- Don Sutherland's Page-

The date was August 23rd 1940 and six of us at Fort Grange (Near Gosport) - plus two armourers - had, more or less volunteered for a job to be executed in the Isle of Wight. All three from our unit were Flt/Mechs, number four was a machine gunner on aerodrome defence and the other two were new recruits - still yet to get their boots dirty. Having hung around for some time - clicking our heels - and endeavouring to figure out the need for the mission, the Armourment Officer arrived in a small truck, the sides of which were approx: one foot in height. We were ordered to load the truck with spades pick-axes and rope, such order not offering any solution to the mystery, so were still in the dark. By that time, it was close to 11am at which point the drone of aircraft could be heard. Looking down past the armoury, we saw at least twelve Ju's 88 approaching and we were ordered into the shelter. This being of the long trench-type with a corrugated roof topped off with turf as a form of camouflage, it was soon to feel the effects of bombs having landed. Dust was seen to drift down from the joins in the iron, while the two Waaf's seated opposite clung together in fright. It was one of those situations in which one feels totally helpless. Just as we were beginning to wonder "how much longer" all went quiet followed by the sound of Spitfighters swooping over the drome.

On emerging from the shelter, we stood staring - somewhat amazed - at the inflicted damage. Our hanger wasn't too bad but the one next door had really copped it. Also of note, was the number of aircraft which having been parked out on the tarmac were seen to be lying upside down. "Come on you men," shouted the Armourment Officer, "climb aboard and let's get out of here." What with the tools and our small kit, we had next to no room to spare. "Keep your eyes open," he cried out, "They could be back." Having trekked for many a mile we arrived at RAF Calshot, where we bunked down for the night. Once again Jerry paid us a visit, but no damage reported. Next morning, with our assortment of tackle we went aboard an air sea rescue boat and were ferried over to Ryde, where we eventually caught a train to Ventnor. From Ventnor station we dragged ourselves uphill to our digs - the Clarendon Boarding House, a Bed & Breakfast situated directly opposite a home for children with breathing problems called St. Catherine's School. Having eaten our evening meal, Jock and I - who shared the same room - decided to go into town for half-a-pint of ale (we couldn't afford any more) and entered a really old pub, the Crab & Lobster at the bottom and to the left of the hill. It reflected character. Having become seated in the corner, away from the crowd of regulars, one old feller at the next table leaned over and called out,"I suppose you're here to dig out the bombs." "What bombs ?" we said in unison.

"Those on top of the hill - neath the pylons." he replied. Jock and I were lost for words and just gaped at each- other. It was then I gave a shrug of the shoulders and muttered, "I suppose so." The next thing we knew, we each had a pint of ale plonked in front of us. It was the middle of the next morning when came face to face with the reason for our visit. Having been transported up St Boniface Down, on a small flat tray truck and dropped off at the scene of the problem - with tools more in line with that of a navvy - it was suggested we do some sand-bagging in order to protect the building we assumed was the living quarters of the radar controllers. Also, what looked like a transformer nearby. The moment the boss was out of sight, we searched the main building for anything of use. I found a pair of brown shoes - just my size. The place had been stripped of equipment and anything of value, but left behind was a safe. Following attempts by one and all, it was finally opened, the contents giving us something to smile about - a roll of copper wire. It was about 1PM when the siren sounded but there was no enemy in sight. Jock and I, plus one of the new bods made our way to the rear of the main building where we had a fantastic view of both the Solent and the Channel. It was brilliant day without hardly a cloud in the sky.

Then with eyes focused on the skyline we saw them coming in - the number hard to define owing to the aeroplanes being strung out in single file. It soon became obvious the likes of Tangmere, Gosport and Lee on Solent were the target for that day. Where we were standing, the ferns were chest high but not sufficient to disguise our presence from the rear gunner of a Dornier flying below us, for St.Boniface is at 750 feet above sea level, our wearing of white vests had made us stand out like a sore eye. We saw his turret turn toward us and soon noted the tracer bullets heading in our direction. Instinctively we dived for cover and when we could be confident that was it safe, we got to our feet just in time to see two Spitfires appear on the scene and attack the Dornier. Seconds later it hit the water and within minutes was no more. "Hoc mon" say's Jock, "that's our entertainment for the day, so back to work."

