Small But Indispensable
The minesweepers, corvettes, and escort carriers of World War II and their crews often labored and fought in unknown places and in obscure actions that have been all too easy to forget. Even those that made large and indispensable contributions without which the war could not have been won were frequently overlooked. Nonetheless, the men aboard these small naval combatants proved themselves to be as dedicated, hardworking, and proud of their ships as were those who served on their larger and more popular heavy units such as the battleships, battle cruisers, and aircraft carriers.
“They Would Roll on Wet Grass”– Corvettes
By the early 1920s the German navy was well on its way to developing new anti-shipping tactics for any future war in Europe. Through trial, error, and dogged practice Germany’s sailors learned that large groups of submarines simultaneously firing torpedoes while surfaced were far more effective against enemy shipping than individual and random attacks made by U-Boats lurking beneath the water’s surface. By 1941 “wolf packs” of as many as 50 German submarines executing coordinated attacks against British shipping were reaping deadly results. 1.
In response to the U-Boat threat the British revived the concept of the maritime convoy. Convoys had proven successful in the First World War. The British hoped they could once again be effective. The ideal convoy was described as,
… the supply train and reinforcement column of the sea. A group of merchant vessels or troop transports, highly vulnerable to surface or submarine attack when alone, steam in company escorted by warships of types able to ward off the anticipated attack: battleships, cruisers, and carriers to deal with enemy warships, raiders, or aircraft; destroyers and smaller vessels to handle submarines. In 1917 – 1918 the convoy system was brought to a high state of efficiency. More than any other factor it defeated the German unrestricted submarine warfare …2.
Unfortunately, the Royal Navy’s interwar policy of dedicating the bulk of its limited shipbuilding funds to large capital ships caused it to suffer from a shortage of “smaller vessels to handle submarines” precisely at the time when they were most needed. In order to meet the demand, the Navy adopted the expedient of quickly building, converting, or purchasing large numbers of relatively inexpensive vessels that could be quickly prepared for convoy duty. Among these escorts ships were the more than 200 corvettes of the Flower class which were built from a design originally used for whaling vessels. These hastily commissioned ships were manned by equally hastily mobilized crews. The Flowers were almost exclusively served by scantily trained “Hostilities Only” ratings and reservist officers. Commanding officers were often former merchant ship captains or even former yachtsmen. Many of these new corvette captains entered service with little or no naval experience.
The Flower class corvettes bore unintimidating names such as Tulip, Begonia, Lavender, and Buttercup. They measured 205 feet in length and had a shallow draft that made them very uncomfortable in the rough Atlantic seas where they were most often to serve. Their chief weapon was the depth charge of which they carried about 100. Each packing hundreds of pounds of high explosives, depth charges were carried on racks at the corvette’s stern from which they could be rolled atop an enemy submarine by hand. The corvettes were also equipped with mechanical throwers which could launch a depth charge away from the sides of the ship.
Conditions aboard Flower class corvettes were extreme. Their buoyancy gave them a bounce that gave rise to the sarcastic catchphrase among crews that, “they would roll on wet grass.” Cramped, noisy, crowded, wet, hot, and stuffy, they were difficult to live in no matter what the weather. They tended to pitch, roll, and swing in the slightest breeze. Seasickness greatly reduced crew morale and effectiveness. Food could not be stored or properly prepared so rations were typically limited to tinned beef, bread dampened or even soaked by seawater, and powdered potatoes. No sooner had their final coating of paint dried at the builder’s yard than the corvettes and their men were sent to war.
“Convoy Work Was Extremely Wearing on the Nerves”– U-Boats
After the war Dick Turner, a former crewman of the Flower class corvette HMS Vetch wrote down some of his thoughts about convoy duty.
The uncertainty of convoy work was extremely wearing on the nerves. During the passage it was impossible to grab more than a couple of hours of doze. There was no opportunity for any restful sleep – the bell that announced ‘Action Stations’ could, and would ring at any time of the day or night. This was brought home to me when we were at Liverpool following a convoy passage. For the first time in some weeks I thought that I could get a decent night’s sleep. However, in the morning, when the alarm bell went off, I leapt out of bed, grabbed my clothes dressed and headed for the door when I was interrupted by my wife saying, ‘What on earth are you doing, Dick?’ In my mind I was still on the ship and the Action Stations alarm had just sounded. It had become a completely automatic reaction and was a sign of the high state of nervous tension in which we all lived our lives in those days. 3.
Turner described a convoy action in which Vetch, earned credit for a U-Boat kill.
Two days after sailing (with convoy HG 82 on 12 April 1942) we were warned that U-boats had been reported as operating in the area of the convoy. During the evening of 14th April, Vetch was at the front of the convoy with (Captain Frederic “Johnnie”) Walker … in HMS Stork, bringing up the rear. Vetch’s radar reported a U-boat off the port side of the convoy and we turned to investigate. Starshell were fired and we sighted the boat – which turned out to be U-252. The U-boat was about a mile from Vetch and closing on the convoy. When they saw Vetch approaching, the enemy fired torpedoes which missed Vetch by a very small margin indeed – a matter of feet. In Stork, Walker had seen the starshell and had rushed up to join the action. A chase ensued in which both Stork and Vetch fired depth charges. Eventually wreckage was sighted on the water confirming that the attack had been successful. It was Vetch’s first confirmed kill and there was much excitement on the ship. Vetch’s commander signaled Stork asking permission to ‘splice the main brace (issue an extra ration of rum to the crew).’ Walker agreed. That was to start a custom in the ships that Walker commanded and thereafter ‘splice the main brace’ was ordered after every U-boat success. 4.
“God Bless You for Stopping”– Nicholas Monsarrat, RNVR and Rescue at Sea
The novel The Cruel Sea and the short story collection Three Corvettes provide detailed descriptions of wartime operations aboard several corvette types. Based on his highly unauthorized wartime diary, they were penned by Nicholas Monsarrat, a naval reserve officer who had been a writer before the war. Monsarrat served from 1939 – 1945 aboard Flowers and other small combatants.
One of the corvettes aboard which Monsarrat served as an officer was HMS Campanula. Bearing pennant number K-18, Campanula commissioned on 06 September 1940 and served as inspiration for the fictional HMS Compass Rose of Monsarrat’s novel, The Cruel Sea. 5. Campanula’s first significant activity was the at-sea rescue of crewmen from the merchant vessel SS Alva that had been sunk by German submarine U-559 in August 1941. Several days later Campanula picked up survivors of the Empire Oak, also a U-Boat victim. Among the men recovered from the water were other crewmen of the Alva that Empire Oak had previously rescued. In an excerpt from The Cruel Sea, the fictional HMS Compass Rose picked up survivors from a ship sunk while in a convoy headed for Gibraltar from England.
Three more ships that last night cost, and one of them – yet another loaded tanker to be torpedoed and set on fire – was the special concern of Compass Rose. It was she who was nearest when the ship was struck, and she circled round as the oil, cascading and spouting from the tanker’s side, took fire and spread over the water like a flaming carpet in a pitch black room. Silhouetted against this roaring backcloth, which soon rose to fifty feet in the air, Compass Rose must have been visible for miles around: even in swift movement she made a perfect target and (the captain), trying to decide whether to stop and pick up survivors, or whether the risk would not be justified, could visualize clearly what they would look like when stationary against this wall of flame. Compass Rose with her crew … would be a sitting mark from ten miles away … It was a captain’s moment; a pure test of nerve … the order when it came was swift and decisive, ‘Stop engines! … Stand by to get those survivors inboard. We won’t lower a boat – they’ll have to swim or row towards us. God knows they can see us easily enough. Use a megaphone to hurry them along … we don’t want to waste any time.’
