No 'Phoney War' for the Royal Navy


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.


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.
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.
Seaweed said:
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.
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):

MCDOA website said:
GC awarded posthumously for great gallantry and undaunted devotion to duty. Lt Cdr Ryan was one of two officers who stripped the first magnetic mine of Type C found in a German aircraft which had crashed at Clacton. When magnetic mines were first dropped over London he came forward without hesitation for the perilous work of making them safe, although, with his unrivalled knowledge of this work, he was well aware of the dangers he so readily accepted. The clock of the bomb-fuse was normally timed to explode the mine about 22 seconds after its fall. If it failed to do so, it might be restarted by the slightest movement, even a footfall. The amount of the clock already run off could not be known, and once it was restarted time for escape could not be more than a few seconds.

Lt Cdr Ryan tackled six of these mines with his own hands, one of them in a canal where he worked waist deep in mud and water which would have made escape impossible. Here he found and removed the bomb-fuse only by groping for it under water. At Hornchurch he made safe a very hazardous mine which threatened the aerodrome and an explosives factory, and then he and his assistant, Chief Petty Officer Ellingworth with whom he had shared many dangerous assignments, went on to Oval Road North, Dagenham on 21 Sep 40. Here they tackled a mine hanging by a parachute in a warehouse and both were killed by its explosion as they entered the building.
Ryan's assistant, CPO Reginald Vincent Ellingworth, was also awarded the GC posthumously.
lsadirty said:
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.
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):

Daily Telegraph 9 Sep 1939 said:
First Lord's fortune

Mr Churchill has always been impatient of red tape. On becoming First Lord of the Admiralty he was handed one of the official passes enabling him on its production to enter the Whitehall portals without being stopped for questioning.

He looked at it, then deliberately tore it in half and threw it into the wastepaper basket, with the remark, “My face is my fortune.â€
It seemed to work alright for him.
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:

Daily Telegraph 11 Sep 1939 said:
...The captain and crew of 20 of the 2,796-ton steamer Goodwood of London, which was torpedoed off the British coast, were landed yesterday. No warning was given before the ship was attacked. The captain and two members of the crew are now in hospital, the former with both legs broken. Several others have cuts and bruises and five had broken bones. People living near the shore heard the noise of the explosion when the ship was struck, and hurrying to the cliff top, saw the vessel sink rapidly by the head. Harold Champion told a representative of THE DAILY TELEGRAPH that the shock of the explosion was felt all over the village. “I ran on to the cliff in time to see the crew jumping into the sea, and being picked up by a fishing boat. The stricken ship went down in a few minutes.â€...
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:

Daily Telegraph 11 Sep 1939 said:
...Minefields have been laid by Anglo-French naval forces in certain zones of the Channel and the North Sea...
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:

BR 1736(56)(1) said:
State of Emergency. August 1939

The Government's desire to avoid any act likely to provoke a war caused overt preparations to be left until the last possible moment [Ring any bells?], but the Reserve Fleet was commissioned on 24th August. Prior to this, the ADVENTURE, whose refit had been postponed due to the international situation, had embarked her mines on 3rd and 4th August and started working up from Portsmouth on 18th. She was thus in an efficient state when war was declared.

The PLOVER was in full commission and carrying out mining trials in the Irish Sea at this time and was ordered to Rosyth for the Reserve Fleet exercises.

The two train ferries, HAMPTON and SHEPPERTON, were taken up for conversion on 24th August. The latter was then refitting at Southampton, but was towed to Portsmouth and the two vessels were taken in hand on 27th.

The outbreak of war. September 1939

War was declared on 3rd September and the conversion of the HAMPTON and Shepperton was completed on 5th. Laying trials and exercises were then carried out and the two ships, in company with the ADVENTURE, arrived at Dover on 9th September, where all was ready for them. The PLOVER had already arrived after completing a small lay off the Bass Rock, in the Firth of Forth.

