Malta Fortress Squadron Royal Engineers Bomb Disposal
Throughout Malta’s history, the enemy always came from the sea. Along the coastline, tall limestone towers pepper the island to the North and South. But on the 11th of June in 1940, the enemy arrived from high above. Bombs fell on houses, theatres, barracks, and empty roads. For the first few weeks of June, Malta and its garrison felt completely defenceless beneath the deadly sky. As Ellul Mercer recounts of the day:
“Today was for us a baptism of fire. I remember my fear during the fight. I felt that which I never dreamt I could feel. In one instance, the bomb’s screaming as they fell all around us, the clamor of firearms outside the garden door, and the relentless shots from the Terror [HMS Terror] and sounds of tremoring furniture, instilled in me fear the likes of which I could not defeat.
I imagine the sadness I started to feel was similar to those in their final hour in life. However, the fear that conquered me was powerful, and as much as I wanted to flee from death, I also wanted to get lost and die so that I could not hear those horrific noises anymore.
When all was quiet, I lay on my mattress on the ground; and, without delay, lost myself in tiredness. I slept for a long while, during you, oh night.” (2012, p. 12)
The psychological impact of the bombardment was acute. So much so that the British were afraid the Maltese would not be able to withstand it. As Ellul further notes:
“The British commanders thought that after the first raid on us, the Maltese would plot against them; and they wouldn’t tolerate the situation. From all this nothing happened.” (p. 13)
Until the illustrious blitz, Italian bombs were the only threat from the sky. Armed with simple fuzes, unexploded ordnance could, until then, be quite easily handled and disposed of. If it could not be detonated in situ, a simple but careful fuze extraction could be performed before dumping it at sea. The Engineers were also busy building shelters, defensive positions, and coordinating all sorts of works on an island under siege. On January 16th, the earth shook beneath the people of Malta and its garrison. Hundreds of Stukas dived into the khaki camouflaged armored carrier HMS Illustrious. The scale and intensity of the bombing were many times greater than that endured so far. More so, it was the beginning of a long list of UXBs: Unexploded Bombs.
Malta’s 24th Fortress Royal Engineers formed a dedicated bomb disposal company on the 10th of November 1940. It was founded under Lt. Talbot, an experienced officer from No.103 bomb disposal in England. By 1943, 5 bomb disposal officers would command the company. Namely, Lt. Carroll, Lt. Blackwell, Lt. Ashall, Lt. Whitworth, and Lt. Lavington. All were in contact with bomb disposal command in England and knew all about the latest methods to deal with the different bombs and their fuzes. The most common, type 25, was an electric impact fuze. It was armed as it left the bomber and- depending on the setting- could be set to detonate shortly after or up to 11 seconds timed delay (for low and high altitude bombing). The countdown did not mean that the bomb would detonate once finished. Rather, being armed only meant that it would be sensitive to shock. The bomb would be armed before it hit the ground where the impact would force closed the charged electric circuit and detonate it.
On some of the bombs dropped on Malta, for one reason or another, the fuze did not detonate on impact. This could simply mean that they were armed with a specific ‘time-delay’ fuze: a steel mechanical clock that detonates the bomb after a preset amount of time known as ‘Type 17’. However, they were rarely used and almost exclusively on 250kg or bombs or larger. The most common reason for an unexploded bomb is the rare event where a fuze failed to arm itself before impact, doing so after it has come to rest. Other reasons might be that the fuze gets damaged or deformed as it hits the ground or (allegedly) some fault in the manufacturing process. To some extent, every UXB had its reasons for not detonating. A large portion of bomb disposal is figuring out precisely why the bomb did not detonate, and how to keep it from doing so until everyone is safe.
For the people that had to deal with the bombs that did not detonate, they formed a peculiar opinion of them. Witnessing explosions of all sizes in innumerable circumstances, Lt Carroll explained his uneasy interest in the enemy’s devastating weapon:
That was a curious thing about bombs when they went off. If you watch what happens when a stone drops into water, the water mushrooms up. The same thing happens with bomb explosions – sometimes people were so close to an exploding bomb that they were blown over and their clothes were ripped off but they were left physically unhurt” – LT Carrol (Hudson, 2010)
The bombing campaigns of the second world war inaugurated a new scale and type of warfare. This development did not happen overnight. Designed by Hubert Ruhlemann from Rheinmetall, the Germans tested their fuzes and ordnance in Russia in the 1930s and real combat during the Spanish Civil war. The bombing campaign on Malta started with considerable knowledge from their pre-war experience and just over a year of operation over Poland, England, France, and Yugoslavia, to mention a few. They realized that to inflict the most damage their bombs had to detonate underground. By doing so, the explosion could release all its energy into the earth, dismantling buildings and throwing debris into the air. For this reason, impact fuzes and their delayed 3-stage explosive design worked best.
