The Jackson site team recently got more than they bargained for whilst working on a £1.1m scheme to improve the conveyance capacity of the River Soar, just outside Leicester, to reduce the risk of flooding in the area.
The works involve reprofiling and reinstating the river bank, and also constructing new flood embankments at three locations along the river. At one of these sites, on 10th November 2015, the team unearthed some unexploded White Phosphorous Mortars, left over from the Second World War. Jackson General Foreman Dean Hanley explains what happened:
“It was about 3:30pm, and I received a phone call from the guys excavating on the river bank who reported white smoke coming out of the ground where they’d been working. I was at one of the other sites at the time, so I instructed them to evacuate the area and call the police immediately.
When I got to the site, from quite a distance away I could see the smoke coming out of the ground. My background is in the military and I’ve been trained to identify all different sorts of bombs, so I knew what it was straight away.
The police arrived shortly after, and due to my experience, they asked me to speak to Captain Jonnie Barlow from the Nottingham EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) Regiment, who asked me to describe what was happening. He confirmed my suspicions, that it was likely to be a White Phosphorous Mortar, left over from WW2.
Unfortunately, by this time the light was failing, so it was just too risky for the EOD team to do anything that evening. Instead, with the help of the police, we securely cordoned off the whole area, including a number of footpaths, and secured the site for the evening.
The EOD team then arrived at first light, and were able to detonate the remaining mortar safely. They did this by attaching plastic explosives to the device, and then detonating it when all their operatives were safely out of the 50 metre exclusion zone. They also managed to build a bund around the device in order to contain the explosion.”
This is the third UXO that Dean has come across in his construction career, and it’s thanks to his experience and quick thinking that the situation was controlled safely and calmly.
Once the EOD team had disposed of the final mortar, Captain Barlow gave the team the all clear so they could recommence work. He said: “Going forward, Dean should be present whilst the team are working in the area where the UXO was discovered, as I have full confidence he knows the types of ordnance that may be present, and will act accordingly should a similar situation arise.”
History of the White Phosphorous Mortars
In 1940, when the invasion of Britain seemed imminent, the British Government adopted the use of Grenade, No. 76, or Special Incendiary Phosphorus grenade, which consisted of a glass bottle filled with a phosphorous mixture similar to Fenian fire, plus some latex. These were improvised anti-tank weapons, hastily fielded in 1940 when the British were awaiting a German invasion after losing the bulk of their modern armaments in the Dunkirk evacuation. It came in two versions, one with a red cap intended to be thrown by hand, and a slightly stronger bottle with a green cap, intended to be launched from the Northover projector, a crude 2.5-inch black-powder grenade launcher.
During this time, these mortars, along with other munitions, were stashed in strategic locations across the country in preparation for invasion, but were thankfully never required. To this day, unexploded ordnances left over from WW2 continue to be unearthed and dealt with by EOD teams across the country.
What are White Phosphorous Mortars?
On contact with air (when the mortar casing is broken) the phosphorous reacts and creates an explosion. Theoretically, a brand new mortar bomb could be carried around in your pocket quite safely, however, the mortars discovered on the banks of the River Soar had been in the ground for a long time, and their casings had eroded. It only took a small knock from the excavator to crack their cases, which is why one of them went off underground, and the EOD team had to be extremely careful with the remaining device.