The Civilian Bomb Disposing Earl

By Kerin Freeman

Biography & memoir

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10 mins



Nous Maintiendrons;
Non quo sed quo modo

‘We will maintain’; ‘Not for whom, but in what manner’ – the Howard mottos

A certain chain of events set in place during April 1941 ultimately led to a catastrophic date in history. Captain Kenneth Privett of 2 i/c 25 Bomb Disposal Company, Royal Engineers, had just received instructions from Major Yates to stop dumping any more bombs on the open land of Erith Marshes’ bomb cemetery. The area was surrounded by housing and neighbouring streets where children played and people went about their daily business.
Erith Marshes was to be ploughed due to complaints received from local residents regarding damage to the neighbourhood. They wanted the Army to refrain from using the Marshes as a detonating site. In order to move bombs to the cemetery Bomb Disposal men had to immunise the 50 fuze beforehand and place a clock stopper on it, which would be removed when the bomb reached its destination. To all intents and purposes it was safe to leave out in the open. But one particular bomb had been lying around throughout winter, causing the explosives to deteriorate with perhaps some exudation.
On Tuesday 6th May, Captain A. G. Bainbridge visited the Marshes and ordered Lieutenant Sprankling, the Commanding Officer of 25 BD Coy, and Lance Corporal King, to take all defuzed bombs to another bomb cemetery at Richmond Park in London. Their orders were to leave behind any bombs still containing fuzes, of which there were a few. Bainbridge made a point of referring to the 250 kg SC, thin-walled general purpose bomb fitted with a number 17 clockwork time delay fuze and a type 50 anti-handling fuze that had been lying on the Marshes for about seven months. It was usual policy to avoid transporting fuzed bombs after an accident happened on 10th October, 1940, when a bomb being carted through the busy streets of central London exploded, killing a number of people.
Someone with a macabre sense of humour had chalked in scrawly handwriting on the side of the rusty casing ‘Old Faithful’. Old Faithful was originally meant to be destroyed but the demolition crater in which it was lying was so full of water that to blow it up outside of the crater would cause blast damage to surrounding properties. And it had not been possible to sterilise it by steaming out the contents due to the nearby ditch containing water too dirty for use with a small capacity boiler. However, Captain Bainbridge of the Royal Engineers had, owing to the recent dry spell they had been experiencing, made arrangements with Lieutenant Sprankling to blow up two or three 50 kg bombs that had been lying around, leaving a suitable crater in which to place the 250 kg bomb and detonate it.
The unfuzed bombs were taken away to Richmond on the 7th and 8th May, and it was on the 8th May that Lieutenant Corporal King had a conversation with Corporal Baxter and the Earl of Suffolk & Berkshire, Charles Howard, who was known to all as ‘Jack’ or ‘Mad Jack’, a nickname he’d gained during his hazardous though enterprising Top Secret mission in Paris. King mentioned the fuzed 250 kg bomb still at Erith.
After this next assignment had been completed Jack was going to surprise his team by taking them to Charlton Park, his 10,000 acre estate, for a fortnight’s rest and recuperation after treating his men and his secretary, Beryl, to a slap-up meal at Kempinski’s. They had all been slogging hard, felt utterly exhausted, and deserved a break. Jack and his confidante Fredders had been talking of late about what they’d do after the war. They made plans to take their respective families to Australia where Jack had once owned a working sheep farm called North Toolburra in Queensland. Out there in the bush in the hot dry sun, on a horse and miles of countryside to farm, isolated from the crowds, he could hear himself think, be himself. Away from England with its incessant bombing and the increasing mountain of bombs piling higher every day all waiting to be defuzed. There was no doubt they would all benefit from the healthy lifestyle and a wonderful place for his sons to grow up. Jack was exhausted and wished the damn war would let up but with Germany’s need for order and supremacy he knew they would never relent.
That afternoon, on Saturday 10th May, he took leave of his family at Charlton after spending a relaxing but brief weekend and drove back again to London, refreshed and ready for work and to meet up with his team. Even though Jack wasn’t aware of it, Rudolf Hess picked that day to pilot a Messerschmitt to Scotland for alleged peace talks. The following day Jack visited Erith Marshes, a spot beyond east London, to inspect Old Faithful. The sun was out and, if it didn’t slip behind a passing cloud, it warmed him. It was a habit of his to wrap up on cool days in as many layers of clothing as possible in order to heat his rheumatic bones. He set aside Old Faithful for the following day. To Jack’s eye it looked corroded and dejected, it was unexploded but not ticking.
