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THE GREAT WAR 1914 - 1918

 

In 1907 Admiral Lord Charles Beresford who was Commander-in-Chief of the Home Fleet, saw the potential of the fishing trawlers as minesweepers, and auxilliary patrol vessels.

He wrote :"Our fishing fleets, in war, will be rendered inactive and will, in consequence be available for war service. Fishermen, by virtue of their calling, are adept in the handling and towing of wires and trawls, more so than are naval ratings. Small naval vessels, if used in minesweeping, will be used at the expense of other urgent war requirements."

MINESWEEPERS

In Dec 1907 under Admiral Lord Beresford`s advice the admiralty hired 2 Grimsby trawlers ALGOMA GY 6 & ANDES GY 5 complete with crew, early in 1908 they proceeded to Portland and the shore based mine establishment of HMS Vernon to carry out minesweeping trials, these initial two vessels carried out trials against a field of dummy moored mines. The A sweep was adopted for use and 6 ex-torpedo gunboat minesweepers were commissioned in 1908. A senior officer was appointed by the Admiralty to conduct further trials and to develop the system of the sweep and vessels. Fishing trawlers of varying sizes and age were purchased by the Royal Navy and adapted to become mine sweepers, the SEAMEW was one such vessel.

SEAMEW Admiralty No 2

The Seamew was built 1909 at Smiths Dock Middlesborough as the Nunthorpe Hall she was purchased by the admiralty in April 1909 along with the trawlers Spider, Seaflower, and Sparrow for use in minesweeping trials at Portland, by the start of WW1she was moved and along with Seaflower served as a minesweeper training vessel for RNR ( T ) section personnel at Chatham / Sheerness. In 1920 she was sold to Kelsall Brothers and Beeching Hull as the Nunthorpe Hall LO393, she was again later sold and went to Milford Haven.

After the many experiments and trials three prototypes of trawler were chosen as the basic design for future Admiralty Trawlers of which over 400 were built.

Class of Vessel
Builder
Modelled On
Tons G
Length
Width
Knots
Hp
Armament
STRATH Hall Russell Aberdeen STRATHLOCHY
202
123.0ft
22.0ft
10.5 k
430 IHP
1x 3 inch gun
CASTLE Smith Dock Middlesborough RAGLAN CASTLE
275
134.0ft
23.6ft
10.5 k
480 IHP
1x 3 inch gun
MERSEY Cochrane`s Selby LORD MERSEY
324
148.0ft
23.9ft
11 k
600 IHP
2 x 3 inch guns

The names of the many vessels built for the admiralty in the above three classes were derived from the official crew rosters of ships at the Battle of Trafalgar such as H.M.S. Victory, and H.M.S. Royal Sovereign

By 1910 a Trawler Section of the Royal Naval Reserve was established, and the rank of skipper RNR was introduced into the Navy Rank List, the first officer to enroll was the Aberdeen skipper Peter Yorston on 03 Feb 1911. The first warrant issued in Hull was to skipper William Oliver on 25 Sept 1911 at the Mercantile Marine offices, 70 other men had joined the RNR ( T ) section at Hull in this week, and were soon practising up and down the Humber. The Admiralty had given approval for 100 trawlers to be mobilised if required and the immediate enlistment of 1,000 officers and men to crew the vessels, there were 7 areas with 9 trawler stations including , Plymouth and Portland, Firth of Forth, Portsmouth, Dover, Sheerness, Harwich, Cromarty, Humber, Tyne. At the close of 1911 53 skippers had enlisted in the RNR ( T ) Section a further 25 enlisted in 1912 and by Aug 1914 the total of RNR ( T ) skippers was 109.

At the outbreak of war the total composition of the RNR ( T ) section was 142 Trawlers with 1,278 officers and ratings, within the first week of the war a further 315 skippers had enlisted. 94 trawlers were immediately allocated to minesweeping and distributed to the 9 stations. The Admiralty immediately requisitioned a further 100 fishing vessels complete with crews, war was declared on the 4th of Aug 1914 and within 11 days of mobilisation of the RNR ( T ) section, there had been such a response by the fishermen that these 100 vessels were full manned, by the 08th Aug British Fishing trawlers were at sea clearing mines. There was however little or no Naval presence aboard these vessels, so officers from the Merchant Navy were given temporary commisions in the RNR and RNVR, and retired Naval pensioners from the Fleet Reserve were brought back to obtain some kind of Naval discipline on the fishing vessels.

During the four years and three months of war 54,000 Warrant skippers and ratings had passed through the RNR ( T ) Section, at the Armastice the strength of the section was 37,145 men of which 10,000 were employed on minesweeping.and the rest in the auxiliary patrol. There had been a total Royal Navy minesweeping force consisting of all vessel types of 762 vessel stationed at 26 home ports and 35 foreign bases, including the Mediterranean, New Zealand, South and West Africa, the East and West Indies, Canada, Australia, and the Straits Settlements. Of the 762 vessels 110 were regular Naval Vessels, 412 were trawlers. 142 drifters, 52 paddle Steamers , 10 Dance Class shallow draught minesweepers.

John C Briggs was one of many volunteers who enlisted into the R.N.R.T Although not a Hull vessel John served on the Grimsby Minesweeper Lord Durham and had family links to Hull.

