No 'Phoney War' for the Royal Navy

Discussion in 'History' started by Naval_Gazer, Sep 10, 2009.

Welcome to the Navy Net aka Rum Ration

The UK's largest and busiest UNofficial RN website.

The heart of the site is the forum area, including:

  1. Introduction

    You may have noticed the current proliferation of events and news stories marking the 70th anniversary of the beginning of the Second World War. Of particular interest to the RN is a lunchtime reception, including talks and audio-visual presentations, to be held on board the Imperial War Museum's floating exhibit, HMS Belfast, on Thursday 26 November 09. This is intended to mark the 70th anniversary of Cdr John Ouvry DSO RN and his team first rendering safe a German magnetic mine at Shoeburyness on 23 November 1939. Invitations will be issued to veterans, senior officers, politicians, representatives of the commercial shipping world, civic dignitaries and the news media. The opportunity will also be taken to promote Project Vernon, the campaign to erect a monument at Gunwharf Quays in Portsmouth to commemorate the mine warfare and diving heritage of HMS Vernon which previously stood on the site.

    HMS Belfast on the Thames[/align]

    HMS Belfast is the obvious venue because she has Ouvry’s mine on display and was herself seriously damaged by a magnetic mine as she left the Firth of Forth on 21 November 1939. This mine, laid on 4 November by the German U-boat U-21, injured 34 of Belfast’s ship's company, broke her keel and wrecked her hull and machinery to such an extent that it took nearly three years to repair her at Devonport.

    HMS Belfast's Director Brad King, John Ouvry's son David
    and veteran Bomb & Mine Disposal Officer and author
    Lt Noel Cashford MBE RNVR beside Ouvry's mine

    Historical Background

    The period of WWII between September 1939 and the Battle of France in May 1940 is often referred to as the 'Phoney War' because so little action was apparent to the British public. However, the Royal Navy and the Merchant Navy were heavily engaged right from the start; this was still some eight months before the Battle of France and nine months before the Battle of Britain. Within hours of war being declared against Germany on 3 September 1939, U-30 sank the liner SS Athenia off Rockall with the loss of 98 passengers and 19 crew members. On 17 September, the aircraft carrier HMS Courageous was torpedoed by U-29 in the South West Approaches with the loss of 518 lives. On 14 October, HMS Royal Oak was sunk by U-47 at Scapa Flow with the loss of 833 lives and on 16 October, German bombers attacked British warships at Rosyth in the Firth of Forth. In November, the armed merchant cruiser HMS Rawalpindi was sunk by the German battlecruiser Scharnhorst off Iceland and in December, the Royal Navy cruisers HMS Exeter, HMS Ajax and HMS Achilles fought the German pocket battleship, Admiral Graf Spee, at the Battle of the River Plate, forcing her to retreat into Montevideo harbour where she scuttled herself. There was certainly no 'Phoney War' as far as the Royal Navy was concerned.
    German pocket battleship Graf Spee ablaze in Montevideo Harbour 17 Dec 1939[/align]

    The German Mine Menace

    In 1939, German U-boats were still few in number and they did not yet have the bases in France providing short and relatively safe access to the open ocean. However, merchant ships and warships around the UK coast and in the approaches to ports were experiencing mysterious underwater explosions and being sunk or seriously damaged at an unsustainable rate. The cargo ships SS Magdapur and SS Phryne were sunk on 10 and 24 September 1939 respectively and the liner City of Paris was severely damaged on 16 September, all as the result of mines laid off Orfordness by U-13 on 4 September. This area had already been swept of moored mines and, as losses mounted, the Admiralty began to suspect the use of magnetic ground mines. However, owing to their self-destruct mechanisms, no mines of this particular type had been recovered intact to confirm them as the cause or enable the development of effective countermeasures. In September and October 1939, mines accounted for almost 60,000 tons of Allied merchant shipping. In November, mines took the lead as the main threat to Allied sea communications, sinking 27 merchant ships totalling 121,000 tons. As Churchill conceded at the time, "The terrible damage that could be done by large ground mines had not been fully realised."

