The Scientific and Trials section of the Mine Design Department of the Royal Navy was evacuated to Leigh Park House after part of a booby-trapped mine exploded at HMS Vernon (now Gunwharf Quays) on 4th August 1940 and killed five investigation personnel. Worse was to come, for on the night of 9th March 1941, one of several bombs that fell on HMS Vernon destroyed Dido Building and killed over a hundred naval personnel.
At the time, the Germans were mining our ships faster than we could replace them and were using mines as bombs during the Blitz. Subsequent to the incident involving the booby-trapped mine at HMS Vernon, bombs and mines that had been rendered safe were taken to a quarry at Buriton nicknamed HMS Mirtle. Here, any booby traps were removed and the mines' explosive content was steamed out and burnt. Their constantly-changing actuation and fuzing mechanisms were taken to West Leigh House for analysis and the development of appropriate countermeasures including bomb and mine disposal procedures and minesweeping systems.
John Frayn Turner, in his book 'Service Most Silent' wrote the following about the move:
Now it was autumn, 1940, and the Mine Design Department which consisted on mainly civilian scientists and engineers), moved out of Vernon. First to the Portsmouth Grammar School with its leisurely labyrinth of chemistry labs and classrooms, and next to Commercial Chambers, a tall, glassy office block hardly suitable as a refuge from the Luftwaffe. Then out of the city altogether to the idyllic countryside between Havant and Rowlands Castle. Commander M and the naval side went too, later, leaving as few as possible at Portsmouth. Vernon was bombed badly, but not before practically all important branches has been safely evacuated.
Commander Thistleton-Smith, Lieutenant Commander Ouvry, and the rest first saw West Leigh Cottage on a golden morning in October 1940. They motored through a dormant Havant, turning northward. At the crossroads a mile out of the town, the car swung right and then down a lane lined with beech trees, shedding their leaves through the blue, smoky air. Fluttering down into the ditches, the leaves left just the solemn spikes of the branches. Past West Leigh House, a square, grey stone building with a terrace away to the south, an ornamental pond on the west, and stables where guests' horses once got back their breath on just such an autumn morning many years before. Stables, which were later to become a fitting shop. A winding drive from the House inside the grounds led down to the Cottage. M's department moved into the cottage; trials and scientific sections moved into the House; and the main Design Department found a fresh and more peaceful home at Leigh Park House. Here, through the conservatory and on to the terrace, a steep lawn sloped dramatically down to a large lake, nestling far from the wind and embraced by a flaming autumn cluster of chestnuts. No breeze shimmered over its waters. Only the lilies lay across the mirror-like surface. The water was still. Mines were being devised to destroy. Yet the water was still .........
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