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I’m not an expert on mine warfare but I have read a lot about it, had a number of classes on it in the military and even gave some classes on it in the military. I was actually going to do an article about three incidents that occurred during land mine warfare training, but it would have been too short to be of interest, so I thought I would throw in some background.
Mine warfare has been around for a long time, but hasn’t always had the same meaning. Before and even during the First World War mining seems to have usually meant digging a long tunnel until it reached a point under the walls of a fortified city, filling it with explosives, and blowing it up to produce a breach in the wall that troops could use to get through the fortifications. Naturally, the use and effectiveness of mining depended on the type of soil in the area, water areas such as moats and rivers, and the vigilance of the people in the fortified structure. If an approaching mine was discovered the defenders could dig a counter-mine, break into the enemy mine and kill the miners. During WWI this type of mine was used against a ridge, rather than a fortification, in one famous incident. When the mine was blown, most of the ridge and its defenders just disappeared. I seem to remember that the subsequent breakthrough was only limited by the broken terrain left by the blast and a lack of reserves. This is a very interesting subject and these are the very barest of bones of it.
Since I plan to discuss anti-shipping mines as well, I think I should mention that this type of mine was referred to as a ‘torpedo’ during the American Civil War, at least. When the Union admiral said, “Damn the torpedoes. Full speed ahead!” His unit was actually traversing a Confederate minefield made up of floating explosive devices in wooden containers. As an aside, the first torpedoes were not self-propelled. They usually consisted of an explosive charge mounted near the end of a spar attached to a war vessel. They frequently had a barbed arrowhead device at the end that was intended to be stuck into the victim’s hull and then the charge would be detonated after the attacking vessel had disconnected the charge or the whole spar, and moved away. Keep in mind that the effects of an explosion under water are very different from an explosion above water because water is not effectively compressible. Explosions under water tend to transfer a greater amount of energy to nearby objects than explosions above water.
I’m not sure when the first mines, as we now know them, were developed. Possibly in WWI, but they were surely available for WWII and all subsequent conflicts. At this point there have probably been more than 10,000 types of land mines developed. Probably not quite that many sea mines because they are usually a lot more sophisticated and a lot larger. Total number of mines deployed since WWI might be more than a billion. I believe I read that the Russians emplaced more than a million mines in preparation for the battle at Kursk alone.
Land mines range in size based on intended use. During Vietnam the US used a small green plastic mine maybe a couple of inches long and an inch or so in diameter that had a small amount of tetryl as a bursting charge and was intended to do enough damage to a person’s foot, hopefully an enemy, that they would be permanently incapacitated, but not killed, since wounded men produce a completely different set of problems for a combat unit than dead ones. These little mines, sometimes called ‘toe-poppers’, were mainly plastic so they were very difficult to find with mine detectors, which I don’t think the Vietnamese used very much anyway. One Vietnamese version of this mine was made from two pieces of wood hinged together, a rifle or pistol cartridge in a hole drilled in the top piece of wood, and a nail. When pressure was applied to the top piece of wood the primer of the cartridge was pressed against the nail with enough force to fire the round up through someone’s foot. Even if the wood did not provide much support for the cartridge case, enough force was probably left to do the job.
Over the years there have been many types of anti-personnel mines designed to kill or wound several people at a time. The most effective of these seem to have been the type that, when activated by being stepped on, were popped up into the air by a small explosive charge to waist height or higher, where the main charge would explode producing blast and shrapnel effects over a few meters or more. I think that the Germans came up with the first good version of this type of mine. The Americans called it the ‘Bouncing Betty’ and didn’t like them at all. The Vietnamese didn’t have the same set of materials to work with that a more industrialized nation would have so they improvised. In some cases they would take a bomb that had been dropped by an American plane and not exploded, or an artillery shell, replace the fuse and either bury it under a trail or hang it from a tree so that when someone went by, it would detonate. Considering the size of the explosive device used in some cases these were probably not often efficient against well dispersed troops, but could be very effective anyway. I read somewhere that they used bombs as large as 2000 pounds for this purpose, although that was probably intended for use against an armored vehicle.
