13 October 1941 – 20 January 1942
Hostilities Only Ordinary Signalman Brooks’ first draft after training was His Majesty’s Trawler (HMT) Southcoates. Built in 1918, she was christened Samuel Drake and launched from yard no.363 into the River Clyde by builders Bow McLachlan & Company of Paisley.
Bow, McLachlan & Co. had entered the specialist shipbuilding market in ‘knock-down’ vessels. These were bolted together at the shipyard, then all the parts marked with numbers, disassembled into many hundreds of parts and transported in kit form for final reassembly. This elaborate method was used to provide vessels for inland use or lakes that had no navigation to the open sea.
At the outset, The Admiralty found itself in a similar position to the Great War. To protect merchant shipping from enemy warships & U-Boats, the convoy system had to be introduced. To facilitate the protection of the convoys, escorts had to be requisitioned from the trawler fleets around the UK.
To facilitate command & control of the UK’s home waters, the coastline was divided into Naval and Sub Commands, each with an allocated Base ship or shore establishment. Rosyth Command controlled all the naval units along the Northeast coast from Rosyth to the Humber, including North Shields & Newcastle upon Tyne, all under command of Rear Admiral C. G. Ramsey.
North Shields Sub-Command base ship was HMS Calliope under Rear Adm W G C Maxwell CMG Rtd, and home to the 8th Mine-sweeping Flotilla. In sharp contrast to their pre-war holiday passenger cruises around the Welsh coast, the requisitioned coal-fired Paddle Steamers Glen Avon, Glen Gower, Glen Usk, Laguna Belle, Snaefell, Southsea and Thames Queen, now fitted as minesweepers, rode at anchor on the River Tyne.
Supporting the minesweeping paddle steamers were four minesweeping trawlers Clifton, Henriette, New Comet, Witham and the minesweeping drifters June, Rose and Summer Rose. The Auxiliary Patrol consisted of HMT Southcoates, Donna Nook, Ethel Taylor, Kopanes, Morgan Jones and Wyoming while the 8th Flotilla was completed by six Lookout Drifters.
Southsea had been beached in February 1941 after being mined. Snaefell was a Dunkirk veteran credited with rescuing 981 soldiers, even towing the stranded Glen Gower off the Dunkirk sandbanks in 1940.
From 13th October 1941 until 20th January 1942, Ordinary Signalman Brooks began active service off the North East coast. In a vessel with a top speed of just 10.5 knots and carrying a single 12 pounder gun on her fo’c’sle, the crew began sweeping mines from the War-Channel.
THE WAR CHANNEL
The Admiralty had learned during the First World War that defensive minelaying was an important means of protecting vulnerable coastal traffic. Soon after the declaration of hostilities, the Navy threw down the vast Dover Barrage minefield. Over 10,000 mines laid both deep and shallow, combined with cables, nets and submarine detection loops that would effectively close the channel between Dover and Cap Griz Nez on the French coast.
(left) His Majesty’s Minesweepers, a propaganda fuelled account of life aboard a sweeper (HMSO 1943)
Along the east coast stretched the East Coast Mine Barrage from the Moray Firth to the Thames Estuary. Between the barrage and the coast lay the War Channel, under a mile wide and swept daily for both German and allied drifting mines. Marked by floating buoys at half-mile intervals and divided into 2 lanes for north and southbound convoys, the War Channel became an artery for east coast shipping, especially for the colliers which supplied London with over ten million tons of coal from Scottish coalfields.
Every day, in all weathers, the minesweeping trawlers would begin where they left off the day before. With a crew of 23, every man had a sweeping station or gun mount. When a trawler brought down an enemy aircraft she was entitled to paint a swastika on her funnel. Painted Chevrons denoted the number of mines swept, white for a single mine, red for five, blue for twenty-five, red for fifty. The food in the galley was tasty and well cooked. Men slept in beds, not hammocks. The favourite recreation in between sweeps were draughts and dominoes.
HMT Southcoates survived the war and was broken up for scrap in January 1946. For Ordinary Signalman Brooks, January 1942 brought a change of scenery and a rail warrant to Lowestoft.