Bill Williams, Telegraphist, BYMS 2141.  

The Admiralty formed two large fleets of minesweepers for the River Scheldt operation. Force A (112 ships) was based at Sheerness and was tasked with clearing the main channel as far as Antwerp. Force B (50 ships) operated out of Harwich and was charged with sweeping the outer approaches to the river. BYMS 2141 was part of Flotilla 157, a small group of minesweepers attached to Force A.

On 2 November 1944, while approaching the mouth of the River Scheldt, BYMS 2141 and the other minesweepers in the flotilla were shelled by the German shore batteries at Cadzland, Netherlands. Sweeping continued as the allied forces gradually overran the German positions on the south side of the River Scheldt, and on 4 November the flotilla was able to reach Terneuzen, approximately 25 miles upriver. The flotilla used Terneuzen as their base while minesweeping operations continued.  Walcheren Island was captured on 8 November in spite of German attempts to impede the allied advance by blowing up the protective dykes. From the bridge of BYMS 2141, Bill remembers seeing the badly flooded landscape and large groups of captured German soldiers on the beach at Walcheren Island as they passed by.

While they were in Terneuzen, Bill went ashore with other crewmembers from BYMS 2141 and bought a postcard for his scrapbook. Before returning to the ship, they visited an abandoned German artillery battery where Bill found a Kriegsmarine cap tally and other military insignia which he kept as souvenirs.

 Following this request he was sent to the Queen Mary in Gourock, Glasgow on 5 August 1943 destined for Halifax, Nova Scotia but was not told which ship he would join thereafter. Bill was billeted in Cabin 39 on A Deck. Winston Churchill was also on board as he was scheduled to attend a Quadrant meeting with President Roosevelt in Quebec once they arrived. Bill kept a copy of the shipboard newspaper printed by the Queen Mary on 8 August.

After the Queen Mary docked at Halifax, Nova Scotia on 9 August 1943, Bill and his colleagues were transported to the British naval base at Asbury Park, New Jersey. They arrived there on 12 August and stayed at the Asbury Park Hotel where many other British servicemen were housed. A couple of days later he was selected to be part of an advance party of six who were to join a wooden minesweeper under construction at Astoria near Portland, Oregon. They left on 17 August and travelled by rail from New York to Chicago on a special service designated for US and UK military personnel only. They arrived in Chicago at 6pm on 18 August and Bill’s group decided to find a bar to have a beer while waiting for the train to Oregon which was due to leave at 8.30pm. When they exited the station they turned left and after walking for some distance without seeing a bar, found themselves in a very depressed area with run down tenement blocks and many homeless people. By the time they had walked back to the station it was time to board the train. They subsequently learned that they should have turned right where there were numerous bars and clubs.

Two of the carriages on the train to Portland had been reserved for British servicemen, and the next carriage had been set aside for US military female personnel only. There was so much running backwards and forwards between carriages that the train superintendent eventually lost patience made everyone return to their designated compartments and locked the interconnecting doors.

At Belem, Para, Brazil February 1944

Sister vessel BYMS 2221 arrived at Pier 41, Seattle in October 1943. On 22 October, Ordinary Seaman Richard Gore RNVR from Bootle, Liverpool fell into the water and drowned. He was buried at Evergreen-Washelli Memorial Park, Seattle on 28 October 1943 with full military honours. Personnel from several British warships attended the funeral including the crew of BYMS 2141. The shipboard newspaper produced by BYMS 2141 on 1 November 1943 included the following passage:

Copy of card to Officers and men of HM YMS 141 (BMS 2141): “We wish to acknowledge with sincere thanks the kind expression of your sympathy”.

The funeral of our late friend from the 221 (BYMS 2221) took place on Thursday 28 Oct. A service was held in the Funeral Parlour by a Chaplain from the US Navy. There was a good attendance, which included many civilians. Organ music helped to produce a solemn atmosphere.

Shipmates from the 221 then took the casket to a waiting hearse which, followed by about 10 carloads of British sailors, proceeded to the Washelli cemetery. The burial took place with full Naval honours, with a firing party from a US carrier. The whole ceremony was carried out with utmost reverence and deepest respect. We would like our sympathies to be conveyed to our friend’s people back in Britain.