He decided on an early night because tomorrow would be an eventful day. Once the bomb was out of the way they’d drive to his favourite restaurant. He knew exactly what he was going to have – chicken chasseur with rice with a nice bottle of white to help it go down - then onto Charlton for two weeks. He couldn’t wait to spend more time with Mimi and the boys. Bloody war! Before he got into bed he looked out the window at the night sky, it was clear and dry. A good omen.
Jack woke early the next morning, drew back the curtains and examined the view. His prediction had been right, just the ticket for the job in hand. He’d telephoned Mimi the night before, the boys had become excited at the prospect of seeing their father. The afternoon turned quite warm, around sixty-four, maybe sixty-five degrees, he hazarded a guess. He left his balaclava and scarf at his apartment. Between 12.30 and 1.00 o’clock he was back at Erith Marshes with his ear pressed up against Old Faithful’s cold steel casing. Jack wasn’t happy. He hushed his men and listened again. He was right the first time. He jumped into one of the lorries with Beryl and a driver and drove over to the Borax Consolidated Factory, 25 BD Coy Headquarters, to use their telephone.
Early that morning Ken Tinker, Borax’s office boy, had peddled his weary way across Belvedere Marsh to work on the Thames embankment when he saw an army contingent of half a dozen vehicles pull away from the bomb dump as fast as their overworked vehicles would allow. He guessed another unexploded bomb had been added to the “Bomb Dump” as the locals called it, in a locality less than three hundred yards from the open road, where every retrieved unexploded bomb in this area of south-east London had been gingerly lowered from the lorry that had carted it from the point of where it had been dug up. So far, approximately a hundred bombs lay on the surface from which detonators had been removed. Every Borax shift going to and from the factory using bicycles or simply walking the mile from the railroad station to the factory passed within a few hundred yards of the Marshes. That few hundred yards separated them from certain death if a delayed action bomb still possessed an active fuze.
It was a glorious May morning after yet another night of sirens, planes, anti-aircraft fire and bombs. Cycling towards the factory, Ken was glad to see it intact although shrouded in a light blue cloud of smoke. Inside the gates the still of the morning was shattered by the roar of fire pumps working on the remains of an oil bomb that had fallen at the base of the two-hundred foot chimney. Such bombs were rarities, designed to hurl flaming masses of waste oil products in every which way. The marsh on the east side of the factory was peppered with grey mounds of Rasorite, Borax’s raw material, which had been scattered when a high explosive bomb hit the sacks of material waiting to be processed. Up on the jetty, Henry Bishop had finally managed to persuade his stubborn old steam crane into action, and begun the task of unloading barges of that same raw material moored alongside.
Chaos greeted Ken in the office as the night’s damage was being assessed. He reported to Head Office who had been bombed out of their London office, now operating from the comparative safety of the countryside in Oxshott, Surrey. The staff used Ken as a runner to collect the night shift’s shortened production figures from the shift foremen now otherwise engaged in coaxing the shattered wheels of production back to work. Back at his desk, Ken tried hard to resume his normal work but the jovial atmosphere induced by the foremen turning in reports of damage to equipment and lists of men who failed to clock-in for work rendered his routine work virtually impossible. As the day wore on, their sole contact with the outside world was the single telephone, ERITH 2163, in a kiosk beside his desk. The phone was going mad that day as missing workers reported their lack of transportation, death and injuries to family members requiring their presence, among a dozen or so other legitimate reasons for their absence.
