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The Menace of the German Sea Mines

Discussion in 'Merchant Navy During WWII' started by Jim, Jan 9, 2010.

  1. Jim

    Jim New Member

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    New Nazi Frightfulness off Britain's Coasts

    A number of neutral ships sunk by German mines close into the English shore marked the opening of another terrible chapter in the history of German frightfulness. But the repetition with whatever novel features of the horrors of 1917 clearly cannot fail to have the most disastrous consequences for Germany.

    Realising that their submarine campaign against England was not going too well, Germany resorted to the indiscriminate laying of mines in the channels used by ships calling at British ports. The first victim was the Dutch crack liner "Simon Bolivar," which struck a German mine in the North Sea on November 18th and rapidly sank with the loss of more than 80 lives. "This mining," said an official statement issued from the Admiralty, "is a further example of the utter disregard of international law and the dictates of humanity shown by the present German Government. The mines were laid without any notification in the channel followed by merchant shipping both British and neutral, and there is no doubt, that they were laid for the specific purpose of destroying such shipping."

    Following the news of the sinking of the "Simon Bolivar," the Admiralty announced on November 20th the loss of five other ships by the action of German mines. One of these was the steamer "Blackhill" (2,492 tons), which is seen above as it made its last plunge.

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    In accordance with the Hague Convention of 1907, the British Government had publicly notified the position of minefields laid by the British Navy outside territorial waters (see chart below), and since the war began Germany had also given notification of the areas being strewn with German mines. The mines which caused the loss of the "Simon Bolivar" and the number of other victims which speedily followed were laid by German submarines off the British east coast without any notification and in reckless disregard of the consequences.

    At first authoritative Nazi circles maintained that the Dutch liner had sunk at a point where no German minefields existed, and that it was impossible for any German mine to have drifted to the point in question. The suggestion was made indeed that it was a British mine that was responsible for the disaster. But not only have no British mines been laid in the particular area why should they be laid in a channel used continuously by British merchant ships and neutral vessels bringing goods to our ports? but any British mines which broke adrift from their moorings, as frequently happened in stormy weather, complied with a further requirement of the Hague Convention that they should thereby automatically be made harmless.

    Keeping to the rules of the International Hague Convention of 1907, the positions of the three Minefields shown roughly in this map were immediately notified to all governments. Not so the new German minefield off the East Coast of Britain, laid in a crowded seaway used by peaceful merchant ships.

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    Unfortunately for the Nazi contention, a writer, said to be a naval expert, boasted on November 21st in Field Marshal Goering's, paper, the “Essener National Zeitung" that Germany was "now striking hard blows at shipping right under the English coast" an obvious reference to the sinking of the “Simon Bolivar" and her fellow victims. Moreover, on a German mine captured in the area where sinking’s of neutral vessels had taken place was the inscription in German: “Gott strafe Churchill.. When this goes up, up goes Churchill."

    In view of the recent Nazi hints concerning a "secret weapon," it seemed clear that the losses were due to a new mine of a magnetic type, i.e. which exploded not on contact, but on the approach of a ship which operated the magnetic installation (consisting in principle of a delicately-balanced magnetised needle) and fired the charge. Most of these mines would be laid by submarine minelayers, but an Admiralty report stated that German aircraft had laid mines at five different localities on the East Coast on the nights of Nov. 20 and Nov. 21.

    One seaplane was seen to alight on the sea off the East Coast and remain there for some time as if it were sowing mines or working in conjunction with a U-boat, and people on the shore of the Thames estuary who watched the raiders on the night of November 22, declared that these were flying very low, and that they saw two or three objects fall from one of the machines and make a big splash.

    It may be recalled that on the day that the "Simon Bolivar" sank, the captain of the Danish steamer "Canada," which was lost on November 4, was telling a Court of Inquiry in Copenhagen that his ship was sunk by a "magnetic mine." Magnetic mines of a primitive kind were tried out by the Germans in the last war, and it is reasonable to suppose that the Nazis had not forgotten those early experiments.

    The resort to indiscriminate sinking’s, indeed, is proof positive of the desperate straits to which Nazi Germany already finds herself. Faced with a deadlock on land, and fearing to take the offensive in the air because of reprisals, only the sea offers a field for what a French writer called the luxury of ruthlessness.
     
  2. Jim

    Jim New Member

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    magnetic mines

    When what was, perhaps, Hitler's boasted "secret weapon" was revealed in a new campaign of indiscriminate sinking of merchant shipping, the whole subject of minelaying and sweeping immediately became of paramount importance.