If the bomb failed to detonate, depending on its size, weight, and the ground, it could be found anywhere between a few feet to 8 meters into the ground. More so, they would generally curve as they came to rest from their diagonal descent forming ‘J’ underground. The first job of the bomb disposal company in Malta was to find the bomb, which could be meters away and deep below the actual entry hole. For this reason, most of their operations consisted of hours and even days of careful digging. On most occasions, if they are in remote or uninhabited locations, evacuation areas could be guarded and left to detonate. Once they find the bomb and identify its fuze, and wait for the appropriate amount of time (for the fuze to discharge) they had to decide whether evacuate the area or if it was worth opting for the ever daunting operation of defusing it. For that reason, they would identify the nature of the threat and place it on the list accordingly:
A1: immediate disposal essential, detonation in situ not acceptable
A2: immediate disposal essential, detonation in situ permissible
B: urgent disposal
C: not necessarily calling for immediate disposal
D: To be disposed of as convenient” (Hudson, 2010)
In the uncommon event of an A1, if the UXB threatened lives or important infrastructure directly, the BD team got to work to remove it. On some occasions, they had no choice but to take out their equipment and carefully take out the fuze. This was more likely to occur in Malta since, unlike much larger countries like England and France, the natural small scale of the island meant that bombs were always in proximity to some important site. Using updated manuals and updated instructions from research facilities in England, as well as on-the-spot ingenuity, Fortress Royal engineers defuzed hundreds of bombs of all shapes and sizes. The exact amount of defused bombs and other ordnance (such as friendly anti-aircraft shells) dealt with can never be known; so many enemy bombs were handled between February and March 1942 that they could not keep up with their records. Officially, between 1940 and 1942, they disposed of 1562 high-explosive, 4552 anti-personnel, and 388 incendiary bombs between 6 officers, 7 NCOs, and 16 sappers (Hudson, 2010).
“A member of the Bomb Disposal Squad […] should be of excellent character and prepared for the afterlife”
“A member of the BDS should be strong, unmarried, and be able to run fast”
— Answers to Royal Engineers entrance exam for Bomb Disposal Sections (Freeman, 2015, p.158)
The Technical Stuff: What bombs and how did they do it?
Come rain or shine, the Royal Engineers in Malta would head out to render safe hundreds of UXBs. They would work with the Royal Navy bomb disposal section (focused on parachute mines and other naval threats) and the R.A.F to develop, manufacture or receive the most effective tools and methods for the job. They would also work closely with the local Air Raid Precaution teams and the regular army to keep track of UXBs and evacuate the affected areas safely. This organised network of services prevented unnecessary loss of life.
UXB reports came in from A.R.P, regimental, and dedicated observation posts. Noticing where exactly a bomb travelling at hundreds of kilometres an hour falls and disappears below the ground is a tough job on its own. A big part of bomb disposal was the active reconnaissance of UXB locations. While the usual sites were the areas around the Grand Harbour and the airfields (Ta’ Kali, Qrendi, Luqa, Hal Far, and Safi), bombs could fall anywhere around the island. In Zejtun, relatively far from the more urban localities of Malta, Butterfly bombs fell on the 2nd of May, 1942 killing 21 and wounding 30. Some bombs also fell in the North of the island such as the well-known UXB that went through and landed beneath the large dome of Mosta’s church in April of the same year.
For small anti-personnel bombs, one had to find the bomb itself. For larger UXBs sites could be identified by looking at craters and holes. Once a report is filed, and depending on its urgency, a squad is sent to the location, referred to by the locals as ‘tal-bomba’ (‘the bomb man/men’) (Hudson, 2010, p. 71). Upon arrival, if the decision to evacuate or detonate is not viable, the royal engineers figure out the best way to defuse it. This was done with very simple tools. Later on, they would have at their disposal specific tools researched and made in England.
