Oops! Metal Detectorist Attempted to Sell Live WWII-Era Incendiary Bomb on eBay

Photo Credit: MAX NASH / AFP / Getty Images
Photo Credit: MAX NASH / AFP / Getty Images

British metal detector hobbyist Mark Williams, 51, discovered a live World War II-era German incendiary bomb with his metal detector in Southampton, England, and later put the explosive up for sale on eBay. Thankfully, a Dorset-based military collector recognized the device and the imminent danger Williams was in, resulting in a neighborhood evacuation and the deployment of the British Army’s bomb squad.

Damaged building along a Southampton street
Damage Southampton suffered following a Luftwaffe air raid over the city during the Blitz, 1940. (Photo Credit: MINISTRY OF INFORMATION / Imperial War Museums / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

Williams was using his metal detector when he found a one-kilogram object six inches beneath a grass bank near his home. After digging up the metallic object, he realized it was a German WWII-era incendiary bomb and took it home. Huge numbers of these small bombs were dropped on Britain during the Blitz, as they could wreak havoc with widespread fires. As they were scattered over the country in such large numbers, many remain hidden and live to this day.

Williams eventually listed the bomb on the auction site eBay, with the price starting at £15. Collector Ralf Sherwin, 46, saw the listing. Soon after, using his knowledge to spot the signs of a live vintage bomb, he made the horrifying realization that the device was, indeed, still live.

Without hesitation, Sherwin contacted Williams on eBay with the message, “Mate, do you realise that’s not de-activated – it’s live!”

Sherwin told The Daily Mail in 2021 that Williams messaged him back and asked how he knew, adding, “He said he was a metal detectorist and had dug it up in a kids’ playground in Southampton. I went into great detail about that fact that you could see the iron oxide seeping out of the air holes and the join. In the nose there’s a detonator, and once that dries out, it will go off, and I told him he wouldn’t be able to put it out.

“After that, I expected him to take it down and call the police, but the idiot completely ignored me and carried on selling it. What was he going to do if someone bought it – cover it in bubble wrap and post it off in a Jiffy bag?”

After waiting 30 minutes with no reply, Sherwin thankfully alerted the police. “I went online and reported him to Hampshire Police,” he told The Daily Mail. “I later found out that they contacted eBay, found his address and pounced. I’d never have forgiven myself if I’d done nothing and then read about a family being wiped out in a house fire.”

The police arrested Williams and raided his house. To the surprise of his neighbors, they were evacuated from the area and a 50-meter cordon was established around Williams’ home. “It was bedlam here with police and fire brigade. We were all told to leave our homes while a cordon was put up. We had to be outside for over two hours,” said one of his neighbors

Another added, “I think the big problem was Mark brought the bomb back to his flat. He showed me it and it was about a foot long. We had to wait in the rain for a bomb disposal unit to turn up and they took it away. We did not hear any explosion so they must have removed it.”

The fire brigade and a British Army Explosive Ordnance Disposal unit were also on site to handle the bomb.

One-kilogram incendiary bomb placed beside a metal ruler
Luftwaffe one-kilogram incendiary bomb, presumed to be a B1-type. (Photo Credit: Ian Dunster / Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 3.0)

Sherwin, the hero of the day, quickly recognized the type of bomb, its condition and the fact it was live, all from the eBay listing. He knew the risks an old and highly unstable explosive device can pose. “I’ve spent most of my life working in security and once when I was a community ranger on Studland Beach I found an unexploded bomb and the Navy blew it up, so I know how dangerous these things are,” he said.

A spokesman from the Hampshire Police released a statement, which read, “We were made aware of the bomb after it was reported as being advertised for sale on eBay. A 50-meter cordon was put in place and homes within that area were evacuated for the safety of residents. The Explosive Ordnance Disposal team attended and transported the ordnance to the police training center in Netley, where a controlled explosion was carried out at 4:15 PM.”

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Although Williams was arrested, he was released without any charges, with a police spokesman adding, “A 51-year-old man from Southampton was arrested on suspicion of possessing an explosive substance for an unlawful purpose. He has been released and no further action will be taken against him.”

Jesse Beckett

Jesse Beckett is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE