France was falling.
The year was 1940, and the Germans marched into Paris on June 14. The French army retreated south, and the government, or what was left of it, relocated to the port of Bordeaux.
The muddy roads were clogged with le peuple du désastre (“the people of the disaster”). By some accounts they numbered in the millions, the displaced who headed for Bordeaux, seeking safety, scrambling for a visa, searching for a ship that would take them away from the imminent danger. They came by car, truck, farm wagon, whatever means of transport they could find, and when they ran out of fuel, they walked.
Amid the confusion and chaos of France in the throes of defeat was a man who seemed to transcend the pandemonium at the docks of Bordeaux. Boyish-looking and athletic, standing 6 feet 4 inches, he was Charles Henry George Howard, the 20th Earl of Suffolk and 13th Earl of Berkshire. Generally referred to in lofty aristocratic circles as Suffolk, he was better known in the workaday world as Jack Howard and reveled in the nickname “Wild Jack.”
‘You can’t play puss-puss with a bomb,’ he often said. ‘You’ve got to be tough with it; otherwise the devil will trick you’
Born in 1906, Jack was the son of Henry Howard, 19th Earl of Suffolk, and American-born Margaret “Daisy” Leiter, whom Henry had met and married in India in 1904. Daisy was the sister of Mary (née Leiter), Lady Curzon, the wife of George, Lord Curzon, Britain’s viceroy in India. In 1917, when Turkish artillery cut down Henry Howard north of Baghdad during the Mesopotamian campaign, 10-year-old Jack succeeded him as Earl of Suffolk. In 1923 the 17-year-old earl left school and spent four months at sea between Liverpool and Sydney as a cadet aboard the wool clipper Mount Stewart. On his return from Australia, Jack joined the Scots Guards but was invalided out of the service in 1927 after a bout of rheumatic fever. He returned to Australia to manage a sheep station in Queensland.
Jack returned to England in the early 1930s, and in March 1934 in London he married Mimi Forde-Pigott, an actress and dancer who went by the stage name Crawford. The couple settled in Scotland, where in 1937 Jack graduated from the University of Edinburgh with first-class honors in pharmacology and was selected a fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. He tried to rejoin the British army but was turned down because of his past illness.
Seeking to serve the nation in some capacity, Jack met with Herbert J. Gough, the director of scientific research for the Ministry of Supply, who recalled having been completely won over by the young man’s enthusiasm, infectious personality and “buccaneering spirit.” Gough gave Jack a temporary, nonpaying job to represent him in Paris, as a liaison with the French Ministry of Armaments. The Earl of Suffolk—as Jack chose to be called when engaged on official business—arrived in Paris in October 1939 and was soon joined by his French-speaking personal secretary, 28-year-old Eileen Beryl Morden.
In mid-June 1940, barely ahead of the advancing Germans—and reportedly with a cache of diamonds “liberated” from Paris banks—the pair headed for Bordeaux, driving past lines of refugees and the remnants of the French army. Finding no vacancies in any of the city’s hotels, they slept in the car with the diamonds. Though he had no way to contact London and had not determined how he would get himself and Morden out of soon-to-be occupied France, Suffolk nonetheless offered to take to safety any scientists or engineers that French armaments minister Raoul Dautry could gather together.
On Sunday, June 16, French Prime Minister Paul Reynaud resigned and was succeeded by World War I hero Marshal Philippe Pétain. Suffolk persuaded the new French leader to permit him to leave for England with the scientists he had rounded up. Arguably the most important of these were physicists Lew Kowarski and Hans von Halban, who had both been conducting nuclear fission research for Nobel Prize–winning physicist Jean-Frédéric Joliot-Curie. They had sought the substance deuterium oxide—known as heavy water—a moderating substance indispensable for making an atomic bomb. In March 1940 the manager of Norway’s Norsk Hydro plant sent all of his nation’s heavy water to France, in 26 two-gallon cans, to keep it from falling into German hands.
As the Germans neared Paris, Joliot-Curie told von Halban to get the heavy water out of the city along with a gram of radium and all the files documenting the group’s research. Von Halban put his wife and 1-year-old daughter in the front of the car, the radium in the trunk and, in order to minimize the danger from radiation, stowed the cans of heavy water in between. On arrival in Bordeaux the scientist sought the man he’d been told could arrange his family’s escape to England—the young Earl of Suffolk.
While spiriting key French physicists and their files to safety was Suffolk’s primary concern, he soon took on additional missions. The commercial attaché at the British Embassy in France, for example, asked him to smuggle out a relatively small but decidedly valuable package to England for safekeeping: It contained more than £2 million of diamonds (worth roughly $170 million in inflation adjusted dollars) from Antwerp. When Suffolk and his charges arrived at Bordeaux’s sprawling port, the Englishman also discovered some 600 tons of American-made machine tools abandoned in wagons parked outside a warehouse. Realizing the immense value of the trove, to both the Nazis and the Allies, Suffolk resolved to take the tools with him.
