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15 October 2014
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Marching on to Laffan's Plain - Chapter 3

by Alan Shaw

South Downs, June 1941 RE Section Officer's 8cwt truck Morris Commercial Type PU. My pride and joy - but too short in the "office" under the canopy at rear to sleep comfortably.

Contributed by 
Alan Shaw
People in story: 
Lt-Col S C Drury DCM RE, Major E G Bailey RE, Capt Desmond Plummer RE, Lt Peter Kidner RE, Lt Alan Linsley Shaw RE, Lt Ian C Millar RE
Location of story: 
Leominster Herefords., Lancing Sussex, Worthing Sussex, Winchester, Havenstreet Isle of Wight.
Background to story: 
Army
Article ID: 
A3198864
Contributed on: 
29 October 2004

Working hard on the south coast.

Shortly after return to Abergavenny I was posted as O.C. No 2 Section of 222 Field Company RE at Leominster. It had escaped from France via Dunkirk. An RE Section of 65 men is the largest subaltern’s command in the army and after the past several months of staff work I thoroughly enjoyed this new responsibility. The OC was Major E G Bailey another ex 1914-18 Territorial, a martinet who enjoyed terrifying subalterns!

2nd in Command of 222 Company was Captain Desmond Plummer RE, in private life a country estate manager who had been an Olympic swimmer.Many a subaltern he shielded! After the war he rose to prominence becoming the Rt Hon The Lord Plummer of St Marylebone. O.C. No.1 Section was 2nd Lieut Peter Kidner, a Regular Army subaltern. O.C. No.3 Section was my old friend from home 2nd Lieut. Ian C Millar.

Early in February 1941 I was sent on a “secret” mission to the South Coast, attached to 578 Army Troops Company RE, Bramber, Steyning, Sussex.They lived in St Mary’s an historic mansion containing a “Painted Room” which was my bedroom.

This was to be my base for the next week or two while I reconnoitred the coastal area between Rivers Adur and Arun. The “secrecy” was because 47 Division was to move to the South Coast. In fact I found that it was common knowledge in every pub in the area! My job was to find and requisition accommodation and basic engineer resources for 222 Company.

I discovered 14 Ring Road, North Lancing, high up on the south slopes of the Downs with a fine view of the coastline. It was one of new estate of houses with only a few occupied. I requisitioned enough for Peter Kidner’s No.1 Section and my own No.2 Section, 130 men in total. We kept our reserves of explosives - a couple of tons of guncotton and ammonal - in one of the garages. with the detonators in our respective office-bedrooms.

I discovered I could hire a radio from Radio Rentals Ltd in Lancing. My batman (soldier servant) Frank Summerton set it up alongside the Safari camp bed in my office /bedroom. He had a standing order to turn it on each morning at 0630 hrs so that I could come to gently to the music of Vera Lynn’s “Reveille” programme. To this routine I became so habituated that on the morning of 27th July in the honeymoon suite of the Drummond Arms hotel, Bridge of Earn , Scotland, I automatically reached out of bed at 0630 hrs to turn on Vera Lynn. Marjory has never allowed me to forget it! For her it was an unbelievable experience!

There was sporadic German air activity at both high and low levels along that coast. There were also routine low flying patrols by RAF fighters. While I was shaving one morning there was a roar of low flying aircraft. I rushed pell mell downstairs and out to the Bren light machine gun permanently on its tripod and grabbed it just in time to see the last of three German fighters disappearing. Suddenly I realised that my pyjama trousers had fallen around my ankles.

Shortly afterwards (probably just a coincidence) to ensure that our own planes were not shot down by trigger happy British troops, a general Army order prohibited firing at any aircraft , friend or foe. That was the job of Anti-Aircraft Command.

Company HQ and Officers Mess were in North Worthing No.1 Section was responsible for all work from Shoreham to Lancing, No.2 Section from Lancing to West Worthing, No.3 based in a mansion in Rustington, from West Worthing to Littlehampton. We embarked on a construction programme of fortifications, and laid one or two supplementary minefields behind the beachline.

All beaches on the south coast (and elsewhere) were protected by mines known to us as “Mushrooms”. Hundreds of thousands had been laid as an emergency measure in 1940 obviously without a thought to the long term consequences.Each was circular, about 20 inches in diameter by 9 inches deep with a movable lid over a steel bowspring with central firing needle.The mine, packed with 25 lbs of high explosive (amatol topped with baratol) was fired by the bowspring needle piercing a percussion cap in the 4 ounce gelignite primer and thence the main charge.

