ID: PBIB_WWM / William James Wilkinson

TitleLife in Minesweepers WW2.
AbstractWilliam James Wilkinson 1906 - 1997.

Life in Minesweepers - World War 2.

All dates will be approximate if used as no-one was supposed to keep a diary.
I cannot remember when I had notice to report to Romford for a Medical to be called up for a service to the Nation but I think it was about October 1940.

I did report and was classed as a Grade II subject, but the next day after reporting and going through all the familiarities as I have said passing as Grade II through a slight defect, in hearing to my surprise, the next morning I had a letter from Romford saying I was under a penalty of £5 for non-appearance.

Well I thought this is a good start, but I had the Card they gave me with my particulars with height, colour of eyes, weight and so forth and I also asked for expenses, so put my own and loss of time for my brother who was with me and also loss of time for the Fishing boat which I was in. I soon had a reply and they told me there was only expenses for the one involved.

Well time went on and I carried on in the Smack and we had our worrying moments even if I wasn't in the Service. We had to adhere to certain regulations as to the times of departure and not steaming about in the dark. There were two large deep sea trawlers converted to mine sweeping sunk in our local waters, one Trinity Vessel, a Tug, one of our own Fishing Boats with 3 hands and another one had all nets blown up and damage done to the boat so it really wasn't all honey in a fishing vessel.
So I carried on fishing until at last I got my papers to report to Lowestoft on the 15th day of May 1941 as the Navy was accepting Grade II Seamen..

I had two references which did me good as I was made a seaman right away otherwise you had to join as ordinary seamen which made a difference of 7 shillings a week. I forget what my real allowance was but think it was 26 shillings a week of which I had to allow half to go onto my Wife and I believe hers amounted to £1.18 shillings which wasn't much more than a meagre existence.

Now is when it really all started. 3 weeks training, drilling and exercising and gunnery and then sent to South Queens Ferry (Edinburgh) for more training for another 2 weeks and then back again to Lowestoft.

In a letter I received from Nell she suggested I put in for a Draft to Brightlingsea so I thought well why not, and behold two days after my request, I soon had my orders but instead of a local draft I was sent to Milford Haven, the other end of the World.

Joined H.M.S. COURTIER which was a Grimsby Trawler converted into a Minesweeper termed as Double L which was used to sweep for magnetic mines which was about I believe 460 yards in length, two of them lashed together and then a generator pumping through electric charges into the water to offset the mine lying on the sea-bed. The Germans were crafty - those mines were set so sometimes you could go over them three or four times then when you thought you had made the Channel safe, the next time anything went over it "Woof - up it would go. We also had gear on board to upset Acoustic mines and this was like a big steel bucket lowered over the side and with a hammer inside worked by electricity - it was sound that set it off.

I remember one morning about seven o'clock while sweeping there was a Soldiers Camp on top of the high cliffs when we set off a magnetic mine. I bet they wondered what had hit them as being right under the cliffs I bet it made one hell of a row - they all came to the edge to see what was going on.

So life went on day after day, the same routine - sweep, sweep and more sweep.
Milford Haven wasn't all honey when you were sweeping you could get some nasty weather sometimes and I remember one occasion when we were turning to go back we were broadside on to the rollers when our small boat got adrift on the boat deck. I went to secure the Davit guys on the deck when she filled the decks up to gunnels - there's me hanging on as best I could when all at once I felt myself being pulled upwards and a voice saying 'You will be safer up here Wilkie' and you may not believe it but the fellow who pulled me up was Hunter Armstrong and he certainly lived up to his name as he was a big strong lad from Newbiggin.

It was a happy ship for quite a long time - two very nice Officers and most of the crew, you got the odd one now and again. The food was quite good although I remember the afters were a bit of a bore. I didn't want to see a bit of Blanc Mange for a very long time. We used to get some nice fish now and again and then the crew and ships company complained because it wasn't cooked properly, so forever afterwards, myself, Hunter Armstrong and Bill Smith used to cook all the fish for tea. There was one little fellow, the Wireman (Jimmy Chilvers), very fussy about fish and he wouldn't eat it until I sorted out a piece for him.

Time came when with change of Officers, two very nice men having a draft and two more taking their place and quite a difference between them, the Senior Officer was a bit too regimental for a small ship as you hadn't got the amount of men he wanted to carry out the duties, but life still went on until my draft came through, having been at Milford Haven from August 1st 1941, until November 4th 1942, and then reported back to Lowestoft. I stayed at Lowestoft from November 5th 1942 until December 1st 1942, and then it was off again.

