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The Oxford Encyclopedia of Maritime History

David K. Brown


Though there was some use of shore-controlled mines in the war between Prussia and Denmark, the first use of independent mines was by Russia in the Crimean War in 1855. Though some damage was caused by these mines, it was slight because the size of the charge was so small. The British Royal Navy successfully improvised sweeping, using grapnels from rowing boats. Mines were used in considerable numbers during the American Civil War (1861–1865), but there does not seem to have been any effective sweeping. During the latter years of the nineteenth century, the Royal Navy carried out exercises in which old torpedo boats were used as sweepers.

The severe losses caused by mines in the Russo-Japanese war (1904–1905) led to greater efforts in mine countermeasures. By 1908 some elderly torpedo gunboats were operating as sweepers: pairs of ships would tow a cutting wire between them. The following year, four trawlers were purchased by the Admiralty and a reserve was set up of trawlermen trained in minesweeping. By 1913 it was claimed that there was equipment and crews for 82 trawler conversions if war broke out. These measures were to prove adequate, though the number of ships required was very great. Several classes of specialist minesweepers were built, including some with paddle propulsion. In the last year of World War I several types of mine were introduced for which there was no available sweeping method. From early 1918 the Royal Navy laid numbers of ground mines that would be actuated by the magnetic field of ships passing overhead. Perhaps fortunately, they were unreliable and most self-destructed. Faults corrected, they were used in the Baltic in 1919. A mine actuator working on the noise of a passing ship had been made in numbers and was about to be laid. The U.S. Navy with some Royal Navy help laid about 70,000 mines in the North Sea in 1918 and those surviving the weather had to be swept. Most of these were antenna mines in which the electrode potential of a steel ship was used to create a firing circuit. To protect the sweepers, their potential was reversed.

There were few developments between the two World Wars, though most navies built a few specialist sweepers and developed prototype conversions. In 1939 the German magnetic mine caused problems at first, but once one was recovered, measures were quickly devised to protect ships and also to destroy the mine. The history of the acoustic mine followed a similar pattern in 1940, though mines requiring a simultaneous acoustic and magnetic signal were difficult. In 1944 the Germans introduced the pressure mine, and no successful method of sweeping has been found. Both sides developed special mines to take out the enemy’s sweepers.

During the Cold War, the Soviet Union built up very large stocks of effective mines that could be laid by aircraft, submarines, and surface vessels—the possibility of clandestine lays before the war started was of concern. Large numbers of wooden minesweepers were built by most navies. Great attention was paid to making them quiet and nonmagnetic; later ships were built of glass-reinforced plastic. As mines became more difficult to sweep, attention moved to mine hunting, in which the mine, usually resting on the bottom, was detected with high-frequency sonar and then identified using a TV in a remote-controlled fish that could place a demolition charge on the mine. This technique proved successful in 1991 when the Iraqis laid a large number of mines in the Persian Gulf, some of them very clever. An Allied force of mine hunters cleared them very quickly and without loss.

[See also Warships, subentry on Modern Warships, and Wars, Maritime, subentry on World Wars.]


Brown, David K. The Grand Fleet: Warship Design and Development, 1906–1922. London: Chatham, 1999.Find this resource:

    Brown, David K. Nelson to Vanguard: Warship Design and Development, 1923–1945. London: Chatham, 2000.Find this resource:

      Brown, David K., and Moore, George. Rebuilding the Royal Navy: Warship Design since 1945. London: Chatham, 2003.Find this resource:

        Brown, David K., ed. The Design and Construction of British Warships 1939–1945.Vol. 2, Submarines, Escorts, and Coastal Forces. London: Conway Maritime Press, 1996.Find this resource:

          Cowie, J. S. Mines, Minelayers, and Minelaying. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1949. Rare but a classic.Find this resource:

            Elliot, Peter. Allied Minesweeping in World War 2. Cambridge, U.K.: Patrick Stevens, 1949.Find this resource:

              Taffrail [Captain Taprell Dorling]. Swept Channels: Being an Account of the Work of Mine Sweepers in the Great War. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1935.Find this resource:

                U.S. Navy, Office of Naval Records. The Northern Barrage (Taking Up the Mines). Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1920.Find this resource:

                  David K. Brown

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