A rare item of unexploded ordnance (UXO) was recently discovered at a remote Scottish airfield. The Canadian pipe-mine was discovered during water works at Scatsta Airport.
As well as the airport itself, a nearby road was closed during the operation. The Royal Navy’s northern diving group was dispatched to carry out a controlled explosion.
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Canadian pipe-mines of WW2
This type of landmine comprised a horizontally bored pipe packed with Gelignite explosive. Once in place, the remotely detonated mine could be used to instantly create an anti-tank obstacle or to ruin a road or runway, thereby denying its use to the enemy.
In May 1940, a detachment of the 1st Canadian Tunnelling Company (an army unit) was re-tasked with mining multiple British airfields, including RAF Scatsta.
The pipe-mines were subsequently found to have significant defects. The Gelignite explosive was expected to remain potent for several years. However, by 1941 it was evident that the explosives in some pipes had been deteriorated by ground water.
The airport was first originally established as RAF Scatsta in 1940. It provided fighter aircraft protection for a nearby RAF Coastal Command flying boat base, RAF Sullom Voe. During WW2, it was the most northerly RAF base in Britain.
Construction started in Spring 1940 with the first runway completed a year later. In July 1941, construction of the second runway begun. During construction, army engineers laid Canadian pipe-mines under the runways and associated taxiways. They were laid at 50 yard intervals with the intention to blow up the runways in the event of a German invasion.
RAF Scatsta was abandoned after WW2 and was only reinstated as a civilian airport in 1978, to support the Shetland oil industry.
Incomplete historic clearance
Original military records state that RAF Scatsta was cleared of all pipe-mines during the latter years of WW2. This incident therefore confirms incomplete clearance of the mines. In fact, it is not the first time airfields have yielded such UXO. It would appear that for a number of reasons, wartime clearance of this type of mine was poor.
In recent years, pipe-mines have been encountered at Solent Airport in Hampshire (formerly HMS Daedalus). They have also been unearthed at Manston Airport in Kent (formerly RAF Manston).
At Solent Airport, 20 mines were discovered in 2006. The long tubes contained a total of 1,100kg of high explosive. Their disposal led to the evacuation of 900 homes, staggered over a five week period.