- 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
Stronsay Firth is a narrow passage enclosed by great, rugged cliffs that rise sheer from the sea. As we approached the entrance, five enemy submarines were reported ahead. It was too late to turn back; the van of our column was already in the shadow of the cliffs. As we went deeper into the passageway, there was a terrific roar from ahead and to port. A torpedo had been fired across our track, missing its target and striking the high wall of rock on our left. The confined space made the noise indescribable.
The flanking ships opened fire with their guns, and the destroyers raced to start smoke screens on both flanks, simultaneously dropping depth charges. In a moment we were running, loaded with mines, through whirling clouds of smoke. It was so dense that all we could see were the rocky pinnacles above us and, close alongside, the rough water covered with dead fish killed by the explosions. Then, for a moment, the smoke lifted and I saw the outline of a torpedo detach itself from the darker gray of the passage and rush toward us like a dog running across a road in front of a motorcar. There was nothing we could do. Our guns would not depress enough to fire at it, and it was going so fast we could not possibly swing out of its way.
Abruptly the torpedo began to “porpoise,” leaping up and down in the water as porpoises do before the bow of a ship. Something had gone wrong with its mechanism. It crossed our course to port and disappeared in a whirl of spray and smoke. At the same time, not twenty-five yards off our starboard quarter, the thin, gray needle of a periscope rose above the water to study us. I simply crossed my fingers and waited.
The periscope stayed up for maybe five seconds, then the bow of a destroyer appeared out of the smoke. The periscope was jerked down just as the destroyer passed over it. Why the sub didn’t fire a second torpedo at us, I will never know; perhaps she didn’t have time. We made the rest of the trip through the firth in safety.
The presence of these submarines showed that our work was beginning to have its effects. No longer could the subs round the north of Scotland and head down to their bases; their only paths of return lay through the narrow firths like Stronsay and then south, hugging the coast until clear of the barrage. In the next few weeks we would close up these bolt-holes also.
One of our worst moments came about not through enemy action but because of our own faulty machinery. Shortly after we had started mining one day, the steering-wheel rope jumped a pulley on the lower deck and started to scrape against a steel bulkhead. If the rope parted, we would be unable to steer and would run into our own mines, but if we reported a breakdown and fell out, it would mean a gap in the barrage. We had never yet failed the commodore, so I stationed a man with a bucket of grease and a brush to keep the points of contact heavily coated, and we actually laid 600 mines with our steering gear in that condition. The last mine having gone over, I sent Kellerhouse, our old merchant skipper, below with a crowbar. When he reported, “Ready!” we suddenly put the wheel hard-a-port; this slackened the wheel rope, and he deftly threw it back on the pulley before it tautened again. At the same time, on the bridge, the wheel was brought back to amidships before the ship could take a sheer.
As our expeditions continued, we met fewer submarines but a great many floating German mines. They were easily distinguished from our own, as they had projecting points or “horns.” Whether they were deliberately set adrift, a menace to both friend and foe, or had parted their mooring lines, we never knew. At first each one sighted was promptly reported and efforts made to explode or sink it by rifle fire, but before long they began to appear in such swarms that our attention was entirely occupied in dodging them. Had we attempted to sink them all, there would have been no time left to do anything else.
Our main protection against anchored mines was the paravane. As this device was to play so important a part in our work, I had better describe it briefly. A paravane resembled a torpedo and was towed by a line passing around the forefoot of the ship. A paravane or “fish,” as they were usually called, had horizontal metal fins that made it run along like an aquaplane, except that instead of being on the surface of the water, it was fifteen or twenty feet below it. The motion of the ship through the water kept it clear of the side. If the ship slowed down, the fish would come alongside and stick closer than a brother, in which position it was useless and had to be hoisted on board and relaunched by means of a small swinging boom.
In the nose of the paravane was a pair of very sharp steel jaws. When a ship met an anchored mine, the mine’s mooring line would slide along the towing line of the paravane until it came to the steel jaws, where it would be severed, and the mine, cut adrift from its anchor, would come to the surface, where it could be sunk by rifle fire. Each ship used two paravanes, one on either side, when in mine-infested waters.
The paravanes cut down our speed about two knots and were very temperamental, constantly fouling themselves, but it was vitally necessary to use them.