Published in Parish News - mid-May 2011
(We received this account in 2008, written by the late Peter Baylis.)
In the summer of 1989 I was on duty at the Military Police Duty Room, 156 Provost Company, Royal Military Police, in the venerable old Cavalry Barracks, Colchester (accommodation complete with draughty old rooms and smelly cellars from the Crimea!). I considered myself a go-getting and action hungry new Lance Corporal in the RMP but there was little action and no go-getting to be had, other than collecting the OC from the railway station, or the pub!
The perceived and real enemy were the Warsaw Pact and the IRA. The Warsaw Pact never came to Colchester but, sadly, the IRA did later in the year with awful and tragic results. In any case, at this time in that long hot summer, we sweated in our awful uniforms and did our best to look busy and avoid the wrath of the RSM who stalked the boards between his Office and the Duty Room like a spectral collector of idle souls.
Therefore, it was a welcome but puzzling break in the proceedings when a gnarled and flat capped gent shuffled into the Duty Room and without much drama muttered, "I GOT A SEE MOIN".
Despite the daily boredom, I was used to strange events in Colchester, like the elderly man who surrendered and confessed to stealing an American Army Tent in 1942; and the man who 'phoned me from Birmingham International Railway Station to say vampires and the KGB were pursuing him. On the latter occasion the call ended abruptly with sounds of a struggle with British Transport Police who returned the gent to hospital.
I asked my visitor to repeat himself and, with some irritation, he confirmed he had a sea mine. Glancing over his shoulder I saw a tired looking Water Board Morris Marina Van. Being a keen red capped sleuth I asked where the mine was? Glaring at me over his bifocals, as if he was encountering an idiot child, the venerable guardian of all things water shot back, "IN THE xxxx RESERVOIR! WHERE ELSE WOULD IT BE?"
This was my chance to escape the unit lines for the open country but I was still convinced the old chap was short of a full box of chocolates. Then again he seemed to think the same of me.
I was joined by a female colleague, who in later years allegedly became a bodyguard to various Arab princesses, but that was all in the future. We cranked up our naff Ford Escort patrol car and agreed to follow the informant to his pond.
Never having seen the reservoir close up I was amazed at the sheer size. Due to the heat there were islands appearing in the centre with mud flats round the edges supporting hundreds of opportunistic wading birds.
After following our guide for some half a mile he stopped near a dried up part of the reservoir bed. Leaning into the Escort he jabbed a finger in the direction of a nearby mud flat while looking blankly at me through his much repaired glasses.
Being a consummate planner I had brought my own set of binoculars with me (a Christmas present). I scanned the mudflat expecting that Nessie might be sighted. Instead I spotted a 3 ft diameter orb, half buried in the mud, but spouting vicious looking contact horns.
By now I was dry mouthed with panic and asked "Good God, how long has it been there?" expecting an explosion at any second. It had escaped my attention that the mine had been there for over 40 years and hadn't got upset so far, but that was not what I was trained for.
Our guide rolled a Woodbine and sniffed "Since Laaarst Toosdy".
I was now apoplectic with shock and almost screamed, "What? Why didn't you call somebody?"
Equally shocked by my jumping up and down and waving my arms about he said "Oi waited for the Waarter to drop, to be Zoor"
At this juncture I was to learn with open mouth, that during plans for Operation Sealion (the proposed Nazi invasion of Britain in 1940), the Luftwaffe became aware that the levels in the reservoir in summer could drop to knee deep in places. This would have been ideal for glider landings. The sensible solution was to mine the reservoir.
49 years later I was looking at one that had parted from the mooring block and drifted into shore. Apparently it had become a regular occurrence for mines to drift and lodge in the mud which explained our guide's complacency. No wonder there was no sailing, or water skiing club, at Abberton.
It was normally the duty of the army to deal with unexploded ordnance on land, not dropped from the air. The Navy dealt with anything below the high tide line so seeing the reservoir was not linked to the open sea, I called the army, our neighbours in Colchester.
On their arrival they explained this wasn't the first time they had encountered a sea mine at Abberton. They suggested we stay a good 400 metres away behind an earth berm. They then rolled up their trousers, (and put on waders) to wander across the mud, to the mine. They attached a small amount of plastic explosive to the outer casing and trailed a command wire back to our group huddled behind the bank.
The detonation emitted a loud CRACK.
I thought this was an end of the matter but was assured that the first charge would only open the casing, to expose the explosive inside the mine. The army lads once more waded out and attached a second demolition charge. They returned trailing the command wire and suggested that this would be fun!
There followed a huge explosion with a shock wave which jolted the ground, even 400 metres away. A huge yellow flame and column of smoke and liquid mud shot 60 feet into the air. We were all momentarily deafened and the army lads started giggling while hundreds of waders took to the air.
I walked to the water's edge and saw something shiny in the mud. It was a brass contact horn. The canvas and rubber seal plus the brass internal workings of the mine were as pristine as the day they left the munitions factory. The army sergeant explained that at least 75% of the mines were still in the reservoir and it was too expensive to recover them.
To this end I was told Abberton may never be used for recreational purposes for decades.
This really happened so I wouldn't be complacent about the mines being harmless now!
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Page created: 29 MAY 2011