The explosion was capable of immobilising a tank and causing it serious damage. A man stepping on the mine was blown to pieces, There was no possibility of survival. Our Major General, GOC 47 Division, was lost when he was accidentally led across a minefield in Shoreham “Bungalow Town” where buildings were being demolished for timber recovery.

The shingle beaches on the South Coast are in almost constant movement, drifting under the influence of tides and winds towards the East.During storms shingle depth changed by several feet. Mines could be thrown against a groyne and demolish it.

By the time 222 Field Company arrived such destruction was exposing the coastline to erosion. Repairs were impossible as the location of individual mines was no longer known. In April or May 1941 a specially trained mine lifter, Corporal Cox, from another RE unit, was seconded to my Section. I was required to provide two volunteers to assist him.The two sappers who volunteered were married men each about thirtyfive years old with wives and young families.

Mine detecting equipment was in its infancy. First we were given a”Cossor” detector which was too insensitive. We then settled for an “ERA”(Electrical Research Association) model.This was a wire coil on the end of a long bamboo pole. A milliameter dial and headphones warned of the presence of metal but could not discriminate between a mine, a tin can or a rusty nail.

For every detection the beach pebbles had to be scraped away by hand very gingerly.’From “lucky escape” experiences recounted by other RE units a number of risks were known.The primer gelignite was a nitroglycerine based explosive.After about six months drops of liquid nitroglycerine would exude from it and collect around the expandable rubber bung securing the primer cylinder. This was liable to explode and detonate the mine during disarming. Rubber caps covering each mine had perished.A pebble could enter the bowspring compartment causing partial blockage of a bowspring. Disarming could fire the mine.

Nevertheless Corporal Cox and his team cleared several mines before on 2nd June 1941 all three were killed simultaneously in an explosion on West Worthing beach, the cause of which was never able to be decided. It looked as though they had been carrying mines already lifted and may have dropped one. It took two days before we could recover the body of Corporal Cox from the minefield. Crawling along a timber groyne into the sea we stretched ropes from seaward over the beach minefield to sappers behind the protective concrete “Dragons Teeth”. A stretcher secured across the ropes was used as scoop to recover the body. Lt.-Col Drury, CRE 47 Division arrived during the final stages. He was very supportive and shortly after wrote a letter of commendation to my Major Bailey, OC 222 Field Coy RE.

This put an end to our attempt at systematic large scale beach mine clearances. We had neither the technical resources nor manpower at that time. So in June 1941 the main problem of locating, disarming and clearing away the hundeds of thousands of these powerful and unstable mines laid on UK beaches was put aside until 1943. Then landing practice for the D-Day invasion made it essential to clear some beaches.

A book “Designed to Kill” published in 1987 by Major Arthur Hogben RE describes the eventual solution .Between 1943 and 1947 armoured bull dozer units cleared the majority of the mines. But eleven small areas still remained the last of which was not cleared until 1972. The total cost 151 lives. The decision to sow 350,000 mines of this type on coastal beaches had given the Royal Engineers one of its biggest long term problems.

Meanwhile we Royal Engineers were still required to ensure safe access to the waterline for Royal Navy personnel to recover any seaborne item of equipment which happened to come shore e .g. drifting paravanes or naval mines. For such small and local mine clearances nets of flexible Cordtex high explosive fuse, wound on to wooden drums eight feet wide were made up by us at Ring Road, North Lancing. .At the beach, wearing “tin hats” and adopting a prone position, a two man team would set the drum unrolling down the beach then detonate it electrically, hopefully blowing up any beach mine in track. The Navy would then walk down the beach confident that we had cleared it.

Mine clearing, and its appalling tragedies, formed only a very small part of No.2 Section’s activities. These were principally the design and construction of anti-invasion defences.

One small job for the Home Guard attracted more attention than expected. It was a small underground machine gun post in a turfed-over bunker on Findon Golf Course. The Divisional Camouflage officer insisted that as work on one bunker would stand out on German aerial photographs all other bunkers should also be turfed over.In addition all approaches to the machine gun post by construction and other vehicles must be camouflaged with “Cullecourt” camouflage netting (wire netting covered in bird lime and painted hen feathers with an appaling smell. )

After two or three weeks painstakingly concealed work the machine gun post was finished on a Saturday evening. Early on Sunday morning a twin engined Junkers 88 dive-bombed it scoring a direct hit, completely destroying our work. Our camouflage had been so thorough that the Germans were convinced that something really important was under it!

