4. Mine Warfare and the Patrol Flotilla

“And after a storme, when poor men are all wet, and some have not so much as a cloth. to shift him, shaking with cold - few of those but wil tell you a little sack or Aquae Vitae is much better to keepe them in health than a little small beere, or cold water, although it be sweet.”
A Sea Grammar. Captain John Smith. 1627

Despite the successful use of the moored mine in the American Civil War of 1861 - 65 and the Russo-Japanese War of 1904 - 05, the Royal Navy, in the grip of the cult of the “Big Gun”, largely ignored and despised this device which was thought to be, like the submarine, the weapon of a weaker power and an expensive luxury to boot. This complacency was buttressed by the conclusions of the Hague Conference of 1907 which banned the use of mines except in territorial waters (which at that time extended only 3 miles from the coast) and the statement of the German delegate, Baron Adolph Von Marschall Biberstein, who, in condemning the use of mines at all, said “the Officers of the German Navy, I loudly proclaim it, will always fulfil in the strictest fashion the duties which emanate from the unwritten law of humanity.” (1)

In pre-war days the harbours in Britain which were defined as “defended ports” were protected by circlets of mines which could be detonated from the shore, but the Admiralty had shown little interest in developing a mine which could be used in offensive capacity. Consequently, despite fields being laid in the Dover Straits, off Heligoland and elsewhere during the war it was not until the conflict was nearing its end that we were able to produce a moored mine which matched in efficiency the model the Germans had available in 1914. Until 1917 the British product was liable to part from its moorings in bad weather, to the danger of friend and foe alike, and did not always explode when expected to do so. (2)

Our belief in the binding nature of agreements between nations was shattered within a few hours of the outbreak of war for in the early morning of 5 August 1914, a fisherman off Southwold on the Suffolk coast reported that a strange vessel was “throwing things overboard”. An investigation by the destroyers Lance and Landrail of the Harwich Force, led by the cruiser Amphion, discovered that the interloper was a German minelayer, the ex-pleasure steamer Konigen Louise, which after a brief chase was sent to the bottom, with Lance having the distinction of firing the first shot in the naval war. On the following day Amphion, returning from a sweep off the Dutch coast, struck one of the 180 mines laid by the Konigen Louise 30 miles off shore and sank with the loss of 150 men.

On 21 August, a German force of 3 light cruisers accompanied by a destroyer flotilla carried out a raid on the fishing fleet off Dogger Bank, sinking 8 trawlers which, so Admiral Scheer wrote in 1920, (3) were “suspected of working with English submarines” and carrying off the crews to Wilhelmshaven. Heartened by this success, a larger force left the German base on 24 August splitting into 2 squadrons, one of which (consisting of the cruiser Mainz, the minelayer Nautilus and an escort of destroyers) was bound for the Humber, while the other (comprising the cruiser Stuttgart, the minelayer Albatross and a half flotilla of destroyers) was destined for the Tyne. While steaming for Flamborough Head to make a landfall, the second group met a fishing fleet and sank 10 trawlers before setting off again to the west to lay 194 mines 30 miles offshore. Later the Humber squadron also encountered fishing craft en route, sinking 6 of them before sowing a field of 200 mines well outside territorial waters off the estuary. “The whole force then retired without having been seen by our Coast Patrols.” (4)

The North Sea was not the only area affected by the German mining offensive - the crippled battleship Audacious sank off north west Ireland on 27 August - but it was the most vulnerable to this form of warfare being so shallow that moored mines could be laid almost anywhere except off the coast of Norway. Once it became clear that the enemy was prepared to lay mines in international waters the Admiralty was faced with the possibility that all maritime trade in the North Sea would be brought to an abrupt halt and, on 2 November, a rather wordy Declaration was issued (see Appendix II) which stated that, as the Germans “had wantonly and recklessly endangered the lives of all who travel on the sea”, the whole of the North sea should be regarded as a “military area”. Ships coming in from the Atlantic bound for Norway, the Baltic, Denmark and Holland were advised that they should not use the northern route around Scotland but should steer for the English Channel and the Straits of Dover where they would be directed up the East Coast inside the minefields (through the area for which the 7th.Flotilla was responsible) as far north as the Farn Island where they would be given a safe course to steer for the

Lindesnaes Lighthouse on the southern tip of Norway from where they could coast to their destination. Outward bound ships were also instructed to use this route but, of course, in the opposite direction.

