J.B. McLouglin # 641 – 1932/33
In my life-time I have had experience of two types of mines, those that fall in on you if you are not very careful, and those that blow you up whether you are careful or not. The first kind are, of course, the gold mines, where-in I worked after I had swallowed the anchor. It is the other variety that I wish to tell you about.
My first brush with sea mines was during the Spanish Civil War, off the coast of Spain. I was the cadet in a British merchant ship at the time and I think our skipper’s mother had been frightened by a mine or that he himself had been blown up and sunk by one during the First World War. He was a bundle of nerves, extra look-outs posted and life-boat drill, (known to us as “Board of Trade Sports”) at all sorts of odd hours, day or night. No mishaps or sightings, though.
Then there was the Agulhas Bank … I did one stint there after sweeping the approaches to Cape Town for endless days during the winter of 1940 and in 1941. Agulhas was mainly memorable for the atrocious weather experienced there, the trawler that got a mine entailed in it’s sweep and hoisted it up with the kite and the Seaman-Gunner who blew up a floating mine with his first shot from a twelve pounder gun at about a thousand yards. This was quite a feat, the ship rolling and pitching and the mine, a small target at the best of times bobbing up and down on the waves. Rather like a hole-in-one at golf.
Next there was the Mediterranean. Floating mines were often encountered and these had to be sunk as they were a hazard to shipping. They were supposed to be rendered safe once they were free of their moorings. A spring-loaded piston was pulled down by the weight of the anchor pulling against the buoyancy of the mine which made it active. Once this was released the piston retracted and the mine was rendered safe. (Geneva Convention). The piston, however, knowing nothing about Geneva, became corroded and covered with marine growth, preventing any movement and the mine remained highly dangerous. To sink a floating mine, we used to lay off at about a quarter of a mile and let fly with all our smaller armament, usually expending a great of our precious ammunition. Finally, some joker would hit it and make a hole in the casing. The mine would fill up with water and tamely sink. On the following occasion we would venture much nearer and get the same result. So it would go on, each time getting closer to our target until one day it would explode with a terrific bang and a towering plume of water – much to the consternation of the Engine-room staff and those others who happened to be below deck. Next time there was a mine to be sunk, we would be back to about a quarter of a mile, banging away and to hell with ammunition conservation.
During the advance from El Alamein, we were proceeding in support of the Eighth Army and had reached the large bay just to the East of Mersa Metruth. There was a large minefield there and all day long the mine-sweepers had been busy clearing it. One of them had, in fact, struck a mine and had blown up with great loss of life. We were ordered to anchor for the night in company with the rest of our group. All was well and peaceful when I went up the bridge just before midnight to take over the watch from my old ship-mate Lieut. Johnny Walker. He was on his last trip before returning to the Union, having completed his tour of duty in the Mediterranean. It was a pitch dark night, no moon and only the stars shining brightly in the clear desert sky giving enough light to enable us to see the sea faintly. We chatted a while after he had handed over the watch and he was just about to turn in, (we were all sleeping on deck so as to have some chance of survival should the ship be hit by a torpedo or a bomb) when we glimpsed a small black blob in the water on our port side. Now H.M.S.A.S. Southern Isles was an Atlantic whaler converted for war service and these ships have very little free-board. Johnny and I went down to the main deck, leaned over the side and he switched on a shaded torch. We found ourselves contemplating the menacing horns of a drifting mine about a foot from the ship’s side. I grabbed a deck broom and between us, we held the mine clear of the ship’s side until we reached the depth-charge racks and the stern where we thankfully allowed it to drift away. We alerted the other ships in the group of the menace, posted extra look-outs on each side of our ships and that was that. I still think though, that Johnny and I are the only Naval Officers who ever actually swept a mine with a broom.
Much later in the war, when convoys were being sailed from Alexandria and Port Said to Gibraltar and the West, there was the Bizerta. It was a straight run except for a ‘Dog-leg’ towards the Western end. I remember great excitement and chaos once when two large convoys met in this channel. We, of course, altered course to starboard but the other convoy altered to port. What a shambles – ships steaming in all directions, whistles blowing and much cursing and swearing by all concerned. So much for the Rule of the Road.
We were East-bound from Gibraltar and our position in the escort screen was that of stern escort. It was our job to chase up ships dropping astern of station and generally look after the rear of the convoy besides the normal anti-submarine sweeps. The convoy entered the Bizerta Swept channel early one morning before dawn and, before the early mist had dissipated, five of our charges had lost sight of the ships ahead of them and had failed to alter course for the ‘dog-leg’. Instead, they steamed gaily ahead into the mine-field, followed by ourselves. When it became light, we requested our position from the Senior Officer of the escort who had radar. He fixed us all right – four miles into the mine-field. Signalling our charges to stop immediately, we went to them and explained the position and instructed them to form up in line ahead and follow us. This they did. It was dicey but we were lucky and there were no casualties. One ship, however, the Richard Olney, did not obey and kept to her course and speed. Result, a loud explosion and frantic signals that she had been torpedoed and her No. 3 hold and engine-room were flooded. Sure enough, a signal came from the Senior Officer, ordering us back into the danger area to render assistance. In we went, thinking we were really tempting providence. If our little ship had hit a mine we would have been blown to smithereens as we had so often in the past seen happen to other small ships.
