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Story of the mine as told by Rick Atkinson
The saga of the mine really does need telling - it was an event in my life which I will never forget as I was the one who "borrowed" the Landrover and drove the mine to Newquay. I also went back to Newquay from Locking, overnight to retrieve it. I'm not good at remembering the names of my accomplices but perhaps they will read this and "own up"! My recollections are as follows:
We were camped in tents at Penhale camp and often ran along the beach during our PT sessions. This was when we spotted the mine and hatched the plot. It was an old WW2 mine that had been washed up, defused by the RN and left to rust (not an uncommon sight in those days). It was about 4 feet 6 inches high and it took about five of us to lift it. The challenge was to paint the entry icons on it and place it somewhere prominent. We noticed that there was always a selection of MT parked outside the officers' mess hut at night. As the only one of the gang with a driving license, I was "volunteered" to borrow the most suitable vehicle if I could get it started. One of the long wheel base Landrovers had the keys in it so, in the pitch dark, whilst the officers were "partying" in the mess we all piled into the vehicle and I drove it boldly out of the camp entrance. Meanwhile, another team had rolled the mine about a quarter of a mile along the beach to an access road for painting and loading. This is when we discovered how bulky and heavy it was and, that it didn't really fit in the back of a long wheel base Landover.
The plan was for three of us to go in the Landrover and place the mine in any suitable public place we could find. In the event, after it had taken six of us to "graunch" it into the back of the Landrover we realised that three people would never be capable of getting out again. There was no room in the rear so, four squeezed into the front and one guy squatted on the now much buckled tailgate with his legs inside the mine. We drove around Newquay at about one in the morning desperately trying to look normal and find a resting place for our trophy. We were all getting very nervous and finally settled on a flower bed just inside the gates of a park. I backed the vehicle up and shrunk in horror at the sound of metal on metal as we tried to heave it over the stern and the already buckled tailgate. Somehow we managed to drag it and stand it up in the middle of the flower bed; then we fled back towards Penhale.
We had a cunning plan to return the Landrover to its parking place in complete silence. I drove up a track at the rear of the camp where there was no fence; just open sand dunes. From there it was all down hill to the officers' mess so, all we had to do was turn off the engine and push it to the car park. We proved that five men can't push a long wheel Landrover through sand dunes - even if it is down hill! There was nothing for it but to start it (oh the noise!) and drive it home. After a few yards it bogged in and the rear wheels began to spin (oh the noise!). This was followed by even more noise as I graunched the gearbox trying to find out how to engage four wheel drive. Eventually I abandoned the Landover in the car park, more or less as I found it - but a bit worse for wear.
Breakfast was uneventful but by mid morning something was up! The whole of the 91st (about 160 of us) was paraded on the square in full uniform. The senior apprentice (Ian Davies I believe) brought us to attention and the flight commander addressed us from the top of a grassy bank. In a calm voice he informed us that he had seen the mine on his bank run into Newquay and that there was no doubt (from what was written on it) as to where the culprits were from. We sniggered, and I thought to myself, "great 91st jape". He went on, "I've no idea how you got there it there and, I don't really care, but you are jolly well going to fetch it back". Then things took a turn for the worse; the MT Sgt appeared from stage right and whispered something in the officer’s ear. The flight commander's face dropped and all the staff went into a huddle. After a few tense minutes he addressed us again and announced that as an RAF vehicle had been involved it was now an extremely serious matter.
We were informed that those responsible would be charged with the following: Taking away, driving and damaging a vehicle etc - probably without a license; stealing petrol; breaking out of camp; breaking back in again and driving without insurance. My legs shook as I began to think that the end of my RAF service was very near. The drill sgt gave the order for all those responsible to march forward to the front of the parade; nobody moved. The order was given again, whereupon the senior apprentice brought us all to attention, ordered us two paces forward march, saluted the flight commander and said, "we were all in it together sir!".
Feet didn't touch ground, as they say, except for the pounding of our boots as we were all forced marched in squads towards Newquay (about 8 miles away). I'm not sure what transpired amongst the staff but after a few miles we were all piled into 3 tonners and taken back to camp. One 3 tonner was dispatched to Newquay to retrieve the mine which was unceremoniously dumped back on the beach.
Back at Locking we pined for our mine and couldn't bear the thought of it rusting away on the beach with the "91st" fading in the salt spray. We plotted all winter to get it back; transport was the problem as usual. We sneaked over to the "boggies" (national service airmen) end of the camp and wandered around the car park. The owner of the J2 van thought it was a ridiculously long way to drive for a bit of scrap metal, but for a tenner he was game. Four of us had to "break out" of camp after tea, hiding on the floor of the van and be back for breakfast. Would the mine still be there? - We didn't know!
The driver thought it was all a bit of a laugh until I shone a torch on the mine at Penhale. "No, no, no", he said, "its tons bigger than you said". More money was promised and after a lot of heaving and graunching, we set off with the rear suspension down on the stops. I think it was in Taunton at about four in the morning when the police finally stopped us. The two of them; one did the polite quizzing at the drivers door whilst the other wandered around the vehicle with a torch. Suddenly the rear doors were flung open and, "ello ello ello what's this then!?” Somehow the driver smooth talked his way out of it and we went on our way, "broke back" into Locking camp, too late for breakfast. The mine was hidden away around the back of somewhere or other and painted up again.
It next appeared with a great fanfare in the spot light, on a trolley with Jim Jackson dressed as Queen Bodecia (
can’t spell that!?
), being towed by a gang of 91st "slaves" at the boxing championships in T Shed. The Penhale staff in the audience cheered and gave it a standing ovation as it swept around the ringside. We all felt very elated.
The last I saw of the mine was at the end of the 91st lines where we had cemented it into a place of honour. As we were driven away in the coach on that cold December morning in 1961, the old mine was the only thing I regretted leaving behind at Locking and I wondered what would become of it?
Rick Atkinson 20 June 2006