“With the invasion of the Italian mainland imminent, Messina harbour had to be cleared of depth charges and made safe for shipping. On August 21, shortly after the Germans had been driven out of the north-east of the island, a bomb disposal team entered Messina to do a reconnaissance. Two days later five members of the party were killed and two wounded when an attempt to lift the depth charges resulted in a huge explosion.
Bridge, a temporary lieutenant in the RNVR, was ordered to go to Messina and take over the operation. From talking to the two survivors, he learned that the enemy had left behind groups of depth charges lashed together with steel wire. Attached to each group was a mechanism, so far unidentified, consisting of two metal cylinders fastened together.
On August 26 Bridge began a four-day reconnaissance of the dockyard and harbour. There were hundreds of depth charges scattered around the quays, in pump houses and sub-stations. There were also 40 in the harbour. Having located all of them, he was able to begin diving on August 30. Intermittent shelling continued from enemy guns on the other side of the straits.
In places visibility was nil, and everything had to be done by a sense of touch. He was able to neutralise depth charges which had no external mechanisms attached but, along the coaling wharf, he identified two groups of the type that had almost wiped out the previous bomb disposal party.
Bridge hit on the idea of using a small explosive charge to sever the steel ropes that held the depth charges together. Having separated them by a controlled explosion, he was able to attach hooks to the unknown mechanism and the depth charges. Using an improvised pulley and block system, the charges were carefully lifted out of the water and laid on the wharf. Inspection of the cylinders revealed a clockwork device, a detonator, primer and a large main charge.
After 28 dives on to the booby-trapped groups, all the charges were made safe, including two which were recovered with their mechanisms intact. Bridge made safe or discredited a further 207 depth charges, above or below the water, with all types of firing mechanisms.
“I was the only one diving,” Bridge said later. “I had an assistant and several men working above water. My longest spell was one of 20 hours. I did not suffer any particular discomfort and never got tired. I left that to afterwards.” As a result of the efforts of Bridge and his team, on September 2, the day before the assault on Italy, Messina harbour was reported cleared and safe to ferry troops to the invasion beaches.” (Obituary courtesy of The Daily Telegraph)
Alan Pollock’s notes:
“John Bridge, a top bomb and Mine Disposal expert, cleared 100 bombs in Plymouth, before further such work in harbours in Sicily (Messina), Italy, Gold Beach at D-Day, Antwerp, as well as Nijmegen Bridge. He was the first person to be awarded a George Medal Bar.
“After taking a Double Honours from London University in Maths & Physics, Bridge taught in Reading and Sheffield, before becoming a – if not the – leading Royal Navy expert in the necessary Bomb and Mine Disposal Operations.
“Starting in Southern Britain and its harbour areas, he received his first George Medal award after clearing over 100 bombs in the Plymouth area alone. His first bomb was within a week of his total course time, four and a half days at RAF Manby, in civvies then two and a half days at HMS Vernon at Portsmouth! His George Medal was also given for dealing with a Category ‘A’ UXB (Unexploded Bomb) lodged in the valve chamber of Falmouth’s dry dock.
“Posted to the Middle East, he then added key roles in Harbour Clearance in Messina (after 5 of 7 colleagues were killed, and 2 injured), he received the first ever award of a Bar to his George Medal after diving for 27 hours over three days. Served in Sicily, Italy, and Sardinia, and was later switched back to North West Europe in time for Gold Beach at D-Day (on D+1), to clear Arromanches (RN ‘Party’ 1500), and then 1501 for Le Havre on to Antwerp, arriving under machine gun fire and, by complete chance, later narrowly missing a high fatality ‘A’ sweep.
“After Walcheren, John Bridge won his George Cross on 29Sep44 for saving the second set of charges from blowing the Nijmegen Bridge, laid by German frogmen in the Waal, allowing the difficult west Scheldt Estuary bridgehead to be sustained. The wide, dangerous service and courage of 100,000 or so Allied specialists of all arms is saluted within John Bridge’s signed tribute to his colleagues, so many of whom had to pay with their lives or dismemberment, in perhaps the loneliest and coldly demanding routine roles during & even after the war.