Methods and equipment evolved throughout the war under the direction of the Unexploded Bomb Committee (UXBC) and its research sub-committee. By direct order of this body, some practices would be stopped altogether as new fuzes started to be used and older ones better studied. Specially designed equipment was manufactured and shipped to UXB teams around the Empire as the war progressed. For those in Malta and all theatres of war, what bomb disposal resulted in is a cat and mouse game where German engineers deploy a new fuze only to completely change it every time the allies found out how to defuse it safely.
German bombs Electrical Fuzes.
It is impossible to explain bomb defusal in the second world war without explaining the fuzes themselves first. Unlike Italian or British bombs, Germany went to war with electric fuzes. They were titled EI.A.Z. (Electrische Aufschlag Zünder: ’electric impact fuze’), EL.ZT.Z or L.Zt (Langzeitzuender) among other names according to their function. Depending on the title, they had the appropriate letters as well as their specific type and manufacturing date stamped on the very top. This meant that the royal engineers could identify what kind and type of fuze they were dealing with easily. Type 15 and 25 (the most common) meant delayed impact, 17 was clockwork (or time), and 50 was an impact and time fuze with anti-handling devices (tremblers). It is not known if a type 50 (Y) ‘boobytrap’ fuze was ever used on Malta. More so, time fuzes could be fitted with a ‘Zus 40’ anti-extraction device. A deadly and simple device where a pin would be released and ‘fired’ into a primer the moment the fuze is lifted out of the bomb.
According to the delay setting chosen, the electric charge ‘leaks’ from the first condenser to another known as the ‘firing condenser’. The circuit is left open and is constructed in such a way that the bomb’s impact forced its ‘switch’ to close. When that happens, and the circuit is closed, the electric charge ignites a black powder trail (meant to delay denotation so the bomb can travel deeper underground after impact) or a small, primary explosive in a compartment just below the tube known as the ‘gaine’ (filled with PETN, ‘nitropenta’) . This detonates the secondary charge known as the ‘booster’ (made of picric acid ‘pikrinsäure’) below the gaine but still inside the metal tube within the bomb known as the ‘fuze pocket’. Once the gaine explodes the secondary charge or booster, the explosion is big enough to rupture the pocket and denote the main explosive of the bomb. As the 1942 ‘Summary of German (Rheinmetall) electric fuzes’ explains:
These fuzes depend for their operation on a circuit consisting of an electrically charged “reservoir” condenser, connected with one or more “firing” condensers through high resistances. After the release of the bomb reservoir condenser is transferred slowly to the turn is connected, through a suitable switch, to closing of the circuit by this switch causes the fires the igniter.
As you might expect, the key to disarming the electric impact fuze is to remove its electric charge. This is exactly what they did once adequate equipment was manufactured and reached the besieged island. To begin with, one could wait half an hour hoping that the fuze might lose its charge by itself. Afterwhich, contact with the fuze can begin with caution. For type 15 fuzes, more common in the early years of the war, a special device was made known as a ‘Crabtree’ discharger’. It was a compact, small, circular brass device with two prongs extending from beneath it. This tool would fit on the very tip of a German fuze with its two brass prongs pushing down the plungers. While it is in place, the Type 15 would have an open circuit and could be removed without the threat of it becoming closed and detonating. It was also made so that it was secured tightly and, with its brass loop on the top, could be used to pull out the fuze with a string from a safe distance; just in case.
This method was so simple and successful that British media could not resist but capitalise on it to improve morale. Back in England, they boasted how simple bomb defusal was and the minimal threat the German bombs posed if they did not explode. They published stories with detailed pictures of the defusal process in streets, houses, and gardens, including their ingenious device. British researchers were furious. In a letter dated 11th November 1940, H.J Gouch, director of Scientific research writes to the British high command that “any publicity of this kind is highly undesirable” and will likely give the enemy “opportunities of defeating those methods”. Soon enough, Rheinmetall found out and rewired their fuses (such as the type 25) so that they could detonate if the plungers were depressed.
