April/may 1983 | Volume 34, Issue 3
An extraordinary World War I naval operation is recounted by the commander of a decaying coastal steamer crammed with a terrifying new explosive
When my father, Rear Adm. D. Pratt Mannix 3rd, died in 1957, he had served as a midshipman on a square-rigger and lived to see the atomic bomb dropped on Japan. Born in 1878, he had fought in eight wars, been awarded six medals, and had seen action against Moro pirates and the Imperial German Navy. He had watched the United States grow to be the most powerful country in the world. As the U.S. Navy was responsible for much of this growth, he had had an opportunity to see, firsthand, history being made. His most hazardous and most important duty came during the First World War when he was given command of a minelayer—one of the tiny fleet of ships with orders to lay a mine barrage across the North Sea from Scotland to Norway, thus “bottling in” Germany’s dreaded U-boats. This ambitious scheme had been first envisaged by the assistant Navy secretary, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, within weeks of America’s entry into the war in April 1917. When, at Roosevelt’s prodding, the technology had been devised to make possible mining on such a vast scale, the operation got under way in June 1918. Many experienced naval officers considered the whole idea madness. To the best of my knowledge, Father’s account of what happened is the only eyewitness record of this little-known episode in our history.
In April 1917, when America entered the war, by far the greatest danger to Allied ships came from the German U-boats, the “stiletto of the seas” as they were called. Conventional naval tactics against them were useless, and they were sinking 800,000 tons of shipping a month. Since plans were made to send thousands of American troops to reinforce the reeling Allies in France, the submarines presented a special danger. Slow-moving transports, loaded with men, would have been the ideal target for the torpedoes of the deadly underwater ships.
At this time I was stationed at the Philadelphia Naval Yard, and I learned of highly secret plans to lay a minefield across the North Sea from Scotland to Norway, a distance approximately as far as from Washington to New York. It would be the greatest undertaking of its kind in history. The English Channel had already been successfully mined by the British, thus blocking it to U-boats, but the boats could still leave the German coast and swing north of the British Isles, attacking the shipping lanes between England and America.
To block this wide passage would require a minefield 250 miles long and 900 feet deep. This meant a total of 400,000 mines. There were not enough mines in the world for such a field and no chance of manufacturing such a vast number in the time available, yet already an announcement had been made in the House of Commons that Great Britain had only enough food for another month. A new type of mine was needed that could be used in deep water and did not actually have to be struck by a ship in order to explode. Such a mine had indeed been devised. It was attached to an anchor by a long copper cable, and if a submarine touched the cable, the mine exploded. A hundred thousand such mines would be sufficient to form an effective barrage.
The mines were to be loaded with a new and terrible explosive, far more deadly than dynamite, called TNT. Little was known about TNT and its effects. Both the British and the French had found the substance too dangerous to use, so there were few volunteers for a minelaying squadron. In any case, professional sailors disliked minelaying on principle; it was often referred to as “rat catching” and lacked the glamour of shooting it out with broadsides from the big guns. There was also the consideration that if you were beaten in ship-to-ship conflict, you could always surrender. But if during minelaying one of your mines exploded, that was it. “You made a hole in the water that it took three months to fill up” was the popular phrase.
I saw a great opportunity here for advancement, so I volunteered for the Minelaying Squadron. I was accepted and given orders to proceed to New York, where I was to take command of the Jefferson . I had no idea what the Jefferson was, but when I arrived in New York, I quickly found out.
She was an old ex-merchantman with canvas-covered decks like a ferryboat, and all her internal fittings were of wood. For twenty years she had carried passengers and freight between New York and Norfolk, Virginia. As her engines were completely shot, she had been retired from service. I could not believe that this frail ship was supposed to cross the Atlantic, weather North Sea gales, and actually survive the ordeal.
When I took command of her, she was lying in the Erie Basin, South Brooklyn. Her ancient insides had been torn out, lounge rooms and dining salons transformed into long reaches of bare decks on which were laid complete systems of railway tracks with switches and turntables. In her stern had been cut two great “barn doors” through which the tracks passed, ending in a downward curve over the water. A five-inch gun was mounted aft, and two 3-inch antiaircraft guns were on her forecastle; this was the extent of her armament. Her white paint was being changed to a mad, futuristic orgy of color called “camouflage,” which was supposed to confuse the eyes of submarine commanders, and she had been rechristened Quinnebaug , a name dating back in naval annals to the Civil War. She was one of ten ships called Raiders of the Night that were supposed to stop the overwhelming force of Germany’s famed U-boats.
