Sweeping Death's Doorstep
NAZI mine laying, like the Nazi submarine campaign, is being intensified in an attempt to find some weak place in the armor of British sea power. Both are being concentrated at focal points of the trade routes, and they have certain resemblances as weapons. A submarine submerged has a very small radius of action and, except for short bursts in vital emergency, very slow speed. Her tactics are to proceed on the surface during the hours of darkness to a position where she anticipates intercepting her quarry within torpedo range; she then submerges and awaits its arrival. To all intents and purposes she is a mobile mine with a more far-reaching power of destruction. Where the similarity ceases is in the degree of risk attached to the employment of these two weapons.
A submarine that releases a torpedo at a target under escort — either a manof-war or a merchantman — is instantly hunted. If she is hunted in daytime she must remain submerged, and the odds are against her escaping; if she is sunk, apart from the loss of a valuable unit, her captain and crew must also be written off. According to British ideas, it takes seven years to train a submarine captain — to train him to a degree of efficiency which makes his return from patrol a probability; to a degree which gives his crew complete confidence in him in the direst emergency.
On the other hand, mine laying is a cheap game. There is not much more risk attached to it than there is to the sandbagger waiting in a doorway in the dark for his victim to come along. Mines are dropped in the dark from aeroplanes, or small fast surface craft that choose foggy nights when possible. The latter may be accompanied by aircraft, the sound of whose engines deadens the purr of the motors on the surface and is also intended to distract the attention of patrols. Mines are also laid by submerged submarines, which, if their presence has not been suspected, may escape unscathed.
Broadly speaking, German mines are of two types, the direct-contact mine and the magnetic mine. The directcontact mine is moored by a wire to a sinker, and can be adjusted to any depth by the length of the wire. It explodes on impact. It has all the charm of simplicity in this respect.
The magnetic mine rests on the bottom. It may be fitted with a delay-action mechanism; in any case it does not require to be struck in order to detonate — it explodes when a ship passes into its magnetic field.
Mines of both types are laid in the estuaries of rivers, in the approaches to ports, and in the harbors themselves; they are laid in the traffic lanes used by our coastwise convoys, and in the open sea. The laying of magnetic mines must, however, be confined to comparatively shallow water. They do not operate in depths over fifty fathoms.
Carrying an explosive charge of about seven hundred pounds, this type of mine is itself made of a non-magnetic substance. But it contains a sensitive magnetic needle which is oscillated by the magnetism of a ship passing over it. Steel ships become magnetized in the process of building, by the vibration of riveting while lying in the earth’s magnetic field. The oscillation of the needle in the mine by this floating magnet passing over it suffices to operate the detonator, and the mine explodes.
This principle was familiar to us, as a form of magnetic mine was in use at the end of the last war. But it was capable of improvement, and we did not know what subtleties had been added to its construction when the Germans began to use it in September 1939. However, very early in the proceedings a Nazi aeroplane, mistaking the moonlight reflected off the mud flats of the Thames estuary for water, obligingly dropped one where it was accessible at half tide.
It came floating down attached to a parachute, and in the uncertain light it caused some consternation amongst military coast patrols who opened fire upon it. Fortunately they missed, and after circumspect investigation they decided that this strange object lying on the mud was more up the Navy’s street than their own.
The Navy arrived on the scene hotfoot, headed by a lieutenant commander who by torchlight recognized what the Lord had delivered into their hands. The first consideration was to secure it against the rising tide. This they did gingerly but securely, and they then discussed methods of removing what appeared to be the detonators. On certain points the lieutenant commander differed from his assistant. There appeared to be alternative processes, but which was right and which wrong only experience could show. The trouble was that the wrong one would probably detonate the mine. While they discussed these matters they were busy taking drawings and impressions of the detonator door and its bolts; finally the tide rose and covered the mine.
In the interval of waiting for the tide to fall again they made tools from the drawings and argued further concerning the matter. ‘Well,’ said the lieutenant commander to his assistant, ‘I shall work on my notion of the way it functions. You stand outside the explosion zone and wait. If I’m right, you’re wrong. If you’re right — well, that’ll be just too bad.’ Or words to that effect.
Fifteen hours after the mine had been found he started his grisly task. Half an hour later Britain was master of the secret of the German magnetic mine.
From this to the ‘de-gaussing’ of ships was but a short step. A certain Dr. Gauss in the first half of the nineteenth century gave his name to the unit of magnetic flux. An insulated wire cable fitted round the hull of a ship wras found to neutralize its magnetism; this was the antidote to the magnetic mines; the ship ceased to be a magnet. The process was aptly described as ‘de-gaussing.’
It was the antidote to the magnetic mine as far as the ship was concerned, but it did not affect the mine itself. The only effective answer to the mine, either magnetic or direct-contact, is to destroy it.