A new method was needed to make fuzes safe before extraction. Being made out of electric components, the most straightforward method was to drain them by putting a liquid through the plungers and any other opening. Ideally, it would allow the electric charge to dissipate slowly without conducting and completing the circuit. The ‘BD Plug Fuze Discharger’ discharger would use a bicycle pump to push a special mixture known as ‘BD fluid’ into the fuze through the plungers. The red liquid would be made from water, salt, benzol, methylated spirit, and some red food coloring to make the otherwise clear liquid visible. This would be pumped into the fuse using a special brass fuze-clamping device.
The components in the top part of the fuze (switch block) were placed in polystyrene and/or bituminous material to prevent any fluid from entering through the plungers to seep into the low part containing all the important circuitry. Before pressured dischargers were available, a small hand-operated drill was used to punch a hole in a very specific place on the fuze. Once through, a small pipe is attached to the hole, secured with putty (or a luting agent, otherwise known as dental cement), and BD fluid is pumped directly through it, hopefully circumventing the switch block. This was additionally risky as more contact and friction with the delicate fuze were inevitably required. To deal with the uncommon type 17 ‘time-fuze’, a device known as the Steven’s Stopper created a vacuum in the fuze before introducing a sugar solution. This would seep into fuze anyway it could (primarily through the plungers) to immobilise the clock. It was discovered that the sticky solution conceived to immobilise clocks could also seep below and significantly slow down the striker or dampen the charge of a Zus-40 anti-withdrawal device commonly attached below it. If such a device is found, some “dental impression powder” was inserted into the fuze pocket after removing the Type 17 fuze to render the slowly moving detonator immobile, and therefore safe for extraction (Gauch, 2016, p. 13).
To deal with the uncommon type 17 ‘time-fuze’ BD fluid could not be used; it could event cause it to detonate. Instead, a device known as the Steven’s Stopper created a vacuum in the fuze before introducing a sugar solution. This would seep into fuze anyway it could (primarily through the plungers) to immobilise the clock. It was discovered that the sticky solution conceived to immobilise clocks could also seep below and significantly slow down the striker or dampen the charge of a Zus-40 anti-withdrawal device commonly attached below it. If such a device is found, some “dental impression powder” was inserted into the fuze pocket after removing the Type 17 fuze to render the slowly moving detonator immobile, and therefore safe for extraction (Gauch, 2016, p. 13).
However, it was extremely dangerous to extract any type 17 and its immediate disposal was strongly advised. To this end, a rather large electro-magnet could also be used to create such a strong magnetic field that the steel clock would be paralyzed. In doing so, the bomb-disposal team created a window of opportunity where the bomb could be transported with the clock-stopper/electromagnet attached towards a safe dumpsite. With this method, they could completely avoid an unnecessary encounter with an anti-withdrawal device placed below the fuze. In Malta, they would keep the hefty 40kg magnet attached until the very last second before removing it and rolling the bomb off the cliffs into the sea below. (Hudson, p. 155). By dumping instead of detonating a bomb with a Type 17 fuze, the engineers also saved extremely scarce explosive charges. (Hudson, 2010, p. 155)
The process was not always so simple. The Germans also developed the Type 50 anti-handling fuze, which detonates even if the liquid discharger is used or plungers are depressed in any way. (Gauch, 2016). As stated in the bomb disposal manual for August 1942:
The Type 50 (Y) also featured trembler switches and tapered edges on its bottom to prevent extraction. In addition, mercury tilt switches were added. These small devices inside the fuze would close the circuitry and detonate the gain with the slightest movement. To disguise the dangerous fuse, some type 50 Y’s were marked as 25 Bs. However, a distinctive ‘Y’ was still stamped on the side, allowing royal engineers to identify them correctly. They were designed specifically to kill bomb-disposal personnel
Early encounters with both types instigated the development of x-ray technology in ‘field photography’. By sheer luck, a faulty Type 50 ‘Y’ fuze was extracted with brute force in England. After carefully studying their latest find, the research committee realised that the only way to render a type ‘Y’ safe was to disable its unique dry-cell batteries by freezing them. To this end, they poured some liquid oxygen (at -219°C !) over the fuze until it was thoroughly frozen before breaking it off the bomb. Later, they would find out that freezing the fuze only temporarily prevented the type Y’s batteries from discharging. More so, thermometers were not efficient. Cotton was placed on the bomb for the first trial using this method and used from then on. The fuze was considered safe for extraction when a damp cotton ball a foot away from it was completely frozen. (Jappy, 2001, pp. 150, 286-7,
Without liquid oxygen or carbon-dioxide snow, to defuse a type 50 Y, a stopper or BD plug-fuze discharger could not be used since it would cause a short-circuit and possibly cause detonation. However, the new method was not entirely safe with its lingering threat of spontaneous combustion (Jappy, 2001, pp. 152-153). Abroad, Amatol, acid or specially made precision boring machines could be used to punch a hole in the bomb and extract the explosive, by-passing the fuze. This was a very risky procedure relative to the established methods. More so, it required highly specialized equipment. Although there is currently no evidence that Fortress Royal engineers in Malta ever had to defuse a type 50 ‘Y’ during the war, the equipment developed in early 1943 by Major Hudson was found locally.
