Obituary: Colonel Stuart Archer, GC, OBE, architect and bomb disposal officer

Colonel Stuart Archer GC, OBE: Fearless bomb disposal expert who enjoyed 'unbelievable immunity from death'. Picture: PA
Colonel Stuart Archer GC, OBE: Fearless bomb disposal expert who enjoyed 'unbelievable immunity from death'. Picture: PA
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Born: 3 February, 1915, in London. Died: 2 May, 2015, in London, aged 100

Colonel Stuart Archer was an architect before the war but as a young Lieutenant went on to successfully defuse more than 200 German Luftwaffe bombs before receiving the George Cross, the highest award for bravery not in the face of the enemy, but for a series of daring exploits to defuse and salvage fuses from booby-trapped and unexploded bombs (UXBs) in order to protect important sites in South Wales.

His citation read: “The fact that Lieutenant Archer has enjoyed unbelievable immunity from death in no way detracts from his record of deliberate and sustained courage coupled to devotion to duty of the highest order.”

He was invested by King George VI.

The life expectancy of bomb disposal squad members was not high, particularly as the Blitz witnessed the use of new and deadlier technology by the Luftwaffe, unknown to British engineers and scientists.

Such devices included a variety of new German fuse types designed to prevent the bombs from being made safe, and a bomb with a new type of delayed-action fuse, which meant it could remain inactive for days before detonating.

In January 1940, a year after getting married, Archer was commissioned as an officer into the Royal Engineers and put in command of No 104 Bomb Disposal Section based in Cardiff, South Wales.

His instructions were to send the War Office examples of new enemy fuses and any anti-handling devices found with them. Archer quickly became a veteran bomb disposal expert and, by the end of August 1940, had already dealt with some 200 bombs, including the delayed-action fuse.

Initially, Archer’s team had no transport or tools with which to carry out the work and had to improvise. One such occasion was 15 July, when four 250kg bombs fell on St Athan airfield in South Wales but did not explode.

Archer deployed immediately. Deciding they were all probably booby-trapped, he supervised the excavation of each bomb, had them lifted carefully on to a lorry and drove them personally to a piece of open ground where they were detonated.

He recalled: “As I took the decision, I drove the lorry. You didn’t really want the men to think you were sending somebody away with a live bomb.” However, although this saved the airfield, it taught the team nothing about the fuses used.

Soon afterwards he summoned his wife, writing: “I may not last very long at this, so you’d better come down pretty quickly.”

Another incident came soon after when another 250kg bomb was found at Moulton, the Vale of Glamorgan. The team excavated down until the fuse pocket, a number 50 fuse, was visible; this was required for War Office experiments.

Archer failed to extract it and so levered the fuse out with two pickaxe heads, despite being well aware that the fuse might be a booby trap.

It was in fact a movement-sensitive fuse. “It should have gone off,” Archer said. “It was just luck, luck, luck.”

Following the Dunkirk evacuations of May to June 1940, the Luftwaffe had started bombing ports, dockyards and industrial cities, including factories, power installations and airfields, but from 29 August this intensified, marking the start of a sustained four-day period of enemy bombing which resulted in over 2,500 UXBs nationwide.

This had a huge impact on the war effort as whole areas had to be cleared of workers and civilians before any defusing could commence.

On 2 September, 1940, Archer was called, following a major Luftwaffe air raid on the Anglo-Persian oil refinery near Swansea, the largest in the country, which had left six of the site’s giant oil storage tanks ablaze and four 250kg German UXBs.

It was visible from 20 miles away, and the team were guided by the huge fires and bellowing smoke.

On arrival Archer discovered that one bomb had smashed through the concrete base of a 3 million-gallon tank. With the intense heat from the burning tanks, he instructed his men to dig in shifts.

They dug a shaft down to the bomb through which Archer crawled, head-first, to try to defuse it.

While tanks burned around him, two of the remaining bombs exploded. He nonetheless managed to remove a plate from the base of the bomb and dig out the high explosives with a trowel.

Next, he examined the fuse pocket. As he gripped the exposed wires with pliers, he pulled until the fuse came away. This exposed the clockwork delayed-action apparatus, a type 17 fuse.

He dismantled it and looked again into the tube, shaking it gently. Another mechanism with another “gaine” came into view. He tapped it and heard the click of a detonator, the firing of a Zus 40 anti-withdrawal device. Fortunately, it had been damaged by some water.

Archer collected the two new pieces of apparatus and despatched them to the War Office; they provided vital information thereafter for bomb disposal teams.

Born in Hampstead, north London in 1915, Bertram Stuart Trevelyan Archer was the son of Bertram, an engineer, and Frances, a housewife. A talented sketcher, upon completing his schooling locally, he attended Regent Street Polytechnic where he studied architecture. Aged 21, he qualified at the youngest possible age as an ARIBA and joined Ingram and Son at Gray’s Inn, working mainly on building pubs for breweries.

Pre-war Archer served with the Honourable Artillery Company before being commissioned into the Royal Engineersin March 1940. He completed a very basic bomb disposal course run by the RAF at Manby, where he was shown a UXB on a table and told: “This is a German bomb. It is the only one we have.” Soon after, he was posted to Cardiff.

Archer served in a number of bomb disposal units and was commanding No.12 Bomb Disposal Company clearing the south coast of mines when the war ended.

After being demobbed, he returned to architecture, becoming a Fellow of the Royal Institute of British Architects.

He was later appointed honorary Colonel of three bomb disposal regiments, and was appointed OBE in 1963 as well as serving as chairman of the Victoria Cross and George Cross Association between 1994 and 2006.

When Archer turned 100 earlier this year, he became the oldest living recipient of the George Cross.

His wife, Kit, died 20 years ago. He is survived by their three children, ten grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren.