Bomb divers face dangerous mission

ROYAL Navy divers today spoke of the dark and dangerous conditions they are facing beneath the waves as they try to explode a bomb washed up at Felixstowe.

Richard Cornwell

DESPITE making 12 dives in the murky waters of the North Sea this afternoon, experts have not been able to find the Felixstowe bomb.

The Royal Navy bomb disposal squad said it had not been possible to locate the 1,000 lb war-time bomb but were going to try again early evening, and would stay out until darkness falls.

Lt Cdr Heather Tuppen insisted the bomb was not lost at sea.

“It is still within the search cordon and the search area has not been widened - we are still working in the same zone,” she said.

“The team managed 12 dives and also used sonar equipment to investigate. It's been quite challenging and the team has worked really hard.”

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The unit is only able to work at certain states of the tide and has to make as many dives as possible during that time.

Divers know the last recorded GPS location of the bomb but strong currents moved it again overnight.

Once they find it they will attach an indicator line as a locating marker. Then, if all goes well, an explosive charge will be made up and the bomb will be exploded

Petty officer diver Dave Moore said: “Yesterday we basically got weathered off because of the strong tide and poor conditions. Everything depends on the weather and tidal conditions.

“If it doesn't take place today then we will try again tomorrow, and the day after - whether it is tomorrow or next week, we will be here as long as it takes.”

Petty Officer Moore said the bomb was a German SC type shell from 1942 - mostly TNT dynamite but mixed with about 30pc aluminium powder to make it particularly fierce.

“It is dangerous for the divers but we are trained to do what we are doing and have years of experience in these situations,” he said.

“It's just one of those things, part of the job, and we get on with it.

“The divers are working in absolutely nil visibility and searching for the bomb with just their hands and fingertips. Once they have put the charges on it they will come back to the support ship and we will explode it.”

The bomb is currently two miles off the shore in about ten to 12 metres of water, but can move a considerable distance when swept along by currents below the surface.

When it goes off it should shoot a plume of water 300 ft into the air and noise should be heard across the town.

The team want to carry out the detonation when there is enough water to cushion the impact of the explosion. A sea exclusion zone has been set up above the bomb to protect boats overnight.

More Royal Navy divers and a larger boat arrived this morning to assist the operation - there is now a ten-man team of specialist divers involved from the Plymouth-based Southern Diving Unit 1, its Portsmouth-based sister unit, Southern Diving Unit 2, and the Northern Diving Group from HMS Neptune at Faslane in Scotland.

Yesterday afternoon hundreds of people gathered all along the cliffs and seafront to watch the operation.

The diver team put the bomb, which was found on the beach off Sea Road at 6am Monday by workers on a £10 million sea defence project, in an inflatable lift bag at low tide at breakfast-time and then at high water, about 11.30am, towed it out to sea, pulling it behind a tiny dinghy, making their way out, north-east across the end of the pier towards Cobbold Point.

About one-and-a-half miles offshore it appeared to drop the bomb to the seabed.

The team then made an assessment of the situation and currents and detonators were fixed to the bomb and preparations made to explode it, but after the bomb moved several times it was decided to abandon the operation.

The Coastguard cutter made several sweeps of the bay before heading back to port with the divers on board.

The team then visited the site again at 6pm last night, but after an hour again decided to delay the detonation.

While the bomb may not have gone off, there was good news for residents as the cordon around the resort's West End area was lifted, roads re-opened and they were allowed back to their homes and businesses.

Around 1,200 people had been forced to leave the areas between the Ordnance, Beach Station and the seafront by police, with families asked to spend the night with relatives or friends or to bed down on mats and airbeds at Brackenbury Sports Centre.

Royal Navy experts said the bomb was powerful enough to flatten a large area of the seafront and cause collateral damage up to about half-a-mile inland.

Superintendent Ian Sibney said last night the operation to evacuate people from their homes had gone according to plan.

“Obviously the police are very grateful for the co-operation and support of members of the public who were affected by the cordon,” he said.

“Generally people were very compliant with our police requests and they understood it was beyond anyone's control. We were looking at it from the point of view of protecting people's lives and property which is why we had the cordon in place.

“We paid tribute to our colleagues in the ambulance service, fire and district councils who have worked closely together to make sure it has been a smooth and well-run operation.

“The more the organisations work together the greater the understanding we have of each other's practices.”