TEN HOURS ALONE WITH A TIME BOMB
The first time George Cook disarmed a German G-type parachute mine he worked with excruciating caution for five days in the desert, and survived only because the bomb's booby-trap mechanism wasn't working. The second time, the trap was set to explode. Cook was working in an eighteen-foot pit in total darkness. If the photoelectric eye was still wired, when the light of dawn reached it, he would die
British instructors had taught Lieut. George Cook, RCNVR, all they knew about enemy bombs and mines in ten days. Then they had sent him to the Middle East as the senior — and only — mine disposal officer between Suez and the Turkish border.
Now it was late afternoon one day in July 1941, and the young Canadian waited in a lonely Beirut street for nightfall and the chilling task that faced him—disarming in total darkness a 2,2ft0-pound unexploded mine buried eighteen feet in the ground.
The faintest light reaching it would explode a booby trap.
To George Cook, only nine months removed from placid Lakefield, Ontario, where he had designed yachts and raced dinghies, the long wait was becoming decidedly unpleasant.
The city was hot, silent and sullen. 1 he British had taken it from the Vichy French after a hard battle for the rest of Lebanon and Syria. The night before, German bombers had left their signature in the street outside Beirut’s American Hospital—a huge, uncxploded mine, probably intended for the harbor.
Cook’s disciplined, bronzed face remained composed but he was acutely and uncomfortably aware of five British engineers lounging close by in the entrance of the hospital.
Their surreptitious glances in his direction and occasional bursts of muttered conversation increased his discomfort. He could imagine their collective judgment — “He’s either raving mad or just a damn fool.” They could be right either way, he thought wryly.
The neighborhood for half a mile around had been evacuated. The hospital and a university several hundred feet up the street were deserted; so were homes, business offices and stores.
Once the mine had been discovered, Cook had been sent hurriedly from Canal Zone naval headquarters at Ismailia to dismantle it and remove the activating mechanism. If it should be a new type it would be sent to London for examination.
The sun was setting redly over modern granite buildings. A couple of hours more would do it, Cook thought, as he fingered broken pieces of pale blue bakelite taiifins found near the mine. They identified it as a German type G.
THE LOG WOULD SHOW WHERE HE'D GONE WRONG
The sappers glanced at him, totally unsympathetic. They had spent the day digging and timbering a shaft down to the mine, clearing a working space around it and then covering the entrance with heavy tarpaulins to keep out stray light from some unforeseen source.
The perimeter of the shaft had been sandbagged to reduce blast effects if anything went wrong. Cook rather hoped it wouldn’t.
Telephone cables ran up the street to a sandbagged shelter outside the university where the sappers would be protected with one telephone headset while Cook worked underground wearing another.
Throughout the operation he would report each delicate movement until the job was finished or the sappers’ logbook told his successor at what point a different approach might prove safer.
Cook already had the dubious distinction
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Ten hours alone with a time bomb
When he saw the broken fins, Cook knew he was dealing with a particularly deadly mine
of having met and dealt with one of the only two G-type mines so far found by the Allies. That had been three months before in the Suez Canal and it had taken him five days in the desert to find the deadly photo-cell booby trap.
While he waited for the Beirut night he tried to recall every tiny detail of his operations during those five days. Once below ground, alone with the mine, he would have to work in darkness from memory, conscious that there was no margin for error, that each moment might be his last. Three months seemed like three years. He forced himself to concentrate on the dismantling procedure, step by painstaking step. . . .
The minesweeper Landfall had found that first G mine with her trawl at dawn —a ten-foot-long, bomb-shaped monster, resting on the muddy bottom of the Canal, forty feet down. Traffic through the Canal had been stopped and important convoys postponed.
Cook’s general orders were straightforward: "Recover for analysis wherever possible all influence mines suspected of being new type. Intelligence reports new German magnetic mine with bakclite tailfins, color eggshell blue, actuating mechanism and booby trap unknown.”
He decided to make an inspection dive to see if the mine were of a new type and worth recovering. If not. it could be exploded where it lay and shipping allowed to proceed.
When his special diving boat arrived at the scene, Landfall moved a safe distance away while he put on a diving suit and then slid down the warp to the trawl.
At first sight, through the net, it seemed to be the kind of one-ton bomb he had met before. His hopes for a simple demolition job rose. Then his eyes latched on the broken tailfins. This was wrong; tailfins never broke, merely bent. He picked up a piece lying near his feet and held it close to the window of his helmet. It was eggshell blue.
He realized with stomach-sinking certainty that everything was not going to be so simple after all. He would have to recover it.
Rolling it would be fatal
Closer inspection revealed a fuse head of the type found on all German bombs, but there the similarity ended. All previous mines had cover plates on the outer casing behind which lay the arming delay clock, primer release and detonator holder. Cook’s first step would be to remove the only fuse he could find.