We had heard through the grape-vine that we were going to a good place but that's all we knew so I phoned Nell and told her all, and that's all I could tell her.

I don't know how many of us there were but quite a lot but they had the nerve to march us to Station with the Band playing. I can't remember whatever it was, and so it was up to Scotland and to Greenock, where we were shipped on to the Queen Elizabeth and from there set sail for Halifax, Nova Scotia.

It's always been said it's a small world but en route I met three men from Tollesbury. It was strange really. I lost my bearings trying to find my quarters. I opened a door and in this large cubicle what should I see but scores of Merchant Seamen lying on their bunks or whatever, and the first two I saw were Tollesbury lads - Sid Mills and Happy Barbrook. The other lad was Tollesbury born but had moved up to London ( Pops Lewis ).

It wasn't a pleasant trip across head winds and driving as hard as possible and they gave the Navy ratings certain jobs to do such as helping to man the guns as we had no escorts, zig-zagging across on her own.

From from the 1st December 1942 our base was called H.M.S. Arbury as it was Halifax right down to Arbury Park by train that we travelled, and so into two large hotels we were billeted, the Berkley and Monterey. Every morning we all had to muster on the Parade ground which was a large area between the two hotels and then issued with cleaning jobs to do. One morning I was told to stand fast until all the others had dispersed, then a Chief Petty Officer took me to his and three others quarters and gave me the job of keeping their quarters clean, which was quite comfy really.

When it came to ones turn, we had to go on patrol at night, one P.O. and two ratings and walk round Asbury Park which according to our standard was quite a well scattered area, there were two or three patrols, just to be there in case of trouble, which in one case a rating was beaten up, so we were all mustered on the Parade Ground and given a pep talk by the Commander who advised all not to go about alone.

It was just before Christmas and it was cold, very cold and on this night on patrol I remember I made my legs really sore and raw having short pants and the chafe from my rough trousers was most uncomfortable.

Well time went on - drafts going out every day until it was my turn, never knowing what kind of ship and what your shipmates were going to be like.

I don't remember dates as one was not supposed to keep diaries but the ship I joined was B.Y.M.S. 210, which stood for Brooklyn Yard Minesweeper and which we had to take stores and everything needed on board and then try out all the different minesweeping gear.

Something else has just come to mind before leaving the Hotel we all had to have our injections - 2nd T.B. - and then two days later the Yellow Fever injection because we were supposed to be going to Freetown down in Africa. When the Medical Officer went to put the needle in I said 'Could you put it in my other arm please' so he said 'Why' and I said 'This one is still sore from the T.B. one' so he laughed and said 'Well if you have it in the other one you might have two sore arms' so I had it in the same one.

Well at last the Flotilla, I believe 10 of us, set sail for Freetown but after about two days steaming, we ran into a gale which was quite hectic - so bad it loosened the lubricating tank in the engine room so we had to turn back for repairs. When the repairs had been completed we had fresh orders so we had to be de-gaussed which meant that all gear on the outside of the ship was de-magnetised or in other words wiped but I was not very well informed about that part of it, but it was meant to make the ship immune from magnetic influence.

So our new orders were quite different from going to Freetown, we were sent to Halifax (Nova Scotia). On the way we called at Boston (but saw no Tea Party), but only stayed for one night so I didn't get ashore as it was the right of the watch.

After we left harbour the next day it was decided to try the double LL gear which hadn't been tried before. Who should be on the wheel at that time was a Lad from Newfoundland, MacDonald, so after it was run out and already the orders started to come down the voice pipe. Well, the first came from Jimmy the One 1st Officer and he said 'Energise Sweep'. Well poor old Mac was so surprised he didn't repeat back which he was supposed to do (Energise Sweep). Well Jimmy was furious at no reply and said who is on the wheel. MacDonald, sir. Did you hear what I said?. Yes, sir. Why didn't you repeat?. I don't know, sir. Well now repeat Energise Sweep. So at last Mac got it out. But a little later Mac used a common expression used with the Newfoundlanders. By the Lord Jesus Christ who the Bloody Hell does he think he is, using bloody great words like that. So poor old Mac had never heard of Energise before. Normally the phrase used especially in the trawlers was (Switch on). Well, after a dummy run the sweep was hauled in being on a large drum it was a lot easier than on the trawler "Courtier", it had to be man-handled and stowed each side of the ship.

