- 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
Perhaps our worst day came on August 19; I remember the date because it is my birthday. We were on a mining expedition when our starboard paravane ran in alongside the ship and stuck there. Thanks to the efficiency of Lt. John Price, it was hoisted on board without our having to slacken speed or lose position in the formation. Suddenly we sighted a big German mine about forty feet off the starboard bow. It seemed inevitable that we would hit it. I shouted to Price to get the starboard paravane over, any which way, even though I knew that the paravanes were useless against floating mines. It was our only chance. Assisted by several of the men, he lifted the heavy fish, carried it to the rail, and threw it over. It fell on its back, sank, righted itself, and in a moment was running bravely alongside. I saw it pass directly under the mine, and miracle of miracles, the next second the mine, instead of continuing to approach us, was moving parallel to our course and about five feet from the ship’s side. Leaning over the wing of the bridge I could look directly down on it. Apparently a mooring line hanging from it had caught in the jaws of the paravane and the ship was now towing it.
As the paravane swayed and plunged, it was inevitable that one of the horns on the mine would strike us. It was too close to be exploded by rifle fire; it would have taken us down with it. I was afraid to touch the steering wheel, lest the slightest sheer bring it against our side. Helpless, I could only wait for the explosion that was sure to come.
At this moment a seaman ran up to me and reported, “Sir, the ship’s on fire. The lower deck where the mines are stored is all in flames. The mines are going to explode in seconds.”
I looked aft. Smoke was billowing up the midships hatch. Not only would we go, but with a full cargo of mines, the whole squadron would probably go up with us.
A merciful Providence has so constituted the human mind that it can occupy itself with but one vital problem at a time. I forgot all about the fire as I watched that mine swing in toward our side. It was almost touching when it commenced spinning like a top. Whatever held it to the paravane was worn through, and I saw it drift clear. We were due to start mining in two minutes. I shouted the necessary orders and then, and only then, remembered the fire.
The smoke had stopped. I could not leave the bridge, so I sent my orderly below to find out what had happened. He came back to report that the fire was out. Five of our mess cooks had been peeling potatoes in the galley when they saw the smoke and flames rising from the mines stored nearby. Calmly equipping themselves with small extinguishers they crawled through and over tons of high explosives, put out the fire, and then, crawling back, continued peeling their potatoes. Afterward they were astonished when I recommended them for the Navy Cross.
When an explosion occurred, there was virtually nothing left of ship or crew.
Our adventures that memorable day were not yet over. Toward the end of the planting it became very dark and misty, and we could only see signals with the greatest difficulty. I was eager to get rid of our remaining mines, as word might come at any time to suspend operations, and it was considered a disgrace not to have planted them all. Sure enough, the message came down the line, “Get rid of all mines. ” We did it by shortening the launching interval until we had an empty hold.
It was pitch dark and raining when the word came to form double column and return to port. I knew we belonged on the right-hand column behind the Saranac , so I located her and followed her stern light like a bloodhound. All around us we could see ships exchanging call letters to find out who was who; it was crucial to maintain your correct place in line, otherwise you might find yourself in the mined area.
About one o’clock it was reported that a piston rod was red hot and we would have to stop to let it cool. There we lay while the other ships and the destroyers faded into the darkness ahead, leaving us to whatever fate happened to be abroad that night. There was one relief. When the last mine went overboard, nobody bothered particularly about submarines. There is a considerable difference between having a ship sink under you and being blown to atoms. The rod took forty minutes to cool. Then we put on maximum speed and caught up with the squadron by three o’clock. Without wishing to seem sentimental, I sometimes think ships have souls. To hear our crippled engines straining, striving, doing their best to bring us safely in—surely they were something more than mere masses of metal.
When an explosion did occur, there was virtually nothing left of ship or crew. The next day we learned that a British minelayer that had been working with us had blown up, causes unknown. An officer’s arm was found a mile from where the explosion took place. That was the only trace of her. For the next week, if a door slammed, even in port, everybody jumped. I noticed a large box that had been left on the forecastle and ordered it taken below. The men lifting it let it drop with a slight thump. In two seconds there were fifty frightened sailors on deck.