GENERAL ARTICLES

STEAM BY DAWN

The story of the minesweepers — A motley fleet of rusty ships and rugged men who seek out death that lurks below

LAWSON LUARD October 15 1941
GENERAL ARTICLES

STEAM BY DAWN

The story of the minesweepers — A motley fleet of rusty ships and rugged men who seek out death that lurks below

LAWSON LUARD October 15 1941

STEAM BY DAWN

THEY ARE little known and little seen, these ships that, since the beginning of hostilities, have kept the channels and fairways clear of mines, day in, day out. But they hold and counter a menace as great today as that of the submarine.

They form part of the Auxiliary Patrols, a collection of small ships as heterogeneous as the tasks they perform; and consist, apart from their high-born sisters, the Fleet minesweepers, of trawlers leavened by a sprinkling of drifters, paddle steamers, and other craft. Their crews, as diverse as the ships, are drawn mainly from reserve ratings and volunteers—fishermen who hail from ports as far afield as Stornoway and Hull, Lowestoft and Grimsby, Fleetwood and Aberdeen; their skippers, men who once took them down North to Iceland, the White Sea and Bear Island; their unit officers, former yachtsmen who know the shoals and shallows of the coast as an open book.

They can be seen in every principal port and harbor, lying berthed in tiers, weather worn and sea stained—the soaring sweep of their lean, grey hulls scarred with rust, funnels encrusted with salt, white ensigns grimed and soiled, anti-aircraft guns uncovered, ready for action.

Dawn, with its rising mists, sends them steaming seaward; the full tide of day watches them distant in the offing, working intricate formations; dusk draws them, like homing pigeons, into port—with sometimes a ship and her crew missing, victims of weapons, invisible and deadly.

My companion, a youngster of twenty-three summers, now in command of a minesweeper, opened the door of the Port office and introduced me to the senior officer minesweeping trawlers.

“S.O.M.S.T.,” he said—“a string of letters almost as long as his name. We abbreviate to save time when compiling reports. I’m told, though, the Army has us beaten. They revel in abracadabras. They’re too clever. Sailors are simple folk.”

The small room, looking over the docks, held an air of spartan efficiency. Charts lined the walls— charts holding rows of flags, and deep-scored lines marking swept channels.

“Plenty to do now,” said the senior minesweeping officer, formerly a solicitor. “I’ve a brood of fourteen roughriders and a couple of ballet dancers. They were becoming impatient until the Germans laid a large scattered contact field outside our front door.”

“He means fourteen Oropesa trawlers and two Magnetic Sweepers,” my companion murmured, then raised his voice. “Impatient, sir? I don’t know much about Oropesas. They’re outside my province. But you’ve kept us busy enough the last few months.”

“You’d better thank the Germans. What’s your tally? Twenty-three? It might be worse.”

“All magnetics,” my companion interpreted. “Hitler was so scandalized at our mastering his secret weapon that he tried to improve it. He’s up to all sorts of tricks, some childish, some too clever. But we always find the clue to the puzzle, though it takes time.”

The tale of that mystery, already partly known, will one day be told in full. It ranges from coldblooded courage in the small hours of a winter morning to ceaseless research in secret laboratories; from dauntless bravery to equally dauntless resolve. Brain matches brain; skill opposes skill; toil counters toil. Mine warfare today is an art as well as a science—fascinating, deadly, ruthless, inexorable—everlastingly changing the province of surface ship, submarine, and airplane.

The room suddenly tremored to a dull, distant reverberation. The senior minesw^eeping officer

LAWSON LUARD

The story of the minesweepers — A motley fleet of rusty ships and rugged men who seek out death that lurks below

walked to the window. “One more cleared,” he said, his face touched with anxiety.

“Sounded like a magnetic,” the other returned. “The contacts aren’t so respectable. Too much noise, to my liking. They ought to damp ’em down.”

“We’ll get the report soon.” He stared at the six trawlers lying alongside the pier—refitting and overhauling; and I understood the meaning of his words. He was uncertain of the issue. Somewhere in ihe offing one of his ships might be mentioned, a week or so later, in an obscure paragraph of the daily Press.

