Fascinating WWII stories from SafeLane’s researchers
SafeLane's researchers share stories from WWII. Find out about the Night Witches, diamond smuggling and train fire tragedies.
Due to the nature of their work, delving into national archives and examining bombing maps to ensure SafeLane clients are fully informed about any unexploded ordnance (UXO) risk they may face, the SafeLane research team has uncovered some fascinating stories from WWII.
In this article, learn from them about The Night Witches, epic smuggling victories, and the heroes of a huge train explosion.
The Night Witches
The Night Witches were an all-female group of Soviet pilots, aged between 17 to 26, who mastered night-time bombing missions over Germany.
The squadron had no radar, no weapons and no parachutes. Their uniforms were made for men and in some cases were so large that the women would rip up their bedding to stuff out their boots to prevent them slipping off.
In spite of all these obstacles, these women managed to drop over 23,000 tons of munitions on advancing German troops.
The Night Witches would turn off their engines and glide into position to attack their targets, travelling at half the speed of a parachute.
Troops on the ground had little warning of the impending attack and could only hear a subtle ‘wooshing’ sound overhead just before they were attacked.
The Germans likened this noise to the sound of a broomstick flying and this led to the nickname ‘Nachthexen’ or ‘Night Witches.’
The fear instilled by these women was so great that the Germans would refuse to light their cigarettes at night in case they revealed themselves to the Night Witches.
Charles Howard, the 20th Earl of Suffolk, was in France in 1940 during the German invasion. By staying slightly ahead of the advancing enemy forces he smuggled several key physicists, 600 tonnes of machine tools and £2 million worth of diamonds out of France right under the enemy’s nose!
After his daring escape, Howard then pushed his luck even further by becoming a Research Officer, working out how to defuse new bombs. He served as part of the unexploded bomb detachment in London during the Blitz.
He would dictate the method he was proposing to use on a bomb to a colleague before he attempted it, this was to ensure that if something did go wrong, others could learn from his mistake.
His team successfully defused 34 unexploded bombs (UXBs) and provided valuable intelligence for other UXB teams on the design evolution of fuses.
Unfortunately, his luck ran out and the 35th bomb took his life.
Soham rail disaster
In June 1944, a train carrying approximately 400 tons of American high explosive bombs passed through the small village of Soham in Cambridgeshire. The driver noticed that the lead wagon, which was carrying approximately 10 tons of bombs, was on fire.
The driver stopped the train and the fireman uncoupled the wagon from the engine. Unfortunately, the wagon exploded at the station.
The fireman was killed instantly and a signalman at the station died as a result of his injuries. 6 others, including the driver, survived but with serious injuries.
The explosion left a vast crater, destroyed the station and 120ft of the railway line. 15 homes were destroyed and 36 were left uninhabitable.
There was also significant damage to a gas works and goods yard, causing extensive fires.
U.S engineers began repairs by infilling the crater and repairing less severely damaged homes. Incredibly, within 18 hours of the explosion, the line was operational again.
The efforts of the driver and the fireman prevented the entire train from igniting; they saved many lives with their brave actions. They were awarded the George Cross as a result.
SafeLane’s research team provide detailed unexploded ordnance (UXO) risk assessments to evaluate on-site threat levels for construction clients and those planning intrusive works. To ensure your site is safe and that your project can proceed without encountering unexploded bombs or munitions, request your UXO risk assessment today.