All over the ship, a prickling silence fell as Compass Rose came to a stop and waited, rolling gently, lit by the glare from the fire. From the bridge every detail of the upper deck could be picked out; there was no flickering in this huge illumination, simply a steady glow that threw a black shadow on the sea behind them, and showed them naked to the enemy … the flames roared and three boats crept towards them, and faint shouting and bobbing lights here and there on the water indicated a valiant swimmer making for safety … (T)he work of rescue (included) … rigging a sling for the wounded men, securing the scrambling nets that hung over the side, by which men could pull themselves up … a boat drew alongside, bumping and scraping … ‘Hook on forrard!’ there were sounds of scrambling; an anonymous voice, foreign, slightly breathless said: ‘God bless you for stopping.’ 6.
“Merchant Ships Fitted With Catapults”– Air Power on a Shoestring
As thoroughly determined on their jobs as they were, the corvettes and their crews could not hope to defeat Germany’s U-Boats alone. The last war had shown the value of airborne protection for convoys, but the land-based planes and airships sent to fly over the formations of merchant ships and their escorts suffered from limited range. Something more would be needed that could offer full air protection over the vast expanses that encompassed the transoceanic shipping routes. The natural solution would have been to have an aircraft carrier, if just a small one, attached to each convoy. As with practically everything else, however, there were shortages of both aircraft and of the ships that could carry them.
An interim measure was the creation of the Catapult Aircraft Merchant ship, or CAM. As the name suggests, a catapult and an aircraft were installed onto an ordinary cargo vessel. The idea originated with none other than Winston Churchill himself. Captain Eric Brown of the Royal Navy who would go on to become one of the world’s premiere test pilots and live until 2016, described the CAM concept and his demonstration of it for Churchill,
…we had in the navy, at that time, merchant ships fitted with catapults and a fighter. These ships were the brainchild of Churchill himself and we suddenly got a message that this great man would like to come down and see this for himself. This Seafire (the navalized version of the Spitfire) was on a cradle which had rockets attached, and it was rocketed along the catapult and it was stopped … when it reached the end … by two prongs on the cradle penetrating two tubes filled with water … that arrested this trolley in the astonishing distance of about eight feet. Well, on the great day, the chap who filled the tubes with water – I think, must have got a bit of nerve – because he failed to fill (them) with water, unknown to anybody else, of course. … I was shot off in front of the great man and, of course, the cradle went clean through the tubes and was still attached to the aircraft. It’s a fair bit of iron-mongery (the Captain chuckles) to have hanging under your airplane, and, after a bit of a struggle and shaking of the aircraft, this thing fell off, but up until then I had to be at full power not gaining any height at all. And it’s interesting because, at the end of the day, the great man enjoyed the whole thing and didn’t appear to be aware of the problem (the Captain laughs as he says this) … anyway a satisfied customer left and that was that. 7.
The Hurricane fighter was the aircraft of choice for use aboard the CAM ships. Its need for catapult assistance to take off earned the plane the nickname of “Hurricat.” Their most important mission was to shoot down or chase off the long-ranged German reconnaissance planes that shadowed convoys to send information about them to U-Boat wolf packs. The spotter planes, called Kondors by the Germans, were converted passenger carriers that could easily loiter out of the range of shipborne guns.
Photographs of CAM ships show that the short catapults were often mounted forward. When needed, the ship would turn into the wind and make maximum speed to provide the greatest possible lift to the airplane as it was launched. There were no means for recovery of CAM launched planes at sea. Once his mission was completed, a pilot would either have to seek land or, as in practically all cases, circle back to the convoy to bail out or ditch close to a ship that would pick him up. In the two years that CAM ships were used a total of six enemy planes were shot down against the loss of one British pilot and 12 CAM ships sunk. 8.
“It Was the Smallest Aircraft Carrier in the World”– Britain’s First Escort Carrier – Made in Germany
In 1940 the German refrigerated stores Hannover that the British had captured earlier in the war, was transported to Blyth Shipyard in Northumberland. She was fitted with a flight deck that measured 480 feet long and renamed HMS Audacity. Lacking elevators, Audacity had to keep her entire airwing of six American-built carrier aircraft lashed down on the flight deck. Landings were assisted by three arresting wires stretched across the after portion of the flight deck. The plan was to use Audacity to counter German Kondor spy planes and to defend convoys against aerial and submarine attacks. The new carrier entered Royal Navy service in June 1941. She would see duty on convoys that ran between England and Gibraltar.
In September 1941 Audacity’s first convoy was attacked by both submarines and aircraft. Three of the convoy’s 22 merchant ships were sunk by submarines and three others were lost to air attacks. One of Audacity’s planes was credited with shooting down a German attacker as it attempted to make a bomb attack on one of the convoy’s ships. At the end of the month Audacity arrived unscathed at Gibraltar with the remainder of her convoy.
Captain Brown, the former CAM pilot, now the commander of Audacity’s air group, 802 Squadron, spoke about the ship:
When I first saw (Audacity) it was the smallest aircraft carrier in the world, actually … but to me it wasn’t unusual … we had some pilots in our squadron who had flown onto large aircraft carriers like the Ark Royal and this small matchbox terrified them. But it didn’t mean much to me … it was just another place to land…. And maybe that was to my advantage, I think, because this is what got me into test flying because the commanding officer of that aircraft carrier wrote to the Admiralty – unknown to me, of course, and said that I had a special facility for deck landing and he thought they ought to make use of it … that’s how I got into test flying. 9.
Over two further convoys Audacity’s airmen earned credit for four German planes shot down at the cost of one of their own.
“Roaring Curses at the Enemy”– The Fury of Battle
Audacity’s final convoy departed from Gibraltar on 14 December 1941. She accompanied a group of escorts headed by Captain “Johnnie” Walker who was destined for fame by, among other important deeds, directing the sinking of between 14 and 20 U-boats during the war. The convoy’s escort group included seven Flower class corvettes and two sloops. Along with Audacity, the convoy included three additional destroyers and 32 merchant ships. Audacity’s pilots would be credited with two enemy planes shot down by the convoy’s third day of steaming. 10.
Early on the morning of 17 December, Captain Walker ordered Audacity’s commanding officer to launch an aircraft to look for possible surfaced submarines. Before too long, one of them sighted U-131 on the surface and vectored escorts to its position. When the submarine dived, it was attacked with depth charges. Although the contact was lost, Walker insisted that Audacity launch further aircraft and aggressively patrol against its reappearance. Conventional anti-submarine tactics would have called for a tightening of the defensive ring around the convoy to await an attack at which time the convoy’s escorts would spring into action. Firmly believing that a good defense rested completely with a good offense, Walker sought to actively draw his enemies into combat. U-131 had remained close at hand and, when her captain thought it prudent, the submarine surfaced in preparation for an attack. Audacity’s pilots, encouraged by Walker to seek trouble, caught the submarine by surprise and initiated an attack that sent the Germans into a crash dive.
The German boat remained hidden by the depth of the water and her own silent battery-powered operation. As time passed, however, the submarine’s air decreased in oxygen content while carbon dioxide levels steadily accumulated. The U-boat’s lack of breathable air finally forced it to surface. It was immediately spotted by several of the convoy’s escorts. Walker ordered a plane from Audacity to attack. The pilot complied with a strafing run. The submarine returned fire and managed to shoot down the plane and kill its pilot, but a barrage of gunfire from the convoy escorts soon sank the U-boat.
The ferocity of the running battle, pitting U-boat against convoy and escorts against U-boat, gained headway. On the following morning, several of the escorts found U-434 on the surface. The submarine had been carefully keeping track of the convoy’s disposition and was prepared to share the information with other U-boats in preparation for a coordinated wolf pack strike. The U-boat dived and the escorts made several passes over the spot to drop depth charges. Soon, damaged by the shock of multiple close detonations, U-434 was forced to the surface. As her crew piled out and jumped overboard, the submarine turned over and sank.