I protested that this old, discarded vessel could never get across the Atlantic; that even when she was new she had been designed for nothing but coastal work. The answer I received was that no other ships were available. As I had asked for this assignment, I could not now very well refuse it. I could only bless the dear American public who in time of peace economized on naval expenditures and then in time of war expected ferryboats to cross the ocean and fight the Imperial German Navy.
Officers and men began to assemble. Our complement of the former was eighteen; only three of these, including myself, were Annapolis men. The others consisted of an ex-merchant skipper over fifty years old, two young college men who had never been to sea before, a millionaire looking for excitement, and a tall Dane from the Geodetic Survey who was an authority on tropical flora. The rest were Navy warrant officers and merchant service officers.
I insisted that all hands, officers and men, be allowed to inspect the ship and know exactly what lay before them. Immediately quite a number developed ill mothers or aged fathers and were promptly sent back to the receiving station. I was glad to see them go. There could be no room for faint hearts in the project that lay ahead.
The whole affair was cloaked in such secrecy that we were not permitted to tell even our families where we were going or what we were to do. As a result, the Mine Barrage, which was to play such a crucial part in the war, remained unknown to the American public.
We left the Erie Basin on April 15 and proceeded to the Explosive Anchorage in lower New York Bay, which all other vessels were careful to give a wide berth. There we remained for twenty-four hours loading mines and ammunition. The mines were great buoyant globes of steel three feet in diameter, each containing three hundred pounds of TNT. Any one of them was quite capable of totally destroying our frail ship if a mishap occurred. Each was mounted on an iron box that acted as an anchor for the mine after it had been dropped into the sea. This box had four small wheels and ran along the tracks laid over the decks. A copper cable connected the mine to the box and could be set in advance for different depths, so a mine could be held just below the surface or close to the sea floor. A submarine, therefore, never knew when it might encounter the fatal cable.
As we were getting the last mine on board, we had our first thrill. This particular mine had become detached from its anchor box, and we were hoisting the metal sphere with its explosive charge over the side. Just as it arrived at the top of the hoist and was being swung inboard, the hook broke, and the mine fell from a height of forty feet, struck the deck of the empty lighter, bounced along like a rubber ball, and went overboard. I’m sure everybody was relieved to hear that splash; I know I was. Had it detonated, we would have been, as one of my officers remarked, “reduced to our constituent elements—a pinch of salt and three buckets of water.” Also, New York would have learned what Halifax had experienced a few months before. A Norwegian ship had struck a French munitions vessel loaded with TNT, and the explosion wiped out two square miles of the town, killing 1,654 people and injuring 1,028. It also created a tidal wave that washed the ruins into the sea.
We were due for another bit of excitement. We had left our anchorage and were heading south for Hampton Roads. I was on the bridge looking aft when suddenly the entire rear part of the ship burst into a sheet of flames that flared up as high as the mainmast truck. This would have been enough under any conditions, but loaded as we were with high-power explosives, I thought it was the end. I stopped the engines and sounded the general alarm. To my great gratification there wasn’t the slightest panic. Officers and men put out the fire without any damage being done. Investigation showed that there had been a large accumulation of gas in our faulty forced-draft system, which, in some manner, had become ignited. What was particularly disturbing was the discovery that the asbestos that the shipyard had just put in burned merrily.
At Hampton Roads we anchored, and a party of workmen carried on board a number of articles we vitally needed. As this would be our last home port for many months, leave was granted, and a number of our men went ashore. To their annoyance, they were not welcome even by fellow seamen from the battleship squadron. Whenever one of them lighted a cigarette, the men ran away shouting that they could see the TNT under his fingernails. Already we had become pariahs even in our own country.
