Operation Crusade 13th-15th February 1998.
Disposal of World War 2 German ordnance in Chippenham. Evacuation of 1100 members of the public for a three-day period.
Preliminary surveying work in preparation for the building of Chippenham’s third secondary school plus the warnings of the farmer, who had remembered bombs being dropped on the field during air raids in 1942, prompted a more detailed examination of the proposed site with a magnetometer.
The results revealed a several objects ranging from the innocuous to the unexplained. Seven anomalies warranted further investigation. This would involve the technical work of digging a hole and poking them with a big stick! I and one other in the Group drive past the site twice a day and had been watching the excavations for a number of weeks.
While all this was going on plans were being thrashed out at CEPO level. This had to include minimal response to the worst case scenario of evacuation of the civil population. All services were put on alert, including the North Wilts Group. Press statements were carefully formulated and the
Police visited and leafleted those in the primary evacuation area. Prior to commencing digging on Monday 9th February everyone who needs to be informed had been contacted – from the Town Hall to RAF Lyneham.
Digging commenced on the Monday and by Wednesday they discovered that a JCB does not reach as far down as a HiMac. By Thursday the field revealed that one device was a pipe, one was and already exploded bomb and that there were two unexploded devices, one at 250 kg (23 feet down) and the other 500 kg (30 feet down).
A conference was called on the morning of Friday 13th to discuss the response to the find. At this point events were overtaken by an unexpected turn of events. The EOD officer warned that the bomb had become unstable. We were now thrown into the worst case scenario – full scale evacuation of the civil population within an 800 metre cordon. An air exclusion order was also brought into force (it happens to be the air approach to Lyneham for Hercules air craft).
The Group had already been put on full alert on the Monday and were waiting for something to happen. The call went through to the County Controller (I was out of the county – my father-in-law having died that morning) who initiated the call out at about 1400. I took up the remainder of the call out from Kent. Group Pager message went out at 1415. Personnel were contacted and mobilised. 21 members of the group were despatched into the Chippenham area. Some were within short walking distance of North Wilts District Council offices and were in place within 15 minutes.
Cyril G6DHY did a splendid job talking in operators as the whole area was blocked off by the police; good local knowledge proving invaluable. The exit off the M4 was closed and the A4 – wide diversions were put in place causing traffic to back up for miles around. The Avon Area Group were contacted and put on standby and the Zone 7 Co-ordinator was informed of the situation.
All significant points were manned within half an hour. These included County Hall, North Wilts DC Offices (both have antennas and radios permanently installed) followed by the Town Hall, Olympiad Leisure Centre and bus marshalling areas in Chippenham and RAF Lyneham. The co-operative
population were quickly and successfully evacuated from the area. Press reports of several thousands were slightly exaggerated! In reality 1100 left the area, 71 were accommodated at Lyneham for the weekend, the remainder moved in with friends and relatives in the area; unfortunately some did leave their pets at home which presented a few problems later on. Seven families refused to leave the area. They were served with disclaimer notices and warned that if they stepped out from their houses for any reason they would be liable to arrest under the Civil Powers Act.
The Press were briefed and after the area had been made safe the Group was temporarily stood down at 2300 while the EOD officers commenced their gruelling work. While they toiled over night we slept.
We had been led to believe that Saturday’s manning levels would be minimal. Operation began at 0830 from County Hall, NWDC and Lyneham. 25 operators were on standby. However, as the day went on there became clear that more operators would be needed as the Police were having difficulty communicating with their officers at Lyneham, therefore it was necessary to put in a link between Silver Control and the RAF Base and to use crossband talkthrough. There was an upbeat Press Conference at 0900 (delayed a bit as ITN got stuck in traffic). As the day progressed it became clear that things were not going to plan. The first 250 kg bomb was successfully being immunised as it was lying on its side with the fuses accessible and part of the tail section broken away. The second device was presenting more of a problem. It was perpendicular 30 feet down having punched its way through a layer of rock 12 feet down. All that was exposed was the tail end view and it was sinking into the soil as fast as they could uncover it. Options now began to change. The previously ruled out decision to detonate the bomb was rapidly becoming the only safe choice, but what damage would it cause and who would pay for the compensation? Discussions went on all morning and Press statements were delayed. Tension mounted. The planned excursions to allow the evacuees into the area to tend to the remaining pets was cancelled as the situation became more serious. By the evening it was finally announced that the bomb would be detonated on Sunday, with smaller detonations during the night to dispose of the fuses and to burn off the explosives from the 250 kg bomb. We stood down at 1930 there being nothing more to do till the morning.
Sunday saw us back on station at 0715 with 25 operators on standby, but not manning County Hall. Detonation was scheduled for 0800. This was delayed for technical reasons till 1000, then 1115 to 1145, then 1200 then within the next hour or so; finally at 1315. The Police and CEPO were insistent that the evacuees at Lyneham were given notice of the impending detonation of the bomb and we were told that there would be a 15 minute warning. There was a lot of confusion about this as the Council officers with me were given information by phone which conflicted with ours. They were often unwilling to accept that our information was correct. As events were to prove ours was the accurate intelligence.
The EOD had excavated the site, built ramparts and prepared the area prior to the controlled explosion. The Press were briefed and a remote pool camera permitted onto the scene and photo shoot areas identified. The Police made their final checks that the area was safe. All services, Transco, Water, Fire, Local Authority, glaziers etc. were all on standby outside the cordon. The bomb was successfully detonated at 1310. Many of you will have seen this on TV News. The cordon was maintained while the debris settled and the device was checked. Damage was minimal, some glass broken and a few roof tiles. Utilities were allowed into the area to make checks and the area was declared safe. It was then just a question of organising an orderly return for the evacuees into the area. The police maintained a cordon to ensure that only residents were allowed back into the area. No properties were looted. Seven families had remained in the area despite warnings.
Many messages were passed on behalf of the CEPO and Police. We were well looked after in the District Council Offices and rest centres and the Police. There was good liaison between us and the user services. And a awful of time sitting around waiting. We experienced sever interference to communications from French packet stations on Sunday morning on 144.625 MHz so much so that we had to change frequency to 144.650 MHz, where upon 2 UK started up. We were at the point of contacting the Somerset Police to have them shut down when we were able to contact them by phone. Feeble excuses were made but they still left their beacons running. However, this does highlight the problems that were voiced over the change in frequencies.