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Minesweeping the channel on the night before D-Day

Blog | By ​Alistair Sawrey-Cookson | Jun 05, 2019

Photograph of British Algerine class minesweeper HMS Lennox, 1944

Seventy-five years ago, and sometimes almost forgotten—moving swiftly to oblivion—happened an adventure that bestrode the world. And yet to those who ventured forth, just an incident, remaining only as a few unbalanced memories—of sunshine and night—of gunfire and tracer—of debris and accomplishment. And to each taking part his role seemed submerged in the colossus which was “ Overlord," a trifling being that mattered little in the pattern of the whole. Much has been written—“ Overlord ” has passed into history. “ Neptune," the sea adventure, has been described in detail. Yet though the complete picture has been woven and described, there is still something to tell of the weaving: something to remember of the setting forth.

On 13th April, 1944, our flotilla of fleet sweepers had sailed from Portsmouth to anchor in St. Helen’s Roads. And there we remained, with the exception of a few days off Lee-on-SoIent, till that fateful day in early June. Of course, various nocturnal exercises took place, but for two months we lived in a little world nearly isolated from the shore. Leave was bad and infrequent. Mails hopeless.

It was from St. Helen's Roads that we sailed at 12.50 on 5th June. Our sailing signal was terse—three words—“Serial 10-Charge.” So at the appointed hour hoses spumed spray on the various fo’c’sles of the flotilla as anchors were brought home and secured for sea. Slowly we formed line astern, our speed of advance seven knots.

A dull day with greyish clouds, and a stiffish breeze that gusted from the southward. Slowly we made our way towards the Nab End buoy, past the Nab tower, past F buoy, and on our beam we left slower moving landing craft, whose engines roared in steady crescendo.

Away to starboard the lighthouse at St. Catherine's Point stood clear on the horizon : the hills above Ventnor loomed greyly to the heavy sky. Astern, Tank Landing Ships were passing the boom that stretched between Horse and Noman’s forts — “ Operation 4 Neptune ’ ” was afoot. Above, often in the clouds, the thunder of escorting fighters drummed and rolled.

Seven knots! For us an agonising speed. Our diesel engines refused to maintain steady revolutions below nine: there was a constant clanging of the engine-room telegraphs as we strove to keep station.

Away to port there stretched formations of sweepers, now opening out for their sweeping stations. They had to sweep the channels for the bombarding battleships. To starboard, more sweepers, away to the horizon, and perhaps beyond. Ahead the tiny M.L’s. whose job it was to clear a path for the leading sweeper of each flotilla. These M.L’s. were fitted with small sweeps closely resembling our own. Amid their flotillas steamed the danlayers: theirs was a heavy responsibility, for upon them depended the accurate marking of the swept channel.

At seven knots we thumped on.

Then it was time to stream sweeps— revolutions for ten knots now—the Oropesa floats spread steadily on our quarter, curtseying and dipping in the slight swell. The engines mounted a steadier note. We could maintain ten knots with ease.

Night slipped quietly upon us. A feeling of tension pervaded the ship. Surely Jerry must know of our coming? Surely? Our preparations had been so obvious.

On each Oropesa float there winked a coloured light, to enable the next astern to keep station. Sometimes it would disappear beneath the waters as a particularly large swell urged by. An occasional spark from the funnel fled into the night—dancing as some fairy sprite, which we cursed, for to us it seemed a beacon to behold!

The only sound to break the rhythm of the engines was the soughing of the wind through the swaying rigging. The float light on which we kept station winked cheerily. Suddenly a flutter of anti-aircraft bursts sparkled on the starboard beam. Bomber Command was attending to the Cherbourg peninsula.

Then the crash of an under water explosion. Mines at last. Perhaps it was the M.L’s. cutting them. Then another explosion : the flotilla this time. Then the sweep ahead blew one. Then our own sweep. We were getting mines at the worst possible moment. It was nearly slack water, and at slack water we had to recover sweeps, proceed two miles to the northward and stream sweeps again—the opposite sweep—to reap full benefit from the turn of the tide. This minefield was considerably to the south of where we had thought it to be.

Down the line of sweepers signal lamps winked:

“Executive signal, in sweeps !”

On the quarterdeck the winch gleaned and quivered as the kite was brought up. Astern another mine detonated. Silence for a moment as the kite was hauled clear ; then the steady beat of the winch recovering the 300 fathoms of sweep wire. This would take ten minutes. We were living in a sweeper’s nightmare.

The bell from the Sweep-deck voice pipe clanged on the bridge. “Mine in sweep, sir! ” Through glasses we could see it bobbing astern. The ship ahead flashed to us that she also had a mine in her sweep.

“Veer sweep! ” the Captain shouted, “ 285 revolutions.”

The sweep wire sang astern as the brakes were eased on the winch. The engines crept up to 13 knots.

“Hold on !” roared the Captain. The winch jarred to a halt. The whole ship shuddered. Again we heaved in. The sweep was clear.

A danlaying trawler passed nonchalantly astern, unperturbed by sweep wires or mines. The flotilla was now forming for the two miles run to the northward. Somehow everyone crept into station. Exercise “ Turnabout ” was proceeding, if not exactly to plan.

Then the turn to the southward. Once again a clattering of winches. A splash of floats as they hit the water and dropped astern. Ten knots. And formed on the opposite quarter of the next ahead we churned past the winking danbuoy lights, which marked the channel already swept. Once more the thud of a mine. The M.L’s. were getting them again. Good lads, the M.L’s...

In the Cherbourg direction red curtains of tracer drifted quietly skyward : from Le Havre the same thing was happening. Bomb flashes flickered and surged silently all round the horizon ahead, and on the enemy shore before us the warning light from a lighthouse was still flashing. We thought it to be Ouistreham. A few more thuds and we were clear of the mines.

Already there was a greying of the eastern sky. The A.A. fire on shore was becoming less distinct.

The end of the channel at last— one by one the sweepers followed the flotilla leader round on to an easterly course. The lowering position had to be swept out. One or two stars shone through gaps in the thin clouds —and occasionally a star, which was the exhaust glow from one of our fighters, skimmed the dawn—gladdening our hearts!

The lack of opposition was amazing. With the exception of the mines the flotilla had not been opposed : nor had any of the others to our knowledge.

At last, when daylight was increasing rapidly, we recovered sweeps—and clung together as so many ducks upon a village pond—waiting for we knew not what.

From the galley below the bridge there crept a delicious smell of frying bacon...

About a mile away a ship, mortally hit, by what we knew not, raised her bows in the air and slipped quietly beneath the waters.

The officer of the watch, carefully placing his mug of cocoa on the chart- table, gave his attention to the Deck Log. Therein he wrote one word:

“ Stooging.”

Inshore the firing was becoming heavy—along the coast a curtain of brown smoke drifted, and grew...