Between 7th and 10th of September the survey vessel SCOTT was occupied in placing beacons ready for the lay between the Goodwins and the Dyck, and Trinity House marked the secret channel by moving the East Goodwin Lightship to its new position in 51.15.8N, 01.36.7E, and establishing a new light vessel in position 51.11.4N, 01.34.0 E: in addition two light buoys were established in positions 51.12.3N, 01.35.7E and 51.15N, 01.37E.

At the same time, the French Authorities moved the Dyck Lightship and the Dunkirk Whistle Buoy to their new positions of 51.01.5N, 01.54E and 51.01.9N, 01.59E.

Operation "GR". 11th-16th September 1939

The French Navy commenced minelaying operations off Dunkirk on 5th September. Operation "GR", the laying of the Goodwins-Ruytingen shallow and deep minefields, commenced on 11th September.

The minesweepers HARRIER, HUSSAR and SKIPJACK preceded the four minelayers, which were escorted by the A/S ship CAIRO and the 19th Destroyer Flotilla giving A/S protection: part of the Humber Force, under the Vice-Admiral Commanding, Second Cruiser Squadron, providing cover from a position between the Galloper and North Hinder and A/S air escort was provided by Coastal Command: RAF fighter aircraft stood ready at Manston. This protection was afforded on each day of the operation.

The minelayers were led, while laying, by the survey vessels SCOTT or FRANKLIN and all went according to plan on the first day except that the minesweepers were overtaken by the minelayers before they had continued their sweep; this was adjusted in future lays by sailing the minesweepers an hour earlier...

[Precise details of minefields, mine types and associated mainelayers omitted for brevity but 3,119 mines were laid during these operations.]

...This, the first major minelaying operation of the war, had been the subject of months of detailed planning and was executed with the utmost speed. Taking into consideration the rapidity of conversion of the Train Ferries and the inexperience of their crews, material errors and defects in drill had been conspicuously small. The Commander-in-Chief Nore, in his report on operation "GR" says:

Commander-in-Chief Nore said:
"This completed the programme which amounted to a total of five lays carried out in six days, a most successful and highly creditable performance which, however, I am convinced should not have been attempted as it exhausted the personnel to a degree which past and present experience has shown to be highly dangerous... I would stress, therefore, the necessity, in drawing up any programme of minelaying, of allowing sufficient interval between successive lays to allow due time for recuperation of the ship's company. An average period of three days between lays is suggested as a good working policy."
The following week was spent resting the crews of the minelayers, preparing for the laying of the deep minefield between Folkestone and Cap Griz Nez, and in sweeping and sinking shallow mines in lines "D" and "E". While engaged on the latter operation, the sloop KITTIWAKE struck a mine on 17th September with the loss of five lives. The ship was towed to Dover and subsequently to Sheerness for repairs.
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.
Some of the latest 'Day by Day' articles from the Daily Telegraph's archives of 70 years ago:

Two British ships lost

Daily Telegraph 15 Sep 1939 said:
Two British ships were sunk yesterday. In one case three members of the crew were killed. A wireless report picked up in New York stated that the British cargo steamer Vancouver City, 4,955 tons, was sunk yesterday morning...
Vast seizure of goods for Germany

Daily Telegraph 16 Sep 1939 said:
The destruction of a number of enemy submarines and the confiscation as contraband of quantities of goods intended for Germany, including 28,000 tons of petrol was announced yesterday. The following official statements were issued:

Communique by the Admiralty:-

“His Majesty’s destroyers, patrol vessels and aircraft have been carrying out constant patrols over wide areas in search of enemy U-boats. Many attacks have been made and a number of U-boats have been destroyed. Survivors have been rescued and captured when possible...
Convoy was the key to defeat of U-boats last time

Daily Telegraph 16 Sep 1939 said:
The news yesterday that a convoy of vessels bound for Scotland had eluded two enemy submarines confirms the authorities’ view that the convoy system will prove no less decisive than in the last war when out of some 16,500 vessels convoyed to and from this country on the Atlantic and were sunk by submarine action while on convoy. (sic)...
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

Daily Telegraph 9 Sep 1939 said:
...Need for secrecy - morale effect on enemy

The Admiralty have already announced that it will not always be desirable to publish news of the destruction of enemy submarines. This is partly because, as was discovered during the last war, the moral effect of crews disappearing without trace is greater than when news of sinking received by the enemy; and partly because if the enemy knew that a submarine detailed to operate in a certain area had been sunk, they would, of course, take steps to replace it...

