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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:
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.
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.
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.
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.