Mines vary in scale from anti-personnel weapons such as the US ‘gravel’ mine, shaped like and little bigger than a tea-bag, to massive anti-tank mines designed to pierce armor plate and destroy a 60-tonne armored vehicle.
The sheer diversity of modern mines rules out any single answer to them. All you can do is employ as many techniques and procedures as possible. Each one provides a degree of safety; combined, they can significantly weaken a powerful weapon.
Military countermine operations consist of detection of individual mines, breaching and clearing minefields, reconnaissance for minefields, sowing a cleared enemy minefield with your own mines, prevention of enemy mining, and detection of enemy minelaying.
In combat, you must make full use of all intelligence-gathering resources to obtain enemy mine information. This will enable you to plan the use of sensors, aggressive countermining, or other tactics as necessary to defeat his efforts.
There are six basic rules to surviving the mined battlefield:
Denial of opportunity
Aggressive patrolling prevents the enemy from laying his mines. The effects of patrols can be increased with night vision aids and sentry or scout dogs. In addition, sensors can be used on major routes and areas where enemy mining is heavy. Sensors can alert quick reaction forces to move in on the threatened area or can be used to bring fire on the enemy.
However, US forces in Vietnam never really found an answer to local guerrillas mining the roads – the infantry manpower needed for intensive patrolling was seldom available.
South African forces are painfully aware of how easy it is to mine isolated roads near their borders and have developed mine-resistant vehicles designed to survive anti-tank mines.
The best way of detecting mines is by direct vision combined with a knowledge of minelaying methods. On the principle of setting a thief to catch a thief, if you understand how to plant mines properly, you will have a much better grasp of mine detection.
Sweep teams made up of trained observers, men with electronic detectors, and probers have proved highly effective, but security forces must be deployed to the flanks and rear of sweep teams to avoid ambush.
Mine and tunnel dogs have been used with success to detect booby traps, tripwires, unexploded ordnance, punji pits, and arms caches, as well as enemy troops. These dogs should be used with other detection systems, not as a single system.
Denial of material
The enemy may rely on captured material for his conduct of mine warfare. This is especially true in guerrilla warfare: in Vietnam, many Viet Cong booby-traps used captured American ordnance. VC sappers were also known to infiltrate American perimeters protected with Claymore mines and reverse them so that they exploded in the wrong direction. Strict measures must be taken to deny the enemy all materials which can be used for mine warfare.
There must be a complete system for reporting mine incidents. Analysis of reports may be combined with communication intelligence sources. The purpose is to reveal areas of heavy mining by the enemy as well as the types of mines and firing devices used.
Proper training reduces casualties from mines and booby traps. Intensive unit-level training should be conducted on how the enemy emplaces and camouflages these weapons.
These measures may include the wearing of body armor and helmets by sweep teams, sandbagging the flooring of vehicles, and requiring the occupants to keep their arms and legs inside.
In the South African Army, it is now a chargeable offense not to be strapped into your harness when riding in a Buffel-type APC. Soldiers on foot must avoid bunching up at the site of a mine detonation: the enemy may have placed other mines to take advantage of this natural tendency.
Detection and search
Detection of mines is an action performed by soldiers in all phases of combat. Search is a more deliberate action taken by single soldiers, teams, or small units to locate mines or minefields. The following techniques are recommended for both.
1. Do not wear sunglasses: with them, you are less able to detect tripwires and camouflage.
2. Be alert for tripwires in these places: across trails, on the shoulders of roads at likely ambush sites, near known or suspected anti-tank or anti-vehicle mines, across the best route through dense plant growth, in villages, and on roads or paths into them, in and around likely helicopter landing sites, in approaches to enemy positions, at bridges, fords, and ditches, across rice paddy dikes.
3. Check anything that might conceal a mine or its triggering device: mud smears, grass, sticks, dirt, dung, or other material on roads, signs of road repair, for example, new covering or paving, ditch and drainage work, tire marks, skidmarks or ruts.
4. Be alert for signs that might belong to, mark, or point to hidden mines: signs on trees, posts or stakes, or signs painted on the road. Most are small and not easy to spot marks other than signs, for instance, sticks or stones placed in a line, clumps of grass placed at intervals.
