Memories of a Minesweeper

Updated: Jun 25, 2020


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| This is the 423rd story of Our Life Logs |

I was born in 1908, the third of four children, two boys and two girls, in Birmingham, England. I can still remember the smell of the city streets before there were cars. Trams and horse-drawn carts trundled past, merchants delivered goods daily, as we lined up to buy coal, bread, milk, and fish from them. If we weren’t in the streets, we’d watch them from the windows, as did our neighbors. If a horse left its droppings behind, everyone would rush out into the street and collect it for their gardens. It made great fertilizer.

At the start of the first world war, I was six years old, much too young to really understand what was going on. After the men marched off to war, suddenly, only women and children walked the streets. The city dug up the paving stones to have more space to grow vegetables in an attempt to keep people from going hungry. Eventually, the war ended, but life was never the same, at least not for my family. My father died when I was still learning how to be a man myself. All I had left of him was his old pocket watch. After his death, I never left home without it.

As a young man, I worked for the Norwich Union Insurance Company in Birmingham as an insurance clerk. While I was working, I did a degree in Economics by attending evening classes. At the time, I was still living in the family home with my widowed mother; my siblings all married and moved away. My life seemed to be moving steadily, without much change.

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Then came the second world war in 1939. At 31, I was old enough to be commissioned and more than capable to serve. I volunteered to join the Royal Navy, and as I had a degree, I was given a temporary commission as Gunnery Officer. I did basic training in the UK and was based in Cardiff before going to sea.

It’s funny. One day I’m going to work in a suit to sell insurance, and the next I’m off to greet the great unknown.

I should mention here that while I was on leave in 1940 between finishing my training and being posted abroad, I met Margaret Hill at a dance. She was a purchasing officer who was nine years my junior, and I fell in love with her instantly. Six months later, we got hitched! Because of the clothing shortage, Margaret couldn’t get a proper wedding dress, but I didn’t care. She was my bride. Then in 1944, our eldest son, “Kenny,” was born right before I was back off to war.

Margaret and me on our wedding day, 1940.
Margaret and me on our wedding day, 1940.

For the next two years, I went back to my position as a Gunnery Officer on HMS Squirrel, a vessel used to destroy naval mines. You might know it as a “minesweeper.”

I remember it well. The mines sat below the surface of the water like metal koi, tied down with a rope or chain. A diver on our team would cut their ties so it could peek above the surface and be detonated with careful hands. After sailing away, we’d send off one final shot, making it explode. There was a battle of wits going on, as the Navy conquered one type of mine, a different one would be invented. This would then require a new method of finding and destroying.

It was never a job you could just get used to. There is no routine in the fear of life or death.

Old photos of the HMS Squirrel and its crew.
Old photos of the HMS Squirrel and its crew.
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While I was away, I often thought about my wife and young son back home. I missed much of my son’s first year of life, but I knew that I had a job to do. The war wouldn’t last forever.

In July of 1945, an operation was planned for our team of 85 men. We were to sweep mines for three days off the west coast of the Malay isthmus to the north of the Malacca Strait, near Thailand. We had a support crew with us which consisted of heavy units, aircraft carriers, and escorts.

I was on the bridge of the ship with the other officers when it happened. First the crash, then the flames. They shot up from the deck while the smoke and ash blurred the air in front of our faces. That’s when we felt the ship begin to teeter. We’d hit a bomb. The ship was preparing to sink.

Everything happened so fast, the crew began to panic and another officer gave the order to abandon ship. I could see men leaping into the choppy waves while I ran to the edge of the ship. I was never a very strong swimmer, many of us weren’t, so I had no idea what would happen when I hit the water. I found out.

When my head broke through the sharp crests, I felt my uniform become heavy. I prayed for our rescue. I prayed to see my wife. My child. My mother. The breeze wafted the smoke in my eyes and my nose while the saltwater buried into my wounds. I felt my father’s pocket watch begin to drift away from my body. It was something I wasn’t ready to lose, something I needed to give to my son. I shoved it deeper into my clothes and kept my focus on a way out

My father’s pocket watch.
My father’s pocket watch.

Then I saw the ship. The forward structure was wiped out. I spent the next two hours treading water, with nothing but perseverance to keep me from death.

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And then, I saw my crew who had managed to salvage the lifeboat and toss them in the water. Their muscles strained as they pulled body after body to safety. I knew I would have to endure the waves, otherwise, they would pull me under. Slowly, carefully, I paddled my limbs toward the rest of the crew.

Our support crew was planning a rescue operation via aircraft carrier; all men had to be accounted for. It took two hours for them to regain all the living. Seven of the crew that I’d been working with died during that operation. I remember how we pulled their dead bodies on deck.

The boat was still partly afloat but had taken on a heavy list due to flooding. As the Royal Navy didn’t want the Japanese to know that we had been sweeping mines there, it was scuttled two and a half hours after the mine had exploded.

However, we had already been found out by the Japanese, and a suicide plane attacked one of our aircraft carriers. It was gunned down before it collided with our support boat. Our support crew sunk the ship using gunfire and the wreck was left hidden below the water.

The minute I was back on dry land, I was able to send a one-line telegram to my wife. It read, “am well and fit anxiety unnecessary.”

The telegram I sent.