Later that day several German spotter planes appeared overhead. Walker radioed Audacity to launch aircraft to pursue. The fighters found their quarry, but gun failures allowed the Germans to escape. Walker, certain that the convoy had been reported, requested round-the-clock air patrols from Audacity as two of his destroyers were forced to turn for port due to low fuel. A U-boat contact was made at dusk and two escorts dashed off to investigate. They spotted the submarine and fired upon it but missed. Darkness fell and the convoy maintained a zig-zagging course towards England.
Before dawn of the following day, a destroyer spotted U-574 on the surface. The submarine had been working into position for an attack by moonlight. The destroyer radioed her position and turned to attack. The U-boat was not shy in turning to take on the oncoming destroyer. Walker was several miles distant, looking in its direction through binoculars, when the destroyer signaled that she had detected torpedoes passing astern. According to Walker’s diary,
At the moment when everything seemed to be sorting itself out at once and I had my glasses on her, she went up, literally, in a sheet of flame hundreds of feet high. She thought the torpedoes were passing her. 11.
Walker, who was conducting the battle from aboard the sloop HMS Stork, went to the spot where the destroyer had gone down. Stork began to drop depth charges on the intuition that the U-boat might attempt to hide itself in the noise field created by the still settling destroyer. The commander remained mindful of the danger of heavy explosions to any survivors still in the water, but acted unemotionally and decisively. Suddenly the U-boat broke surface a short distance away. Walker described the confrontation,
As I went in to ram, he ran away from me and turned to port. I followed and I was surprised to find later that I had made three complete circles, the U-boat turning continuously to port inside Stork’s turning-circle at only two or three knots slower than me. I kept her illuminated … and fired at him with the four-inch guns until they could not be sufficiently depressed. After this the guns’ crews were reduced to fist shaking and roaring curses at the enemy who several times seemed to be a matter of feet away rather than yards. 12.
Despite the note of humor in Walker’s words, the action was both furious and vicious. Stork machine gunned the U-boat’s bridge structure and was finally able to ram the bobbing enemy. As the submarine scraped against the sloop’s hull and slipped beneath the surface, Walker ordered a group of depth charges set for shallow detonation dropped. The submarine and a number of her crew were destroyed. Stork was now forced to operate at reduced speed due to the damage to her bow from ramming the U-boat. The escort’s damage also left her asdic inoperable. Even as Stork and other escorts were searching for and picking up survivors from both Stanley and the U-boat, one of the convoy’s ships was torpedoed and sunk. The Admiralty radioed Walker that there appeared to be half a dozen U-boats in the vicinity. Thus far, the convoy’s defenders had sunk three U-boats against the loss of a destroyer, one merchant vessel, and an airplane from Audacity. The convoy was doing very well by the standards of 1941.
Audacity continued to prove her value on the next day when a pair of her aircraft shot down yet another German spotter plane. Her aircraft also caught another surfaced U-boat, but the subsequent attack did not yield a sinking. Over the course of the day Audacity’s aircraft made attacks on several more U-boats. There were still no sinkings, but the carrier and her planes at least managed to keep U-boats at bay. The convoy now made a straight course at its best speed for home. There was no sense wasting time or fuel by zig-zagging since the Germans very clearly had them in their sights already. Walker wrote,
The net of U-boats seems to be growing tighter around us despite Audacity’s heroic efforts to keep them at arm’s length. 13.
“The Stern Just Rose High in the Air”– HMS Audacity Torpedoed
On 21 December Audacity was hit by a torpedo from U-571 that damaged her steering but did not cause her to lose way. She settled by the stern but, because the convoy’s escorts had been pursuing other U-boats intent on attacking the convoy, there could be no counterattack with which to protect the carrier. Captain Brown had just landed aboard the ship and gone below to the wardroom for a cup of coffee when the ship was hit. With its rudder damaged, the ship circled for a while before coming to a stop. The U-boat, secure in the knowledge that Audacity was alone, surfaced. Standing on the flight deck, Brown stated that the carrier and the U-boat were so close together that he was able to see the gold braid on what he assumed was the submarine captain’s cap. The officer stood looking at Audacity and, according to Brown,
… the captain (of Audacity) called everyone onto the flight deck because he thought that if we had to be sunk they’re going to have the best chance on the flight deck. … One of our sailors, his nerve broke, and he rushed over to one of the 20mm cannon and opened fire with no hope really of hitting the U-boat but he did open fire and that caused the German to release his torpedoes. I think there were four fired at us and I think all four hit. But certainly the bows literally fell off the carrier and it immediately tipped up. The stern just rose high in the air. As it did so … the aircraft were all lashed down … with steel hawsers and as it tilted up I could hear these hawsers beginning to stretch and the twang as they broke and the six aircraft just rushed down the flight deck into four hundred odd people standing there and killed a large number … injured a large number … and a lot of people just rushed for the deck and leapt over the side.
If you were at the stern it was a leap of about 50 or 60 feet. … You didn’t know if you were going to land on somebody in the water but it was that sort of evacuation; a panic evacuation because of what happened to the aircraft. 14.
Walker noted in his Battle Report that he felt responsible for the loss of the carrier. He wrote that he had denied her the company of an escort ship because he was hard-pressed to give one up from submarine hunting. He also felt that he should have ordered the carrier to a better and more protected position within the convoy but had neglected to do so. 15.
“I Was in a Favorable Position”– A German Version of the Attack on Audacity
A German version of the sinking, broadcast as a radio interview on 30 December 1941 by a Frankfurt radio station, has been preserved in translated and transcribed form. A reporter spoke to Kapitanleutnant Gerhard Bigalk, the commander of U-751, who was credited with the sinking of Audacity. Although some of the ship types, dispositions, actions, and the general number of them may appear questionable, the U-boat captain was acting under less than ideal conditions for observation. He described the action.
I was only at sea for a few days when I had to crash dive because of an English plane. In the listening instrument I heard screw noises in the water and took them to be coming from a convoy. I told myself that I should get to the surface as quickly as possible to see what was actually the matter, so I came to the surface very soon and only a few minutes later I saw clouds of smoke and a few minutes after I saw the outlines of some destroyers. Aha, there is a convoy! We were very glad to have met a convoy after only a few days after our departure. First of all I approached the convoy to see how things were. I discovered a number of destroyers zig-zagging wildly and, furthest to the left, next to the destroyers, I saw a large, long shadow surrounded by several destroyers zig-zagging crazily. Suddenly a wild firing of tracer bullets started up in the East. At this moment my other U-boat comrades who were also going for this convoy, had probably opened attack. The destroyers took course for the tracer bullets; the long shadow which I first took for a tanker, zig-zagged first Eastward, then Northward, presumably to get away from the convoy. I made for the large shadow immediately to attack it. Suddenly the large shadow turned away sharply and at the same moment there was a great firing of rockets from the convoy. The whole area was as light as day. Other U-boats must have been attacking. Ten or fifteen rockets hung over the U-boats as if spellbound. The destroyers nearby also started firing tracer bullets and suddenly I saw in the light of the tracer bullets and rockets a large aircraft carrier lying in front of us. Good God! What a chance! An opportunity such as a U-boat commander does not find every day. The whole bridge was wildly enthusiastic.
