'Secret Naval Investigator'

The nerve racking business of dealing with unexploded 'parachute mines'

Secret Naval Investigator: The Battle Against Hitler's Secret Underwater Weapons was first published in 1961 but was rescued from obscurity after being republished by Pen and Sword in 2017. Ashe Lincoln joined the Directorate of Torpedoes and Mines (Investigations) - DTMI - when it was founded in 1940.

The Royal Navy faced a particular challenge in trying to discover the operating mechanism of the new German sea mines that were causing so many shipping losses around Britain. With less than a year in the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve - Lincoln was a very junior officer. But he had taken the ‘Mines Specialist’ course and he was a barrister in civilian life. So the Admiralty decided he was just the man to ‘sift the conflicting evidence’ surrounding the new German mines.

After dealing with mines at sea Lincoln found that his ‘desk job’ in London was anything but - he was in the front line dealing with unexploded bombs at the height of the Blitz. Or rather he was dealing the unexploded naval parachute mines that were now being used as bombs. It was a nerve racking business:

An unexploded German Parachute Mine. These were Naval mines originally intended to be used against shipping but many were dropped on land from 1940 onwards, a clockwork mechanism usually detonated them 20 seconds after they landed, causing enormous damage from the blast.

The magnetic mines which dropped on land were set off by a clockwork fuse mechanism. It ran for twenty seconds, buzzing quite audibly. If you ran fast, the twenty seconds gave just sufficient time to get away if the fuse had the full time to run.

But when magnetic mines were parachuted on London, the mechanism had frequently partially run its course before the mines were tackled. So if the mechanism started buzzing while work was going on to make a mine safe, the order was to run as fast and far as possible. In the case of Dick Ryan and his companion, the warning buzz had obviously come too late for them to get away; the explosion had been almost instantaneous.

When Lieutenant Easton and his assistant heard the buzz, they both leapt for the door of the room where they were working, but they became tightly jammed together in the frame. Before they could move, the explosion came. The rating was killed outright; Easton was practically flayed alive by the blast and almost every bone in his body was broken. He spent eighteen months in hospital, and then he returned to duty. He received the George Cross.

One of the Vernon [their Naval base] officers, Lieutenant Hodges, R.N.V.R., who had been games master at Winchester in civilian life, was within thirty yards when a mine lodged on a bridge across the Thames near Richmond went off; that, I think, was the closest anyone was to one of these explosions and yet remained unscathed. At least, almost unscathed. When he returned to the Admiralty, his clothes were torn, his eyes were bloodshot and he was covered with dust and muck.

His first words - and this gives some idea of the spirit of the man - were: "Where is the next job?"

"No more jobs for you at present," he was told. "You are going in to the sick bay to get some treatment for shock.

What must rank as one of the luckiest escapes of all came about during the rendering safe of a mine which I happened to find.

By this time, my own house in London had been bombed and I had taken a temporary flat in the White House in Albany Street. One morning as I was leaving for the Admiralty, I found on the front steps of the flat a piece of metal which I recognised as part of a magnetic mine.

A policeman to whom I spoke said it must have come from an explosion which had occurred in Regent's Park. With the policeman I went over to the park to see the crater. "Where did the second one go off?" I asked. "We don't know anything about a second one," said the policeman. "Well that's odd," I said. "They are always dropped in pairs. Two of these mines make a plane-load." "We haven't had any reports about another explosion just hereabouts," said the policeman. "Then there must be another one lying about unexploded."

We went and checked on A.R.P. records. They had a report of an object that had come through the roof of a house in Harrington Square, Camden Town. There was no doubt that it was the twin of the mine that had exploded in Regent's Park.

I phoned through to DTMI to ask for a set of tools to be sent out to me so that I could tackle it, but Maitland-Dougall said: "Don't you waste your time up there. We have been bombed. We're overwhelmed. You get in straight away, and we'll send someone up to deal with the mine."

At once I hurried to the Admiralty. The walls of our room had been blown out; we were open to the skies. Our record were all over the place, and everything was in terrible confusion. We set to work trying to get things back to order and when night came we continued by the light of fluttering candles.

Meanwhile, Lieutenant Moore, R.N.V.R., a torpedo-man at DTMI, was sent up to Harrington Square accompanied by Lieutenant Perks, R.N.R., who was a master mariner working as our chart expert. They found that the house where the mine had landed was a tall old-fashioned tenement. The tail of the mine was still sticking up through a hole in the roof, and the nose was resting on the gas stove in the kitchen of the top flat.

‘If the fuse started running while he was working on the mine, he knew that neither he nor Perks would stand a chance. There would be no time to get down the stairs and out of the house even if the fuse ran the full twenty seconds.’

Moore sized up the situation. If the fuse started running while he was working on the mine, he knew that neither he nor Perks would stand a chance. There would be no time to get down the stairs and out of the house even if the fuse ran the full twenty seconds. The mine would blow up, the whole house would come crashing down on them, and they would be buried beneath it. Fully realising this, Moore still went ahead with the task.

As he unscrewed the fuse, it began to run. He decided that the only course was to go on unscrewing it. He pulled it out of the mine, where its base was in the explosive charge, and hurled it out of the kitchen window. A second after it left his hand, the fuse went off like a hand grenade.

Moore received the George Cross.

The magnetic qualities of the mines had no bearing on their use in the London blitz. They were dropped purely for their enormous destructive power. The mines were bigger than any we had previously handled and contained a thousand kilogrammes of high explosive - about a ton. Since they came down by parachute they did not penetrate the ground but went off with maximum blast effect. One of them blew down no less than six hundred houses.

Captain Fredman Ashe Lincoln QC MA BCL GC STJ KCB1 ( as he later became) was a natural raconteur and he has many good stories to tell here. Highly recommended.

This excerpt appears by kind permission of the publisher, Pen & Sword Books Ltd, copyright remains with author.