A 1000kg ‘delayed explosion’ device whistled through the hatch.
Seconds later it lay embedded in the pavement of Deans Yard, St Paul’s Cathedral. Fortunately for the cathedral, the explosion remained delayed. The bomb’s deadly potential now a secret cloaked in steel.
Then Came Bob
Lieutenant Bob Davies arrived at the scene with his disposal team. He could see that the bomb was lodged perhaps thirty feet deep in the earth. Tongues of fire licked from a broken gas main nearby. The air was rancid with fumes. Davies pulled at his face in concentration. He smoked a cigarette. He called over his best man, Sapper George Cameron Wylie and they set to work.
It took them three days to dig out the bomb. Wylie and Davies barely spoke about the bomb’s almost realized potential to destroy them, their men, the cathedral and London’s newly discovered Blitz spirit. They just kept digging until the bomb could be lifted out of the crater and lashed onto the back of a truck.
The story goes that Davies insisted on driving alone to Hackney marshes.
“I won’t have my men placed in any more danger,” he might have told sapper Wylie, pulling the door gently shut, his throat dry.
As he rumbled away from the cathedral, firemen cleared the roads in East London. In a haze of sweat and fear Davies took the bomb to Hackney marshes where he personally saw to it that his cargo was detonated.
The explosion left a crater on the marshes 100ft wide and threw an arc of mud across the warehouses on the Hackney side of the Lee Navigation.
But Hackney Marsh’s loss was Britain’s gain. The cathedral had been saved. Thanks to Lieutenant Bob Davies and his plucky team London had proved her mettle in this opening phase of the Blitz. She could take whatever was thrown at her.
The Daily Mail used Davies’ tale to galvanise the nation. ‘A story that must win a man a VC‘ screamed the headline. ‘These most gallant – and most matter of fact – men of the RE are many a time running a race with death.’
So the story goes.
Stories aren’t always that straightforward, of course.
Davies and Wylie won the George Cross and their story was splashed across every newspaper in Britain as testimony to the Blitz spirit. But it was later revealed that Davies hadn’t personally driven the bomb to Hackney Marshes at all. Neither had the cathedral, or Davies’s men, been in imminent danger.
There was no fuse in the bomb.
Then there was the little matter of Davies’ sideline activities.
In 1942 he was found guilty of long-term theft and embezzlement while acting as a bomb disposal officer. He’d been exorting cash from the owners of properties he’d saved and writing fraudulent cheques for amounts of money he didn’t have.
The unfortunate Davies, who’d diffused a bomb with utmost bravery, and hadn’t asked to become a squeaky clean Daily Mail poster boy for the Blitz spirit, went to jail for 18 months. His war was over.
For Hackney Marshes this was only the beginning of the Blitz story. Throughout the rest of the war, trucks came here to dump the rubble of houses and factories destroyed by bombs. This effectively drained the marsh and, after the war, football pitches were laid over the rubble.
Every weekend the Sunday League footballers still play on these fields without a thought for the graveyard of masonry beneath them. They don’t think about Lieutenant Bob Davis, a hero and a thief who came here on day in 1940 to blow up a fuseless bomb and save a London that existed only in the propaganda of the tabloids.
When their matches are finished they stroll, laughing, towards changing rooms framed by a pristine Olympic skyline.
Then the heavens open. Rains come down hard on Hackney marshes. The water seeps though a layer of brick, bone and smashed crockery. It runs deep into underground streams, muddy with the filth of history.