HMS Saltash & The Mine Clearance Service
When you think you have collected all the information available on a subject, a missed detail in an old photograph can sometimes set off a new line of investigation.
So it was with an old photograph of HMS Saltash.
The ship was built by Murdock & Murray (Glasgow, Scotland), launched on 25th July 1918 and commissioned on 31st Oct 1918.
She was a purpose built mine sweeper (J62) fitted with a main armament of a single 4" gun and a 12 pounder AA gun. She was coal powered with a bunker capacity of 185 tons of coal giving her a range of 1,500 miles and a top speed of 16 knots.
Being commissioned less than three weeks before the Armistice, she was too late to make any contribution to WWI, and ended up in reserve at Alexandria, Egypt
That’s what the reference books say. But is it true?
This is the photograph that caused a rethink and a search for more information about the time directly after WWI.
The life belt clearly says HMS Saltash and there is no reason to believe that this is not that ship. A closer look at the crew reveals a number of men in different uniforms that are probably European and resemble Dutch, Belgian, French and maybe Portuguese navy.
Some British crew have cap tillies that say HMS Saltash but a significant number including the chap looking through the life belt have cap tallies that say ‘Mine Clearance Service’, so what was the Mine Clearance Service?
The answer turned out to be a little known episode in Naval History with a very interesting beginning.
Before WWI there were 5 main uses for coal in UK. Domestic use, Gas production, Industry (particularly steel) Railways and Shipping. Most coal was mined in S. Wales and the N. East then moved to the coast and shipped in colliers to the nearest point to the customer using rivers and canals where possible. Saltash, Torpoint and Plymouth are good examples with their gas works next to a river. Coal for Callington gasworks was unloaded at Calstock. Domestic coal was usually moved by rail.
Germany knew this and stated a campaign to disrupt the coastal traffic of coal by laying mines and by submarine. It was very successful forcing the RN to look at moving more coal by train. A trial was planned by Admiral Jellico to supply coal to the fleet at Scapa Flow by train (the trains were nicknamed Jellico’s). This plan failed as the railway network just could not cope. One battleship could require 3,000 tons of coal at a time. The average railway coal wagon held 10 tons so to coal one battleship would require 300 wagons of coal.
Requisition as many trawlers from the fishing fleet as possible, convert them to mine sweepers and submarine spotting ships. Enlist their crew into RNR and RNVR if they weren’t already and station them around the UK to patrol coastal waters to keep a lane open for coastal shipping. It worked.
It was a dangerous job. During the First World War, 300 Hull ships were used as minesweepers and for submarines spotting. 61 of these Hull ships were lost during the war.
Between 1914 and 1918, 371 trawlers were built in the Humber shipyards and almost all of them were taken up by the Navy and used as minesweepers, submarine spotters and coastal patrol boats. Men were asked to volunteer for the new service, and many did so. The Humber area alone provided over 880 vessels and 9,000 men from the fishing industry to support the war effort. This was repeated around the country.
Jellico also realised that custom built minesweepers would be requires, not only during the war but afterwards. He instigated the building of a number of classes of sweeper including the ‘Hunt Class’ of which over 100 were built in different variants. HMS Saltash was one of these.
At the end of WWI it was estimated that several 100,000 mines were active in in the sea, mainly around the coastal waters of the UK and Europe. The danger to shipping was immense. The answer was to form a service dedicated to clearing these mines. So began collaboration between countries on an unprecedented scale.
The Mine Clearances Service
The Admiralty appointed an International Mine Clearance Committee on which 26 countries were represented. The Supreme War Council allotted each Power an area to clear, the largest falling to Great Britain. Some 40,000 square miles of sea needed clearing. In February 1919 a Mine Clearance Service was formed with special rates of pay and conditions of service. Members of the Service wore a specific metal cuff badge and cap tally
Britain’s input to the service
72 Flower Class single-screw fleet mine sweeping sloops of the Acacia, Arabis and Azalea types,
107 Hunt Class and Improved Hunt (Aberdare) Class twin-screwed minesweepers,
24 ‘Class of 24’ fleet sweeping sloops,
32 Ascot Class and Improved Ascot Class mine sweeping paddle-steamers,
13 Grimsby Class general purpose sloops and
10 Dance Class ‘Tunnel Tug’ inshore minesweepers.
Over 10, 000 men almost all reservists.
Total RN mine sweeping forces included 762 ships stationed at 26 home ports and 35 foreign bases.
214 minesweepers had been lost during the four years and three months of the 1914-1918 war.
By 1920 over 23,000 Allied and 70 German mines had been swept by the British with the loss of half a dozen minesweepers.
There is no doubt that the ‘Mine Clearance Service’ was a spectacular international success of which very little is known.
As for the photograph of HMS Saltash, Where was it taken? What were the circumstances? Well that just adds to the mystery.