High Explosive Bombs
The development of air-dropped ordnance is almost as early as the beginning of flight itself. Deploying explosive and flammable devices from flying contraptions possibly dates back to the late medieval period through the use of kites, and in the 19th century with balloons. The first-ever air raid was carried out during the Italo-Turkish war using hand grenades. Aerial bombardment was also documented during the Balkan war in 1912 and the Mexican revolution of 1914. During the first world war, bombing raids using specialised aircraft and zeppelins were common and expected.
20 years later, The Luftwaffe entered the second world war with a vast array of specialised bombs, cast and milled from steel, each fit for a particular purpose. While bombs fell from the sky, mines were parachuted, launched, or dropped outside the harbour and around Malta. This was the responsibility of Malta’s Mine Sweeping Base on Manoel Island (Galea, 2008, p. 43). RAF bomb disposal was responsible for bombs within the airfields. The Fortress Royal Engineers Bomb disposal team at Lintorn Barracks in Floriana, Villa Frere (and later on Bahar Ic-Caghaq) dealt with all the rest. The most common for Malta were variants of the SC (Sprengbombe Cylindrisch) and SD (Sprengbombe Dickwandig). The SC types had a thin metal wall but a larger amount of explosives. They were used as general-purpose bombs and were identifiable with yellow lines on their tail (as well as the shape of the fin and bomb). The SC series also featured metal rings (“kopfrings”) around the body or nose of the bomb to prevent excess penetration by adding surface area. The SD series had red stripes and a thicker wall, especially towards its nose so that it could penetrate its target and detonate deeper inside or below. The latter were much more practical for rocky, limestone Malta.
Both SC and SD and bombs were armed with a variety of fuzes and sizes. The biggest an NCO could defuse was 50kg; larger bombs were an officer’s responsibility (Hudson, 2010, p. 23). Among a long list of variations, they could also be 250, 500, ‘Rocket’, and 1000kg, as well as 35 kg concrete kinetic bombs. Italian ordnance ranged from 15kg up to 227 kg bombs. (Hudson, 2010, pp. 163, 283) The 1000kg bombs were referred to by bomb-disposal teams around the Empire as ‘Hermann’ after the rotund Luftwaffe Commander Hermann Göring. The first was dropped in Naxxar, followed by the Dockyard School, Luqa, Tigne, and St Andrew’s. Another nickname used by the BD teams was ‘Satan’, referring to the even bigger 1800 kg bomb, which was only made in the SC variant. The first one on Malta was dropped on Tigne, Sliema, embedding itself more than 7 metres into the earth. (Hudson, 2010, p.210).
The Germans used Amatol, or cast Trialen: a mixture of TNT, RDX, aluminium, and (in one variation) cyclonite with wax (known as Trialen 105/109 with PMF 109). Owing to a lack of raw materials, TNT alone was the most common filling for bombs. It is insoluble in water, however, TNT has a low melting point of 80.35 °C. Thus, steam could be used to slowly melt it into a sludge. Owing to poor and/or uncertain resupply of explosive charges to detonate bombs safely, the Maltese BD teams would pack the TNT sludge into sandbags to dry, pack and re-use. (Hudson, 2010, p. 75).
Small, innocuous 1kg cylinders also fell on Malta during the war. The B1 EI or Brandbomb ‘Elektron’ incendiary bomb used fire to wreak havoc. It was a hefty piece of magnesium alloy with thermite (aluminium iron oxide) filling. Once ignited, it could melt through steel and cause untold damage to wooden buildings or fuel dumps, especially since they were dropped hundreds at a time.
