Bomb disposal, Sungei Dua, Penang

By Richard Middleton

The Troop’s next assignment was disposal of Japanese munitions on Penang Island.  Apparently the Japanese had stored an immense quantity of munitions on the south end of the island, and the civil authorities were very frightened that these might go off and cause widespread casualties.  (As it turned out, they were right to be concerned.  When leaving Malaya I hitched a ride on an RAF flight to Singapore, and started talking to a senior officer on the aircraft.  He asked me about my assignments, and I told him, somewhat smugly, that we had removed an estimated 40 tons of bombs and torpedo warheads from ammunition dumps in Penang.  He astounded me by replying that the staff estimated that there were 40,000 tons in various dumps, and the risk of sympathetic detonations  -  when one explosion sets off another nearby  -  was horrendous!  Since the nuclear bombs dropped on Japan had yields equivalent to “only” about 20,000 tons of TNT, he obviously had a point!).

As the project was on the island, at a place called Sungei Dua, I was able to transfer to the officers’ mess in Penang, which was in a large old colonial building and a very comfortable setup (I was also reunited with Dick Pike who had come out with me on the Devonshire and with some other young officers from other branches).  The only snag was that the mess president was an elderly medical officer (medics were always one rank above the common crowd, which was why he was president).  When I came back exhausted in the evenings he would invite me to join him for a restorative whisky or several, which I thought was very hospitable  -  until I got my first mess bill, and found out that the custom was that he ordered, but each of us paid for our own drinks…   

As seemed to occur rather often, when I arrived I found out that what we were to do and how we were to do it had been settled long before;  our task was just to make it happen.  Our project site was a grove of palm trees in undulating country, in the ridges of which the Japanese had dug several tunnels.  Two of them, Tunnels 1 and 3, contained 250 kg (about 550-pound) high-explosive bombs designed to be used against submarines.  They had thin casings and a lot of explosive, intended to use underwater pressure waves rather than shrapnel fragments to cause damage.  Tunnel 2 had 70 kg (about 150-pound) incendiary bombs, and also some mysterious gas cylinders.  These were not labeled and could have contained anything:  oxygen for torpedo motors, chlorine as a weapon or simply for water treatment, acetylene for welding, or whatever;  we just assumed they were hazardous and disposed of them in the same way as the bombs.  Tunnel 4 was a store for torpedo warheads and their fuse mechanisms[1].  There was a local legend that Japanese kamikaze aircraft, with torpedo warheads already in place to act as the bomb load, were somewhere in the vicinity, but we never came across any (and it seems inherently crazy to put heavily-loaded aircraft in tunnels nowhere near an airstrip). 

When we arrived we found very different conditions in the four tunnels.  Tunnel 1 had suffered a complete roof collapse close to the entrance, and until that material was cleared out of the way it wasn’t possible to determine the condition of the remainder of the tunnel.  Tunnel 2 extended all the way to the other side of the ridge, so in theory we could have dealt with it from both ends, but it had been backfilled with loose material and we didn’t want to have to go around to the other end, through thick vegetation, to haul away spoil.  Tunnels 3 and 4 were also both filled up, but whether from backfill material or collapsed roofs we couldn’t tell from the outside.  We set about clearing the material from each of the tunnels, generally shoveling it out and using wheelbarrows until we could get it to a belt elevator and load it into a truck to be hauled away.  Tunnel 2 was the easiest:  we quickly drove a pilot tunnel through the loose backfill, right to the other entrance, and so had a large face to work on.  In all of the tunnels the bombs were still pretty well organized, as if they had still been carefully stacked when they were buried, which made things much easier:  it was possible to remove all the fill material quite quickly, down to the “stratum” which contained the bombs, and only then did work have to proceed much more cautiously. 