“In 1992 on board HMS Britannia, in the presence of HM The Queen, at Malta’s 50th Anniversary of its George Cross (16Apr42), John represented all the 22 then present GC holders and late holders to honour the Island, the key, irreplaceable, defensive bastion & sine qua non for El Alamein and eventual Victory.” [ARP]
“Bridge led a squad which defused a bomb with a delayed action fuse in September 1940, for which he received the George Medal. In March 1941, he defused 15 bombs, including a bomb which had fallen in the Naval dockyard at HMNB Devonport, for which he received a King’s Commendation for Brave Conduct. In October 1941 he was awarded a bar to his George Medal after defusing a bomb in the docks in Falmouth
In 1943, Bridge cleared mines and depth charges from Messina harbour in Sicily, preparing the way for the Allied invasion of Italy. He made 28 dives to defuse groups of booby trapped depth charges and rendered safe another 207 mines and depth charges, tethered at or below the waterline. His longest dive during the action lasted twenty hours.
He served as a naval bomb safety officer during the Normandy landings of June 1944, defusing many bombs, mines, and shells. He cleared mines in the river Scheldt and various harbour basins in September of that year. He was then posted back to England and promoted to lieutenant commander.
For the most conspicuous and prolonged bravery and contempt of death in clearing Messina Harbour of depth charges. The recommending officer stated that he had never before had the fortune to be associated with such cool and sustained bravery as Lieutenant Bridge displayed during the 10 days of the operation.
Bridge received the medal from King George VI at Buckingham Palace on 16 March 1945.” [Wikipedia]
REEL 1 Background in the Warrington area, 1915-1939: family; education; employment; reaction to declaration of Second World War, 3/9/1939. Recollections of period as bomb disposal officer with Royal Navy in Plymouth, 1940-1941: posting to Plymouth after bomb disposal and mine disposal training, 1940; organisation of bomb disposal work; category A bomb dealt with; method of dealing with bomb in dry dock in Falmouth; methods of dealing with different types of bomb filling; character of German No 50 fuse anti-withdrawal device; attitude towards Germans; public morale; German use of explosive incendiary bombs and his demonstrations of how to deal with them; hospitalisation for wound during demonstration; award of George Medal and bar; performance of his men; effect of three narrow escapes. Aspects of period as bomb disposal officer with Royal Navy at Scapa Flow, 1941 1942: disposal of British mines washed ashore from 8/1941; problems with gales.
REEL 2 Continues: lecturing of dealing with unexploded bombs on ships. Recollections of period as bomb disposal officer with Royal Navy in South Africa, 1942- 1943: voyage from GB to South Africa aboard Empress of Japan; investigation of mine damage to HMS Hecla; dealing with German mines washed ashore; teaching demonstrations on bomb disposal to South African officers at Cape Town; work destroying defective ammunition at Ganspan; reasons for learning to dive; attitude of white South African to Second World War. Recollections of operations as bomb disposal officer with Royal Navy in Messina Harbour, Sicily, 8/1943- 9/1943: attitude to drafting to Malta, c6/1943; arrival in Sicily, 8/1943; investigating fatalities during bomb disposal incident at Messina, 23/8/1943; award of George Cross for his diving work during clearing of harbour, 9/1943; question of rate of work during mine clearance; relations between Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve officers and regular warrant officers.
REEL 3 Continues: method of carrying out his work in harbour; German use of fifty two day clocks; problems with unexploded Allied bombs at Messina; award of George Cross; introduction to US rations; work in Corsica, 12/1943-2/1944. Aspects of operations as bomb disposal officer with Royal Navy Party 1500 in Normandy, 6/1944-7/1944: arrival, 7/6/1944; accommodation; role of unit at Arromanches; initiation to handling anti-tank and anti-personnel mines. Aspects of operations as bomb disposal officer with Naval Party 1501 in Antwerp and Nijmegen, 9/1944-12/1944: dealing with mines in River Scheldt; use of portable pulsers to detonate magnetic mines; flight from Antwerp to Nijmegen; meeting with General Brian Horrocks; German underwater attacks on Nijmegen bridges, 9/1944; his job in defusing German charges at Nijmegen.
REEL 4 Continues: conditions for diving in River Waal; German V weapon attacks on Antwerp, late 1944; leaving Antwerp, 12/1944. Recollections of mine clearance work as officer with Royal Navy in GB, 1945-1946: area of mine disposal work in North West; memories of Harold Wilson speaking at Magull c7/1945; character of work; sinking of mine with rifle fire at Port St Mary, 1/1946; mine clearing at St Bees and Maryport, 1/1946; method of sinking of mines by rifle fire.