Not Talking about Tobruk

August 11, 2006

The siege of Toro was raised in November of 1942, leaving the harbor choked with a tangle of unexploded mines and sunken shipping. But it was scheduled to become an essential supply port for the Eighth Army’s push westward and so had to be cleared immediately. Which is why in December of 1942, following a radical disagreement with my C.O. in Alexandria, I found myself on the bottom of Tobruk harbor cutting mine tethers with an oxygen lance.

The German sea mine then was just a spherical shell packed with high explosive, dropped on a heavy iron frame called a truck. On reaching the bottom, the mine rose on a tether to a few feet below the surface.

To get blown up, you had to bend or break any one of a number of hollow lead horns screwed into the upper hemisphere, thus setting off the primary charge.

The job of our unit, dubbed The Expendables, was to cut the tether so the mine bobbed to the surface, where it could be dispatched by rifle fire. But it was a slow business, until I had the bright idea of towing the released mines over the sunken midships section of the nearest wreck and exploding it there, thus killing two birds with one stone.

The Expendables were not too thrilled with the idea of towing a live mine around, but they finally got the hang of it until, in one of those incomprehensible snafus of bureaucratic warfare, all our marksmen were transferred to the Fourth Armored Division and we had to find another way to explode the brutes. Our solution was to tape a shaped charge onto the uppermost horn, stab a fiveminute-delay pencil detonator into the pocket, and smartly retire to the minimum safe distance in our rubber dinghy.

Which worked fine, until one day I had the outboard motor on idle while my mate Bert stabbed in the detonator and shouted, “Let’s go.” I gunned the motor, which promptly died, and nothing I could do was going to get it going again. Suddenly I froze, paralyzed by the awful realization of what was about to happen, with no one to blame but me.

By this time we had drifted away from the mine, and Bert, summing up the situation in one glance, launched himself into the water, came up by the mine and tried to clamber onto it by grasping the lowermost horn. But we had left only a short length of tether to position the beast, and the sphere simply rotated toward Bert, dumping him back in the water.

But he wasn’t going to give up without a struggle. Again grasping the lowest horn, he reached for the next highest and then the next, until the shaped charge came down to meet him and he plucked the detonator out of its pocket and flung it away, where it exploded harmlessly in midair.

Bert and I have remained friends to this day, possibly because we have never once referred to what happened at Tobruk.

 

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