Earl Essex

Will Davies Story.

By Will Davies, B.E.M.

On the 3rd of September 1941, I joined the Royal Navy at Torpoint, Plymouth. Britain at this time was fighting on many fronts and the R.A.F. were proving a match for the Luftwaffe. Even with outdated ships the Royal Navy, in spite of setbacks, had contained the German fleet. However, it was the U-Boats that were hitting the country hardest, as every Merchant ship sunk meant less food, less ammunition and less war supplies so vital in the task of defeating the enemy.

A big part in the sinking of our ships was played by mines laid by aircraft, surface vessels or U-Boats. Many ports around our coast were well and truly blocked and the country would have been crippled if it hadn't been for those gallant little ships of the Royal Navy Patrol Service. This was made up from requisitioned trawlers and crews of fishermen, ex-merchant seamen and anyone with previous sea experience. I qualified because of my Bristol Channel Pilotage days,  as a cabin boy!

In 1939 we had just 76 ships of minesweeping capabilities and 40 of these came from the fishing fleet. To the members of Royal Navy. the trawler men were known as "Harry Tate’s Navy". It was a misconception sweeping mines was a cushy job. The channels around our coast had to be swept every day, even when there were no mines there. How else would you find out? Wait around to get sunk?

Some 126,000 mines were laid in our waters and to clear them cost us 327 minesweepers and 4,600 men. Oh! Yes! it was really a cushy job.

"H. M. Minesweeper EARL ESSEX" an ex-trawler of the name, was built in 1914 and fished out of Hull. She was 400 tons’ net weight and had triple expansion engine, powered by super-heated boilers. She could steam along at a steady six knots with 500 fathoms of 2.5-inch sweep wire, with otter board. kite and cutters all astern of her. Generations of fishing men had all contributed something to the design and layout of these vessels. Normally she would tow 900 fathoms of trawl wire and heavy trawl and sometimes with half-gales blowing.

The phosphor-bronze propeller was some 15 feet below and would bite deep into the green sea, whilst her curved, slim stern would settle lower. The ship could hold against a gale and the roaring sea would fight against her, but she would cock her bow up haughtily and draw only 9 feet of it in the water. Any seas that climbed over it would get shaken off or thrown aside, any that reached the fore-deck would be spent in force and be sent back through the scuttles to re-join the raging mass of the cruel sea. But that was fishing come hell or high water. Get those trawls out, then fill the Holds and full speed for the market.

All this had altered when I joined the "EARL ESSEX". The former fish holds had been cleaned out and made into living space and the effect of a heavy gun on her forecastle gave her the tendency to yaw like a pendulum. Now she was minesweeping, making safe the seas for the passage of others, without glamour, groping along, forever searching the dark depths, then searching yet again, until she found the evil eggs that had been spawned in hell and once found, had to be destroyed. Such was the work of a minesweeping trawler. From things that go bump in the night, Lord preserve us. 

A favourite sleeping place whilst sweeping was on the engine room casing, just behind the funnel and one always had an arm through the tapes of an inflatable life jacket.

It was an obvious choice, as you had a reasonable chance of going over the side if a ship struck a mine or was hit by a bomb.

There were cooler and more comfortable places on deck to sleep, but by tradition, the British sailor always choose the warmest spot and if that was by the funnel then by the bloody funnel he would sleep. With the advent of a new and more sophisticated mine, the magnetic sweeping took on a new role.

The "EARL ESSEX" had a new technique. The 500 yards of electrical cable needed to combat the new menace, was stowed on either side of the ships deck and lumped in and out by hand! It was only on the more up-to-date and purpose built minesweepers that cables were on reels and came in and out by winch power. Picture a dark and stormy night with a heavy sea running.

It's cold and you're wet. You've only had an hour's sleep. At the signal you place the cable on your shoulder and run it aft to drop it, through the rollers, over the stern, then forward again to get another bight, until the whole length is outboard. It went on by day and by night, week after week...."

Night after night, week after week and all around our coast line, it had to be done to ensure the safe arrival of those ships that had survived the U-Boat ridden waters of the North Atlantic.