Now I was in a favorable position to attack. I had to fire. I fired several torpedoes, and then came the terrible tension of waiting to see, if or not, one of them hit its mark. Then suddenly a fiery detonation aft. A hit aft! The ship described a semi-circle portside, and then stopped, unable to maneuver. Apparently my torpedo had smashed her screws. I turned a short distance off to load new torpedoes. Down below in the forrard (forward) compartment there was terrific crowding since we had left just a few days before and the forrard compartment was full of provisions and all sorts of impossible things necessary for an operational cruise. My torpedo mate and torpedo crew worked like mad. We in the meantime were standing on the bridge watching the aircraft carrier and were terribly excited lest the destroyers return and mess up this unique chance. But apparently the destroyers were furiously busy, for way back on the horizon there were bangs and detonations, and tracer bullets were being fired. Our comrades were doing their work. The torpedo tubes were reported clear for action, thank God. I made another attack approaching the ship at a crawling pace so that she should under no account hear me. The water was phosphorescing like mad and could only proceed very slowly so as not to be discovered by the aircraft carrier, which had stopped. I came nearer and nearer. I didn’t care anymore. I had to get so near that on no account could my torpedoes miss. A gigantic shadow growing larger and larger all the time! I had approached so closely that no torpedo could possibly miss and then I gave permission to fire. The torpedoes (cleared) their tubes. Seconds of great tension. There, hit forrard, twenty meters behind the stem. A great detonation with a gigantic sheet of flame. A short time afterwards, another detonation in the middle; again a great column of fire. Hardly had the column of water subsided when a strong detonation was observed forrard. Probably ammunition or fuel tanks had been hit. I presumed that petrol tanks or something of that kind had been blown up. I turned off and in doing so cast another glance at the aircraft carrier. The fore was already flooded and the deck was turning upwards. At that moment destroyers were reported starboard. They were dashing full speed towards the aircraft carrier, which was wildly firing distress signals – great stars bursting in the air. I was able to get away from the pursuit. I got a rain of depth charges but that was to no avail for the English – I escaped. 16.
“The Bay of Biscay in December is Not the Healthiest Place to Be”– Surviving in the Sea
With Audacity sunk and U-751 on her way out of the area, it remained only for the small carrier’s crew to be rescued. The Audacity’s captain died in the water as did numerous others. Captain Eric Brown related,
… the carrier was sunk on the 21st of December, 1941 … we all found ourselves in the Bay of Biscay in December which is not the healthiest place to be. A destroyer (or) a frigate came to rescue us along with some corvettes from the convoy escort group but after they had rescued quite a number of people, I was not among them at that stage, and when they took off they left about 26 of us together … we tied ourselves together … there were only two pilots, myself and my flight leader and the rest were seamen from the ship. We (two pilots) had Mae Wests which kept us afloat nicely … they (the ship’s company) had only – virtually – inner tubes of tires around them and cords over their shoulder and after the rescuing (ships) had left they fell asleep; it was exhaustion, I think, and of course they drowned. Our Mae Wests would keep our heads out of the water but these inner tube affairs were hopeless for that so … the other guys were lost. (By) morning there was only my flight leader and myself. … the destroyer came back for us, well, just looking for anybody and when we got onboard eventually they explained that they had had a nasty ‘ping’ (asdic contact) that the submarine was still around and they couldn’t afford to come to a stop to pick people up otherwise they were a sitting target so understandably they had to go and leave us … so we had a fair number of casualties total overall … from the actual torpedo strike(s) and the subsequent waiting for rescue. It was a ruthless war and it wasn’t just the enemy; you had another enemy in the sea. 17.
The Navy’s escort carrier force steadily grew through the addition of 17 more British conversions like Audacity and 39 ships acquired through Lend-Lease from the Americans. Through Lend-Lease cooperation the United States provided Great Britain with warships – mostly destroyers and escort carriers – in exchange for basing rights in far-flung and strategically significant British territories. The act remained in effect until the end of the war.
“Snotties”– An RNVR Midshipman and Times That Were Not Always Cruel
The writer and naval officer Nicholas Monsarrat, like many others, received his commission as a member of the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve, the RNVR. The acute manpower shortage had caused the Royal Navy to originally try to fill its officer ranks with men from the Royal Navy Reserve, the RNR. A majority of RNR officers had either naval or other maritime experience prior to being activated for World War II. When the need for men could still not be satisfied, the Navy resorted to the RNVR which included men who, although lacking professional maritime qualifications, nonetheless had some knowledge or interest in the sea. Among these were yachtsmen such as Monsarrat. Still others were enlisted into the RNVR with no nautical experience at all. The RNVR was called the “wavy navy” after the wavy uniform coat sleeve rings that served to identify the wearer’s rank. Regular or RNR officers wore straight rings on their coat sleeves.
Colin Bourne recalled his entry into the Navy, selection and training for his RNVR commission, and his service aboard several Flower class corvettes. His naval career was far less harrowing than that of Monsarrat.
After I left school I went to work in … a publishing business called World Books, one of the earliest book clubs. This was an interlude between leaving school, my eighteenth birthday, and being called up … In the spring of 1943, I was called up to start a naval career.
We went first to receiving camp … where we were kitted out; the first steps to getting into one of the services during the war. That was a very rude awakening because on the very first day there were about 12 of us at the dinner table in the mess. The food was brought to the table – meat, potatoes, and peas and (the) action started immediately. Most of the people round the table didn’t wait, they just got hold of the meat with their hands and helped themselves. It left me completely bewildered. I had never seen his happen before … my first night as a naval rating … the next night I made sure I was nearer the meat dish than anyone else! 18.
Bourne spent the next several weeks as a typical recruit. He and his fellow trainees marched, drilled, ran, and partook in assault courses. The training also included time aboard ship designed to provide the novice sailors with practical experience at sea. During this time, Bourne was deemed as likely officer material. He did not know why he was selected, but he went along.
Starting on my officer-training career, we were sent to HMS King Alfred in Howe. We attended lots of courses and lectures and every now and then we had to give a talk ourselves. We did a lot of practical work, man management, etc. I was very fortunate as my digs were based about a mile from my sister and her husband who were living in Brighton at that time. We also attended Lancing College, which had a magnificent school chapel. When we had passed various examinations at King Alfred, we attended a two or three week finishing course at Greenwich College … I came out as a newly pledged midshipman. Snotties, as they were called. On my lapel jacket was a little maroon strip of cloth with a little gold piece on maroon. So, here I was, a newly pledged officer in the RNVR, Royal Navy Volunteer Reserves, the wavy navy!
(After leave), it wasn’t very long before I received my sailing orders to report to HMCS Lunenburg 19. in Londonderry … a Canadian corvette. I went aboard and followed instructions issued to all young officers that go aboard a new ship for the first time, to salute and say, “Permission to come aboard, sir.” I was very pleased to be on one of these ships (a corvette) … We were an escort vessel, carrying out convoy duty. The Flower class corvettes were … uncomfortable in (the) extreme! It was also known that if you could stand a Flower class corvette, you could probably stand anything! That was right, because when we did get started, and I went out on the first sortie I think I was seasick for about a day and a half … So I joined this ship (Lunenburg). I never knew why I had been posted to this particular ship, they dotted the officers around. There was a radar officer … (and) he and I were the only English officers on board. The crew were super and very enjoyable to work with. I know that there was more informality on board this ship than there would have been on one of the major RN ships … Being a midshipman and being a very young raw junior officer, I wasn’t allowed to take any watches myself; my job was … looking after the ship’s office and so forth. Of course, I did my share of watchmanship but I wasn’t allowed to do one myself, quite understandably and rightly, otherwise there may have been total disaster. So, first of all I shared the midnight watch with a Canadian who was about six or seven years older than I was. His name was Tom, and we became very good friends, and we kept touch throughout our lives until he died about two years ago. I had the privilege of being asked to be godfather to his fourth and youngest son, which I did with pleasure. I mention this because it shows how ties can be held together when you meet someone in wartime service. I remember Tom with great happiness … 21.
