The Army - Bomb Disposal Coy

From Harding
Jump to: navigation, search

Back to Book Structure | Previous Chapter: Growing Up | Next Chapter: The Army - 7th Mechanical Equipment Coy

I graduated from University in 1940 then joined the CMF 13th Field Engineering Co in 1941 (not the AIF because a 'Professional Engineer' was a 'reserved occupation' so I was not allowed). I became what was known as a 'Chocko' Officer Lieutenant in the 13th Field Coy CMF. The 01/C, Major Steffanoni, was an officer in the Tax Department and would become the future brother in law to Sir Charles Court (who used to live opposite me in Dalkeith, W.A.). The other two Lieutenants were architects; I was the only 'Professional Engineer'.

In peace time many people of varying vocations e.g. Accountants, Architects, used car salesmen, estate agents, shop keepers etc. joined the various Defence Force divisions, many receiving promotions to officer status, which was satifactory during peace time activities. Their positions would be further elevated with the upsurge of enlistments in War Time. During the later stages of WWII the 'Powers that be' realised the War Time inadequacies of some of these Officers and had them attend an Officer Retraining School back in Australia consequently 'Bowler Hatting' the failures out of the Army.

Army Engineers are stationed at headquatres rather than sent to fight, I was usually the only professional Engineer in the various Companies I was posted to, and because of the above mentioned inadequate officers, I usually managed to semi separate my platoon from my Coy HQ and get attached to the fighting divisions, helping them whilst still doing my Base work.

Once during our early training in Guilford with the 13th Field Engineer Coy CMF all three platoon leaders, of which I was one, were given 10 foot lengths of railway line, a box of gelignite explosive sticks and detonators with lengths of cord-like fuses. One end of the fuse was crimped into the open end of the detonator, which was inserted into the gelignite. The fuse was lit with a match at the other end. The idea was to find out how many sticks of gelignite were needed to break the hard steel rail. The rail length was supported on two parallel logs and the gelly tied at the mid length on one side of the rail. My platoon and I started with two sticks of gelly and gradually increased the number of sticks until the rail was broken, so that in practice it would take 50% more sticks to assure success. One of the other Architect Lieutenants had his troops sit on top of the rail to steady it and tied the whole box of gelly to one side of the rail. On lighting the fuse they all walked away, the box of gelly rolled the rail over onto its side with the gelly underneath. When it exploded, with a colossal bang, the rail shot into the sky out of sight with a receding screech, which faded to silence. While we waited, all looking up to ensure we would be clear from it's landing, the screech started again and increased in volume as the rail descended. The rail was bent like a horseshoe, not broken.

After initial training in Guilford and Pinjarra my platoon and I were detached from the Company and sent to Geraldton and further North to locate and sample all possible sources of portable water. During my five year Army Service I often used my initiative, this resulted in my being threatened several times by 'idiot' Superior Officers with instant demotion via Court-martial. On this occasion I commandeered a seasoned drover (and his horses) who had good knowledge of the area and local water sources. Never having ridden on a horse before, I found that sitting astride of a half ton of thundering bone and flesh with a mind of his own, a daunting experience as it did not respond to my given directions. I would have and still do, prefer to sit in a mindless thundering machine, which responds precisely to my directions.

I attended Army Officers Training School at Liverpool, N.S.W with my change from C.M.F to A.I.F where I volunteered to join the newly formed 'Unexploded Bomb Disposal Organisation'. Subsequently I was promoted to Captain and became Chief Instructor at the proposed Bomb Disposal School that trained Officers and N.C.O.'S of both the Australian and American armies.

As an aside, one of my many pet peeves was saluting with the British method of sustained horizontal palm outward fingers touching forehead, this to me, as well as acknowledging higher authorities is also demeaningly submissive. I prefered the Yank protocol with sloping hand face down, fingers touching forehead then without delay cutting away with a slicing downward motion, so acknowledging superiority but not necessarily submission. I nearly started a riot at the Officers Training School in Liverpool N.S.W because of this. I also hated the way RSM treated us students as complete imbeciles, shouting and screaming at us whilst drilling and saluting etc. They might be Superiors but they're still idiots!

During War Time all uniformed services personnel had free access to all forms of Government transport in all Eastern States of Australia. The bomb school's term was 3 weeks to a month so I used the free transport to travel to Melbourne and visit Bomb Disposal H.R. in the fourth week.

