Page last updated at 10:03 GMT, Thursday, 18 March 2010

MP calls for Dorset mine sweep after 50s blast deaths

A beach at Swanage
Five children were killed in the blast on Swanage beach

An MP who narrowly escaped death in an explosion that killed five friends has called for parts of Dorset's coast to be swept for mines.

Robert Key told the Commons how he had a lucky escape in 1955 as a 10-year-old when he and some friends discovered an unexploded mine on a beach at Swanage.

It blew up killing his friends who were trying to open what they thought was a tin of Spam, the MP for Salisbury said.

Mr Key told the story during a debate on a Bill to ban cluster bombs.

The Conservative MP, who served as a minister under John Major and is standing down at the election, said that at the time he and another friend were just metres away from the bomb when it exploded.

'Really exotic'

He told the Commons on Wednesday that the sea around Swanage beach could be used as a training ground for Royal Navy minehunters to detect 58 mines left unaccounted for following a clearance operation after World War II.

"The issue of mine clearance, whether it is cluster bombs or cluster munitions, whether it is mines of any kind, the impact is the same on a child of 10 playing whether it is in Beirut or Swanage," he said.

"Now we have the technology, I would like to see minehunters - the Sandown class or equivalent - brought in, because now we can detect these things.

Five British children, blown up by a British mine, on a British beach, within living memory - it was an extraordinary thing
Robert Key

"Perhaps in training, to sweep Swanage beach and the coast right around Bournemouth."

Mr Key, 64, told MPs that about 20 children were playing on Swanage beach on Friday May 13, 1955, when one found a tin between some rocks.

Thinking it was a can of Spam or "something really exotic", the boys began trying to open it.

Mr Key said he and a friend "got bored", turned round and walked about 10 metres away.

"We were blown into the sea and lived, five of my friends died," he added.

"Five British children, blown up by a British mine, on a British beach, within living memory - it was an extraordinary thing."

'Washed ashore'

When he later became a minister at the now-defunct Department of National Heritage, Mr Key asked the Imperial War Museum if they had any information about what had happened.

Robert Key
Mr Key received a box of official papers about the tragedy

They sent him a box of papers, which included the coroner's report from an inquest into the deaths.

According to the documents, the beach had been cleared three times before being granted a clearance certificate in 1950, and the de-mining officer told the inquest he thought the mine had probably been washed ashore in a gale.

Insisting nobody was to blame, the officer had said: "As an expert I would have allowed boys to walk across the beach."

But Mr Key said he had been "horrified" to discover that while 117 mines had originally been laid, just five were lifted in clearance.

There was evidence that a further 54 had existed, but the remaining 58 were still unaccounted for.

Describing himself and the other friend who escaped death as the "luckiest people alive", he called for the area off the coast to be searched again.


Robert Key told the Commons how an unexploded mine at Swanage beach blew up killing his friends

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