We did a great deal of work with the Canadian Division Engineers who had brought over oil pipe drilling machinery. This enabled a 4 inch diameter oil pipe to be driven at a shallow angle under roads and airstrips quickly. These were then filled with ammonal to produce craters in event of invasion. Dozens were installed in our area.

Early in July 1941 222 Field Company was withdrawn to Aldershot to retrain under canvas after this intensive period of works.From there I returned home to marry Marjory in the Reid Memorial Church in Edinburgh on 26th July 1941. My best man was Lieut H C Allan RAMC who then went out to the 8th Army ,was captured at Tobruk but subsequently recaptured. and was awarded the military MBE for his services as a doctor while a prisoner of war. Lieutenant Bill Muir RA acted as groomsman. It was a typical wartime wedding.

Our Reception was at the Caledonian Hotel at the West End of Princes Street chosen because they guaranteed adequate supplies of food for the Uedding Breakfast. They even produced fresh salmon!. We set off by train for a five day honeymoon at St Fillans for which the Drummond Arms Hotel charged us a total of £12 including full board!

On return from honeymoon leave I found 222 Company at Moonhill, Cuckfield. From there I was sent on a fortnights Bomb Disposal Course at Horsham. Marjory was able to join me.We stayed at the Station Hotel and were able to be together for another few days at Cuckfield.

The Company then moved to Winchester. I was ordered to take No.2 Section to the Isle of Wight to support the Hampshire Brigade. I had an additional post as Garrison Engineer Isle of Wight, as that office had become vacant. Sailing from Portsmouth on the Ryde ferry we heard on radio that Japan had bombed Pearl Harbour and that the USA was now officially our ally.

My HQ was the then School House in the middle of Havenstreet village. I have many happy recollections of that time although still recovering from a spell in Horsham Hospital for excision of a carbuncle. Marjory joined me at Christmas for a few days. It was a militarised zone. Non-residents had to have a permit and strings had to be pulled! I remember her innocently regaling the Assistant Provost Marshal with this and other vital military information while waiting for the Portsmouth ferry on her return home! She had no permit! Fortunately the APM was an old friend from Edinburgh!

On the first evening of Marjory’s arrival at the billet I had rented in Havenstreet for us both, we were just about to go to bed when the door bell rang. I opened it to a smart salute from batman Sapper Frank Summerton who proffered a neatly wrapped brown paper parcel: “Your pyjamas, sir!” He always looked after me like a mother!

Among the usual Sapper jobs was the giving of lectures on explosives to newly formed Isle of Wight Home Guard demolition teams, These I gave beer glass in hand, on Wednesday evenings in a pub at Bembridge to an audience who must have been the prototype of the “Dad’s Army” television series.

Mushroom mines wouldn’t go away. A Brigade Staff Captain phoned up to ask me to check the minefields at Freshwater Bay to see whether they were square or round based. It necessitated entering the minefields, an unpleasant task. After entering one I got back to the office to be told that the Brigadier thought it too dangerous, and had intervened to cancel the order!

After nearly three months I returned to the mainland with No.2 Section to meet a new Officer Commanding 222 Company. Major Bill Bailey had been promoted to CRE of another Division and replaced by Major Robin Weld RE a Regular Army officer under whom we all found it a great pleasure to serve. I recall a visit from our General in which Sergeant George Hall and I had to demonstrate the placement in a barbed wire entanglement and firing of a Bangalore Torpedo. This was several feet of three inch diameter steel water pipe full of high explosive. After placement one applied a lighted match to a slow fuse then turned round and walking back several yards, unhurriedly so as not to trip, turned again and then immediately fell flat -very flat, all seconds before the 30 lb Bangalore Torpedo went off.!- hopefully at the right moment! This all took place under the eyes of our General who had been conducted to a safe vantage point!

By a mere coincidence I received a bolt from the blue in the form of a “secret” posting order from the War Office ordering me to proceed on embarkation leave and equip myself for service in either Burma or India. My brother officers gave me a very merry evening out at their expense and put me on the London train en route for Edinburgh in a virtually legless state. I cant remember how I managed to cross London to King’s Cross station to catch the Edinburgh train!

What I didn't know then was that 47th (London) Division was about to be dissolved and its resources of men and material distributed to other formations a not unknown fate in those days of reorganisation aimed at D-Day two years ahead.

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