Anti-tank or anti-vehicle mines have been made in thousands of different types as well. There used to be two major types. One used a lot of explosive to damage the suspension and was triggered by the vehicle running over it. These mines were relatively large in order to contain lots of explosive and frequently included sophisticated anti-tampering devices. As soon as the mine detector was developed a lot of theses mines were built with non-metallic cases and as few metal parts as possible. The Russians built a lot of theirs out of wood. The other type used a shaped charge or a projectile of some sort to try to penetrate the bottom of the hull of the vehicle, which is usually one of the thinner parts. These were often triggered by ‘tilt-rods’ but newer ones can be triggered by magnetic influence, just like sea mines. The tilt–rod was necessary because the mine was not designed for being run over by the wheels or tracks of the vehicle since it worked best under the middle of the vehicle. The tilt-rod was necessary to make contact with the body of the vehicle.
In 1977 I was involved in an experiment conducted by the US Army to test the effectiveness of artillery dispersible mines against armored vehicles. It was very interesting. One 8-inch howitzer projectile contained four or five mines. The projectile must have had a fairly thin casing. It was supposed to be popped open by a small charge at a pre-set distance above the ground dumping out the mines, which looked exactly like large green hockey pucks. They were probably pretty close to 8 inches in diameter and three or four inches thick. I think there were also 6-inch (155mm) versions. The mines were supposed to bounce around for a while so that they would spread out. When they stopped, if they weren’t ‘right-side up’ they had a spring-loaded arm or some other kind of righting device. They were triggered by magnetic influence. When triggered they were supposed to fire a metal plate up through the bottom of the vehicle that was above them. Based on personal experience they were very difficult to see, especially if the vehicle was buttoned up as they should be in combat situations. I’m not sure that these mines had a self-destruct feature so that they would go off after a certain period of time even if nothing was around. I think that this would be a nice feature for all types of mines, but I doubt that a reliable system would also be cheap.
Anti-shipping mines have been around longer than land mines and some of them are extremely sophisticated. There are some now that can be programmed to wait for the engine noises from a particular type of ship and then, if it is close enough, fire a torpedo at it. A significant part of the complexity of this type of mine is often the anti-tampering mechanism.
Single mines are actually probably better considered ‘booby traps’. They produce casualties and make the victims hesitant to continue their current actions. They can also be used to trigger ambushes or to alert people that enemies are present.
Arrays of mines are used to channelize, block, deny and delay. If you put an array of mines in an area that you feel the enemy would prefer to travel through, and they are in a hurry or don’t have the proper mine clearing equipment, you can force them to travel in unfavorable terrain or into ambush situations. Blocking is similar. If your position has a weak side you can put out mines to force the enemy to come at your strong point. Denial is probably used more often with sea mines. Mines are arranged in a pattern and depth to completely deny the use of a particular harbor or sea-lane. There are two types of delaying tactics. If you are trying to break contact, leave a few mines behind here and there whenever convenient. Even if the mines are spotted before they do any damage, whoever is after you should slow down. I say ‘should’ because that doesn’t always happen. In the other situation, you are in a static position with a large mine field in front of you that the enemy must get through. The mines should slow the advance keeping the enemy in the killing zone for longer and giving them something to worry about besides returning fire accurately.
Mines left over from various conflicts are a serious problem in many arts of the world. Princess Diana did a lot towards making the problem visible to a lot of people, but a lot of the places where there are still significant numbers of deaths and injuries from old minefields, to this day, are in third world countries and the incidents very seldom make the news here. There are several organizations that are involved in continuing efforts to get rid of these old mines, but the task is very large. Clearing minefields is not a job for amateurs. When mines get old they become very un-predictable. Even trained personnel can have problems with old mines.
When a minefield is put in, even a hasty minefield, we were taught to make a diagram showing the location of the field and the mines in the field as accurately as possible. No unit that I was ever with even simulated laying a minefield. Maybe the combat engineers, who are supposed to handle minefield emplacements, actually do this, but I’ve never worked with them, and never seen or heard of anyone else actually creating such a document. If everyone who had ever put in a mine field had done this, and the documents still existed, it would certainly help the current effort to get rid of old fields.
Minefields are often found today just like they would be in combat. Someone steps on one, or runs over it, and gets blown up. You always hope that the person this happens to isn’t behind you because that means you have already passed at least one mine without detecting it, and no matter where you put your foot down next there is a chance that you will also find one.
