Will Rich - Halifax Explosion

6th December 1917

It all started with an email from Bill Gibbard, who had emigrated to Australia nearly 50 years ago. He described walking through Cathays Cemetery in the early 1950s and remembering a prominent memorial on the main drive to a victim of "The Halifax Explosion". Did the Friends have any idea where it was? A few days later, a workday provided the opportunity to ask a few other members ... the explosion rang a bell with one and the memorial was soon found, despite being obscured by a holly bush.

But what was this Halifax Explosion? The deep natural harbour in Halifax was extremely busy as an assembly point for convoys across the Atlantic. The French ship, SS Mont Blanc, had arrived on 5th December, fully laden with explosives and high octane fuel. The harbour was protected by submarine nets which were raised at night and the ship was too late to enter, so had to wait in the approach channel overnight. At the same time, the Norwegian ship, SS Imo, had been delayed from leaving after stopping to re-fuel. At first light, as soon as the submarine nets had been lowered, both ships moved off, anxious to make up for lost time, into what was the narrowest part of the channel. The hazard was compounded by the Norwegian ship recklessly ignoring the speed limit and 'rules of the road'. In the inevitable collision, the French ship was holed, volatile fuel oil escaped and vapour ignited. The ship was quickly engulfed in flames and the whole crew, recognising what would happen next, abandoned ship.

20 minutes after the collision, the ship exploded and was completely blown apart. An area of more than 400 acres was completely destroyed by the explosion, while the harbour floor was momentarily exposed by the volume of water that vaporized. A tsunami, formed by water surging in to fill the void, rose up 60 ft above the harbour's high-water mark. Over 1,600 people were killed instantly while 9,000 were injured. Every building within a 1.6 mile radius, over 12,000 total, was destroyed or badly damaged. Hundreds of people who had been watching the fire from their homes were blinded when the blast wave shattered the windows in front of them.

The blast was the largest man-made explosion prior to the development of nuclear weapons and became the standard by which all large blasts were measured. Indeed, a report on the bombing of Hiroshima, described the explosive power of the Little Boy bomb as seven times that of the Halifax Explosion. The comparison does not end there - look at archive pictures of the devastation (easy to find on the internet) and they look very much like the aftermath of the atomic bombs dropped on Japan.

Returning to the memorial, we can see that Will's sister, Maud, died in 1926, his mother, Mary, in 1951 and another sister, Ivy, in 1992. But there is no mention of his father, Thomas.

There must have been another sister, Annie, as her son Albert Dring, is recorded as having been killed in Greece in December 1944 and buried in Athens. At this stage of WW2, Greece had been liberated, but battles broke out between rival factions in Athens and civil war ensued. The Division were there as peacekeepers, but became involved in intense street fighting, suffering heavy losses, including all of its company commanders. The 6th Airborne Division were also involved at Pegusus Bridge, so maybe Albert Dring's story is worthy of further research.