Minesweepers – with an apology to John Steinbeck

Day after day the minesweepers go out.

There’s is a low-profile, unglamorous job, but one that is crucial. The limelight, the plaudits, the medals go to the hawk-eyed Spitfire pilots, the square-jawed Commandos, the immaculate guardsmen.

The sailors and officers are all veterans of frigates and destroyers. Not content with traditional naval set-piece warfare, the role of hunter-killer, they have sought out a life of dedication to the vulnerable – troop ships, aircraft carriers, merchant vessels – all dangerously exposed to the unpredictability, power and energy of mines.

The ships work in teams; their job is impossible otherwise. Their roles are clearly defined, but are interchangeable in a heartbeat when things change which, at sea, is an hourly occurrence.

The crew surround themselves with highly technical equipment, measuring magnetic fields and communicating in a high-speed language of dots and dashes impenetrable to all but those in the know.

Despite the wealth of dials, meters and maps the sailors put their trust in the Mark One Eyeball, the feeling in the gut, the hair stood up on the back of the neck. They have learned to read the relief of the sea, the ever-changing undulation of the surface and can instantly tell the difference between an innocent piece of flotsam and a German Hertz horn. That works up to a point. It’s the subsurface mines that they spend most of their time thinking about. Hidden just feet below the surface, but invisible to that trusty Mark One Eyeball. The crew need to muster all of their collective expertise, intuition and courage to stay the plotted course, spot the tell-take blip on the magnetometer and let their lines neutralise the hidden threat. Get the spacing between ships wrong by a few feet and it’s not their lines that detonate the mine, it’s the ship.

Patience. Any sailor will tell you that’s the defining characteristic of a crewmate on a minesweeper. They are, of course, wrong. It’s courage. The submariners, the frigates, the corvettes all take the fight to the enemy. The minesweeper is the sacrificial lamb. A lamb who puts itself in harm’s way every day so that others remain safe. A job successfully done is not seen by the ships that sail through its cleared channels. A job half done has the Admirals moaning “We shouldn’t be expected to deal with this kind of thing.” There is the occasional appreciative Captain who knows that the absence of mines in his channel is a major boost to his chances of survival. Perhaps he’s appreciative because his brother commands a minesweeper or because he lost a cousin on a merchant vessel to a moored mine last year. Out of sight, but not out of mind for him.

Clear those channels they do, day after day. No matter how successful their mission, tomorrow will present fresh challenges. The Germans will drift back in the dead of night to resow their deadly seeds. At the end of each mission the crew allow themselves a moment’s collective satisfaction, but this almost immediately evaporates with the certain knowledge that tomorrow requires the same commitment, dedication and diligence. They take that oath once more to do the job that no-one else wants to do.


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