Combat Engineer Training, Living History Edition

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Last year, a few buddies and I decided to start a Living History unit dedicated to the First Engineer Combat Battalion, First Infantry Division. While many reenactors like to portray frontline infantrymen, we wanted to talk about how combat engineers opened supply lines and kept infantrymen hydrated, camouflaged, and safe from mines.

In April 2021, our unit was fully vaccinated from Covid-19 (or had antibodies or had been tested) and hit the field for the first time to begin training. In exchange for helping out with some farm work (as seen below), we were able to use the property of one of our member’s family.

Preparing an Exercise

After going through WWII field manuals, unit journals, memoirs, original footage, and interviews, I prepared a minefield reconnaissance exercise based on what the First Engineers would have encountered circa 1943. I set up and camouflaged the four mines and a butterfly bomb seen below:

Setting up these mines was terrifying in its own right. After I set up the tripwire for the Stock Mine, I immediately lost sight of it. Even the mines I buried were difficult to see again, despite knowing where they should be.

See if you can find a few of them below and then move the slider to see if you were right:

Mine #1: Schu Mine 42
Mine #2: Teller Mine 35
Mine #3: Stock Mine 43 – Also note the Italian mine marker
Mine #3: Stock Mine 43 (from a different angle)

Training New Engineers

When the First Engineers arrived in North Africa, they were, in general, well prepared for mine warfare. As a regular US Army unit, they were professional soldiers and received far more training than many of the other engineer units that served in the North African, Italian, and European Theater of Operations during the war. One of the key pieces of equipment they had was the SCR-625 Mine Detector which could detect mines containing metal. In response, the Germans began to develop a variety of mines made of wood and glass, as well as come up with a variety of nasty booby traps that would prevent American engineers from relying too closely on these mine detectors. To simulate the discovery of such new mines, I only trained my squad on the Stock Mine, the Tellermine, and the S-Mine (better known as the Bouncing Betty) and told them to use their best judgement in finding and disarming the other mines they would encounter.

Teaching the Company A how to find and defuse mines per the November 1943 edition of Field Manual 5-31: Land Mines and Booby Traps

We also reviewed the basic formation and roles of a minefield reconnaissance party.

Once everyone understood their role, we set out to investigate a road that “our scouts” had reported suspicious activity along.

Once in location, we got in formation and prepared to breach the minefield.

  • The “No. 1 man” set up the SCR-625 Mine Detector. He walks slowly and carefully, sweeping a four-foot path in front of him with the SCR-625. If he detects a mine, he points it out to the No. 2 man to mark that mine’s location.
  • The “No. 2 man” opened the bag carrying mine markers and white cloth tape, staking the white tape to the beginning of the course. The white tape signals where the party found mines and what kind of mines they found and would be taken with the reconnaissance party back to their base (see the Field Manual above for more information). This allows future engineer teams to study the pattern of the minefield (what kinds of mines they’d be dealing with, what kind of spacing they see between the mines, etc) and help them work faster and safer.
  • The Officer or Non-Commissioned Officer (NCO) tied one end of his roll of twine to a stake. The twine marks the center of the safe path through the minefield. If the party finds a mine, he will also tie one knot in the white tape for a trip wire, two for an anti-personnel mine, three for an anti-tank mine, and four for a new type of mine.
  • The “No. 3 and No. 4 men” provide security, keeping an eye out for enemy movement and, if necessary, providing covering fire while the patrol retreats. Per FM 5-31, the minefield reconnaissance party armed only with grenades and the No. 3 and No. 4. men’s carbines or submachine guns. As we were switching roles and were also practicing using rifles with bayonets to probe for mines, each man carried a rifle and took turns providing security.

Each member of the mine reconnaissance party has an important and specific role. The white armbands around the left arms were used in North Africa and Sicily as a way of identifying American patrols and prevent friendly fire.
Observing Pvt. Ornstein use the SCR-625. At the beginning of the war, US grenades were often painted yellow or orange to designate that they were high explosive devices.
Note the twine and the white tape in action
Hey, we got a mine up here! Sgt. Utesch inspects an S-Mine with a taut trip wire
Noticing some disturbed dirt, No. 1 man called No. 2 man to investigate a possible Schu Mine.
This is new… No. 2 man marks an unknown device for future inspection and removal.
Party waits for No. 2 to return. Note the defused Schu Mine to the left of the No. 1 man.
No. 1 man notices a trace of disturbed dirt and investigates with the SCR-625
Using the M1 Mine Probe, the No. 2 man hits something made of metal, confirming No. 1 man’s suspicions.
“It appears to be an Anti-Tank mine, let’s mark it and move on.”
Even when found, Tellermines still posed a threat to the engineers defusing them. Germans would often attach a booby trap or secondary fuse to Tellermines intended to kill anyone attempting to remove them.
The SCR-625 weighed just over 7 pounds. To give the No. 1 man a rest, a No. 5 man would be attached to mine reconnaissance parties to share the load with No. 1.
The No. 1 man had a good eye and caught a trip wire inches before it was too late. As the trip wire was loose, the NCO moves to the front of the party, cuts the wire, and stakes the wire to the side of the path so other party members don’t inadvertently detonate it. He then ties one knot to the white tape so future parties know to look out for a trip wire.

The mine reconnaissance party successfully cleared a path along the road, marking all five mines. Next, I stepped in to show my trainees how subsequent parties would defuse (or otherwise destroy) the leftover mines.

Explaining the proper way to check for booby traps.
Noticing that the mine has likely been booby-trapped, I search for the Tellermine’s carrying handle
Using a grappling hook, engineers would move a safe distance away from booby-trapped Tellermines, then pull the mine out from a safe distance
Butterfly bombs were dropped by German bombers in three models. One detonated on impact, the second had a timed fuze, and the last, pictured here, would explode if someone disturbed it. As it was impossible to tell if the bomb was a dud, on a timed fuze, or a trap, the most effective ways of dealing with butterfly bombs were to detonate it with explosives or shoot it.

After retrieving our mines and equipment, we returned to base for some much deserved R&R.

While our training exercise could never come close to what the men of the First Engineer Combat Battalion went through during the Second World War, it certainly gave us a deeper appreciation for what a dangerous and important role they played.

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