Look for patterns not present in nature, wires leading away from the side of a road; they may be command firing wires, odd items in trees, branches, or bushes; they may be explosive grenades, mortar rounds or artillery shells, odd features in the ground, for instance wilting plant camouflage.
5. Watch the civilians. They may know where local mines are, so see where they don’t go – for instance, one side of the road or certain buildings.
6. Be careful of any equipment left behind by, or belonging to, the enemy: it may be booby-trapped.
7. Listen for the sound of a delayed fuse device. If you think you hear one, get down fast.
8. Do not use any metal object as a probe: the metal can close the circuit between contacts. Use sharpened wooden sticks. When feeling for tripwires, use a lightweight stick.
9. Use scout dog teams to detect booby traps.
10. Check all entrances (to buildings, caves, tunnels, etc.) for booby traps, and search the approaches and surrounding area for anti-personnel mines.
11. If you find an anti-tank mine, inspect by eye and probe for anti-handling devices.
12. Remember that the enemy can use command-detonated mines. Search and clear road shoulders and surrounding areas before other mine-clearing work. Make sure you cover all potential firing positions and remove any wires and booby traps. Buried firing wires can be exposed and cut by single-toothed rooters running along 30 to 160 feet from the road. Protect the clearing party with security forces.
Probing is a way of detecting mines by piercing the earth with a sharp but non-metallic object, e.g., a pointed stick. It is slow and hard work but is probably the most reliable way to find mines.
When probing, follow this procedure:
- Move on your hands and knees or stay prone. Look and feel upward and forward for tripwires or pressure prongs. Keep your sleeves rolled up and remove watches and rings – your sense of touch must be at its keenest.
- After looking and feeling the ground, probe every two inches across a 3-feet frontage. Press the probe gently into the ground at an angle of fewer than 45 degrees from horizontal. Never push the probe straight down, or you may detonate a pressure mine.
- If the probe won’t go in freely, the soil must be picked away with the tip of the probe and the loose earth or stones removed by hand.
- If you touch a solid object, stop probing, remove the earth by hand and check it out.
- If you find a mine, remove just enough of the surrounding soil to see what type it is. Then report it.
Caution: If you know or suspect the enemy is using magnetically influenced fuses, make sure no one is carrying anything made of iron or steel in the vicinity of the mines. This means no steel helmets, bayonets, rifles, etc.
US Army manual on mine warfare says, ‘train to prevent panic’. This is easy to say but rather harder to achieve.
As you stand on a jungle trail with a screaming legless man in front of you, just what do you do?
Rushing out of a live minefield is an obvious recipe for disaster, but staying put in combat will probably leave you in a killing ground under heavy fire.
There is no guaranteed safe way out of a minefield, but if you know what different mines look like and understand how they work and the correct way of moving to safety, then you are in with a chance.
The only certain way of surviving the mined battlefield is to avoid blundering into a minefield in the first place. Although the famous skull and crossbones sign with ‘AchtungMinen ‘ written above will only be seen in the cinema. NATO and Warsaw Pact forces do mark their minefields. Memorize the signs illustrated here. NATO minefields are signposted on the friendly side with triangular red markers; the side nearer the enemy is only shown by a single strand of wire about knee-high.
Marking safe lanes is a tedious and labor-intensive job. The US Army uses the Hunting Lightweight Marking System, a set of steel-tipped plastic poles, and yellow reflective tape. The kit is man-portable, and the pins are robust enough to be hammered through tarmac.
Unfortunately, not all armies are so diligent: witness the way the Argentinians scattered mines all over the Falkland Islands without even keeping a proper record of their position.
The Soviets have mined many guerrilla infiltration routes in Afghanistan with air-dropped devices. Similar mines were used by the US Army in South-East Asia, and they will no doubt continue to be encountered in counter-insurgency campaigns throughout the world.
They are quick to lay and highly effective: Italian VS50 mines can be dropped by helicopter at a rate of 2,000 per pass. They are also the one type of minefield you can escape by rapid withdrawal from the area if you are unfortunate enough to have them dropped on your current position.
Most air-dropped mines do not arm themselves for a couple of minutes, but you should make sure your identification is correct before hot-footing it away. Other characteristics of air-dropped mines are:
- Fuses can be delay, pressure, or magnetic.
