Royal Navy Bomb & Mine Disposal
Imagine you are sent to Malta as an RMS (‘Rendering Mines Safe’) and Minesweeping maintenance officer while war rages on. You are told that the people you are replacing both died defusing a German mine. This is precisely the situation Commander Edward D. Woolley found himself in:
Lt Anthony Gusterton Rogers, RNVR, and Commissioned Boatswain Joseph Herbert Sheldon, (both attached to HMS St Angelo) were killed while disarming a mine on 23rd May, 1941. […] He got caught with a booby-trap after the normal rendering safe procedure. As I was to find out myself, in a place like Malta you are on your own, and you haven’t always got the equipment for ensuring a reasonable degree of safety. In this case he was trying to free the magnetic unit for examination but when he loosened the last nut it must have been spring loaded as it fired a ten-pound booby charge. (Galea, p 41)
Mines, being parachuted into the harbour, sometimes drifted off target onto land. On some occasions, this was intentional to attack light buildings or open spaces. Oftentimes they landed in hard to reach places, such as the sewer in Tigne Barracks or underneath Fort Delimara.
Later on, Woolley would be in charge of Mine disposal in Malta. Based on Manoel Island, Woolley and his men would deal with mines dropped in the Grand harbour, along the coast, and everywhere else they could land. Working on mines every day, each variant got its own name. ‘Charlie’ for the type C, ‘Donald’ D, ‘Arthur’, ‘Bertie’ and so on. One of the toughest to render safe was ‘George’: ‘GC’ magnetic mine, the same type which had killed his predecessor. On one occasion, a fisherman took him right over a perfect example:
He rowed on and on and then stopped, looked all around him and signified we had arrived. I put the water glass over the side and damn my eyes we were sitting slap on top of a very fine magnetic mine (Galea, p. 46)
The usual procedure entailed countermining it. A small charge would be placed on the mine to detonate it on site, as was sometimes done with bomb disposal on dry land. If the bomb was in deep water but visible, a weight could be added to the charge so it could be lowered just on top of the mine. Disposing of the fisherman’s mine, the first attempt failed and he had to return two days later when the seabed had cleared again. If the mine was on land, the mine disposal team would still have to face the possibility of a photoelectric sensor inside, forcing them to work in a light-proof tent or in the night’s pitch black.
Several methods were devised to deal with German mine developments. For acoustically triggered mines, it was suggested that a metal chain is dragged across the mine. It was also reasoned that since these mines were equipped with a device that prevented full detonation when counter-mining (an explosion or large disturbance), a decisive hit on the mine would disable it for a few seconds. None of these methods were used. Woolley writes:
I don’t know who tested this theory: he was a better man than I am Gunga din. Personally I never used it, and continued to rely on my four-leafed clover and my athletic prowess (Galea, p. 45)
When mines were found on land, they could, after defusal, be burned away in situ. He didn’t find this as exciting as detonating them at sea. It was very satisfying to see a column of water rise hundreds of feet above him. The noise would also start a race between fishermen rushing towards the site to pick up dead fish!
Mine disposal was not an isolated job. Woolley worked alongside, amongst others, Lt. Blackwell, one of two officers in the army’s bomb disposal section at the time. The two men relied on each other to fight the growing threat of unexploded ordnance showing up everywhere in Malta. This often required ingenuity and a general disregard for formalities. On one fine Sunday, Blackwell woke Woolley up with his car’s horn just outside his window: there was a mine in Hamrun. On another occasion, both men went down to the dockyard to look at a new and very strange mine. After a lot of head scratching and asking around it turned out to be a torpedo off a Greek submarine (Galea, p. 63-64)
New contraptions to understand and test came to the island from time to time. Early morning on the 26th of July in 1941, searchlights broke the blackout and 6 pounder guns followed suit with their bark. Machine gun fire startled Commander Woolley out of his sleep to a colourful night-sky as tracers lit up the harbour. Being a Minesweeping Maintenance officer, he would get a much closer look at the strange sea-craft that attacked the Grand Harbour. Frightened by the knowledge of the vehicles as “a sort of drivable torpedo” he tried to figure out how to deal with them in a somewhat safe manner. One of the salvaged motor torpedo boats was beached on Manoel island. After careful defusal, Woolley ‘began to play’. It seems that this experience changed his perception of the enemy, especially after driving the Italian boat:
A pretty suicidal job I should think, and rather altered my opinion as to the personal bravery of the Wops. I had some fun later doing speed tests in it, and it really was a wow – did about 40 mph and was a marvellous thing to handle. It was taken from me eventually to be shipped to England, much to my disgust. (Galea, p. 50-54)
Perhaps the enjoyment mine disposal teams found in such unique opportunities eased their anxiety for what was an extremely dangerous job. On the 5th of February, 1942 Lt-Cdr Ewart Hiscock met his fate defusing a ‘torpedo machine’ in St George’s bay. He was posthumously awarded the George Cross.
As mines were used alongside bombs on land, mine disposal became even more dangerous. It was quite common to have to defuse a mine in the middle of an airfield under attack, on shorelines, in the bombed and crumbling houses of Luqa, Gzira, Kalkara or Tarxien, or even bombs found close to shore. Sometimes, it was a weapon nobody had ever seen let alone knew how it worked or best rendered safe. All of which required burning, counter-mining, or defusal by Malta’s Royal Navy Mine Disposal force. For many years after, mines and other unexploded ordnance was disposed of by the Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) sections of the Royal Navy and the Armed Forces of Malta.
Galea, R.F, Mines Over Malta: Wartime Exploits of Commander Edward D. Woolley, Wise Own Publications, Rabat, Malta.