on to deal with two unexploded bombs lodged in the hospital at Ajax Bay. As Alan Swan remembered:

‘It was a bomb in the roof, a bomb in the fridge; the bomb in the fridge had a fuze that I think, they made it up, just welded this on, welded that on, and we had no kit that we could [use] to get at it, and I spoke to the colonel and he said ‘well, we’re going to Stanley shortly, so is it going to go off? I said “well, I would say no”, but, I said, just to put my money where my mouth is, I’ll sleep in that room and a) it was the only empty room, because it had an unexploded bomb in it and b) I was convinced it wasn’t going to go off. And the one in the roof, we couldn’t get at really, we’d have [had] to drop it to get at it, so again I was convinced it wasn’t going to go off so we left it and the army follow-up teams took it out.’

Alan Swan and his team then moved on to Goose Green:

‘My prime directive was to go to Goose Green and clear a Harrier landing strip, which we did, and when we got there we found napalm by the ton on these steel-runnered sledges in the establishment, where the people lived and so that was a major effort trying to get that out without striking sparks and then when we blew it up, Christ, I didn’t know that napalm would blow up like that but it was a massive explosion, massive, and we looked up and we could see one of these things had flattened out, it was the size, like two of those doors, we could see it spinning, coming down to earth, like that, we were running this way, that way, wow, it would have taken you to pieces.’

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RAF bomb disposal teams would continue to deal with a variety of situations, involving conventional and terrorist weapons, through the years after the Falklands War, but it was not until the Kosovo conflict in the late 1990s that an RAF bomb disposal team would again deploy overseas. In Kosovo, RAF personnel worked closely with the Royal Engineers to clear a large number of unexploded bombs, shells and other weapons left by the conflict. Michael Haygarth, an RAF officer serving with No. 5131 (Bomb Disposal) Squadron, recalled how, in conjunction with the Royal Engineers, they ‘carried out hundreds of tasks in Kosovo, the guys were doing between eight and thirteen tasks a day, the teams, they were going out at first light, back at last light, we worked with loads of different nations out there, we worked with loads of the non-government organisations, Mine Action Clearance and all those sort of people.’ The value of deploying both RAF and Royal Engineers to Kosovo was also highlighted; as Haygarth explained: ‘They were really good with land-service ammunition, mines and mortars and things, we were really good with air-dropped bombs.’

Dave Lowe, an RAF NCO with No. 5131 (BD) Squadron in Kosovo, recalled how, in contrast to what was to come later in Iraq and Afghanistan: ‘the operations in Kosovo were more routine and it was a peaceful environment; while there was still hostility between people there wasn’t a threat to us, we would routinely not wear body armour in our Land Rover and I wouldn’t carry a weapon if I didn’t need to.’

The use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) by a variety of terrorist organisations has been one of the major challenges faced by bomb disposal specialists for many decades. While the weapons used by the armed forces of nation states are likely to have been produced by a known manufacturer and to conform to identifiable patterns, the unpredictable nature and highly variable quality and complexity of IEDs have made them particularly difficult to deal with. Although the devices produced by some groups, or by an individual acting alone, might have been relatively crude, the devices produced by the IRA in Northern Ireland during the Troubles often reached a high level of sophistication, and were dealt with by the very highly-trained Ammunition Technical Officers (ATOs) of the Royal Army Ordnance Corps (RAOC) and then of the Royal Logistics Corps (RLC) after the RAOC was absorbed into the newly-formed RLC in 1993.

The IEDs (or ‘roadside bombs’) used in Iraq and Afghanistan during the early years of the 21st Century posed a further significant threat and these, as with the bombs found in Northern Ireland, would normally be dealt with by the ATOs of the RLC. However, during the conflict in Afghanistan the RLC’s High-Threat IED course – the training course through which a bomb disposal operator became qualified to deal with the devices found in Iraq and Afghanistan – was opened to personnel from other branches of the armed forces and Dave Lowe, an armourer by trade, was the first member of the RAF to pass this highly demanding course. As Lowe explained it:

‘The definition of high-threat then is complex weapons, it can be a complex weapon including RC [Radio Control], so sophisticated in its design. It can be the sheer amount of IEDs, so it could be that there’s so many of them that it was dangerous by that virtue, it could involve suicide bombers, so they’ve got a suicide bomb threat and multiple devices linked together.’

In Afghanistan, the IEDs found were not necessarily very complex in their design, but the sheer number of devices planted by the Taliban caused a significant problem for western forces in the country. In addition, considerations such as climate, terrain and the threat of Taliban attack made the use of robots and protective ‘bomb suits’ impractical on many occasions. From his own experience, Lowe recalled how:

‘There was a big clearance of a road and there was basically an IED belt along this highway, if you want to call it that, it wasn’t tarmacked or anything but we needed to clear that road to link up forces and it was a huge operation and in two kilometres of road in about 48 hours I think I probably did nineteen tasks. I think twelve of those were IEDs or something, I can’t remember but it was just the sheer work, I was finishing one, doing the next, doing the next, doing the next, doing the next so it was just continual, catch a bit of sleep and as soon as I could, do some more.’

Bomb disposal has developed a great deal since 1939, when Arthur Merriman and Eric Moxey approached the UK’s first unexploded bombs of the Second World War. They, and their counterparts in the Royal Navy and British Army, were just beginning to develop the experience and professionalism to be seen in their successors of the 21st Century. The technology involved has clearly developed a great deal, and the situation in Iraq or Afghanistan in the early 21st Century was a long way removed from that of the UK in the 1940s.

Some things, on the other hand, have changed little. There is still the same pendulum between the development of bombs, with new features intended to make them increasingly dangerous to their intended victims, and the development of new techniques by which these devices can be made safe. Some of the techniques have themselves endured for a long time, perhaps in some cases by virtue of their simplicity – the use of a cord to pull a component out of a bomb from a safe distance is one example.

And finally, there is the courage of the bomb disposal operator, making the ‘long walk’ to a bomb with the intention of making it safe. Whether dropped by the Luftwaffe or planted by the Taliban, this, more than anything, has stayed the same.

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About the Author

Ewan Burnet: Film and Sound Curator

Prior to joining the Museum I worked at the Imperial War Museum, Duxford. I became the curator of film and sound at the RAF Museum in 2010. My role includes caring for the film and sound collection, cataloguing new material, recording of oral history interviews, processing enquiries from the general public, film and television producers and the preparation of audio-visual material for the museum’s exhibitions.