- 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
Winter was coming and the sun was above the horizon for only six hours out of the twenty-four — from nine in the morning until three in the afternoon. Gales would soon be sweeping the North Sea, making minelaying impossible. We speeded up our work. Then on October 4 we started out on an expedition that very nearly became our last.
We successfully planted our mines and started back, congratulating ourselves on an easy trip. We reached the western entrance of Stronsay Firth at eight o’clock in the morning. Conditions were excellent; the weather was calm, the sky cloudless and brilliantly blue. Just as we arrived at the exit from the pass, with its high, jagged cliffs only 200 yards to leeward, we were struck by the most terrific tempest of wind that I have ever experienced.
The firth formed a regular funnel through which the wind roared like a thousand demons, and it is an actual fact that the men were thrown to the deck by the force of the wind alone. The sea rose in a series of huge combers. Our bridge was forty feet high, but the water went over it. I thought we were done for. The destroyers barely missed swamping and were obliged to turn and run with the wind and sea astern to save themselves.
We slowed and tried to force our way against the wind that was blowing us down on the rocks to leeward. I have had years of service in destroyers, the most lively of all ships, but I never felt such pitching and surging; I could not believe our old ferryboat could hold together. In the midst of it a petty officer came to the bridge and shouted in my ear about the howl of the storm, “Captain, do you know our rudder is broken?”
If we could not steer, we were finished. I turned the deck over to the executive officer and ran aft, where I saw that one of the two arms of the rudder yoke had broken sharply in two. The only thing left to control the rudder was the other arm, which commenced to bend while I was looking at it. We had the most primitive type of steering gear, and the only connection between the wheel on the bridge and the rudder was this yoke. If the second arm broke, the rudder would be useless and we would be swept down onto the rocks. In that tremendous wind and sea the ship would go to pieces in a moment and everyone would be lost, as the water was icy cold.
For a moment I had the mad idea of trying to repair it under way, but the arm continued to bend and a crack appeared on the surface of the metal. I ran to the bridge, we gave one prolonged shriek from the siren to warn the other ships that we were falling out of formation, and I put her before the wind, heading down to get under the lee of a small island. It was touch and go, but we rounded the corner and swung into Deer Sound just as the remaining arm parted.
I let go the anchor but it was a miserable place to lie with the wind howling and shrieking and the sea foaming and splashing around us. One of the British destroyers, gallantly risking her own chance of survival, ran in to guard us from hostile submarines as we were dead in the water and an utter sitting duck.
While our very capable engineer, Lieutenant Antrobus, an ex-Navy warrant officer, got to work on the rudder with his men, we had an exchange of signals with the destroyer that reminded me of the comic strip characters Alphonse and Gaston, who were always elaborately polite to each other:
Finally the German navy mutinied, and their whole war effort fell into ruins.
QUINNEBAUG: We regret very much having delayed your return to port.
DESTROYER: Please don’t mention it. It is a pleasure to be of service.
This when both of us expected to capsize at any moment. Oh well, we would have gone down like gentlemen.
In two hours our engineers had “fished” the broken arms with steel bars and horseshoe clamps that they made and fitted in our coal-bunker machine shop. We weighed anchor and had a terrible time getting it on the billboard. Every time the ship took a surge, the anchor crashed into our side until I was sure it would knock a hole in us. Our paravanes, so vitally important to our safety, had both appeared on the same side of the ship with their lines inextricably scrambled. With great difficulty we finally hoisted them on board, but as it would have taken several hours to get them in working condition again, we decided to chance the mines and make a run for it. Every moment was valuable, as undoubtedly the Germans had picked up our radio signals and submarines would be headed our way.
We set out again into the gale, and I told Antrobus to give her all she had. Incredibly we made two knots more than the ship had done on her trial trip twenty years previously, although the poor old engines sounded as though they were tearing themselves apart. It was frightfully rough at first, but as we drew closer to the coast of Scotland, we found a partial lee.