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Back to Stephen Brookes Column Index



Sitting on a time bomb?

By: Stephen Brookes MBE

Coventry centre is changing again. The Coventry Theatre, and much of the area around Pool Meadow has been levelled, and many interesting medieval relics have been unearthed. But has everything been done to ensure that some less interesting items are not unearthed? Perhaps the research is not as available as it may be. While the memories of the Blitz may be fading some 60 years on, relics of the Nazi bombing of the UK continue to be unearthed.

During the Second World War local authorities were responsible for maintaining records of the locations of unexploded ordnance. Although some local authorities destroyed the details they held, some information is still available through the Public Record Office. In 1997 the Home Office collated details of information from a variety of sources including emergency services, local authorities and the military. It had been intended to publish the information, but this was not pursued when it became evident that there were unexplained contradictions in the data and it could not be relied upon as either accurate or comprehensive.

Surely then would it not be sensible to establish a national register as proposed. ‘We do,’ say ordnance experts ‘search the information if asked by individuals, local authorities or building contractors. Many wartime bombs are more dangerous now than ever’.

The Luftwaffe dropped thousands of bombs between 1940 and 1945 on key cities and Coventry had more than it's fair share. Nationally at least 600 have been deliberately abandoned by the Home Office, some of which are close to new housing or industrial estates.

Ordnance experts say chemical changes in the last 60 years will have made the bombs more volatile than when they were dropped. The oxidation of picric acid, which was used in the German fuses, has made them vulnerable to vibrations. Captain Damian Quinn, a bomb disposal expert with the Royal Engineers, says: "We have to be very, very wary to the extent that a slight jolt or jarring could result in enough friction or enough shock to set the fuses off."

Three people were killed and 20 injured when a 55-year-old device exploded in Berlin earlier this year. Two wartime devices explode in Hamburg every year and the law insists developers screen building sites for bombs before starting any ground work.

Peter Voss, of the Hamburg Fire Brigade, says Britain could be sitting on a time-bomb. He says: "There are lots of bombs in Britain and it is preferable to start looking for them now." After years of secrecy the Home Office may release details of the abandoned bombs. A Home Office spokesman warned that such a document in question was only an "inaccurate register of bombs dropped during the war". He said the Home Office was currently working on how to put the information in the public domain and he said it may use the Internet to disseminate it. Such information is available on Coventry as we can see -

‘Coventry: At 1205 hours on the 19th a single enemy aircraft dropped 10 HE in the Coundon and Keresley District. Gas mains and 27 houses were damaged but no casualties are reported. The Coventry By Pass was machine gunned presumably by the same machine. After dark, attacks caused considerable damage and people have been evacuated in Built-up areas owing to the presence of approximately 40 unexploded bombs. The centre of the town was not affected and business premises and shops have not suffered greatly in consequence. Reports of slight damage appear to have been sustained by Dunlop's and the Riley Motor Co and Armstrong Siddeley, Parkside received a direct hit on the Surgery but it is also reported that there are two unexploded bombs located outside the works. This area is now covered by the Coventry University Technology Park.

Around 2,000 residents of Bexleyheath, Kent, were forced from their homes when a 1,000lb (455kg) Luftwaffe bomb was discovered by workmen building a new shopping centre.

What is known is that the UK Government know the location of at least 100 beneath the homes, businesses and parks of London alone. When the whereabouts of these unexploded bombs (UXBs) was made public in 1996, the Ministry of Defence said it did not intend to make safe the explosives unless there was an indication they had become "unstable".

Captain Peter Shields, an army bomb disposal expert for 10 years, says that if left undisturbed these bombs are unlikely to go off, though deeply buried bombs may detonate without anyone noticing. While each case varies enormously, once uncovered all bombs are treated as if they are unstable. After more than half a century in the ground, the metal German bomb casing were made from has a reputation for reacting badly with the explosive mixture held inside. Heat changes, shock, friction and touch can all trigger the bomb fuse to devastating effect. Because of this real threat, Captain Shields says the army's preferred option is to allow a bomb to explode under controlled conditions. "Technology is really helping out so that we can mitigate the effects of such explosions." While in peace time the main priority is the preservation of life, should a controlled explosion be felt inappropriate there is no substitute for sending in the experts to attempt a defusing. "We've tried robotics, but research still hasn't produced a robot able to replicate what a man or woman can do."

Captain Shields, who received the Queen's Medal for Gallantry last year after spending 24 hours defusing a German bomb in Wiltshire, says the task is not one without its tense moments. "You've got a job to do and that takes precedence over every other thought. You're too busy to have any personal thoughts of fear, well, except the odd twinge. "For most of the time it's a team effort and you just rely on your training. But for 5% it does become a bit of a 'lonely walk'." The job is made no easier by the booby traps the bombs' designers created to stop wartime defusing.

“The bombs were sometimes 'trapped' and set up so they would attract the attention of disposal teams and take out valuable personnel." Although London was the most heavily bombed part of the country, with some 18,800 tons of high explosives dropped on the capital between September 1940 and May 1941, few British towns escaped totally unscathed. While industrial centres and ports, such as Liverpool and Coventry, also bore the brunt of Luftwaffe attacks, bombs rained down on even the most unlikely targets. Some 1,500 people died when Bath was attacked as part of 1942's so-called "Baedecker" raids, named after the famous guide book, when Hitler turned his attentions to destroying places of historical rather than strategic importance. German bomber pilots unable to find their target were also known to dump their deadly cargo over the British countryside before returning to base.

Captain Shields doubts the majority of the German ordnance that failed to explode will ever be found. "The likelihood of finding a German bomb while digging in your garden is almost nil. Because of their ballistic shape and the height from which they are dropped, they tended to bury themselves very deep."

Captain Shields says no-one can explain why any particular bomb, from the smallest incendiary to a 2,000kg high explosive device, did not explode. "It may have been wartime mass production. You can't make something as complex as a fusing system in vast numbers without some going wrong."

Sources:
BBC News site
Home office site

© Stephen Brookes MBE
Copyright © - Stephen Brookes MBE 2002 - All rights reserved


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