Of course, dealing with mines and coping with heavy weather wasn't the only hazard the trawlers had to face. How many times I've heard the cry, "look, there's lots of the bastards coming". And then would come that pulsating sound, the uneven throb of aircraft. The alarm bells ring out their strident cry and immediately the guns are manned. We had a 12 pounder on the forecastle and a 20mm aft, with a couple of Lewis machine-guns on the bridge. Through the binoculars, it looked like dirt on the lens, until it flashed and you realised it was planes, in orderly formation at anything up to 10,000 ft.

Open Fire! A group peeled away at an angle, they came lower and were bent on attacking the small fleet of ships that were striving to complete the task of clearing the channel before the arrival of the convoy. Thump! a pause, then Thump! again. Just ahead the "STELLA RIGAL" has opened fire. Then further away, high up in front of the planes, puffs of smoke appear, obviously another of the ships has joined in the chorus of gunfire, possibly it's the "ETRUSTAN". 

You hear the call of the Captain, “Open Fire" and our gun’s bark viciously and you can feel the backlash and the pungent smell of cordite fills your nostrils. By now all ships are letting loose and the approaching enemy planes seem to be heading into a sky full of cotton wool balls. "Bloody Hell! The "STELLA RIGAL" has got one of the bastards!" a yell goes up from someone and one of the planes, now very clear, lurches and tilts over and drops steeply seawards, with the ominous red glow and finger of black smoke coming from the engine. The roar of aircraft is almost deafening and was punctuated by the frequent but irregular crash of gunfire.

The ships were now throwing everything they could and the planes spilt up, left and right, one group running along the length of the ships, whilst the other flew over the top. The machine-guns opened up with a nerve shattering clatter and lines of tracer converge on a plane. Surely it was a hit, but it races on, engines rising in a noisy crescendo as it passes over the flock of little ships.

There's a dull thump and the "EARL ESSEX" heels over slightly and a plume of water rises just off the beam. "Bloody near miss, lookout here's another coming". The machine-guns open up again, this time the after guns put in their pennyworth. The opening attack eases away as the enemy aircraft roar off to reform. A clatter of noise fills the air, but now it's from men getting more ammunition to the gun's, whilst others clear away the empty shell cases. The cook, the steward are dragging ammo boxes to the machine-guns, stokers as well, for this is a ships company fighting for its life.

Suddenly it's so quiet you can hear it. It's the sound of silence. A faint flecked sky and a distant purr of planes; the first wave of the attack is over. When will the next one be? It's now you feel scared and your knees go a bit shaky and you find yourself breathing in sharply, as if you'd just run a race, your lips are dry but you can't moisten them. "Aircraft bearing red eighty, angle of sight 20 degrees" and here we go again. The roar of engines are now distinct once more and the "ETRUSTAN" is spitting fire at three planes which are obviously going for just the one ship. Our 12 pounder opens up and the machine-guns from all parts of the ship are sending their deadly strings of tracer skywards.

Thump! Thump! Sometimes it happens in action. One plane will come in without anyone firing at it, you hear the thud of its engines, look up and glimpse the two wings and as you watch you see a bomb falling away from it. Through the turmoil of noise, you hear the CO yelling "Hard-a-Starboard". There's a vicious rattle, like someone throwing gravel at a window.

The "EARL ESSEX" reels away, the bow surging upwards and as she rights herself, the bomb goes off below the water, just on the beam.

Water cascades down over the bridge and you find your head singing and a drumming noise in your ears. The funnel now looks like a watering can. The plane had sprayed as she came in (machined gunned the Earl Essex) that was the gravel like sound we heard. Again, the sullen roar as a plane swoops in and Thump, pause Thump of the 12 pounder and the eager chatter of the machine-guns. The aircraft was threaded by a deadly, fiery necklace of tracer and she turned away in a half circle no need to worry about that one anymore.

And so the scenario went on, never changing very much. Out sweeps, in sweeps, patrol the area, aircraft in sight, near misses, cold and wet and a tiredness that crept up on you. The time spent in harbour was virtually to coal ship, collect stores and replacement sweeps, perhaps one night on the town and that would be it. "EARL ESSEX" will sail at 0600 in company with, blah! blah! and would begin all over again. The channel we cleared yesterday was mined during the night by E boats, so it needs to done again today.

The horror and the futility of the war at sea has now receded into the history books, but the Navy of today still trains for the task of minesweeping, although it's all computerised and technical. Still I'm certain there would be room for hard bitten seamen to man ex-fishing trawlers, should the need arise. A new generation of ships and men but Harry Tate's for all that.

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