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The routine and innocuous part of bomb disposal was supposed to come after the death-cheating job of teasing a live fuse from an unexploded bomb. But it was the routine and innocuous that brought John Hudson to within a few seconds of his end.

He had spent a hectic week in Sheffield, England, in late December 1940, clearing dozens of unexploded bombs, or UXBs, left from a heavy German air raid. After each was safely defused it was carted off to be blown up in some out-of-the-way spot. Hauling one recovered bomb to a nearby uninhabited moor, Hudson dismissed his crew, left his car idling on the road alongside, lit a guncotton charge, and leapt into his car to make a quick getaway. “I must have been over-anxious,” Hudson recalled, “because the gear lever broke off in my hand, leaving the engine in neutral.” With no time to run, he dived behind a low wall and lay as flat as he could; a few seconds later came a deafening explosion, followed by a shower of black peat that blanketed him and the car. Otherwise he was miraculously unscathed—except for his pride, he said. “But I doubt if many have been as close as that when a large bomb exploded and lived to tell the tale.”

In 1940, the Blitz found Britain utterly unprepared to cope with the rain of unexploded German bombs that quickly began filling the streets of London and other major cities. No one had even anticipated the problem, certainly not John Hudson. After leaving school at age 16 with no qualifications—and, by his own account, no ambition—he enrolled in a horticulture program and was advising farmers in Sussex County on growing fruit trees when the war broke out. By chance he found himself assigned to one of the hastily organized bomb disposal units. And then, through a combination of a naturally scientific mind and an almost preternatural calmness, he was quickly promoted to captain and ordered to London to join the research team charged with studying the increasingly dangerous and devious delayed-action fuses the Germans were fitting to their bombs.

About one in 10 German bombs were duds because their fuses failed to trigger on impact. But the Germans quickly recognized that including a few time-delayed bombs in each load dropped on British cities would greatly multiply the havoc by forcing bomb disposers to treat every dud as a potential time bomb.

Hudson’s rule was that he himself had to try out, twice, any experimental method he developed before allowing UXB teams in the field to use the procedure. And so on January 24, 1943, just one week after the first bomb containing an especially sinister type of booby-trapped fuse fell on London, Hudson was called to defuse one that had landed near the Albert Bridge, cutting off a major artery across the Thames.

By a remarkable stroke of luck, British scientists had recovered one of these Y-fuses intact from a bomb whose case had split open. But it was far from certain whether the method Hudson had improvised would work. The fuses contained a battery connected to three mercury switches that would close a triggering circuit if the bomb was shifted even the slightest bit. Hudson’s idea was to pour liquid oxygen over the fuse, freezing the batteries and making them go dead, and then yank out the disarmed fuse with an ingenious device operated by pulling on a cord from a safe distance away. But the cord broke. Hudson then calmly went into the crater himself and twisted the recalcitrant fuse out by hand.

“They always told us we wouldn’t know anything about it” if a bomb went off, Hudson recalled; death would be instantaneous. “In one sense that was quite comforting.” His technique worked flawlessly on other Y-fuses, and he later reported that the Germans never used that fuse again.

After the war Hudson resumed his horticultural career, becoming an expert on fruit production and a teacher, and mentioning his wartime exploits to his students or colleagues only, one recalled, on those rare occasions when he had had a few glasses of the notoriously potent pear cider produced at the experiment station he directed.