View Full Version : No 'Phoney War' for the Royal Navy

Rob Hoole
14-09-2009, 12:16
Readers may have noticed the current proliferation of events and news stories marking the 70th anniversary of the beginning of the Second World War. The period between September 1939 and the Battle of France in May 1940 is often referred to as the 'Phoney War' because so little action was apparent to the British public. However, the Royal Navy and the Merchant Navy were heavily engaged right from the start; this was still some eight months before the Battle of France and nine months before the Battle of Britain. Within hours of war being declared against Germany on 3 September 1939, U-30 sank the liner SS Athenia off Rockall with the loss of 98 passengers and 19 crew members. On 17 September, the aircraft carrier HMS Courageous was torpedoed by U-29 in the South West Approaches with the loss of 518 lives. On 14 October, HMS Royal Oak was sunk by U-47 at Scapa Flow with the loss of 833 lives and on 16 October, German bombers attacked British warships at Rosyth in the Firth of Forth. In November, the armed merchant cruiser HMS Rawalpindi was sunk by the German battlecruiser Scharnhorst off Iceland and in December, the Royal Navy cruisers HMS Exeter, HMS Ajax and HMS Achilles fought the German pocket battleship, Admiral Graf Spee, at the Battle of the River Plate, forcing her to retreat into Montevideo harbour where she scuttled herself. There was certainly no 'Phoney War' as far as the Royal Navy was concerned.

German pocket battleship Graf Spee ablaze
in Montevideo Harbour 17 Dec 1939

German Mine Menace

In 1939, German U-boats were still few in number and they did not yet have the bases in France providing short and relatively safe access to the open ocean. However, merchant ships and warships around the UK coast and in the approaches to ports were experiencing mysterious underwater explosions and being sunk or seriously damaged at an unsustainable rate. The cargo ships SS Magdapur and SS Phryne were sunk on 10 and 24 September 1939 respectively and the liner City of Paris was severely damaged on 16 September, all as the result of mines laid off Orfordness by U-13 on 4 September. This area had already been swept of moored mines and, as losses mounted, the Admiralty began to suspect the use of magnetic ground mines. However, owing to their self-destruct mechanisms, no mines of this particular type had been recovered intact to confirm them as the cause or enable the development of effective countermeasures. In September and October 1939, mines accounted for almost 60,000 tons of Allied merchant shipping. In November, mines took the lead as the main threat to Allied sea communications, sinking 27 merchant ships totalling 121,000 tons. As Churchill conceded at the time, "The terrible damage that could be done by large ground mines had not been fully realised."

http://www.mcdoa.org.uk/images/Churchill%20at%20HMS%20Vernon%2021%20Sep%201939%20 med.jpg
Churchill as First Lord of the Admiralty
visiting HMS Vernon 21 Sep 1939

The Breakthrough

The breakthrough came on 23 November 1939, the day after a German parachute mine had been discovered on the mudflats at Shoeburyness. Commander John Garnault Delahaize Ouvry Royal Navy, then a Lieutenant Commander as a Render Mines Safe (RMS) officer based at HMS Vernon in Portsmouth, was already investigating reports of German parachute mines in the area and was soon on the scene. He was accompanied by Lieutenant Commander Roger Lewis Royal Navy (another Vernon-based RMS officer). After the mine had been staked against the incoming tide, Ouvry and Lewis photographed it and conducted an initial examination before reporting their findings. Ouvry returned some hours later with Chief Petty Officer Charles Baldwin (killed on 3 Feb 1940 along with course of 14 RNVR Sub Lieutenants on board a drifter while recovering loose British moored mines in the Forth) and Leading Seaman Archibald Vearncombe who had arrived from HMS Vernon. While the rest of his party remained well clear, Ouvry approached the mine with CPO Baldwin and proceeded to render it safe using non-magnetic tools produced specifically for the task. Lewis and Vearncombe, now joined by Doctor Albert Wood, a Principal Scientific Officer in the Mine Design Department at HMS Vernon, then helped dismantle the mine for subsequent recovery and transport to HMS Vernon for detailed investigation.