Bourne remained with HMCS Lunenburg for the next six months as the ship escorted convoys between Canada and the United Kingdom. He was fortunate in that all of his ocean crossings were relatively routine and free of trouble from commerce raiders, U-boats, or air attacks. As the 1944 invasion of Normandy, D-Day, approached, Lunenburg was ordered to Weymouth Bay. Due to wartime secrecy, none aboard Bourne’s ship had any idea what was happening.
(There was) no shore leave apart from the captain and the number one (first lieutenant, or second in command). To stop boredom setting in, we gave games to the crew to keep them occupied and we played endless games of Monopoly ourselves on the bridge. Eventually, orders came and we escorted ships, Mulberry (artificial) Harbours, and equipment over to France. In this small way, I was involved in the D-Day landings. 21.
Bourne was detached from Lunenburg and sent to a duty that he did not relish in the least: submarine school. He admitted to being a marginal trainee.
An officer in charge came up to me and said, “You’ve worked hard at this, but I don’t think that submarines are your forte, do you?” I replied by saying that I entirely agreed with him … So I went home (on leave) and, very shortly afterwards, I received sailing orders to Gibraltar … I joined (Flower class corvette) HMS Jonquil, a very happy ship with lots of different nationalities on board. We had people from Rhodesia, South Africa, and Norway; a very happy crowd. This was followed six months later by joining HMS Bellwort, also a Flower class corvette. There, I met another officer who had been to a school that played a good class of (field) hockey (as I had in Dunstable), and we decided to form a hockey team to keep the crew entertained. We bought black and yellow shirts, got hold of some hockey sticks, gave lessons, and off we went to play a match against another ship. I put a football goalkeeper into the hockey goal … the team did really well, but when the first ball spun towards the goal, the keeper picked it up and kicked it out into the air like a football! The referee blew his whistle and looked on in horror. I tore over from my inside left position and explained the situation. We went on to blend ourselves into a nice little team, played about 15 or 16 matches and lost only one match, and that was by default … We were tied up in the harbor (at Gibraltar) … at the end of the war … I was transferred home again, and that was the end of my Flower corvette saga, which I enjoyed one way or another. 22.
“Send In The Rescue Party!”– A Dubious Casualty of War
Radar operator George Lunam served aboard the Flower class corvette HMS Anenome when the ship was a part of Escort Group B4. He remembered the day when he was declared a casualty by the Escort Group Commander.
… Escort Group B4 was moored in the harbor of St. John’s, Newoundland … We expected to spend perhaps two nights in St. Johns (between convoys) repairing, refueling, rearming, and reprovisioning. We also hoped to get out of the clothes we had worn all the way from Londonderry, and have a bath with a bucket of hot water. … In the midst of all this activity, we were not overjoyed to be told that the Commander of the Group was coming to inspect HMS Anenome. As soon as he arrived, we were piped to action stations. My partner and I shut ourselves in the RDF (radar) hut – a five foot square steel box perched above the bridge. We switched on the set and made sure everything was clean and tidy before we settled down to await inspection. We waited and waited for about a half an hour, and eventually decided that we had been forgotten about. We got out the fags (cigarettes) and lit up. Hardly had we had a couple of puffs when we heard steps on the access ladder. The cigarettes were hurriedly nicked and put in our pockets. I grabbed the ashtray and put it in my duffle coat pocket, and my partner attempted to waft smoke up through the hatch … By the time the Commander had undone the dogs on the door and opened it, we were seated (and) giving a good imitation of conscientious operators hard at work. The Commander sniffed, looked hard at us, scanned every surface, then got down on his hands and knees and looked under the units to inspect the, fortunately, spotless deck. He got up, looked out of the door, and shouted down to the bridge, “Fire in the RDF hut! Two men overcome by smoke! Send in rescue party!”
We were dragged out of the door, bundled down the ladder, and laid out on the deck to be given painfully enthusiastic artificial respiration. With hindsight, we can be glad that the “Kiss of Life” (mouth-to-mouth) had not yet been invented! 23.
“So Another Heroic Feat!”– Some Minesweeping Adventures
As with antisubmarine vessels, the Royal Navy was woefully short of minesweeping ships when the war began. Of the approximately 40 minesweepers available in late 1939 half were of the coal burning Hunt class that remained from 1917 – 1919. Two classes were introduced during the war years: the 41 ship Bangor class and the Algerine class of approximately 100 ships. The design of the Bangor class ships was kept deliberately simple and austere to allow them to be built quickly by shipyards that had been rushed into wartime expansion through the hiring of many new and inexperienced workers. Construction of the largest Royal Navy minesweeper class, the Algerines, began in 1942.
As the war progressed, pressing needs and unique circumstances led the Navy to improvise and utilize its minesweepers in a broad range of roles that included convoy escort, anti-submarine warfare, shore bombardment, at-sea rescue, ocean survey, emergency troop evacuation, and even electronic countermeasures operations. During the war the Royal Navy would lose a total of 28 minesweepers.
Scrambling to fill its mine warfare needs in the early days of the war, the government sponsored radio broadcasts calling for volunteers from among fishermen to serve aboard minesweepers. The call was for men 18 to 45 years old who had a minimum of one year experience in deep sea fishing. Skill with nets and other gear for catching fish was deemed to be similar to that needed for the operation of mine clearing equipment. Thomas King of the minesweeper HMS Sharpshooter offered his thoughts on the emergency wartime or, hostilities only, sailors summoned to serve alongside the regular navy’s professional sailors.
… a small ship in the Navy was always preferable to serve in to the big ship. There was more comradeship in a small ship, but on these minesweepers everybody done their job and, of course, there was a certain intake of the chappies that were called up for the war, hostilities only. And they were good … They fitted in very, very well. I was an active service rating … but in all the time I served during the war I always found that the hostilities ratings worked into the Navy very well. 24
In addition to the purpose built ships, the Royal Navy converted or requisitioned a wide variety of small vessels that included fishing trawlers for minesweeping duties. The concept of using trawlers and fishermen as emergency wartime minesweepers went back at least to 1907. Part of the logic was that in wartime the fishing fleet would be inactive and laid up anyway, so it would be wasteful and imprudent not to put it to a use for which it was naturally suited. The adventures of a fisherman turned minesweeper crewman during the war were narrated by Sandy Ritchie who was called up as a naval reservist specifically for service aboard converted trawlers.
When you got called up you just got a telegram to report … out of the blue … and away you went. That was the start of your Royal Naval Reserve career in the minesweeping service. You got training there in Lowestoft (in Suffolk on the North Sea coast). You were boarded out in local houses, B&B more or less, and you were trained there in the ways of the Navy. After they were satisfied with you, you were allocated to a ship. So I was posted to Dover aboard a minesweeper called the Regardo – a Grimsby trawler, I think she was. 25.
The sweeping we did in Dover was for magnetic mines which the Germans laid. Of course the channel is shallow water, only about 20-odd fathoms, and it is ideal for the magnetism of a ship or anything sailing over to be attracted and blown up.
The mines were blown up by us putting an electric pulse in the water. Now we had three ships going abreast to do that. To keep us all safe we had to be steaming at the same speed, dead abreast exactly. And for that purpose we had pulsing lights fore and aft on the ship. And these pulsing lights all had to come on three fore at the same time, three aft, so the boats could see that they were dead on. Otherwise if one lagged behind and a mine came up he would be liable to get blown out of the water. We did lose a boat. Three of us were tied together and this mine hit the sea bed behind the boat and sank it, and eight were killed. They were lads we knew, just like your pals, you know. So we had to bury them with all the palaver of the gun carriage and naval funeral.