In the early stages the Major, Captain Adjutant, N.C.O.'s and office staff of the proposed School idly awaited something to eventuate in the establishment of the school while being billeted in an Army camp between Albury and Wodonga. I on the other hand used my initiative and free train transport to Melbourne Army and Q.M. HQ's mainly to obtain live bombs and their explosive accessories and a means to transport them. At Q.M. H.Q., I was greeted with 'where the hell are you people established - we have two trainloads of War equipment waiting in railway sidings, not knowing where to send them,' needless to say I told them where the school was. I then needed to find transport for the live bombs and their accessories, which would be used at the school, but the only vehicle I could get from Q.M. Depot was a commandeered 5-ton high-sided left hand drive truck. There were no bombs available from Australian or UK sources, only the US Army HQ's was willing to part with some. Their response was to my request was 'sure, take all you want'. The truck was loaded with over 5 tons of assorted large and small live bombs, with their associated explosive accessories. I reasoned that in their travel from the USA to Australia they had safely undergone many means of handling and transport so it would be O.K. for me to drive the loaded truck, unescorted, via the busy Hume Hwy back to camp.

This took about two weeks, when I got back to camp the train loads had been delivered but the situation was, in Army terms, 'SNAFU' (Situation Normal, All Fucked Up). The administration section of the school was excessively equipped with all requirements but the training section was completely bare due to, I believe, incompetent and selfish senior officers. I also received the first threat of demotion for lack of escort for explosive cargo.

Having sorted out our school equipment and emptied several large bombs of their explosive content I filled them with sand and gravel (for weight retention) and plugged up the nose and tail fuse apertures to ready them for aerial dropping onto the downside of the nearby HUME WEIR. I then disposed of the really dangerous parts of the acquired American bombs, which were the nose and tail fuse detonator caps and the 1" long, 1" in diameter tiny cylinders of a powerful explosive which filled a 1" inch hole through the centre of the main bomb explosive, used to ensure that the detonation wave travelled throughout the length of the bomb. The Jap bombs only had a small booster below the nose or tail fuse. This frequently resulted in only the front or the rear half of the bomb exploding, spreading the rest of the explosive, unexploded, across the countryside to the detriment of Australian soldiers who developed tinea in the moist parts of their body. My method of disposal was to GENTLY crush into powder, some of the tiny cylinders and lay a 3-metre fire trail, at one end of which I placed several of the highly explosive fuse caps. On top of them I placed the remaining 1" cylinders. I ignited the other end of the fire trail with a match, before leisurely walking the 50 metres back to my workshop, turning around to wait for the explosion and the pressure wave to occur.

Having been refused the use of the Australian Air Force I again used my initiative and free Government transport, to enlist the services of Dutch pilots and their planes from Indonesia who were, at that time, established in Canberra. After a few jovial sessions in their officer's mess they agreed. I flew with the first two bomb drops before persuading the pilot to provide a display of aerial aerobatics to amuse the student observers on top of the Weir. It took at least a day and a half for my stomach to settle down especially after the celebration in the Dutch Officers' mess for the success of the operation.

Once whilst Senior Instructor at the Bomb Disposal School I was ordered to attend a meeting in Melbourne made up of Service Senior Officers, Colonels, Lieutenant Colonels and Majors to make plans for a proposed sojourn in Hobart, Tasmania. The purpose, one conference on bomb disposal held for the Tasmanian Civil Authorities and onother for all the locals to be held at the Hobart Town Hall, in my opinion the Hobart Gig was actually so that the officers could spend the evenings at the casino - the only one in Australia at that time. At this first meeting, the officers seemed to be bereft of ideas. I made several suggestions and once the import of these had sunk in they were lifted from me and expanded by several others.

During the conference for the general public, all the Senior Officers were seated in a line at the front of the stage, while I and a few of the Senior Officers' Captain Adjutants were seated at the rear of the stage. Half way through the speeches given by the Senior Officers, the Captain seated alongside me asked what I intended to say; I replied I did not expect to be asked (because of my previous experience with these officers) and he said 'Don't be so sure'. At that time, a few of the adjutants and I were slightly inebriated, having imbibed at a local pub pre-meeting. After the Senior Officers had finished speaking, each receiving a muted clapping, I was asked to speak. I stood at the front of the stage and explained how to find out if a buried, unexploded bomb lay before them if they observe a mound of dirt alongside a disturbed hole with matted grass like tangled hair around them. How the direction of the hole and the size of the mound indicate the slope, direction and possible depth of the intruding bomb. I also emphasised the danger of probing this interesting mound and hole with it's tangled surround etc. Instead, they should carefully excavate a 6 foot boarder centred on the hole following it on its downward slope and when reaching the unexploded bomb, treat it with tender loving care until it was defused and the explosive contents of the bomb removed. When my short speech was concluded I received tumultuous applause from the audience. The next day as I walked through town on my way to depart, I was continually approched by the public with comments such as 'Congratulations, 'Holy man' it was the best speech we have heard in ages'.