Ouvry's mine on the mudflats at Shoeburyness

For his deed, Cdr John Ouvry was decorated with the DSO by King George VI at a ceremony on HMS Vernon’s parade ground on 19 December 1939. He was not awarded the VC because his act was not deemed to have been "in the face of the enemy" and the GC was not instituted to apply to brave people in his circumstances until Sep 1940. Others decorated at the same time for this, and other tasks where mines were rendered safe for recovery and examination, were Lt Cdr R C Lewis (DSO), Lt J E M Glenny (DSC), CPO C E Baldwin (DSM) and AB A L Vearncombe (DSM). Of particular note, these were the first Royal Naval decorations of the war.

http://www.mcdoa.org.uk/images/King%20George%20VI%20presenting%20decorations%20at %20HMS%20Vernon%20med.jpg
King George VI presenting the first RN decorations of the war
on HMS Vernon's Parade Ground 19 Dec 1939

King George VI with Capt Riley (SMD), Lt Cdr Ouvry and
the German magnetic mine at HMS Vernon 19 Dec 1939

The recovery, investigation and exploitation of this first aircraft-laid German magnetic mine (British designation 'GA') enabled HMS Vernon to develop self-protective measures for Allied ships including degaussing coils that helped neutralise their magnetism. It also enabled the development of effective magnetic mine sweeps including the initial crude mine destructor ships containing huge electrical magnets in their holds shortly superseded by minesweepers deploying the highly successful Double L (LL) electrode sweep, used throughout the war. Thus, the German stranglehold on Allied shipping providing Britain's lifeblood at the outset of the Second World War was relaxed considerably.

Cdr John Garnault Delahaize Ouvry DSO RN

Commemorative Event

To mark the 70th anniversary of this event, a lunchtime reception, including talks and audio-visual presentations, is to be held on board HMS Belfast on Thursday 26 November. The opportunity will also be taken to promote Project Vernon (http://vernon-monument.org/default.aspx), the campaign to erect a monument at Gunwharf Quays in Portsmouth to commemorate the mine warfare and diving heritage of HMS Vernon which previously stood on the site. Invitations will be sent to veterans, senior officers, politicians, civic dignitaries, journalists and representatives of the commercial shipping world.

http://www.mcdoa.org.uk/images/HMS%20Belfast%20on%20the%20Thames%2017%20July%2020 09%20med.jpg
HMS Belfast on the Thames

This commemorative event is being organised by a triumvirate comprising the late Cdr Ouvry's son David, the WW II veteran RNVR bomb & mine disposal officer and author Lt Cdr Noel Cashford MBE RNVR and me. The cruiser HMS Belfast, the Imperial War Museum's floating exhibit on the Thames, is the obvious venue because she has Ouvry’s mine on display and was herself seriously damaged by a magnetic mine as she left the Firth of Forth on 21 November 1939. This mine, laid on 4 November by the German U-boat U-21, injured 34 of Belfast’s ship's company, broke her keel and wrecked her hull and machinery to such an extent that it took nearly three years to repair her at Devonport.

http://www.mcdoa.org.uk/images/David%20Ouvry%20with%20Rob%20Hoole%20and%20Noel%20 Cashford%20on%20board%20HMS%20Belfast%207%20July%2 02009%20med.jpg
David Ouvry, Rob Hoole and Noel Cashford
with John Ouvry's mine on board HMS Belfast

Further information on the 'Latest News (http://www.mcdoa.org.uk/News_Frames.htm)' page of the MCDOA website.

14-09-2009, 18:20
Very good reply to those who spoke of the Phony war. Our guys were in there from the start. Well done Rob!!

tim lewin
14-09-2009, 20:26
While you are in Belfast mood don't forget the capture of the German Cap Norte in the first days of the war, caught on her run home from South America; ironic that Belfast should begin her career with the capture of Cap Norte and cap it late with the Battle of North Cape.

Rob Hoole
15-09-2009, 20:54
The Daily Telegraph website is publishing a 'Day by Day' series of articles from 70 years ago chronicling the beginning of the Second World War. Among those featuring the War at Sea to date are:

9 Sep 1939: Torpedoing of Athenia (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/newstopics/world-war-2/6163696/World-War-2-Torpedoing-of-Athenia.html)
9 Sep 1939: Four merchant ships sunk (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/newstopics/world-war-2/6163678/World-War-2-Four-merchant-ships-sunk.html)
11 Sep 1939: British liners elude German Submarines (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/newstopics/world-war-2/6168507/World-War-2-British-liners-elude-German-Submarines.html)
11 Sep 1939: Tanker on fire (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/newstopics/world-war-2/6168609/World-War-2-Tanker-on-fire.html)
11 Sep 1939: French launch attack in new direction (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/newstopics/world-war-2/6168577/World-War-2-French-launch-attack-in-new-direction.html)
15 Sep 1939: Two British ships lost (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/newstopics/world-war-2/6175048/World-War-2-Two-British-ships-lost.html)
16 Sep 1939: Vast seizure of goods for Germany (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/newstopics/world-war-2/6186716/World-War-2-Vast-seizure-of-goods-for-Germany.html)
16 Sep 1939: Convoy was the key to defeat of U-boats last time