Planned ruthlessness - rapid decline anticipated

It is inevitable that initial losses initial occur when dealing with an enemy when was obviously planning a ruthless submarine warfare for some time before war broke out, and where there are a number of submarines distributed over a very wide area of sea. The effects of the German submarine campaign will, however, decline rapidly as soon as a full convoy system is introduced and the German submarines at present on the high seas run out of supplies.
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

Daily Telegraph 21 Sep 1939 said:
Mr Chamberlain in the House of Commons yesterday made the third of his weekly surveys of the War Situation.

Vigilance We Cannot Afford To Relax

As was expected, the Prime Minister referred to the new factor arising with the invasion of Poland from the East by Russia, and he devoted part of his statement to a reply to Hitler’s speech at Danzig on Tuesday night. His review of the operations at sea disclosed that the tonnage sunk by U-boats in the week ended Sept 19 was 45,848, compared with 95,000 in the previous week: and he declared that it was “already clear that the Navy and the Merchant Service, by their unceasing efforts, will be able to maintain essential supplies of raw materials and foodâ€...
Captain describes RAF ocean rescues

Daily Telegraph 21 Sep 1939 said:
The full thrilling story of the rescue in the Atlantic of a tramp steamer’s crew by two RAF flying-boats was told by the ship’s captain and the pilots of the planes when they met yesterday at the Ministry of Information...
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

Daily Telegraph 25 Sep 1939 said:
The American Farmer brought the 29 surviving members of the crew of the Kafiristan, a Newcastle steamer of 5,193 tons owned by the Hindustan Steam Shipping Co. Mr Armistead Lee, of Chatham, Virginia, said when they sighted the lifeboats belonging to the Kafiristan they also saw a British bomber that appeared “from nowhere as if by magicâ€. “The bomberâ€, he declared, “swooped on the submarine and apparently destroyed it with a bomb. There were nine men on the deck of the submarine, but no one appeared to see the bomber coming...
The latest 'Day by Day' articles from the Daily Telegraph's archives of 70 years ago:

Navy beats off air attack

Daily Telegraph 28 Sep 1939 said:
Germany’s first air attack on the British Fleet, announced yesterday, was a complete and costly failure. Twenty aircraft attempted to bomb a squadron of the Home Fleet in the middle of the North Sea, about 150 miles away from Norway, on Tuesday evening, and were repulsed with the total loss of two planes and one badly damaged. None of the battleships was hit and there were no British casualties.

The announcement of the attack was made in the House of Commons by Mr Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty. He said that the Commander-in-Chief of the Home Fleet, Sir Charles Forbes, in a wirelessed report of the action, stated that the British squadron included capital ships, an aircraft carrier, a cruiser, and destroyers...
Soviet ship sunk by submarine

Daily Telegraph 28 Sep 1939 said:
The announcement of the sinking of a Soviet steamer, the Metallist 968 tons, by an unknown submarine in Narva Bay, off the Estonian coast, about 6 o’clock this evening, came as the climax to a day of intense diplomatic activity here. Nineteen of the 24 members of the crew of the Metallist were picked up by Soviet patrol boats. The remaining five men are missing. The news was announced on the Soviet wireless shortly after the arrival of M.Selter, the Estonian Foreign Minister, and other members of the delegation from Tallinn.

Foreign circles here think the reported sinking of the Soviet steamer will probably be followed by firm Soviet action towards Estonia...
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.
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!
dododoris said:
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!
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.

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