The terror of the 'S Mine'
15th February 1943: An exclusive excerpt from a new memoir describing how the Royal Engineers dealt with German anti-personnel mines
In North Africa, Sergeant Brian Moss of the Royal Engineers had been part of the Eighth Army advance since El Alamein. With the occupation of Benghazi, he had discovered an abandoned German arms dump intact - and had recovered a quantity of brand-new German mines, to examine and learn from.
Moss had just been invited to set up a Field Mine School, giving lectures to infantry officers on how they might cope with mines on the battlefield. The matter was given added urgency when his Brigadier gave him a copy of a notice recently circulated to all units :
It covered the unfortunate experiences of 51st Division in a night attack along the coast road at Marsa Brega which was some distance to the west of Benghazi. The Highlanders had run into S mines. These things had jumped up into the air all around them, exploding and causing a great number of casualties. In ignorance, the Jocks had run in all directions, thinking they were under mortar fire, thus setting off even more mines. Apparently, it had been an awful mess.
The following excerpt from Mines, Bombs, Bullets, and Bridges describes how Sergeant Moss conducted his lectures to audiences of junior infantry officers and NCO in January and February 1943:
I would invite the audience to get settled on their seats. They would stare politely at me, but I could tell they were expecting to be bored out of their minds by yet another silly Army instructor.
I would signal to my assistants, who would then pass around a dozen brand new S mines, straight out of the box.
‘Gentlemen,’ I’d begin, ‘I think you should know that if you’re going to be killed by a mine, it’s likely one of these things that’s going to kill you!’
This statement usually resulted in absolute silence as I dug around in my pocket for a three-pronged S-35 igniter. Having unscrewed the plastic cap from the base, I would hold it up for them to see. ‘And when you do get blown up, it will be because you just trod on one of these!’
I would then place the igniter on a board on the floor and raise my foot above it. ‘Listen for the little “pop” sound.’ I’d then put my foot down, and a sharp ‘crack’ would come from the igniter, accompanied by a puff of smoke.
‘If you hear that noise, you have a decision to make. You should make it right now because you won’t have time to consider it when this happens. You can either keep your foot on the mine, in which case you’ll lose that foot. Or you can elect, as many do, to dive forwards, flat on the ground, in which case, you’ll either be killed or you just may get away scot-free.’
I always enjoyed their keen attention by this time, and I passed around the defunct igniter so they could screw it on and off the central threaded connection on top of the mine.
Having said my piece on the deadly nature of the S mine, I would read aloud the notice recounting the unfortunate experience of 51st Division at Marsa Brega. Hopefully, I helped the men realize that this was precisely what would happen to them in similar circumstances unless, of course, the mines had already been rendered safe.
Without any prompting from me, they would typically insist on learning how to make these mines safe. We discussed the disarming of the S mine and the predicament for infantrymen who may be expected to dash in, regardless of risk. Still, the men were grateful for the chance of knowing how to do it. Whenever the group took a break for a smoke, I would often see one of them sitting there gazing at an S mine in his hand, as if reading his own fate.
Unfortunately, in some instances, that may well have been the case. Before the second week in April, many of them would be killed in one of the various ways in which infantry die.
Next in my class came an outdoor demonstration. I showed them how to remove the three detonators from the S mine. These detonators made the thing explode, hurling 350 half-inch steel balls in every direction. In this emasculated condition, I put the mine in the ground and screwed on a Y-shaped device (an alternative to the three-pronged extension) and fitted it with a pull igniter to which I attached a long string.
Standing well back, I invited a class member to step up and pull the string. There was a ‘crack’, quickly followed by a ‘boom’, as the mine rocketed up out of the ground together with a cloud of black smoke. The mine, trailing the string snatched from the puller’s hand, rose, turned over, and fell back to earth with a thump!
‘That’s what the black powder does,’ I explained, enlarging on the way in which the flash from the pull igniter fired the powder charge in the waterproof packing in the base. I was asked what made the mine, unless rendered safe, explode at a height of four feet. I then would go on to talk about delay trains and detonators.
At a later stage, one of my gallant helpers, Sapper Wilson, of Glasgow, suggested that he demonstrate setting off an S mine by stepping onto it! This would be an emasculated mine, of course. To everyone’s astonishment, Wilson placed his boot on the three-pronged igniter and stepped smartly to one side as the thing blasted up, out of the ground. I thought this was a most effective demonstration; my classes had a ringside view of what an exploding S mine would look and sound like. At least, they should not mistake these things for mortars, and I hoped my sessions would make them mindful to watch their step.
Brian J. Moss wrote his memoir sometime after the war for the benefit of his two sons, not intending it to be published. Fortunately, Michael Moss decided that his father’s notes and illustrations needed a wider audience as a tribute not only to his father but to his comrades in arms, all too many of whom did not return.
Mines, Bombs, Bullets and Bridges: A Sapper's Second World War Diary is a remarkably detailed memoir spanning the breadth of the war from the Blitz through to Arnhem, a large part of the time spent right on the front line. This is a graphic account of how the Royal Engineers fought the war, from bomb disposal on the Home Front through to mine clearance in North Africa, Sicily, Italy and Normandy. It will be essential reading for those interested in the experience of the Sappers. Perhaps more importantly it paints a vivid picture of life in the British Army through these campaigns and the cold courage of a generation of men who did so much to bring ultimate victory.
This excerpt and illustration appears by kind permission of Pen & Sword Books Ltd. Copyright remains with the author.
Thank you for selecting this section from my recently released book.