Tag Archives: North Sea

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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North Sea Battleground: The War at Sea 1914-18 by Bryan Perrett

Something that has always struck me about warfare, is that sometimes one of the belligerents can win, without actually ‘winning’. Rather, by not losing. And I guess that could be said about the naval war between 1914 and 1918. The onus was clearly on the German High Seas Fleet to knock the British Grand Fleet off of its perch. Given its numerical inferiority this would have taken something qute special. Hence the Royal Navy could afford to go to battle and not win, as long it was not outright defeated. For the Germans, on the other hand, nothing less than decisive victory would do.

The Great War was in part sparked by the Kaiser’s desire to build a blue-water fleet, modelled on the Royal Navy. In this he was eagerly encouraged by Admiral Von Tirpitz. The problem was, the Germans were starting from such a handicapped position – the Royal Navy was by far the largest on the waves, and had known nothing but victory for hundreds of years. Added to this, the Germans desired to develop an overseas empire – which could only be done with the help of a significant ocean going navy.

The Great War was possibly the last European conflict in which it was thought possible that both sides massed fleets could collide in set-piece battle, a la Trafalgar. In fact, this was eagerly awaited by the British public, supremely confident of a knockout blow in Nelsonian style. In fact, the stalemate at Jutland was a great disappointment to a public used to victory at sea. But what was lost on many people, was that unless the Germans could send the majority of the Grand Fleet to the bottom of the ocean, the Dreadnoughts would still keep the German fleet bottled up in harbour.In the end, the Grand Fleet possessed enough strength – muscle and numerical – to maintain superiority in the North Sea.

For the first time in hundreds of years, a foreign fleet actually bombarded the British Isles. Early on in the war German Battleships shelled North Eastern towns, including Hartlepool and Scarborough. Although little damage was done, there was a significant dent in civilian morale. British citizens expected the Royal Navy to keep foes well away. However, the Grand Fleet was stationed at Scapa Flow in the Orkneys, in order to guard the exit from the North Sea between Scotland and Iceland. Although this kept the Germans bottled up and the fleet far enough away to strike back flexibly, it meant that, if they got their timings right, the Germans could mount hit and run raids on the North Sea Coast.

In amongst the last throes of Nelsonian battles, the seeds of future conflicts could be seen. Sea mines began to make their appearance on the waves (more of them in the coming days), air power became a factor, in the shape of the new zeppelins and embryonic aircraft, and not least, submarine warfare became a significant factor in the war. The Germans, in particular, identified weapons such as the mine and the submarine as assets that could be used from a position of weakness to attack the allies at sea, in particular Britain. At times later in the war, British Government figures became seriously concerned that German submarines might sink enough merchant shipping to cut Britain’s lifeline and force her out of the war – something that would be a very real risk just over 20 years later.

In fact, the are many echoes of the Second World War, that were first rung in the first. When HMS Hood was destroyed in 1941, it was due to inadequate armoured protection, that had been sacrificed in order to give her more speed. The very same thing had happened to a number of Battlecruisers at Jutland in 1916, yet the lessons were not learnt. It could also be argued that there were enough warnings between 1914 and 1918 about the growing importance of airpower, submarines and mines, but knowledge of these aspects of naval warfare were sadly neglected between the wars, leading to costly mistakes and the re-learning of lessons after 1939.

As someone who, one – is writing a book about the First World War, and two – doesn’t actually know much about the First World War, books like this are a godsend. It helps me put the hundreds of Portsmouth men who died at Jutland into much more fitting context.

North Sea Battleground is published by Pen and Sword

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New Royal Navy ice patrol vessel announced

The Ministry of Defence has announced that the Icebreaker MV PolarBjorn (Polar Bear) has been selected to become the Royal Navy’s new ice patrol vessel. PolarBjorn will be re-christened HMS Protector while in Royal Navy service. The last  HMS Protector was also an antarctic patrol vessel.

Heres the spiel from Rieber’s website:

The ‘Polarbjørn’ is purpose-built for undertaking both long duration Antarctic expeditions, and offshore subsea support duties.  With her large public areas and accommodation capacities, helicopter deck and DP2 class, the vessel is well suited for undertaking flotel- and base ship functions on offshore fields and other operations. The vessel’s large deck areas and cargo holds offers ‘unlimited’ storage capacity for ROV and related equipment. The ship’s 50-ton knuckle-boom crane and the A-frame offers efficient solutions for handling equipment over the side and over the stern.

A few facts and figures about Polar Bjorn:

  • 90 metres long
  • 18 metres beam
  • 9.05 metres draught
  • Gross tonnage 4,985 tons, deadweight of 3,700 tons

She is currently owned by Rieber Shipping, and was launched in 2001. Until recently she has been working under a Norwegian flag on the ‘spot’ tendering market in the North Sea and Arctic offshore oil fields. Apparently during 2010 she was only being used 33% of the time due to the economic downturn, so her chartering by the MOD will be welcome to her owners. Official announcements by Defence Minister Lord Astor suggest that she will be leased for three years while HMS Endurance‘s fate is decided, but I would suggest that it is likely that Endurance will be scrapped and PolarBjorn/Protector purchased once the lease runs out. The same happened with HMS Endurance herself.

Amusingly, apparently members of the HMS Protector Association had known about the acquisition since January, but had been sworn to secrecy by the ship’s new CO, Captain Peter Sparkes. The Association’s newsletter also announces that she will be formally commisioned on 23 June 2011 in Portsmouth.

According to some sources she will be arriving in Portsmouth for the first time in April or May. At that point she will undergo a refit to install naval equipment, such as communications and limited weaponry. Apparently her up-front helicopter deck is going to be removed, and a new landing pad installed nearer her stern. This will probably necessitate the removal of some of her crane capability, which she will probably not use fully in RN service in any case. She will also need a hangar, given the manner in which she will operate independently in the ice.

The former ice patrol ship HMS Endurance is being withdrawn from service after suffering serious damage when she flooded in the South Atlantic in 2008. Since then the Offshore patrol vessel HMS Scott has been standing-in in the South Atlantic, but this is far from ideal as she is not an ice-breaker, and takes her away from her other role.

It will be good to see a new ship entering Portsmouth for a change.

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Ark Royal to enter Portsmouth for the last time

HMS Ark Royal (R07)

HMS Ark Royal (Image via Wikipedia)

HMS Ark Royal is due to enter Portsmouth Harbour for the last time on Friday morning.

The Royal Navy’s flagship, due to be decommissioned as part of coalition budget cuts, will arrive in the Solent tomorrow morning, unusually entering via the Needles and sailing past Yarmouth, Lepe, Cowes, and Lee-on-Solent before anchoring up overnight for the usual assorted top brass, flunkies and hangers on to visit.

She’s due to pass the Round Tower at around 0940 on Friday morning. The best spots are likely to be along the hot walls in Old Portsmouth (the Round Tower will be packed), although Gosport will be a good spot due to the layout of the Aircraft Carriers deck, which means that the view from port is better as she enters harbour.

Weather permitting there will be a Harrier flypast, in what is likely to be one of the last public flights by the soon to be decommissioned jump jet.

It will be a sad sight indeed, after Portsmouth has become used to seeing brand new warships arriving, and throughout seeing flagships returning from war, almost always victorious. My parents were onboard a tug when HMS Hermes came back from the Falklands. How times change.

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