Ken heard an army vehicle pulling into the yard, a daily occurrence as army personnel often came to use their phone – wireless communication had ceased to exist, or was prohibited because of security concerns. A sudden break in the general noise of loud talk caused him to look up. He walked over to join several staff members staring intently through the window at the lorry parked outside. A man bundled up in civilian clothes as though expecting a snow storm jumped down from the driver’s seat and was now standing beside the closed passenger door engaged in conversation with the person seated inside. The door as with most army vehicles had no windows and it was not difficult to see the person seated inside who just happened to be female, which was quite unique because bomb squads never included ATS girls on their staff roster. Furthermore, the lady was dressed in civilian clothes which were half concealed by an army greatcoat wrapped around her shoulders. Watchers at the windows stood gawping at the unexpected appearance of an attractive young female in their rough and tumble world.
No one ever dreamt of knocking on the office door so the sudden crash of a healthy set of knuckles with two imperious thuds on the wooden door caused Ken to jump. He slid off his stool, glanced over at the clock – it was just after 1.00 o’clock – and reached the door in short order. Upon opening it he was brought face-to-face with a handsome bear of a man with a mass of shaggy dark hair, sporting a smile that would have won any woman in an instant, and a gentle voice that belied his impressive size. He was wearing a naval duffle coat and rubber boots which reached his knees. There was no visible insignia on the coat, not even a gold braided cap which, somehow, in that first few seconds of eye contact Ken expected.
“May I use your telephone?” the man asked in a rich upper crust accent as he strode past Ken into the office, not waiting for an answer. Fred Payne the office manager and veteran of WW1 assured him he could indeed, while the office boy stood open mouthed to one side.
After that brief exchange, Ken dutifully wiped the hand piece with a disinfected cloth he kept handy after the instrument had been used by a sweating barge man who was used to handling a four inch hawser, who was completely insensitive to the fact he was practically crushing the hand piece. Shouting to a point where the phone was hardly necessary to talk over the four miles upriver to his base office.
Their visitor was too large to enter the kiosk and close the door behind him so every word he spoke was audible to the now suddenly silent office. His opening words were very clear. “Suffolk here, old man, we have one active so we will have to deal with it immediately. I need a Mark II magnetic clock stopper and a Mark 2 electronic stethoscope…” The rest of his telephone conversation to Captain Kenneth Privett RE was lost to Ken’s memory as everyone rushed outside to the gate. The office manager gave the boy a stern look, and together they stayed while their visitor completed his exchange. Ken heard him explaining in calm measured tones that the mechanical clock in the 250 kg heavy explosive was running. Probably, thought Ken, jerked into life during the journey to the dump. That indicated he had perhaps hours if not minutes to extract the detonator before it exploded. The Earl ended his conversation, leant on Ken’s desk and after some good natured bantering bid them a cheery “Good day, Gentlemen,” and left the yard with his driver accelerating away at high speed.
Two or three minutes later Jack arrived back at the dump and the crowd outside the factory gate filtered away, and staff in the office moved away from the windows and resumed their work.
The young office boy had never in his life met the likes of the Earl before.
Before Jack and the team got down to work they were offered and accepted a welcome brew and a genial chit chat with Mrs Cooper, the mother of a young boy, who lived in one of the cottages close by in a small village of seventeen cottages and a pub called The New Marsh Tavern.
Having the Earl sitting in his kitchen sipping tea with his mother brought back frightening memories for Mrs Cooper’s boy of WWI when, one night in 1914, a string of four bombs were dropped by a Zeppelin in those same fields. His father had raced up the stairs to where the kids were sleeping, grabbed them from their beds and ran downstairs again placing the young ones underneath the kitchen table. The German planes had been trying to bomb the searchlight in one of the fields mounted on top of residue from the Borax works near their cottage. While the Earl and a few of his men in the cottage were enjoying the pleasant chin wag, some cheeky inquisitive children had crawled through the protective fence of the Marsh to inspect the bomb that was attracting so much attention. Before they could do any damage, they were seen and shouted at ‘Oi, you lot, go on, get out of ‘ere’ by a soldier with attitude.