Suffolk had arranged for himself and his party to travel to England aboard SS Broompark, a relatively new cargo steamer of the Glasgow-based Denholm Line. The ship was one of scores dispatched to France as part of Operation Ariel, the seaborne withdrawal of those Allied troops who hadn’t evacuated from Dunkirk weeks earlier. Tall, unshaven and dressed in smart flannels beneath a dirty trench coat, Suffolk supervised the overnight loading of his collected scientists, their baggage and the machine tools—reportedly serving both passengers and crew champagne to keep up their spirits and occasionally brandishing a brace of .45-caliber automatic pistols he referred to as Oscar and Geneviève when he thought the loading was going too slowly or someone was displaying undue interest in the cargo.
Captain Olaf Paulsen took Broompark to sea just before noon on June 19 and plotted a course for the English port of Falmouth in Cornwall. By sailing far to the west of the Brittany peninsula before turning north toward the south coast of England the ship evaded the Germans’ detection, and the 450-mile voyage was uneventful. Broompark and its valuable passengers and cargo arrived in Falmouth early on June 21.
As soon as the cargo vessel was docked, Wild Jack raced to the train station and embarked for London, stowing two battered suitcases holding the diamonds securely in the rack of his third-class compartment. He arrived at the Ministry of Supply, still in his dirty trench coat, with a scraggly black beard and eyes bloodshot from lack of sleep. Stopped at the door, he was asked to fill out a standard visitor form. Reason for requested interview. “Diamonds,” he wrote succinctly. Full name. He wrote simply “Suffolk.” Future British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, a junior staffer in the ministry at the time, later recalled the young aristocrat as “a young man of somewhat battered appearance, unshaven, with haggard eyes…yet distinguished by a certain air of grace and dignity.”
After handing over the gems—and recounting his fantastic tale—Suffolk raced to the Admiralty to deliver a detailed map showing where more diamonds were buried on the French coast. He’d persuaded another group of scientists to hide there with yet more valuable material, including radium rescued from a number of hospitals. A Royal Navy destroyer soon picked up the scientists and the jewels. Back in Falmouth, Suffolk procured a special train to convey the rest of the cargo under armed guard to London, along with his fellow passengers.
Through courage, daring and resourcefulness Wild Jack—aided by Morden and chauffeur and assistant Fred Hards, the other two members of what he called his “Holy Trinity”—had returned safely to England with a cache of diamonds, France’s most brilliant physicists, the country’s complete stock of Norwegian heavy water and 600 tons of useful machine tools. The feat prompted Minister of Supply Herbert Morrison to later describe Suffolk as “one of the most remarkable young men employed by the government on dangerous missions.”
Despite his accomplishment Wild Jack had no desire to rest on his laurels. He intended to get back in the war, one way or another.
The afternoon of Sept. 7, 1940, marked the beginning of the London blitz, the intense German Luftwaffe bombing of the city and its environs that would continue through the following May. Adolf Hitler hoped to destroy London, demoralize its population and force the British to come to terms. It ultimately didn’t work, though German aircraft dropped more than 18,000 tons of high explosives, killing tens of thousands of civilians and rendering some 2 million others homeless.
Devices that detonated on contact were not the only hazard. Unexploded bombs, referred to as UXBs by military personnel and civilians alike, also took a toll. Mechanical failure and delayed-action fuzes left many bombs hidden beneath the rubble of destroyed buildings, or buried in public places, or scattered across important rail lines, highways and seaports. The UXBs not only killed people but also hampered Britain’s war effort.
The wartime government assigned the task of UXB disposal to the British army’s Royal Engineers, with scientific and technical support from several other agencies. The Ministry of Supply was one of those agencies, and Herbert Gough once again teamed with Suffolk. Bearing the unwieldy title Chief Field Research and Experimental Officer of the Directorate of Scientific Research, Wild Jack set about learning how to defuse bombs of new and unknown types.
As with most of what he did in life, Suffolk immersed himself in his new work. A scientist who visited him at his office later described the scene: “I found the Earl of Suffolk dressed in a most extraordinary outfit, consisting of riding boots, corduroy trousers, a striped sweater and a white aviation helmet. He was pacing up and down and raging in a frightful manner at the War Office for not giving him more bombs to play with.”
Suffolk created his own UXB detachment, which of course included the other two members of the “Holy Trinity.” At his own expense Wild Jack fitted out a big red van as a mobile laboratory and stocked it with the delicate instruments of his new trade. Hards, the earl’s right-hand man, would hand Suffolk the necessary tools. Morden would note down the procedure as dictated by the earl; if anything went wrong, at least those who followed would not make the same mistake.
The trio quickly gained fame for their prowess in exploring and deciphering the secrets of German delayed-action bombs—many fitted with increasingly sophisticated anti-handling devices.
Bomb disposal teams needed sample German fuzes to determine the best—and safest—way to neutralize them, and Suffolk offered to collect them. Among his “trophies” were a 500-pound antipersonnel bomb and an intact two-fuze combination. In all, the “Holy Trinity” successfully defused 34 unexploded bombs and provided much valuable intelligence for other UXB teams.
