- 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
On July 13 we started on our first mining expedition. At dusk we passed back through the submarine nets to meet our escort of fourteen British destroyers from the Grand Fleet and stood out for Muckle Skerry Light, where we took our departure and headed for Norway. On the horizon lay a division of battleships and light cruisers guarding against a sally by the German fleet, while, on our flanks, the destroyers of our escort were deployed, watching for submarines.
Our ships formed in two lines, one ahead of the other, moving on parallel courses 500 yards apart. Of course only the rear line of ships dropped mines; the front line stood by ready to change position with any ship in the rear that had a breakdown. The mines were carried on two of the lower decks, the “launching deck” and the “stowage deck.” The railroad tracks on the launching deck passed through the “barn doors” in the stern of the ship, where an officer was stationed in a soundproof booth. When the signal of execution was hauled down on the flagship, we started to drop mines, one every eight seconds, while the ship steamed steadily on her course. The men lined up on both sides of the tracks, two to a mine, and the mining officer moved a controller that illuminated an electric dial with the word plant . Immediately the first mine was pushed through the open door, its momentum carrying it to the end of the tracks and overboard. It was fascinating to watch them; they would go over with a great splash, bob around in our wake while the box-anchor gradually filled with water, then suddenly sink with a dull plop as though a giant hand had reached up from below and pulled them down.
In the fog, going through the submarine nets was like threading a mystic maze.
We had been assured that a safety device on the mines absolutely prevented them from exploding prematurely. This device was a washer of compressed salt that fitted between the detonator and the firing pin; the mine couldn’t “go off” until it had been in the water half an hour and this washer was dissolved. Even so, we watched with considerable apprehension as our first mine went over the side. Fine! We dropped the second. Still fine! Free from all anxiety, we let go the third. A crash like the Day of Judgment! An enormous column of flames, smoke, mud, and water rose just astern of us. Men a ship’s length away were thrown on their faces, and the entire ship quivered and strained so that it seemed impossible the rivets would not be sheered out of the side plating.
On that first expedition about 6 percent of the mines exploded prematurely, in some cases detonating other mines that had already been successfully laid. There was something peculiar about these detonations of TNT; they were not like the explosions of gunpowder. They would be preceded by a deathly silence, then we would feel a heavy pressure on our chests and all the air in our lungs would be drawn away—sucked toward the exploding mine. It wasn’t just a tremendous noise like the discharge of a big gun; it had a quality of its own.
As mines were dropped from the launching deck, those on the stowage deck were raised in elevators to fill the vacant places and to go overboard in their turn. We steamed at full speed, dropping mines until the entire supply of 800 had been launched. The greatest accuracy and coordination was necessary, and the physical labor was tremendous because, once mining started, there could not be a moment’s letup until the last mine had gone over; otherwise there would be gaps in the minefield. The mines were laid at three levels, so that enemy submarines, whether running on the surface or at ordinary submergence or as deep as 250 feet, could pass through the barrage only at great peril.
The mines suddenly sank as though a giant hand was pulling them from below.
When the last mine had gone over, we headed back to our base. For a long time we could hear muffled explosions behind us. Curiously, when they had become inaudible on the bridge, they could still be felt by the quivering of the ship and could be heard in the engine room, the water transmitting the sound much farther than the air.
The mining over, the tension should have been over also, but there was still some excitement ahead of us. It grew damper and foggier. North Sea fogs are like nothing else in the world, and soon it was impossible to see the forecastle from the bridge. Radio could not be used, as it might attract the submarines. We were in two parallel columns five hundred yards apart. At three o’clock in the morning there was a rift in the fog and, straining our eyes, we suddenly saw a ship directly across our bows, seemingly just under our forefoot. The quartermaster, without orders, spun the wheel and barely missed cutting her down. As we swung around, another ship cut under our stern, disappearing the next moment in the fog, while a third surged up on the quarter. We were in the midst of an enormous convoy. Then the whole outfit vanished, leaving us, like the Ancient Mariner, “all, all alone.”