Airfield Pipe Mines – OP CRAB STICK

Canadian Pipe Mine

In order to meet the WWII demand for airfields in the South East of England a massive build programme was started but the chances of these airfields falling into the hands of an invading German Army and Luftwaffe was not lost on the planners.

To mitigate the risk all airfields within 1 hours drive of the coast were to have specific denial arrangements. These ranged from simple instructions on how to smash a fuel valve with a conveniently located hammer to detailed instructions on emptying fuel tanks and destroying electrical equipment.

A method was also sought to deny the runway to enemy gliders and transport aircraft and so the Canadian Pipe Mine was devised by the 1st Canadian Tunnelling Company. 50-70mm steel pipes were inserted into the ground using hydraulic pipe pushing equipment and laid in a criss cross pattern about 6ft under the surface. They were subsequently filled with explosives, usually a blasting gelignite called ‘Polar Blasting Gelignite’ which was very powerful.

They were also called McNaughton tTubes after the GOC of 1 Canadian Division who according to his biographer got the idea for using hydraulic rams from bootleggers who used the method for creating an offsite distribution point for their whiskey!

Only 9 airfields were identified for mining initially but this rose to include other locations, by the end of 1942, after the threat of invasion had receded, 30 locations were mined, not all of them airfields. It is estimated that over 40,000ft of pipe mines were installed.

During the war some of the pipe mines were made safe and removed because of the deterioration of the explosive filler but most were left in situ. After the war Canadian engineers were tasked with removal but it seems from reading different sources that records were incomplete and some doubt exists whether the clearance activity was completed. Additional clearance efforts were made, one that resulted in the death of Ukrainian worker at one of the locations.

Canadian Pipe Mine

Since then a number have been cleared by the Royal Engineers and private contractors such as Ramora, click here to view a gallery of images from 49 EOD Squadron Royal Engineers, many Canadian Pipe Mines on display.

Operation CRABSTICK was the name given to the effort to clear WWII pipe mines, a recent Freedom of Information Act release provided a little more information.

20 pipe mines were discovered during construction work in 2006 at HMS Daedelus in Lee-on-Solent requiring a 5 week operation by 33 Engineer Regiment to clear them that also saw the first deployment of the QinetiQ Appliqué Robotic Kit (ARK) a system designed to allow remote control of a standard JCB type backhoe loader. ARK can be installed in less than  12 hours and enables remote control up to 1km away using an encrypted data link.

QinetiQ ARK

A more recent example was cleared by Ramora from the BAE site on the Isle of White, formerly RAF Somerton.

Clearly, the post war clearance operation did not clear them all and who knows how are are still in the ground!

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6 Responses

  1. On a walk a few years ago that went past Ford Airfield (close to home) I bumped into an elderly gent who was in the mood to chat; turned out he’d lived nearby all his life and saw the airfield built and used by RAF in the war, then passed to the RN as a satellite base for Lee-on-Solent. There was something about Lee being too short for Sea Vixens to land, so they’d be fettled hangared and launched from Gosport but land back at Ford, then be put on lorries to take them back home. He also said he was sure the runways at Ford had pipe-mines installed but had never noticed any effort to remove them. Presumably they are still there.

  2. My personal experience is that the records of war construction on airfields is very poor. I was part of a project a fair number of years ago which was looking at reducing reflection cracking in jointed concrete runways and taxiways which had been subsequently surfaced with an asphaltic concrete, with the aim of reducing maintenance costs. As part of the project we used ground penetrating radar and took cores and a small number airfields and we found major discrepancies between the records of the construction and what the GPR and coring showed, particularly in relation to war time construction and repair of the runways and taxiways.

  3. Whilst I worked in Maydown Co Londonderry it was said that by far the lowest tender to remove the WW2 runway was from the firm that had the contract to build it!!!!!

    I wonder what did they knew that the others did not!!

  4. Were there any of these pipe mines located at RAF Manston,
    as I am aware that 34 airfields were involved, including Lympne and Detling. I would appreciate any help.

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