A lone man, head-first down a hole, scraping the powder out of an unexploded bomb with a trowel, was Britain's best hope to preserve her stocks of fuel. It was 2 September 1940, and above Stuart Archer's up-ended feet, flames at the Llandarcy oil refinery near Swansea shot up into the sky, the heat from millions of gallons of burning oil intensifying by the minute.
The young officer had spent nearly eight hours under a not-yet-ignited tank, supervising his sappers, working in 15-minute relays to dig a shaft down to the 250kg bomb that had passed through the tank's concrete base into the earth below. Between the makeshift shoring-up timbers he had the task of slithering in the half-darkness to disarm it by hand.
UXBs in oil refineries were the highest priority: whatever the risks, they had to be got rid of – the fire services could not move in until they were.
Llandarcy supplied an eighth of a month's national needs. Everyone knew the war might be lost if the oil, brought by convoys across the Atlantic, ran out – and now the Luftwaffe was also targeting the precious stores on the mainland itself.
One by one, around Archer, three other German bombs had exploded in the blaze, their delayed-action fuses carrying out the enemy's fiendish plan. His own bomb, the one he had decided was the most urgent because most dangerously positioned, would go off soon. If it did, he told himself: "Then you're gone... You weren't going to be wounded and lying in agony. You were either going to be alive, or you weren't."
Two hours after going down the shaft he emerged with the fuse pocket, which he had extracted with "brute force and bloody ignorance." Only a few weeks before, he had told his wife, Kit, mother of their newborn child, "I may not last very long at this."
Now, safely away from the blaze, he took pliers to the clockwork fuse. It flashed and a crack sounded. For all who had touched such a device before, that crack heralded death. But this time something, probably water inside, prevented the thing from wreaking doom. Archer lived, and held in his hand a great prize: a Zus anti-withdrawal booby-trap, the first to be extracted intact.
That feat of perseverance and daring was only one among four listed in Archer's recommendation for the award of the George Cross. Before the birth of his and Kit's second child, he would have rendered harmless more than 200 bombs, as well as providing vital information about the anti-handling devices. "[That] Lieutenant Archer has enjoyed such remarkable immunity from death in no way detracts from his record of deliberate and sustained courage, coupled with devotion to duty of the highest order," his George Cross citation read.
Archer, an electrical engineer's son from London who had trained as an architect, had also risked his life saving Spitfires in the dead of night at St Athan aerodrome, between Cardiff and Bridgend, on 15 July 1940, removing UXBs that had fallen within 10 yards of the hangars. After four hours' effort he lifted them up and drove them, fuses still ticking, to a place where they could be detonated without harm.
On 17 August 1940 he wielded two curved pick-heads like tweezers, to get a fuse out of a bomb in Moulton in south Wales. It was the German's new fuse, with three trembler contacts. Inexplicably, after his rough treatment of it, it did not go off. "It was just luck, luck, luck," he said.
Archer was born in Hampstead and educated at Sheringham House School in St John's Wood. At 13 he went to Regent Street Polytechnic, and at 14 he was articled to the architectural practice of William G Ingram. His talent at drawing spurred his progress, and he qualified at 21. By 1938 he was a partner in the firm.
At the outbreak of war, already in the Territorial Army, he married Kathleen Hatt, always known as Kit, from Edmonton, north London. They had met on holiday on Jersey in 1937. The wedding was on 3 September 1939, at a church in St John's Wood, and they were delayed on the way to it by London's first air-raid warning. They would have a son and two daughters.
Archer was posted to the Royal Engineers' 553 Field Company at Hemel Hempstead, from where he answered a call for bomb-disposal volunteers. After a four-day course, he recalled, it seemed "we knew sweet damn-all" about the subject. He was posted to Wales as Commanding Officer, No 104 Bomb Disposal Company, where Kit and their baby joined him.
After the war, which he ended as CO, No 12 Bomb Disposal Company, he resumed architectural practice and worked for several breweries, designing a number of pubs including The Cricketers at Mitcham, and The Castle, Battersea.
He also kept his Army connections, being awarded the Territorial Decoration in 1947. He rejoined the Emergency Reserve in 1950, gaining the Emergency Reserve Decoration and two Bars.
He was made Honorary Colonel, BD Regiments in 1961, and in 1970 a Fellow of the Royal Institute of British Architects. From 1994 until 2006 he was chairman of the Victoria Cross and George Cross Association. He was believed to be the only George Cross holder to pass his centenary.
Colonel Bertram Stuart Trevelyan Archer, bomb disposal officer and architect: born London 3 February 1915; GC 1941, OBE 1961, ERD and 2 Bars, FRIBA 1970; married 1939 Kathleen Matilda Hatt (died 1996; two daughters, one son); died London 2 May 2015.Reuse content