Our troopship could not get right into Tobruk Harbour on the Libyan North African coast, owing to the many sunken ships bombed at jetties, and we had to drop anchor in the quite narrow entrance. The troops destined to be landed there had already gone over the side into lighters to be ferried ashore, and we were on the point of leaving. It was a question of ‘Up anchor’ and then reversing into much deeper water before continuing our journey to Port Said in Egypt.
We still had lots of troops on board, and they would have all tried to watch the ships crew raising the anchor on the forward chain deck. So the big iron doors were closed preventing access, and I was detailed to prevent them passing through and getting in the way of the crew. So with the crew’s bosun I peered over the side at that massive anchor being raised up from the depths.
As it appeared, I could see trapped in its arms a massive black glistening German Sea Mine. The bosun shouted and the winch was turned off, and the mine directly below, swung at sea level, backwards and forwards, so close to the bows of the ship. Below it I could see the connecting chain to the base and the whole lot was now suspended on our anchor chain.
Obviously it had been dropped by a German mine-laying bomber, and on reaching the sea bed, it should have released enough chain for the mine to float just below the surface. Something had gone wrong, and it had only released a few feet of cable. God knows when it had been dropped and how many English ships had passed over it, their keels missing the detonation spikes by inches.
The bosun spoke to the Captain on the bridge by the voice tube, and he and several officers appeared on the wing bridge, looking down at this menace which could so easily have blown the complete bows off the troopship. I heard the tannoy ordering all troops to the rear of the ship, and shortly afterwards a launch arrived containing two naval officers and they studied the mine from a safe distance with binoculars.
Almost immediately our ship went slowly into reverse, trying to wash the mine off with the incoming waves, and the bosun and I watched it in horror as it swung so close to the ship. He had ordered his crew to get to the other side of the iron doors.
Eventually the mine was swept off the anchor, and vanished into the depths. We increased our speed immediately and the bosun said, “Jesus, the old ship has never gone as fast as this backwards.”
He had to report to the Captain after the anchor was secured, and later took his crew and me into his cabin, where he produced some rum, and we all had a swig, and for the first time, I heard the expression which apparently denoted abject fear, “Sixpence – half-Crown,”
“Sixpence – half-crown,” apparently to do with a certain twitching of the body.