He returned to the chart. “We’ve swept one channel,” he said. “Now we’re clearing another to the Eastward A thousand merchantmen enter and leave the ports of the Kingdom every week—over six an hour. All round the coast channels and fairways must be searched daily. That’s our main task.”

‘ And I—I only follow in the wake of the roughriders to a limiting fathom line,” my companion commented. “That’s the best of being a dainty ballet dancer. No wires to handle, no floats to foul, no kites or otters to run berserk. A gentleman’s job. My mines are destroyed by brains not by brawn, by cunning not by wires; Pm more than indebted to the scientists.”

A few minutes later the telephone rang. The senior minesweeping officer lifted the receiver. He jotted down a dictated message, and his face relaxed. “Good,” he said, “five miles, three cables one-eight-o degrees true from the headland. Another flag for the chart. ChristabeVs all right !”

“Better come along and look at my ship,” the youngster said. “The Oropesas can’t touch her. A Norwegian whaler. She handles like a witch.”

Plis senior smiled. “They’re more bother than unruly children. Ahvays in trouble, always scrounging, and never satisfied. They’ll turn my hair grey.”

“Don’t take any notice of him,” the other retorted. “He’s a hard taskmaster. He’d enforce all the regulation store allowances, if he could. But we’ve made friends with the keeper of Aladdin’s cave. Easy enough, once you learn how to set about it.”

“Watch your step,” came the answer with attempted severity. “Eli delay your boiler cleaning a week. How will you like that?”

“We’ll love it—except the Chief. And, in return, we’ll present you with a few more flags for the chart. Good morning, sir. I’ll report later for tomorrow’s orders.”

We made our way toward the ships, walking along planks spanning the charred beams of a pier recently bombed. They lay in two groups of three, ours holding the outside berth. “Nasty brutes Oropesas,” my companion remarked. “Always littered with wires.

“See that float, shaped like a torpedo? Below it is an otter, to which is shackled the end of the sweep wire. The pressure of the water on the otter swings it away broad on the quarter, and a kite— there it is, like a Venetian blind shutter—is veered down the bight of the wire to regulate the depth. What are those affairs? Only cutters fixed to the end of the sweep, designed to part mine moorings. Trouble is the Germans know all about ’em and have unpleasant countermeasures. Each ship follows just inside the float of her next ahead, the theory being that only the leader is in danger. But sometimes it doesn’t work in practice.”

We picked our way over her decks and those of a sister. “What’s your score lately?” he asked an able seaman.

“A full twenty, sir. Last one fouled the kite and gave us a rare shake up. Smashed my best teacup

and saucer. But we cut a champion fellow adrift t’other day. Skipper said ’tvvas a new type. Shackled wire to him and towed him to a little beach. Party from Vernon came down to inspect. They seemed highly pleased.”

We climbed the rail of the whaler and dropped aboard. A few minutes later I was deep in the mysteries of the gear. “Simple enough, isn’t it?” my companion said. “But sometimes it makes you think. The play of invisible forces, one against the other. A real game of hide and seek.”

He had worked magnetic mines since their inception, and he gave me an outline of the successive measures developed. 1 felt I was listening to the incredulous, but his easy assurance gave his words an abiding reality.

“The first three months were the worst,” he concluded. “The antidote to the magnetic mine, a degaussing girdle—an electrical circuit especially energized, that neutralizes the magnetic field of a sdfip—was soon discovered. But it had to be made and fitted. And in the meantime the mines had to be destroyed.”

He smiled. “Those were bad days—for a while. The graph of sinkings rose alarmingly. Ships entering and leaving the ports of the Kingdom to the tune of over six an hour. That thought was almost uppermost in my mind—always is. But you’ll see for yourself tomorrow. We sail at dawn.”

