- Historic Sites
The Great North Sea Mine Barrage
An extraordinary World War I naval operation is recounted by the commander of a decaying coastal steamer crammed with a terrifying new explosive
April/may 1983 | Volume 34, Issue 3
When I took command of her, she was lying in the Erie Basin, South Brooklyn. Her ancient insides had been torn out, lounge rooms and dining salons transformed into long reaches of bare decks on which were laid complete systems of railway tracks with switches and turntables. In her stern had been cut two great “barn doors” through which the tracks passed, ending in a downward curve over the water. A five-inch gun was mounted aft, and two 3-inch antiaircraft guns were on her forecastle; this was the extent of her armament. Her white paint was being changed to a mad, futuristic orgy of color called “camouflage,” which was supposed to confuse the eyes of submarine commanders, and she had been rechristened Quinnebaug , a name dating back in naval annals to the Civil War. She was one of ten ships called Raiders of the Night that were supposed to stop the overwhelming force of Germany’s famed U-boats.
I protested that this old, discarded vessel could never get across the Atlantic; that even when she was new she had been designed for nothing but coastal work. The answer I received was that no other ships were available. As I had asked for this assignment, I could not now very well refuse it. I could only bless the dear American public who in time of peace economized on naval expenditures and then in time of war expected ferryboats to cross the ocean and fight the Imperial German Navy.
I could not believe this frail ship could cross the Atlantic and actually survive.
Officers and men began to assemble. Our complement of the former was eighteen; only three of these, including myself, were Annapolis men. The others consisted of an ex-merchant skipper over fifty years old, two young college men who had never been to sea before, a millionaire looking for excitement, and a tall Dane from the Geodetic Survey who was an authority on tropical flora. The rest were Navy warrant officers and merchant service officers.
I insisted that all hands, officers and men, be allowed to inspect the ship and know exactly what lay before them. Immediately quite a number developed ill mothers or aged fathers and were promptly sent back to the receiving station. I was glad to see them go. There could be no room for faint hearts in the project that lay ahead.
The whole affair was cloaked in such secrecy that we were not permitted to tell even our families where we were going or what we were to do. As a result, the Mine Barrage, which was to play such a crucial part in the war, remained unknown to the American public.
We left the Erie Basin on April 15 and proceeded to the Explosive Anchorage in lower New York Bay, which all other vessels were careful to give a wide berth. There we remained for twenty-four hours loading mines and ammunition. The mines were great buoyant globes of steel three feet in diameter, each containing three hundred pounds of TNT. Any one of them was quite capable of totally destroying our frail ship if a mishap occurred. Each was mounted on an iron box that acted as an anchor for the mine after it had been dropped into the sea. This box had four small wheels and ran along the tracks laid over the decks. A copper cable connected the mine to the box and could be set in advance for different depths, so a mine could be held just below the surface or close to the sea floor. A submarine, therefore, never knew when it might encounter the fatal cable.
As we were getting the last mine on board, we had our first thrill. This particular mine had become detached from its anchor box, and we were hoisting the metal sphere with its explosive charge over the side. Just as it arrived at the top of the hoist and was being swung inboard, the hook broke, and the mine fell from a height of forty feet, struck the deck of the empty lighter, bounced along like a rubber ball, and went overboard. I’m sure everybody was relieved to hear that splash; I know I was. Had it detonated, we would have been, as one of my officers remarked, “reduced to our constituent elements—a pinch of salt and three buckets of water.” Also, New York would have learned what Halifax had experienced a few months before. A Norwegian ship had struck a French munitions vessel loaded with TNT, and the explosion wiped out two square miles of the town, killing 1,654 people and injuring 1,028. It also created a tidal wave that washed the ruins into the sea.
We were due for another bit of excitement. We had left our anchorage and were heading south for Hampton Roads. I was on the bridge looking aft when suddenly the entire rear part of the ship burst into a sheet of flames that flared up as high as the mainmast truck. This would have been enough under any conditions, but loaded as we were with high-power explosives, I thought it was the end. I stopped the engines and sounded the general alarm. To my great gratification there wasn’t the slightest panic. Officers and men put out the fire without any damage being done. Investigation showed that there had been a large accumulation of gas in our faulty forced-draft system, which, in some manner, had become ignited. What was particularly disturbing was the discovery that the asbestos that the shipyard had just put in burned merrily.