On 21 September 1940 Lt Cdr Richard Ryan RN and CPO Reginald Ellingworth from HMS Vernon, the Royal Navy Mine Warfare Establishment, died while attempting to defuse a parachute mine in Dagenham in east London. They were both posthumously awarded the George Cross for gallantry and devotion to duty.
The Germans were now using mines that had been developed for sea warfare for urban bombing. The British had developed counter measures to the magnetic mine after recovering one intact on 23rd November 1939. British ships were now routinely de-gaussed or anti magnetised, so the Germans may have felt that the mines could be better utilised elsewhere, or possibly it was just realised that they were an especially powerful weapon.
They were released from Heinkel III bombers and drifted down to ground level by parachute, detonating either by contact or by a clockwork mechanism. When the parachute became entangled in buildings they often failed to explode, leaving those who had to face defusing them with the uncertainty that there might also be a clockwork timer operating.
In residential areas the above ground blast was capable of demolishing whole streets:
On the night of Saturday 21 September 1940, a parachute mine fell on a quiet residential close of about 45 houses in Richmond, Surrey. My mother, my older sister, and my twin brother and I were asleep in our Anderson shelter in the garden. The explosion awakened me, and then the screams and cries of the trapped injured and dying mingled with the sounds of falling bricks and buildings and the shattering of glass.
The silence which had followed the “All Clear” five or ten minutes earlier turned into a horrifying medley of terror and confusion. My mother managed to claw her way through the earth and debris which effectively blocked our only exit to the shelter, and called out that next-door’s house was down – OUR house was down – they’re ALL down !
She knew that the family next door on our left were sleeping in the house that night: the mother, three daughters and a son. These children were much the same age as us and we played together. Sybil, Stella, Margaret and John Danby. All the girls were scholarship pupils at Richmond County School for Girls. The bodies of the mother and the girls were eventually recovered, but John was found safe and unharmed and he was brought to our shelter by the wardens, along with an elderly woman (I believe she was a Belgian refugee) and another woman. In all some 20+ people died that night, the second week into the start of the London Blitz.
Read Ms Blackburn’s story at BBC People’s War.