Minesweepers in WWII

#1
Hi All, I am trying to trace my fathers career in the RNR in particular in the Minesweepers during the second world war. Minesweeping ships details are very sparce. In particular I am looking for information about HMT Cumbrae, which was in the Med; in particular Crotone in Italy on 19th of Aug when he was drafted on board from BYMS 2019 (which was mined on the 18th). It would appear that this ship then transited to Egypt between then and Apr 44. I cannot find out anything about her.

The other ship I am looking for info on is the MMS173 or J673 from 3 Nov 44 until 15 June 45.

Can anyone point me in the direction of information
 
#2
Hello Bill.

BYMS 2019 was mined off Crotone on 19 (not 18th) August 1943 and subsequently beached. These are extracts from The Coast is Clear - The Story of the BYMS by Eric Minett:

...The approaches to Syracuse and the harbour itself were swept on the 11th, and in fact 2019 lays claim to being the first British ship to enter Syracuse after its capture.

On the 13th also, Augusta the second of the two primary early invasion objectives fell although the Germans remained uncomfortably close to the latter for several days denying easy access to it and on a couple of occasions naval vessels had to withdraw because of their proximity. On one such occasion, 2019, which had been quietly and conscientiously carrying out her duties, was left in the harbour entirely on her own "as a decoy" (Keith Simpson) - presumably to suggest that the Allies were firmly established there - whilst the 8th Army got its act together to drive the Germans away northwards and resume its advance to Messina. Both Augusta and Syracuse had succumbed, it seemed, with very few shots being fired. It all looked too easy and proved to be. The Germans brought over from the mainland their 29th Panzergrenadier Division and a couple of parachute regiments to stiffen the wilting Italian defenders, and their counter-attack on July 14th saw Montgomery's men under pressure for the first time.

Keith Simpson:
We could see the Panzer divisions with their tanks firing ... It's a big natural harbour in Augusta, and you can get quite large convoys in. I remember the Chief Engineer coming to me the next morning and saying to me, 'You know, Steward, you concerned me so - you slept right through that lot last night". They had been shelling us from the shore during the night, apparently.

2019 survived, and Montgomery resumed his advance. In Syracuse a few days later 2019's Chief Engineer "left us", as Keith politely put it. He had had 'a problem with the Provost Marshal there, and both he and the Coxswain, another CPO, left together. As a result, George Taylor, Second Engineer and Keith's closest pal, suddenly found himself elevated to Acting Chief Engineer. It was not altogether to his advantage, as we shall see later. Sweeping operations for the BYMSs, doubled up with the kind of support activities for which they were to become renowned - 2019 did some plane-spotting continued off the coast, but there were as yet too few BYMSs there to be heavily involved...

It is at this juncture that we pick up the story of 2019 again - and also end it. Keith Simpson and his colleagues played a full part in sweeping the approaches to the landing beaches and small ports in the toe of Italy along with other BYMSs still in process of acclimatising themselves. On the 19th, as Montgomery's forces advanced northward, 2019 was working off Crotone which had been entered bv the Canadians on the 12th. Here, a small minefield had been discovered north of a line joining 39° 04' N, 17° 10' E and 39° 03' N 17° 12' E, off Cape Colonna, through which a mile-wide searched channel had been established towards Crotone. It was a warm, sunny typically Mediterranean summer's day. The sea calm. Everybody in the crew getting on with their jobs or resting. In the distance, landing craft ferrying men and supplies ashore. No sign of enemy activity. Routine sweeping. The BYMS was on a bearing of 345° from the Colonna light, about 2.9 miles distant. It was 1530 hours. The CO was in charge.

Keith Simpson:
It was strange. I'd kept on deck that day, because he'd frightened the living daylights out of me the night before, this expert sweeper. I could have gone in the mess quarters, which was basically on deck, although you could have got away quite easily, but George Taylor and the others were actually down below. I was sitting on the engineroom casing just below the bridge companion way. Then all of a sudden, without warning, up she went. The funny thing was I never felt a thing myself; all I could feel was the boat went up in the air. It took the bow off the boat completely right up to the bridge. All the forecastle part went, so all - the guns and everything - went.

Scrambling aft, Keith vaguely noted that the hatch next to where he had been sitting was no longer there and the heavy hatch-cover had been deposited precisely where he had been sitting. Up to then they had got nineteen mines; now, one had got them.

