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The sea mine - a brief history

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  • The sea mine - a brief history

    When Admiral Farragut issued his often misquoted order "Damn the torpedoes, Captain Drayton, go ahead!" he was not referring to what we today understand by the word torpedo. In the American Civil War ‘torpedo’ referred to what we would call a mine. The Confederacy attempted to protect their ports with minefields and at Mobile Farragut was ordering the Union fleet to steam through one at maximum speed.

    Mines had been around in some form or another some time before the Civil War. The Chinese are reputed to have first used sea mines as early as the 14th century. In Britain one Ralph Rabbards is known to have presented a design for a sea mine to Queen Elizabeth I in 1574. The first known attempt to use sea mines in the West was made by David Bushnell in 1777 after the Turtle submarine had failed to be effective against British ships. He floated beer kegs packed with explosives and some form of detonator down the Delaware River to where British ships were moored. The river was crowded with floating ice that held up the arrival of the kegs at their target by ten days. On arrival the kegs proved both easily spottable and pottable being destroyed by gunfire in what was ironically referred to as the Battle of the Kegs.

    Robert Fulton also dallied with the idea of the mine and, failing to interest the French in his plunging boat, tried to sell them mines, even successfully demonstrating one against a small target vessel. Significantly he referred to his mines as torpedoes (and the name caught on). The French were not interested in these either. It is not known if Fulton tried to sell his torpedoes to the British Admiralty but it is interesting to note that a few years later the Royal Navy tried to deploy floating mines against French ships sheltering under batteries in the Basque Roads. These mines were referred to as catamarans and were singularly unsuccessful. Casualties were caused when some exploded prematurely (mines can often be as dangerous to the deployer as they are to the target). This fiasco convinced many naval officers that mines were both uncivilized and impracticable. Another American tried his hand at developing the sea mine; Samuel Colt experimented in the 1840s with moored mines, remotely detonated by an observer via electric cables. The US government showed no interest and he turned his hand to other things.

    It was left to an expatriate Swede living in Russia to develop the first ‘modern’ sea mines. Immanuel Nobel (father of the inventor of dynamite and founder of the Nobel Prize) was a self taught inventor. In the 1850s he convinced the Imperial Russian authorities to adopt several of his designs for moored sea mines. These fell into two basic classes, mines that exploded automatically on contact with a ship and those where the explosion was initiated electrically by an observer (just like those designed by Samuel Colt). In the self detonating variety the impact of a ship against the mine broke a lead-sheathed glass vial (the mine ‘horn’) and this started a chemical reaction that created enough heat to fire the black powder charge. This is very largely the same basic principle used in a vast number of mines right up until the end of the Second World War. Both types were manufactured in some numbers and laid in the Gulf of Finland at Sveaborg (near Helsinki), off the naval base of Kronstadt and at Sevastopol in the Crimea. In the Crimean War the contact mines proved the most successful (but with their sensitive horns the most dangerous to lay). The remotely detonated types had the advantage of being safe to lay and not harmful to friendly shipping (unless the observer made a mistake). They were however useless in fog and at night as the observer could not see the target ships, especially if they did not observe the courtesy of lighting their navigation lights. The contact mines worked in any weather day or night but did not discriminate between friend or foe, neutral or belligerent.

    During the Crimean War the Russian mines helped thwart an Anglo-French attack on Kronstadt and hampered naval operations supporting the siege of Sevastopol. In 1860 Major Richard Delafield of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers who had an official observer attached to the Russians wrote an enthusiastic account of their deployment of mines (or torpedoes as he referred to them). The US government does not seem to have been particularly interested but the Confederates manufactured and deployed large numbers of mines, both contact and controlled. Confederate mines accounted for the sinking of more Federal ships than all other means put together. However there was a basic problem with all sea mines produced by the South. Being essentially non industrialised the Confederacy did not have the resources to produce large numbers of mine casings by casting processes. Confederate mines were built up from sheet metal; this meant they had many seams that would eventually leak to some extent. Gunpowder is very susceptible to damp when it ceases to be explosive; thus after a while most Confederate mines became inactive.

    The Royal Navy in the Crimean War had developed techniques by which ships could safely negotiate their way through mine fields. These had the penalty of forcing them to travel very slowly which would expose them to fire from shore batteries. Both the Confederacy and the Union were aware of this and the former often coordinated the positioning of mines and coastal artillery. Farragut was less worried about the threat posed to his fleet by mines than the damage that heavy guns could inflict. Thus the reason for the full speed ahead command, possibly Farragut was counting on many of the Confederate mines in Mobile Bay having been rendered inactive by water seepage, perhaps he actually knew (Federal military intelligence was good at discovering such things). He was certainly correct in his choice of tactics, as nearly all the mines were in fact dud. During the war mines sank 27 Federal ships, including three monitors and some other ironclads. In many cases this seems to have taken place not long after the mines were laid. Confederate minefields were a rapidly wasting asset and needed constant renewal to remain effective. The South did not have the resources to be able to do this and a lot of the effort put into laying them was wasted.

    Nevertheless the lessons of the potential effectiveness of sea mines were not lost on many watching nations and the use of such weapons began to spread. The next country to adopt their use was Chile engaged, in alliance with Peru, in a war against Spain (the ‘Guano War’ 1866-67). It is an intriguing side light of history that the acquisition and smuggling of mines for Chile was organised by James McNeil Whistler, more usually remembered as a great painter rather than an international arms salesman. There are some indications that the US navy may have connived in this so possibly the mines were captured Confederate stock.