One winter’s dawn I found myself on board a trawler that had been converted to mine sweeping. There were gleams of light from shaded lanterns along the decks, and all round us were trawlers moored alongside each other and packed as close as sheep in a pen. The forms of men in duffel coats, oilskins, and sea boots moved through these pools of illumination and vanished again into the darkness. From below came the scrape of shovels on stokehold plates and the clang of a furnace door.
The Unit Commander introduced me to the skipper. Neither of us could see the other’s face in the darkness. We shook hands, and as I moved away I heard the skipper ask in a voice as hoarse as a crow’s: —
‘Is yon man releegious?’
‘God, man, how would I know? What’s the odds?’
‘Well, times I swear awfu.'
I climbed up after them on to the tiny bridge, and saw the dawn coming through a web of shrouds and ratlines that glistened with hoarfrost. The smoke from innumerable funnels rolled away to leeward in sooty black clouds. The skipper of the adjoining trawler grinned at us from his bridge.
‘Good luck,’ he muttered. Another day dawning — another day of rattling the dice box with Death.
‘Good luck,’ said we. We were going to spend the day together, his little ship and ours, yoked together by a magnetic sweep, off a port whose fairway was used by our submarines on their lawful occasions. The siren tooted and we began to elbow our way out of the jam stern first.
It was daylight when we reached the open sea. Everybody had wriggled into life belts. I could see the faces of my companions. The Unit Commander was a lieutenant of the Reserve who had swept mines all through the last war and had been blown up three times. Since then he had commanded his own ships, big ocean-going cargo ships, but he had thrown that up and — for a sailor — a biggish salary to come back and teach youngsters a trick or two at the old game. There wasn’t much he could teach his skipper, though, an old mine sweeper of the last war like himself. Thirty-odd years he had fished the North Sea, following the cod and the herring off Iceland and the Faroes, and trawling soles amongst the sandbanks of the East Cove estuaries. He was the Captains Courageous type, accustomed to finding his way about the fishing banks by smelling the lead and by some mysterious sixth sense. He confided many things to me on our way to the sweeping grounds — amongst others, that he had a bad cold, and by way of curing it had devoured an entire bottle of cough lozenges during the night. They failed to cure his huskiness and made him, he said, feel very queer.
It was a gray day with a squally wind as sharp and cruel as broken glass. The little trawlers lifted their heels to the steep swell and threw the spray over their shoulders. The crew stood in the lee of the engine-room casing, smoking. They spoke little, and then in undertones. Trawler men rarely raise their voices. These men wore duffel coats and Balaclava helmets, thigh boots and stockings. I gathered they had been adopted by a girls’ school. Each man had about ten young godmothers who saw to it that he did not lack warm garments. They were all fishermen, big slow-moving men from Stornoway and Peterhead, Milford Haven, Grimsby, Hartlepool and Lowestoft, all supremely efficient. At some time during the day I borrowed a cigarette from one of them, He produced a tin from some inner recess in his clothing, and handed it to me. ‘They’re from my godmother,’ he murmured coyly.
We reached the channel at length and slowed down. Our companion sweeper came plunging up on to our quarter, and we veered a floating grass line to her which she picked up, and shackled a wire to it. We hauled this inboard, connected it to our sweep wire, and paid it out astern again. As the wire was paid, our cylindrical magnets were shackled to it at intervals. The trawlers pitched and rolled, and the icy spray drifted over them. The man at the winch, a bright blue Balaclava on his head and a cigarette in the corner of his mouth, controlled the wire miraculously, checking its outward surge to a foot when it was necessary to shackle on some appendage. There were moments when the wires behaved like mad pythons and were rather more dangerous, and he had the lives of everybody on that heaving deck in his hands a score of times during the day. The mate working on the shackles with a marlin spike had bare hands scarred all over with old gashes and streaked with blood from new ones. Once the spike slipped or was jerked from his numb fingers and went overboard. Somebody handed him another; he put out. his hand for it automatically, in silence. There were scarcely any orders except in the customary undertones. These men had handled trawl wires from childhood; they knew exactly what to do and did it.
Then we settled down to sweep. The operation resolves itself into a slightly bloodcurdling boredom. Up and down the channel wo went with the wailing gulls for company. The masts of a cargo ship stuck up out of the water inshore where they had tried to beach her after an explosion that ripped her open to the sea. Was it a solitary mine or were there more of them lying hidden along the channel? We should know presently.
The cook staggered round at intervals with mugs of scalding hot sweet tea the color of mahogany. He shared his galley with a small dog of uncertain lineage. Every now and again he picked it up and extracted a matchstalk or a cinder from its mouth, much as a mother removes objects not meant to be eaten from her infant’s gums.
