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MALTA’S FIRST UNEXPLODED BOMB
Sapper R H Walter, age 20, 24 Fortress Company, Royal Engineers (1)
Just after 9 am Sgt Major Robinson came to us and said, ‘I’m looking for three volunteers for a dangerous job. What about it you three?’ We looked at one another, none of us eager to reply without knowing the nature of this dangerous job. After a silence Sapper Scott said ‘What is this job, Sir?’ The Sergeant Major said, ‘Digging out an unexploded bomb over at Sliema.’ After giving the matter some thought Sapper Scott said ‘I’ll go.’ Sapper McDonald looked at me, hesitated and then said ‘All right, I’ll go.’ To be honest I wasn’t at all keen to volunteer but couldn’t bear the thought of being branded a coward so I replied ‘I’ll go.’
After we had collected the necessary tools and equipment and a 30 cwt lorry we were to report to Sliema Police Station. We were met by Lt William Eastman of the Royal Army Ordnance Corps, who would be the Officer in Charge of the whole operation. This was because at that time we had no Royal Engineer Officers qualified in Bomb Disposal work.
The unexploded bomb was located along Rudolph Street, some 300 yards from the Police Station. It was three feet from the South side pavement. The hole was about one foot in diameter and 18 inches deep, quite neat around the edges.
Lt Eastman ordered us to open up a hole 5 feet square, digging with sandbag-covered spades, removing as much of the rubble as possible with gloved hands. Only two men would work in the hole. On finding any trace of the bomb Lieutenant Eastman was to be informed and we were to await further instructions. He also told us not to go deeper than 3 feet, and to break for lunch at 1 pm at a local cafe. Police Sergeant Orr informed us that a local barkeeper had left a case of beer for us which was brought down to where we were working. It was a very hot day and the beer was most appreciated and nearly gone by lunchtime, however we had a second case of beer brought to us during the afternoon.
We started digging at 11.30 am. We stripped off to the waist and were wearing khaki shorts – our normal summer dress. We broke the surface of the road with pickaxes and once through the first six inches of hard-core the spoil was easier to get out. The hessian sandbags on the shovels proved a waste of time. The compacted sandstone needed crowbars and shovels, but we worked all the time with caution, and removed a lot of the rubble with our gloved hands.
By 1 pm we had reached a depth of 18 inches and stopped for lunch in the local cafe. Several of the local inhabitants had made a collection of money to provide us with a meal and the beer, for which we thanked them. I noticed that during the meal – and for that matter for the whole time that we had been digging – we were all very quiet; none of the normally constant chatter when Sappers are at work. I was tensed up to the point of being frightened and I did not relish the job at all. I suspected that the rest of the lads felt the same, but something none of us would admit.
By 3 pm we had got down to a depth of 3 feet but had found nothing, so we stopped work as instructed. Lt Eastman returned and under his guidance we pressed on with the digging, though from now on only one man worked down the hole in spells of just 15 minutes each, while the rest of us waited 50 yards away. Lieutenant Eastman stayed at the hole and kept in touch with our NCO Corporal Brewer by field telephone, reporting to him exactly what we were doing.
The bomb had severed a sewer pipe and raw sewage was seeping into the hole. It didn’t smell very nice and the earth was wet. However we plugged it with sandbags which stopped the flow of sewage into the hole. By 4 pm we had reached a depth of 4 feet 6 inches and exposed the fins of the bomb. Work stopped and Lt Eastman went into the hole by himself to remove them. He told us that it was a 250 lb bomb: from here on we carried on digging with much more care.
We carried on digging until the light began to fade and at 9pm Lt Eastman decided called a halt for the day. He told us that we should locate the bomb the next day and it should be a straight forward job to defuze it and make it safe. We loaded up the tools and covered the hole with a tarpaulin, anchored it down and placed red hurricane lamps around. Lt Eastman informed Police Sergeant Orr that the area must remain out of bounds to all the local inhabitants overnight. We would return the next day and start work at 9 am.