We were sweeping one day and we were blowing the mines and we rather went off station. I was actually on the bridge as quartermaster steering the boat, and my head hit the roof in the wheelhouse because of the blast from this mine. It knocked the engine off its mountings. We had to be towed in.
We never went to bed for months and months because the Germans were using these incendiary bombs. They were in baskets. You could hear them coming down and rattling, and they landed in the docks. We had to shovel them over the side because they were phosphorus and would burn through metal, wood, anything. So you had to get rid of them.
This Norwegian fellow that ran the base in Stornoway (in the western islands of Scotland) married into well-to-do people in the area … wanted to transport about fifty sheep to Dunvegan on the isle of Skye, across the Minches (straits between Scottish coast and some of the outlying western islands), and we got the job. And that’s what we did during wartime, transferring about fifty sheep into Loch Bay (near Dunvegan), chasing them out of the small boats, chasing them over the beach and on the shore. So another heroic feat!
We were always uptight when we got a mine disposal expert on board. We would get a signal that he was coming and all the time there were mines moored throughout the Minches. These would break loose, and we had to deal with that, and often they were on the rocks somewhere. One time we were called to Castle Bay on Barra … it is a lovely bay … and so we undid the lid (of a beached mine) and put a match to it. While it was blazing away, we were off back aboard again. Then this fellow, he said, ‘Do you like to fish?’ We replied, ‘Yes.’ He had a wee suitcase with detonators and he’d chuck one of those overboard. And any fish that was down there would just pop up to the surface – dead. A convenient way of fishing. It was a funny life! 26.
“People Talk About Miracles”– HMS Sharpshooter at Dunkirk
The Royal Navy’s ability to be versatile and adaptable was well demonstrated in late May and early June of 1940. The British Expeditionary Force which had been sent to the Continent in order to counter Germany’s advances across northern Europe had been pushed into a small and desperate defensive perimeter near the town of Dunkirk, France. Almost 400,000 troops were present and, as it appeared that they would soon be overrun by the Germans, a plan for a conditional surrender was being considered. By good fortune, however, the German army took a three-day halt in order to reorganize and consolidate against any possible counterattack or breakout. The three day respite gave the British just enough time to organize and execute a massive evacuation back across the English Channel.
The minesweeper HMS Sharpshooter was one of the thousands of vessels pressed into service for the rescue. The ship was ordered, with little explanation to the crew and on short notice, to sail from Scapa Flow to Dover where she arrived on 28 May. She was immediately ordered to proceed across the channel to La Panne, Belgium just a short distance to the east of Dunkirk. It was not until Sharpshooter was underway to La Panne that the crew was made aware that they were to assist with a troop evacuation for which they, of course, had not made any particular preparations. All they knew was that they were, according to crewman Thomas King, “… going to take an isolated bunch of soldiers from the beach alongside Dunkirk.” The crew’s first inkling of the true nature of the task that lay before them came when, going towards the beach for the first time, Sharpshooter’s captain hailed an outbound vessel to ask how many troops were ashore. The reply was, “… there’s bloody thousands!” Sharpshooter anchored several hundred yards offshore and launched her motor whalers to run ashore to begin picking up troops. King, assigned as coxswain of one of the whalers, recalled,
… I had a crew of five in the whaler and I did not know what to expect … when we got closer … it was human beings waiting to come off. And there was no order … at all. It was more or less what you would say, a free-for-all. Soldiers don’t know the life-saving capacity of boats. We could only take ten to twelve in a 22-foot whaler. And so we kept our distance from the water’s edge because it was no good us going right up on the beach because we’d got to get seaborne again. Anyhow we got the first load of soldiers on, I think it must have been ten to twelve and put them back to our ship. But in the meantime there was other boats … were taking soldiers from the beach to our ship. And I think we made four trips all told and then the captain decided that there was enough … and we steamed back to Dover.
King recalled that no special provisions had been made for the evacuation. Once the troops were loaded on board, they were made as comfortable as possible. The evacuees were given as much as was available from the scarce and plain stores aboard that included bread, butter, cheese, and hot cocoa for the trip back to Dover. There were numerous German planes and E-boats (torpedo craft armed with small caliber automatic guns) around that attacked, damaged, and sank ships of the evacuation force. None targeted Sharpshooter, however. Of the men picked up by the minesweeper King said,
All they had was their uniforms and they seemed tired and hungry, but their spirits were still there, I suppose – I don’t know whether it’s the Englishman’s spirit or not but they weren’t really sort of beaten – to get back and then to get back at the Germans.
Sharpshooter took 100 men back to Dover and returned for a second trip when they picked up an additional 273. Heading back to Dover they heard a voice call out in the dark. It was a completely naked soldier who was floating some two to three miles from shore in a large laundry basket. He was quickly picked up. With the second load delivered, Sharpshooter was on her way back to Dunkirk when she was rammed in the dark of night by a French mail boat loaded with 200 evacuees. The French vessel continued on its way. Sharpshooter, her bow damaged, sent the following message: “From Sharpshooter – Have been in collision necessitating dockyard repairs duration of which not known. No casualties.” The sea remained smooth and calm as Sharpshooter was towed back to Dover without incident. By the end of the effort almost 340,000 of the original 400,000 man force were taken back to England. King said of the Dunkirk evacuation,
… people talk about miracles. But after being at Dunkirk and seeing the evacuation … miracles do happen. It was an act of God that all those soldiers got away from those beaches. 27.
A Minesweeper, a Secret Weapon, and a Lot of Wine
Wartime, for all its dangers and unforgiving cruelty, can still have occasional odd moments where potential disaster turns humorous. One such event involving a German magnetic mine was told by an unnamed Royal Navy veteran.
According to the sailor, the Germans had developed a moored mine that, when deployed, would itself deploy a second dummy mine of its own. Minesweepers passing overhead would cut the cable to the dummy mine and assume that the area was clear. There was also a variant of that mine that had mechanical devices placed along the mooring cable that would allow a cutting cable to pass through it without actually severing the mine’s cable. Over time, the British became suspicious about how cleared areas were able to remain dangerous. A minesweeper was ordered into a potential minefield for the purpose of collecting samples of any “secret weapons.”
The chosen minesweeper, HMS Sutton, steamed to the area in question and spent an entire day sweeping for mines with no luck. As darkness approached the captain decided to anchor for the night and resume the search in the morning. The anchor had been dropped to the bottom when a mine was spotted astern and drifting towards the ship. Unknown to any on board, it was snagged on the ship’s sweeping cable. Overlooking the anchor in their haste, all ahead full was rung up, and the ship surged forward. The anchor, deeply embedded underwater, caused the anchor chain to unwind amidst a shower of sparks as its links banged against the ship’s own metal hull. Since the final link was likely to break violently away from the ship and whip up into the air, all of the crewmen who were stationed on the foc’sl dashed hastily aft. The mine, still being pulled along by the ship, continued to follow close astern when the anchor chain fully played out and, instead of breaking, pulled the ship down hard by the head. The stern lifted high into the air just as the mine drifted underneath to explode. The ship remained sharply head down when the engine room crew, unsure of what had happened, clambered onto the deck from below with cries of, “abandon ship!” The captain, who had quickly surveyed the damage and determined that the ship was in no danger of actually sinking, shouted “I’ll shoot the first bastard who does!”
