AT PRECISELY 11:11 a.m. on Nov. 27, 1944, the relative quiet of RAF Fauld near Staffordshire, England was shattered in a split second when a 4,000-lb. bomb in the base’s 1,700 sq. ft. underground munitions bunker accidentally detonated. The resulting blast touched off the entire 3,700-ton stockpile of ordnance.
According to an official report of the accident, the disaster was the result of a lone airman trying to remove the bomb’s detonator with a metal hammer instead of the regulation wooden mallet. A wayward spark likely ignited off the explosives, which created a split second chain reaction in the bunker. In an instant, the entire cache of HE bombs, along with 500 million rounds of ammunition, went up. The blast tore open a crater more than 1,000 meters across and nearly 120 meters deep. A cloud of smoke and debris was hurled several thousand feet into the air. Buildings more than a kilometer from the blast zone were utterly destroyed. More than 70 personnel lost their lives in the incident.
While the RAF Fauld blast has been called by some (including the BBC) the “world’s largest non-nuclear explosion in history “, other conventional wartime explosions, both intentional and accidental, have caused far more casualties and have been much more destructive.
Here are a few of military history’s biggest bangs.
A powder magazine explosion during the English Civil War, possibly the largest in history up to that point, brought the Battle of Torrington to an end in one deafening instant. On Feb. 16, 1646, a force of 10,000 Parliamentarians tried to wrest control of the small Devon township from the hands of a Royalist army less than half that size. Amid the chaos, a stray spark in the defenders’ powder magazine (located in a stone church) caused the eruption of more than 80 barrels of gunpowder. The blast wiped out much of the town. While the Royalists bore the brunt of the calamity, a piece of debris narrowly missed killing the Roundhead general, Sir Thomas Fairfax.
One hundred and fifty years later, an American commander would be far less fortunate. Brig.-Gen. Zebulon Pike of the U.S. Army was leading a battalion of 1,700 regulars and militia against the British defenders of the Upper Canadian capital of York (modern-day Toronto) in April of 1813. Not wanting the town’s fort and supplies to fall into enemy hands, the British officer in charge ordered his men to lay a fuse into the garrison’s powder magazine before withdrawing. As the Americans closed to within a few hundred feet of the abandoned stockade, more than 200 barrels of gunpowder went up. The blast, which was felt across the lake in Niagara, hurled several tons of stone hundreds of feet into the air. Within moments, the debris rained down on the advancing Americans. An enormous chunk landed on Pike’s head, fatally wounding the 34-year-old commander. More than 250 of the general’s men a were either wounded or killed as well. After securing York, the enraged invaders looted and then fired the town. Incidentally, the burning of York was cited by the British as justification for torching the American capital Washington D.C. the following year.
An even larger explosion three years earlier during the Peninsular War ended the French siege of the British-held city of Almeida, Portugal. By Aug. 26, 1810, the town had been under the Grande Armee’s guns for more than a month. That’s when a lucky shot from one of Marshall Massena’s howitzers breeched the walls of the city’s stone magazine. The shell touched off 4,000 powder bags, 68,000 lbs. of loose powder and more than 1 million musket cartridges in the blink of an eye. As many as 600 British and Portuguese troops were blown to bits or crushed by stone in the disaster. The blast, which also consumed all of the defenders’ powder, forced the British to surrender the town (or at least what was left of it) the following day.
The Hawthorne Ridge mine was one of 19 explosions the British detonated
beneath the German lines on the first day of the Somme Offensive, July 1, 1916.
Unlike nearly all of the above examples, some of the biggest wartime explosions in history weren’t accidents at all. As reported on this very blog, during the 19th and 20th centuries, military engineers and sappers revived the ancient and medieval practice of tunnelling beneath enemy fortifications and walls in order to collapse them. This process of ‘undermining’, or simply ‘mining’, was revolutionized in the modern age with the advent of gunpowder. While historically, tunnels would be simply collapsed to destabilize the structures above, later shafts beneath the defenders’ feet were instead packed to the rafters with explosives. The explosions, which would often be followed by an attack, would simultaneously break up fortifications and stun defenders.