What happens next depends on the current situation. If there is time, bring up the combat engineers to either clear the field or mark a safe (?) path through it. If you have no engineers available, or no time, or are under fire, you can try to probe for the mines yourself and mark the ones you find for the people behind you. This is the method we were taught in the Marine Corps in 1968. Unfortunately, most soldiers are not well equipped for this function. In Marine Corps ITR (Infantry Training Regiment) we were temporarily given old bayonets that had been used on Springfield rifles during WWI in order to practice probing for mines. These bayonets were well over a foot long and rather heavy. The same training range, and same bayonets had been used for years so the soil was well aerated, but we still had to be pretty attentive to tell the difference between probing through the soil and poking a mine casing. The mines we probed for there were anti-vehicle, since we were amateurs and they wanted to build up our confidence. Anti-personnel mines are smaller and easier to miss. I think we were told to probe once, gently, for every square inch in our lane. As you can imagine, that takes a lot of time and patience.
This brings me to one of the three training stories. The old bayonets were kept in a box at the bottom of the bleachers we were observing from while small groups went through the course. One of the troop handlers, a Corporal, would throw bayonets at people that he thought were not paying enough attention. After years of probing the bayonets were not very sharp or pointy, but they were still heavy, and I had my first rebellious thoughts of that enlistment because of that incident. I suppose you could say it was an eye opener but we didn’t wear flak jackets during training and a few people got some painful bruises. I wonder what would have happened if he had hit someone in the head?
Anyway, I think that bayonets have been replaced by plastic probes now because of anti-tampering devices that detect the metal of the blade. There is always the chance that you will physically trigger an anti-tampering device even with a plastic probe, so you have to be as gentle as the soil conditions permit.
The next problem for the un-prepared is how do you mark a mine that you have found? The best way is to use little flags, which you probably don’t have. Next best is to point out the position of the mine to the person behind you and hope that he sees you do it. The location is then passed on down the line . . . hopefully.
Do you dig the mine up? In 1968 we were taught how to do it, but I wouldn’t recommend that course of action to anyone that I liked. The absolute best thing to do with any unfriendly mine is to blow it up right where it is. It doesn’t require much in the way of explosives, or time, unless it is an old mine, and you think it might be unstable, and it is definitely not a threat when you are done. You also don’t need to worry about what is underneath it or what it is connected to. I’ve heard of anti-vehicle mines being buried on top of snakes or anti-personnel mines with pressure release fuses, and most of the bigger mines have an option of several types detonators that can be used simultaneously. If it is an old mine, always assume the worst and you will seldom be disappointed. If the mine is in a location where blowing it up is not an option, contact EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal). They are trained for that kind of situation and very good at it. You are probably neither.
There have been a number of ingenious methods of quickly clearing pathways through minefields over the years. During WWII tanks and some other vehicles were modified with powered flails, mine rollers or mine plows to clear narrow paths. One of my favorite British inventions of all times was “The Great Panjandrum”. It was a wooden wheel 30 or 40 feet tall and 10 or 15 wide that was propelled by rockets attached to the spokes near the rim, I think. It was felt that it could either move fast enough or was sturdy enough to travel quite a way through a minefield without being destroyed, but detonating mines all the way. I’ll tell you what, if some one pointed one of those at me and set it off I would leak yellow stuff until it either stopped or I was desiccated. Can you imagine what that must have looked like?
Bangalore torpedoes, most often used for clearing paths through wire obstacles, but actually a general-purpose explosive device, can be used to clear paths through mines, and that concept has received a lot of attention in the last 20 years. Our original bangalores were like sections of pipe filled with explosive. They could be threaded together and pushed forward as far as necessary to penetrate the wire, if you had enough sections, then detonated to produce a breach, hopefully. They may have been used before WWI. I’m sure they were used at Normandy.
I think the Coalition used line charges during the war with Iraq. The Germans may have used them during WWII. A launcher fires a rocket that drags along sections of explosive materials attached to a rope or something like that. When the explosives are detonated they produce enough overpressure to detonate any mines within a certain, unknown, distance.
Another option that is probably not as popular is FAE or ‘Fuel Air Explosive.” The concept is that you introduce a gaseous fuel into an area and ignite it. When it mixes with air it burns so quickly that it acts as an explosive. Once again, this produces enough overpressure to detonate mines, but in the case, this may occur over a much wider area than a line charge can handle. The downside is that the fuel is in gaseous form. It may be pretty thick, but strong winds can move it around, possibly causing safety hazards. It also seems unlikely that it would be effective against a minefield on top of a hill. I would say that the ideal conditions for use would be in a terrain depression on a windless day.
