The controlled detonation of an unexploded World War II bomb that came to light almost 80 years after it was dropped provided an opportunity for the High Court to give guidance on the interpretation of war exclusion clauses commonly found in insurance policies.
The 1,000kg bomb was of a type known as a ‘Hermann’ during the War – after the Nazi Luftwaffe chief Hermann Goering. It was dropped on Exeter in 1942 and was uncovered in 2021 during building works on a site adjacent to Exeter University’s campus. Students had to be evacuated from nearby halls of residence as a 400-metre safety cordon was established.
Moving the fragile and degraded bomb was assessed to be far too dangerous by an Army bomb disposal team, who conducted a controlled detonation. Despite mitigation measures, serious damage was caused to campus buildings. The University claimed on its insurance but, in declining to pay out, its insurer pointed to the relevant policy’s war exclusion clause, which provided that losses occasioned by war were not covered.
Ruling in favour of the insurer, the Court observed that the dropping of the bomb was clearly an act of war. As a matter of common sense, it was the Luftwaffe’s action in doing so, rather than the bomb disposal team’s obviously correct decision to carry out a controlled detonation, that was the proximate cause of the explosion and the resulting damage.
The conclusion that the war exemption applied was unaffected by the passage of time. There was no suggestion that the bomb’s lethal potency had been depleted by the years and its entire payload went off in the controlled detonation as if it had been dropped yesterday. If the bomb had been moved, a rolling two-kilometre safety cordon would have been required.