Mine Sweepers

(notes by Alastair Wilson)

Publication

Kipling wrote a series of articles about the Royal Navy, for the Daily Telegraph in November/December 1915, later published as The Fringes of the Fleet. Each was headed by a poem.

The poem

The second article opens with another set of verses, later given the title “Mine Sweepers”, with the sub-heading ‘1914-18’. (The verses also appeared in a small booklet, Twenty Poems from Rudyard Kipling published by Methuen, London, in 1918, where they were given the title “Trawlers” with a notation ‘Written 1914’ – this latter almost certainly incorrect.)

It is, perhaps, worthwhile to explain briefly the mechanics of mine-laying and mine-sweeping as practiced during World War I. The first practical mines were developed by the Russians, and used in the Baltic in what is generally known in Britain as the Crimean War (1854-56). At the outbreak of World War I, most mines consisted of a spherical iron casing, containing between 300 and 500 pounds (136kg to 227kg) of high explosive. By itself, this was buoyant, but was held in position below the surface of the water by a sinker and a steel wire. The mine was actuated by ‘horns’ – protruding flexible spikes which, when struck by a passing ship, moved sufficiently to complete a battery-powered electric circuit which fired the mine. The Germans tended to use chemical horns – hollow spikes, the hitting of which broke a glass phial containing acid, which, making contact with two metal plates, generated a current which fired the mine.

The method of countering this threat was to drag a wire between two minesweepers so that it caught the vertical mine mooring wire, and broke it by friction. The buoyant mine would then bob to the surface, where it could be neutralised, usually by firing at it with a rifle to make holes in it; the casing would then fill with water, destroying its buoyancy, so that it sank, and was no more danger to shipping. (And the act of removing the tension of the mine-mooring wire was supposed to render the mine safe by breaking the firing circuit – but corrosion meant that this could not be relied on.) If the minesweeper was lucky, and a rifle bullet hit a horn, then the mine would explode, settling the matter once and for all.

For sweeping mines, deep-sea trawlers were particularly suited, since their method of fishing required them to drag a heavy net along the bottom on two wires. Instead of towing a heavy net, two trawlers towed a serrated wire between them, which was kept down at the desired depth by a ‘kite’, which worked exactly like a child’s toy kite, but upside-down, as it were.

The laying of mines was not just a matter of shoving them off the stern of the mine-layer: the height above the sea-bed at which the mine ‘floated’ could be pre-set, depending on the depth of water in which it was laid. This depth had to be calculated so that the mine did not reveal its presence by floating on the surface at low tide, nor be so far below the surface at high tide that the target ships could sail over the top. Thus the mine-layer’s navigation had to be precise, and knowledge of the tides had to be comprehensive. And the tides could also affect the mine-sweeper – if the tidal stream was setting across the direction it was desired to sweep, then the sweepers would move crab-wise, rendering the handling of the loop of wire more difficult.

These details may seem rather specialised for the understanding of three short stanzas, but Kipling understood them, and nearly every aspect of the above is covered in the verse.

Notes on the Text

Verse 1

The first four lines are descriptive of the sea breaking over a shallow bank:

[Line 4] awkward water to sweep As remarked above, if the tide were setting across the channel between the sand-banks, it made the matter difficult. In view of Kipling’s visit to Dover, it is likely that “the Foreland” was either the South or North Foreland, some five, and twenty, miles respectively north of Dover.

The last four lines represent a signal sent from the nearest Naval Officer in charge to the various harbour masters and signal stations in his area, informing them of the danger, and that he has sent up five mine-sweeping trawlers to clear the channel. The names indicate the variety of vessels from the different ports. In fact, since minesweeping was done in pairs at this date, there would have had to be an even number of trawlers.
Verse 2

Some six hours later, the tide has turned, and the first mines have been swept. (In fact, boom after boom is rather overdoing it: as stated above the aim was to sink the swept mine. To hit the mine with a rifle from the heaving deck of a mine-sweeper was difficult enough, and you had to tread a narrow path between getting close enough to be sure of hitting the mine, but not so close that if you did explode it, the blast damaged you or your mine-sweeper.) The golf-hut shaking might have been the club-house at the Royal St. George’s Club at Sandwich, in east Kent.

Verse 3

The end of the day and the task is completed. Again, in reality, navigational uncertainties rendered it difficult to be sure of 100% clearance, but the verse, as well as the accompanying articles, were written as propaganda.

[A.J.W.]

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