Unlike other Luftwaffe bombing targets such as London or Bristol, Malta, and its dwellings are made out of local limestone. Consequently, incendiary bombs were not very effective. They did cause minor damage to households and considerable disruption to crops as well as arable land. However, what proved their worth to the enemy was their ability to interrupt daily life as incendiaries still required a small evacuation area and added tasks for the already extremely busy bomb disposal squads. Nevertheless, these bombs carried simple percussion fuses meant to ignite the bomb’s flammable material on impact. Bomb disposal could carefully pick them up and remove their fuze.
If trained sappers were to extinguish an ignited incendiary bomb water could not be used. Magnesium uses the oxygen inside the water and keeps burning. To dispose of incendiary bombs, a metal scoop (also known as the Redhill scoop commercially) was used to dump burning fragments into a bucket of sand, although the magnesium can continue to burn inside it if it is burning vigorously.
During the war, Bomb-disposal squads in Malta also discovered a new type of Italian 70kg incendiary bomb, dropped on Malta in June of 1941. Italian 2kg and 20kg incendiaries were also used. (Hudson, p. pg 84)
On the 6th of June 1942, the island’s Royal Engineers bomb-disposal company would roll up its sleeves to yet another challenge. Dropped hundreds at a time, descending to the ground with their metal wings, ‘Butterfly’ bombs terrorized Malta and its garrison alike.
The small bomb fits in one hand, but its shrapnel-laden blast is deadly at 10 metres and can cause severe injuries up to 100 meters. It would be used with three types of fuses, and arm itself by using two ‘wings’ to rotate its descent towards the ground. Apart from the 41 (time and impact) and the 61 ‘clockwork’ fuze, these anti-personnel bombs were also dropped on Malta with the notorious 70B: an extremely sensitive ‘anti-handling’ fuze meant to detonate the bomb when disturbed after landing.
In barren fields, village rooftops, palace gardens, town squares, and between rubble walls the small bomb would create a nasty surprise for any passerby. By the end of the year, more than 3000 Butterfly bombs would be disposed of by the ‘Fortress’ Royal Engineers. Unfortunately, some would do incalculable damage to innocent lives. Namely, 13-year-old Joe Galea who, in October of the same year, while playing hide and seek, triggered a stray butterfly bomb and died.
Although 1943 was the beginning of the end of the siege of Malta, it wasn’t over for bomb disposal. To this day, after 103 years, in the fields of Passendale and Ypres, the beginning of the planting season is known to bomb-disposal teams as the ‘Iron Harvest’. As soil is plowed and unsettled, shrapnel, fragments, and even entire unexploded bombs re-emerge from beneath. So too in May 1943, Maltese farmers started unearthing Butterfly bombs long forgotten. However, some of them had seemingly grown accustomed to them.
Lieutenant Henry Lavington recounts how he was led by a Maltese farmer to a cactus bush when: “the stupid farmer picked up an anti-personnel bomb from the cactus lead and dropped it at my feet! Just to teach him a lesson, I told him I would blow it up where it lay and made him lie down behind a dry stone wall about 20ft away. I made an extra heavy charge and blew it, with the result that part of the wall was blown over on top of the farmer!” (Hudson, 2010, pp. 244, 257, 268-269)
Fountain Pen bombs
To further target individuals rather than buildings or locations, as early as June 1941, the Germans disguised explosive devices into ordinary items such as shaving sticks and fountain pens in North Africa. Due to their small charge, careful handling and the use of sandbags were enough. Being meticulously small, they were not fitted with any sort of sensitive anti-handling or delayed action fuze. Rather, their disguise as a pen, for instance, would easily allow the German to fit in a detonation device in case the ‘pen’ is opened. There is very some evidence of their use in Malta, however, there certainly were false alarms. So much so that they trained the ARP and other local organizations to identify illegitimate UXB reports. (Hudson, 2010, p. 167)
Not all threats came from the Germans. Late into 1941, metal flasks with a strange propeller on top were scattered on Malta. With thick cylindrical bodies and cup-like heads, they were nicknamed ‘thermos bombs’.
These anti-personnel bombs (AR-4) were designed to explode only when disturbed. Vibration from an airplane taking off or a heavy vehicle passing by would be enough for them to detonate. To dispose of them they were either shot from or yanked with a cord from a safe distance.
