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Mines, Men and Courage

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Kurt Barling | 11:45 UK time, Friday, 27 November 2009

In November 1939 Britain faced the prospect of capitulation to Nazi Germany. Huge numbers of ships bringing essential supplies like food and fuel were being sunk and nobody had a clue what weaponry was sinking them.

The lifeline to the British troops still fighting in France, before the evacuation of Dunkirk, was being cut off.

Winston Churchill who was First Lord of the Admiralty at the time faced his first major crisis of what became known as the "phoney war".

Churchill described how the events could have been the "compass of our ruin".

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On the 21st November HMS Belfast was rocked by a huge explosion. The back of the ship was broken and the damage put her out of action for three years.

The Germans stepped up the programme of deploying their "secret weapon" which was in fact a magnetic mine. As ships passed over the mine, the iron hull triggered a magnetic field exploding the mine.

In the middle of the night the following day a German sea-plane flew low over the Thames Estuary just offshore from Shoeburyness, Essex.

Military spotters reported what looked like a sailor's kit-bag being dropped into the sea. The Admiralty was immediately informed.

David Ouvry recalls how his father, Commander John Ouvry DSO, was woken at 1am by a policeman knocking on his window.

Part of the elite naval bomb disposal unit he was immediately driven from Whitehall to Shoeburyness. Commander Ouvry arrived at 3.30 in the morning.

With a small team of men Ouvry stood ankle deep in the mud and water over the following twelve hours trying to work out how to disable the torpedo shaped object.

It was unknown to them and as fellow bomb disposal officer, Lt Noel Cashford observes, "he didn't have a clue what he was dealing with, he was taking a risk, a huge risk".

It was a risk that he was instructed to take "at all costs" so high were the stakes. It was agreed between Ouvry's team that whilst he attempted to disable the mine, with Chief Petty Officer Charles Baldwin to assist, the remainder of the team would observe from a distance.

In his report of the incident, which has only recently come to light, Ouvry wrote; "we fixed on a definite sequence of events, which he (his fellow bomb disposal officer, Lt Cmdr Lewis) could clearly observe from the distance, in case of a mistake upon my part".

Of course the mistake would have blown Ouvry and Baldwin to smithereens and reflects the temperament of the men needed to do such dangerous work.

In the event of failure, his colleague could at least then attempt to disable a second mine they had discovered further along the same beach.

It was of course critical they discovered if this was the secret weapon and how it worked so counter-measures could be devised.

After 12 painstaking hours Ouvry described the feeling of being "on top of the world" as he successfully disarmed the mine. The mine was taken away for analysis and within a week countermeasures were introduced to protect shipping from that particular danger. Britain survived to fight on.

Commander Peter Greenwood is the current commanding officer of the Fleet Diving Squadron. He believes there is a long line of bomb disposal officers that have built on the skill, courage and ingenuity of Commander Ouvry, described now as the first of the "Bravest of the Brave".

The walk to an unexploded device is still, he suggests, a long and lonely one. Sergeant Olaf Schmid who recently paid the ultimate price in Afghanistan is a reminder of the importance and danger of mine clearance in modern warfare.

Commander Ouvry's exploits were kept quiet until March 1940 when headlines focussed on the heroism of his team of officers and the fact that Germany's secrets were detectable, an example of how Britain could prevail.

No doubt the story was aimed at lifting flagging spirits as Britain faced the German onslaught which within weeks led to the humiliation of retreat from Dunkirk.

Ouvry and his men were awarded the highest of military distinctions the Distinguished Service Order.

Commander John Ouvry passed into regimental legend as the man who saved Britain from unimaginable shipping losses.


  • Comment number 1.

    At the same time as these of John's exploits my father, Arthur Ouvry, John's first cousin,was in command of a minesweeper, HMS Mastiff. In the Thames estuary 3 ships had been sunk by mines in a line across the Channel. There was a gap in this line where it was believed there might well be another mine and, so desperate were the Admiralty to find out how these mines worked, that my father was ordered to try and capture this suspected mine so that it could be dragged ashore, made safe (hopefully) and its secrets revealed. Mastiff was steel hulled and therefore unknowingly very vulnerable to these secret magnetic mines. It was 18 November 1939.