The Allies set off 19 such mines of various sizes beneath the German lines in the opening moments of the Battle of the Somme in 1916. The largest, which was dug beneath what was known as the Hawthorn Ridge Redoubt, consisted of18 tons of high explosives. The resulting blast, which tore a hole in the enemy position could be felt in the streets of London. It was the largest man-made detonation history to that point. Another mine detonated that morning gouged a 300-foot wide, 90-foot deep crevasse in the German line known as the Lochnagar Crater. The gaping hole in the earth is still visible 100 years later. The
Of course, these massive detonations would pale in comparison to the notorious Messines Mine of 1917. The British Army set off more than 450 tons of explosives in 19 tunnels stretching beneath a long segment of the German lines on June 7. The inferno would vapourize between 6,000 and 10,000 enemy troops in a flash. Contemporary reports indicate that the explosion shook the earth for hundreds of miles, with rumbling being felt as far afield as Dublin. At the time, the Messines explosion was the largest man-made explosion ever — a record that wouldn’t be topped until the atomic bombs of the Manhattan Project. 
Some of the biggest wartime explosions in history took place far from the frontlines. Consider these tragedies:
A fire aboard a munitions ship in Bombay harbour caused a deadly blast in April of 1944. A blaze in the hold of the SS Fort Stikine quickly spread, igniting 1,400 tons of high explosives that flattened the harbour. More than 800 dock workers, sailors and civilians were killed instantly.
A consignment of munitions nearly three times that size was touched off weeks later at Port Chicago, California. The merchant ship SS E. A. Bryan was laden with 4,000 tons of bombs, shells and depth charges all destined for action in the Pacific Theatre when something lit up the entire cache. Another 400 tons waiting dockside further added to the inferno. All told, the two explosions killed more than 300 sailors and naval dock labourers. For weeks after the incident, 50 of the survivors refused to handle explosives until safety conditions were improved. They were all charged with mutiny.
While technically not as large a discharge as the Port Chicago disaster, the notorious Halifax Explosion of Dec. 6, 1917 is considered one of the deadliest single non-nuclear blasts on record. The tragedy occurred minutes after the French cargo vessel Mont Blanc, which was loaded with 2,600 tons of ordnance bound for the Western Front, caught fire following a collision with a Norwegian ship in the busy harbour. The unstable cargo aboard the stricken freighter ignited creating an explosion comparable to a 2.9 kiloton nuclear warhead. The blast literally flattened the Halifax and killed a staggering 2,000 people. More than 9,000 were injured in the accident.
Some of the largest military blasts ever weren’t set off in wartime and created no casualties. Consider these planned big bangs:
In 1947, the Royal Navy detonated between 4,000 and 6,700 tons of high explosives on the German island of Heligoland. The 2 sq. km. outcropping lies just off Germany’s North Sea coastline. The objective of the demolition was to destroy a network of wartime fortifications on the island (and to dispose of surplus munitions at the same time). The blast, which took place on April 18 of that year, was dubbed the “British Bang”. It utterly annihilated everything on the surface of Heligoland and permanently reshaped the island’s shoreline .
The U.S. military created two even larger conventional explosions 40 years later. An experimental detonation conducted at a test range in New Mexico in 1985 involved the release of 4,700 tons of high explosives. The blast, ironically codenamed Minor Scale, was intended to measure the effects of a nuclear burst on military hardware. The charges were equivalent to a 4 kiloton atomic weapon. The yield was about a quarter of the size of the bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima and a fifth of the size of the Nagasaki bomb. A similar test in 1987, named Misty Picture, involved a slightly reduced payload of conventional explosives.
(Originally published Jan. 17, 2013)
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