[From the University of Nottingham Magazine 2001] 

John Hudson

last changed 13 December 2007

Professor John Hudson's academic reputation in Horticulture has been well known at Sutton Bonington for more than half a century. But his wartime exploits, chronicled recently in a television documentary, have raised quite a few eyebrows. Simon Harvey talked to one of Britain's great bomb defusers.


Professor John Hudson did not fear being hurt as he tackled his first fuse in a 500lb German bomb at the bottom of a muddy crater in West Yorkshire. For he and his colleagues knew that if it came, death would be instantaneous. “They told us what would happen if a bomb did go off and how we wouldn't know anything about it. In one sense that was quite comforting but there were many occasions when we were all very uptight,” he said. It was mid-1940 and he'd already evacuated from Dunkirk before finding himself on a five-day bomb disposal course and arriving in West Yorkshire to defuse a series of unexploded bombs. “The Germans had learned that an unexploded bomb could cause more havoc and disruption to daily life than one which had exploded, especially in cities, so they came up with 72-hour delay fuses. But there was no real training, we learned by experience.”


In those early days the average life expectancy for a bomb disposal officer was just 10 weeks. After the delay fuses, came third and fourth generation devices involving booby traps preventing the fuse from being removed and then the Y-fuse, which went off if you tried to move the bomb. Each time men like Professor Hudson came up with ingenious ways of overcoming the problems. “We were lucky because we managed to get hold of one of the first Y-fuses that was used.When we saw it was battery-operated we devised a way of disabling it from outside the bomb by pouring liquid oxygen onto the fuse cap thereby cooling the batteries until they went dead.”


After dealing with the unexploded bombs left by the December 1940 raids on Sheffield, Professor Hudson returned to barracks on Christmas Eve and wrote a report on how much better the whole operation could have been done. On the strength of that letter he was summoned to London and posted as ‘scientist' to bomb disposal HQ.


When he left school in 1927, professing an interest in physics, a teacher dissuaded him by saying that it was widely believed that physics would be the first scientific discipline to know all there was to know about itself! So Professor Hudson went into horticulture at the then Midland Agriculture and Dairy College at Sutton Bonington. He was awarded the Ashgate Challenge Cup in 1928 as the Best Horticultural Student and subsequently studied part-time to gain a London University external BSc in Horticulture. After the war he worked for the Department of Agriculture in New Zealand before returning as a lecturer to the School of Agriculture newly joined with the University of Nottingham. He soon became professor and carried out pioneering research on environmental factors affecting plant growth, collaborating and researching with Professor Fred Milthorpe and Dr Ian Cowan. “By then Sutton Bonington was quite different from the days when I'd been there as a student,” said Professor Hudson. “I held the first chair of horticulture and it was an exciting time building up a new department.”


Hudson also served as Visiting Professor of Horticulture to the University of Khartoum before leaving Nottingham in 1967 to take up the Directorship of Long Ashton Research Station at Bristol University. He retired in 1975 but returned to the University last year as friends and colleagues celebrated his 90th birthday.

Considering the advice of his one-time school master it is ironic that it was his physics which ultimately saved, not only his life, but the lives of countless others.

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