L to R: (standing) Lt E E Talbot, L/Sgt R C Parker, L/Cpl R Hilliar, Sprs Miller, McCarthy, Leonard and Reeves, Cpl Brewer; (seated) Sgt Piggott, Sprs H Turner and Lockyer
Throughout the years 1940 to 1943, some 17,000 tons of bombs were dropped on Malta. Its people had to endure 154 days of air raids without a single day’s respite and at the height of the attacks the enemy flew more than 9,500 sorties against this island in one month alone. As more than fifteen per cent of the bombs failed to explode, it was a busy time for the men of Bomb Disposal.
It was on 11 June 1940, that the enemy aircraft were first heard droning over Malta’s Valletta harbour. The day before Mussolini had declared war on Britain and one of the Italian dictator’s very first actions was to sanction an attack upon the little group of islands off the Sicilian coast. This was the first part of what was to have been Operation Herkules, the code-name of the Axis invasion of Malta.
For centuries the Royal Navy had maintained a powerful presence in the Mediterranean Sea. Its bases at Gibraltar, Malta and Alexandria spanned the Mediterranean but the rapid development of air power meant that Malta, situated so close to Italy, was seen to be increasingly vulnerable to air attack. In the mid-1930s, the Royal Navy took the decision to move its Mediterranean headquarters from Malta to the safer waters of the Egyptian port of Alexandria. In the event of a sustained attack, it was not thought that Malta would survive.
Mussolini had long seen Malta as a target for invasion. His dream was of a vast empire in North Africa and Malta’s position astride the shipping routes through and across the Mediterranean gave it great strategic importance. It was also only sixty miles from Sicily.
That first attack of 11 June 1940, was small compared with what was to come. It consisted of just ten Italian Cant Z.1007 Alcione bombers, with a few Macci C.200 Saetta fighters as escort, which dropped bombs on three locations on the island. Yet even against this tiny force the RAF was outnumbered, being able to muster no more than half-a-dozen Gloster Gladiators. Incredibly, at this stage of the war the island possessed only forty-two anti-aircraft guns and two dozen searchlights.
Though the RAF later received a number of Hurricanes and eventually Spitfires, it was usually vastly over-matched and when, in January 1941, the Luftwaffe’s X Fliegerkorps arrived in Sicily to support Rommel’s Afrika Korps, Malta became the target of one of the most intense bombing campaigns ever witnessed.
With day after day of attacks, the Royal Engineers Bomb Disposal Section(s) on Malta was in almost continual action. Every bomb which fell on Malta or its sister island of Gozo and did not explode was the responsibility of this unit unless it lay on an airfield or within the confines of the Royal Navy dockyard. In just two years between December 1940 and December 1942 the Bomb Disposal units dealt with more than 7,300 unexploded bombs. The workload was ten times that of the average for a bomb disposal section across all theatres of war.
Lieutenant George Daniel Carroll RE arrived in Malta on 21 April 1941, having learnt his trade in the London Blitz. He assumed responsibility for bomb disposal across Malta and Gozo, relieving Lieutenant Edward Talbot who had worked as the first, and only, Bomb Disposal officer for the previous five months. The Bomb Disposal squad comprised just twenty men.
Carroll was soon facing his first Italian bombs, including several new types. As dawn broke one morning in November after a heavy raid the previous night, the streets of Valletta were covered with hundreds of small metal cylinders. Carroll was called.
“They were small, pale coffee colour, and they had a cap on top which was split into a propeller,” Carroll recalled. “It was designed to hit the ground but not to go off until it was disturbed. An aircraft starting up, or passing vehicles, would produce a vibration, causing it to explode suddenly and cause panic. The bombs were designed to drop in the dust of North Africa, where they could lie undetected but, affected by vibration, to go off unexpectedly at a later time.” But instead of being dropped in the desert, they had been dropped on Valletta.
They looked very much like Thermos flasks and could easily attract the curiosity of innocent passers-by, especially children. They were released from the aircraft in canisters containing dozens of bombs which scattered as they landed, covering an area of up to 300 square metres.
The only way to deal with the AR-4 antipersonnel “Thermos Bombs” was to blow them up where they lay. It was soon discovered that one of these devices lay in the window of a jeweller’s shop in the centre of Valletta. The jeweller begged the Bomb Disposal squad not to explode the bomb in situ as it would destroy all his stock. They invited him to remove the items himself but the man would not go anywhere near the bomb. So the Bomb Disposal men calmly removed all his goods and then blew his shop to bits.
Meanwhile, the Valletta police, not knowing exactly what they were dealing with, had collected nineteen Thermos bombs and placed them in a lower basement room of the Royal Opera House. Once again Carroll was called in. These ones could not be exploded without causing major damage to the building, so a method of removing them without setting them off had to be devised. The engineers built a grab which they could slide round the bombs. Attached to the grab was a cord which lifted and carried the device along a string railway out of the building. All nineteen bombs were safely removed but the operation took two full days.
The Thermos bombs were not the only unusual weapons which Carroll and his team had to deal with. There was a notice issued to the effect that the Germans were dropping “shaving stick” bombs and “fountain pen” bombs, though none had yet been seen by the Bomb Disposal men. But when Carroll received a message from an anti-aircraft unit at Vittoriosa that they had found a fountain pen bomb, off he went with sandbags and steel helmets.
When Carroll arrived at the anti-aircraft unit’s hut he was told that the fountain pen bomb was on top of a cupboard safely out of reach. “I climbed up to get it ... I put it on my [open] hand and carried it [to the car] put it carefully on the sandbags, covered it with more sandbags, put up a red flag on the car, and we drove back”.
As it was only a small bomb, Carroll first dealt with other UXBs that required his attention and it was only later that he found the time to deal with the novelty device: “We had a bench with a vice and there were some sleepers nearby left from the old railway. I asked my Sergeant to get the sleepers and lean them against the vice, to get some boxing gloves (they would at least reduce any injury), goggles and steel helmets [and] we went down” to the workshop.
Carroll went on to describe the process for disarming this dangerous device. He had no knowledge of how it was armed or how to disable it. All he could do was to open it up with the probability that it would explode as he did so.
“In dealing with a new bomb like this, you had to have a witness and recorder. My sergeant was there [outside the door] with a pencil and note-book and I called out to him ‘I’m putting the barrel of the fountain pen in the vice so that the cap can be freed’ ‘Yes, sir’, and he wrote it down. Now I had to wait two minutes. ‘I’m attaching a piece of surgical tape to the cap, wrapping it round so that, if I pull, it will unscrew.’ ‘Yes, sir,’ he wrote it down and I waited. ‘Now I’m going to pull the tape to loosen the cap.’ ‘Yes, sir,’ and he wrote it down.”
“I pulled it and it unscrewed, and I waited. ‘I am now going to pull it off.’ ‘Yes, sir.’ I pulled it off and it was a fountain pen!”