The massive explosion that obliterated Hill 60 in the opening movement of the operation codenamed Magnum Opus had its connection to Canungra, with Len Thomas being mentioned in despatches by General Haig for his “conspicuous service”.
Sapper Thomas was part of Australia’s 1st Tunnelling Company, the men whose exploits in the dark underground caverns of the Ypres salient on the Western Front were brought to light in the 2010 film, Beneath Hill 60.
The detonation of 19 massive mines beneath Hill 60 in Belgium marked the beginning of the Battle of Messines in the pre-dawn darkness of June 7, 1917. The biggest explosion in modern history before the atomic bomb, the blast was so powerful that there were reports it had been heard as far away as London and Dublin, as the area around Hill 60 erupted in pillars of fire of almost biblical proportions.
Since late 1914, Hill 60, the only feature in an otherwise low-lying landscape had been keenly contested by both the Allied and German armies.
The explosion, wiping out 10,000 German troops before the Battle of Messines had begun, was preceded by two years of planning and back-breaking work by Australian, British and Canadian miners to construct a labyrinth of tunnels and galleries under enemy lines.
When the 1st Australian Tunnelling Company took over the works at Hill 60 in November 1916, its mission was to extend the mineshafts and protect the existing tunnels and carefully placed explosives from discovery as well as the enemy’s counter-mining efforts and incursions.
The tunnels constructed by the Australians, who were Diggers in every sense, were affectionately named Perth, Adelaide, Hobart, Melbourne, Sydney, Newcastle and Brisbane. It was Brisbane where Len Thomas had enlisted on December 6, 1915, aged 21 years.
A cook in civilian life, Len somehow found himself a Sapper, initially allocated to the 3rd reinforcements of the Number 2 Mining Corps.
His service record gives two conflicting dates for his embarkation from Australia, February 20, 1916 and April 4, 1916, when he left Melbourne on the Euripides with the Number 1 Mining Corps.
The next entry in Len’s record shows he arrived at Marseilles, France, on the City of Edinburgh, on May 17 and was attached for duty with the Number 1 Tunnelling Company on June 25, 1916.
In November that year, the 1st Australian Tunnelling Company took over from the British who had been building an extensive network of tunnels beneath Hill 60 since 1915.
The tunnels were packed with the explosive, ammonal, and the Australians were tasked with ensuring that the Germans, who had been conducting their own counter-mining operations, did not cut the detonator cables.
The tunnellers lived a dark, subterranean existence in claustrophobic caverns, described by British journalist, Philip Gibbs, in his book, Now It Can Be Told, published in 1920.
“I had gone into the darkness of the tunnels, crouching low, striking my steel hat with sharp, spine-jarring knocks against the low beams overhead, coming into galleries where one could stand upright and walk at ease in electric light, hearing the vibrant hum of great engines, the murmur of men’s voices in dark crypts, seeing numbers of men sleeping on bunks in the gloom of caverns close beneath the German lines, and listening through a queer little instrument called a microphone, by which I heard the scuffle of German feet in German galleries a thousand yards away, the dropping of a pick or shovel, the knocking out of German pipes against charcoal stoves,” he wrote.
For seven months the Australians worked to reinforce and protect the mines before the switches were flicked at 3.10am on June 7, triggering a cataclysmic explosion under the German lines and sparking the Battle of Messines.
In his post-war despatches, British General Sir Douglas Haig paid tribute to the tunnellers who had constructed some 8000 yards (more than 7.3 kilometres) of galleries which had been packed with more than a million pounds (453 tonnes) of explosives.
“The simultaneous discharge of such an enormous aggregate of explosive is without parallel in land mining, and no actual experience existed of the effects which would be produced. In these circumstances, the fact that no hitch of any kind occurred in the operation, and that the effects of the discharges were precisely such as had been foretold, reflects the very highest credit upon those responsible for the planning and construction of the mines,” wrote General Haig.
“At Hill 60 continuous underground fighting took place for over ten months prior to our attack, and only by the greatest skill, persistence and disregard of danger on the part of our tunnellers were the two mines laid by us at this point saved from destruction. At the time of our offensive the enemy was known to be driving a gallery which ultimately would have cut into the gallery leading to the Hill 60 mines. By careful listening it was judged that, if our offensive took place on the date arranged, the enemy’s gallery would just fail to reach us. So he was allowed to proceed.
“After the 1st February, 1917, the enemy showed signs of great uneasiness, and blew several heavy mines and camouflets in the endeavour to interfere with our working. One of these blows destroyed our gallery to the Spanbroekmolen mine. For three months this mine was cut off, and was only recovered by strenuous efforts on the day preceding the Messines attack. The Spanbroekmolen mine formed the largest crater of any of those blown, the area of complete obliteration having a diameter of over 140 yards (128 metres).”
As a continuation of General Haig’s despatch of March 16, 1919, The London Gazette of July 11 carried a list of names of men General Haig considered “deserving of special mention”.
One of just 15 men from three Australian tunnelling companies to be awarded the Mentioned in Despatches was Len Thomas, by then a Sergeant.
Appointed Lance Corporal in May 1917, and then temporary Corporal five months later, Len had been promoted to Corporal in early August 1918.
He was made Sergeant on September 26, three days before being wounded in action.
Len was one of 18 other ranks and one officer wounded at Cartingny on the Somme at the start of an enemy offensive on September 29, according to the 1st Tunnelling Company war diaries for 1918.
While Len suffered a slight shrapnel wound to the face, a Sapper and Lieutenant Frederick Johnson, 46 and married with children, died of their wounds – little more than six weeks before the end of the war.
Len was treated in hospital in France and rejoined his company on October 22. Following the Armistice of November 11, Len went on leave from December 12 to January 6, 1919, returning to England for demobilisation on April 3.
A telegram with the news of Len’s Mentioned in Despatches award was delivered to his mother, Mary Thomas, at Hillgrove via Armidale in New South Wales, on December 9, 1919.
By then, Len had been back in Australia for five months. He had left Devonport in England on the Soudan on May 12, 1919, and after arriving in Sydney on July 4 had been discharged from the AIF in Brisbane on August 18.