Lieutenant Colin Churcher
Clearance diver who risked life and limb to dispose of unexploded German wartime bombs
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its clock counting down … The Germans also fitted a booby device, which would activate the bomb if the main fuze was withdrawn.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