Our ship was represented by twelve of the crew at the graveside. Photos of the procession and the nice wreaths were taken by CPO Elgar.

Berkley Carteret Hotel, Asbury Park, New Jersey where crew stayed from 12 to 17 August 1943.Postcard from Bill's scrapbook .

Crew lived at the State Hotel, Astoria while standing by. 

BYMS 2141

Telegraphist William "Bill" Williams story. 

Bill's Duty Card aboard Queen Mary, Aug 1943. (Above)

Alongside in Corinto Nicaragua Jan 1944.Bill Williams on left.

Crew then travelled by train from Chicago to Portland Oregon. Bill's train map.

Bill Williams at HMS St Vincent, a shore training establishment in Gosport.

The train arrived at Astoria on 20 August 1943, sixteen days after Bill’s group left the UK. They were given rooms at the State Hotel on Highway 101 and were told that they would be collected by someone from the Astoria Marine Construction Company the next morning. They were picked up as planned, but instead of heading down to the shore as expected, they were transported about five miles inland into a forest. After driving for some distance they saw a clearing by the bank of the river and a mast sticking up above the trees. There was also a log cabin for the shipwrights and other personnel. This was their first sight of BYMS 2141 which had been launched on 19 July 1943 and was nearing completion. BYMS 2141 was the third of four minesweepers that Astoria Marine had been commissioned to build. The vessel was originally classified as YMS 141 when laid down in March 1943.

The vessel was handed over to the Royal Navy on 28 August 1943 and reclassified as J-941, at which point Bill’s group moved out of the State Hotel to live on board. The ship was subsequently reclassified as BYMS 2141 but was marked as 3PT 141 throughout the war. Construction work continued afloat and the rest of the crew joined the ship two weeks later. On 15 September BYMS 2141 left Portland for the US naval base in Seattle, a distance of around 75 nautical miles, and berthed at Pier 41 (later renamed Pier 91). The vessel remained in Seattle for several weeks for fitting out and sea trials, and to await the arrival of sister vessel BYMS 2221 which was still under construction in Astoria. The plan was for both ships to sail back to the UK as a pair in case one of them broke down or experienced difficulties while crossing the Atlantic. BYMS minesweepers had a very limited range and needed to refill the fuel and fresh water tanks every six days or so.

The two vessels departed Recife on 25 March and reached Freetown, Sierra Leone on 1 April 1944. They left Freetown on 12 April, called at Casablanca from 23 to 25 April and arrived at Gibraltar on 26 April 1944. At Gibraltar, BYMS 2141 and BYMS 2221 were tasked with sweeping the entrance to the Straight. They were then ordered to escort a convoy of merchant ships back to the Liverpool as additional support for an elderly destroyer and a small frigate. The convoy was coded XK16 and consisted of ten very slow merchant ships. They left Gibraltar on 15 May with a designated convoy speed of just 7 knots, but some of the ships still struggled to keep up. This resulted in the vessels being routed closer to the French coast than any convoy before which, since they were not well protected, made everyone quite nervous. Nevertheless, all the merchant vessels reached Liverpool without incident.

After many days sweeping the River Scheldt in very cold weather without a break, BYMS 2141 was directed to rest in a small creek close to Terneuzen. The creek was approximately 150 metres long and very narrow with stone banks. There had been a great deal of rain that month and the river was in full spate. It was also high tide. As the bow of BYMS 2141 edged into the creek and out of the main flow of the river, the current swung the stern around to such an extent that the ship’s bow became jammed against the stone bank. A tug arrived 30 minutes later but was unable to pull the vessel free. Bill took a sounding and reported that there was 21ft of water under the stern, but as the tide fell the stern became increasingly lower leaving the trapped bow high in the air. As low tide approached, the ship gave a sudden lurch and the sound of timbers cracking and splintering at the bow could be heard. It was clear that the vessel was about to slide off the bank with a breached hull, so the skipper gave the order for all 35 crewmembers to abandon ship. Some slid down a rope hanging from bow and Bill remembers seeing the ship’s cook, who was due to be married when he arrived back in England, descending the rope with his wedding suit draped on a hanger hooked over the back of his collar. The others climbed into a small boat launched from the stern which Bill handled until they found a safe place to land ashore.