On 20 October, 1914, it was discovered that enemy cruisers, destroyers and submarines had left Danzig to join the High seas Fleet and the suspicion grew that the enemy was planning a major naval operation in the North Sea although the purpose could only be guessed at. The obvious possibilities were discussed ( a military landing on the east coast, a plan to entice the Grand Fleet across a line of lurking submarines, an attack on the cross channel supply route) but no one foresaw that the enemy preparations presaged another extension of the mining offensive.

At 7 a.m. on 3 November, the day after the Admiralty Declaration, Commodore Tyrwhitt, commanding the Harwich Force, received a surprising signal from the minesweeping gunboat Halcyon, operating near Smith’s Knoll off the coast of Norfolk, that she was under heavy fire and soon afterwards there came a report that shells were falling upon a beach near Gorleston, which adjoins Great Yarmouth. Subsequently, 2 patrolling destroyers of the 7th.Flotilla of the 6 based at Gorleston, Lively and Leopard, engaged the enemy and it was only by adroit manoeuvring and a clever, and very early, use of smoke screens that they, and Halcyon, were able to survive until their opponents disappeared into the mist, steering south east. The other destroyers from Gorleston “though they had put to sea the moment they heard the guns, were unable to arrive upon the scene before the enemy had made off” (5) and, perhaps this was fortunate for it soon became apparent that the German squadron consisted of 4 battle cruisers and 4 light cruisers. Officers at the Admiralty could not believe that a force of such strength would be deployed just to place a few shells upon a harmless beach and were convinced that the bombardment was a feint which would be followed by an attack upon the Straits of Dover. However, after the brush with the 3 ships of the British light forces, the German squadron made straight for home, only pausing to allow one of the light cruisers to lay a minefield 5 miles long off Smith’s Knoll, this being the primary purpose of the foray. At 9.a.m., 2 hours after the alarm was raised, “the nearest East Coast Defence Patrols were ordered to the spot” (6) and if this meant that the Immingham based ships of the 7th.Flotilla put to sea, the force (which of course, arrived too late to see any action) did not include TB1 which was boiler cleaning.

Although it had not been foreseen that mines would be laid indiscriminately by the enemy, it had been thought possible that the Germans, despite the protestations of their delegate, would exploit the provision of the Hague Convention which allowed these weapons to be sown in territorial waters and, as early as 1907, Admiral Lord Charles Beresford had visited Grimsby to assess the suitability of fishing trawlers for conversion to minesweepers. Subsequently trials were carried out at Portland and a Minesweeping Service was formed which, by August 1914, consisted of 94 earmarked trawlers which, on the outbreak of war, were to be set to work manned by their usual peacetime crews and by Royal Naval Reserve officers. A week after the declaration of war another 100 trawlers were requisitioned and, in mid September, an Admiral of Minesweepers (Rear Admiral E.Charlton) was appointed to supervise and organise the vessels operating from the main East coast ports: one of his first actions was to fly a seaplane from Killingholme to see whether moored mines could be spotted from the skies, an enterprising attempt to harness the potentiality of airpower but one which was unsuccessful as the muddy and sandy North Sea would not reveal the secrets lurking beneath its surface even to the most eagle eyed observer in his frail craft hovering above. (7)

Although it is claimed that the men of the Minesweeping Service were given some training in their duties it is clear that this was rudimentary and little attention was given to developing minesweeping techniques.

