Special Collections

Sold on 12 December 2012

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The Collection of Second World War and Modern Gallantry Awards formed by the late William Oakley

William Raymond Oakley

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№ 624


13 December 2012

Hammer Price:

‘With the spanner on the keep ring, I tried to unscrew the fuze but it proved to be pretty tight. A little more pressure and it moved a fraction but, to my horror, a steady whirring noise indicated the clock had started. In that uncanny silence it sounded like an alarm clock going - which it certainly was anyway! To this day I can’t quite remember the next 60 seconds - it seemed like 60 years. I remember wriggling backwards over the wet sacks, losing my tools and cap en route, and making for the loading hatch I had opened, counting the seconds all the time. My whole life seemed to flash before me. I don’t think I panicked though. I got to the hatch, looked at the river with intense loathing and decided I’d be no worse off to get blown in than ump ... 13 ... 14 ... 15 ... soon now ... 17 ... 18 ... perhaps the safety horn is alright ... but God, did I turn the pressure on? Damned if I remember ... 21 ... 22 ... have I been counting too quickly? 28 ... 29 ... 30. No, it must be alright. A few seconds to regain my composure and wipe my dripping forehead, and then back over the sacks again, very slowly, very quietly, but not a sound from the clock.’

Lieutenant Woolley in the process of winning the George Medal.

The extremely rare Second World War mine disposal operations G.M. and Bar group of five awarded to Electrical Lieutenant-Commander E. D. “Ted” Woolley, Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve: having only attended a one day crash course in mine disposal, he was summoned to deal with a mine in a warehouse on the Thames - a hair-raising experience as cited above but one which gained him an immediate G.M.: many more U.K. mine incidents followed, including work in the Coventry Blitz, until his transferral to Malta in April 1941, where, amidst great secrecy, he won a Bar to his G.M. for dismantling a captured Italian one-man torpedo craft ‘with a complicated firing device’ - a story vividly retold in the biography Mines over Malta

George Medal, G.VI.R., 1st issue, with Second Award Bar, the reverse of the Bar officially dated ‘1942’ (T./Sub. Lieut. Edward Dutton Woolley, R.N.V.R.); 1939-45 Star; Africa Star; Defence and War Medals 1939-45, good very fine or better (5) £15000-20000

G.M. London Gazette 14 January 1941:

‘For gallantry and undaunted devotion to duty.’

Bar to G.M. London Gazette 16 June 1942:

‘For gallantry and undaunted devotion to duty.’

The original joint recommendation states:

‘Lieutenant Woolley was in charge of all operations concerned with dismantling and rendering safe an Italian one-man torpedo craft captured after an attack on Malta harbour. This craft was fitted with a complicated firing device, of a type hitherto unknown. Lieutenant Woolley had had no previous experience with this particular type of work and although knowing this, Acting Chief Motor Mechanic L. Hanlon readily volunteered to help him. Both were aware of the full gravity of the risk.

The charge proved to contain 500lb. of High Explosive and had a two-clock mechanism, each clock capable of initiating the explosion. Even now that the process is known, the extraction of these clocks with their attached detonators and primers would call for the utmost care and delicacy. Success in the operation put into our hands the means to plan defences against these new weapons.’

Edward Dutton “Ted” Woolley was born in Shepshed, Leicestershire, in November 1910 and, having graduated in Electrical Engineering at Loughborough College in 1931, commenced work for the Gas Light and Coke Company in London.

Having then been commissioned as an Electrical Sub. Lieutenant in the “Wavy Navy” on the outbreak of hostilities, he commenced his remarkable wartime career in mine disposal more by way of accident than intent. Woolley takes up the story:

‘On 4 October 1940, in the middle of a comparatively peaceful life at H.M.S. Vernon, the Admiralty’s Mine Warfare Establishment at Portsmouth, “Speedy”, the personnel officer gets hold of me and tells me I am to do an ‘RMS’ course tomorrow. Not even knowing what RMS stands for I say very good, but don’t feel so good when I learn it stands for ‘Rendering Mines Safe’. Apparently Jerry has been dropping magnetic mines by parachute on London and quite a few haven’t gone off.

The course, which really consisted of only about one day, was taken under the direction of Lieutenant-Commander John Ouvry whom I have always regarded with considerable awe as he took the first magnetic mine to bits at Shoeburyness. Six of us took it, all Sub. Lieutenants like myself. The day we were due to go to London, however, the Blitz died down, and with all the mines cleared up we were told to stand by and await events.’

The Blitz - George Medal

As it transpired, Woolley’s period on stand by was to prove especially short, for, a little over a week later, he received an urgent signal to proceed to the Admiralty in London. And within minutes of his arrival he was on his way to deal with a mine in the Gillman & Spencer flour mill in Rotherhithe.

