Bombs Away: How St Paul's Was Saved By Sappers

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By M@ Last edited 12 months ago
Bombs Away: How St Paul's Was Saved By Sappers

Bermondsey had a close shave in 2015 when a bomb from the second world war was discovered on a construction site. The malingering munition was transported to a secure quarry and destroyed by controlled explosion. The episode reminds us of a similar, almost catastrophic incident during the war, when St Paul's Cathedral was imperilled by an unexploded bomb.

In September 1940, in the early days of the London Blitz, a two-ton bomb landed just metres from the cathedral’s west entrance. It failed to detonate on impact, suggesting a delayed-action fuse. The bomb sank into the London clay, close beside a gas main. It posed a significant threat. Had it exploded, it would have taken out much of the western end of the cathedral, and perhaps the dome.

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A brave team of bomb-disposal experts under the command of Lieutenant Robert Davies were quick on the scene. It took three days to locate and then extract the device, which might have exploded at any moment, killing the team and wrecking the cathedral. Once free, the bomb still had to be moved to safety — no easy task at a time when every road was cratered and rubble-strewn. The slightest knock might trigger the device.

Sapper George Wylie, one of the key members of the bomb disposal team. Photo courtesy of St Paul's Cathedral.


Lieutenant Davies volunteered himself for the task. The bomb was secured to the back of a truck, then driven through the streets of London to Hackney Marshes. The tense journey passed without incident, and the bomb was safely detonated on the marsh. The resulting 30-metre-wide crater gave some indication of how severe the damage might have been, had the weapon exploded beneath St Paul's.

Davies and several other members of his team were honoured for the heroic work. The lieutenant became the second person to receive the prestigious George Cross, with the following testimonial: "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. After unremitting effort, during which all ranks knew that an explosion might occur at any moment, the bomb was successfully extricated. In order to shield his men from further danger, Lieutenant Davies himself drove the vehicle in which the bomb was removed and personally carried out its disposal."

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Lance Corporal 'Sapper' George Wyllie was also awarded a George Cross. Their medals are respectively held by the Imperial War Museum and the cathedral.

Sapper George Wylie's GC, courtesy of St Paul's Cathedral.


This British Pathe film gives brief footage of the bomb excavation, and the subsequent crater on Hackney Marshes. The image above is a still from that film.

Last Updated 30 October 2017