German mining of British waters intensifies

The Naval, Military and Air Situation up to 12 noon on 23 November 1939 as reported to the War Cabinet:

Naval Situation

General Notes.

1.The outstanding events during the week under review has been the intensified German mining operation in the Thames Estuary and off the Humber, in which aircraft have played an important part. Enemy mines in these areas have accounted for five British, one French and five neutral merchant ships. As a precautionary measure Harwich, Humber and Thames were temporarily closed to shipping, the Humber and Thames being re-opened on the morning of 23 November to a restricted degree. The Germans are apparently using a magnetic mine which raises new and difficult problems of minesweeping.

2. It in consequence of this illegal use of mines, following on the numerous instances of German disregard of the accepted rules of International Law in their attack on British sea-borne trade, His Majesty’s Government has decided to institute control over German exports as a reprisal.

3. At the commencement of the week the necessary redistribution of British naval forces in Foreign Waters took place consequent on the appearance of the German raider in the Indian Ocean, which was referred to in last week’s Resume.

6. Minelaying by enemy aircraft, using parachutes, was carried out by moonlight on the night of the 20th, 21st and 22nd of November on the East Coast. A number of minor unsuccessful attacks by aircraft on naval vessels in the North Sea have taken place.

8. At the time of going to press an extensive re-disposition of forces in Home Waters was in progress, in conjunction with the air searches, as a result of the sighting of the German battleship Deutschland by H.M.S.Rawalpindi (armed merchant cruiser), between Iceland and The Faroes on the evening of 23 November. Rawalpindi reported she was being chased by the Deutschland. Later reports indicate that Rawalpindi was sunk, and H.M.S. Chitral (armed merchant cruiser) has picked up 10 survivors.

10. H.M.S.Belfast (10,000 ton 6 inch gun cruiser) was damaged by a mine on the morning of 21 November in the Firth of Forth and was subsequently towed to and docked in Rosyth. Damage is said to be extensive. Three ratings were seriously wounded and seventeen slightly wounded.

12. H.M.S.Gypsy (destroyer) was mined at the entrance of Harwich Harbour on the night of 21 November. She was proceeding to sea outside the normal channel as aircraft had been observed to lay mines in the Fairway. She is now beached with her back broken. One officer was seriously wounded and two slightly wounded; 29 ratings are missing presumed killed, 1 rating was badly wounded and 10 slightly wounded.

Foreign Waters.

16. From the interrogation of survivors of the S.S. Africa Shell (reported sunk in last week’s Resume) it is probable that the German raider off the East Coast of Africa is the pocket battleship Admiral Scheer. There are no further confirmed reports of ships sunk by this raider, but one merchant man must be added to the four previously reported as overdue. Directional wireless reports on 17 November gave the position of the raider 500 miles East by South of Durban. Powerful hunting groups are being maintained in the North and South Atlantic and Indian Ocean to cover focal areas of our trade.

26. Four British, two French and eight neutral ships have been sunk by mines. Eight of the ships were mined in the approaches to the Thames.

27. Coastguards reported an unusually heavy explosion near Lowestoft on the morning of the 17th, and another in the evening. Two heavy explosions were reported in the Bristol Channel, south east of Swansea, on the 21st. In the Humber area nine more mines were swept up south of the Humber Light Vessel on 20 November. A mine dropped by aircraft has been removed from the sea off Shoeburyness and is being closely examined.

Military operations

Western front


37. Apart from patrolling by the Germans on the Rhine – Moselle portion of the front, there is little to record.


40. From recent reports it would seem that any former inhabitants of Poland who can choose their place of residence within the old boundaries are faced with a choice of misfortunes. The Russians, professing to bring freedom to the Ukrainians and the White Russians, have killed or deported the landowners, professional men and political leaders, removed most of the food supply and commandeered all the “spare” clothing not actually in wear. Boots can still be bought for £8 a pair. By way of conciliation, the land has been divided to keep give each peasant about 2 hectares; collective farms have not yet been formed; churches are still open; self-government is pretended and the Poles that are left are treated without hostility.

German policy, on the contrary, is founded on hostility. Many Poles have been shot, and whole families exterminated. All Poles and Jews are being driven from the Corridor and the Silesian districts, and all, except peasants from the Lodz area and south of it. Large estates are being divided to provide farms for repatriated Germans. The homeless are left to settle in the devastated area east of Lodz, and Jews, including many from the Reich are to be herded into a small area about Lublin which is unlikely to be able to support them. As in a Russian Poland, food queues are general.

Whereas the Russian attempt to prevent emigration to Romania has not been very successful, the Germans have organised a special core of Ukrainian emigrants, the Sitchovitsi, to prevent the escape of the miserable Poles over the Slovakian border. It is not beyond the bounds of possibility that these Ukrainian malcontents may later be used for subversive activities in Russian Ukraine. In both parts of Poland guerrilla bands, organised by ex-Polish officers, are active in the forest districts, and considerable secret stores of arms are available to sustain their efforts.

Air Situation

German Air Force.

Operations over the North Sea.

47. Enemy coastal aircraft have shown considerable activity over the North Sea, and seaplanes have dropped mines in shallow waters. On the night of 20 November 11 raids of varying size were reported between 6:20 pm and 7:25 pm from Felixstowe and down the coast to Margate, and on the evenings of the 21st and 22nd further raids were reported off the Humber, and Thames Estuary. Fighters sent out to investigate failed to make contact. On the night of 21 November an enemy seaplane was seen to land on the water off the Humber, and appeared to be laying mines; reports of apparent minelaying from the air were also received from Dover, Harwich and Grimsby (where two parachutes were seen to be dropped). An enemy seaplane was picked up by searchlights and shot down by anti-aircraft guns from the Isle of Grain in the Thames Estuary about 10 pm on 22 November.

Fighter operations – Air Defence of Great Britain.

59. During the week under review Fighter Command aircraft carried out a total of 134 patrols. On 20 November a Heinkel 111, which passed over central London and finally flew east to the sea and down the Thames Estuary, was intercepted and engaged by a section from No.74 Squadron. H.M.S. Gypsy later picked up the crew of this aircraft 20 miles E. of Orfordness. On the same day a Blohm and Voss seaplane was attacked 8 miles east of Clacton by a section of No. 56 Squadron. On 21 November a section from No. 79 Squadron engaged a Dornier, off Deal, and the enemy aircraft was seen to spin into the sea off the coast of Calais; the wreckage was salved by H.M.S. Boreas. There were no survivors.

TNA: CAB/66/3/37

HMS Belfast is now a floating museum in central London.

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