Previously, we looked at REME’s ability to solve problems given to them by the Allied armies (a lack of parts and equipment and a need to confuse the enemy) whereas this article will focus instead on solving a problem left by the enemy, namely minefields. By 1940, the creation of a form of mine detection, other than prodding, had become an ‘urgent operational problem’ in the Middle East. Whilst they had captured various examples of German electronic mine detectors, no standard British one existed at that point and so the decision was made to design and manufacture one ‘locally’ – just the thing for 4 Base Workshop.

A group known as the Middle East Scientific Advisory Committee was formed from the various technical corps, both military and civilian personnel, in order to tackle this and other issues. Dr Balls, a civilian scientist on the committee, took the lead on mine detection with 533 Base Workshop (an offshoot of 4 Base Workshop) providing the facilities for development work and 4 Base Workshop covering the manufacture later on. The main difficulty lay in creating a piece of equipment suitably ‘stable, sensitive, and robust’ whilst also only using material and components readily available so that the design could then be reproduced in sufficient quantities. Precision electrical components were a particular issue however and despite best, and desperate, attempts to manufacture them in the Middle East, these eventually had to be imported from the UK.

Image shows a metal frame on wheels, with two wooden boxes on top, wires and headphones.

Some of the inner workings of the mine detector. A:1958.0091.093.

The initial design was successful but needed two men to operate it and was difficult to produce. After continued work on the design however, eventually a large number of a ‘twin inductance pram-type’ were manufactured and used with ‘moderate success’ during the latter part of 1943. The hard work put into creating and designing these devices was put to good use on a number of other fronts too: detectors made with miniature storage coils and sealed in glass were used by surgeons looking for shrapnel in wounded men and animals, and the Customs House at Kantara also managed to acquire a detector which they used to scan camels. These were commonly used to smuggle drugs across the border, by forcing them to ingest a metal tube with the drugs and then killing them to retrieve it once across, and the ability to scan the camels was a massive improvement on simply selecting the most miserable-looking and potentially killing a camel unnecessarily.

Image shows a man in battledress wearing headphones, hold the handle of a mine detector, which looks like a metal frame on wheels with circular detectors at the front.

The Magnetic-Balls Pram design mine detector, built in 11 Sub Workshop. E:09.0498.006.

Finding mines allowed for avoidance or removal, but this was frequently complicated by the mines being booby trapped – the German Tellermine for example was designed with two separate entry points for booby trap igniters, one on the side and one underneath – and could be extremely time consuming. As such, alternative techniques were created which could clear an area of mines, or in some cases simply get through one, without having to locate them first and by instead detonating them safely. The anti-mine roller device was conceived ‘as early as 1937’ and was the ‘earliest form of anti-tank mine destroyer’, a category which later includes flail tanks such as the Scorpion and Crab and tanks with missile launched mine clearance such as the Giant Viper.

Image shows a tank with spikey rollers attached to both the front and back.

Anti-mine rollers fitted to a Valentine tank. E:09.0498.052.

Roller devices came as either spiked, designed to give point contact on a mine, or heavy, designed simply to apply the required trigger weight over an area. One spiked device was known in the UK trials as the Porcupine but a version was also developed in the Middle East at 4 Base Workshop. Trials in the UK took place in Aldershot in 1943 but each roller was destroyed by only one mine, a further trial took place the next year which saw the rollers survive two Tellermines with the third blowing the axle nut off at one end, and the final trial took place in April 1944 with no improvement on the life of each roller and a mine detonating efficiency of only ‘70% on Tellermines laid at depths of 1” to 3” in soft ground’. As much better results were being seen on the Canadian Indestructible Roller – which had a 93% mine detonating efficiency over similar depths and was able to take 19 Tellermines in succession before splitting – the Porcupine design was terminated in 1944.

We have no information as to the efficacy of the Middle East version but it does appear to have multiple rollers per vehicle, which assumedly was to counteract their limited life span. The truck of spare rollers suggests that they might have operated on a similar principle to the Anti-mine roller devices attached to tanks in 1942 which allowed them to cross small to medium minefields safely, rather than trying to clear the whole field for those behind them. 

Image shows the rear of an open top truck from an aerial view. There are spikey rollers in the truck.

Anti-mine rollers loaded for transportation. E:09.0498.054.

The heavy-type rollers were fitted onto frames in front of the tracks but were likely to explode per mine as with the Porcupine, hence only being useful for small to medium fields; they could however be replaced once clear of a field. The whole device, rollers and frame, was designed to be easily fitted to the tanks so could be transported by truck and then assembled, or replaced, when required and was of particular use in uncharted areas where the first roller destroyed by a mine would warn them of a minefield without them losing an entire tank to it as they otherwise would have.

Considering the pressures of keeping a suitable number of armoured vehicles available to forces, mines were a considerable threat, with a single field capable of taking out multiple tanks and completely halting an advance. REME’s contribution to mine detection and clearance therefore not only kept the punch in the army’s fist, as the saying goes, but also saved themselves a great deal of recovery and repair work, and of course, many lives.

Information in this article is taken from Archives records: E:15.0824, E:03.0038.17, E:05.0212.04, and E:05.0177.04.

Zoe Tolman, Archives Assistant

This article was published in The Craftsman on 1 August 2022.