Home » Human Life » Deadly Relics – The Story of Unexploded Bombs in the Isle of Dogs

Deadly Relics – The Story of Unexploded Bombs in the Isle of Dogs


2007 UXB in the Isle of Dogs

The Christmas episode of Call the Midwife about an unexploded bomb in Poplar was a reminder that although the War ended in 1945, there are occasionally dangerous relics from those days that still make an appearance.

It was estimated that the German airforce dropped 22,000 tonnes of Bombs onto London, of this amount it is estimated that at least 10% failed to explode either due to faulty parts or they were deliberately sabotaged by workers in Germany.

According to the Bombsight records 755 High explosive bombs, 20 Parachute mines and 20 incendiary bombs were dropped on Poplar in the Blitz during the Second World War. This high number caused considerable damage and loss of life but it would have been very difficult at the time to trace the unexploded bombs that buried themselves underground or fell into the docks.


These signs were quite common in London after the War

The problem of unexploded bombs was a source of concern when the war ended, this is illustrated by this strangely upbeat newspaper report from 1950.


Mother Brown hears a ticking. Neither she nor the family can locate it. They, and the neighbours, recall the big bomb that dropped nearby 10 years ago. They rush out and call the Bomb Disposal Unit, and a bomb disposal squad of the Royal Engineers is soon on the spot. No, Mother Brown’s bomb is not flagged on their UXB (unexploded bomb) map. But, then, it might have been missed. Can’t afford to take any chances. Householders in the area are closely questioned. Instruments are produced to ‘listen’ for the bomb. If need be, digging starts, and the area is cleared. If there is a bomb it is quickly de-loused and removed. But the chances, these days, of Mother Brown’s bomb being a genuine article are pretty slight. The ticking that troubled her is likely to be no more menacing than the ticking of the mattress in her best front bedroom.

There are not many bombs that are not meticulously marked on a master map that hangs on the wall of a Sussex cottage, HQ of Britain’s still active Bomb Disposal Unit.
The flags on that map mark the locations of 124 suspected bombs lying yards down under Britain, 30 of them in the London area. These are the remnants of the 24,000 unexploded bombs that have been destroyed in the 10 years to 1950, the harvest of 40,000 reported suspects.
There are still, however, plenty of Mrs. Browns. There is an average of six reports of suspected bombs a week. About a quarter of them are confirmed. This highly specialised work still costs Britain a packet of money. Every time a bomb disposal squad, with its equipment, goes to investigate a report, it costs about £400. If there is a bomb and it is removed, that sometimes costs another £2100. Each discovered bomb brings its crop of reports from roundabout. The Mother Browns can’t be happy until they have one, too.

Removing a bomb even 10 years after, can be as dangerous as it used to be. But generally, with the aid of accumulated knowledge and new equipment, the trained de-louser is more in danger of a dropped spanner than of a good old-fashioned cru-m-m-p. There have been no casualties in the Bomb Disposal Unit since January, 1948. Before then, there was quite a toll. Thirty-five officers and 211 other ranks were killed. On mine disposal work, 151 were killed. Mine disposal is now considered one of the disposal boys most ticklish jobs. Since they started lifting minefields in 1945 61,000 mines have been removed from 37 fields, including holiday beaches and cliff top walks. Meanwhile the big signs that say: ‘Keep clear, Unexploded bomb,’ occasionally, but less and less frequently, appear in London back streets and empty the local population into a deliciously exciting vigil in the nearby pubs. Mrs Brown’s ticking be comes less and less distinct.

One of the most dramatic Unexploded Bomb episodes took place in 1957 when a bomb was discovered in West India Dock.

A Port of London diver doing a routine inspection of the dock found the bomb half buried in mud, due to the fact that it was a magnetic ‘G’ mine it was not possible to bring to the surface as it possessed a mechanism that would have detonated it.

For eight hours in freezing cold waters a team of bomb disposal divers worked to make it safe. In recognition of their bravery the team was honoured, Cdr Gordon Gutteridge was appointed an OBE, Lt Cdr Terrell and Lt Heatley MBEs.  PO Cobby, Leading Seaman Alderton, Able Seaman Harris received British Empire Medals.

In the obituary for Peter Cobby  in the Scotsman in 2012 more details were given;

In the late 1950s he served as senior diver in the mine hunter HMS Brenchley,  which was attached to the 51st Minesweeping Squadron but in 1957 he was called from the classroom where he was taking his officer exams and sent to West India Dock in London. A huge German mine containing 1570 kilos of explosive had been found lying in the mud and was highly dangerous.

He immediately ordered that the area be evacuated and he and his colleagues from HMS Brenchley displayed nerves of steel. They worked by touch and feel in the pitch dark and unlit water in rotation and made repeated dives on the mine. They had to treat the bomb as though it had multiple fuses – it could easily have blown up at any moment. He was awarded a BEM for his skill and bravery.

Recent development of Canary Wharf and the Isle of Dogs has meant that construction firms are now digging deeper to build foundations for large developments. In 2007 one construction firm came across a German V1 Doodlebug that had laid under the ground for over 50 years, a  BBC report of the time gives more information.

 BBC News 28th July 2007 – WWII bomb found at Canary Wharf    

Police have set up a 400-metre exclusion zone in Docklands after the discovery of an unexploded bomb dating back to World War Two. The bomb, believed to be a ‘Doodlebug’, was unearthed on a building site on the Isle of Dogs.

Marsh Wall was closed both ways closed due to the incident, between Limeharbour and Millharbour.

The Docklands Light Railway, which was carrying visitors to an air race near the Dome, was not closed.


London’s docks were a major target for German bombers during the 1939-45 war and many unexploded bombs have been discovered in the area since.

V-1s (Doodlebugs) were flying missiles that had enough power to fly over the Channel and were capable of destroying two to three houses.

They were also known as ‘buzz-bombs’ because of the distinctive drone of their engines.

But when they cut out, terrified people on the ground ran for cover as they knew a bomb was falling from the sky.

Police expect the exclusion zone to remain in place until Sunday, when it may be extended while disposal work is carried out.

One would like to think that most of the unexploded bombs have been found or are inactive by now, but it probably is a safe bet that one or more of these unwelcome visitors will make an appearance in the next few years

Other posts you may find interesting

Mapping the Blitz

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