    Churchill as First Lord of the Admiralty
    visiting HMS Vernon 21 Sep 1939

    The Breakthrough

    The breakthrough came on 23 November 1939, the day after a German parachute mine had been discovered on the mudflats at Shoeburyness. Commander John Garnault Delahaize Ouvry Royal Navy, then a Lieutenant Commander as a Render Mines Safe (RMS) officer based at HMS Vernon in Portsmouth, was already investigating reports of German parachute mines in the area and was soon on the scene. He was accompanied by Lieutenant Commander Roger Lewis Royal Navy (another Vernon-based RMS officer). After the mine had been staked against the incoming tide, Ouvry and Lewis photographed it and conducted an initial examination before reporting their findings. Ouvry returned some hours later with Chief Petty Officer Charles Baldwin (killed on 3 Feb 1940 along with course of 14 RNVR Sub Lieutenants on board a drifter while recovering loose British moored mines in the Forth) and Leading Seaman Archibald Vearncombe who had arrived from HMS Vernon. While the rest of his party remained well clear, Ouvry approached the mine with CPO Baldwin and proceeded to render it safe using non-magnetic tools produced specifically for the task. Lewis and Vearncombe, now joined by Doctor Albert Wood, a Principal Scientific Officer in the Mine Design Department at HMS Vernon, then helped dismantle the mine for subsequent recovery and transport to HMS Vernon for detailed investigation.
    Ouvry's mine on the mudflats at Shoeburyness 23 Nov 1939[/align]

    For his deed, Cdr John Ouvry was decorated with the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) by King George VI at a ceremony on HMS Vernon’s parade ground on 19 December 1939. He was not awarded the Victoria Cross (VC) because his action was not deemed to be "in the face of the enemy" and the George Cross (GC), intended to recognise those in his circumstances, was not instituted until Sep 1940. Others decorated at the same time for this, and other tasks where mines were rendered safe for recovery and examination, were Lt Cdr R C Lewis (DSO), Lt J E M Glenny (DSC), CPO C E Baldwin (DSM) and AB A L Vearncombe (DSM). Of particular note, these were the first Royal Naval decorations of the war.

    King George VI presenting the first RN decorations of the war
    on HMS Vernon's Parade Ground 19 Dec 1939

    The recovery, investigation and exploitation of this first aircraft-laid German magnetic mine (British designation 'GA') enabled HMS Vernon to develop self-protective measures for Allied ships including degaussing coils that helped neutralise their magnetism. It also enabled the development of effective magnetic mine sweeps including the initial crude mine destructor ships containing huge electrical magnets in their holds shortly superseded by minesweepers deploying the highly successful Double L (LL) electrode sweep, used throughout the war. Thus, the German stranglehold on Allied shipping providing Britain's lifeblood at the outset of the Second World War was relaxed considerably.

    King George VI with Capt Riley (SMD), Lt Cdr Ouvry
    and the German magnetic mine at HMS Vernon 19 Dec 1939

    The proud legacy of John Ouvry and his team lives on with those involved in RN mine countermeasures (MCM) and explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) to this day.
  2. Seaweed

    Seaweed War Hero Book Reviewer

    I was told a while back that (rank?) R H RYAN was the first GC to be awarded posthumously, for trying to dismantle a magnetic mine that exploded while he was attending to it.
  3. If you check the War Memorial on the Hoe and see the list of names and ships lost in 1939, there was no phoney war for the RN, anywhere: doubtless the War Memorials for the Portsmouth and Chatham Divisions will reflect this - and our Brethren of the Merchant Service. RIP brave lads, who took the first blows.
  4. Ouvry was the first to render safe the original German magnetic mine type, designated the 'GA', and Lt Cdr Richard 'Dick' Hammersley Ryan RN was one of two HMS Vernon-based officers who were the first to render safe a later type designated the 'GC'. He was gazetted for the posthumous award of the George Cross on 12 Dec 1940 after tackling six such mines among several hundreds dropped as parachute 'land mines' over the greater London area. (link):

    Ryan's assistant, CPO Reginald Vincent Ellingworth, was also awarded the GC posthumously.
  5. Just to emphasise your point, this article is among several currently being published by the DT in a day by day series reprinted from its archives. It looks well worth monitoring. I particularly like this bit from another article (link):

    It seemed to work alright for him.
  6. The latest 'Day by Day' article from the Daily Telegraph's archives of 70 years ago: British liners elude German Submarines. Here is a flavour:

  7. Some of the latest 'Day by Day' articles from the Daily Telegraph's archives of 70 years ago:

    Torpedoing of Athenia
    Tanker on fire
    French launch attack in new direction.