    By 1900 the use of mines had become widespread, in the Russo – Japanese War Russian mines sank two Japanese battleships and two heavy cruisers (about the only naval success that Russia had). In the two world wars millions of mines were sown, mostly moored contact mines but increasingly magnetic, acoustic and pressure mines were employed. The North Sea Mine Barrage, a large minefield laid by the U.S. Navy and Royal Navy between Scotland and Norway during World War I inhibited the movement of the German U-boat fleet. In many cases mining exercises such as Operation Starvation (which used minefields to strangle Japanese shipping routes) played a crucial part in the course of the conflict. However mines could be a double edged weapon, cutting the wielder rather than the intended victim. Mines could be laid in the wrong place and maps marked incorrectly (or not annotated at all). The sea is not a stable environment and currents, storms and tides could move mines and leave them in unexpected places.

    In February 1942, during the closing phases of the Battle of the Java Sea, the British Destroyer HMS Jupiter having survived the best attempts of the Imperial Japanese Navy to sink her, succumbed to a Dutch mine that was outside the specified limits of its minefield. No Japanese ship was in the vicinity.

    On the 2nd of August In 1942 three American minelayers, USS Breese, USS Gamble and USS Tracy, laid a mine field in one of the channels leading to the port of Espiritu Santo in Vanuatu part of the New Hebrides, a group of Pacific islands. There seems to have been what might be described as a failure to communicate for one day later the destroyer USS Tucker steamed into the minefield and was sunk. No one had seen fit to inform the Tucker of the new minefield, but the folly did not end there.

    The troopship USS Coolidge was once a luxury liner the SS Calvin Coolidge; in its time it was the second largest liner in the World. On 26th October 1942 the Coolidge was carrying the 172nd Infantry Regiment of the 43rd United States Army Division across the Pacific en route to relieve troops fighting in Guadalcanal. The ship was scheduled to arrive at Espiritu Santo in Vanuatu that day. The new American minefield that had been laid on the approaches to Espiritu Santo was not marked on the Coolidge’s charts. As the liner neared the harbour a warning was frantically flashed to the ship by signal lamp. Unfortunately it was in code (why it wasn’t in clear remains a mystery - there were no Japanese within several hundred miles) and the Coolidge’s signaller did not have the codebook. The result of this incredible series of bungles was that the Coolidge hit two mines and sank. Fortunately the loss of life was small but the regiment lost all its equipment and was stranded on the island with only the clothes the soldiers were wearing when the ship went down. By the time the troops had been reequipped and transported to Guadalcanal the battle was over. The Coral encrusted Coolidge is now a major attraction for divers holidaying in Vanuatu.

    As far as can be ascertained no Japanese ship was ever damaged by the Espiritu Santo minefield.

    Off America’s East Coast a small group of ships escorted by the USS Spry (formerly HMS Hibiscus a Royal Navy Flower class corvette transferred to the US Navy that was desperately short of escort vessels) came under attack from the German U-576. One ship was sunk In escaping the Spry, not knowing of its presence, led the remaining two ships Chilore and Mowinckle into the Cape Hatteras minefield. The mistake soon became apparent when both ships hit mines. Two tugs, Keshena and Martin, were called to give assistance. Keshena also hit a mine. Both Chilore and Keshena sank. An American bomber sank U-576 shortly afterwards.

    The Bathurst Class AMS Corvette, HMAS Warrnambool survived the very first Japanese air raid on Darwin and the next day, when she was rescuing survivors from a burning ship off Bathurst Island, a direct attack by a Japanese floatplane. She hit a ‘friendly’ Australian mine (does this count as a triple oxymoron?) off the North Queensland coast in 1947 and sank.

    Those responsible for US minefields on the Eastern seaboard encountered a curious problem; mines were exploding without being struck by a ship. The cause turned out to be sharks rubbing up against the mines. A team of chemists belonging to the OSS and led by a Julia Child developed the first effective shark repellent; not to save downed airmen or wrecked sailors but to protect US mines. One wonders what the OSS (the American equivalent to the British SOE undercover sabotage and espionage organisation and one of the ancestors of the CIA) was doing investigating the problems of sharks making up to mines. Julia Child went on to become a TV chef.

    The construction of twentieth century mines did not share the defects of the old Confederate variety. A simple contact mine with its cast casing can remain active and dangerous for a very long time. This creates a problem; at the beginning of the 21st century despite the best efforts of various navies around the World over a quarter of a million Sea Mines from the Second World War alone have yet to be accounted for . Active mines still keep turning up (and sometimes exploding) in trawler nets, snagged in submarine cables and drifting round the legs of oil platforms. Some are washed ashore still active. Mines from the First World War may still be active. Another long term threat lies in acoustic and pressure mines that have not been dealt with. These types of mine sat on the seabed and exploded when a ship passed over them. They were triggered by noise (of the engines) or changes in pressure and did not use batteries. Not being moored made them difficult to detect and sweep and they were usually detonated by mine sweepers that carried special devices that replicated the effects of passing ships but from a safe distance. Many such mines were rendered ineffective by shifting sand and sediments that buried them and shielded them from pressure changes and noise. This also made it impossible to sweep them but they are only dormant, currents can just as easily carry the sands and sediment away again and render the mines active once more. No one knows how many there are or where they are located.

    Last edited by MarkV; 05 Jul 19, 14:52.
    Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe (H G Wells)
    Mit der Dummheit kaempfen Goetter selbst vergebens (Friedrich von Schiller)

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