    My father's letter of 26 November to his younger brother, Romilly, continues the story:

    "We were actually stopped at the time weighing a buoy mooring so I had left the bridge and gone aft on the quarterdeck. There was a sudden thud - no real noise, and I found myself about halfway to heaven, somersaulting through the air and No 1 doing likewise. I don't remember going down again or hitting the water but, some way under I swam up and was pleasantly surprised to find I had reached the surface before my breath ran out and that I came up clear of the ship. When I looked round I found that I was over 50 yards clear so had made a not inconsiderable flight"

    As he tried to swim back to the ship he felt that "as Captain I ought to have been the last, not the first to leave her. I could not make much headway however against wind and tide. The poor old ship was in a bad way - both masts gone - motor boat completely smashed - skiff entirely blown away and the stern already awash. The boiler had burst and was blowing off great clouds of steam with a continuous roar. She only lasted about 5 minutes and then heeled over and sank, but fortunately the majority left on board managed to get clear and get out the Carly raft".

    "I was picked up after about 3/4 hour by which time I was most damnably cold but the next half hour in the boat picking up the others was infinitely worse. However, within half an hour of getting on board the other trawler, I was much recovered and, thanks to a tumbler of neat rum, really none the worse and have had no cold or anything. Only my left heel, off which I was precipitated is rather bruised, although an X ray shows all well and nothing broken. It is a very sad loss, as I was very fond of the ship and much regret the six good chaps who did not survive".

    While he was recovering ashore the newspapers printed photographs of medal recipients at an investiture at Buckingham Palace. One was of John receiving his much merited DSO. Both he and my father were, at the time, Lieutenant Commanders with not dissimilar features and, with grainy wartime newsprint, many friends and colleagues thought the photograph was of my father. He spent much of his 3 weeks survivors leave answering and redirecting letters and telegrams of congratulations explaining that, unfortunately, his ship was at the bottom of the Thames!

    John went on to serve in mine disposals for the entire war. After the war he was to be seen on a number of television documentaries such as "The Secret War", became a magistrate and lived to the ripe old age of 95. My father went on to command a V&W Class Destroyer for the next two and a half years on convoy and other duties between Scapa Flow and the Straits of Dover. During that very intense time he was awarded the DSC and was also mentioned in despatches. For the last part of the war he served as liaison officer in Cape Town for all South Africans serving with the Royal Navy ultimately retiring to become a Prep School master. He was still teaching, at age 70, one lesson per week of Divinity and umpiring the Under Eleven cricket.

    My father predeceased John by 2 years at age 89 but, shortly before his death, Geoffrey, John's 4th son, and I took them both out to lunch at a restaurant close to John's home. We were the first to arrive at precisely 12 noon when the restaurant opened. By 3.30 all other diners had long since departed when the proprietor gently asked whether he could possibly close for the afternoon. For three and a half hours Geoffrey and I had sat spellbound as these two old salty chums had endlessly reminisced together. It is one of the happiest memories we have of them both.
    Jeremy Ouvry

  • Comment number 2.

    Harry Appleby and first German mine

    I have always been aware of a story in my family that my grandfather rendered safe the first German mines to be found on the English shore. Although he was twice recommended for some award for this service, he never received one. He was very bitter that lieutenant Ouvry received acclaim for something that he had done.
    Recently my mother who is now 90 unearthed the letters and newspaper cuttings that he kept from that time.
    I have a note signed by Rear Admiral Charles Harris in 1939 asking for the full names of my grandfather and a Mr J Eldrid, so that they could be recognised for recovering a floating mine. Much later in 1943 the subject of an award was brought up again. My grandfather was asked to describe what happened and it is from his letter that I describe the following actions .
    My grandfather was assistant foreman of factory at Wrabness mine depot in October 1939, when a message was received that a mine had been washed ashore at Clacton-on-Sea.. He and laboratory man J.Eldrid were detailed to proceed there. It had been assumed that this was a British mine that they would be very familiar with, but it turned out to be unidentifiable. It seemed to be similar to British mines that they knew about so they removed the detonator and holder at some risk to themselves. A further 7 mines washed ashore in this area during the following week were similiarly treated and all were relocated to the mine depot at Wrabness. Here they were further examined and they discovered exactly how the mines functioned.
    According to my mother the torpedo and mining school HMS Vernon at Portsmouth was then notified and collected the mines.
    The mines my grandfather rendered safe were recovered in October 1939 and were subsequently known as German type X. According to various obituaries the mines recovered by the officers of HMS Vernon were washed ashore in November 1939.


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