Similar responses were given to two of my speeches given at U.W.A. after the war. One was a required speech given after my return from the Gleddon Travelling Fellowship and another as one of several speakers at a U.W.A. Engineering Conference. I was the fourth of six speakers and whereas the audience's response to the other five speakers was muted. The responses to this speech and also the Gleddon Speech were tumultuous. After the Gleddon speech, during which I demonstrated my DO NOTHING machine, several in the audience approached me, demanding that they be told in advance of any of my future speeches so they could relish the result.

At the Bomb Disposal School I used to get live Jap bomb fuses and boosters, and after separating them, removing the fuse detonator cap and booster explosives, I would cut a V section out of the fully reassembled length so as to expose the internal workings. With an air brush I would then draw the internal details using different colours for different parts, on a large sheet of 3ply. This was placed facing students while the actual V'd fuses were passing to students for their edification. Once, during my weekly break, I went to the Melbourne H.Q. of Bomb Disposal. On arrival I was told by the Captain Adjutant (the Lieutenant Colonel 01/C always being absent probably to socialise) that two new types of Jap fuses had been sent to Melbourne from the New Guinea based Bomb Disposal Platoon. I asked where they were and why the School had not been informed of their existence, the Adjutant said "They're in that box; the Lt Col is sending them to India because the Japs are advancing on India through Burma."

Believing that charity begins at home, I left only to came back later when I knew the adjutant would be lunching in the officers' mess and replaced the fuses with rocks then re-nailed the box lid and departed with the fuses, which were V'd and drawn ready for the next class.

Have you ever seen a black man turn white? I have! I was lecturing to the class about the myriad of chemical mixtures that produce various intensities of explosive reactions to detonation under varying condition. For example, a petrol air mixture in cars which under normal conditions only burns and expands producing pressure on a piston, if the spark is too far advanced this pressure builds up to a maximum before the piston is in the correct position. The sudden extra pressure causes the mixture to explode, the detonation sound causing pinging in the engine. This also occurs in cordite in big cannons i.e. burning under pressure then exploding.

In regards to my lecture, the chemical mixtures are usually liquids stabilised in a compressed cotton or wood pulp for safety in transport e.g. gelignite in a stick about 1" diameter and 9" long or TNT in a compressed block of fibre 9" long 4" wide 1½" thick with a 1" central hole into which a small cylinder is placed. I had a painted wooden model of a TNT block to assist with my explanation. I told the class that liquid TNT, even stabilised was still very sensitive and a sharp heavy knock such as hitting the floor from a height would probably detonate it. I then pointed to a hefty American Negro and tossing my wood model to at least 4 feet above his head, said examine it. He instantly jumped up and caught it but fumbled several times before becoming seated, definitely white about the gills. That evening at mess table, to the hilarity of the other diners at the table he pointed his side arm at my head and said 'If you ever do that again, I will blow your bloody head off!!'

Most explosives will burn away if not confined. I used to empty bombs of their explosive contents, remove caps on nose and tail apertures, place the bomb in a ground depression and place a diesel soaked rag that I would light in one of the apertures to burn against the wind, and retire to a safe distance listening to the roaring noise similar to a massive blow torch.

One session during each three-week school term was a demonstration of antipersonnel aerial bombs. The Yank bombs were tightly wound 3/8" square high tensile steel making a hollow cylinder 18" long and 6" in diameter, tapered at each end with a nose fuse and tail fins. During on class I chose a relatively horizontal branch of a substantial tree about 20ft above the ground, over which I threw a long rope with a double insulated electrical wire attached. I tied the bomb tail to one end of the rope with an 18" length of binder twine (usually used to close up bags of wheat grain), in the middle of the twine I attached an electric detonator wired to the end of an electrical cable. Then I carefully unwound the propeller of the nose fuse to allow the firing pin to be driven into and explode the fuse cap, which would then detonate the bomb. The bomb, now armed, was then laid gently on the ground. With the other end of the rope I went behind the tree and hauled the bomb up to the tree limb before fixing the rope to nails driven into the back of the tree. I then told the thirty or more students to take cover at least 150 yards away telling them I was about to attach the electric dynamo to the electric cable and would drop the bomb on the count of three. Because the high-tension square steel rod was brittle the ensuing explosion shattered it like glass producing small knife edged particles, which became efficient lawn mowers and decimated all ground vegetation within a 100-yard radius.

About 8 to 10 weeks after appropriating the Jap fuses from Melbourne H.Q. I was transferred from the School to field duties as second in comand at H.Q. of 1st Bomb Disposal Coy based in Townsville. I did not query the reason for the transfer as I was glad because it got me away from the idiotic and selfish Major 01/C of School and his thieving Captain adjutant who eventually got cashiered for stealing from the Officers Mess Fund. It was usual practice for the Coy Officers to contribute part of their stipend to an Officers Fund to provide amenities to the Officers mess that were not otherwise provided in the Coy's War equipment table and it was from this he was stealing. It was only my musing while writing this memoir that the reason for my transfer was probably the Indian's reply to the gift, asking how the Aussies coped with rocks in lieu of bombs being dropped on them by the Japs.