“For the majority of officers, mine warfare lacked the interest, glamour, - - - - and distinction that were associated with gunnery in the big ships or flotilla work with with destroyers.” (8)

Admiral Preston, who began the war in command of the Grand Fleet minesweepers - 6 ancient converted gunboats - stated that in pre-war days officers involved in the minesweeping service were regarded as “little better than lavatory attendants” (9) so it is not surprising that in attempting to deal with the minefields laid off Southwold, the Humber, the Tyne and Smith’s Knoll “one minesweeping trawler was sunk for every mine swept up, while one vessel of some sort or another was blown up for every mine destroyed.” (10) Eventually the Admiralty realised that the German minefields laid off the East coast were as much a protection against further enemy incursion as they were a danger to allied and neutral shipping using the North Sea and efforts to clear them were suspended; in fact, in a reversal of policy, the British extended the enemy fields laid in international waters with mines of their own. The main minesweeping effort now concentrated upon clearing an inshore passage, the “War Channel”, which by mid-September, 1914, stretched from the Downs to Flamborough Head but which eventually covered 540 miles from Portland Bill to the Firth of Forth - a waterway of enormous length which was swept and patrolled every day. The German mining offensive intensified in June, 1915, when submarines began to be used as minelayers, but it was in this month that Mate Frank Hanna was promoted and left TB1. The exact position of the enemy mine fields laid off our coast and, indeed, the British additions, were never plotted accurately so that they, and the “floaters” which broke away in storms, were a constant threat to the ships of the Patrol Flotillas.

When unsuspecting ships began to sail into the minefields which had appeared mysteriously off the Humber, the Tyne and Smith’s Knoll the authorities had no idea how they had been laid. Some officers at the Admiralty were convinced that enemy ships using neutral flags were operating in the North Sea and from 1 October all trawlers from neutral countries were banned from using East coast ports:

“All neutral fishing craft in the war area were to be treated as under suspicion of mine laying. They were to be warned off and if they did not comply they were to be seized and treated as committing an unneutral act. Any crews found laying mines would be shot after court martial, unless ‘in the excusive employment of the German government’ when they would be made prisoners of war.” (11)

(Click to enlarge)

When the true story of how the mining was carried out began to emerge towards the end of August, however, the failure to intercept the enemy ships was ascribed, in part, to the fact that the Patrol Flotillas, in their anti-invasion role, had remained in or close to port and they were now instructed by the Admiralty to patrol the coast day and night to prevent further mine laying:

“This order constituted a fundamental change in the functions of the Patrol Flotillas, and the continual patrolling threw a great additional strain on the personnel and materiel of the old vessels which were all that the Admiral of Patrols had at his disposal.” (12)

And so it was that when TB1 floated out of dry dock on 26 September, after a fortnight’s refitting, it was to find that the whole patrol system had altered. Instead of each flotilla operating in divisions which were concentrated at selected points on the coast, individual destroyers or torpedo boats were now to patrol singly along the War Channel which all ships travelling up and down the coast were advised to use and which at that time was buoyed as far north as Flamborough Head.

Each flotilla was to be responsible for several “beats”, as the Admiral of Patrols called them, and those covered by the 7th.Flotilla were from Flamborough Head to Spurn Point, Spurn Point to Cromer, Cromer to Gorleston and Gorleston to Harwich. Six vessels were allocated to each beat to patrol 20 miles apart, and in addition a division of 6 destroyers, based in Immingham, was detailed to work with Skirmisher, the scout cruiser, in making sweeps outside the mined areas twice a week. Soon a regular programme was established, so Rear Admiral Ballard informed the Cabinet. Of the 6 vessels allotted to a beat he reported:

“--- three are out on patrol, one is in harbour with steam ready at an hour’s notice for emergency, and the other two are in harbour with fires drawn, and engaged in coaling, cleaning boilers and adjusting machines. Each vessel in rotation has three days at sea, followed by forty eight hours in harbour with fires drawn and then twenty four hours in harbour with steam up.” (13)