No better summary of subsequent events may be found than that published in J. F. Turner’s Service Most Silent:

‘Back in London, the blitz went on. Edward Woolley, Lieutenant, sat in the Admiralty at 17.45 one afternoon in October. “Oh Woolley,” called Captain Currey, “come in a second will you? There’s a tricky one for you near the Thames. Here are the whereabouts. Some wharf or other down by the docks. Not much more I can tell you about it. You know enough by now, anyway, to be telling me the job. Good luck, Woolley.”

Little did Currey know that Woolley was to need it.

The Lieutenant reached the spot, in company with Able Seaman Pearson. An A.R.P. officer pointed up to the third storey of a flour store. “That’s where it dropped, sir, and there’s been not a murmur from it since.”

“Thanks. We’ll shin up somehow and have a look at it.”

The whole store and surrounding buildings were evacuated. Bags of flour lay piled high on all sides. But no sound. In the half-light Woolley shivered involuntarily. They were alone. And it was chilly, eerie. They groped their way to the third floor, looked round, saw only more sacks. Then right at the end the sky showed through a ragged hole in the roof. Carrying his gaze downward, Woolley saw the mine, dark against the fawn of the sacks. He looked more closely. Still the light was poor. He could not do the job in the gloom. Windows were conspicuous by their absence. Then he saw the doors overlooking the river. He moved carefully round the mine. Neither of them spoke. The ancient floorboards sagged with each step. A rat ran across his path. Softly Woolley undid the latch, pushed the doors wide, and the cool evening air floated in. Plus a little light. Through these doors the sacks were lowered at high tide into barges below. But now it was low water. No barges lingered there. All he saw fifty feet below was the slimy mud of the river-bed, glistening in the sunset.

He turned his back on the scene, strode over to the mine, tapped the securing-ring slightly to try to unscrew it - and the bomb-fuse started to run. So did they.

Panic for a second. No way out through the store. It would all come down on them. Twenty-three seconds to live - or less. It may have already run off part. They rushed over to the only outlet - the doors on to the river. Woolley stripped off his coat, looked down. Cold, oozing mud glowered at him. He turned, ten yards from the mine ... paused ... stood ... each leg pulling in a different direction. The clockwork stopped ticking. Everything inside him stopped for a second with it.

“Thank God,’’ he breathed to Pearson.

All was peace again. A gull hovered by the flapping doors, then wheeled off.

They went back to the mine. Woolley tapped the ring again. It gave a little. Then the tell-tale whirr. A second time they tore over to the doors, quicker this time. They leant over to plunge ... stopped. Woolley glanced up at Pearson. The sailor shook his head. No. Not that. Anything rather than that awful mess below. Both their brains pounded. Seconds passed. Then the whirr stopped again. The mechanism jammed, as it had done before. A technical hitch. The decision was made for them. They returned to the mine. Next time it was all right. No more whirring. No more decisions. It was safe - and so were they.’

He was awarded the G.M.; also see Lot 000 for the G.M. to Able Seaman R. E. A. Pearson.

Following these momentous events at Rotherhithe, Woolley remained on mine disposal duties in the U.K. including minesweeping duties at Harwich, up until April 1941, when he was ordered to Malta, a period that witnessed him deal with numerous devices, including gallant work following the devastating raid on Coventry on the night of 14-15 November, when he and his team dealt with 10 of the 25 unexploded parachute mines discovered in the city ruins the following day, the remainder being catered for by the emergency team that had been sent up from London.

One of Woolley’s devices ‘played a tune’ when he unscrewed the primer, but it turned out to be hissing air - ‘This one, incidentally, was only about 15 feet from an UXB. The R.Es explained that they were waiting for us to move the mine before dealing with it. Being very polite we said “After you” but it wouldn’t work, and the mine got priority.’

Malta - more mines and a one-man torpedo craft: Bar to G.M.

As cited above, Woolley’s second G.M. stemmed from him making safe the Italian one-man torpedo craft captured intact after the attack mounted against Grand Harbour, Valetta on 26 July 1941 - this being the only such craft recovered after being discovered abandoned in St. George’s Bay. Woolley towed and beached the craft on Manoel Island, where he was able to render it safe with Chief Motor Mechanic Hanlon’s assistance. The craft was later sunk during an air raid, but was salvaged and shipped to England in September 1943.

Woolley was to remain actively employed in Malta throughout the Island’s Blitz, up until taking his departure in September 1943, by which stage he is credited with having rendered safe a total of 30 mines.

A ‘very glamourous’ man, according to a niece, he appears to have ended the War employed in the Craft and Amphibious Material Department and he was released from the R.N.V.R. as an Electrical Lieutenant-Commander in January 1947.

See Mines over Malta - the Wartime Exploits of Commander Edward D. Woolley, G.M. and Bar, R.N.V.R., by Frederick R. Galea (Wise Owl Publications, Malta, 2008), for full details; so, too, the recipient’s original wartime papers and photograph albums in the Malta Aviation Museum.

Also see lot 625 for the G.M. group to Acting Leading Electrical Mechanic R. E. A. Pearson, R.N.