- 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
About five o’clock we had an experience I will never forget. A cloud of smoke appeared, which resolved itself into a fleet of twenty little trawlers out hunting subs. Kipling had aptly named them the Elizabethan Navy. They looked like a drove of small, obstinate, black pigs scudding along under their leg-of-mutton sails, cruising the North Sea in the teeth of the gale and in the face of the German Fleet. What courage and what seamanship! All these sailing-ship captains were fishermen, the prototypes of the men who, under Hawkins, Howard, and Sir Francis Drake, drove the Spanish Armada onto the rocks. I passed the trawlers close aboard in the heavy seas—their captains, in their high boots, standing firmly planted on the heaving decks, their pipes gripped between their teeth—and as we came abeam of them, I saluted, and the Elizabethan Navy waved back.
Night fell while we were still twenty miles from our base, and as we approached the entrance to the firth, we found none of the navigation lights were on; it was black as a pocket. I comforted myself with the thought that, at least, our accompanying destroyer knew her own coast. I looked around for her to guide us in and discovered that she had dropped behind and was following our wake; her captain knew jolly well that we would run aground long before she did.
Abruptly there loomed up ahead of us a dark mass, blacker than the surrounding night. Hoping it was the high cliff at the harbor entrance we signaled: “Are you North Sutor?” A moment’s wait. Then out of the darkness a pinpoint of light blinked the reply, “Yes.” We were home safe and another link had been forged in the steel chain lying under the sea.
The next morning the commodore said to me: “I certainly was amazed to see you emerge from that whirlpool safely. We all thought you had gone on the rocks.”
Our last expedition was on October 26. For the first two days and nights there was a living gale blowing. It was impossible to lay mines, so we ran up and down on the edge of the minefield waiting for the weather to moderate. On the second night our stack guys carried away, and with every roll the high stack gave an excellent imitation of the Leaning Tower; we expected it to go overboard at any minute. As the stack shifted its position, the siren, which was attached to it, uttered a series of shrieks that were audible for miles and guaranteed to attract every submarine within hearing. We finally got the steam turned off amid, I am sure, the curses of the entire squadron.
The next day it was calm enough to commence mining. In the midst of it a dense fog came down; we couldn’t see the ships on either hand, though they were only 500 yards away. The searchlights were turned on and pointed at the bridge of our nearest neighbor in the formation. For a time these wavering dots of light guided us but, as it got thicker, even these disappeared, and for two hours we ran through a dense, wet blanket, launching the mines at the prescribed intervals. One of the mathematical sharps on board reported that had any ship made an error of two degrees in her course and run at two revolutions more speed than her neighbor, she would, at the end of the planting, have been directly ahead of said neighbor and dropping mines right in front of her.
That was our last run. The barrage was completed. Two weeks later the armistice was declared.
What had been the result of our summer’s work? We Americans had cruised 8,384 miles in submarine-and mine-infested waters without losing a ship. Of the 70,113 miles in the barrage, our ships had laid 57,470—the rest being planted by British minelayers. My ship, the Quinnebaug , had laid 6,045 of these and had taken part in ten of the thirteen expeditions. The entire barrage was 230 miles long and 35 miles wide.
How effective was it? Capt. Reginald R. Belknap, the officer in command of the minelaying squadron, later wrote: “The German losses will probably never be fully known, but according to the Germans’ own report they lost 23 submarines to the barrage. The British Admiralty staff told me that they believe the surrender of the German fleet and the final armistice were caused largely by the collapse of the submarine warfare, their failure being admitted as soon as the mine barrage was found to be effective.”
The damage to morale done by the barrage was far greater than the actual number of U-boats it destroyed. Submarines began to disappear with no definite knowledge of what had happened to them. Crews became increasingly reluctant to go to sea. Finally the German navy mutinied, and the whole German war effort fell into ruins.
Captain Belknap generously recommended each of his ten captains for the Distinguished Service Medal, a decoration second only to the Congressional Medal of Honor. We were also recommended for the French Legion of Honor but never received it. Apparently some patriotic politician in Washington thought it was un-American for us to receive a foreign decoration. I have always deeply regretted it. I would have liked to have been a Chevalier like the Chevalier d’Artagnan!