By this time I had successfully run the School for nine months and I was required to explained the procedure for the aerial bomb demo. to my replacement senior instructor and accompany him on his first attempt.

He used over four feet of binder twine and tied three detonators to one side of the twine (he said to make sure it cut the twine). The detonators certainly cut the twine, they whip lashed it sideways with considerable force, winding it around the bomb tail. The result was, the bomb landed on its side and did not explode!!! The students started to gather around so I told them to keep their distance and walked softly to the bomb and holding it steady, rewound the propeller back to keep the firing pin away from the fuse detonating cap. On returning to the school I was summoned to the Major, the School's 01/C, who had been told of the events and threatened me with disciplinary action (via Court martial) as my method of defusing the situation (walking) endangered all the students (idiots idiots!!!)

Approximately two and a half months after my transfer, the officer who replaced me as Senior Instructor, ably demonstrated the dangers of 'Bomb Disposal' by blowing off one hand and half the other, and half his face.

When I was transferred to Townsville (the Coy also had platoons in N.G. and Darwin) I virtually became O 1/C because the Major spent most of the time in N.G. with one of the other platoons (to ensure O/Seas Service for future benefits post War). One day I received information from a Major of O 1/C of a Field Engineering Coy, then based in Darwin, stating that he was promoting a Corporal in my Darwin platoon to the rank of Sergeant. I replied that he could not do this as there was not such a vacancy, he replied that he had already done so. After informing him he must cancel the appointment, I received a 'blister' from Army H.Q. in Melbourne demanding a copy of all my correspondence, which of course had my signature on it in lieu of the Majors who was in N.G.. The inference of the Army H.Q.'s demand was that I was up for another Court Martial! On making several enquiries I discovered that the whole of the Bomb Disposal organisation was being dismantled, with personnel being absorbed into relevant Field Engineering Coys. My response to this was "If you are stupid enough to NOT inform 1st Bomb Disposal Coy's own HQ that it is being disbanded WHAT DO YOU EXPECT!" I was then immediately sent to Northern Territory Army H.Q. in Alice Springs, from here I went to 52 Field Park Coy in Darwin and then on to Sydney as a Captain in the newly formed 7th Mechanical Equipment Coy R.A.E.

Another instance of 'official' incompetence was when Australians killed their own troops (i.e. Mortar Bomb Crews). Mortar bombs are similar to and about the same size as aerial dropped antipersonnel bombs except for a difference in their fuse mechanisms. They have two explosive contents, one in their tail and the other filling their body. The tail explosive is activated when the bomb is dropped onto the firing pin at the bottom of the tube, propelling the bomb with considerable force rapidly into the air. A spring loaded ball bearing acts as a safety mechanism in the nose, as the bomb is propelled forward it remains inert within the bomb casing and so releases the mechanism, arming the nose fuse for detonation when it hits the ground. To supply the forward troops in action with more ammunition, large timber crates fully packed with mortar bombs were aerial dropped. They were without parachutes to soften their landing or ensure that all boxes landed with the contained bombs safely facing the ground. Unfortunatly a large number of boxes landed with the enclosed bombs tail down. This rapid downward force displaced the nose fuse safety ball in the same way the acceleration out of the firing tube would act on it, so arming the nose fuse. When these bombs were used, the massive acceleration propelling them out of the firing tube caused the nose striker, due to it's inertia within the casing, to detonate the bomb before it left the firing tube killing the firing crew crouching along side!!!

Incidently, at one time, while I was on leave travelling back to W.A. from the eastern states, I was made O 1/C of the troop train. Most of the soldiers were travelling in cattle cars, at one of the stops on the Nullarbor Plain, I had to form a bucket brigade with the troops to top up the steam engine's supply for further travel.

It was during this leave, while in Perth, a friend (name?) of mine introduced me to me one of his friends, Tatham, who was getting married. I was asked to be 'best man' to which I agreed. To celebrate the occasion I purchased as a wedding gift, a baby sized teddy bear for the bride so she could practice cuddling her first child. To accelerate its arrival I gave the bridegroom two dozen oysters and a dozen bottles of stout. Tatham had a friend called Leavers, both of whom were friends of my friend (name?).

About 22 years later when I bought and built a shack on an Island at Yunderup I discovered that both wedding presents had been successful. Tatham owned and ran, with several of his children, a group of holiday cottages on the mainland at South Yunderup and Leavers owned and ran the local store. So the adage of 'it's a small world' was proven.

Back to Book Structure | Previous Chapter: Growing Up | Next Chapter: The Army - 7th Mechanical Equipment Coy