The Yorkshire Coast

From 28 September until 29 October,1914,TB1 patrolled the beat which ran from Spurn Point to Flamborough Head, but the routine she followed was more arduous than that which the Admiral of Patrols had told his political masters was being followed by the flotillas under his command. It was to be 11 days, during which TB1 spent, on average, 12 hours out of 24 on patrol (14), before she was allowed 3 precious consecutive days in harbour. And then it was out again on “the beat” for another 11 days before fires were drawn in Immingham Dock on 26 October. During the 3 days in port there was much to do - there was maintenance and boiler cleaning to be undertaken, provisioning and the drawing of stores to be organised and work to be done on the paintwork for the ship’s sides were, like those of her flotilla mates, “a futuristic picture of dirty grey paint, black blotches and patches of red rust.” (15) But, for the first time since the outbreak of war, there was shore leave to be looked forward to, although the provision was far from generous:

“No leave to officers and men - - - has been given up to the present, but it is now proposed to give leave for a few hours each afternoon in the immediate precincts of the port to the officers and men of good character of one watch of those vessels whose fires are drawn, subject always to recall at the shortest notice by a pre-arranged signal.” (16)

On rounding Spurn Point a ship leaving the Humber and setting a course for Flamborough Head enters Bridlington Bay, the shoreline of which stretches away to port in a great arc, some 35 miles long, marked by even, low clay cliffs which 3 miles south west of Flamborough change to stone and suddenly climb skywards to mark the beginning of the stretch of rocky coast so feared by the collier barques running from Newcastle to London in the days of sail ,especially when the wind blew from the East. For TB1, ploughing up and down her beat, the low lying coastline presented few dangers except for one factor; the greedy sea, which in a year swallows about 5 and a half feet of good east Yorkshire land, had, over the centuries, swept away villages, churches and other landmarks so that there were few prominent points of which compass bearings could be taken to fix the position of the ship. In the pre radar and GPS days coastal navigation frequently depended upon “dead reckoning” (or “by guess or by God” as it was known to the cynical) particularly, as was often TB1’s lot, when the shore, with its lack of conspicuous features, was obscured by North Sea murk, fog or bad weather or at night when, in wartime, there were no reassuring rays from the lighthouses or lightships.

Flarnborough Head around 1905.

Standing on the cliffs at Whitby or Scarborough today, gazing out to sea, it will be very unusual if there are more than 1 or 2 ships in sight, steaming from the Humber to the Tees, whereas before WW1 it was not uncommon, “to count forty or fifty steam boats, large and small, tramps and colliers predominating” from these vantage points “while from Flamborough Head the number was greater still.” (17) The creation of the War Channel which was 10 miles wide in most places but much narrower than this off Spurn and Flamborough, funnelled all the ships running coastwise ( a greater number than in pre-war days) through what a seaman would regard as a narrow passage and the risk of collision must have been very great, particularly at night. TB1’s main task was to prevent enemy minelayers from using the routes north and south of the Humber minefield to lay their deadly cargo in the War Channel. There was still a lingering feeling that neutral ships, or German ships using neutral flags, were involved in mine warfare and so TB1 on her patrols had to take a close look at vessels from non-aligned countries while keeping a sharp lookout for, and dealing with, “floaters“, mainly British, which threatened the free flow of traffic through the area. There was also the task of preventing merchantmen from wandering into dangerous areas because, at first, the creation of the War Channel had to be kept secret and, even when the existence of this traffic lane was generally known, there were always stubborn or ignorant skippers who hazarded their ships:

“At all periods of the war, avoidable and considerable losses of merchantmen occurred in minefields through their inattention to orders, if not to flagrant disobedience.” (18)

During September, 1914, the weather off the East coast was mostly fine but through October it grew steadily worse culminating in a tremendous easterly gale in the last week of the month which is chiefly remembered today for the wrecking of the hospital ship Rohilla off Whitby with the loss of 73 lives. TB1’s tiny bridge, aft of the forward gun position, was open to the skies and had room for a standard compass, a chart table and little else; it must have been a tight squeeze for all concerned when it was occupied by an officer of the watch, a lookout a signalman and, very often, by the captain as well (19). To prevent the men on the bridge being drenched by flying spray each time a wave came aboard they were protected by a low canvas screen, known as a ”dodger“, and the regular motion of bending the knees and bowing the head to “dodge” down behind the flimsy shield soon became an automatic reaction to every oncoming wave.