He returned to the surface, collected tools and fuse extractor, and made a second dive. If the fuse could be removed without disaster, the trawl warp would be passed ashore to a winch lorry and the mine hauled slowly in.
The locking ring of the fuse responded easily to pressure. Cook unscrewed it inch by inch—slowly at first, in case of
an anti-withdrawal trap, then faster when he was certain the fuse wasn’t springloaded.
Once it came free, he surfaced, took the diving boat inshore and passed the trawl warp to sappers handling the winch lorry. Then he huddled behind a hummock of sand. From there he could see where the warp left the bank and where it entered the water. He gave the signal to w'inch in the mine.
While the slack was being taken in, he weighed the chances that the mine was armed and might respond to a change in the earth’s magnetic field caused by movement. His instructors had warned him that any attempt to roll an armed magnetic mine would be fatal. Removing the fuse might have de-activated it, but on familiar parachute mines the magnetic circuit was independent of the impact fuse and was activated by hydrostatic pressure. What would happen now?
While these thoughts flashed through his mind the w'arp tightened, stretched under the strain and, after a quick jerk, settled down to steady pull. The suction of mud had been broken and the mine was moving slowly inshore toward the bank.
A few minutes later it came out of the water, up the bank. Then it was manhandled by the sappers into the back of the truck. "What next?” asked a sapper officer.
"We’ll drive it about ten miles into the desert,” replied Cook. "You people can
get behind a dune while I see what makes this baby tick.”
When they were far enough inland to be clear of traffic, the mine was lowered to the sand and the truck driven behind a dune 500 yards away where the engineers set up an operational camp. Their job would be to help in the less dangerous work and to keep a diary of Cook's actions. This they would do by watching him at work through field glasses. He would keep them posted on each step he proposed to take.
The first entry that afternoon read:
1430. Lt. Cook is preparing to drill a series of holes in the hack of the mine case in the hope of finding and overcoming a suspected booby trap.
Cook had used this technique successfully on aluminum-cased parachute mines. Working with a hand drill, he would make a series of overlapping holes until he could lift out a section of the casing large enough to allow a flashlight to be shone inside the housing of the actuating unit. A few of these "windows” would probably reveal some mechanically or electrically operated switch designed to fire a booby trap or even the mine itself—if anyone were so bold, or stupid, as to try to loosen the nuts securing the housing door.
1450. Trouble with drill. Lt. Cook returning to shelter.
Cook returned to the camp and reported that the case was steel, not aluminum. “Let me have a smaller bit,” he said. “I'll try a pilot hole first and see what I'm up against.”
He went back to the mine to continue drilling, sweat pouring from his body. The drill required his full weight to bite into the steel and it was painfully slow work.
He couldn’t help thinking "What if my drill shorts out the mine circuit . . . springs the booby trap . . . hits the detonator?”
It penetrated up to 3/16ths of an inch before suddenly plunging right through up to the chuck. Cook was thrown across the mine with his head close to the hole. The mine was hissing!
1457. He's slipped—fed leu across it—-lie's naming.
The sappers threw themselves fiat and froze into individual patches of parched sand. Each had learned to respect the blast of a 2,200-pounder.
But nothing happened. First one, then another lifted his head and looked over the top of the dune. The mine was still there and Cook was strolling toward the camp.
"What happened?” they asked when he had sat down.
"Well. 1 got through fine.” he explained. “Then the damn thing started to hiss at me and I took off in a hurry. I reckon it was caused by heat expanding the air ,'nside which then escaped through my fiole. Guess I was a bit tense. Sorry."
Drilling continued for two days before eno'teh of the casing could be removed to alíbw a thorough inspection of the interior. Cook probed as hard as he dared but could find no sign of a booby trap.
lie was still unconvinced. Experience had taught him respect, and only recently five officers and men had been killed in England while dismantling a mine in which no booby trap could be found. He insisted upon taking elaborate precautions and prepared to remove the housing door — disrespectfully known as the "top hat” because of its shape.
Cook's next step was to release the tail unit, joined to the main housing by a flange and twenty-four studs. He was pretty certain by this time that if a booby trap existed it wouldn’t respond to heat alone. The desert sun had burned down on it for too long. He discounted light because he’d never heard of a light-reacting trap and wouldn't know how it worked anyway. But there could be a trap —and it might be mechanically armed.
Before resuming work on the third day he wrote in the diary:
0800.—I'm removing rear door or teal unit. This is the best method under the circumstances. I. I will place the wrench on the first stud. A rope from the camp will be tied to the wrench. 2. The engineers will pull the rope tight to keep the wrench in place. Then I will go back to the camp. 3. We will increase the strain on the rope until the stud loosens and the wrench is turned. It won't turn more than a quarter of a circle so ire shall have to repeat the process until all 24 studs are removed.