We steadily excavated the bombs and warheads until we had accumulated a truck-load, then took them to a wharf at a place called Sungei Gugor.  There we transferred them to a small boat, a pinnace belonging to the RAF, took them quite a way out to sea and dumped them in deep water.  The RAF also provided the services of one of their munitions specialists, “Chief” Macdonald.  In principle that all seemed pretty simple.  However, there was a problem:  the anti-submarine bombs (and, I think, the torpedoes) contained an explosive called picrate, which under tropical conditions had deteriorated with time and, as the casings corrode, tended to leak out a yellowish ooze.  When this dried it formed a crust which was more or less the same as the material in non-safety matches:  if rubbed hard it will ignite or, in the case of a bomb, detonate…  Therefore any bomb or warhead that was exposed during excavation had to be carefully inspected for this crust, washed down before it could be removed from the tunnel, and thereafter periodically given a bath to make sure that it didn’t pose a danger.  In fact, possibly our biggest peril came from our truck driver, nicknamed Moe (I don’t think this was a reference to the Three Stooges, but it could have been), who had to drag the bombs and warheads off to a temporary storage area before we dumped them at sea.  Moe seemed to be hard of hearing, and, despite bellowed instructions to be careful, always seemed to be able to jerk the load, alarming us bystanders!  Nevertheless nothing dramatic happened (or I wouldn’t be writing this), so perhaps our diligent washing-down paid off.

We didn’t dump the clockwork fuses for the torpedoes, which had a paddle-driven clockwork mechanism so that they armed themselves once the torpedo was a safe distance from the submarine or whatever ship had launched them.  These were elegant pieces of equipment.  They presented no danger, as there was no explosive charge attached, so we quietly disposed of them on the scrap metal market and topped up the troop’s funds.  I kept one back as a souvenir, but some over-officious person in the mess removed it when I was off on another assignment (“That lunatic young sapper has a bomb in his quarters”).  That was the official reason, but I suspect it was because whoever it was wanted it as a souvenir himself.

This part of Penang was, at that time, sparsely populated, and when we had a load to dump we didn’t alert anyone;  we just drove through the countryside to a local jetty where the RAF pinnace awaited us.  I’m sure that this wouldn’t be permitted these days  -  probably whole villages would have to be evacuated  -  but it was actually good security.  If we had told the local police and relocated villagers I am sure that the word would have got out, and then there would have been a distinct risk of someone sniping from a distance and setting the entire load off. 

Dumping at sea was not much fun.  The trip out and back was enjoyable, but while at the dump site we went round and round in slow circles, rolling heavily, and diesel fumes filled the stern area where the bombs were.  Sea-sickness took its toll.

This next bit is hard to write.  We were working on the bomb area one morning  -  I remember I was above the excavation site sorting out some logistics  -  when there were shouts of alarm:  the entire side of the excavation had collapsed.  The bombs had to be dragged out on a level path, so we had created a 10-foot wide “canyon” perhaps 12 or 15 feet deep, and the men were at the far end of it, possibly 15 feet from the mouth.  There was a huge amount of confusion for a few moments, while we counted who was present and who was missing.  Perhaps we were lucky that only two men, Sappers Ryan and Bullock, were unaccounted for, but they were deep somewhere below tons of loose material.  Eventually we located them, but they were both dead.  In the following weeks we went through the entire ritual  -  formal identification by me at the mortuary, letters of condolence to the families from Major Bill, possessions shipped home, a civil inquest, a military funeral in Taiping  -  but to this day I feel dreadfully guilty and at the same time resentful of a system that put me in charge of a project that I didn’t design, when I didn’t have the training to assess the risks.  I have looked once more at the RE Pocketbook on Soil Mechanics:  lots of stuff about assessing soils for the construction of roads and airfields, nothing whatever about landslips or slope stability.  I wonder if anyone even considered these factors.  More likely whoever thought up the plan heard that the other tunnels were still sound, and assumed that it would be safe to dig out the bombs  -  ignoring the fact that the first section of the roof of Tunnel No. 1 bomb tunnel had already given way once, so that sides of the excavation in that area had no lateral forces helping to keep them in place.  My later experience on earth dams and deep pipe trenches of more or less the same dimensions as our work site would immediately have raised all sorts of red flags, but tragically I was far too naïve to be concerned.

After the accident it was decided to do what probably should have been done in the first place, before we ever started work:  bring in a team of local coolies and, working from the surface, open up a wide excavation above the bombs, with the sides well battered back, so there could be no risk of a repeat collapse.  After that we had no hesitation in going back to work, until we had to move on and start the new project at Naka.  But it was an entirely unnecessary loss of two young lives, caused by either incompetence or ignorance or both, and it will remain on my conscience until I die.

[1] We called the torpedo warheads “600-pounders”, but I cannot now trace a Japanese warhead of that actual weight that also used picrate explosives;  however, they were certainly as heavy or heavier than the 250 kg bombs, and there is a 591-pound warhead (explosive type unknown) that seems to fit the bill. 



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