    The sailors who manned the mine-sweepers (small trawlers) equipped with special gear or shallow-draught sloops, but a little larger had what was, perhaps, the most dangerous and yet least Spectacular job in the Royal Navy. Just how dangerous was emphasized when, soon after the sinking of the "Simon Bolivar" and other ships in Germany's new campaign of "frightfulness," H.M. mine sweeper "Mastiff" was reported lost with seven valuable lives. Yet a few days later Grimsby fishermen queued up outside the Board of Trade office in answer to the Admiralty's call for men for the minesweepers.

    The diagram above shows constructional features of the moored contact mine. The soft lead horn (A) contains tubes of acid (B), and a ship hitting the horn breaks the tubes, the acid acts on the wire, (C) and the detonator (D) fires the explosive (E); The spring plunger (F) comes into action to render the mine harmless if it should break from its cable (G) attached to the wheeled sinker (H). Mines to trap submarines (J) are moored deeper and have feelers.

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    In the Last war, when the war at sea had reached its grimmest pitch, one sweeper was lost for every two mines swept up and each time half the crew was killed or wounded. The enemy laid altogether 43,636 mines, and of these our sweepers found and destroyed 23,873; over 700 fully equipped sweeping vessels were engaged in the work. The work of a minelayer was equally dangerous and arduous. To enable their mines to be sown effectively, the Germans were thought to be using relays of U-boats. Even the smallest of these could carry up to a dozen "eggs," and in all probability specially built submarine minelayers, with mine wells in the bottom of their hulls, were in service. A fast surface layer could put down more than 200 mines "at a sitting." Moreover, instead of the usual straight-line method of laying (which simplifies the sweepers' task), the U-boat commanders dropped their, mines in irregular zigzag fashion say Six here, five there, then another six farther on forming a large area that may keep the sweepers at work for days on end before they can signal "all clear." Unlike a U-boat, a mine couldn’t be detected in advance by any apparatus, and the minesweeping crews pit their wits and their lives in a warfare where chance may have tipped the scales against them. The principal feature of the submarine mine was the unpleasant looking horns projecting from its steel casing. These were made of soft lead, and were filled with tubes of acid. Any vessel striking one of these horns caused the acid to detonate the deadly explosive inside the mine.

    There is little doubt that, as German surface minelayers would hardly cross the North Sea unnoticed and unchallenged by the Royal Navy, recourse was had to submarines for sowing the new illegal minefields off the British coast. Below is a graphic artist's impression of the series of events leading up to the final success of the mine's evil mission with a merchant ship striking and exploding it.

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    The mine, on a long mooring cable, was laid by dropping its heavy anchor or sinker to the sea-bottom after which it settled at the correct depth. Minesweepers worked in pairs, with each unit 300 to 500 yards apart. Between them, sometimes suspended from two sets of apparatus called Oropesa floats, is drawn the sweep wire, which has a series of steel cutters. Should this come into contact with a mooring cable, the mine would rise to the surface and it could then be destroyed by gunfire. The paravano was a form of mine protection hung in the sea from the bows of a warship when the presence of a minefield was suspected.

    The tragic toll of the German minefield laid off England's East Coast in November 1939 called forth much speculation as to whether; the enemy were using "magnetic mines.” Some at least of these may have been dropped from aircraft, with parachutes attached to reduce the shock when they hit the water. If they were laid on the sea bottom, normal minesweeping methods were ineffective. The extent of the German mine laying activity was illustrated by the fact that more than 200 mines were washed up on the Yorkshire coast, quite apart from those picked up by trawlers.
     
  3. Jim

    Jim New Member

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    [​IMG]

    The "Mastiff" seen left was a loss caused to the Royal Navy by "magnetic" mines. She was formerly in the North Sea Fishery Protection Flotilla, but was later used as a minesweeper. (Right) One of the injured crew is being attended to in the lifeboat. Centre sees a portion of the unit used in laying the German mines in the North Sea. The Words painted on it read: "If I make a good journey then Churchill will meet with great disaster."


    Part of the damage done by the mine that the Italian steamer "Fianona" struck was to split her starboard (right) side in the middle as seen below. Though leaking badly, she was eventually towed into port.

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    The effect of minesweeping was to cut the cable by which the mine was moored and bring it to the surface where it was destroyed by gunfire.

    [​IMG]
     
  4. Cabel1960

    Cabel1960 recruit

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    I remember as a youth watching the old movies where merchant ships were often dodging these mines when delivering goods to Britain, it was always nail biting not knowing if they were going to make it home. So i can't imagine what the sailors on these ships went through when they knew they were crossing mine lanes.
     
  5. Cabel1960

    Cabel1960 recruit

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    Very interesting thread Jim, i am sure that these sailors must have being terrified of such dangers on each voyage. Heroes of the sea is a more appropriate name for such brave personnel.
     

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