By the end of the day the sand-bagging had been completed, and we were looking forward to our evening meal. On Monday morning, we were face to face with the real task in hand and armed with a shovel or pickaxe it was a case of getting stuck in. Our first problem was that of the large flint-like stones, which the axes were unable to unearth and sending up sparks in the attempt to do so. Eventually, having found the trick of uncovering the object we were able to sink the pick down the side then lever upwards. It so happened that the bombs were unable to penetrate such a surface so they were more that half way out of the ground. By the time we had dug out enough to see both fuses, the top one was about at chest high. It was at that point in time, we wished we had the so-called extracting tool to remove them. Instead, we had to make do with a copper drift and a hammer. It was then a case of taking turns to hammer away, while the rest of us looked on with nerves on edge, having seen what happened on the previous Friday. Now and again, we would stay perfectly silent - our ears pricked for that ticking sound. Looking back, I am amazed at how we managed to stay so calm under such fraught conditions. But we were faced with a big problem, for not one of us could remove the fuse - all our hammering had been in vain. "Hang on," cried Yorky - a boy entrant - "we could be doing it the wrong way. The fact this bomb was made in Germany, it could well be fitted with a left- hand thread and not BST." We were soon to realize he was right, for then the fuse began to move. Once out enough to be removed by hand, one of the corporals slowly extracted it - amid a deathly silence. It turned out to be like a stick of rock but made of sulphate wrapped in paper with German writing on it and about six inches long. After having breathed many sighs of relief, the lower fuse proved to be no problem.

It was by then close to lunch time and the officer arrived in the flat-tray truck. He was so pleased with our effort he decided to take us to a cafe for lunch. "Before we go," said one of the corporals, "do you think we could put a rope around it and tow it to the edge of the hole.?" Such a suggestion was agreed upon and it took but minutes to complete the task. Then we all climbed aboard the truck and drove off on our way to lunch. However, we were no more than halfway down the hill when the bomb exploded. "God almighty!" someone cried out, "that was close." Not another word was uttered, but the atmosphere around us said it all. Now having got the gist as to the correct way to approach the job in hand, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday saw three more bombs uprooted without incident. On returning to our digs on the Thursday, we were informed by way of a signal to return to our home camp the next morning. It was about 9-30AM on the Friday when waiting for a bus to Ryde, an almighty explosion erupted way above us on the Downs. "That's number five." some wag cried out, "so that completes the job." On our return to Gosport, we could see the reason for urgency as the raid on the Sunday had caused devastating results. Not so much the material damage, but the effect on the staff. We were soon to be informed any number of personal had gone AWOL and those left behind dived for cover as soon as the siren sounded. The next day, it was taken for granted that we were now an experienced bomb disposal squad and so were given the job of digging out bombs around the petrol dump. In comparison. this job was much easier as the bombs were of a much smaller type and once we had gone down the hole and placed the bomb in a bucket it was hoisted up. On removing its one fuse - sand poured out. After further examination we discovered that they had been manufactured in Czechoslovakia and must have been sabotaged. Thank the lord for that.

To close, I send my sincere wishes to all you ex Radar Technicians. I might add, the younger brother of my wife was also into radar and during his National Service spent time in Germany during the Air Lift. His name : Danny Hailey and came from Southsea.

Regards Don Sutherland

Don originally came from Birkenhead but emigrated to New Zealand in 1958 and died in 2013 at the age of 92, shortly after sending the above. Thanks again Don, you cheated death more than once then, but now RIP.

Site Author's Note :-

When I first read Don's account I have to say that I found it hard to believe. Surely specialist Royal Engineer bomb disposal experts were available to attend to this highly dangerous job? However I have recently read that in 1940 this certainly was not the case. Until May of that year no official Bomb Disposal arrangements had been made. And only later in that year did Royal Engineer UXB teams become more generally available. In addition, in August there were well over a thousand unexploded bombs awaiting their attention. Before then the Air Raid Warden organisation was required to arrange for disposal of civilian UXBs and the RAF to dispose of any bombs dropped on their airfields. And in the RAF who knew about bombs? Why the armourers of course! Well they did know about British bombs with their mechanical detonators but how could they possibly know about the exact workings of the German electrical fuses. In addition the bombs came in seven different sizes, from 50 kilogram up to 1,800 kilograms, with a variety of fuses according to the bomb's intended purpose. The Germans were able to preset their clockwork time delay fuses to anything between 1 and 72 hours, so if the bomb did not explode immediately on impact, the disposal technique was then to evacuate the area and allow the bomb three days in which to explode. This is probably why Don Sutherland's team were not made to tackle the bombs as soon as they arrived on the site. If a bomb had not exploded by then, although considered 'a dud' it was in a highly dangerous state, perhaps with more time to run if the clock had stopped, as they were prone to do, or if the timer had run it's course, then the bomb could have been on a hair trigger.

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Text © 2010 Don Sutherland