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Navy Divers raise highball bouncing bombs from Scottish loch

21 July 2017
A team of Royal Navy clearance divers from the Faslane-based Northern Diving Group (NDG) have assisted in the recovery of historic World War Two bouncing bombs from the bottom of Loch Striven.

On Wednesday, July 19, three of the famous “Highball” bombs broke the surface of the Argyll Loch for the first time in over 70 years.  They were among an estimated 200 of the Barnes Wallis designed munitions tested on the loch ahead of the famous Dam Busters raid in 1943.

“Northern Diving Group are delighted to assist in this fascinating initiative,” said Lieutenant Commander Tony Hampshire, Commanding Officer of the diving group.  “We welcome the opportunity to provide our mine-lifting and recovery expertise to preserve this piece of history.”

The expert Royal Navy divers and bomb disposal experts were first contacted about the initiative in 2015 when Dundee University lecturer, Dr Iain Murray, got in touch seeking their help in recovering the bouncing bombs.

Northern Diving Group deals with dozens of items of Wartime ordnance around the country each year, but the raising of the Highball bombs has been a real highlight

Chief Petty Officer Gareth Spence

Dr Murray, who is the author of “Bouncing-Bomb Man: the science of Sir Barnes Wallis”, has spent the last decade trying to find a way of raising the bombs from the loch, which lies off the Firth of Clyde about 30 miles west of Glasgow.

A few years ago, a friend put him in touch with Mark Paisley, the British Sub-Aqua Club’s North West Regional Coach, and the doctor soon enlisted his help in surveying the loch to track down the bombs.  They were eventually located in 35m and 55m of water. 

Although the munitions were used for test purposes and are thought not to contain explosives, the Northern Diving Group experts were enlisted to dive to the bombs to check them, give the all clear, and then raise them to the surface.

Attaching specialist lifting equipment to the heavy metal Highballs, the NDG team then winched them out the water and onto their workboat the “Cato”.  After being secured they were then moved to shore ready for transport in wet tanks containing a special salt-water solution to prevent them from corroding. 

“Unfortunately, when Dr Murray first contacted us, we were unable to assist because of a busy operational programme,” explained Lieutenant Commander Hampshire.  “But we made contact again early this year and identified this summer as the ideal time to help Dr Murray and the British Sub-Aqua Club diving team.

“We are very happy to participate as part of our Maritime Explosive Ordnance Disposal capability.”

The concept of the bouncing bomb was first described by engineer Sir Barnes Wallis in 1942 and was originally envisioned for use by the Fleet Air Arm.  However, in November 1942 the project was split into two strands – codenamed “Highball” and “Upkeep” – with one weapon designed for use against ships and the other, heavier, Upkeep bombs for targeting dams. 

The unique design of the bombs meant they could skip over the surface of the water, avoiding anti-torpedo nets and defences, to hit their targets.

Many of the spherical Highball bouncing bombs were tested on Loch Striven, with bombers from RAF Turnberry flying up the loch to bounce their bombs towards old ships which were used as targets.

Footage from the tests was gathered for analysis by photographers from the Marine Aircraft Experimental Establishment (MAEE) at RAF Helensburgh and was eventually seen by hundreds of thousands of people after it was used in the 1955 film “The Dam Busters”.

The project to raise the Highball bombs is an important one as there are currently no examples on public display.  The recovered munitions will eventually be re-homed in the Brooklands Museum in Surrey and de Havilland Aircraft Museum in Hertfordshire in time for the 75th anniversary of the Dam Busters raid next year.

Chief Petty Officer Gareth Spence, who led the Northern Diving Group descent to recover the bombs, said:  “It was a privilege to be part of this dive.  Not only was it a useful training exercise, but it also gave us a tremendous sense of satisfaction knowing that we have played a part in helping to preserve these important pieces of our Wartime history.

“Northern Diving Group deals with dozens of items of Wartime ordnance around the country each year, but the raising of the Highball bombs has been a real highlight.”

Dr Iain Murray, who was present when the Highballs emerged from the water, said: “To be here at Loch Striven to see the Highballs finally being pulled out of the water has been fantastic.  It’s been a long term ambition of mine, knowing they were here, to have them recovered for people to be able to see them.

“The bouncing bomb is probably the most legendary weapon in the British military arsenal and this particular example of the Highball is the only one we don’t have on display to the public so we’re filling that final gap”.

Barnes Wallis produced various prototype bouncing bombs, the dams bomb or Upkeep, the anti-ship bomb the Highball, the Grand Slam which was a 22,000lb earthquake bomb, the Tallboy which was a 12,000lb earthquake bomb, and a 4,000lb earthquake bomb purely for aerodynamic testing.

It was the Upkeep bombs that were finally used in Operation Chastise, the daring RAF Dam Busters raid in 1943 on the Mohne, Edersee and Sorpe Dams.

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