St Paul’s Cathedral is gleaming once again, courtesy of a £40 million restoration project. For the first time in 15 years, Sir Christopher Wren’s magnificent building in the heart of London is free from scaffolding and it has not looked better since it was completed back in 1711.
The unveiling of the new-look St Paul’s last week was, quite rightly, extensively reported in the media but, amidst the large amounts of space devoted to the building’s history, one remarkable incident went unreported.
For 71 years ago, during the Blitz, St Paul’s came incredibly close to being demolished by a huge German bomb. Only the outstanding bravery, determination and patience of two bomb disposal experts saved the building so that this week [Tuesday June 21] the cathedral hosts a service to celebrate its 300th anniversary.
I was unaware of the full drama of the incident until last year when I researched the latest of my three books on gallantry: George Cross Heroes. The George Cross (GC) is widely known as the “civilian VC” but the reality is that the decoration is often awarded to members of the military for extreme bravery that did not – unlike for an award of the Victoria Cross – take place in the face of the enemy.
Temporary Lieutenant Robert Davies and Sapper George Wyllie, both serving with the Royal Engineers, were only the second and third people ever to be awarded the GC after the decoration was created by George VI. However, few recipients since have risked their lives in more tense and dramatic circumstances.
Davies, a Cornishman, and Wyllie, a Scot, were called to deal with an unexploded bomb that had fallen close to St Paul’s Cathedral in London during a day of heavy bombing on 12 September 1940. Davies was in charge of the bomb disposal section, while Wyllie was a member of his team.
The location made an already-hazardous job even more difficult. If the bomb had exploded the cathedral would have been largely destroyed or, at best, badly damaged. Indeed any damage to St Paul’s Cathedral would have harmed the morale of the British people at the height of the Blitz.
On a dark night, operating in a cordoned off area, Davies and his team first had to spend quite some time locating the exact position where the bomb had fallen. Eventually, it was Wyllie who found the device, which had embedded itself deep into the pavement in front of the cathedral. This made their work extremely difficult and the men knew they would be killed instantly if the bomb exploded.
In an interview after the incident, Wyllie said of the bomb: “Once we had located it, Davies went down himself for a look and then we got down to getting it out. I went down again and put a steel cable around the bomb to bring it out. Twice it broke. It should never have come out. It should have been blown up there because it had a special fuse in it, which we called a seventeenth fuse.
“The word from the War Office was ‘blow them up’ because there were booby traps in them. But the crater was just down the main steps from the Cathedral and there would have been a great deal of damage… It was just too dangerous to blow it up where it was.
“Davies inspired his men all the time. He was a great leader. He was at the top of it all the time giving instructions to me as I slung the half-inch thick cable around it and the lorry started to drag it away….It [the cable] broke twice because all sorts of cables and telephone wires were tangled up underneath the bomb.”
Eventually, the two men managed to ease the bomb from the pavement at the same time as they withdrew its potentially-lethal “fangs”. When the men finally got the bomb on to the lorry, they estimated its weight was about 1,000 lbs and it was five feet long and two feet across. In short, it was a huge device that would have caused massive damage to St Paul’s and the surrounding area.
Davies was desperately worried for the safety of his team so he personally drove the Army vehicle in which the bomb was placed to Hackney Marshes, while Wyllie sat across the bomb, steadying it. Eventually, the bomb was disposed of safely.
Davies and Wyllie had risked their lives to save one of London’s most famous landmarks. On September 30 1940, just 18 days after the incident, it was announced that both men had been awarded the GC. Davies citation said: “So conscious was this officer of the imminent danger to the Cathedral that regardless of personal risk he spared neither himself nor his men in their efforts to locate the bomb.”
Wyllie (whose name was misspelt ‘Wylie’ in the citation) was singled out for discovering and removing the bomb. He was praised for his “untiring energy, courage and disregard for danger” which “were an outstanding example to his comrades”. Both men went on to survive the war.
Today Britain’s bomb disposal experts are operating in dangerous theatres such as Iraq and Afghanistan. The last two awards of the GC – made as recently as last year – were for the gallantry of two men from the Royal Logistic Corps.
Staff Sergeant Olaf “Oz” Schmid paid for his courage with his life when he was blown up right at the end of his tour of duty while attempting to defuse a complex Improvised Explosive Device (IED). He received a posthumous GC.
The other man to receive the GC was Staff Sergeant (now Warrant Officer Class 2) Kim Hughes. His citation praised him for “the single most outstanding act of explosive ordnance ever recorded in Afghanistan.”
As recently as this last weekend, just over 24 hours after the unveiling of the new look St Paul’s, I was privileged to be invited as the guest speaker of the Ammunition Technical Officers’ Dining Club.
As it was a private event, I am not at liberty to talk about the details of the dinner. However, the extremely convivial evening simply confirmed my conviction that Britain’s bomb disposal teams are today – just as they were back in 1940 – among the very bravest individuals serving their monarch and their country.