Lieu­tenant Colin Churcher

Clear­ance diver who risked life and limb to dis­pose of un­ex­ploded Ger­man wartime bombs

The Daily Telegraph - - Obituaries -

LIEU­TENANT COLIN CHURCHER, who has died aged 91, was a clear­ance diver who dis­posed of un­ex­ploded ord­nance at Black­fri­ars Bridge and Waltham­stow reser­voir.

At low wa­ter, at 0300 on Fe­bru­ary 3 1968, Churcher, sec­ond-in-com­mand of the Portsmouth Clear­ance Div­ing Team, en­tered the Thames un­der Black­fri­ars Bridge and fol­lowed a marker line down to­wards a sus­pected bomb. At 10 ft down the vis­i­bil­ity was zero, and at 50ft, at the bot­tom of the line, he could feel a cylin­dri­cal ob­ject half­buried in the river bed at an an­gle of about 30 de­grees.

Dig­ging through the 3 in-thick crust of the riverbed with his div­ing knife into the gooey mud be­low, he pushed his arm along the cylin­der un­til he found the sling­ing point where it had been sus­pended from an air­craft.

Reach­ing to the other side he stretched his hand un­til he found a fuze pocket. He re­alised that he was em­brac­ing a 550lb wartime Ger­man bomb and that the fuze was in­tact.

Back on the sur­face, he re­called: “I gave a brief­ing to the team and sent two divers down to do a bit more dig­ging but told them not to knock the bomb or move it from its cur­rent an­gle. The tide had started to flood again, so they would only have about 15 min­utes. The next slack wa­ter would be at 0900 and I de­cided that we would carry out the lift at that time.

“We had a busy time for the next four hours, mak­ing a rope sling to fit around the bomb … It was very im­por­tant that the bomb was kept at the same an­gle be­cause, as we had been un­able to see the fuze, any dif­fer­ence in the at­ti­tude of the bomb might start its clock count­ing down … The Ger­mans also fit­ted a booby de­vice, which would ac­ti­vate the bomb if the main fuze was with­drawn. The bomb was only a few feet away from one of the but­tresses of Black­fri­ars Bridge. Had it det­o­nated, it could have brought the bridge down.”

Churcher and his team started div­ing again just be­fore the next high wa­ter, care­fully lift­ing the bomb on to the sal­vage ves­sel Broad­ness, all the while keep­ing it at the same an­gle and even­tu­ally tak­ing it out to sea. At last Churcher was able to ex­am­ine the fuze, an elec­tric im­pact type, “but we will never know why it hadn’t func­tioned.”

At 1630 Churner saw it low­ered to the seabed and coun­ter­mined. There was the rum­ble of a full-or­der ex­plo­sion, a white plume of wa­ter rose 100ft into the air, and the blast was felt in Southend two miles away.

Churcher and his team were in­vited to ap­pear on Sun­day Night at the Lon­don Pal­la­dium and the Lord Mayor of Lon­don in­vited the team to a civic lun­cheon at the Man­sion House.

He was again called to take per­sonal charge of a long op­er­a­tion, while ex­pos­ing him­self to great per­sonal dan­ger when, dur­ing the af­ter­noon of Fe­bru­ary 6 1970, rou­tine main­te­nance at West War­wick Reser­voir, Waltham­stow, re­vealed a 1,500lb Ger­man mine, fit­ted with ac­tu­at­ing and anti-re­moval de­vices, stuck in the em­bank­ment.

De­spite the risks, overnight Churcher steamed the ex­plo­sive out of the mine, and by the next morn­ing had filled sev­eral sand­bags with ex­plo­sive which he could burn with­out caus­ing an ex­plo­sion. His con­duct was deemed to be in the high­est tra­di­tions of the Ser­vice and he was ap­pointed MBE.

Colin Churcher was born into a min­ing fam­ily at Birt­ley, Co Durham, on April 15 1926. He vol­un­teered for the Navy in 1943.

He saw wartime ser­vice on Arc­tic con­voys and in the Far East in the de­stroyer Myngs, as a rat­ing, and was com­mis­sioned as a gun­ner be­fore he qual­i­fied as a clear­ance diver. He served on ex­change ser­vice with the USN from 1974-75 and fi­nally re­tired in 1983. His au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, To Ren­der Safe (1990), is a de­tailed so­cial his­tory, mod­estly and hu­mor­ously told, of life on the lower deck and in the ward­room of the Royal Navy, over 40 years.

Colin Churcher is sur­vived by his sec­ond wife, Hilda, and by two step­sons.

Lieu­tenant Colin Churcher, born April 15 1926, died Septem­ber 29 2017

Churcher dis­posed of many UXBS in­clud­ing this Bri­tish Mk 17 sea mine

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