We reached the casualty and started a anti-submarine search around her, just in case she had been correct in her report. We were steaming up her port side when an excited American voice reported a submarine surfacing on her starboard beam. Full ahead, all hands closed up at action stations with the gun-crews hoping to get in the first shots. The Americans, too, seemed to be loaded for bear, all guns manned and training to starboard and all hands wearing their funny-looking and unfamiliar (at that time) steel helmets. We hadn’t steamed very far when the same American voice reported, somewhat sheepishly : “It’s O.K., it’s only a box”. So it was. Some of her cargo had fallen from the hole in her side and one large box had surfaced. We had suspected all along that she had struck a mine. Making our way back and to her through the mine-field we passed over a rope, took their wire, and made fast to our bitts. The weather was calm and we had no difficulty in towing her back to the swept channel – except for a certain amount of trepidation of, course. One doesn’t like to play about in mine fields ! A year or so after the war I received a cheque for about £20. My share of the salvage money as First Lieutenant. I’m sorry I didn’t frame it ! Still, enough is enough.
We came down from the scene of the initial landings on the South French coast, where we had landed a shore-party to come to Marseilles by road. Bucking against a “Mistral’, we made about two knots. H.M.S.A.S. Gamtoos was never an ocean grey-hound, even in the best of weather and with a following wind.
We anchored to seaward of the Eastern entrance of the great port of Marseilles, while Frog-men searched the outer harbour for mines and obstructions. Away to the South, we could just make out the Ile d’If and to the North of us the beautiful cathedral over-looking our anchorage. Also the grim battlements of the Citadel.
The outer harbour being declared safe, we moved in and again anchored. What a mess, wreckage everywhere. The dockside cranes had all been tipped into the water and the wharves themselves had been blasted into rubble. Even the locks between various sections of the harbour were filled with sunken barges and other wreckage.
We started at once at our main job, which was to clear an entrance to the Vieux Port, to allow landing ships to enter. Jerry had taken a liner of about twelve thousand tons, the Cap Corso, filled her with rubble from wrecked buildings, towed her across the entrance to the Vieux Port and blown her bottom out, thus making a complete seal of the channel. Only rowing boats could get through.
The quickest way of opening up the entrance was by blasting and carrying away the blasted steel-work by means of a commandeered French floating crane, which could also dump the wreckage in deep water. Hastily robbing the local fire-station of canvas hoses, we set about it. Filling the hoses with explosive, like long sausages, we proceeded to drape these over the steel-work that could be reached while our divers did the same under the water.
Now it is in the nature of sailors that they are always ready to prowl and scrounge; ours were no exception. All was going well when one of these scroungers came to me and said : “Excuse me Sir, there’s something ticking below”. My mind was full of thoughts of mines, bombs, booby-traps, etc., so I hastily grabbed a torch, and urged the man to take me to the spot. Down we went into the ship, coming to a long alley-way which sloped down into the water at its far end. Part of the passenger accommodation below decks it was. Wading in cold water up to our waists at the end of the alley, we came to a pantry hatch and discovered the door of the pantry was too far below the water to be opened.
“Listen to that,” said my guide; and sure enough, I could hear a slow regular ticking noise coming from the pantry. I shone my torch through the hatch but could see nothing suspicious; only wet bulkheads and water. “Out we go”, I said smartly and we made tracks back to the upper-deck where the air was fresher and one didn’t feel quite so cooped in.
The Captain, Lieut. Cdr.. H.H. Biermann, was there so I reported to him at once. (I was No. 1 at the time.) “Clear the ship”, he said “We must report this to the Yanks immediately”. Our divers were brought to the surface and the Cap Corso was cleared in double quick time, H.H. and I landed on the hard adjacent to the head-quarters of the American squads doing the repair and clearing up work on the shore side.
Meeting with a G.I., we asked him where we could find the Officer in Charge. “Well”, he said, “I guess you guys want the Chicken Colonel – (Colonel, U.S. army wears and eagle on each lapel, hence the name.) – go right ahead to that shack over there and I guess you’ll find him”.
We found the shack and the Chicken Colonel. He was a ball of fire. No sooner had H.H. reported our suspicion, than he was issuing orders right, left and centre for the complete clearance of the whole area. Then he sent for the “Bomb Squad”. They arrived at the double and were quickly informed of the situation.
H.H. and I were about to leave when the Colonel looked up and said: “Wait up, my boys don’t know where to go. You’ll have to show them”. My heart sank. It had to be my job, I’d been there, I knew where to go. Off we went, the Bomb Squad and I. There were five of them, one being a very small chap, called, with some originality, Shorty.
Back aboard the Cap Corso, we made our way down the long, dark alley, talking in whispers and with me leading. Have you ever tried to walk on tip-toe while wearing sea-boots? Very difficult ! Sloshing our way through the water at the end of the alley, we arrived at the pantry hatch. All listened : “Sounds like a bomb all right, ” said the Yank in charge “Come on, Shorty”. Shorty came and was pushed through the hatch by the others. A bit reluctant to go I thought, small blame to him. I. held my breath while he searched. Suddenly he laughed. “It’s all right fellas,” he said, “It is a bell”.
He was right, the rising water had somehow closed a circuit to the electric bell for summoning the steward from his pantry and what we had been hearing was the last feeble movements of the bell’s striker as the battery ran down. Sighs of relief all round, especially from me. We recovered Shorty and made our way out, talking loudly and stamping our feet to try to shake the water from our wet clothing. Reports were duly made and in no time at all, work was proceeding on board and ashore as if it had never been interrupted. It had been an odd situation and both H.H. and the Chicken Colonel had acted without hesitation.
There was a sequel, too. We got our first charges laid and prepared to fire. I took a skiff up into the Vieux Port, to warn off any inquisitive Frenchmen on that side. I also took a camera to photograph the blast. The charge was fired and the whole harbour seemed to go up. It had detonated a magnetic mine which had been laid beneath the ship. I got such a shock that I clicked the camera by accident … I only managed to take the start of the up-heaval. After that, I was too busy hanging on, as the skiff and I surfed up the Vieux Port on the crest of the huge wave caused by the blast.