“The First Ten Thousand”

MINESWEEPERS are the answer to a method of war termed, generically and indifferently, mine warfare. It is an instrument of offense and defense, establishing without watch or ward, upkeep or maintenance, risk or hazard beyond the laying an unseen blockade of fairways and channels, a formidable barrier to ports and harbors. From simple beginnings, early in the century, it developed during the last war, into a science exercising immense power. Mines—contact mines; for until the U.S.A. joined the Allies no other type was known—were eventually laid by us over wide areas; in thickly-sown barrages at varying depths to trap surface craft and, above all, submarines, in isolated groups at strategical spearheads, and off the entrances of the enemy’s fairways and channels.

But with a natural indifference to the fate of neutral ships and innocent merchantmen, now long considered normal, the Germans disregarded all international convention regulating mine warfare. They spread their fields indiscriminately, failed to announce danger areas, allowed mines that broke away to remain alive, and knew the unholy value of others designed to float at random. Second only in importance to the unrestricted submarine campaign, their mining offensive forced us to commandeer, build, and commission a fleet of small ships that could have been used to better purpose.

During those years we gained invaluable experience, though at a cost. Our conception of mine warfare, at first vague and indefinite, developed slowly, then apace. Perhaps the very idea of an unseen, deadly weapon, used though it was in strict conformity with International law, ran counter to the spirit of the race. But circumstances forced the issue; and by 1917 our mining had made immense strides.

We laid, official figures record, more than a hundred thousand mines in the North Sea and English Channel alone, apart from over fifty thousand disposed of by the Americans in the Northern Barrage—three times as many as the Germans scattered during the course of the war.

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From small beginnings, with high casualties, our minesweeping methods also improved steadily until, in 1918, we were destroying eighty mines for every minesweeper lost, and employing ten thousand men in seven hundred ships, of which over four hundred were trawlers.

The present war saw us better prepared, though by no means mustering enough ships and men. At its outbreak the Auxiliary Patrol was formed for minesweeping and other duties, the personnel drawn mainly from the trawler section of the Royal Naval Reserve. But a call in November, 1939, for ten thousand fishermen and volunteers—the naval equivalent of Kitchener’s first hundred thousand—followed by another in February, 1940, revealed the nature of the task. The great trawling ports gave their ships willingly; others followed suit; the men surged forward in overwhelming numbers, signing on at first for three months, then for the duration. By the spring deep-sea fishing had become a dim memory, prosecuted only by a handful of ships unfit for service, which were manned by men of fifty and sixty.

With defensive measures gaining weight and momentum, our offensive mining continued ceaselessly. Far and wide the fields were laid—in the North Sea and Northern Deeps, the famous Straits, the Irish Channel, and in other areas extending from the enemy-occupied coasts to the waters of Iceland and Greenland. And supporting and consolidating, searching and clearing channels from dusk to dawn, taking the measure of contact mines and magnetic mines, of improved contacts and other types, steamed the minesweepers of the Auxiliary Patrol—hand maiden of the Navy—a service limitless in its scope and activities.

Fish For Breakfast

MORNING broke dark and dull.

The ironwork was wet and clammy. The line of piers and wharves, nebulous and ghostly under the dissolving mantle of night, grew slowly into form and perspective. Grey ships, plummets of steam misting from funnel exhausts, moved from their berths, sorting themselves into formation—the Oropesa trawlers, with their attendant Dan-laying and Mine-destruction sisters.

“The daily round,” my companion said, turning up the collar of his duffle coat. “We’ll follow in a few minutes. We’re too valuable to risk until the channel’s been swept for contacts. We’re patricians.”

He glanced over the bridge dodger. “All ready for’ard? All ready aft? Degaussing gear correct? We’ll start work by the inner fairway buoy. See they get the sweep streamed as soon as we’re clear.”

“All ready for sea, sir,” reported the first-lieutenant, a former medical student.

We cast off. Warps splashed in the water. The jetty slid astern. In the bows the anti-aircraft gun’s crew closed round their weapon, burnishing and overhauling; aft the wire

operator tuned his instrument to the watch wave length; on the lower bridge the signalman bent red flag and black balls to halyards—symbol of our calling.