John Brown
19-09-2009, 06:37
Not only were our Royal and Merchant navies involved in the 'Battle of the Atlantic' from day one but they were still suffering casualties long after the war in Europe had officially ended. The fishing vessel 'Kned' for example was sunk on 10th July 1945 by a mine that had been laid by U-218.

The Atlantic was probably the only theatre where action took place from the first day of the war in Europe until the last (and beyond)


Rob Hoole
22-09-2009, 07:20
Some more interesting 'Day by Day' articles from the Daily Telegraph's archives of 70 years ago:

Our effort is increasing and will increase progressively (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/newstopics/world-war-2/6213713/World-War-2-Our-effort-is-increasing-and-will-increase-progressively.html)

Mr Chamberlain in the House of Commons yesterday made the third of his weekly surveys of the War Situation.

Vigilance We Cannot Afford To Relax

As was expected, the Prime Minister referred to the new factor arising with the invasion of Poland from the East by Russia, and he devoted part of his statement to a reply to Hitler’s speech at Danzig on Tuesday night. His review of the operations at sea disclosed that the tonnage sunk by U-boats in the week ended Sept 19 was 45,848, compared with 95,000 in the previous week: and he declared that it was “already clear that the Navy and the Merchant Service, by their unceasing efforts, will be able to maintain essential supplies of raw materials and food”...

Captain describes RAF ocean rescues (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/newstopics/world-war-2/6207177/World-War-2-Captain-describes-RAF-ocean-rescues.html)

The full thrilling story of the rescue in the Atlantic of a tramp steamer’s crew by two RAF flying-boats was told by the ship’s captain and the pilots of the planes when they met yesterday at the Ministry of Information...

N.B. A photo of this operation showing the sinking ship and one of the Sunderland flying boats involved in the rescue on 18 Sep 1939 appears on the History of War website here (http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/weapons_short_sunderland_service.html).

U-boat bombed by plane (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/newstopics/world-war-2/6207180/World-War-2-U-boat-bombed-by-plane.html)

The American Farmer brought the 29 surviving members of the crew of the Kafiristan, a Newcastle steamer of 5,193 tons owned by the Hindustan Steam Shipping Co. Mr Armistead Lee, of Chatham, Virginia, said when they sighted the lifeboats belonging to the Kafiristan they also saw a British bomber that appeared “from nowhere as if by magic”. “The bomber”, he declared, “swooped on the submarine and apparently destroyed it with a bomb. There were nine men on the deck of the submarine, but no one appeared to see the bomber coming...

red devil
27-09-2009, 19:43
Let us not forget our Merchant Navy, dying from day 1 of the war to last day+2.

27-09-2009, 19:49
A very good point and one often overlooked IMHO.

John Brown
27-09-2009, 20:11
Let us not forget our Merchant Navy, dying from day 1 of the war to last day+2.

As has already been illustrated in my post, #5, of this thread.


Rob Hoole
27-09-2009, 20:28
Let us not forget our Merchant Navy, dying from day 1 of the war to last day+2.

As has already been illustrated in my post, #5, of this thread.


And in the third line of my initial post, #1. Merchant Navy personnel were particularly unfortunate because their pay and employment stopped immediately their ship was sunk. As they usually lost their belongings with the ship, all they had left were the clothes they were wearing at the time.

Rob Hoole
29-09-2009, 11:16
The latest 'Day by Day' articles from the Daily Telegraph's archives of 70 years ago:

Navy beats off air attack (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/newstopics/world-war-2/6235258/World-War-2-Navy-beats-off-air-attack.html)

Germany’s first air attack on the British Fleet, announced yesterday, was a complete and costly failure. Twenty aircraft attempted to bomb a squadron of the Home Fleet in the middle of the North Sea, about 150 miles away from Norway, on Tuesday evening, and were repulsed with the total loss of two planes and one badly damaged. None of the battleships was hit and there were no British casualties.

