Danger UXB – Portland’s World War 2 UneXploded Bomb
Roger Mutch tells the tale of when the Isle of Portland was brought to a standstill by an unexploded World War 2 bomb
Published in October ’12
It has been recorded that Portland was the target of 48 air raids during the course of World War 2, and that, during these raids, a total of 532 bombs were directed at the island. The death and destruction that ensued are well documented and many people, even today, will bear witness to those dark times.
Not all of these bombs exploded, and those which didn’t – when located – were dealt with by specialist bomb-disposal personnel. Little did the people of Portland know that lying in the midst of their community for over half of a century was one such device awaiting its turn to be found.
On 22 March 1995, Mr Martin Hayne, a quarry worker. saw an unusual item partially buried on recently cleared quarry land adjacent to Grove Road at Portland. He was unsure as to what it was so he cleared a little of the area around it. Once the object’s full shape came into view he realised he was looking at a bomb. The emergency services were notified and army personnel attended to assess the situation. What was revealed was to have significant repercussions not only for the emergency services but also for a large number of the island’s residents.
It was established that the item was indeed an unexploded bomb – an 1100 lb one at that. Its condition was so precarious that it could not be moved and would have to be made safe in-situ. The army required that a one-kilometre exclusion zone should be implemented around the device before they could commence their work. In the event of a detonation it was felt that anybody within this distance could be at risk of injury. An assessment of the situation revealed that the disarming process could take anything up to 48 hours to complete.
It was immediately apparent that a great number of people lived and worked within this proposed zone and that a substantial effort, by a whole host of agencies, would be needed to make the necessary arrangements.
It was estimated that 4000 people would have to be relocated and that, in addition to this, a further 4000 people, living to the south of the exclusion zone, would be marooned there because no road traffic was allowed to travel to or from the island during the course of the disarming. It was considered a possibility that vibration caused by moving traffic could create difficulties, maybe even a detonation.
The planning process began almost immediately with representatives from the Police, Dorset County Council, Weymouth and Portland Borough Council Social Services, the RSPCA and many other agencies, each making its contribution. Two well-attended public meetings were held where information was imparted and questions were answered. There was also a portable office positioned in Easton on Portland for members of the public to drop in and voice concerns or seek advice. It was recognised that the media would have a major role to play in keeping the public aware of developments and, to this end, Mike Maber, of the Dorset Police media department, maintained liaison.
As it was March, and so well before the main holiday season started, three unoccupied caravan holiday sites in Weymouth were identified and arrangements were made for them to be used to house ‘evacuees’ who had no alternative accommodation. The vast majority of people who were required to move out of their homes did so without any great complaint. At the end of the day only seven residents within the exclusion zone refused point blank to move. They were given appropriate advice as to what action they should take to preserve their safety. The army were told of these people and, after careful consideration, agreed to carry on with the defusing of the bomb in any event.
The decision was made that work on the bomb would be carried out over the weekend of Saturday 1 and Sunday 2 April; a deadline, for the completion of the evacuation and the sealing of the roads around the one-kilometre exclusion zone, was fixed for noon on 1 April.
On Friday 31 March, the evacuation commenced, with elderly and disabled residents being moved from their homes to homes in Weymouth for the weekend. Fleets of buses were on hand to provide the necessary transport and each bus carried a representative from the Red Cross to assist.
Evacuation continued throughout that day and evening with the final people leaving during the morning of 1 April.
Dorset Police brought in 200 officers from around the county to assist with this operation. Prior to the noon deadline they visited all properties within the zone to ensure that they had been vacated and then set up and maintained the necessary road closures.
In addition, throughout the whole period of the evacuation, they constantly patrolled the exclusion zone and its perimeter, both on- and off-road, as well as from the air, to ensure that there was no encroachment or looting. It is reassuring to note that not a single incident of such activity was to be recorded.
The noon deadline was reached and had been observed. An uncanny, almost unreal, quiet and stillness had descended upon the very heart of this normally vibrant area of the island. The army were given confirmation that the area was clear and at 1.30 in the afternoon that day, Captain Mike Lobb, the man entrusted with the most difficult and deadly of tasks, started his work.