It was only after the first appearance of Thermos bombs that the real threat they posed was fully understood. Contrary to the instructions of the fortress royal engineers, the police would carefully pick them up and keep them safe before they are disposed of. This is precisely what happened in Valletta in November of 1941. They collected thermos bombs and stored them at their station: the basement of the Opera House.
One can only imagine the reaction of the bomb-disposal company when they realized what they had done. It was not until December that a very meticulous rig was set up by Lt. Carroll to extract them all safely through a window in the cellar. Using a tripod, pulleys, sandbags, and ample patience he used the remote grabber to get each ‘thermos’ out, one by one, and safely detonated. (Hudson, 2010, p. 119).
Re-enacting bomb disposal
Second world war ordnance is still found and defused. No matter how old do not, under any circumstance, attempt to defuse an explosive device yourself. There are trained professionals that can deal with any sort of un-exploded threat. Possessing and researching all the antique equipment does not mean that one is qualified, capable, or in any way legally allowed to handle any type of real explosive device/ordnance. This text is meant to be a historical analysis of bomb disposal during the second world war, NOT a guide. There are many more steps and precautions one needs to take to even do the process with a semblance of safety when dealing with real unexploded ordnance.
The last person on record that was killed by a butterfly bomb was in Malta. In 1981, a 41-year-old man thought that, after welding it to a metal rod, his ‘canister’ shaped weight was the perfect size to become a hammer. At the very least, in terms of safety, this article can contribute to more awareness of these dangerous devices.
After the war, British EOD teams and the Armed Forces of Malta cleared hundreds of UXBs from Ta’ Qali and Gudja. Albeit rarely, unexploded bombs, ordnance, or explosives can still be found in the countryside, washed up on shores (mines), inside wells (commonly live ammunition), in abandoned places, construction sites, and misinformed antique dealers. No matter how old, they pose a serious threat.
Perhaps it was precisely this alluring danger with ordnance that led us to read up on bombs. It was during Covid lockdown when, for one reason or another, we picked up Sam Hudson’s book ‘UXB Malta’. We read it in a few days and it left us with more questions than answers. A few months later a member of the group found a set of equipment for sale. We would spend the next couple of months researching and restoring every pipe, fitting, bolt, and screw. Some of the equipment was missing, which we had to make or replace. Of course, we needed something to defuse, so we took an original bomb to a stonemason who then carved a faithful replica of the 50kg SD.
Reading personal accounts of bomb disposal in the ‘most bombed place on earth’ is bone-chilling. It was certainly the motivating force to present this impression; as a powerful tool to extend their memory to the public. If Malta received its George Cross for withstanding one of the most intense bombing campaigns in history, there is nobody more deserving of recognition than the people that came face to face with those bombs every day. However, there are no heroics involved, no show of bravery or bravado. We do not want to present bomb disposal as a show of the toughest people during the war. Rather, simply part of the local garrison fulfilling its role with gallantry. As the bomb disposal veterans themselves would put it, it was all “just a job”.
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Federoff, B. (1962). Picatinney Arsenal, Dover USA. Encyclopedia of Explosives and Related Items, Volume 2, p. 117.
Freeman, K. (2015) The Civilian Bomb Disposing Earl: Jack Howard and Bomb Disposal in WW2. Pen & Sword Military.
Galea, F. (20018) Mines Over Malta: Wartime Exploits of Commander Edward D. Woolley. Wise Owl Publications.
Gough, J. (1947) Research and Development applied to Bomb Disposal. The Thirty-Third Thomas Hawksley Lecture.
Hudson, S. (2010). UXB Malta : Royal Engineers bomb disposal, 1940-44. Stroud: Spellmount.
Introduction to German Fuses. Available online at:
Jappy, M.J. (2001). Danger UXB: The Remarkable Story of the Disposal of Unexploded Bombs during the Second World War. London: Macmillan Publishers Ltd.
Owen, J. (2011) Danger Uxb: The Heroic Story of the WWII Bomb Disposal Teams. Abacus
Rickard, J (28 November 2008), SC 1800 Satan German HE bomb, http://www.historyofwar.org/Pictures/pictures_SC_1800_Satan.html
Times of Malta. (2016). When WWII time bombs created terror in Żejtun. Available online at: https://timesofmalta.com/articles/view/When-WWII-time-bombs-created-terror-in-ejtun.610494