The announcement of the attack was made in the House of Commons by Mr Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty. He said that the Commander-in-Chief of the Home Fleet, Sir Charles Forbes, in a wirelessed report of the action, stated that the British squadron included capital ships, an aircraft carrier, a cruiser, and destroyers...

Soviet ship sunk by submarine (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/newstopics/world-war-2/6235262/World-War-2-Soviet-ship-sunk-by-submarine.html)

The announcement of the sinking of a Soviet steamer, the Metallist 968 tons, by an unknown submarine in Narva Bay, off the Estonian coast, about 6 o’clock this evening, came as the climax to a day of intense diplomatic activity here. Nineteen of the 24 members of the crew of the Metallist were picked up by Soviet patrol boats. The remaining five men are missing. The news was announced on the Soviet wireless shortly after the arrival of M.Selter, the Estonian Foreign Minister, and other members of the delegation from Tallinn.

Foreign circles here think the reported sinking of the Soviet steamer will probably be followed by firm Soviet action towards Estonia...

Rob Hoole
28-11-2009, 00:28
Please see entry for 27 Nov 09 on the 'Latest News (http://www.mcdoa.org.uk/News_Frames.htm)' page of the MCDOA website for an illustrated report on this cracking event held yesterday on board HMS Belfast which was attended by many members of the MW and CD Branches, old and new. I regret it's too lengthy to replicate here without inordinate time and effort.

Go to first post of this thread for more background details.

Regards to all,


dennis a feary
28-11-2009, 09:23
ROB, great stories re `Phoney War' - may I also add the tragedy of the sinking of HMS/m OXLEY by HMS/m TRITON that after a week or so after `the Commencement of Hostilities' against Germany.



Ness Battery
03-06-2011, 14:58
Very good point(s).

Some of us up here in Orkney like to refer to the Luftwaffe's attacks on the fleet in Scapa Flow in early 1940 as the First Battle of Britain.

Let's hear it for "The Orkney Barrage"!

03-06-2011, 15:56
My father an RNR seaman, mobilised 3rd Sept.1939, was drafted to HMS Chitral AMC.Present in the screen at Scapa Flo, when the Royal Oak was sunk on the 14th Oct.1939 .Thereafter to the Northern Patrol looking for raiders and blockade runners, in the worst winter in memory then.Picked up the remainder of the survivors of HMS Rawalpindi ,sunk by the Scharnhorst and Gneissnuu on 23rd Nov.1939.Xmas and NY day in the Denmark Strait.
Back in Liverpool,the ship a battered wreck, in early March 1940-some Phoney War:rolleyes:.


04-06-2011, 09:00
Thank you very much for reminding us all of the real war and its terrible cost in lives. This is an area which is overlooked by many, even historians, but it is not unusual to find that events happening outside the immediate vicinity are frequently 'lost in the mist'


04-06-2011, 13:20
Edna- I know that most of us who were children during WW2 knew little or nothing about the war-it was during my last year at Primary School -1943-that our teacher ;a 70yr "dugout", made us kids listen to the 8am news and write up a diary of the previous day's war events-that is when the war was brought home to me.:o

06-06-2011, 10:34
Edna- I know that most of us who were children during WW2 knew little or nothing about the war-it was during my last year at Primary School -1943-that our teacher ;a 70yr "dugout", made us kids listen to the 8am news and write up a diary of the previous day's war events-that is when the war was brought home to me.:o

Our school approach was slightly different; we were encouraged to listen to the 9pm news and mark all the events on a huge world map spread along the inner classroom wall. Combined history, geography and current affairs. Also, living in Portsmouth, many of us had parents and siblings very much engaged in the conflict, but we could not talk about their concerns because 'careless talk costs lives'.

I cannot follow the current conflicts, it is all too painful.


06-06-2011, 10:46
Edna-I must stress that the Primary School I attended, after we were bombed out(no roof) was in a hamlet; where 30 children from the hamlet and nearby farms, were taught in 2 rooms.It was so primitive that slate boards were used by the pupils. We had to listen to the 8am BBC News, because we had to be in school by 8.30am.
This was in Rural Northumberland.:eek:


07-06-2011, 10:00
Jainso - when I was evacuated to my father's home area of Elvetham, near Basingstoke, I went to such a school; Scots headteacher, English primary teacher, 20 junior children, 12 infants. When I returned to senior school in Portsmouth, late 1942, it was almost back to pre-war conditions, so many children had returned from evacuation, and we had some very dedicated teachers. They encouraged us to learn ...............