From time to time the Reserve lieutenant took a bearing of the distant land and bent over the chart. The skipper snorted contemptuously.
‘Charts! The charts can’t tell me anything inside the forty-fathom line. They’re mostly wrong. Drag a trawl over inshore soundings all your life, ye’ll not have great regard for the chart.’
He turned his face to windward and sniffed the bitter wind for snow. He had a fur lining to the collar of his leather coat; wisps of gray hair stuck out round his peaked cap. His shrewd old eyes, and ears ragged with frostbite, gave a suggestion of a scarred old fox, wise in a thousand intuitions and experiences.
The lieutenant straightened up from the chart table.
‘Ye’d not maybe have the schooling to read it, Jock,’ lie said. All day they maintained a half-affectionate, halfacidulated give-and-take of repartee.
‘Schooling! I was top of my class when your mithcr was wringing out your wee nappies, man.’ It was the swift retort of the fisherman to the deep-sea sailor, not the backchat of an Auxiliary Patrol Skipper to his Unit Commander.
When we reached the end of our beat the lieutenant jerked the siren lanyard and our consort slowed down, eased her helm over, and round we came. She kept perfect station on us all day. What kind of mess the sweep would have got into if she hadn’t, I tremble to think. Yet there was no signaling except a toot of the siren at the turn.
‘ Signals! ‘ ejaculated the skipper. ‘ Signals wi’ flags and that! What does a man want wi’ flags when he has a siren to gie a bit toot wi’?’ It was, of course, the language of the Banks, and it is astonishing what a subtle range of significance can be conveyed by the strength of the jerk on the lanyard.
We passed a place where a sister trawler had been blown up the previous week. Of the crew and the little ship not a trace was found. There might be another mine there. The sweep might pass over it. The lieutenant and the skipper fell to yarning about shoals and shipwrecks. The skipper let the names of the East Coast lightships ripple off his tongue, for the security that he felt perhaps lay in the sound of the words, as if he were running a rosary through his fingers. The Germans had been bombing them and machine-gunning the crews. That to a seaman’s mind constituted the ultimate achievement of bestiality.
I asked him if he had ever suffered shipwreck.
‘Aye, but never for want of a lightship. I was in a gale once when I was a lad, and it split the mainsail and we druv down on to the sands.’
He pondered over his memories. Between the cap peak and collar, little of his face was visible but his eyes and nose. ‘I mind I had my best suit on board, and I went below before she broke up and I put it on. A fine suit it was.’ His eyes wistfully contemplated through the mist of years the sartorial magnificence of that suit.
‘But why?’ I asked.
‘I had a mind to look respectable when my dead body was washed ashore,’ was the answer.
In that moment the trawler lifted as if a giant had kicked her. There was a mountain of water astern, white on the summit and black at the base, with a fringe of lambent flame. Not merely one’s heart, but the whole structure of the body contracted with terror and relaxed again. There was a roar that filled all space. The trawler shuddered like a living thing reprieved from death: as we all were, because the sweep had done its work, and the mountain of water collapsed far away astern of us. A dead gull came eddying down like a falling leaf.
The skipper turned from contemplating the upheaval.
‘Another of the—' He paused and eyed me mischievously. ‘ But maybe you’re a releegious man.’
The method of sweeping for the direct-contact mine, the moored, horned variety, involves quite a different technique. The sweeper tows by a wire several hundred fathoms long a hollow, cigar-shaped steel float called an Oropesa; it has a short mast on its nose and a flag which enables it to be seen on the surface of the water. A square steel frame, called an otter, travels along the wire, and within the frame vertical planes are set at an angle like the slats of a Venetian blind. The rush of water through these planes carries it out on the quarter of the towing ship, and with it the Oropesa. Instead of towing directly astern, the wire is thus curved in the form of a gigantic sickle. A similar contraption, only with the planes set horizontally, is secured to the end of the wire nearest the towing ship. This can be adjusted to carry the wire to any desired depth.
The curved sweep of the wire, which has serrated strands, encounters the vertical mooring wire of the mine and cuts it. The mine, which has positive buoyancy, then floats to the surface. By international law, contact mines are required to contain a mechanism which renders them harmless when they become detached from their moorings, but Germany’s regard for international law does not warrant the assumption that her mines are so fitted. A mine floating on the surface is therefore riddled by machine-gun fire, fills with water, and sinks to the bottom, where it is unlikely to do further damage.
The task of sweeping for contact mines in the comparatively protected waters of harbor approaches and coastwise traffic lanes is carried out by trawlers and other small craft; but further afield the larger fleet sweepers, vessels of eight hundred tons and very shallow draft, take over the task. Paddle mine sweepers are also employed in shoal water on account of their low draft. These little ships plied about the coasts and rivers of Britain in peacetime carrying sight-seeing throngs of tourists.