After what must have seemed an age, an alert nearby fleet sweeper, the Cromarty, came alongside and took off seven of the men who had injuries of varying severity, followed by most of the remaining crew, including Keith. They were four men short: George Taylor, 33, from Dundee; Joe Keisler, 28-year old Engineman, from Holyhead; Seaman Ron (Taff) Hughes, a gunlayer and just 21 years old; and Leading Cook John Healy, from Greenock, also 33. John it was who had replaced the cook (who didn't know how to cook) in San Diego. He was also Keith's best mate. A little later, a boarding party, which included Keith, returned to the still-floating after half of the stricken ship. Like the others, he was anxious to find out what had happened to the missing men and particularly concerned about those who had been below decks at the time. Naturally his mate John Healy figured largely in his thoughts. They clambered aboard, and on the debris-strewn deck he saw a crumpled and tattered piece of tarpaulin. Pulling it aside, the severely mutilated body of Healy lay. His head had been split neatly in two from skull to chin. Below decks, they found the bodies of Taylor and Keisler; both had been killed instantly by the force of the explosion. Of young Taff there was absolutely no sign. Three killed, one missing. Seven others injured. There may be other terms for it, but it hardly seems just that Taylor and Healy, both replacements for less-than-satisfactory members of the crew, should now be dead as their reward for competence and efficiency! Irony indeed.

The BYMS with its grisly contents was towed by the Cromarty to the quayside at Crotone, near where troops, members of a Scottish regiment, were being landed to reinforce Montgomery's forces which had three days earlier linked up with the Salerno bridgehead. The bodies were removed, as was some of the precious special gear, and a rating from the Cromarty appeared on the quay to take a sounding, which verified that because of the shallowness of the water there was no likelihood of the hulk being engulfed even if the water rose (the Mediterranean is practically tideless). So, having tied her up, three of the boarding-party kipped down in the chartroom of the BYMS whilst the fourth took his turn on watch on the quay - or such was the plan.

The day's events had no doubt taken their toll, so it is perhaps quite understandable that the watch inevitably succumbed to the balmy Mediterranean night and the pervading silence, safe in the knowledge that very little would happen before morning, when the boarding-party would be picked up. Keith duly took his turn, and then duly succumbed. But soon he was awoken by the sound of ropes chafing on the quayside and creaking as they grew taughter and taughter. There could only be one reason why they were stretching. Despite the assurances received earlier, it was clear that the poor old 2019 was indeed settling, and that either the reading had been erroneous, or this particular bit of the Mediterranean was far from tideless! Hurriedly waking his sleeping colleagues, Keith managed to get them off with only a minute or two to spare before the waters rose even further to close over the hastily-abandoned chartroom. And then Keith realised that all his possessions,including ports-of-call photographs and snaps of shipmates and loved-ones, together with carefully-collected mementos (an ashtray from every port) had gone with it.

Well what now? The four of them were safe and uninjured, but what should they do.? Was it best to stay where they were - at least the Navy would know this was the spot where 2019 had been! Or should they go to seek help instead of just waiting for it to come to them? Crotone, it was obvious, had been severely damaged during the fighting, its seafront hotels and other buildings raised to the ground, rubble and shell-holes everywhere; and whilst the four of them had got safely ashore, nobody else in the flotilla knew that they had. What was more, it wasn't clear who they would find or, more precisely, exactly who would find them if they stayed where they were. The town itself looked not only devastated but abandoned, littered with all the detritus of war and the paraphernalia of invasion.

Keith Simpson: We spent the night in the basement of a ruined hotel, after which, quite unrecognisable as Navy personnel - I was by this time wearing only shorts and singlet - we left 2019 where it was and wandered off to make contact with some of the disembarked troops, members of a Scottish regiment, who were bivouacked nearby. They thought at first we were soldiers who had lost their regiment and the Quartermaster produced Glengarrys and khaki shorts. But these made us look even more like soldiers who had lost their regiment, and actually made it even less likely that we would get returned to the Navy. In fact, unknown to us, by the 21st the Navy had put in hand the salvage of the gear from the sunken BYMS. But because we weren't there when the Navy came back to the BYMS, there being no sign of us they posted us as missing. We were posted missing for more than a month. Worse, a letter written to me by my mother was later returned to her marked with "DD" in the bottom corner. To cut a long story short, we were eventually found and taken by the Navy to Augusta.

And so Keith Simpson overcame the Atlantic, survived a Stuka attack, lived through a bombardment, came unscathed through an explosion, and avoided drowning in a sinking. "But it didn't end there," says Keith. He and his wife survived a post-war jet crash in Corfu in 1972 and a few years later, for good measure, he had a quadruple bypass. Charmed life! He had joined up in 1941, on November 5th, Guy Fawkes Day. There were certainly a few fireworks to follow! At first it was thought that the BYMS could be salved but she was eventually written off as a total loss early in 1944.
HMT CUMBRAE was attached to the Mediterranean Fleet from 1942 and based at Haifa in company with HMT ISLAY for convoy escort duties. She was transferred to the Italian Navy in 1946.

Built by J W & A Upham of Brixham, MMS 173 was ordered 2 September 1941, launched 21 December 1941 and commissioned into the Netherlands Navy as TEXEL I on 4 May 1942. She was returned to the Royal Navy in November 1942 because she was fitted with a 500 hp Newbury diesel whereas her sister ships all had Crossleys. Served with the 136th MSF (Mine Sweeper Flotilla) based at Sheerness from November 1942 then assigned to the 140th MSF based at Harwich in 1944. Placed on sale list November 1945. Reportedly, she is still being used as a charter day-trip yacht, named LADY MACK, in Oslo.
 
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