08-06-2011, 14:56
and here's me thinking that I was the only hick ftrom the sticks-life in the country was idyllic-not a care in the world. However the teaching at that primitive school was thorough; and got me a place in Berwick Grammar School in 1943. From there I never looked back,until last year my brother in law took me back to the hamlet on the R Tweed; and whilst staring at where I used to live (next door to a pub)the landlady came out and asked what I was looking at (a blank space)-I told her who I was; and she invited me in, and to my absolute surprise, I saw and recognised men and women I hadn't seen for 65 years.We had quite a reunion!!!


09-06-2011, 10:57
JS - I doubt I would find many people I knew if I went back, even cousins, but yes, my time with the Scots headteacher got me a scholarship in 1941/2 and the offer of a place at Odiham Grammar School (Mixed) or Highclere Girls' GS (Basingstoke), both Hampshire, but the travelling was too difficult, and I was also offered a place at Portsmouth Northern GS for Girls, evacuated to Winchester, which I could not take up until after the war when they returned to Portsmouth, because I had to stay with my mother who had had a nervous breakdown

The war created some strange situations, yes??


12-06-2011, 09:38
Edna -your education was therefore delayed by three years-just how did you manage to fit in with the Form situation.I was a year late when I went; but was upgraded after one term, which "normalised" the situation for me.


12-06-2011, 11:01
JS = at 14, I joined the 12 year olds and stayed with them. There were ten of us, 13/14, and we were an X Group within our form, having specialist tuition in French and maths. Everything else we stayed in class, and the 12 year olds themselves (year 2) were only just starting Latin so we started with them. It meant I took my Oxford School Cert. with them, but no one was worried, there were no age restrictions, and I was able to stay on into the 6th Form.

I didn't get to college until I was 25, but that is another story!


12-06-2011, 11:18
Snap or nearly- 23-Durham University, King's College,Mining Dept.Newcasle on Tyne.My Uni entry was protracted because of late selection from Mining Technical College, Ashington, Nthld.I was also then an employee of the NCB.


12-06-2011, 11:40
Snap or nearly- 23-Durham University, King's College,Mining Dept.Newcasle on Tyne.Mine was protracted because of late selection from Mining Technical
College, Ashington, Nthld.I was also then an employee of the NCB.


JS - When I was at Nottingham University in 1955/7, we had two guys who had scholarships/secondment from the N.Coal Board, this was probably similar.


13-06-2011, 15:48
Edna- you are absolutely correct-the NCB granted scholarships to men under 25 who were "working" mining students-I was one of three in the county of Northumberland.:)


15-06-2011, 10:20
Edna- you are absolutely correct-the NCB granted scholarships to men under 25 who were "working" mining students-I was one of three in the county of Northumberland.:)


Thanks, JS; unfortunately I cannot remember the names of the two guys who were in our year, but they were from 'the north' - whatever that meant in relation to Nottingham!


08-08-2013, 18:40
Back on thread again
The loss of HMS Courageous and Glorious,the near misses on Ark Royal and Nelson and the sinking of the Konigsberg by FAA Skuas -to name some nail biting times during this Phoney War


tim lewin
11-08-2013, 06:32
My father was posted to HMS Belfast in late August 1939 and they were on patrol immediately after work-up. Before the incident with the mine Belfast stopped and captured the aptly named "Cap Norte" (apt because over christmas 1943 she was awarded a battle honour for her part in the battle of North Cape) Cap Norte was running for home disguised as a Swedish, neutral, merchantman when she was stopped north of scotland by Belfast. Hove-to under Belfast's guns a whaler was sent across to check the ships real identity, the whaler was pulled by a boarding party of matelots armed with cutlasses (so i am told) and midshipman Lewin with his dirk and a revolver. The Captain of Cap Norte was in tearful despair when they came aboard as exactly the same incident had happened to him in the first days of the previous war, i would say he was very lucky!

Does anyone know what fate eventually befell Cap Norte? she was sent home as a prize but then what?

There are two paintings of this incident in HMS Belfast and a small collection of "loot" seized at the time.


tim lewin
11-08-2013, 06:34
Jim, you have probably read it but for those who have not, there is an excellent first hand account of the loss of Courageous in Lamb's book "To war in a string-bag"....

11-08-2013, 08:07
Yes thanks Tim-I do have this book and a jolly good read it is.