By now the ships that were to make up the Mine Force had assembled and were ready to put to sea. We proceeded up the coast to Provincetown, during which voyage we lost our radio aerial, a crack opened in the main condenser, we lost 2,000 gallons of fresh water, and as there were no baffles in the boilers, every time the ship rolled heavily, the water went from the boilers to the engines and squirted out of every orifice. I could not imagine how we could carry out our mission.
At Provincetown we were sent to the Boston Navy Yard for repairs. I called on Comm. Reginald Belknap, and he told me regretfully that, due to a press of shipping, the commandant of the yard had told him that the repairs would be long delayed. This was very bad news indeed, as the Quinnebaug was due to make the transatlantic crossing with the rest of the squadron in a few days. I happened to mention that we had 90 tons of TNT on board. When I got back to the ship, I found that a cordon of marines had been posted around her and the repairs were being completed with the most amazing speed. There was also a note from the commandant of the yard in which he intimated that the sooner we left, the better. I have never seen such wonderful cooperation.
We rejoined the squadron at Newport, and at a final conference the captains were told to get under way singly at midnight without signal and with their ships darkened in case there were submarines about. Outside the harbor the ships were to assemble and start for Scotland.
We reached the rendezvous at two o’clock in the morning, formed a double column, and headed east. For the next few days all went well, until we reached mid-ocean, where we had our final and most serious breakdown. The main air pump flew to pieces, necessitating the manufacture of a new pump rod and nuts in our little machine shop that had originally been a coal bunker. One of the other ships towed us for a day, using one of our anchor chains as a tow. We were able to finish the job, part of which required the cutting of a large hole in a steel deck in order to lift out the damaged pump rod. Just as we were completing it, a flank ship fired a gun—the agreed-on signal of a submarine attack.
We instantly cast off the tow, put on full speed, and our whole flotilla scattered. We saw a big collier astern open up with a regular fusillade, and everyone was seeing periscopes all over the place. Looking back, I think the whole business was a false alarm. No submarine captain could have failed to sink a twenty-year-old crippled ferryboat incapable of making more than a few knots.
Our course took us far to the north, nearly within sight of Iceland. Then we curved southward into the danger zone, and nobody was allowed to sleep or take off his clothes. Soon we would meet the British destroyers who were to escort us through Cromarty Firth to Invergordon.
At daylight on a crystal-clear morning the little gray destroyers came skimming toward us over a glassy sea, prompt to the minute. Greetings were cut short by the jdestroyer commander, who urged us to put on all steam and make our utmost speed, as submarines had been reported nearby. The Englishmen handled their ships beautifully, swinging in circles ahead and on the flanks.
We ran along the coast of Scotland past high, rocky cliffs smothered in veils of white spray, with stately snow-capped peaks in the background and dimly glimpsed villages clustering at their feet. War seemed incredible in such a setting until we sighted the submarine nets ahead, vast webs that stretched across the harbor, closing the funnel that forms Cromarty Firth. Outside lay the trawlers waiting to open the hidden gates of the net. The head of our column reached them and stopped; the trawlers gradually drew aside a section of the first net for us to enter. As we slowly ran through, they opened another section of the second net, about half a mile south, and then, running south once more until they neared the wreck of the Natal , a big British cruiser that had mysteriously blown up a short time previously, they parted the third and last of the “naval barbed wire,” and we came to anchor in the blue waters of Invergordon Harbor, which meant, for a time at least, relief from anxiety.
On July 13 we started on our first mining expedition. At dusk we passed back through the submarine nets to meet our escort of fourteen British destroyers from the Grand Fleet and stood out for Muckle Skerry Light, where we took our departure and headed for Norway. On the horizon lay a division of battleships and light cruisers guarding against a sally by the German fleet, while, on our flanks, the destroyers of our escort were deployed, watching for submarines.
Our ships formed in two lines, one ahead of the other, moving on parallel courses 500 yards apart. Of course only the rear line of ships dropped mines; the front line stood by ready to change position with any ship in the rear that had a breakdown. The mines were carried on two of the lower decks, the “launching deck” and the “stowage deck.” The railroad tracks on the launching deck passed through the “barn doors” in the stern of the ship, where an officer was stationed in a soundproof booth. When the signal of execution was hauled down on the flagship, we started to drop mines, one every eight seconds, while the ship steamed steadily on her course. The men lined up on both sides of the tracks, two to a mine, and the mining officer moved a controller that illuminated an electric dial with the word plant . Immediately the first mine was pushed through the open door, its momentum carrying it to the end of the tracks and overboard. It was fascinating to watch them; they would go over with a great splash, bob around in our wake while the box-anchor gradually filled with water, then suddenly sink with a dull plop as though a giant hand had reached up from below and pulled them down.
