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When we think of bomb disposal, it might summon up images of IEDs in troubled regions, or munitions lurking on the seabed, quietly waiting to complicate offshore wind construction. But it’s not always that way, and in late February, for the residents of Plymouth in the UK, the alternative got very, very real.

In what the UK Ministry of Defence (MOD) classed as one of the largest civilian evacuation operations since the end of WWII, more than 10,000 people were asked to leave their homes as army bomb disposal teased a 500kg German wartime bomb to safety. Trains were stopped, schools closed, parks cleared, the local hospital put on emergency status, and from a safe distance, the residents of Plymouth watched on.

The device – considered too dangerous to render safe on site – was carefully inched through the town’s terraced streets onto a slipway to the river Tamar and then out to sea, leaving the largest naval dockyard in western Europe breathing a sigh of relief in its wake. It was detonated just before 10pm on Friday, February 23, by two divers who placed charges on it at around a 14-metre depth. (As per army practice, no further details were given.)

The scale of the evacuation is a reminder of how quickly and dramatically a UXO discovery can escalate into a major operation. And that perhaps, in the environmental or civil infrastructure fields, familiarity has caused us to scale down the risk in our minds.

Waiting to be discovered for 83 years

The bomb is believed to have fallen on either April 22 or 23, 1941, a particularly heavy night for Luftwaffe attacks. Plymouth, targeted because of its naval importance, was hit by nearly 1400 bombs across the war, but many are thought to have failed to explode, either through poor fusing systems or how they hit the ground. (Which does beg the question of how many more they’re might be.)

It was found by a resident of St Michael Avenue carrying out building work in his back garden. That’s ‘found’ in the sense of literally hitting it with a spade. It was only after several days of rain had washed away the mud that he realised what it was. Its position – close to homes and wedged under concrete – made it too difficult to deal with in situ. At one point the MOD had up to 30 bomb disposal experts at the site, plotting a solution that did not involve destroying a handful of the nearest homes in the process. Eventually they decided on cautiously moving it through more than 2kms of evacuated streets.

Finally, with typical aplomb, Lt Col Rob Swan, of the 11 Ordnance and Search regiment, said the bomb would be lowered 14 metres below the surface and the detonation “wouldn’t be as Hollywood as some people would like to imagine”. Just a modest splash…