Le déminage de la France après 1945

Le Gouillonneys; mine clearers on the dunes, 1946
Corps 1
Mine clearance in France after 1945
Corps 2

A little known aspect of the return to peace, mine clearance in France after 1945 was, however, an essential task in the reconstruction of the country. Before even thinking about rebuilding, the public powers that emerged following the Liberation had to deal with this consequence of the recent military operations that put the civilian population in danger. The neutralisation of the millions of mines that remained hidden in the nation's soil thus became a prerequisite to the definitive end of the war.

Mines as we know them today - small devices designed to explode under pressure from a tank or when a live being passes over them - are a 20th century invention. They were used on an extensive scale by all sides during the Second World War. But although the engineers of the art of warfare had, during the 1920's and 1930's, summoned up all their know-how to invent devices of destruction that were invisible and had delayed reaction, few of them had cared about finding ways of defusing them at the end of the conflict. Anti-tank and anti-personnel mines had been used both offensively and defensively on all the fronts throughout the war.

France had received many generations of them: French mines had encircled the Maginot Line; German mines had been placed during the construction of the Atlantic and Mediterranean Walls; then the armies of the Reich had used them to cover their retreat and the positions that they retained, such as the Atlantic pockets, whilst the Allies had used them to support their advance to the East. That is why, in 1945, French experts gave a high estimate of the number of devices to be neutralised. The most pessimistic suggested a figure of 50 million unexploded devices and shells. They predicted that it would take ten years to complete the operation. Reduced definitively to 13 million, this figure still represented 500,000 hectares, or 1% of the whole country. And this was still just an average. Some départements, like the Bouches-du-Rhône and Calvados, had proportionally much higher numbers.

The Allies had begun to defuse underwater and land mines since the landings. Intent on victory over the Germans, the question of the danger for the civilian population of the liberated regions did not concern them. They had therefore concentrated on the coast and the main communication axes in order to facilitate the transport of troops and equipment. For their part, the French saw mine clearance not just as a duty for protecting civilians but one of the prerogatives of their national sovereignty. During the summer of 1944, mainly in Normandy, organised mine-clearing was established in an empirical way through a joint venture between the rural engineering department under the department of Agriculture, military engineering units from the Free French army and individuals eager to cultivate their fields once more. Lacking in experience, the French authorities sought advice from British mine-clearers. The latter trained the first French mine-clearance teams in a training centre that opened in Bayeux in the summer of 1944. Not content with just introducing their French colleagues to this delicate art, they leant them the equipment for their first operations, which also served as models for the production of detectors. In January 1945, the handover was made and a French school began to operate in Houlgate, taught by French experts trained in Bayeux. But, as the war continued, Normandy was not the only region infested with mines. The provisional government had to think about organising mine clearance across the whole country, in combat zones as well as everywhere else. What administration was capable of taking responsibility for a task where the military and civilian populations were indivisible?

Mine-clearing, a prerequisite to reconstruction In the context of the Liberation, where the new powers had committed themselves to the restoration of democracy and the prerogatives of the State, mine clearance rapidly came to be considered as an activity outside the scope of private initiative. The department charged with defence, occupied in re-founding a national army and taking part in the final defeat of Germany, did not want to take on the thankless task, which seemed moreover bound to become drawn out. The departments of agriculture and the interior hesitated to become involved in operations that they considered to be military ones. That is why the provisional government, judging it to be a prerequisite to reconstruction, entrusted mine clearance to the department of reconstruction and urbanisation, created in November 1944. Management of the mine clearing operation was organised in February 1945 under the responsibility of Raymond Aubrac, the former commissioner for the Republic in Marseille.

This decision was in keeping with the general principle that the State would be responsible for the reconstruction and the handover between civilians and the military came into force in the spring of 1945. The urgency was thus in locating the mines and counting them. The seizure of documents from the military command following the German surrender helped in familiarisation with details of the plans of the minefields, their position and the different types of priming devices and explosives used. At the same time, the French authorities still did not have adequate equipment and concentrated on obtaining it. Having been provided with equipment by the allied forces, the first French detectors, manufactured under licence, left factories in the autumn, which was when the real mine clearance operation began. All that remained was to find the personnel who would accept a job, during the course of which fatal accidents were frequent occurrences. Volunteers and prisoners of war To manage the teams and the actual defusing operation, the Bomb Disposal Unit recruited volunteers - often young jobless people - attracted by the high salaries, although shortages and restrictions were still the daily lot of the general population. Slightly more than three thousand mine clearers were hired up until the beginning of 1946. But defusing the actual mine, highly qualified work requiring excellent knowledge of the various devices and great steadiness in its execution, was just the final part of a long preparatory exercise. Once the mine clearance zone had been determined, it had to be enclosed by markers and protective wires. The exact positions of the mines had to be marked, equipment brought in and excavation work carried out, with the constant risk of error and therefore of accidents. Despite article 31 of the Geneva Convention (1929) forbidding the use of prisoners of war for dangerous tasks, the mine clearance management obtained authorisation from the Allies to use a contingent of several thousand of the 500,000 German prisoners of war allocated to France for works in the public interest.

The training of the mine clearance teams was the best guarantee of their success. A school was opened in Septeuil, near Paris in the summer of 1945 to train instructors before they in turn left to teach in their own regions. Mine clearance staff enjoyed being at these instruction and improvement centres, as the accident rate was inversely proportional to the number of workers trained. In September 1946, all management personnel had attended courses there and a coherent collection of techniques and knowledge had been developed. The day to day work was carried out on a local level, with the teams working in close liaison with local authorities. It was the mayor's duty to warn residents of their arrival and the dangers involved in the operations that were about to begin, to mark the land, to ensure supervision, especially of the prisoners, who stirred up feelings of mistrust amongst the inhabitants. On the whole, though, the latter gave a warm welcome to the mine clearers, admiring their courage.

Manual detection was a lengthy practice, but a safe one and was used whenever preliminary approaches had revealed the presence of mines that were difficult to detect using electric detectors. Four men, in theory all with mine-clearance qualifications, would advance in a line across a strip four metres wide. As soon as an obstacle was suspected, the defusing began. When the type of mine did not allow this, a controlled explosion was carried out. This would take place at the end of the day after evacuating all the staff. Finally a control would be carried out, which it was hoped would be perfect. This was usually the task of prisoners of war driving ploughs or tractors into a zone judged to have been cleared. Processing a piece of ground could therefore last for several days. Despite all the precautions and training, there were many accidents. At least 1,800 Germans were killed, as well as 500 French. The number of injured is difficult to quantify, although the consequences of their injuries could be severely debilitating (limbs torn off). We do not have figures for victims from the civilian population. Nevertheless, by the end of 1947, the mine clearance operation was considered to be completed. Overestimation of the number of mines to be removed was probably one of the reasons for a success that was as rapid as it was unexpected, since huge resources had been allocated to this administration, whose deeds were effectively publicised through press campaigns, posters and radio programmes. Although not all the mines have been neutralised and we still bemoan accidents today, this success has made mine-clearance an area of French expertise. Since 1945, French bomb disposal experts have been present on major contemporary projects, in the Middle East, Africa and Asia as well as in the former Yugoslavia.