We had been assured that a safety device on the mines absolutely prevented them from exploding prematurely. This device was a washer of compressed salt that fitted between the detonator and the firing pin; the mine couldn’t “go off” until it had been in the water half an hour and this washer was dissolved. Even so, we watched with considerable apprehension as our first mine went over the side. Fine! We dropped the second. Still fine! Free from all anxiety, we let go the third. A crash like the Day of Judgment! An enormous column of flames, smoke, mud, and water rose just astern of us. Men a ship’s length away were thrown on their faces, and the entire ship quivered and strained so that it seemed impossible the rivets would not be sheered out of the side plating.
On that first expedition about 6 percent of the mines exploded prematurely, in some cases detonating other mines that had already been successfully laid. There was something peculiar about these detonations of TNT; they were not like the explosions of gunpowder. They would be preceded by a deathly silence, then we would feel a heavy pressure on our chests and all the air in our lungs would be drawn away—sucked toward the exploding mine. It wasn’t just a tremendous noise like the discharge of a big gun; it had a quality of its own.
As mines were dropped from the launching deck, those on the stowage deck were raised in elevators to fill the vacant places and to go overboard in their turn. We steamed at full speed, dropping mines until the entire supply of 800 had been launched. The greatest accuracy and coordination was necessary, and the physical labor was tremendous because, once mining started, there could not be a moment’s letup until the last mine had gone over; otherwise there would be gaps in the minefield. The mines were laid at three levels, so that enemy submarines, whether running on the surface or at ordinary submergence or as deep as 250 feet, could pass through the barrage only at great peril.
When the last mine had gone over, we headed back to our base. For a long time we could hear muffled explosions behind us. Curiously, when they had become inaudible on the bridge, they could still be felt by the quivering of the ship and could be heard in the engine room, the water transmitting the sound much farther than the air.
The mining over, the tension should have been over also, but there was still some excitement ahead of us. It grew damper and foggier. North Sea fogs are like nothing else in the world, and soon it was impossible to see the forecastle from the bridge. Radio could not be used, as it might attract the submarines. We were in two parallel columns five hundred yards apart. At three o’clock in the morning there was a rift in the fog and, straining our eyes, we suddenly saw a ship directly across our bows, seemingly just under our forefoot. The quartermaster, without orders, spun the wheel and barely missed cutting her down. As we swung around, another ship cut under our stern, disappearing the next moment in the fog, while a third surged up on the quarter. We were in the midst of an enormous convoy. Then the whole outfit vanished, leaving us, like the Ancient Mariner, “all, all alone.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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!
On our way back across the Atlantic we passed through the combined fleets lying in Scapa Flow. The British had arranged a little celebration for us. The crews of all the allied ships were assembled on the upper decks, the bands played and the men cheered us as we steamed slowly by. Vice Adm. Sir William Pakenham, incidentally a great-grandson of the Pakenham who fell at New Orleans, signaled: “You take with you the gratitude and admiration of the battle cruisers.”
As we reached the surrendered German ships a dead silence fell. There were the ships whose crews had mutinied at the Kiel, refusing to put to sea. Strict orders had been given to maintain absolute silence while passing them; no jeers nor gibes of any sort. The orders were quite unnecessary. The predominant feeling of our crews was curiosity rather than hatred or exultation.
We sailed for New York anticipating a triumphal entry. After all, we had done something entirely unique in the history of warfare. Then our orders were changed. We were switched to Yorktown, Virginia. Running up Chesapeake Bay, we met a sister ship of the Old Dominion Line plodding along on her regular trip north. Despite our military mast and war paint, she recognized us as the old Jefferson . There was a great scurrying around on her decks, and her crew and waiters lined the rails waving their hats, towels, dishrags, and anything they could pick up. She dropped astern, and our triumphal entry was over.
The Mine Force had ceased to exist.