Later that month the main channel was declared to be free of mines and the first convoy of allied merchant vessels entered the river, arriving in Antwerp on 28 November 1944.

While BYMS 2141 was being repaired, the Germans attacked Antwerp with unmanned V2 rockets. On 16 December 1944 Bill remembers the Rex Cinema being hit. More than 1,000 people were in the cinema at the time and 567 were killed including 296 allied servicemen. This was the highest death toll from a single rocket attack throughout the entire war.

On completion of repairs BYMS 2141 joined the rest of the flotilla sweeping the Dutch coastline from the River Scheldt northwards. On 26 December 1944 while operating at night off the Hook of Holland, the flotilla spotted periscopes from two German “Biber” midget submarines close to their position. Since the minesweepers were not equipped with depth charges, they gave chase. BYMS 2141 and BYMS 2221 managed to ram one of the submarines, but they were only glancing blows. They then attacked it with their Oerlikon guns and small arms. They hit the submarine several times which surfaced and stopped. BYMS 2141 then used its electric minesweeping cable to snare the submarine and pulled it closer. They then tried to tow it but the cable snapped and the submarine sank, as did the other midget submarine which was rammed by BYMS 2213. The survivors were rescued and taken prisoner. German records have since shown that these submarines were part of a group that left ports near Rotterdam early that morning with orders to attack shipping off Flushing in the River Scheldt

Thank you to Mark Williams for the information and photographs. Marks father, Bill Williams served on BYMS 2141 from 1943 to 1945. Mark is the author of the written material.

BYMS 2141.Newspaper printed by Queen Mary on 8 Aug 1943 while transporting BYMS 2141's crew to Halifax Nova Scotia, Canada. 

Photo of BYMS 2141 in Aruba after leaving Panama Canal. Feb 1944

The Service of Ordinary Seaman Richard Gore RNVR from Bootle, Liverpool who fell into the water and drowned.

BYMS 2141.Crew preparing fish while berthed in Imuiden May 1945.

Crew first travelled by train from New Jersey to Chicago. Bill's train map.

BYMS 2141 and BYMS 2221 left Seattle in December 1943 and headed for the Panama canal. They sailed in convoy with a US minesweeper of the same design. During the passage they stopped at San Francisco, San Diego (where some of the crew including Bill nipped over the border to Tijuana for the day and watched bull fight) and Cuyutlan, Mexico. After leaving Cuyutlan the three vessels continued to head south, following a course approximately 15 miles from land. While still off the coast of Mexico, the ships were caught in a violent storm and ordered to split up and head for shelter as best they could. BYMS 2141 made it to the Mexican port of Salina Cruz and anchored in the bay until the storm abated. They were also running short of food so one of the crew, who used to be a butcher, went ashore to a cattle market together with the second-in-command and bought a live bullock. They had it slaughtered and brought it back to the ship, but the meat proved to be so tough that none of the crew could eat it. After leaving Salina Cruz the vessel called at Corinto, Nicaragua and arrived in Balboa at the western entrance to the Panama Canal on 19 January 1944.

BYMS 2141 and BYMS 2221 then passed through the Panama Canal. Since they were not US vessels, an armed US soldier was placed aboard each ship for the transit. Immediately after exiting the canal, BYMS 2221 developed engine problems and did not carry the necessary spares. Consequently, the two vessels berthed at the US naval base at Coco Solo, Colon near Cristobal while the necessary parts were flown in from the US. They remained there for three weeks. Shortly after they arrived, a US Navy information booklet was placed on board. In addition to acquainting the crew with the facilities at the base, the booklet also warned them not to wander into the jungle.

Keep out of the jungles when on liberty. The jungle is no place for a white man. After all, there is nothing there to see. From time to time sightseeing trips into the jungles are made up and men are conducted to safe places by experienced officers. Do not run the risk of contracting malaria, being bitten by poisonous snakes, getting lost etc.

