Obituary: Major Donald Henderson
Thursday 08 April 1999
The profession is relatively new. In the Great War bombs were fairly simple and most exploded on impact; it was not until the Second World War that the race began between experts in delayed action fuses. The Admiralty eschewed the phrase as long as possible; in 1940 and 1941, mines were rendered safe and RMS (Rendering Mines Safe) officers only gradually turned to bombs; disposal of the arisings was assumed. By the time that Henderson emerged with the post-war members of his trade, Nato was grappling with its linguistics, and "unexploded ordnance disposal" became the order of the day.
Henderson was awarded the George Medal for his disarming of the Marsham Street bomb in 1975, placed outside Lockett's Restaurant in Westminster where several MPs were dining. He disarmed the bomb, consisting of 25lb of explosive accommodating several pounds of coach bolts, with less than four minutes to spare (though he did not know how much time he had).
Henderson perhaps deserved a higher honour: he was congratulated by the judge at the trial of the terrorist group known as the Balcombe Street Gang; there had also been the Christmas of 1974, during which season of peace and goodwill he was called to 72 incidents in eight days. And in 1971 he had dealt with a bomb secured beneath Lady Beaverbrook's car, where it had been intended to explode as the heating-up exhaust pipe fired a simple charge.
He survived not one but two hectic careers and then enjoyed 20 years of retirement, albeit often interrupted when his advice was needed. He was born in 1921 into an army family stationed at Dover, where he went to the local grammar school. In 1937 he joined the Territorial Army, serving in the Royal Engineers throughout the war from 1939 to 1945, finally in Burma and then in occupied Germany. It was then that he specialised in the techniques of ammunition and was commissioned into the Royal Army Ordnance Corps; his skills took him to troublesome places like Aden, Cyprus and Korea.
At home his increasing experience of the criminal use of explosives in safe blowing commended him to the police; his accumulation and presentation of evidence was of great importance in securing several convictions, and it was suggested that after 17 years in the post-war Army, he might consider moving "to the aid of the civil power". Accordingly he resigned his commission in 1964 and, with a contemporary, Major Geoffrey Biddle, became a civil servant, Head of the new C7(2) Branch of the Metropolitan Police, one of its most enlightened and successful appointments. There he was to serve for another 17 years. Biddle was also to receive the George Medal, for defusing a bomb beneath the ministerial car of another ex-serviceman, Edward Heath.
Henderson's increasing technical knowledge and its skilled application were much in demand. He was a regular lecturer to the American FBI and to sundry elements in the Ministry of Defence and other government departments; he supervised the security cover of the wedding of the Prince of Wales.
He was a quiet, reserved man, of only faintly military bearing despite his clipped moustache and properly polished shoes. In plain clothes, civilian raincoat and with a worn but treasured briefcase, the man who spent much time verifying references in the London Gazette in the Public Record Office at Kew appeared to be just another researcher.
But his experiences sustained several books, including one on the honours and awards of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution. There was a general history of the GM, Dragons Can Be Defeated: a complete record of the George Medal's progress 1940-1983 (1984), and a realistic novel, Bomb Two (1983), on the life of a bomb disposal officer. His last was a meticulously researched story of the awards of the medal to women, appropriately entitled Fashioned into a Bow (1995), since that is how the brick-red ribbon with its five brave blue stripes is tied for full-dress civilian wear.
Donald Victor Henderson, bomb disposal officer: born Dover, Kent 12 December 1921; GM 1975; twice married (two sons, two daughters); died Horncastle, Lincolnshire 30 January 1999.
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