- Anti-tank and anti-personnel mines may be dropped together.
- Most will self-destruct within a few days or even hours, but do not bank on them all self-destructing at the same time. Mines that self-destruct can be useful for security forces, which can then sweep the area in safety after the mines have done their damage.
Soviet liquid mines
One type of scatterable mine introduced by the Soviets in Afghanistan deserves mention, although full details are not yet available. They are small plastic cells filled with liquid explosives and are camouflaged or even shaped to look like transistor radios, dolls, or other harmless items.
They detonate when moved or compressed and are thought to contain an unstable explosive similar to nitroglycerine, which is safer when frozen. They are yet another good reason to be alert to the presence of booby traps. Stay switched on even when there is no obvious danger.
One of the most widely encountered types of mine is the Soviet PMD series of wooden anti-personnel mines. Simple to lay and difficult to detect, they are used by guerrilla forces all over the world as well as by the Warsaw Pact.
They are activated by pressure and were encountered by members of 22 SAS serving in Oman. It was observed that the local ‘Firqha’ – tribesmen fighting for the government and officered by SAS personnel – suffered less damage than the SAS if they stepped on a mine: treading on a PMD generally led to the tribesman losing his toes, but SAS men in DMS or desert boots lost their whole foot at the ankle.
British soldiers unfortunate enough to be wearing high neck boots like the US Corcoran jump boots often lost their legs up to the knee. Mines, like all explosives, will take the line of least resistance to cut. Unfortunately, it is not true to say that you can always minimize injury by swapping your combat boots for pair of Ho Chi Minh sandals.
During the Vietnam war, the tiny American ‘gravel’ anti-personnel mines contained only a very small charge. It was enough to cripple someone wearing light footwear, but a hefty pair of boots would actually reduce the damage. Moral of the tale: find out what mines you may be facing, and act accordingly.
Where to expect mines
Mines are frequently positioned in specific locations rather than laid in rows in a field like potatoes. Favorite sites are roads and trails, especially junctions and bottlenecks. They may have been placed to block one route while troops observe another, ready to engage a target with direct fire. In the jungle or thick forest, the available tracks are screamingly obvious places to choke with mines, forcing the enemy to hack his way noisily through the undergrowth.
Guerrilla mine tactics
If mines are laid in a group, they will usually be in a -^ logical pattern. This may be dictated by the ground but will often follow a fixed formula. These three patterns of mine-laying were widely used by guerrillas during the Rhodesian war.
They use the minimum — number of their precious anti-tank mines to give the best chance of hitting a vehicle. Note the invariable habit of planting most of the mines in the ruts worn in the road.
Despite all warnings, it is very easy to follow the smoother route of old tracks and become another victim. Remember that, when actually following another vehicle, the reverse is true, and you are obviously safest by following the leading vehicle’s exact route.
Recognizing signs of mine laying
Finding a mine before it finds you depends on concentration and experience. American units in Vietnam found that they suffered fewer losses to mines in the morning, at the beginning of a patrol when everyone was fresh, but more in the afternoon when the troops were tired.
Bearing this in mind, it is a good idea to change the point element regularly so that the strain of leading the column is shared evenly.
Open areas – Look for misplaced objects or changes in vegetation that may indicate a camouflaged trap.
Roads and trails – Recent repairs to the road may really be mines. Junk lying on the road may conceal a pressure-fused mine.
Bridges and their approaches – any defile where troops will tend to bunch up is a classic site for a mine or booby trap. Look out for signs placed nearby, e.g., patterns of stones or twigs
Helicopter landing zones – Obvious LZs may be mined and are favorite locations for the tripwire-triggered device.
Shoulders – Wires to command-detonated devices may lead away from the road to nearby cover.
Villages – Approach roads and vacant buildings are likely to be dangerous – watch civilian movement carefully. Do they avoid certain places?
A final word
As you’ve seen in the first part of this article and in the above chapters, dealing with mines on the battlefield is a complex task that requires proper knowledge, training, and a strong mindset. Hopefully, the information we’ve provided will help those having to deal with such instruments of destruction.
Suggested prepping learning: