The Hidden Threat: Mines and Minesweeping in WW1 by Jim Crossley

I mentioned in my last book review that the naval war between 1914 and 1918 witnessed the advent of some new aspects of warfare that had never been seen before. Alongside the submarine and the aeroplane, the naval mine made its debut in this conflict.

I must confess I had never really understood just how extensive mining was during the Great War. Large tranches of the North Sea, including the German and British coasts, were mined by the allies and the Germans. In particular,shipping routes were heavily targeted, such as the British North Sea coast and the areas around ports in the low countries.

The important thing to understand is that was not just the threat that a ship might strike a mine that made presented such a problem, it was the sheer inconvenience that there might be mines anywhere, and the limitations it put upon the enemy. Ships could only move freely in swept channels, which of course required much effort and danger to clear. Its the threat that mines MIGHT be there that really causes the damage – even if you know that there probably arent, you have to assume that there are until you know otherwise. Mines severely restricted and impeded the free maneouvring of naval forces. And compared to the vast cost involved in building a Super Dreadnought, they were also relatively cheap.

Much like the submarine, to begin with British naval circles scoffed at minewarfare, somehow thinking of it as ‘un-British’ – I suppose its similar to the popular clamourings for a Trafalgar-esque, Nelsonian pitched sea battle – all very nostalgic, but Trafalgar was over a hundred years ago. But by 1918 the Royal Navy had, slowly, and somewhat unconventionally, developed significant experience and expertise in both laying and dealing with mines. In anti-minewarfare in particular, much use was made of smaller ships, such as Trawlers. Paddlesteamers were also utilised for their maneouvreability.

I think its quite telling that whereas the Royal Navy has long led the field in mine counter measures warfare – perhaps motivated by her experiences in the Great War, and her geographical status as an island nation dependant on the free movement of shipping. By contrast, the US Navy never really mastered the concept of the mine, right up until the 1980′s when several of her ships were severely damaged by Iranian mines in the Gulf. Incredibly, the largest and most powerful navy on the seas did not possess its own MCMV force. Yet after the armistice, each  of the allied nations was alloted an area of the North Sea to clear of mines. One of them – the US Navy.

This is a very interesting book, and contains a number of salient points not just about mines, but about naval warfare in general. I enjoyed reading it very much. It is extremely well written, and complements the historiography of the Great War at Sea perfectly.

The Hidden Threat is published by Pen and Sword

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4 Comments

Filed under Book of the Week, Navy, World War One

4 responses to “The Hidden Threat: Mines and Minesweeping in WW1 by Jim Crossley

  1. John Erickson

    The US Navy suffered from two main problems regarding mines. First off, the most common place for mines is close in to shore and in harbour channels – usually the purview of the Coast Guard. The other problem is the maniacal cost-cutting following every expansion during wartime, which squandered much of the equipment and experience gained during the conflicts.
    By the way, a lot of the reason for commandeering trawlers and paddle wheelers was their wooden hulls, very useful when sweeping magnetically-triggered mines. The US used a number of these vessels during both wars just for that reason.
    Sounds like an excellent read!

  2. That’s a little unfair on the US Navy. During the Cold War, mine clearance was largely left to Auropean NATO navies, as mines were likely to be used in shallow continental waters as opposed to the open ocean.

    However, this policy was changed after encountering Iran mines.

    • James Daly

      I guess you’re right WEBF. It had always struck me as a typical US military ‘might makes right’ approach, ie neglecting the small, unglamorous things. But putting it like that, it makes sense.

  3. Pingback: Portsmouth’s WW1 sailors – some initial observations « Daly History Blog

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