- 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
There was a channel swept clear of floating and anchored mines a short distance ahead, and I was faced with the pleasing alternatives of either going straight on, thus ensuring our being in comparatively safe water but probably ramming somebody or being rammed or, on the other hand, continuing down the coast outside and taking my chances with the enemy mines. I chose the latter danger.
All around us crawled the thick, white fog, impenetrable as cotton wool. I remarked optimistically to the navigator, an old merchant skipper, that at least it was still partially clear overhead. “Yes, but we ain’t headed that way,” was his encouraging rejoinder.
As the fog covered the horizon, it was impossible to take an observation in the regular way. I had a bucket of water taken to the bridge and a film of oil put on the surface, then I sat on the deck straddling the bucket and with sextant ready waited for the sun to show itself. For a second only it peeped out, but in that second I snapped its altitude using the bucket as an “artificial horizon.” This observation placed us thirty miles to the eastward of the firth. Finally we came to the point where, if we were running on time, we should swing to the right to enter the firth. We turned and just missed colliding with the Baltimore .
Shortly after this near disaster, we were lucky enough to pick up the entrance buoy and we headed in for the submarine nets. In the fog it was like threading a mystic maze; we would sight a heavy net close under the starboard bow, hear frantic whistles from the guarding trawler, put the rudder hard over, miss it by the skin of our teeth, sight another net under the port bow, reverse the process amid wild cries of warning in Cockney and Scottish accents, stop the engines to avoid entangling the propeller, and trust to our momentum to slide through. Once we went so close to a trawler that our quarter boat touched her yardarm. We did get through, however, and, after sighting the range lights on the wreck of the Natal , anchored again off Invergordon. I wondered if every trip was to be this bad. No, most of them turned out to be worse.
The following week was spent in port. The premature explosions were a matter of serious concern, as they left gaps in the minefield, so the second expedition was delayed until certain changes in design had been worked out and the extreme sensitivity of the mines somewhat reduced.
On our second mining expedition the weather was clear but the wind tremendously strong, even for the North Sea, home of the winds. It was impossible to walk upright, and anyone trying to face it had the breath blown back into his lungs. The “prematures” were fewer in number, although they continued to take place at the most unexpected times. We heard a particularly violent explosion from the field we had laid on the first trip, and the quartermaster asked me, “What do you suppose that was?” His question was answered a short time later when we passed the bodies of several German sailors floating on the rough sea. We had made our first kill.
The Germans were not long in responding. Obviously other submarines in the vicinity had also heard the explosions and now knew what we were doing. Suddenly we saw our escort destroyers make a dash toward the left flank, and a regular Donneybrook Fair ensued, the Britishers weaving in and out at top speed, their guns depressed to the utmost limit, hurling a continuous stream of fire into the apparently empty waters below, while, at regular intervals, they let go depth charges from their sterns, which sent cataracts of water into the air, making our ships shiver violently. Fifteen minutes of this and silence fell. The escort commander came slowly back to report that several submarines had been trailing us, paralleling our course and waiting for the right moment to attack. As all our mines had been laid, we increased speed to the maximum and headed for home.
There was always a question in our minds which, luckily, was never answered. Should one of our ships be torpedoed with her mines still on board and be blown to atoms, would the explosion detonate the mines on the other ships and all of them go up together, just as the explosion of one mine in a field frequently detonates a whole line of them? The experts assured us that this couldn’t happen, but with prematures continuing to blow up, we committed the heresy of doubting the experts.
At first our expeditions did not last more than a couple of days, but as the barrage stretched farther and farther across the North Sea, we were out for five days or a week. Now we began to glimpse the ice-clad mountains of Norway. Our net was slowly closing around Germany.
I remember one trip especially. In order to avoid our own mines, we were now obliged to run west into the Atlantic through Stronsay Firth, which lay well to the north, go still farther north before turning east, and then, running just south of the Orkney Islands, ease down until we were on the upper edge of the barrage where we were to start work.