You must have the utmost respect for any mine at all times. A ‘safe mine’ is an oxymoron. Even if the mine is ‘friendly’, and painted light blue to indicate that it is a practice mine it is probably designed to go ‘BANG!’ So be very careful with all mines because they are designed to blow things up and don’t ever do anything stupid with one.
This brings up the second incident I wanted to mention. I was in Air Radio Repair Course at MCB 29 Palms, California in 1986 when a spider bit me. I went to emergency sick call because I was getting a large blister and some numbness in my hand. It was a Saturday. I ended up in the waiting room for a while because there had been an accident on one of the training ranges shortly before I got to the emergency room. A while later a young lieutenant in field gear was wheeled out into the waiting room on a gurney to await medevac to a hospital. (29 Palms didn’t have a very large medical facility.) He seemed to be feeling no pain and a sheet covered his lower torso. His legs didn’t look right.
We ended up talking and he told me what had happened. He had been tasked with giving a class on mine warfare. For his ‘attention getter’ at the beginning of the class he jumped on the pressure detonator on top of a ‘training’ anti-tank mine on the podium. The explosion blew him a couple of feet into the air and shattered a lot of bones in his feet and legs, popped his hips out of joint and cracked his pelvis. He said shrapnel from the mine also injured a few of the people in the audience.
When I said he was feeling no pain I mean I felt that he had been given plenty of painkiller, and also he had no reason to lie to me, so I believe what he told me. He didn’t seem to think the incident was anyone’s fault except his, and I have to agree with him, tentatively. The mine he chose to jump on was a standard US anti-tank training mine. They are four or five inches tall and about two feet square, if memory serves, with rounded corners. The non-training versions were designed to be big enough to contain enough explosive to blow a track off of any modern tracked vehicle or completely destroy an unarmored vehicle. The training version had a well under the detonator that contained a small explosive cartridge in order to simulate a blast if the mine was run over.
After thinking about it for a number of years, I wonder what really went wrong. It is possible that someone added extra explosives to the mine, not necessarily in order to harm the lieutenant. It wasn’t a real mine painted like a training mine because it would probably have killed everyone at the class if it was. It is possible that the training charge was not made correctly and had a lot more power than it should have had. It is also possible that the training charge was never designed to be used in the open on a podium where the sides of the mine were not supported by dirt. I am, however, pretty certain that, even if that were not the case, the package the charge came in didn’t mention having someone detonate it in the open at a demonstration as a possible safe use.
The bottom line is that, once again, mines are NOT toys. Even if you have slept with one under your bed for a long time, DON’T PLAY WITH IT. (One of my TOW gunners at Camp Lejeune was kicked out of Beirut, Lebanon for collecting unexploded cluster bomb munitions under his cot in his squad’s tent.)
The lieutenant gave me the impression that he felt safe doing what he did because he had done it before. I sometimes wonder if he had only actually heard that someone else had done it before, but not seen or done it himself.
The third incident I wanted to mention is a little different. During a training exercise at Fort Hood, Texas I was tasked with giving a class on mine warfare to my Troop while we were on one of the ranges. This turned into a big event because the Secretary of Defense was scheduled to visit Fort Hood, and our unit specifically, during the time period when I was giving the class. I’m not sure who the SecDef was at the time. Everyone in the unit was concerned about how it would go. I had all the training aids I needed and had read the appropriate manuals and instructions and felt that I could give a fairly good class and not put anyone to sleep. I was just supposed to give an overview of the mines we had available at the time and their uses and the mines we might run into and what to do about them as well as how to draw minefield diagrams.
The way it turned out was rather humorous. At that time 1st Cavalry had a policy that each unit would spend a certain amount of time each week wearing field protective masks (gas masks). Guess when? The required period covered the length of my class. It is not easy to make yourself understood to large groups of people when wearing a gas mask. It has a voicemitter but it just doesn’t work very well. So most of the class involved hand signals and holding up signs, but I was determined to put in some commentary. Unfortunately, everything I said came out sounding like, “Mmmf, mmmf, mmmf.” After a while I even tried just saying, “Mmmf, mmmf, mmmf” instead of what I would ordinarily have said. I didn’t get any funny looks or anything. Whatever. The important people, like the Division commander, Sergeant Major, Squadron commander, and the SecDef didn’t have to wear masks, although I think the SecDef did put one on for a while.
When it was over, my platoon commander came over to me and said, “Great class.” but he had a pretty complicated sense of humor. I never got any complaints about it, though, and was asked for a repeat performance later on, without distinguished visitors.
My thanks yet again to Rory.
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