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2006 February

TALES FROM THE RIVER BANK

I was recently using my elderly metal detector in the garden of Dewis Dyddyn and was finding the usual assortment of bed knobs and frames and other rusty, discarded, household items when I took to musing upon how I gained the skill to use the machine.

In 1972, having been accepted into the police service, I suddenly had three months free before commencing training and having a desire to improve my language skills I decided to find a job in Germany. I enlisted the help of my friend living in the particularly beautiful area of the Eifel and within a few days he had telephoned to say I would be working with mines and the job was available immediately. I set off with a mental picture of working underground.

My first meeting with my boss quickly disillusioned me of this, as he handed me several manuals all written in English; and all to do with the identification and handling of British and American bombs and land mines. Unlikely as it sounds they seemed to think the reading of these manuals would allow me to become something of an expert.

This borderland area of Germany had seen some of the heaviest fighting of both World Wars and many of the forests now ready for harvesting could not be entered because of the considerable amount of unexploded ordinance. Our work consisted of marking out long corridors through the forests and systematically sweeping them for all metal objects. We worked in pairs with one person using the detector and the other digging up the object with the aid of tool similar to a mattock. This sounds crude but with practice it became a sensitive tool, allowing for the removal of as much or as little earth as required. Most of the time we dug up shrapnel, shell and bullet cases, small ordinance such as unexploded hand grenades and sometimes cases of ammunition with machine gun belts still nestling in grease.

On other occasions we found a complete British tank which had disappeared into a boggy area, a complete (and still working) grenade launcher, some very large bombs and most poignantly of all many bodies. These were sometimes complete skeletons with vestiges of uniform and at other times a number of bones, sometimes in fragments. Most memorable was the day we found a soldier slumped in a slit trench still wearing his steel helmet. In the helmet, still clearly visible, was a jagged hole, in his skull was the corresponding hole and inside his skull still lodged the piece of shrapnel which had killed him. The remains, regardless of nation, were treated with great respect and taken away for possible identification and then burial.

I was reassured to learn that no one had been killed for thirteen years doing this work. My comment about how lucky that was went unappreciated.

Only on one occasion did my ability to recognise land mines come into play. One particular model (American I believe) was held in some dread. It consisted of a hinged lid, looking for all the world like the top of an old Primus stove, which when trodden upon flipped over, allowing a spring loaded grenade to be projected to the height of a mans crutch, before exploding. My partner was using the detector and having dug up mainly large bomb shrapnel all day I swung the mattock with a degree of carelessness, only to see a lid looking for all the world like the top of a Primus flip over.

Both myself and my partner made 100 yards down a very steep mountainside in, I believe, under 2 seconds, only to look at each other rather sheepishly as we realised that even this speed of exit would not have been enough if the mine was going to explode. Under the somewhat amused stares of our fellow workers we returned and now with some considerable, but unnecessary, delicacy dug out a Primus stove.

Once we declared an area safe the foresters would move in and begin cutting, and we like modern day travellers with a caravan of huts, vehicles and people would move on to the next area to be cleared.

After I joined the Police Service I gained in two ways from my experience - firstly I was paid an extra allowance as a German speaker and secondly, for a few years, I was always the one sent on bomb courses.


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