So arriving at Halifax, June 6th 1943, we started sweeping. Their rumour was with us the Germans had laid mines outside the harbour by submarine and how they found out was a small coaster was blown up. So it was sweeping with Orofesa sweep the whole time we were there. They were moored magnetic mines I guess as we ourselves had the good fortune on the first sweep to cut one adrift and an M.L. following up managed to pick up the wire and tow it back to be scrutinised and seek information, but that was the only one we got which no doubt was a great relief because I suppose it could have caused a lot of trouble had something big have been blown up. Of course, there were other sweepers beside us so we didn't know what they got, if any, but did know of two, the one we cut and the one which sank the little ship.

It was quite pleasant, the weather being reasonable for a couple of months and then as winter approached it wasn't too good. The fog day after day and there was no respite if it was thick in the morning you got to the boom and waited and if it cleared enough up to four o'clock you had to go. We moved from Halifax to a little harbour opposite called Dartmouth, which was much quieter and was quite a walk to the village so I didn't trouble much about going. The winter months were not all that rosy either. Freezing and large falls of snow so it wasn't first class at all. We stayed at Dartmouth all the time bar for just the occasional visit to Halifax and then we had our orders to return to England which was January 22nd, 1944.

This is where I must mention the phrase "I will never ever go back there again" because in 1930 I sailed in Shamrock V across to America via the Azores which took us twenty six (26) days and although I didn't go across that way I did come back and while I was in America I visited the same places - Newport, Bristol and one or two more, as we had to do gunnery practice and other exercises. So on the way back it was from Halifax to Staten Island and from there it was straight to the Azores with just one other minesweeper for company. We took in a few stores and remember the meat that came on, it was fresh meat but Jimmy No.1 didn't like the look of it, it could have been goat, I don't know but when we got out of harbour it was all thrown overboard.

So it was back to England and I am not quite sure if it was Falmouth or Plymouth we arrived at, but whichever we didn't stay long as we were sent to Liverpool, Birkenhead for a refit, which was called "Invell". Leave was then granted to all bar the Newfoundlanders. I believe it was ten days leave after being away for about sixteen months which was a lifetime. Well we had our leave and refit and then it was off again, but after leaving Birkenhead the next morning when I reported for duty the weather was really nasty and instead of being on our passage we were hove to so I said to the C.O. "Where abouts are we" so he said "That's the Isle of Man" so we were getting shelter from it. Then all of a sudden he said "What do you think of the weather". I said "The sun looks as fierce as a Buck rat but the wind might veer". After another hour or so the wind seemed to ease and then it was go. It wasn't a very plesaant journey calling in at Milford Haven en route for Plymouth. Milford was old ground for me but we only stayed a couple of days for what reason I did not know.

We spent some time at Plymouth going through exercises of one kind or another. Somewhere along the line we had to have an alteration to our Number which was having an additional number added to it thus reading B.Y.M.S. 2210.

I am a bit contused now with dates and movements but see in my discharge papers we were still linked with H.M.S. Irwell which was Birkenhead, Liverpool, from January 23rd 1944 until August 1st 1944 and then it was H.M.S. Gypsy, August 2nd until September 30th 1944, then it looks like Hirandul October 1st to December 31st 1944, and then from January 1st 1945 to March 31st it was H.M.S. Lynx. Then from April 1st 1945 to September 18th 1945 it was H.M.S. Pembroke, and after than one from September 19th 1945, it was Europa, which was Lowestoft, until November 24th 1945 and that was when I was de-mobbed.

So I assumed all those bases were along the South Coast as we swept along the French coast after D Day. These last few lines may seem like a lot of rubbish but only emphasising the quick change in the bases you enter.

After leaving Plymouth we made our way to Weymouth for a couple of days and then through to Portland. It was then we began to realise that something was on the move, No shore leave was allowed and only two men allowed to go ashore, one to gather the mail and stores if needed and the other one was his body-guard with a bayonet on his belt. There was a nasty thunderstorm one morning and it was my turn as guard, and as we were walking along the pavement we saw some people looking on the ground so being curious we went to see what it was and there was quite a big hole in the ground and asking what it was, found out a Thunder Bolt had made it.

Well as I said I had more or less lost track of time but was soon made to realise what was going on and the evening of June 5th we put to sea and were then told the invasion was on. We then steamed to a certain position to join up with the rest of the flotilla, which I presume amounted to nine more ships making ten in all. Before starting off on our mission, the C.O. called nearly all the ships company to the mess deck and laid the law as to what should happen if there were any accidents. If he was killed the No. 1 would take over and if he went, the 2nd Lieut, would take over and so forth down the line and you Wilkinson will take the wheel.