We made the roadstead and stopped engines to stream the gear. A glaring, yellow sun, rising above a bank of indigo clouds, bathed the familiar contours of the harbor, the circle of tiered houses, the soar and sweep of protecting hills in a steely pale radiance. Then the signal station broke into life. The stabbing flashes of light, urgent and insistent, brooked no denial. Magnetic mines, they dictated, had been reported in a certain position. After completing our clearing sweep, we were to explore the area.

We acknowledged the message and began operations. The mate, a west countryman, grizzled veteran of the last war, smiled. “Maybe,” he said, “we’ll do a tidy job this forenoon. The Germans be terrible clever with their gimcrack ways. A sight too clever. They do lose the common touch.”

He broke off to admonish an able seaman. “Treat that there belt kindly, son. Flake she down neat as you mind to.”

I saw him place his hand on the twin Vickers machine gun with a gesture of affection. “Handsome, she be. In last war we did break our hearts waiting for a little twelvepounder to fight them submarines. Nowadays ’tis different.”

“There’s nowt to touch a Vickers,” a Hull fisherman confirmed. “Champion weapon.”

I grasped the underlying meaning of their words. Pride of place held yesterday by the submarine is today usurped by the airplane. Yesterday the men clamored for weapons capable of dealing with a menace, unrestricted and wanton, that threatened defeat through starvation ; today they ask first for a Vickers, a Hotchkiss, a Lewis, a pom-pom, an Oerlikan —the answer to the dive bomber. An air-raid warning in harbor, the glimpse of a hostile machine at sea creates a mingled sense of hope and fury. Many have seen the effect of indiscriminate bombing; others have suffered bereavement. They would rather wing a ’plane than destroy a mine; and they studied aircraftidentification charts with eager intensity. Often eyes strayed aloft searching the sky, the hidden menace we sought below surface momentarily forgotten.

“Maybe,” said the mate, “we’ll rise a brave fry of fish for breakfast.”

“Prime fish,” the others returned. “Sweeping magnetic’s a slipper job to trawling down North. Don’t know yourself.”

“ ’Tis you’m folk that killed we little inshore chaps,” the mate reprimanded. “Bain’t right to let we seek pilchards fetching nigh ten shilling a thousand. You’m built too fast and flooded the markets; you’m scoured the seas and forgot wisdom. Maybe the war’ll change your ways.”

Their conversation continued. They debated the worth of the deep-sea and the inshore fisherman, the first the servant of vested interests, the

second a small holder of the sea in the toils of bitter adversity. Then, as we passed through the boom gates, they joined the others in the lee of the lower bridge, and watched the white trail of the wake.

Each man wore a life belt partly inflated; for instinctively each knew and appreciated the risks. Many had seen their sister ships destroyed, sometimes without trace or survivors; others had been mined. A life belt, they said with an inconsequential smile, gave a comforting sense of security. Sometimes the concussion from mines that misbehaved caused fractures, and a broken leg made quick movement awkward. Once, when times were ominous, and several ships had been lost, they packed their kit each morning before going to sea and stowed it on the stokehold fiddleys—just in case. The rows of suitcases and bags, heaped neatly on the gratings, reminded them of better days and ministered to their sense of humor.

“We did soon laugh ourselves sober,” the mate commented.“ ’Twas a scatter-brained action, but it did surely tide over a spate of evil hours.” And their luck held. Soon their kit remained below, left to take its luck. They called exploding mines a stroke of luck, the blank days ill luck. They were lucky at Dunkirk—a dream of a diversion—and returned with trophies ranging from great coats to Bren guns.

“Good old Army,” said the Yorkshireman; “you could take owt for the asking. A champion picnic.” Their luck was in one day when a ship ahead met a misplaced contact and sank in thirty seconds. Luck favored them another time when the degaussing circuit broke down hard over a batch of magnetics that became alive an hour later. Luck was everything. With luck they would live to see the end of the war and a peace that made a repetition of events impossible, anyway in their lifetime. They had fathomed the meaning of the word in its deepest sense.

Waterspout

I RETURNED to the bridge.