We returned to Floriana Barracks, had a bath and changed into clean clothes before going over to the cookhouse for a meal, after which we were just in time for a glass of beer in the canteen. The lads were not so quiet as they had been whilst digging for that bomb. I was very tired and went to bed: I had a good nights sleep, despite my apprehension for the day ahead.
AIR RAIDS DAWN 13 JUNE TO DAWN 14 JUNE 1940
Weather Fine; low cloud.
0610-0702 hrs Air raid alert for two Italian aircraft which approach from the north, fly down the coast to within eight miles of Delimara, circle Filfla and fly on southwards.
0840-0850 hrs Air raid alert for two Italian aircraft, reported passing over St Paul’s Bay heading south; no bombs dropped.
0901-0905 hrs Air raid alert. No bombs dropped.
1137 hrs Defence posts are warned of a friendly aircraft approaching, flying in at 8000 feet.
1210 hrs An enemy bomber approaches at a height of 20000 feet and drops six large bombs on Kalafrana and near Benghaisa. No air raid alert has sounded. An Army working party are assisting an RAF officer in the removal of an unexploded bomb when an enemy bomb falls nearby. Private H Kite and Private J Slade are killed, Lance Corporal F Martin and Private C Aldridge are wounded, along with one Maltese RAF labourer and one civilian. RAF Squadron Leader Warfield is slightly wounded.
1320 hrs HMS Diamond is attacked by two enemy aircraft 20 miles south west of Malta.
1400 hrs Air raid alert. A Malta Gladiator is scrambled to attack. Seeing the Gladiator, the enemy bomber releases several bombs prematurely on Mellieha, causing some damage to buildings, then escapes into cloud. 2nd Bn Devonshire Regt report an enemy aircraft at 5000 feet dropping bombs on Kalafrana, Birzebuggia and Hal Far.
1430 hrs Malta defences are warned that HMS Diamond and a destroyer will patrol off the west of the Island this evening.
1610-1700 hrs Air raid alert. Bombs are dropped on Mellieha village.
1945-2007 hrs Air raid alert.
2105 hrs HMS Galatea leaves Grand Harbour.
2340 hrs A defence post of 2nd Bn Royal Irish Fusiliers reports hearing three bursts of light machine gunfire from the direction of Gharghur fort. A further report suggests they came from behind the Roadhouse from the direction of the pumping station in Naxxar Gap. On investigation, 2/Lt Salmonson establishes that sentries of Kings Own Malta Regiment at Mosta Fort fired six shots at that time. Serjeant Parlato and two men went to investigate shots at 2400 hrs and were fired on from near a house by Targa Gap. However, they saw neither a man nor the flash of a rifle. They later spotted a man moving near the small chapel nearby and tried to round him up but failed to find him and withdrew. They also report having seen a red light from the roof of the same house during the night. A nearby defence post confirmed having occasionally seen a light on the Victoria Lines, including tonight, and also one from the direction of St Paul’s Bay. The positions of both have been noted and possible sources will be investigated in the morning.
Military casualties Private Henry Kite, Private John Slade, 2nd Battalion The Devonshire Regiment.
Civilian casualties Cospicua Joseph Scicluna, age 24; two unidentified males; one unidentified female.
OPERATIONS REPORTS THURSDAY 13 JUNE 1940
HAL FAR Unexploded bomb destroyed.
KALAFRANA A bomb fell 30 yards from the Accounts Section which suffered superficial damage. S/Ldr J M Warfield (HQ Medit) wounded in left side of neck by bomb explosion; needed five stitches. C E Portelli in same accident received minor abrasions with mild concussion; transferred to ADS Tarxien. One unidentified male corpse removed from the sea; collected by police 2200 hrs.
ROYAL ARMY ORDNANCE CORPS: Bomb Disposal UXB Dealt with: incendiaries 3; HE 250lb in Sliema now uncovered.
(1) Adapted from an account by Sapper Walter on www.maltafamilyhistory.com
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