A Scottish Trawler Goes To War

I remember well, some 56 years on, that fine autumn evening of wartime 1945. The celebrations of VE day were in the past, and the capitulation of Japan and consequent demobilisation were unknowingly not far off into the future.

Further to a few hours shore leave, I was returning to my armed trawler LOCH BLAIR, berthed in Aberdeen harbour, when in the failing light I passed a forlorn looking vessel, deserted and tied up in the inner harbour. Although her silhouette was strange to me, something about the shape and rake of her funnel made me stop, and on closer inspection I realised that this was indeed H. M.Trawler CLYTHNESS, my first ship and the one which had been the major factor in my life during the hard fought first three years of the war. Her appearance had certainly changed for the worse since I had left her at Dover in July, 1943. Squat and ugly fuel and water tanks had·been added above decks, her wartime paint was flaking off, and her hull and superstructure were excessively stained with rust.

I knew that CLYTHNESS had been born in this port, long before the outbreak of WW2, had been named after Clyth, a headland on the Caithness coast, and for many years had been involved in her peacetime vocation, steaming over the waters of the North Sea and beyond in search of fish for the home market. She had been manned by her own hardy fishermen from the North East, who would have understood the vernacular which so aptly described her now. She looked "fair forfochan wi' the fray!" And as I stood there, my thoughts straight back to the adventurous years we had shared together

I had been an apprentice architect in Stirling and not long past 19 when I volunteered for the Royal Naval Patrol Service, and further to 3 months training as a Signalman at Skegness, and a quick drafting from Lowestoft, I had joined CLYTHNESS at Hull in March, 1940. She had recently been commissioned, having been converted, like many of her kind, into either A/S or M/S armed trawlers. A 12 pounder gun over the fo'c'sle, two sets of Lewis guns on the bridge platform, and a 20 mm Oerlikon cannon aft formed her main armament, but her specific purpose was to seek out and destroy enemy magnetic mines. The mine was so called because it was detonated by a magnetic needle becoming active when a large metallic mass, i.e. a ship, passed into its field.

(above) HM Trawler Clythness detonating a magnetic mine (painted by the author aboard ship, 1942)

Further to the extremely hazardous dismantling by an R.N. Mine Disposal Unit of the first German magnetic mine to be examined, found on a sandbank of the Thames estuary in November, 1939, British scientists eventually perfected a minesweep which could create a magnetic field, activating the needle in the mine to explode it. They then invented a "degaussing girdle" around a ship, a band of wiring around the hull, energised by an electric current which reversed polarity and neutralised the ship's magnetism. With this system working efficiently, a vessel could pass over a mine without exploding it. Prior to these measures being taken, Hitler had hopes that this type of mine would destroy The British Mercantile Marine, and it was a fact that Captain Langsdorf of the GRAF SPEE had informed one of his prisoners, Captain Dove, Master of the S. S. AFRICAN SHELL that Germany regarded the magnetic mine as the secret weapon which would be decisive in winning the war. Many ships had been lost around the British coast, at that time the mines being dropped by parachute from enemy aircraft into shallow shipping lanes with a paralysing effect. Each mine rested on the sea bed and contained 6 cwt. of high explosive which on detonation in shallow water could literally break the back of a large vessel.. During five days alone in November 1939 fifteen merchant ships and two destroyers were lost, and two destroyers, the cruiser BELFAST and battleship NELSON were badly damaged

Under the command of Lieut. Heckstall-Smith, RNVR, we had steamed out of Hull as strangers to each other and from all walks of life, but with a nucleus of RNR personnel. In a relatively short period of time we had merged into an integrated team, and it was proved to me later in life that it was one of the stranger and perhaps sadder aspects of war, that sharing common hazards and discomforts, along with a justified cause for so doing, engendered a spirit of comradeship and a unified sense of purpose seldom excelled in times of peace. (left) CLYTHNESS crew members, 1940 Ldg. Seaman, Jock Cargill DSM, MM, (dark cap) behind lifebuoy, Frederick J Jenkins top upper right

Our complement of 23 comprised: 2 officers (1 RNVR, 1 RNR), a Petty Officer Coxswain, 2 Engineman Petty Officers, a Signalman, a Telegraphist, a Gunlayer, a Motorman, a Wireman, 8 Seamen, 3 Stokers, a Cook, a Steward.

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Frederick James Jenkins
Nick Clark © 2001