“Watch,” said my friend; “we’re searching an area where one should be ready. He’s been sitting there a fortnight—the blighter; but sooner or later he’ll have to succumb to our sortilege.” He moved to the bridge ladder. “Signalman. Have the camera ready. Port quarter probably. Stop four; time one fiftieth.”

I glanced at the men below— dressed in duffle coats, in sweaters with scarves flung round their necks, in Balaclava helmets rolled neatly at the base and resembling Astrakan caps. “Big ship life goes by the board,” my friend commented. “No time, no space, no inclination. But discipline’s perfect as long as you don’t run out of tobacco. If you do, look out for heavy weather.”

Suddenly a muffled blow as from an immense padded hammer. Fine on the quarter, the sea erupted to a dull roar. A column of water soared high darkened by sand and slime, turned to a wavering pinnacle— steadied a moment, then whirled in misted convolutions, leaving a swirling vortex of seething foam.

“A small one,” my friend commented. “Better than nothing. Two

thousand pounds of devilish ingenuity obliterated in a split second. You want to see a big one. It makes its presence felt. No trifling with those fellows.”

“Fish, sir—plenty of prime fish,” came the cry.

“We’ll wait,” my friend announced. “The ebb will sweep them clear of watchers in the office. We want enough for supper this time.”

“Ay; we do an’ all,” someone pursued. “Last time they stole the lot. Alius thinking of their victuals.”

We continued our search to the area limit. Ahead, the Oropesa trawlers had thinned to silhouettes etched against the line of the horizon. The sea, stilled and quiescent, reflected the hard chromatic light of a burnished sky, and the coast, contoured and undulating, curving into green valleys and dark-ridged hills, stood, inviolate and purposeful, as though watching and waiting.

“The roughriders are punching a channel east,” said the first-lieutenant. “I bet they’ll lasso a few mines, too. Give us one ’plane and we’ll call it a day’s work. By the way, a coastal convoy’s due at noon.”

We sighted them well on time. Once in the channel, the escorting destroyers turned south to spuming bow waves. “Off to rendezvous with another lot. They’re tireless, those ships. Twenty-five days out of thirty at sea becomes a commonplace.”

The convoy steamed on at a steady eight knots—a miscellaneous collection of ships, smoke pouring from funnels, bluff, wall-sided hulls consorting with the curving sweep of Maerform bows, the throb and pound of Diesels outvoicing the rhythmic pulse of reciprocating engines, the low monode of turbines. We watched them pass safely through the inner channel—a thin safety lane cleared of hidden dangers—their load lines awash, red ensigns at the staff, carriers of essential commodities, lifeblood of the nation.

“Good!” said my friend, giving a helm order, and following in their wake. “I always feel easier when they’re safely in harbor. One never knows.”

A few minutes later we stopped and retrieved our reward — two buckets of fish. Then for over two hours searched the area in which new mines had been reported. But our luck was out. Once the wavering vaporous trail of a reconnaissance ’plane, limned below plumed wisps of cirrus, sent all hands to action stations; but he kept his height, scornful and indifferent.

We made harbor late in the afternoon, securing an inner berth. Far in the offing the Oropesa trawlers forming into line ahead, steamed shoreward. “They’ve drawn blank,”

my friend said; “but that’s all in the day’s work. Ships to the tune of over six an hour entering and leaving the

ports of the Kingdom. We’ve seen something today. It’s the only thing that matters.”

A stentorian voice hailed us from the pier. “Your mail, sir, and the

office wants to know if you’ve any fish. They could do with a dozen

plaice, but would prefer Dover soles. You’re to report forthwith.”

My friend smiled. He addressed the old petty officer reproachfully. “Tell the S.O.M.S.T. I’ll be there with his precious fry. But we’re a long way from Dover. I suppose you want one yourself?”

“That depends on your good will, sir.”

“All right, Bates. I’ll see what I can do. Go away and leave us in peace.”

He turned to me. “There you are. Mines and fish and mail. That’s all they think of. But life would be dull without contrasts. Again it’s all in the day’s work.”

He bent over a voice pipe. “That you, Chief? Bank fires. One hour’s notice. Steam by dawn.”