There was very little for the crew to do while they were waiting for BYMS 2221 to be repaired and they spent much of their time swimming. However, they had to swim within an area protected by nets to minimise the risk of being bitten by barracuda. The crew was also permitted to use the PX store on the base where the range and amount of food on offer was a world apart from RN rations. Bill always remembered that the smallest amount of ice cream you could buy was a pint.

BYMS 2141.Berthed at Astoria shipyard shortly before completion in Aug 1943.

Bill Williams during an interview in November 2010. 

William “Bill” Henry Williams MBE (1919-2015) - Royal Navy service during WW2.

In 1939 Bill was called up for military service and elected to join the Royal Navy. He was sent to HMS St Vincent, a shore training establishment in Gosport. He kept his HMS St Vincent cap band which is still stored in his medal box.

At HMS St Vincent he trained as a telegraphist for service on battleships and cruisers. Shortly before he completed his training, the Royal Navy started to look for telegraphists to join the Royal Naval Patrol Service based in Lowestoft which operated fleet of small ships, many of which were originally built as fishing vessels. The larger vessels could steam 1,500 miles into the Atlantic before heading back for fuel and water. Bill volunteered and was sent to join a 91 foot former Norwegian whale chaser. It had 10 tons of wet batteries and was equipped with one of the first magnetic sweeps.

His first voyage was to Belfast where a mine had been spotted in Belfast Lough. The vessel should have been accompanied by two more, but they had to work alone as no others were available. It took several weeks to find the mine which exploded close to the coast, causing damage to a nearby village.

Due to poor radio reception locally, the RN Flag Officer in Belfast was experiencing difficulty in receiving messages from shipping in the mid-Atlantic. A decision was taken to build a new radio station somewhere in County Antrim where the reception was better, either on Rathlin Island off the north coast of Ulster or at Portrush where there was space available at the local Coastguard station at the end of the headland. Portrush proved to be the better option and in 1940 Bill was one of four telegraphists assigned to work there. After they erected the aerials and set up the equipment, they needed a good earth and Bill was lowered 60 ft down the cliff face to place a large copper plate in a rock pool.

Every few months the other telegraphists were changed, but since Bill was attached to Lowestoft rather than one of the main RN bases in Portsmouth, Plymouth and Chatham he became lost in the system and worked at Portrush for two years. When the Signals Officer eventually became aware of this, he read Bill’s file and noted that he had unusually acute hearing, enabling him to discern very faint transmissions against a background of noisy radio interference. Given his performance, coupled with his education and qualifications, he was sent back to Lowestoft with the recommendation that he applied for officer training. However, since Bill only had limited experience at sea with the RN, he asked for a short seagoing appointment first before he submitted his application.

A Sunday afternoon while berthed at Pier 41, Seattle.

While BYMS 2141 was in Seattle, a US salmon fishing boat was seen casting large, round nets in Puget Sound. The skipper of BYMS 2141 decided that he wanted to buy a salmon, ideally in exchange for goods rather than cash. The skipper knew that Bill could handle small boats even though he was a telegraphist and asked him head over to the fishing vessel to negotiate. Terms were agreed and the salmon was duly exchanged for a bottle of whisky.

As the convoy approached the UK, BYMS 2141 and BYMS 2221 were ordered to rendezvous with a submarine off the south west coast of Ireland. All British submarines were required to surface when nearing the UK as the RAF had been ordered to destroy any submerged submarine seen from the air within 200 miles offshore. The two minesweepers escorted the submarine to the River Clyde, arriving there on 25 May 1944.

BYMS 2141 and BYMS 2221 left the River Clyde on 29 May and sailed around the north coast of Scotland to Great Yarmouth which was to be their base. They berthed at Great Yarmouth on 4 June 1944 with the crews ready to go home on leave. Two days later they heard on the radio and that the D-Day landings had begun. Everyone expected that leave would be cancelled and that the vessels would be ordered to take part in the invasion. However, the Admiralty did not consider the two ships to be in a fit state given that their engines had steamed 11,000 miles and were in need of a refit. BYMS 2141 and BYMS 2221 therefore remained in Great Yarmouth under repair until 3 August 1944, following which they sailed for Sheerness where there was a large fleet of minesweepers to await further instructions.

