The chocolate bomb intended to kill Winston Churchill became the stuff of wartime legend. But depictions of the device and other cleverly concealed explosives were only recently rediscovered.
During World War II, German sabotage experts invented an array of cleverly disguised bombs. At the time, Britain’s MI5 counter-sabotage and explosives unit, B1C, contained only three people—Victor Rothschild, scientist; his secretary, Teresa Georgina Mayor, later his wife; and Donald Fish, a police detective inspector. While we like to imagine huge wartime spy-tech operations like those portrayed in Captain America, many of the tiny unit’s efforts came of their own initiative and ingenuity.
Rothschild, scion of the wealthy Rothschild family, put his vast resources to use in the service of countering sabotage. He wanted an artist to depict the boobytrapped devices that were making their way into Britain: the chocolate bar, set to explode when a piece was broken off; army food tins with secret bombs beneath the food; transformed oil cans rigged to cause destruction. Rothschild once famously disabled an explosive concealed in a shipment of onions, describing his actions on the phone the whole time, so that if the bomb went off, they would know to go in another direction next time.
For the project of documenting their efforts, Donald Fish recommended his son, a young draughtsman named Laurence Fish, who had honed his technical drawing chops on Alvis cars. There was no end of crafty devices to draw; along with assassination attempts, the Germans meant to conceal the bombs on British ships, where they would pass unnoticed until explosion. Aside from everyday items, the drawings show schematics for more complex explosives like magnetic limpet mines, which also targeted ships.
Rothschild had discovered many such traps and learned to disarm them, but he needed a record, intended to become a manual for others to recognize and neutralize the devices. He commissioned Laurence Fish via letters marked “Secret,” and the results are an incredibly detailed array of technical artwork. Fish’s attention to detail and precision drawing in a pre-computer age is incredible and, from the space of years, quite beautiful.
After the war, the drawings were thought to be lost, until the Rothschilds recently found them in “deep storage” in a chest of drawers. Victor Rothschild’s daughter Victoria sent them to Fish’s widow, Jean Bray. Bray hopes that the drawings will find a home in a museum or archive. Her favorite shows a complex, 21-day timer with a rotating disk. The BBC describes Fish’s rendering, which no doubt saved lives:
At the top, it says, in especially bold letters, “Do not unscrew here.” At the bottom, equally bold, are the words: “Unscrew here first.”
I hope the drawings find their way to a museum where they can be seen after so much time away from public appreciation. The disguised devices were ingenious, but so were the people who found, disarmed, and drew them for posterity.
Images: Antony Thompson/TWN