Herm is blown up by a mine, 4 January 1952
In view of the recent spectacular controlled detonation of a WWII bomb off Guernsey, here is a rather less controlled episode from 1952, in which the 28 inhabitants of Herm were incredibly lucky to escape injury or worse. 'Will you tell your husband when you go ashore that there is a mine somewhere off the Herm coast. Tell him to try and get a rope round it and pull it in; it will be quite harmless. It's been in the sea since the war and the firing mechanism will be rusted up.' Insurance did not cover damage by rogue mine, but the States stepped in to do the repairs, which were considerable.
'Several people had been in the Mermaid Tavern and they had a stirring tale to tell. Like Peter and I, at the first crack of the explosion they had all hurled themselves to the floor. When the last reverberation had died away they scrambled to their feet and dashed outside, and were immediately drenched with a tremendous deluge of sea water. It seems that when the mine exploded, a vast column of water, cracked stone, beach pebbles and seaweed had been throw up into the air. Fortunately no-one was struck by falling debris. [....] On the darts scoring board, a squiggly line down the board showed how the scorer had flung himself to the ground still clutching the chalk. One man who had been standing a the bar still held in his hand the severed handle of a glass beer tankard, while the tankard itself stood, without a drop spilt, on the bar.'
From Jenny Wood's well-known autobiographical account of life when she and her husband, Major Peter Wood, took on the tenancy of Herm after the war, Herm, our island home, Robert Hale, London, 1972, pp. 60 ff. She describes the aftermath of the explosion, including how the wife of the island's storeman, who was expecting a baby, narrowly missed being flattened by the ceiling falling in her bedroom, and the somewhat inadequate instructions given to her by the Harbour Master on her way home from a shopping trip in Guernsey, quoted in the introduction above. Other details can be found in the Press articles cited and all can be viewed in the Library.¹
Herm 'Colony' shaken by big explosion: Every building damaged as mine goes off.
From The Guernsey Press, 5 January, 1952.
The drama of the drifting mine started just before midday yesterday, when someone living in the St Martin's district reported to the Harbour master that they had just seen what they thought was a mine floating off St Martin's Point.
Immediately the Harbour master, Captain Frank Nicolle, sent out the two States launches, Saint Anne and Sarnia. Aboard were the States Supervisor, Harbourmaster and Harbour staff. They searched for a long time in very rough seas and eventually spotted the mine.
They were able to identify the mine as a Mark 12 British type² and efforts were made to lasso it and bring it inshore to be dealt with.
Eventually the mine drifted down the Little Russel in a northerly direction. It was not, however, possible to secure the mine.
Meanwhile Captain Nicolle had communicated with the Royal Naval Mine Disposal Unit at Calshot and by 4.15 a disposal squad had touched down at the airport. They were rushed to the harbour and taken out to sea in one of the vessels, but by this time the Sarnia, which had been detailed to keep watch on the mine, had lost sight of it due to the approaching darkness. Last sight of the mine was in the region of the Vermerette Beacon, to the west of Herm, a very rocky area opposite Herm's small harbour. The search then had to be abandoned at 7.30.
The warning that there was a drifting mine in the Channel between Guernsey and Herm was issued to all shipping, and the 26 [or 28] people living on Herm were asked to keep a look-out for it. At 8.55 p.m. Herm was shaken by a terrific explosion—and that was the end of the mine. Fortunately, none of the 28 people living on the island suffered personal injury, but serious damage was caused to property. [Officials travelled to the island to assess the damage this morning. There had been fears for the Little Russel; timber-carrying ship Boroy anchored all afternoon at St Martin's Point to avoid passing though to St Sampson.]
For the first time in the three emergency trips he had made to Guernsey during the past two years, Commissioned Gunner (T.) G. Cook of Ramsgate was cheated of a job he has done so well in the past; disposing of mines washed onto our shores.³ He will be remembered by many as the man who came to the island with the Royal Navy Mine Disposal Unit to neutralise the 650 lb. mine found near the Anglo-American Oil Co. tanks at Bulwer Avenue, St Sampson's, on 3 November, 1950. Later, on 6 April 6, 1951, he was in the Mine Disposal Unit which came over from Portsmouth (where he was attached to HMS Vernon), in order to nullify the 500lb. bomb which States divers had retrieved from the bed of St Peter Port harbour.
The explosion occurred at 8.55 p.m., when the residents of Herm were either in their cottages or at the Mermaid Tavern. There was a violent roar and windows were blown out, doors shook, and tiles flew in all directions. Ceilings fell onto the startled 'colony'.
The Guernsey Press, 7 January.
The mine is thought to have been detonated some 200 yards to the north of the island's small harbour. It is thought likely that some of the mooring cable was still attached, and when this became entangled in a rock, the mine was thrown against another obstacle and went off. Although the area where the explosion occurred was searched, there was no sign whatever of the mine or of its last resting place. There was no crater to mark where it had rested as it exploded, and nothing whatever to help in confirming that it had indeed been a British Mark 12. All that was found was a handful of jagged pieces of shrapnel. These have been taken to the mainland by Lt. Cook. The fact that it did explode is still a mystery. A weapon of this category is considered to be safe now, following its lengthy period in the water with the subsequent effect on the machinery involved in its detonation.
¹ See the Press of 24 October 1996, for a good photograph of an identical parachute mine to the one recently made safe, found nearby in the Bluebell Wood; both are thought to have been disarmed and buried by the Germans, their location making too difficult for the occupying forces to retrieve them and transport them to France at the time; and the Press of 19 August 2013 (kept in red cuttings files at the Library). Other information in the Library: Channel Islands Occupation Review Nos. 19 and 23; Beckingham, H., Achtung Minen!, Bognor Regis, 2005.
² Mine casing was found in the roof of the mansion house. It is not obvious to us at the Library now as to what was meant by a British Mark 12 mine. It is not mentioned amongst British Ordnance in the Mine Disposal Handbook published by the Americans in 1945. We consulted John Roberts, curator of Explosion!, Museum of Naval Firepower, which holds the partial archive of the now defunct HMS Vernon (replaced by the Portsmouth Gunwharf shopping centre) and he agrees that the mine cannot have been exactly as described at the time, but due to lack of evidence is unable to identify it more accurately. There is a ‘A Mk XII’ (later designated ‘A Mk 12’) on display in the mine gallery of the museum at ‘Explosion!'; this Mark 12 was developed as a 1,000lb ASW ground mine between 1953 and 1956. The A Mk 12 model 2 was an independent non-contact ground mine which was initiated by magnetic and acoustic influences produced by a surface vessel or a submarine, and post-dates the Herm incident.
³ Many thanks to Michael Beacham for information about two decorated Guernsey mine disposal experts; Sidney Baker, Sub-Lieutenant at HMS Vernon in Portsmouth, who was awarded the George medal for helping to disarm the first German acoustic mine to fall into British hands, in Porthcawl in 1941, its mechanism being at the time unknown to the British; and Petty Officer Charles Le Bargy, of HMS St Angelo in Malta, a career naval officer, awarded a DSM (19/08/41) and a George Medal (6/06/42) for 'gallantry and undaunted devotion to duty' in mine disposal; like Baker, he faced an at the time unknown mechanism, in an Italian Torpedo Machine; while he and his commanding officer were working on it, the clock mechanism started, but they remained calm and successfully disarmed it.