Cook took one more precaution. A wooden prop was embedded in the sand and jammed tight against the rim of the tail unit where it was bolted to the flange. This would prevent it from falling clear suddenly and activating any mechanical booby trap. A rope led from the prop to the camp. When the last nut had been
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taken off. Cook would run to the camp and pull away the prop. T hen they would see what kind of ingenuity had been used to protect the mine’s secrets.
The painfully slow work dragged on for two more days, tension subsiding under the dreadful weight of monotony. Every few minutes, each man in his turn ran from camp to mine, adjusted the wrench and then returned to camp. The strain on the rope had to be increased gently to avoid pulling the wrench otl. Despite their caution it fell away from the studs as often as it turnedand it would be the next man's turn to run out and repeat the tedious process.
By the end of the fourth day all
twenty-four studs were off and Cook was ready to remove the tail unit, known, because of its shape, as the "top hat.”
On the fifth morning Cook wrote:
‘7 intend removing the top hat now. If there’s a booby trap inside we'll know soon enough. Allah is supposed to look after fools and drunkards and we bask in the reflected glory of being both. . .
While he focused glasses on the mine he ordered: "Pull away the prop."
He saw the wood fall into the sand and the tail unit slide away from the housing.
It took him four more hours to examine the activating units in the housing, free the studs holding the housing to the warhead, check the electric circuits and meticulously insulate the connections.
Then it was over, the last wire freed and the mine harmless. The engineers crowded round while he explained: “There's no sign of a booby trap, but this contraption with two windows looks interesting. Wonder what it’s for?"
It w'as a piece of apparatus covered with metal in which two window's had been cut.
The bits and pieces were loaded into the truck and the party returned to Ismailia, where Cook handed in a brief report and the "contraption" was sent by air to England for examination.
A cursory examination had already indicated that the windows might cover the type of granular microphones associated with acoustic mines.
Two weeks later. Cook learned the full extent of his luck. A signal from the Admiralty informed all mine-disposal units that G-type mines were protected by photoelectric-cell booby traps. Once the top hat was taken off, light would
enter through the windows and detonate the mine.
In Cook’s case, the failure of a plastic plug to melt had prevented the arming of the booby trap. When he received a copy of the mine’s analysis, he was certain in a lightheaded way that he could never be quite so lucky again. . . .
In Beirut it was time for him to find out how his luck would hold. The sun had gone down and the city was in darkness. The tarpaulin tent prevented light from penetrating down the shaft to set off the photo-cell booby trap.
Cook gave a last order to the sapper sergeant: “Keep a lookout for anyone straying into the neighborhood. There must he no light. Okay? Let’s go.”
The sappers marched off to their shelter while he breathed in cool draughts of night air. The sweat of the day had dried on his body; he was eager to get the whole distasteful business over with.
He put on his headset, lifted a tarpaulin flap, groped for the edge of the shaft, and climbed down a rope ladder. At the bottom, he realized with a shock that he had never been anywhere quite so dark.
He recalled the layout of the working area as described by the sappers and took his bearings from the ladder—three paces forward, body crouched and hands extended. The cold impact of metal halted him. He ran his hands over the mine, so gently it was almost a caress.
'T’ve made contact," he reported hoarsely. 'Tm moving along to the external fuse. . . . Now I’ve found it low on the right side. . . . You were right. . . . It's a G type. I'm going to remove the fuse. . . . I'm using the pin spanner . . . It's unlocked and there doesn't seem to he any spring plunger. . . . It's free. . . . One of you come to the shaft raid I'll pass it up. It's too damn dangerous to have lying about here in the dark."
He climbed the ladder and waited until the tarpaulin Hap lifted and a cockney
voice whispered: “’Ere guv, let’s ’ave it.” The fuse passed to the other man’s hand and the sapper ran back to safety.
Cook returned to his lonely work.
“Next I’m going to remove the tail unit studs and proceed as / did with G-l [official number of the mine he had worked on in the desert]. . . . This business of working blind is no joke. . . . Must he like the Ritz up there, eh?"
An impolite, muffled curse from a sergeant cheered him immensely.
Three hours later the last stud was free and he had tensed again. Víhen the rear door came away from the housing the photo-cells would be exposed. It could hardly be darker, but supposing it was a different sort of trap this time?
“Now I'm pulling the tail unit from the housing. . . . It's clear. . . . I'm starting on the studs securing the housing to the warhead.”
More hours passed and finally the housing moved away from the warhead. Cook’s fingers explored inside it. feeling for electrical connections. They had to be cut, taped and insulated.
Then the last wire came clear, the last connection was taped—and the threat to Beirut was removed.
Cook looked at his watch. He’d been alone and close to the bomb for almost ten hours.
“What's it like up there—dawn coming up yet? Getting lighter?"
He collapsed against a wall, weak and exhausted. Tension drained from his taut body and he gave way to fit of sudden, uncontrollable trembling. It was always like this when the job was done.
His final report was almost a shout.
"For God's sake, come down here and get rid of this bloody thing." ir