The Mining of HMS Blanche, S.S. Ponzano and S.S. Matra

The following extracts describe the mining of H.M.S. Blanche, in the words of her captain.

At about 0745 "ADVENTURE" with "BASILISK" leading, proceeded towards Sheerness at slow speed. I was ordered to screen "ADVENTURE" from S/M attack and accordingly took station on her starboard bow.

At 0810 there was an explosion at the after part of the vessel. All steam for main engines was lost. The damage reported to me was:-

(a) The Upper Deck was split forward of the after super-structure.

(b) The after engine room bulkhead was buckled and the engine room was making water.

(c) Water was being made in the Tiller Flat and Spirit Room. The after magazine and shell room appeared to be intact.

The after bulkhead of the after boiler room (the aftermost known to be intact) was immediately shored. All hands were piped to put on their lifebelts. Eleven casualties (3 officers and 8 men - see list) resulted from the mining. L.S. Brown, L.T.C., died shortly after the explosion. The ship was prepared to be taken in tow forward.

At 0910 "BLANCHE" was taken in tow by Tug "FABIA" and proceeded toward Sheerness. The Quarter Deck was then awash. I ordered steam to be blown out of the boilers. The engine room was evacuated and steam was put on the engine room ejector All hands were mustered on the Upper Deck and all bulkhead door closed. On being towed the ship became upright and I had every confidence of getting her into harbour.

Suddenly, at about 0950, the ship heeled to port and did not recover. The order was given to abandon ship. The three carley rafts which had been placed on the Upper Deck floated off. The whalers were swamped.

Rescues were promptly effected by "FABIA", trawler "KESTREL" tug "LADY BRASSEY" and the small motor trawler "GOLDEN SPRAY". The survivors were eventually landed at Ramsgate.

I would like to make special mention of the excellent spirit displayed by the Ship's Company when in the water. There were many instances of the stronger standing by the weaker. Also of the prompt and efficient assistance rendered by the picking-up vessels. i consider that Lieutenant Taylor, the Executive Officer and the C.E.R.A McElligot (in the absence of the Engineer Officer, injured) carried out their duties quietly and efficiently and in the best traditions of the Service.

A board of Enquiry was held into the loss of the Blanche and its report makes some conclusions about the nature of the mine:-

The inference, therefore is that the explosion occurred well away from the ship, in line with the after gun.  We do not hazard an estimate, but consider that the depth of the explosion was greater than the lateral distance from the centre line and that the displacement was to port.

This suggests that a contact mine being exploded by the port propeller can be ignored and we consider that the cause of the explosion was a non-contact mine.

The next casualty on the same day was the S.S. Ponzano. C in C. Nore’s report discusses this incident and whether it could have been avoided.

It is probable that had shipping been stopped at any time before 0700 the mining of s.s. "PONZANO" might have been avoided as this ship was cleared from the Downs via Edinburgh Channel at about 0830.   Minesweeping Trawlers which were on passage out for a routine sweep and had been diverted to warn off shipping were just not in time to warn s.s. "PONZANO".

The reason for this delay seems to be due to the incorrect decoding of a signal from H.M.S. Basilisk:-

At 0649 a further signal was received from H.M.S."Basilisk" (T.O.0632) which read:-

         "Appears to be floating mine comfortable -  am embarking wounded".

This was somewhat reassuring observing that floating mines are of common occurrence in the waters of the Nore Command, and though the wording was curious it was not queried at the time. Consequently there was no certainty that a minefield existed until a further signal from the "Basilisk", T.O.O. 0825, T.O.R. 0848, that H.M.S."BLANCHE" had been mined, when immediate steps were taken to stop shipping at Southend and in the Downs.   On visiting H.M.S."BASILISK" on the arrival at Chatham with the injured about 1130, the Commanding Officer informed me that he had never sent any signal about a floating mine.   The decoding of H.M.S."Basilisk's" 0632 has since been checked.   It was correctly sent and should have read:-

           "ADVENTURE appears to be floating comfortably am embarking wounded."

Thus the incorrect decoding of Administrative Code by a rating conveyed a wrong impression at 0649 and a request for a 'QZ' message which had already been worked out was delayed.

The final incident of the day was the mining of S.S. Matra. It appears that the cause of this incident was simply that the full extent of the minefield was not known:-

Late in the day s.s. "MATRA" was mined at about 1930 while proceeding along the 'QZ' channel ordered by 'QZ' message No.89 and this was the first indication that mines existed to the northeastward of the Tongue Light Vessel, and resulted in the closing of the Edinburgh Channel.   H.M.S."Glowworm" on patrol off Harwich was ordered to a position east of the Tongue Light Vessel to divert shipping already in the 'QZ' channel and trawlers were stationed in the Oaze Deep and inner end of Edinburgh Channel.

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