It’s not a very photogenic item, just a rather dull cigarette case which I bought at an antiques fair one day. The interest lies in the inscription. It was presented to a member of the Royal Engineers for work in disposing of an unexploded bomb in 1942. The full text reads:
SERGT. R.H. Woodrow R.E.
in appreciation of courage shown
assisting Lieut. K. C. Revis R.E.
in defusing 1000 KG
Between 1939 and 1945 members of bomb disposal teams in the UK dealt with over 50,000 unexploded German bombs, 7,000 Anti-Aircraft shells and 300,000 beach mines. In the period 21st September 1940 to 5th July 1941 (known as “The Blitz”) an average of 84 bombs a day failed to explode on impact. Approximately one in 12 of them were designed to go off after a time delay, causing increased disruption to everyday life and, as a bonus, killing the men dealing with them. In all, 394 officers and men were killed dealing with unexploded ordnance during the war. Of these 235 were Royal Engineers working in the UK. The rest would be Royal Navy personnel, civilians and Home Guard (yes, they had their own bomb disposal units – usually based in factories and used to minimise damage and disruption to production.) olus those killed overseas. I’m afraid I can’t find figures that give a more accurate breakdown. Many more were, of course, injured.
Patcham is part of Brighton, and during the war, being close to occupied Europe, the skies over Brighton we busy. There were 56 raids recorded on Brighton between 1940 and 1944, including one by a single bomber that killed 54 people on 14thn September 1940. A newspaper report of a post-war exhibition about the bombing mentions 636 high explosive bombs being dropped in the area during the war. Brighton was bombed on 56 occasions with 198 fatalities and 790 injuries of varying seriousness. The article says that the damage would have been far worse if it wasn’t for the number of bombs that failed to go off and specifically mentions a 1,000 kg bomb “which was dropped in a garden at Patcham by a bomber afterwards shot down on the downs in May 1942.”
I have not been able to find any information of Sergeant Woodrow, which is good in a way, as it means he survived the war. Hopefully he survived in one piece.
Lieutenant Revis survived the war too, though in his case there is some information available, and his story is quite harrowing.
He was interested in explosions as a boy, before moving on to the less dangerous hobby of riding motorcycles, became a civil engineer and, at the outbreak of war, was commissioned into the Royal Engineers and assigned to bomb disposal duties. His first bomb was a 500kg device in a Hastings garden and he defused hundreds of bombs up to 1,800 kg. It wasn’t an easy job and it was made harder by German attempts to kill or injure bomb disposal officers. As if the work wasn’t dangerous enough, they fitted booby traps to some bombs amd altered designs so that the common method of defusing a bomb one month became a way of detonating the bomb. However, Revis was not caught by a German bomb. It was a British one that caused his troubles.
In the early days of the war, piers were seen as a danger to security as they could have helped the Germans land troops during the planned invasion. As a result the east coast piers were partially dismantled and wired for demolition. In 1943, as the danger passed, we started to remove the explosives. Three years in a corrosive environment did not make this a simple job. Revis successfully defused the mines on the Palace Pier on 10th September 1943. He then moved on to the West Pier and had successfully defused six mines when the remaining mines exploded.
At one point a nurse pulled a sheet over him and he reputedly said: “Take that bloody thing off – I’m not dead yet”.
He was taken to east Grinstead Hospital where he became one of McIndoe’s Guinea Pigs. During his time in hospital he used a bed previously occupied by Richard Hillary, author of The Last Enemy, and was visited by an American airman called Clark Gable.
When the bandages came off, it was clear that he would never see again. Despite this, he taught himself to type and read braille, using what was left of his fingers, and he trained to work a capstan lathe, producing Spitfire parts. He was awarded the OBE for his bomb disposal work and was asked by Sir Ian Fraser MP, a blind veteran of the great War, and head of St Dunstan’s (now Blind Veterans UK) to go to India to teach blinded veterans, which he did until 1947.
A brief summary of his later life includes qualifying as a solicitor, working as a Press Officer for Morris Motors, learning to water ski and flying a glider. He also drove a sports car down a runway at 100mph for a TV programme, as his wife sat in the passenger seat and gave directions. She must have been an extraordinary woman.
He also appeared on This is Your Life and was the technical adviser for episode 12 of Danger UXB, (1979) where he was played by Anthony Andrews. He also appeared on the documentary Danger! Unexploded Bomb (2001) and raised funds for the restoration of Brighton’s West Pier. It seems that several people asked him why he would want to return to it after what happened to him. His reply? “I suppose it’s the last thing I saw.”
It always amazes me what you can find on the internet these days. I’m not much of one for technology, as you know, and there are a lot of bad things about the internet, but if you need to find information on an engraved cigarette case, it’s obviously the place to look.
Edit: I just searched “WW2 Patcham” and found this – for some reason I hadn’t thought to do it before.