- 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
At Hampton Roads we anchored, and a party of workmen carried on board a number of articles we vitally needed. As this would be our last home port for many months, leave was granted, and a number of our men went ashore. To their annoyance, they were not welcome even by fellow seamen from the battleship squadron. Whenever one of them lighted a cigarette, the men ran away shouting that they could see the TNT under his fingernails. Already we had become pariahs even in our own country.
By now the ships that were to make up the Mine Force had assembled and were ready to put to sea. We proceeded up the coast to Provincetown, during which voyage we lost our radio aerial, a crack opened in the main condenser, we lost 2,000 gallons of fresh water, and as there were no baffles in the boilers, every time the ship rolled heavily, the water went from the boilers to the engines and squirted out of every orifice. I could not imagine how we could carry out our mission.
At Provincetown we were sent to the Boston Navy Yard for repairs. I called on Comm. Reginald Belknap, and he told me regretfully that, due to a press of shipping, the commandant of the yard had told him that the repairs would be long delayed. This was very bad news indeed, as the Quinnebaug was due to make the transatlantic crossing with the rest of the squadron in a few days. I happened to mention that we had 90 tons of TNT on board. When I got back to the ship, I found that a cordon of marines had been posted around her and the repairs were being completed with the most amazing speed. There was also a note from the commandant of the yard in which he intimated that the sooner we left, the better. I have never seen such wonderful cooperation.
We rejoined the squadron at Newport, and at a final conference the captains were told to get under way singly at midnight without signal and with their ships darkened in case there were submarines about. Outside the harbor the ships were to assemble and start for Scotland.
We reached the rendezvous at two o’clock in the morning, formed a double column, and headed east. For the next few days all went well, until we reached mid-ocean, where we had our final and most serious breakdown. The main air pump flew to pieces, necessitating the manufacture of a new pump rod and nuts in our little machine shop that had originally been a coal bunker. One of the other ships towed us for a day, using one of our anchor chains as a tow. We were able to finish the job, part of which required the cutting of a large hole in a steel deck in order to lift out the damaged pump rod. Just as we were completing it, a flank ship fired a gun—the agreed-on signal of a submarine attack.
We instantly cast off the tow, put on full speed, and our whole flotilla scattered. We saw a big collier astern open up with a regular fusillade, and everyone was seeing periscopes all over the place. Looking back, I think the whole business was a false alarm. No submarine captain could have failed to sink a twenty-year-old crippled ferryboat incapable of making more than a few knots.
Our course took us far to the north, nearly within sight of Iceland. Then we curved southward into the danger zone, and nobody was allowed to sleep or take off his clothes. Soon we would meet the British destroyers who were to escort us through Cromarty Firth to Invergordon.
At daylight on a crystal-clear morning the little gray destroyers came skimming toward us over a glassy sea, prompt to the minute. Greetings were cut short by the jdestroyer commander, who urged us to put on all steam and make our utmost speed, as submarines had been reported nearby. The Englishmen handled their ships beautifully, swinging in circles ahead and on the flanks.
We ran along the coast of Scotland past high, rocky cliffs smothered in veils of white spray, with stately snow-capped peaks in the background and dimly glimpsed villages clustering at their feet. War seemed incredible in such a setting until we sighted the submarine nets ahead, vast webs that stretched across the harbor, closing the funnel that forms Cromarty Firth. Outside lay the trawlers waiting to open the hidden gates of the net. The head of our column reached them and stopped; the trawlers gradually drew aside a section of the first net for us to enter. As we slowly ran through, they opened another section of the second net, about half a mile south, and then, running south once more until they neared the wreck of the Natal , a big British cruiser that had mysteriously blown up a short time previously, they parted the third and last of the “naval barbed wire,” and we came to anchor in the blue waters of Invergordon Harbor, which meant, for a time at least, relief from anxiety.