At Sheerness BYMS 2141, BYMS 2221 and BYMS 2213 were ordered across to Cherbourg where they anchored in the outer harbour. They were due to proceed further along the coast but shortly before departure there was a major explosion when a large ammunition dump blew up ashore. All vessels were ordered to leave immediately as shells were falling all over the port. The minesweepers were sent to Brittany where they anchored at the mouth of the River Morlaix and remained there for some time while the allied forces pushed north. On 25 August 1944, Bill and several other crewmembers from BYMS 2141 went ashore by small boat. They landed at the small village of Carantec where they saw an official reading a proclamation of freedom from the town hall steps following the liberation of Paris. The vessels then returned to England calling at Portsmouth (7 September), Dover (8 September) and Ramsgate (13 September) en route to their base at Great Yarmouth. 

BYMS 2141 and the other minesweepers in the group were equipped not only to deal with magnetic mines but also bottom, sonic and buoyed mines. They left Great Yarmouth on 9 October 1944 to clear the coastline of mines between Ostend and the River Scheldt, carrying out sixteen sweeps a day for much of that month. The sweeping of the River Scheldt is considered to be the most crucial minesweeping operation of WW2.  Although Antwerp had been liberated, allied shipping could not reach the port to supply the invading forces as the river was heavily mined, Moreover, large parts of the River Scheldt and its approaches including Walcheren Island, South Beveland and the coastline east of Zebrugge were still controlled by the enemy. 

BYMS 2141, still with her original number, sweeping mines between Ostend and the River Scheldt late 1944.

BYMS 2141 and BYMS 2221 left the US base at Coco Solo on 4 February 1944 heading for Trinidad. However, they encountered heavy weather during the passage and had to anchor off the island of Aruba, Dutch Antilles until conditions improved. The vessels arrived in Trinidad on 12 February 1944 and sailed on 19 February after receiving fuel, provisions and fresh water. They then called at Belem, Brazil at the entrance of the River Amazon for further replenishment, arriving on 24 February and sailing three days later.

The final port was Recife in Pernambuco, Brazil. The vessels arrived there on 4 March to make ready for the voyage to Freetown, Sierra Leone, the shortest distance across the Atlantic. This time BYMS 2141 developed engine problems and both vessels remained in Recife for three weeks while General Motors to flew out a part from Chicago. There was a British Country Club in Recife where the expatriate managers of the local coffee and tobacco plantations and their families would relax. The club wanted to discourage the crews of BYMS 2141 and BYMS 2221 from visiting the unsavoury bars of Recife and invited them to use their facilities. While they were there, Bill was asked to play cricket for the British Country Club in a match against a local side and remembers Bing Crosby’s “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas” being blasted across the pitch at full volume regardless of the fact that it was March.  

The flotilla continued sweeping the Dutch coastline for several days more until they reached Zuiderzee. They then returned to England, calling at Southend on 7 January before returning to base at Great Yarmouth on 8 January 1945. They remained there until March 1945 while they were refitted for minesweeping operations in the Pacific. Since the vessels were made from wood, the hulls had to be protected from marine wood boring organisms which were common in that region. This usually meant cladding the hull with copper plates but doing so was prohibitively expensive. Consequently, a much cheaper experimental method was used which involved covering the submerged hull with wadding mats held in place by cheap softwood battens. The theory was that the marine organisms would bore into the softwood battens rather than the hull and stop once they reached the inedible wadding. In practice this method proved to be quite successful.

By this time it was clear that the end of the war was approaching and Bill was sent back to his original base Lowestoft. He was demobbed shortly afterwards.

Freetown, Sierra Leone April 1944.

Off Panama Feb 1944.Telegraphist Bill Williams with ship's parrot

William Henry Williams (1919-2015) WW2 Medals. 

The interview with Bill talking about his time on British Yard Mine Sweepers and his journey to the USA to pick up BYMS 2141 and bring her back across the Atlantic to Great Britain, can be found HERE (Click your mouse here)