    The third article contains this intriguing statement:

    This brief announcement plays down a complex combined and joint operation. According to Vol I of the Naval Staff History of British Mining Operations 1939-1945:

    On a more tragic note, the submarine HMS OXLEY was torpedoed in error by fellow submarine HMS TRITON off Obrestad, Norway on 10 Sep 1939 (link). 53 lives were lost and there were only three survivors. OXLEY had been outside her assigned area and failed to respond when challenged. The news was not made public until 9 Nov 1939 as demonstrated by this announcement in the Liverpool Daily Post.
  8. Some of the latest 'Day by Day' articles from the Daily Telegraph's archives of 70 years ago:

    Two British ships lost

    Vast seizure of goods for Germany

    Convoy was the key to defeat of U-boats last time

  9. An interesting 'Day by Day' article from the Daily Telegraph's archives of 70 years ago I missed earlier: German orders to sink at sight

  10. Some more interesting 'Day by Day' articles from the Daily Telegraph's archives of 70 years ago:

    Our effort is increasing and will increase progressively

    Captain describes RAF ocean rescues

    N.B. A photo of this operation showing the sinking ship and one of the Sunderland flying boats involved in the rescue on 18 Sep 1939 appears on the History of War website here.

    U-boat bombed by plane

  11. The latest 'Day by Day' articles from the Daily Telegraph's archives of 70 years ago:

    Navy beats off air attack

    Soviet ship sunk by submarine

  12. These Naval events have probably already been labelled as side-shows by Generals Guthrie and Dannatt. No doubt, totally irrelevant to the Anzio and Normandy landings.
  13. This morning, a memorial service was held in Kirkwall's St Magnus Cathedral to mark the torpedoing of the battleship HMS Royal Oak by U-47 at Scapa Flow on Saturday 14 October 1939 with the loss of 833 lives. On Wednesday, the 70th anniversary of her sinking, HRH The Princess Royal is expected to lay a wreath on the water where the Royal Oak sank below the waves. The Sandown Class minehunter HMS Penzance will sail to the site of the wreck for the ceremony: BBC News: A dark chapter of war remembered.

    In June this year, professional underwater photographer Simon Brown was invited by the Royal Navy to photograph and document HMS Royal Oak. Simon has donated the use of this image to the Royal Oak Survivors Association and a limited number of prints will be signed by some of the remaining survivors. All proceeds of the sale will be used by the Royal Oak Survivors Association to help fund the building of a permanent memorial to their comrades in Scapa Bay. Only 10 signed prints, each A1 in size and printed on archival paper, will be offered to the general public and available from 14 October timed to coincide with the 70th anniversary of the sinking. See for more details.
  14. Last night's STV documentary, containing survivors' accounts, archive film and a CGI reconstruction of the torpedoing of the battleship HMS Royal Oak in Scapa Flow 70 years ago today, may be watched again via this link: The Sinking of the Royal Oak
  15. To all those who attended the 70th anniversary of the defusing of Hitlers Secret Weapon, and indeed honouring my grandfather, Cdr John Ouvry - Thankyou!!!
    Special thanks to Noel Cashford,Rob Hoole, Brad King, John Harrison, and the countless others who helped make this such a special memorial by attending, not just for my dear grandfather but for the history of the clearance divers past and present.
    It was any incredibly humbling, emotional, educational and 'proud' event!!
    On behalf of the Ouvry dependants - thankyou for continuing his legacy!
  16. An illustrated account of this cracking event is available in the entry for 27 Nov 09 on the 'Latest News' page of the Minewarfare & Clearance Diving Officers' Association (MCDOA) website.

Share This Page