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What happened ?
I am pleased to say that I am not an expert on weapons and tactics used against us in the Second World War, and so a little research, mostly by internet, has been used to piece together details of the landmine and the attack on Abbey End. The conclusions of course are my own, we shall never know for certain.
The expression ‘Land mine’ was the British term; to the Germans they were ‘Luftmines’ of ‘air mines’. The devices originated for attacking shipping, being detonated by a magnetic device, but in the autumn of 1940 more and more were adapted for use against cities on the mainland simply due to the fact that they were the largest explosive device then available. Due to their construction, if they were allowed to free-fall they would have disintegrated on high-speed impact without exploding and so a parachute was attached to slow the descent. Even with the parachute they still fell at up to 40mph. There were three ways in which they could be detonated; a ‘gentle’ impact with a building or the ground, a clockwork timer of about 17 seconds that was triggered upon impact, or they could be set to explode in the air above a target but details of how this was achieved are difficult to find.
There were two sizes, Luftmine A (LMA), which was a 500kg bomb, and Luftmine B (LMB) that was twice the size. The only report I have seen that states a size for the bombs that fell in Kenilworth was written a couple of decades after the explosion and said that the bombs were of “500 lbs”; this appears to be a simple error and perhaps should read “500 kgs”. Studying photographs of other land mine explosions I have concluded that it was indeed a 500kg device that landed at Abbey End, the devastation caused by one twice the size was incredibly more extensive.
LMA’s were about 5ft 8ins high (the larger LMB’s were nearly 9ft). The parachute on which it descended was made of sea-green artificial silk and was about 27' in diameter, secured by eighteen thick silk cords. There were two other types of parachute made up of 2" wide khaki coloured silk ribbons woven together or secured in circular patterns to form the desired shape. The sea-mine versions were dropped from a height of about 900ft but I have been unable to discover the optimum height from which the land-mine version had to be dropped. In any case, it cannot be said with certainty that this would have been followed by the pilot, particularly as the aircraft was some distance from its intended target (..of Birmingham, see later). Obviously, the greater the height the less accurate the aim especially when wind is taken into account.
The first land mine dropped (deliberately) onto land by the Luftwaffe was on 16th September 1940 and it was in November when they began to be used more extensively.
Generally, it is believed that the plane that dropped the Kenilworth land mines was on its way to or from Coventry, but on the night of November 20-21st 1940, it was actually Birmingham that, for the second successive night, was on the receiving end. About 340 bombers are believed to have taken part; German newspapers claimed over 500 and called the raid “the second Coventry” and stated that Birmingham had been “Conventrated”. They attacked from the south, as had the bombers on the Coventry raid the previous week. That same night there was also a raid on Leicestershire (with planes flying north to south) but that on Birmingham is obviously the most likely origin of the sole plane over Kenilworth. It was the most intensive week of long-range bombing in the entire war, with London suffering in between the two West Midlands towns.
The most likely aircraft type to have dropped the bombs was a Heinkel III as these were the first to be fitted for dropping the land version of the mine. One version, the P-4, was specifically fitted to carry two LMA’s or one LMB. The raid on Birmingham on the night of 20-21st November 1940 was reported as “mostly” by Junkers 88’s, and this aircraft type had been used extensively in laying the original sea version, however the equipment required was different.
So, is it possible to piece together just exactly what happened that night in Kenilworth?
Each account talks of the drone of a single aircraft, despite there being hundreds flying near the town towards Birmingham. However, the raid continued for some ten hours or so and the aircraft passed in waves with gaps in between. It was not unusual for there to be lone stray aircraft in raids, indeed for example on Coventry Blitz night about 50 (about 1 in 10) aircraft never made it to the city for one reason or another. The crew of this lone aircraft, at 2.00 a.m. some seven hours after the raids started, must surely have been able to see Birmingham alight just 15 or so miles away, (German aircrews reported seeing the city clearly) so why did it drop its load here? I assume that the anti-aircraft position in Rouncil Lane would have opened fire; did the aircrew, on their own and seperated from their group simply decide under attack to drop their load and go? Or did the incoming fire and explosions around them actually give a glimpse of a town below that otherwise would have been in darkness? Imagine the crew, flying north over Rouncil Lane being fired upon, a few seconds discussion, the load of two 500kg LMA’s was jettisoned, where would they land…?
Eileen Tisdale (in “Still Looking Back”, 1987) says that “the wind had unexpectedly dropped” that night suggesting the mines on parachutes did not drift as much as they otherwise would. The first fell in a field not far from the cemetery, and about 200 yards from the nearest houses – a lucky escape. It made a large crater confirming that it detonated on the ground.
Those living in the centre of the town were not so fortunate. Despite the time of night, many people came onto the streets awakened by the first explosion. Eileen Tisdale continues by saying the mine on its parachute was seen; at first onlookers thought it was a bailed-out pilot, and thus perhaps that the explosion was a plane coming down. However, they quickly realised that on the end of the parachute was a “pillar-box shaped object”.
What happened next is surprisingly unclear.
There is no account that says there was a delay once the mine hit the ground. With witnesses seeing it falling at perhaps 40 m.p.h., I am sure that a long pause (a very long pause in the circumstances) of 17 seconds would have been remembered, and so perhaps a bomb fitted with the timer device can be discounted.
Most accounts say it hit the road in the vicinity of ‘The Globe’ but this too can be discounted for several reasons. Firstly, there was no crater; this also rules out the possibility of it hitting the road anywhere. Secondly, a device detonating in front of ‘The Globe’ would also have been perhaps no more than 15 or 20 feet from the clock tower, yet it survived with hardly a ‘scratch’. Thirdly, photographs clearly show the centre of the explosion to have been further up Abbey End, at about numbers 3 & 5.
The best account supporting what I believe happened, has been given by Roy Stanley, a young boy at the time sleeping in the clubroom at the rear of ‘The Globe’ where his uncle was licensee. In a published account (“Kenilworth History”, 2003-4) he says that the landmine came down at the rear of the buildings to the north of the pub, he was asleep at the time and awoke surrounded by the devastation. My own thought is that the mine detonated well off the ground, perhaps by hitting the roof of either 3 or 5 Abbey End, probably at the rear where the buildings went back a little way.
To back up this theory - photographs show this was the centre of the explosion and it was the place of the greatest loss of life (eight, plus the unknown man who was found at the rear of 1-5 Abbey End) despite ‘The Globe’ housing so many more people. Buildings were damaged as far as 550 yards away, this may not have happened with a ground explosion with the force being channelled vertically.
This could also explain why the clock tower was comparatively unscathed. A straight line drawn to it from the suggested point of detonation, passes through ‘The Globe’; it could be that the hotel thus shielded the clock tower from the direct effects of the explosion.
But, as I said at the top of the page, we shall never know for certain.
A Heinkel 111 P-4, the type most likely to have dropped the landmines on Kenilworth, and sketch of a Luftmine A; it is easy to see the comparison to a "pillar-box".
It is difficult to find direct comparisons, but here are the results of two landmines that exploded in roads. That on the left is of a Luftmine B, twice the size of the Kenilworth bomb but the crater is clear as is the comparitive lack of damage to the buildings due the explosive force being directed vertically. On the right is the result of another landmine of unknown size, again the crater is obvious as is the very local nature of the damage.
This however is the result of a landmine that exploded above ground. The devastation is much more comparable to the scenes in Kenilworth.