Just after the men arrived back at the bomb site, Jack had a welcome visitor – his friend and mentor, his Master, Dr Gough, who had always been a bit nervous about Jack. Although the Earl gave the appearance of being slap-dash at times, he knew him to be meticulous to detail. Yet for some reason he was uneasy about him that day so he decided to motor from London to see how he was getting on and found everything was as it should be. Jack was going through all the motions of safety, taking every precaution he should. His Master drove back to the city completely satisfied, his worries alleviated.
Meanwhile, Lance Corporal Brownrigg, the NCO in charge of the stethoscope and clock stopper equipment, Sergeant Cole, and Staff Sergeant Atkins had driven from their Headquarters at Westbury Lodge in Wythfield Road, Eltham, with the equipment requested by Jack; the traffic had been reasonably light, arriving at the Marshes around 2.45 p.m. Driver Sharratt drove behind them in the Guy Truck carrying the hefty batteries required for the clock stopper that weighed around 81.5 kg. Atkins pulled to a halt, took hold of the stethoscope and jumped into the lorry with Jack and Fred Hards and drove over to where the bomb lay. A moment later, Dave Sharratt followed. Jack, Beryl, Fred, who everybody knew as the The Holy Trinity, Atkins, Sharratt and the remainder of the Earl’s team stood within ten yards of the bomb.
Jack and Staff Sergeant Atkins worked on the bomb for a few short minutes as Sapper Liposta watched the Earl proceeding to remove the base plate of the bomb, which was usually hidden under the fins that had no doubt been ripped off when it had landed. He needed to remove it in order to gain access to the explosives which could then be steamed out. The heavy magnetic clock stopper and a stethoscope were then placed into position by the men. Nearby, Atkins was listening intently though the headphones attached to the bomb to see if it was ticking. Jack told Liposta and another sapper to start filling the water tank for the steam generator from the nearby ditch. The men were completely absorbed in their work and each one knew the odds. Although brows were deeply furrowed in concentration, their work mentally and physically challenging, they were confident. Each sweating man had done this before, over and over and over again.
It was Jack’s thirty-fifth bomb and he had, just couple of months ago, celebrated his thirty-fifth birthday with friends and family in fine style, his life was indeed blessed. It seemed as though he’d been doing this forever. Hopefully, one day, he’d be free of it all to follow his dream in Australia. He’d had more than enough of war, running all over southern England searching for bombs and fuzes, and his ancestral home Charlton Park was a financial burden, but these were thoughts he kept to himself. Maybe it was just tiredness talking.
Sometimes he felt like they were fighting a losing cause because whatever they did, it wasn’t adequate enough. The Germans always seemed one step ahead. He admired and respected his team, had every confidence in them, and he loved his country, so he wasn’t about to give up until the enemy gave in, hence the two weeks R n R. They were a tight bunch, their spirits were high, each knew what other was thinking and they relied on one another other totally. Jack saw them as a well-knitted, well-loved jumper all woven together. They enjoyed being filthy, scruffy and exhausted because with that came the knowledge of a job well done. They were a good team, they laughed a lot, told each other dirty jokes, mouthed obscenities and often got drunk together.
Jack stood on the side lines watching his men who were hard at work, like family to him. He fixed a Dubarry cigarette into his long cigarette holder and lit it. A quick puff always settled his nerves before defuzing the bloody things. He patted his pocket, yes, the other holder was still there in case either one broke, it wouldn’t do being without that. The sun was out and warm on his face, bringing for Jack a sudden rush of excitement and gratitude for his life; he was looking forward to the surprised looks on his men’s faces when they saw Charlton for the first time. Jack smiled to himself as he thought back to the other day when one of the lads, known for being nosy, asked him about his wife and his sons, and about where he’d been brought up. Jack never liked talking about his private life, it wasn’t for public consumption. But that day had been different, they had shared a few drinks after a strenuous day’s work and the atmosphere had turned mellow. It seemed eons since he’d been a little boy rushing around the rooms and halls of his ancestral home, or out riding his horse, playing with his dogs.



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