Wild Jack honed his working style down to a ritual. Usually wearing flying boots and a Stetson or a pilot’s helmet, he would start by fitting a cigarette into one of his omnipresent 9-inch cigarette holders and lighting it. He’d then examine the bomb from all angles, tap it and listen to it with a stethoscope. “You can’t play puss-puss with a bomb,” he often said. “You’ve got to be tough with it; otherwise the devil will trick you.”
Once ready to begin disarming the bomb, he’d remove the cigarette holder from his mouth and a second one from his vest pocket, handing them to the closest member of the team. “Hold these a minute,” he’d say. “They might get broken.”
Then he would clear everyone else from the area. On numerous occasions he operated alone, choosing to endanger only himself. He was sanguine about the possibility of dying in the course of his work. “If my name is on a bomb,” he’d say fatalistically, “that’s it.”
Some bomb-disposal technicians criticized what they considered Suffolk’s casual discipline and flamboyant manner. “He was a very colorful, very odd man,” one later recalled. “We didn’t care for Suffolk at all. He wasn’t disciplined. And he wasn’t one of us.”
On May 12, 1941, Suffolk drove out to the Erith Marshes, on the south bank of the Thames River near London. Early in the war the area had served as a “bomb cemetery,” where disposal teams deposited UXBs for study and eventual destruction. The teams had since destroyed or removed most of the devices, but there remained one rusty 500-pound German bomb. Deposited at Erith the previous autumn, the bomb had acquired the moniker “Old Faithful.” Suffolk was confident he could recover both of the device’s fuzes—one of them a Type 17 delayed-action fuze. Unbeknown to Suffolk, the bomb also contained a concealed booby trap, designed to detonate when anyone attempted to remove the Type 17 fuze.
On this occasion Suffolk was decked out in a white flying helmet and fur gloves. He went to work with his usual gusto and at lunchtime telephoned his office to explain that the Type 17 was ticking, and that he had sent for a device known as a clock-stopper. By 2:45 p.m. the clock stopper and stethoscope were in place, and Suffolk prepared to render the bomb safe by using a drilling and steaming apparatus to remove the explosives from the casing.
As fellow sappers went to collect water for the steamer, there was a sudden bright white flash and a powerful shock wave. The blast set nearby vehicles ablaze and threw the doors of Suffolk’s van 60 feet. Fourteen people were clustered around the bomb when it detonated. All were killed. Four left no trace. Among the dead were Eileen Beryl Morden and Fred Hards. Wild Jack’s boss, Herbert Gough, delivered word of the tragedy to Lady Suffolk. “One loves few men in this world,” Gough later said. “I can honestly say I loved Suffolk. He was a remarkable person, the reincarnation of all his great ancestors.”
Sir Winston Churchill, in Their Finest Hour, the second book in his six-volume series The Second World War, also recalled Suffolk and his squad:
One [bomb disposal] squad I remember which may be taken as symbolic of many others. It consisted of three people—the Earl of Suffolk, his lady private secretary and his rather aged chauffeur. They called themselves ‘the Holy Trinity.’ Their prowess and continued existence got around among all who knew. Thirty-four unexploded bombs did they tackle with urbane and smiling efficiency. But the 35th claimed its forfeit. Up went the Earl of Suffolk in his Holy Trinity. But we may be sure that, as for Mr. Valiant-for-truth, ‘all the trumpets sounded for them on the other side.’”
Wild Jack’s remains are buried in the churchyard of St. John the Baptist in Charlton, Wiltshire, near his family estate. Behind the altar, above the four main stained-glass lights, is a panel centered on the earl’s George Cross, awarded posthumously for “conspicuous bravery in connection with bomb disposal.” The central figures depict St. George, shown trampling the defeated dragon (representing evil), and St. John of Nepomuk, a 14th-century Bohemian priest and patron saint of silence, perhaps calling to mind the concentration necessary for bomb disposal. At lower left is the Suffolk family coat of arms, and above it the image of a clipper ship at sea. At right is an image of SS Broompark, depicting the moment a German plane appeared above the ship but flew off without attacking.
At the bottom of the two central lights are additional contemporary scenes from the earl’s storied life. One shows scientists at work in a laboratory, the other sappers at work on a bomb. Above the bomb disposal scene is an inscription to the memory of Wild Jack and those who died beside him.
Inscribed above the laboratory scene is a poem by John Edward Masefield, poet laureate of the United Kingdom (1930–67), written on hearing the news of “Wild Jack” Howard’s death:
He loved the bright ship with the lifting wing;
He felt the anguish in the hunted thing;
He dared the danger which besets the guides
Who lead men to the knowledge Nature hides.
Probing and playing with the lightning thus
He and his faithful friends met death for us.
The beauty of a splendid man abides.
For further reading Norman Goldstein recommends Inferno: The World at War, 1939–1945, by Max Hastings; The Second World War, Vol. 2: Their Finest Hour, by Winston Churchill; and Danger UXB: The Heroic Story of the WWII Bomb Disposal Teams, by James Owen.