A Typical WW I Victory Medal awarded to RNR Personell

Within hours of the war been declared the German vessel Konigin Luise was seen by a trawler laying mines off the Suffolk Coast, she was subsequently sunk by British destroyers but early the next morning the first victim fell pray to the mines, the cruiser Amphion hit one of the mines and sank with the loss of 151 lives. By the end of August an area inside the Konigin Luise minefield had been swept and buoyed, although it is known that over 600 mines were laid around the East Coast by the Germans in this first month, eventually this swept area would be a mile wide, and over 540 miles in length stretching from Dover to the Firth of Fourth, this was known as the war channel and all shipping and convoys would move around the East Coast using this channel, which was completely swept daily.

Hulls first loss would come on the 6th of September 1914 when the fishing trawler IMPERIALIST H250 hit a mine and sunk 40 miles ENE of Tynemouth

During WW I, the British laid 116,000 mines and the Americans laid 56,000 mines in the North Sea and English Channel accounting for the loss of 150 enemy war vessels inclusive of 35 U-boats. Worldwide, British mines are reckoned to have sunk a total of 1,047 enemy vessels and damaged a further 541. The Germans laid 43,636 mines worldwide of which 1,360 minefields containing 25,000 mines were laid in British waters, resulting in the reported loss of 46 RN Warships, 269 Merchant Ships, and 63 Fishing vesssel, totalling over 1 Million tons of allied shipping.

Vessel
Total Lost
Total Tons
     
Admiralty Trawler
18
4,719
Hired Trawler
246
56,300
Hired Drifter
130
10,809

During the Great War the advances of mine warfare were still in their infancy and it would not be untill the second world war that the advances of acoustic and magnetic mines would be seen, the peril of the U boat laying mines had not been foreseen and it was believed that any craft entering British waters to lay mines would be seen and dealt with. The main mine used in WW1 was the floating contact mine. The original mine type floated anywhere from just below the surface of the water to several hundred meters down. A cable connecting the mine to a sinker ( anchor ) on the seabed prevented them from drifting away, the cable would also hold the mine at the required depth by use of a hydrostat, which gripped the wire when the mine reached its required depth. The explosive and detonating mechanism was contained in a metal shell, The depth below the surface at which the mine floated could be set so that only deep draft vessels such as battleships or large merchant vessels were vunerable. This was useful to avoid a "less valuable" ship detonating the mine. The mines usually weighed about 200 kg, including 80 kg of explosive (TNT). Trinitrotoluene or amatol. The Contact mine was fitted with horns about 5 inches in length, they had a glass tube inside which contained chemicals, when the horn was broken the glass tube would break, starting a chemical reaction with the internal battery and detonating mechanism. Drifting mines were occasionally used during World War I, however, they were more feared than effective. A drifting mine is simply a floating mine without any mooring. Sometimes floating mines broke away from their moorings and became drifting mines. In most cases the action to deal with a drifting mine was to shoot at it with a rifle which was not always a success.

A sea mine which was washed up on the East Coast and found in the condition shown, it is persumed the bullet holes have been made in an attempt to explode the mine by rifle fire when it was found drifting at sea. ( The horns have either been removed or broken off possibly a sign that the mine had actuated but was a dud ).

At first early experiments of towing a ground chain from spars set across the stern of a vessel to clear floating mines were aborted, after it was found the swept path was extremely narrow and the chain often became snagged on seabed obstructions. A method found effective and used throughout the Great War was the use of a serrated wire sweep towed between two ships, the serrated wire would cut through the mooring cable and either detonate the mine or allow it to rise to the surface were it could be dealt with by rifle fire.. Otter boards which were used by fishermen to keep the mouth of their nets open were employed to keep the sweep wire on the seabed but again the sweep often became snagged, the redesign and introduction of kite otters alleviated the problems.


At the end of the Great War, the Admiralty appointed an International Mine Clearance Committee on which 26 countries were represented. The Supreme War Council allotted each Power an area to clear, the largest falling to Great Britain. Some 40,000 square miles of sea needed clearing. In February 1919 a Mine Clearance Service was formed with special rates of pay and conditions of service. Members of the Service wore a specific metal cuff badge and cap tally. By the end of 1919 over 30,000 of the 43,636 mines laid by the Germans in British Waters are estimated to have been swept.

 

AUXILLIARY PATROL

Like the minesweepers the auxillary patrol vessels were manned mainly by fishermen who had enlisted in the RNR ( T ) section, with a small added compliment of Naval crewmen, the auxilliary patrol vessels tasks were numerous. In all cases compared to their naval counterparts they carried little armament. The escort vessels would sail with convoys on the outer flanks and have hydrophone listening equipment fitted, they would listen for any sign of U Boat activety near the convoy and if detected, drop depth charges on their quarry. There has been many a German pilot that underestimated the zest and determination of these small vessels, and the resulting onslaught received from their small guns sent them crashing to the sea. In many instances when a convoy was targeted and a vessel torpedoed or attacked the convoy would steam on trying to limit its losses, the trawler would often be the sole hope for any survivors, as she would remain on station rendering any assistance possible to a stricken vessel, while putting herself at the mercy of the inflicting foe. As mentioned the war channel that was swept daily by the sweepers was of upmost importance, this was the lifeline of war supplies, naval movement and food, without it the war effort would have ground to an halt, vessels with important war equipment would be unable to leave thier safe havens, warships unable to respond to naval intelligence. The task of securing and patrolling the 560 miles of this swept channel fell mainly on the auxillary patrol trawler.

Hulls first auxilliary patrol vessel to be lost was HMT COLUMBIA which was attacked by E Boats off Forness on 01 May 1915 there was only one survivor.