The crew was able to shore up the damage and get under way. The ship slowly and carefully began to head towards home through a severe lightning storm. Because the Germans tended to mine it as often as the British would clear it, the channel of the harbor they entered was lined with swept but as yet disarmed mines. Passing along, the ship was greeted with one jolting underwater explosion after another as the ship’s hull, its magnetic signature unknowingly altered by the lightning it had so recently sailed through, triggered the magnetic mines remaining in the channel one after another. The ship nonetheless arrived safely and without casualties. Although British naval authorities were quick to criticize the ship for its failure to retrieve one of the mysterious new German mines, all had not been in vain for the crew. The ship’s well provisioned wine locker was located in the part of the ship that had suffered the heaviest damage. On inspection, however, not the least bit of harm had come to any of the wine itself. The supply included a fair quantity of Napoleon Brandy secured on the ship’s previous stop at Malta. All aboard Sutton conspired to declare that the ship’s entire alcohol supply had fallen victim to the war. As the visible damage to the ship provided reasonable evidence for it, naval authorities unquestioningly accepted the minesweeper’s statement as true. Sutton’s men were later able to secretly advertise and sell what they did not drink of their “lost” wine to their flotilla mates. 28.
“I’m Proud That I Took Part in D-Day”– Action off Normandy
Even before the battleships, cruisers, and destroyers could dare to get close enough to provide covering fire for D-Day at Normandy, and before the first transports could move into position to deploy the first troop laden landing craft, the minesweepers had already been hard at work. They plied the English Channel to clear the way for the thousands of invasion craft soon to come. They were required to remain on duty even well after the landings of 06 June since additional mines were dropped every night by German aircraft. Sweeps continued by night and day under heavy fire from German shore batteries. The enemy was as clever as he was dangerous. The shallow waters where landing craft had to go, for example, were replete with what were called “oyster mines.” These were a pressure sensitive device that operated by means of a bellows. A passing craft would create a downward pressure field that compressed the bellows to trigger the mine. Oyster mines had been created with the knowledge that, even though it was a shallow drafted ship, a minesweeper would still be too big to get into an area sown with them. The British minesweeping forces were no less creative than the Germans. They devised a solution, as simple as it was ingenious. They employed long tubes or pipes through which they rolled hand grenades. The concussion of the exploding grenades set off the mines.29.
The clearing of mines was not the only dangerous task to which minesweepers were assigned at Normandy. A former crewman aboard HMS Pickle, recalled that his ship was ordered to move close to shore to deliberately draw the enemy into shooting so that his gun positions might be better targeted for counter fire by the guns of the bombardment force. One of the British sailor’s many feelings was that of, “we were ready to be sacrificed.”
I was just 18 on D-day … It was all top secret and we weren’t to mention anything (about it) in letters home … On the fifth of June the lower deck was cleared and the Flotilla leader told us we were able to go. We were to spearhead the whole invasion fleet sweeping to France with a couple of battleships or heavy cruisers backing up each one. We were to bomb the coastal defenses until the point of arrival and then to drop anchor half a mile or so off the beach to act as decoys in case any of the shore batteries were still alive. That meant, if necessary, we would be sacrificed!
We sailed on the 5 June just after noon with all sorts of craft trailing in our wake. We started sweeping five or six hours later. By midnight we were at action stations sweeping about five miles off the French coast … I wasn’t thinking about being frightened. The overriding feeling we had was one of excitement. But as we approached France, I started to wonder how I would react to the fighting. Would I be a coward? It’s not that I doubted myself, but … I had heard of some who were petrified with fear, for example during World War I, but I didn’t react in this way nor did I see anyone who did.
We anchored quietly a mile or so off the coast of Courseuilles – at Juno Beach. We could see the dim outline of the land and soon after, the houses opposite; later whilst we lay hardly daring to breathe, the battleships some miles behind began shelling. It was an odd sensation to hear these huge shells hurtling over us and exploding inshore. Later, destroyers came closer and began shelling and we had grandstand view of the landing craft going beyond us and up the beaches – and all hell was let loose! The main danger seemed to be avoiding a collision with landing craft weaving in and out. We were lucky – we did have a collision but suffered only slight damage to the hull. Later as the invasion moved inland we swept around the anchorages and then we sailed back to Pompey (Portsmouth). It was an incredible sight to see the ocean covered with thousands and thousands of ships and craft of every description. After a day and half we went back to and Normandy. We would do ten days there and two or three in Pompey – this routine went on for a while …
As I reminisce I can recall lots of experiences, too many to mention and lots that I had long forgotten; sad ones such as seeing the corpses of American sailors – and, probably from the same sunken American ship, picking up a crate containing thousands of American cigarettes! … I’m proud that I took part in D-Day … (and as for the Germans) they’re different people now, and if we can’t be friends with them there’s no hope. We’re all part of Europe now. 30.
Another look at a minesweeper’s lot at Normandy was provided by George Lamming in a journal format. Lamming was an asdic operator aboard HMS Orestes of the 18th Minesweeping Flotilla. His report gives a day-by-day and hour-by-hour account of events in the English Channel and off the Normandy coast from 05 June until 10 June.
Monday, 5th June, 1944: This seems to be the day, ship’s company has been issued with action rations, field dressings, and a piece of rope to tie round our waist to enable (us) to pick up any survivors (of ships or landing craft expected to be sunk). Also a check-up has been made of all life belts and life-saving lights … We are under way now. Just received a signal from HMS Tyne (a depot ship), ‘Good Luck. Drive Ahead.’ … Hundreds of small landing craft are underway along with us and getting into formation as we leave the solent. This is definitely “the day” we have long awaited. I don’t think anyone is sorry. We will be able to see the end of this war in sight once we get this over … 18.00 hours: We have been steaming slowly all day long. Nothing but invasion craft as far as the eye can see … 20.00 hours: … everyone is a bit more serious. Being the first ship in (to clear mines) does not make us too happy. No one thought our job would be dangerous, however everyone hides their feelings the best way they can. Some make a few wise-cracks and cause a laugh. I think we would laugh at anything for the sake of laughing … 22.00 hours: ‘Sweeps Out.’ Everyone is on their toes, life-belts are inflated and tied to them are small waterproof bundles with any photographs etc. of any sentimental value. In line ahead is the 18th Flotilla – Leader, HMS Ready – Orestes – Hound – Hydra – Onyx – and Cockertrice … 23.00: There goes the first mine, swept by HMS Ready. After this, they come up regularly, some exploding near, unexploded mines are floating uncomfortably near. Ready has now lost both her sweeps by exploding mines and has fallen astern to repair them. We are now in the lead, but not for long, our sweeps soon go the same way as the Ready’s, however we quickly have them repaired and take up position again.
Tuesday, June 6th, 1944, 02.30 hours: We are now through the minefield and within a few miles of the enemy coast. 3. All that has to be done now is to clear an anchorage for the invasion fleet behind us … 04.00 hours: The bombardment of the coast has begun by the big guns of the Royal Navy. Some of those seen include HMS Enterprise – Emerald – Belfast – Glasgow – Hawkins – Roberts – Frobisher – Orion and heaps of destroyers and battleships, including Ramillies – Richelieu (French) – Nelson – Rodney – Warspite – and Texas (USA). The bombardment from these ships is terrific. Landing craft are now seen to be making their way inshore. I wonder what sort of reception they will get (Good Luck to them all). No one can feel more proud than we do, we have done a good job, no ships have been sunk by mines so far, and this speaks to the success of our sweep. Enemy gun emplacements are being shelled by the fleet and bombed by the RAF. Aircraft fill the skies and so far there are no signs of the Luftwaffe. Lightnings and Spitfires are everywhere and large formations of troop carrying planes and gliders are going across. We have complete mastery of the skies and the seas up to now. 31.
