RCN sailor takes charge of legacy bomb disposal in London

Navy News / February 10, 2017

A Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) sailor on exchange with the United Kingdom’s busiest Area Bomb Disposal Team was on duty when a legacy, Second World War-era German SC50 air-dropped weapon was located in London’s downtown core.

On the evening of January 19, 2017, Southern Diving Unit 2 (SDU2) based at Portsmouth, England was tasked by the Joint Service Explosive Ordnance Disposal Operations Centre to respond to the discovery. Taking the call as the officer in charge was Lieutenant (Navy) Mike St-Pierre, an RCN clearance diving officer.

The operations centre made clear that this task was unique: the bomb was just metres away from critical infrastructure, including two of the city’s busiest Underground stations, in addition to the Ministry of Defence and the Houses of Parliament. All areas in the vicinity were evacuated by the London Metropolitan Police, effectively shutting down London’s core. This task gained interest from the highest levels of government and all available assets were tasked to expedite the operation.

At 10 minutes notice to move for explosive ordnance disposal and improvised explosive device disposal tasks, SDU2 initiated its recall procedures and was on the road within minutes of receiving the call. As time was of the utmost importance, the team, equipped with its specialized bomb disposal vehicles, made best speed to London under police escort. Emergency response driving was authorized, which had the team travelling at great speed.

Lt(N) St-Pierre acted as the focal point and conduit for all operational requirements. Due to the size and instability of the reported munition, several actions occurred: cordon distances had to be extended immediately; maritime response vessels from the Metropolitan Police were required to provide a marine cordon of the Thames River; helicopter assets were tasked to act as over watch; and finally, secure communications networks and channels had to be established. All this activity was done en route to the task site.

Once on scene, Lt(N) St-Pierre and his four-person clearance diving team met with the Metropolitan Police on-scene commander to receive a status update. Additional assets were brought in for a comprehensive brief, including fire, ambulance, national infrastructure specialists and the Harbour Master. Once these safety measures were in place, the difficult part of stabilizing the bomb and planning for its removal and safe disposal could then proceed.

The Met Police were quick to respond. With years of high-profile security challenges in their city, they can mobilize a veritable army of personnel and assets within minutes. Cordon, evacuation and safety requirements were in place in short order. Now it was a matter of Lt(N) St-Pierre going downrange to assess the state of the munition.

“The munition was intact, but there was no way to remove the fuse due to its condition,” said Lt(N) St-Pierre. “This changed the dynamic of the task, because without removing the fuse the bomb is inherently more prone to potential initiation.”

The bomb, although historic – having been dropped almost 80 years before in the Battle of Britain – was capable of satisfying its original intent. “My biggest concern was stabilizing the munition and getting it into the water as fast as possible to reduce its threat radius,” Lt(N) St-Pierre said, noting that “the only option we had was for a controlled move of the fused munition.”

In discussion with the Coast Guard and Harbour Master, an area 18 nautical miles down the Thames was identified as suitable for a controlled demolition. To make this possible, Lt(N) St-Pierre and his team moved the bomb by hand, attached it to a positively buoyant lifting bag, and lowered it in to the water.

Once in the water column, the team could reduce the blast and fragmentation radius as the boat towed the ordnance outside of London’s downtown core. Speed of transit, however, would be limited to around four knots. “It was clear we were in for a long, cold night,” recalled Lt(N) St-Pierre with a chuckle.

Transit was further slowed by the necessary coordination with the Met Police to sever transportation arteries in and out of the city, including a number of rail and Tube lines, as the munition moved down the river.

At 1 a.m. on January 20, the team, under the escort of three Met Police response craft and over watch via helicopter, started the transit. Finally, the bomb was transported down the Thames without major delays or incident, arriving at the demolition site at 5:45 a.m. Once on-site, the team prepared the munition with explosives for detonation. At 6 a.m. the countdown to detonation was initiated and a successful explosion recorded at 6:05 a.m. – the SC50 proved to be just as lethal as the day it was dropped.

Remarking on the task, Lt(N) St-Pierre noted: “It was one of those jobs that totally reinforces and validates the training we undergo. All in all, the task couldn’t have gone any better.”

And on the toughest part of the job? “Have you ever had to receive a briefing from a guy with a really thick Cockney accent? Impossible. I needed an English translator.”