Very Special Ships by Arthur Nicholson

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  • This is the story of the six Abdiel class minelayers of WW2. They were indeed ‘special’ as they were, apart from the unsatisfactory HMS Adventure of 1927, the only purpose-built fast minelayers the RN ever had, in size half way between a cruiser and a destroyer of WW2 vintage. Elegant and very clear arrangement drawings - one from the NMM and others, as well as side elevations, beautifully drawn by Eric Leon, give a clear idea of their physical structure.

    We start with a brief history of mine warfare from 1776 to 1939, a discussion focused on the desiderata for an offensive, tactical minelayer leading to the design criteria for the Abdiels, the first four of which came into service in 1941. There is discussion of other craft designed or adapted for mine laying in the RN and other navies. The book takes us through the Abdiels’ careers to the point where the design was altered for the last two, Ariadne and Apollo whose brief war careers follow.

    As to the ships, they could carry over 160 mines or nearly 400 tons of cargo instead - which, guns, vehicles, kit, ammunition, petrol, torpedoes, even gold and diamonds, they often did, as well as being able to transport hundreds of troops or act as a fast VIP taxi. As a nibble, one might have wished for a more detailed description of the mines themselves, these being the ships’ main armament; I would dispute the term ‘cruiser stern’; and I was left confused as to whether these ships had superheat, which I would have thought essential where very high speed was required. As it was their power on two shafts was nearly that of a Colony class cruiser on four.

    After a successful lay in Greek waters, Abdiel as a fast transport takes us through the support and evacuation of Crete and is then joined by Latona for the relief of the Australian garrison in Tobruk. Its replacement by other troops, an unsound operation let alone militarily unnecessary, diverted effort from the main war in the desert and cost us ships and lives, and it is explained how the responsibility for those deaths lies absolutely with the blinkered obduracy of the Australian commander, General Blamey. The loss of the brand-new Latona is described in detail. Manxman - the first to be given any time for any sort of workup - takes us to Malta and back and, in disguise using paint and funnel cowls to pretend she is the French destroyer Lé opard, to a lay off Italy. She then goes east to replace Abdiel which has taken damage in a grounding while mining in the Andamans, and plays a key role in the taking of Madagascar, where the local French are on the side of the Nazis.

    Welshman after busily mining in Home waters was sent to the Med and with Manxman was involved in running the gauntlet of the Sicilian Narrows on urgent relief runs to Malta, Welshman initially copying the Lé opard disguise for a couple of runs until it was clear that it had been rumbled by the French as well as the Germans. Both, with Abdiel, were then switched to pukka and successful) minelaying off Bizerta, but Manxman on her first such trip took a torpedo hit that knocked her out of the war. In theory these ships’ speed should have kept any U-boat outside their limiting lines of submerged approach, but their want of fuel storage meant that they could not always use this advantage. Too versatile for their own good, the other two were now back on trooping, supply and VIP missions right up to the conquest of Sicily. Welshman was fatally torpedoed in February 1943 and Abdiel was sunk by a mine in Taranto harbour in the September, the end of a year and a half of frenetic and often exhausting and dangerous activity. This is all a pretty exciting read in its own right.

    The careers of Abdiel and Apollo follow, they improved by extra fuel storage and visually identifiable from the suppression of ‘B’ 4” mounting. Such was the RN’s manpower shortage in 1943 that these two were nearly laid up on completion. However for prestige reasons Ariadne commissioned and was eventually lent to the Americans in the Pacific. After only two operational lays her conversion to trooping use in amphibious warfare, useful though it was, forestalled taking up a possible mining opportunity at the time of the Battle of Leyte Gulf. Apollo commissioned in 1944 and was put to minelaying in Home waters in preparation for D-Day, soon joined by the returned Adriane. Unfortunately on D+1 Apollo’s Captain, with Eisenhower and Ramsay on his bridge, ran her aground and she was then out of it for months. In 1945 Apollo and Manxman went out to the Pacific but being too late for war, were used as freighters.

    Manxman, Ariadne and Apollo’s postwar history is described but not the infamous mutiny on board Apollo in 1958, which can be read about in the National Archives (ADM116/6425).

    The narrative includes first hand accounts, culled by the author from memoirs and diaries, often with the help of the families of those who served in the Abdiels, and includes short bios of the COs and some other of their people. Sources are well documented and supported by a bibliography. There is a rich variety of illustrations throughout the book, and useful, clear maps, the whole presentation being at the usual very high Seaforth standard.

    I mark this as 4/5 as the subject may be a bit niche, but these ships earned their memorial and personally I found the book well written, excellently presented and very interesting.

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  1. HByrne
    The comparison back then and nowadays is interesting to see. Very informative.
  2. northern-matelot
    Might have to have to have a look into this book, my Great-Great Grandfather served on the Ariadne with the US Pacific fleet during WWII, would be intresting to see what conditions were like, compared with today.