So with Oropesa sweeps out we set our course at 0.100 on June 6th 1944 to clear a clean channel for the American forces to land which was the Omaha beachhead. For three and a half hours we were sweeping and the only words I heard were 'He's half a cable off course' which as I reckoned out was about 38 feet and the phrase he meant the leading ship ahead as our ship was 2nd in command. Well as I have mentioned we were steaming at full out for 3 ½ days and at 4.30 am the C.O. said 'Hard to starboard Wilkinson and thank God for that' and so I thought 'I will second that', breathing with a sigh of relief, because really it was a bit nerve racking to say the least, as one's nerves got a little taut. After than we were practically hove to for a while watching what was going on, great swarms of bombers going over, one lot after another and we could see the flak they were getting.

Two days after D Day we were at it again, sweeping further west towards St. Malo but first off we had to sweep along the land towards Cape Barfleur and the evening before that we were all at anchor. The C.O. had to go on board an American Destroyer for orders with a British Commander in charge. He asked our C.O. what our biggest gun was so he said a 3 inch so the Commander said you had better put two up the spout then because if they are still there they have got some 8 inch guns there. Well we did the sweep and nothing happened so we assumed the Americans had taken command.

Next thing on the agenda was we had got to go to a town the other side of Cape Barfleur down in the bay towards St. Malo to help with the lighting system of the town connecting up to our ship and use our generators. Then at the last minute before we set off it was cancelled so it was back the other way now and start sweeping towards the Eastward and so we arrived at Cherbourg, sweep, sweep, sweep again.

One day we were assigned a job to do in the Docks. They knew that Jerry had planted a bomb or mine right in the middle of a dock so we had to tow our Double L.L. sweep in the dinghy to the middle of the dock and moor our ship behind the walls of another. When everything was ready we started to pulse for hour after hour and nothing happened. It was then decided that we should start to try throwing hand grenades into dock, but that was no good so we retired for the night.

Next morning it was pulsing again and about 10 o'clock the Captain and a few more came from shore base to see what was going on. Well they came and they went and after about an hour of them going all of a sudden up she goes to everyone's relief. It might have been the next day or perhaps two or three, I can't really remember, but we had another assignment to fulfill. We had to do a sweep with Oropesa outside Cherbourg harbour on the East side in very shallow water and the C.O. said 'I don't like this one very much'. We hadn't been sweeping very long when we came fast and being on the wheel I said 'She won't answer Sir', so it was put on more speed on the starboard engine to keep her straight and to try to break away from what was holding us. Well we soon found out what it was because our cutter had done its job by cutting the wire which was moored to the mine and it was a huge one. I expect intelligence had found out there was one there and that's why we had the job to do. We had an M.L. in attendance and with few bursts of firing it soon went "Whoof' so that was another one out of the way. No sooner than the mine was blown up there was a little motor boat out like a flash looking for fish but I don't think he got many.

We were sweeping out of Cherbourg for quite a while and one day after we had finished our sweep, a Merchant ship was making for harbour when BANG she was blown up and although there was quite a lot of wind we had orders to go and do the course again. I don't know why but I believe it was said you were not supposed to sweep when the wind got to a certain force but this time it was go, proceed regardless.

After Cherbourg it was across to Dover for a few days and then away back to Ostend where we spent quite a while, sweep, sweep and more sweep.

One day we were having a day in harbour when all of a sudden there was turmoil. Lucky for us we were at the top of the harbour but where all the smaller boats were moored there was pandemonium for a while, somehow all around the boats there was fire. It was assumed that petrol had somehow been set on fire and some of the smaller boats caught alight and a good job it was ebb tide so it was going out of the harbour instead of in. I believe there were one or two casualties as I remember going to a Service.

Another episode was a mini submarine was captured. It got too close to the shore and grounded and so was caught, so it was brought into Ostend and that was another job, we had to put a man on board to keep watch on it all night, well relief watches until the next day so it could be examined as they thought there might be a torpedo under the bottom which is where they were carried. There were quite a few of them about too because when we were on passage to Antwerp I spotted a Very light in the sky and so reported it, so we altered course to locate what it was and low and behold when we got to where it was there was Jerry sitting in his little raft.

We had an M.L. steaming about and he had been dropping depth charges having located him he had put the mini sub out of action so Jerry had to abandon his ship and seek survival.

We passed the M.L. after a while still searching so told him we had got his man and then went to Antwerp to discharge him.

We passed the M.L. after a while still searching so told him we had got his man and then went to Antwerp to discharge him.
While I am writing this memoranda a lot is happening in the country concerning V.E. day celebrations and so forth.