I sat in the captain’s cabin of one the other day. The captain, a gnarled, hardbitten seaman a trifle the wrong side of sixty (his wife called him an old fool when he volunteered for another war of mine sweeping, giving his age as fiftytwo), talked about his ship and the hazards of the game (‘But what else could I do and England fighting for her life?’) while two black kittens climbed about the settee, bullying the life out of a red setter.
And while he talked the name of the ship kept coming back to me as I had seen it somewhere, listed over by a great throng of sight-seers. They were tense and motionless, like people in a dream. And suddenly a burst of wild cheering poured from them. They waved hats and handkerchiefs, the cheers redoubled, and with one accord the crowd began to sing the National Anthem. . . .
Then I remembered. It was a sunny August afternoon when King George V and Queen Mary were spending Cowes week on board the royal yacht, Victoria and Albert. The old King had been racing his cutter, Britannia, all day in half a gale of wind. The Queen had been shopping. They were both tired and were sitting on deck in armchairs. A footman had brought them tea. The Queen was reading aloud from the evening paper. Then the paddle steamer had come abeam of us. Where they sat, the King and Queen were invisible to the sight-seers, who had traveled many miles, had been crowded and seasick for hours, in the hope of catching a glimpse of Their Majesties. The Queen rose to her feet and helped the King to his — it was His Majesty’s last summer alive — and together they walked to the gangway, where they were in full view. The Queen waved her hand. . . .
I remembered watching the broad wake of the paddler as she drew away, the heavy list, the voices singing ‘God Save the King’ growing fainter, the wake dissolving, the ship herself growing faint in the afternoon haze.
So this, then, was her destiny; and not all of it, for she had been into the shambles of Dunkirk during the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force, and had come out of it and now was sweeping Death’s doorstep ‘for the duration.’
‘Dunkirk was all right,’ said the captain. He leaned forward and picked up both kittens in his enormous fist, dropped them on his knee, and fell to stroking them. ‘These two didn’t mind it. But he didn’t like it a bit.’ He put out his foot and stirred the sleeping setter. ‘Gunfire and dive bombing. No, he doesn’t like it.’ He spoke tolerantly; the dog opened one eye and closed it again, as much as to say: ‘Well, do you?’
The fleet sweepers are built for the work, and are commanded by young lieutenant commanders of the Royal Navy and manned largely by old Navy men of the Fleet Reserve. We went out in the dawn one day, a flotilla of six, to sweep a channel along which a big convoy would presently pass.
There had been a three days’ gale; and steep tumbling seas, the color of greenish pea soup, were breaking in patches over the hidden sandbanks. From time to time we passed a buoy marking the tail of a shoal, on which a bell clanged mournfully as it rose and dipped in the sluicing tide. We came to an area where mines had been found; the order was given to start sweeping, and overboard went the Oropesa.
Squalls of sleet swept down out of the purple-black clouds to windward as we plunged along the edge of the suspected area. Our next astern steered on the flag of the Oropesa. About every half hour we turned and carved off another slice, cutting deeper into the mine field each time. Occasionally a mine bobbed up in the sweep and we gave a few blasts on the siren to warn our next astern. Each time the third ship drew out of the line and sank the mine with short staccato bursts of machine-gun fire. It was all perfectly coördinated, almost mechanically efficient, like the functioning of a bacon-slicing machine.
As the day advanced, the sun appeared through rifts in the cloud, throwing fanshaped beams of light on the water. The anti-aircraft gunners slipped dark goggles over their eyes, in case a dive bomber should come out of the glare, and settled their shrapnel helmets more firmly on their heads.
Suddenly there was a warning shout from a lookout, and two Messerschmitts appeared on the edge of a cloud, far out of range. They circled like hawks, disappearing and reappearing among the dark cloud valleys. Then one banked for the dive, and our guns broke out in a furious cannonade, throwing a barrage of bursting shell in the path of the swooping Messerschmitt. A tiny thing the size of a pea was falling towards us; another followed. The thin whistle of their falling changed to a shriek; the pom-poms, holding their fire, burst into a deafening racket. A bomb burst ahead of us, and a moment later one astern, throwing columns of water into the air.
The bomber had turned away in the teeth of the barrage and was already lost to sight. It was just an incident in the course of a day’s mine sweeping, and the incident was closed.
Far away to the southward the convoy appeared; the channel was clear, and we turned for home. As we approached the harbor we passed little units of the trawler patrol going out into the wide dusk of the sea. It was the same every night of the year; and tomorrow the sweepers would be out again. And the day after tomorrow. And the day after that, on a task whose end is not yet in sight.