TB1 spent the first 13 days of November on a new beat between Spurn Point and the buoy marking the southern extremity of the Race Bank , a shoal over 7 miles long. The 53 miles of shoreline between the Humber and Cromer has been described as being:

“For the most part encumbered with numerous and dangerous sands, some of which fringe the coast, while others lie a considerable distance off shore. - - - The rapidity of the tidal streams in this bight, the low elevation of its shores, and the mist which almost constantly prevails, render its navigation difficult, and a more than common degree of care is necessary. (20)

All in all, taking account of the onset of winter weather, the cramped and wet living and working conditions, the low visibility, the danger from floating mines, the congestion of the seaways, the fact that all lights aiding navigation were extinguished and the need to be ready to meet the enemy at any time, the little torpedo boat’s ship’s company deserved the addition to their pay provided by the “hard lying” allowance. Able Seaman Horner needed the extra pay; he fell overboard one morning and, battling to stay afloat, kicked off his sea boots and struggled out of his duffel coat. The loss of these items, and of 3 lifebuoys, was recorded in the log the following day, a fact which makes it very likely that poor Horner found the cost of replacements entered on his “slop chit” at the end of the month. If this was the case he was luckier than the nameless sailor who, on being rescued after falling overboard, was charged, so naval legend has it, with “leaving the ship without permission”.

The possibility of a German assault on the East coast had not been entirely discounted while the patrol flotillas were searching fruitlessly for enemy minelayers but an unexpected development in the land war in France in mid November suddenly raised once again the spectre of a full scale invasion in the minds of politicians and military leaders. Life aboard Torpedo Boat Number One was to change once again.


1. “Taffrail”, “Swept Channels” et al.
2. Arthur J.Marder wrote in “Dreadnought to Scapa Flow” that many German warships carried British mines mounted on a stand as a souvenir.
3. Admiral Reinhard Scheer. “Germany’s High Seas Fleet in the World War.
4. Julian Corbett. “Naval Operations, Vol.I.”
5. Ibid.
6. Ibid.
7. Spotting for mines from the air was carried out successfully in the Mediterranean in 1917.
8. Paul.G.Halpern. “A Naval History of World War One.”
9. Arthur J.Marder. “Dreadnought to Scapa Flow, Vol.II.”
10. “Taffrail”. “Swept Waters.”
11. Nigel Hawkins. “The Starvation Blockades.”
12. Naval Staff Monographs, Vol.X, Part I.
13. CAB/121.
14. From TB1’s log:
30.9.Left Immingham 9.30.a.m. Returned 1.10. 11.40.p.m. 2.10. “ 11.15.a.m. “ 3.10. 11.20.p.m. 4.10. “ 12.15.p.m. “ 5.10. 12.30.a.m. 6.10. “ Noon. “ 7. 10. 1.0.a.m.
15. “Taffrail”. “A Little Ship.”
16. CAB37/121.
17. Walter Wood. “Fishermen in Wartime.”
18. “Taffrail”. “Swept Waters”. 38 merchant ships were sunk by mines in the North Sea during the war through disobeying orders to keep to the War Channel.
19. Lt.Morgan left TB1 on 30 Oct. and was succeeded by Lt.Meade.
20. North Sea Pilot, Vol.III.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting to read the detail of a naval operation in conjunction with Max Hastings' Catastrophe. Europe goes to War 1914, whose focus is more on the battles on the land.