While at Antwerp, well not in the town, we were quite a way from it and some of the crew were allowed a little leave of which I was one. When I got home I was told by my Wife that my Mother was in hospital at Colchester with a broken ankle so I had to pay a visit there. Well the end of my leave came and I had to report back at Tilbury for passage back to Antwerp and be there at 7 o'clock in the morning which meant going back the night before, and so arriving at Tilbury about 9 o'clock at night I managed to get a billet where there were a few staff of Petty Officers stationed and they were good enough to find me a bed for the night. The next morning I went to the Station to meet some of the others and I saw one of our Officers there.

While at Antwerp, well not in the town, we were quite a way from it and some of the crew were allowed a little leave of which I was one. When I got home I was told by my Wife that my Mother was in hospital at Colchester with a broken ankle so I had to pay a visit there. Well the end of my leave came and I had to report back at Tilbury for passage back to Antwerp and be there at 7 o'clock in the morning which meant going back the night before, and so arriving at Tilbury about 9 o'clock at night I managed to get a billet where there were a few staff of Petty Officers stationed and they were good enough to find me a bed for the night. The next morning I went to the Station to meet some of the others and I saw one of our Officers there.

Well we were not very well informed about what was going on and then suddenly we were mustered and someone knew something was in the offing because they had called in a ship L.S.T. - it could have been loaded with soldiers going over to Ostend. We didn't know what was going on until we brought up off Southend Pier, and then found out that peace was being signed, so what they did to us was shove us aboard this boat so they knew where we were as some of them perhaps would have went on the spree.

Once again you talk about hardship if there was any about I found it. We had no food or drink as we never carried any with us, not like the soldiers as they carried certain rations about with them. They had some system organised so they could make tea and open corned beef tins and you may not believe it but its true one of them washed out a corned beef tin and filled it with tea which I was thankful enough to drink - and they called it V.E. day celebrations!!

The next day we arrived at Ostend and there boarded a train to Antwerp called in at Brussels and from there finished the journey by lorry.

Well arrived back and thankful too for that, but what I forgot to mention, on the train journey we stopped for a while with arable fields each side of us when out of the blue we saw a little boy running across the field and when he got to us he had a bottle of beer in his hand and gave it to someone on board and they gave the lad a hearty cheer. He was only about 6 years old and had run quite a long way from some houses in the distance.

The rest of the crew went on leave and returned and then it was off again working in Dutch territory, making our first harbour Ijmuiden. We used to take a walk to a place called Beaverwick walking along a railway track and going to the pictures and seeing a Charlie Chaplin film, and then another time walking to the town of Harlem, and quite a good walk it was, 3 to 4 miles, and I remember going to a cafe or eating place but food was short there, but fish was on the menu and boiled or whatever, but was very ordinary and I wasn't impressed with it, and it wasn't even near my standard and I am not really very fussy, because I have had some rough meals in my time.

We carried on sweeping for a while making Ijmuiden our base and then up to Terschelling for another stint and then up to Den Helder for quite a while, and then I believe it was up to a place called Borkum but that doesn't seem quite right and havn't got a chart which shows it, mine are all too small a scale. Anyway on passage to this place we had two incidents happen. The first was a floating mine so the C.O. sent the rest of the flotilla on their way while we dealt with the menace, and so it was fire practice. Well it went bang, bang and more bangs, but nothing happened, so it was hold fire for a while and then suddenly it decided to go off on its own, and so off we go again.

Then suddenly the port engine stopped or wasn't working, the propeller had come in contact with something so we dropped anchor and got the dinghy overboard to see if we could locate what it was. Well the C.O., No.l. and myself got into the dinghy and with the boat-hook we tried to feel what we had picked up and after probing and trying to feel what it was, suddenly I saw a disturbance behind our dinghy and for a fleeting moment I saw what I thought was a big fender, one of the large bass rope type filled with cork. I reported what I thought I had seen so the C.O. gave the Engineer orders to try the engine and it was all clear, so off we went to Borkum.

Well by this time the De-mob system was in force and some of the early and elderly Ratings were on the way for discharge. So after a while at Borkum we were sent back to Rotterdam and it was from there my discharge papers came through and so with a few more from other ships, I went back to Lowestoft but after being on the same ship for about two years it gives one a feeling of, I don't know how to put it really, I suppose it is sadness to have to leave what you might term your second home, and at the same time pleased to think you have come through safely.

Well I must say I was lucky to be on two good ships, the "Courtier" and "B.Y.M.S. 2210". The Officers were excellent and the food was good, especially on 2210. McGregor was a wonderful cook and that helps a lot in any ship.

So from Lowestoft I was discharged on November 25th 1945 and this is a rough estimation of my War experiences.

AuthorWilliam James Wilkinson
SourceMersea Museum / Suzanne Wilkinson