Tuesday 6th June, 1944, 12.00 hours: Heavy explosions are coming from the shore and the troops are apparently meeting strong opposition on the beach head, while all the time landing craft are heading to shore. A few of the craft are drifting about helpless. One can be seen with a heavy list. She has been taken in tow by a sister ship … 14.00 hours: Bombardment still heavy and landing craft are still heading for the shore. The ship shakes with heavy explosions and I think the ship’s company would welcome a wash and a shave. Five amphibious “ducks” are floating by helpless. No one seems to be aboard them, except one with two US soldiers on it which has been taken in tow by one of our motor launches attached to our flotilla … 21.00 hours: Troops still landing – aircraft still shuttling back and forth – all aircraft have been painted with black and white stripes for identification purposes … 23.00 hours: At last, the long awaited (aerial) attack by the enemy is taking place, what a reception he gets. The sky is lit with the flak from the fleet. A plane has just swooped down over the ship, and crashed down into the sea with a terrific explosion near to one of our landing craft. At first it seemed to have struck it …
Wednesday 7th June: All night long we have been at action stations and we could do with a good night’s sleep, necks and backs are sore through constantly wearing life belts and all essential gear, still no one moves to take them off … 10.00 hours: (after resuming sweeping at 08.30): In the last half hour we have swept up 12 mines, two by Ready who has again lost her sweeps. She falls astern again to repair them. We have bagged four of the 12 bringing our total to about 15 and the whole flotilla has swept up 51. As we sweep, landing craft full of troops are still passing by … 17.00 hours: Quiet afternoon, those off watch are taking the chance of two hours sleep. Ships of all descriptions are passing by all day long … 18.45 hours: Body of airman drifts by ship and we learn that 26 enemy aircraft were shot down last night … 20.00 hours: Just cleared two mines. Four mines floating by unexploded. We have been detailed to finish them off. Mines sunk by rifle fire. We also have the anti-tank gun out (presumably to make easier work of shooting at mines) … 23.45 hours: Smoke screen put up by all ships. Reason not known. We are now at anchor, all minesweepers are forming a gigantic defence around the beach head coast. Air-raid in progress – terrific barrage going up ashore. Wreckage and bodies float past ship … 08.00 hours: Out again sweeping Channel for convoys to come through … 10.30 hours: Action stations – submarine for a change. Two U-boats reported on surface. We search but have no luck … 11.00 hours: Secure (from action stations), tot time. Everyone is fed up with carrying this gear around and only taking it off for a hurried wash. Most of the boys are thinking of home and wishing they could get word home to say they are OK … 32.
Thursday, 8th June, 12.00 hours: Sweeping the Channel again … 18.30 hours: (done with day’s sweeping). Air raid – at anchor a few miles from beach head – explosions can be heard, big ships are nearer the shore putting up a big bombardment. Columns of smoke are rising all along the coast. I suppose the Luftwaffe will be over again tonight. Just heard E boats (fast attack patrol craft) attempted to attack convoy in Channel unsuccessfully. Also, over 70 (enemy) aircraft shot down over beach head on Wednesday night … 20.30 hours: Explosions coming from coast, otherwise everything is quiet, for how long I wonder. Plenty of gear floating past; soldiers’ haversacks, petrol tanks, etc. Convoys, landing craft, and hospital ships still going in … Friday 9th June: Just settled down when alarm bells go. What a life. This time another aircraft shot down … 00.30 hours: We can see a ship on fire out at sea, lighting up for miles around it. We later found out that it was a petrol carrying ship … 03.00 hours: E-boat battle out at sea. Tracers seen and gunfire heard. Bombardment by the fleet has not yet ceased … 09.00 hours: We have just learned we are stand-by M/S flotilla for today giving us a chance to have a good scrub-out throughout the ship. No action stations this forenoon but no sleep owing to the scrub-out. Trust the Navy, they would scrub-out if the ship was sinking … 12.00 hours: Weigh anchor and proceed further inshore. A corvette can be seen sunk, her stern is sticking out of the water (K-514). 6. Wonder what are losses in ships are to date … 18.30 hours: Action stations. They won’t even let us get our supper … 18.45 hours: Secure but supper is cold … 19:00 hours: Very heavy explosions coming from shore. Plenty of wreckage passing the ship including a barrage balloon which we hauled aboard. All the boys are cutting pieces of the water tight material; what for I don’t know. One chap says it will be a good cot sheet … 23.35 hours: Air raid. Bombs dropped on beach head. Enemy aircraft are now using the allied markings of black and white stripes.Terrific sheet of ack-ack meet them. Aircraft passing overhead going towards beach. Plane comes down in flames. Some of the ship’s company sleep out on deck while the barrage continues … Saturday, 10th June, 08.00 hours: Weigh anchor. Out sweeps again. Buzz around the ship, we are going back to Portsmouth tomorrow for oil and stores. Wonder if we shall get any shore leave if we go back … 17.00 hours: This is the quietest day we have had so far … 19.00 hours: Heading towards the beach head. Plenty of wreckage and oil float past; life belts, stores, etc. Body of a sailor on a raft drifts past the ship. Nobody stops to see who he is. Seas still choppy … 20.00 hours: We have been sweeping all day long but have not cleared any mines. I think that this is more of a precaution sweep than anything else. 33.
“It Was Dangerous Work at Times”– Clearing Mines After the War
Even after the war was over thousands of mines sown throughout the world’s oceans and littorals remained to be cleared. The 16 December 1945 edition of the Sunday Malta Times newspaper estimated that in the Mediterranean alone about 40,000 of some 100,000 mines dropped during the war remained dangerously in place. Mediterranean ports and the access lanes to them that needed sweeping included Malta, North Africa, Sicily, Salerno, the entire Italian west coast, and the Dardanelles. According to the 02 December 1945 edition of the newspaper,
Where there’s a mine, there’s a minesweeper … the vast task of mine clearance is still urgent … now that peace has come the men for whom the war is not yet over, must spearhead the vast fleets of merchant ships that have still to succor a starving and war-torn Europe … In this they are assisting in great measure in winning the Battle of the Peace, for without the minesweepers and the men that man them there can be no free flow of shipping to convey supplies to the empty larders of an exhausted continent … 34.
Patrick Fitz who had helped bury men at sea in Italy, eventually found himself aboard the minesweeper HMS Albacore. Long after the war, he spoke about his time on post-war mine clearing duty,
… we were sweeping in the North Sea … it was dangerous work, at times; it was hard work; it was long, long days … but I enjoyed it … (Albacore) was what I considered to be a happy ship (and) I enjoyed it on there (with) a good crew. I think the work was interesting (and) they kept you busy … we would be at sea for 10 days then we would come back in for five. We were based at … a bit of a dump (so we mostly just stayed aboard the ship) … (as) minesweeping operations were coming to an end we went down to Portsmouth and now we started having leave … (it was during) the cold winter of ’46 and ’47 and it was a jolly hard life, then because you had practically no heating on the ship and we were in dry-dock and if you wanted to clean up we used to go ashore and have a bath at Aggie Weston’s place 35.… (which) was very good; they were first class. There was canteen messing (where) we used to feed for ourselves … several mates (and I); we used to go ashore, have a bath at Aggie Weston’s … where you could (also) have a meal or a bed, if you wanted but we used to always come back on board , then we’d go ‘round to Charlotte Street to the market where we’d do a bit of shopping (and) bring (food) back on board for the rest of the week … we were (just) looking after ourselves.
In the end I’m glad I was in the Navy rather than the Army or the Air Force … I was quite happy there … met some jolly good mates … still have got them. 36.
The officers and men of Royal Navy’s minesweeper force were thanked and congratulated by the following message from Prime Minister Churchill,
Now that Nazi Germany has been defeated I wish to send you all on behalf of His Majesty’s Government a message of thanks and gratitude … The work you do is hard and dangerous. You rarely get and never seek publicity; your only concern is to do your job, and you have done it nobly. You have sailed in many seas and all weathers … This work could not be done without loss, and we mourn all who have died and over 250 ships lost on duty … No work has been more vital than yours; no work has been better done. The ports were kept open and Britain breathed. The Nation is once again proud of you … W.S. Churchill 37.