The detonator had to be made safe and removed in the first instance and then three holes were drilled into the casing of the bomb so that steam could be introduced to flush the high explosive out – the temperature margins were crucially observed during this process – if the volatile explosive got too hot it could detonate. The work was slow and meticulous. The detonator itself was apparently so delicate that it later had to be blown up nearby because it was too perilous to move it elsewhere.
It had been previously agreed that, during the process of making the bomb safe, the army would provide at least one safe ‘window’ of opportunity so that limited access into the exclusion zone could be made, for essential purposes, by one or more of the emergency services.
This ‘window’ was put to good use. Additionally, one resident who had been reluctant to leave his home, because he did not wish to leave his pigeons behind, only did so once officers from the RSPCA had assured him that they would feed his pigeons for him. They were true to their word and did so during the ‘window’ of time that was made available.
That Saturday evening, while Captain Lobb worked on, many of the evacuees were enjoying the hospitality of the holiday camps. Wartime and 1940s–themed evenings were all the rage and singalongs to Vera Lynn classics were the order of the night in many a clubroom.
Captain Lobb continued with his painstaking task throughout the Sunday while the police maintained the exclusion zone. At 8.40 that evening the task was completed, fortunately without mishap, and the ‘all-clear’ was given for people to return to their homes. Word to this effect soon reached Weymouth and a flood of people soon made their way back. So ended the largest mass evacuation of civilians witnessed in the United Kingdom since the end of World War 2. The agencies involved in this most complex of operations were pleased that it had gone to plan and that there had been no problems.
The location at which this bomb had been lying for half a century was a matter of inches beneath what had been Portland United’s football pitch, at Grove Corner. Some reports placed it in the vicinity of what would have been the centre spot! Portland United had played many hundreds of games there since they were formed in 1921. They only stopped playing when the pitch was handed over to the quarrying company in May 1994. Bearing in mind the extreme sensitivity of this device, and the many thousands of studded boots that had run over it for decades, one can only be extremely thankful that another form of major event did not occur much sooner.
Portland’s air raids
|30/06/1940||EVENING||1 x UXB||CHESIL COVE|
|04/07/1940||08/40||1 x HE||CASTLETOWN|
|11/08/1940||10/21||39 x HE||CASTLETOWN|
|19 x UXB||& SOUTHWELL|
|15/08/1940||NR||NR||THE GROVE &|
|05/10/1940||20/35||3 x HE||NAVAL BASE|
|02/01/1941||18/49||1 x HE||HARBOUR AREA|
|14/04/1941||OVERNIGHT||NR||THE GROVE, AUGUST ROAD|
|& QUEENS ROAD|
|23/03/1942||19/53||15 x HE||NAVAL BASE,|
|10/03/1943||21/00||6 x HE||THE GROVE &|
|24/04/1944||01/26||3 x HE||VARIOUS|
|28/05/1944||01/01||16 x HE + UXB||HARBOUR AREA|
|UXB = Unexploded; HE = High Explosive; INC = Incendiary; NR = Not Recorded)|
On 10/03/1943, when the Grove area seems to have been targeted, six high-explosive bombs were dropped in that vicinity: one at the junction of Grove Road and Easton Lane; one at Wakeham, about half a mile away; three on open ground – location not stated; one suspected of being a UXB – location not stated. It would seem to be nigh on impossible to determine the exact date of the raid that dropped the bomb which brought Portland to a halt in April 1995. Details of such raids are sketchy and there seems to be no single reference point. The raid of the 10/03/1943 was as close to the location as one is likely to get and there is this tantalising suggestion of a UXB being dropped in that raid in the vicinity of the location in question. Unfortunately, there is simply no way of definitively knowing when it fell.
• Portland’s air raids are recorded in the book Weymouth and Portland at War – Countdown to D-Day by Maureen Attwooll and Denise Harrison