Wednesday, July 25, 2007

The Churchill Series - July 25, 2006

(One of a series of weekday posts on the life of Winston S. Churchill.)

The Winter (97/98) edition of Finest Hour, The Churchill Centre's quarterly, contains an outstanding article by it's then editor, Ron Cynewulf Robbins. Robbins' article, "Unswerving Resolution, Glinting Intellect," includes condiserable information about Churchill's and Britain's responses to the German's use of delayed-fuse bombs. [excerpts]:

At the onset of the Blitz [,Churchill] instantly perceived hidden dangers in the podgy below-normal-size bombs suddenly augmenting the terrorizing of London. Nose down, scores of them lay partially buried and he was convinced they had not gone off because they possessed a secret feature: delayed-action fuses.

His fears arose from his recollection of Germany's use of that type fuse during the previous conflict. Surely, he thought, the passing years had been marked by a startling advance in design? Subsequent events proved he was right.

As soon as the apparent "duds" were dropped, he injected his famous sense of urgency into the military machine. He insisted that the UXBs (short for unexploded bombs) must be dealt with rapidly. They were clustered at railway junctions. Traffic was piling up. Invasion loomed and lines to the south coast were imperative for men and material needed to repel an already mightily triumphant army poised in France, barely twenty miles from English shores.

The UXBs had triple objectives: to kill, demoralize the population, and disrupt vital production. The Germans, exploiting surreptitious pre-war mapping of strategically important factories and other essential facilities, were cunningly selecting targets: first London, then the rest of the country.

Spurred on by Churchill, the army organized bomb disposal squads with great expediency. The chief recruits were from the Royal Engineers, whose courage adorns British history. Their task wracked the nerves and wore down the strongest physique.

They worked steadfastly, even though they realized only the luckiest among those carrying out the final act of defusing would survive longer than just over a couple of months without being maimed or killed.

Sometimes Londoners, trapped beneath a bomb, clung desperately to life for long hours before soldiers could render the fuse harmless and haul them gently to safety. The plight of children was especially harrowing.

Churchill always met and thanked UXB squads when he toured bombed areas. He was deeply moved by their pallid cheeks and the strain etched on youthful brows. Throughout the war he did not encounter more haggard looks.

Despite what they had endured, their greetings were heartwarming, their loyalty firm and true. He commented: "Somehow or other their faces seemed different from those of ordinary men, however brave or faithful." Yet, he saw courage continued to shine in their eyes.

From the start of the UXB crisis, Churchill had pressed hard for the best possible equipment. Typically, he investigated what the United States might have available.

Inevitably, initial training for the squads was meager and the tools elementary. Royal Air Force personnel gave demonstrations of exactly how fuses manufactured in Britain were put together. Usually there were no more than half a dozen or so men in a team carefully shifting bombs to an open space where, to begin with, block and tackle, hammers and chisels were the sole equipment for defusion.

Removal of the deadly middle mechanism was a chore reserved for officers. The learning process demanded unflinching sacrifice. In the last four months of 1940 there were 125 deaths.

Six months was the limit for membership of the squads. However, the same soldiers kept extending their period of duty. Some heroes volunteered forty times in succession before death claimed them.

There were encouraging signs that the British were proving too clever for their opponents. The knack of teasing out a fuse after undoing the locking ring was quickly acquired.

The Germans now threw down a bigger challenge, with an infinitely more dangerous spring detonator. British science solved this problem too. Since the explosive was soluble, it was decided to steam it out, rendering the fuse ineffective. [...]

[Churchill's] marshalling of British brainpower and technocrats stands for all time as the achievement of a master mind. Added to this was his gift of inspiring himself and others to almost super-human endeavours. Inventions and daring enterprises were brought to swift completion; the will to win was marvelously served by instruments forged for victory with unparalleled resourcefulness.
When I think back on the people who volunteered for UXB work, I always admire their courage and ask myself where their sense of self-sacrifice came from. We owe the UXB people and others who sacrificed during WW II so much.

Tomorrow we continue the series on Churchill and the delayed-fuse bombs