Friday 18 June 2010

The Navy was here too.....

Bomb Disposal Officers were and are a special breed. It takes a special kind of courage to work calmly and quietly on an unexploded bomb knowing that one false move could mean disaster. It was during the Second World War that these men really came into the public consciousness with some acts of outstanding bravery coming to light.

It is perhaps not widely known that during the War bomb disposal in Britain was undertaken by both the Army and the Royal Navy. Apart from the usual mix of High Explosive (HE) and Incendiary (IB) bombs, the Luftwaffe also had in their armoury another lethal weapon - the Parachute Mine. As with all bombs, a fair number of those dropped were 'duds' to use the terminology of the time and these 'UXBs' had to be dealt with by the Bomb Disposal Squads. The conventional bombs were dealt with by the Army's Corps of Royal Engineers but the Parachute Mines, being identical to naval mines dropped at sea were dealt with by the Royal Navy.

These mines were truly terrifying weapons which being dropped by parachute, often descended quietly and then, being entangled in trees, overhead cables or street lamps exploded with a tremendous airburst effect, causing a huge amount of blast damage over a very wide area. Unlike conventional UXBs which were usually to be found at the bottom of a crater, unexploded parachute mines were often to be found draped in the most inaccessible places, hanging from trees, chimney pots, telephone wires and on one occasion, welded to the live conductor rail of a railway line. This particular mine, located on Hungerford Bridge just outside Charing Cross Station and over the River Thames, was successfully defused on 17th April 1941 after a six hour struggle by Lieutenant Ernest Giddens RNVR, who deservedly won a George Cross for his efforts, some of which entailed hitting the mine with a hammer and chisel in order to remove it from the live rail to which it had welded itself, so as to access the fuse.

Another two George Crosses were awarded to Sub Lieutenant Jack Easton RNVR and his assistant, Ordinary Seaman Bennett Southwell for their efforts in attempting to defuse a mine in Clifton Street, Hoxton on 17th October 1940. The outcome here was very different to that of the mine on Hungerford Bridge although the award of the medals was no less deserving.

Easton and Southwell were called to the scene and found the mine suspended through a hole in the ceiling of a house, with one end of it within about six inches of the floor. Easton looked up and saw that the parachute was partially wrapped around a chimney pot and also partially around an iron bedstead in the bedroom above. The two men set to work, having first plotted an escape route should the mechanism of the mine start to tick again, for if this were to happen, they knew that they had a mere twelve seconds to try and escape.

To make matters worse, when Easton started to work on the mine, he found that the fuse housing had been damaged as it crashed through the house and try as he might, he could not unscrew the the 'keep ring' beneath which was located the fuse. Suddenly, as he was trying to detach this ring, the mine slipped as the chimney above collapsed and above the sound of the falling brickwork, Easton heard the whirring of the mine's mechanism - it had come back to life.

He bellowed at OS Southwell to run and then ran himself. As he left the house, Easton briefly saw Southwell running up the street as he threw himself behind the structure of a brick and concrete surface air raid shelter. Easton heard no explosion but was briefly blinded by the flash of the detonation but that was all he experienced. The next thing he knew was that he was buried deeply beneath bricks and mortar; his head was between his legs and he thought that his back was broken but he could not move an inch as he was totally embedded beneath the rubble.

Easton later said; "To this day, I do not know how long I spent in my grave. Most of the time I was unconscious. The conscious moments were of horror and utter helplessness."

He was eventually dug out by the Rescue Squad and spent the next twelve months in hospital whilst his two broken legs, fractured pelvis and skull slowly healed. His assistant, Bennett Southwell was not so lucky - his decapitated body was eventually discovered and dug out six weeks later. The blast had destroyed Clifton Street and six adjoining streets and left a scene of utter devastation.

In January 1941, as he lay in his hospital bed, Easton was surprised to receive three cases of champagne sent to him by the Admiralty and was advised to listen to the radio at 9 p.m. that evening. It was then that he learned of his award of the George Cross. Bennett Southwell was also given the same award posthumously. Jack Easton eventually received his decoration from King George VI and Bennett Southwell's widow received her late husband's medal at the same investiture.

Jack Easton later returned to mine clearance - this time at Dartmouth, where he was appointed to motor minesweepers, eventually taking command of MMSs 6 and 22. He led a minesweeping flotilla on D-Day, when he was again injured by a German mine exploding beneath his ship.

After the war, Easton returned to his peacetime occupation as a solicitor with the family firm, William Easton's in London and died in 1994, aged 88.

Published Sources:

Navy News - October 2007
The War at Sea - John Winton, Hutchinson 1967
The London Gazette - 23rd January 1941

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