Naval History and Heritage Command

Naval History and Heritage Command

The Northern Barrage and Other Mining Activities 

Publication Number 2 

The Historical Section of the Department of the Navy published seven monographs on the U.S. Navy and World War I between 1920 and 1923. The monograph The Northern Mine Barrage and Other Mining Activities was the second in the series and was published in 1920. This 2017 essay from NHHC historian Chris Martin provides an introduction to the monograph as part of the centennial commemoration of World War I. The text of the monograph itself along with a downloadable PDF is available in the Navy Department Library Online Reading Room.

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Rather than a lengthy comprehensive history of the Navy’s actions in World War I, from 1920 to 1923 the Department of the Navy chose to publish seven different histories, each highlighting a separate aspect of the Navy’s participation in the war. Published in 1920, the second monograph focused on the Northern Mine Barrage and other mining activities by the U.S. Navy during World War I.

Based on reports from Rear Admiral Joseph Strauss, who as commander of Mine Force, Atlantic Fleet, directed the laying of the mine barrage in the North Sea and Rear Admiral Ralph Earle, chief of the Bureau of Ordnance during World War I, Publication Number 2 discusses the barrage laid down by the U.S. Navy, and a proposed barrage in the Adriatic. The book also contains a somewhat technical discussion on the design of the Mark VI mine, developed by the U.S. Navy specifically for use in the barrage. It also purports to determine the impact the barrage had on the German submarine force.

Unfortunately, because of its limited source base and its publication less than two full years after the end of the war, Publication Number 2 overstates the significance and effectiveness of the barrage. The barrage was less effective than indicated by Publication Number 2.

According to Publication Number 2, “it appears that a total of six submarines were destroyed in the barrage and possibly an equal number were severely damaged. It is highly probable that subsequent data will show even greater damage to have been done.”[1] According to both German Admiral Reinhard Scheer, chief of the German Naval Staff at the end of World War I, and U-boat force commander Captain Andreas Michelsen, the Northern Mine Barrage was much less effective than the Department of the Navy stated in 1920. Captain Michelsen was dismissive in his appraisal, writing the barrage “was considerably more dangerous to the enemy mine layers and mine sweepers than it was to our submarines.” The Germans officially estimated that only two U-boats were lost in the barrage. Historian Robert Grant concludes that while the barrage wasn’t the weapon that won the war for the Entente, the Germans lost six, perhaps seven, U-boats to the mines.[2]

Publication Number 2 holds lessons for today’s Navy, particularly in the importance of the unity of effort in conducting coalition warfare. In an influential post war essay, General Tasker Bliss, who served as the United States military representative on the Supreme War Council during World War I, argued that “there was no common plan” because “the [Entente] governments apparently had no conception that a war of such magnitude required political as well as military strategy.”[3] The story of the Northern Mine Barrage is perhaps the best example of a lack of unity of effort between the U.S. Navy and Royal navy.

The British not only opposed the American plan for the barrage’s construction, they never wanted to construct the barrage at all. According to the Planning Section of Admiral Sims’s staff in London, “practically every influential British official afloat and ashore was opposed to the barrage.”[4] Historian William N. Still, Jr. concluded that British First Sea Lord Admiral Sir John Jellicoe only agreed to the mine barrage “to pacify the Americans.”[5] The U.S. Navy believed that the barrage would either act as a deterrent and keep German U-boats from venturing out of German waters or destroy any that tried therefore wanted to use both shallow and deep mines in all three of the barrage’s sections. The British viewed the barrage as a “bluff” that would hopefully draw the German High Seas Fleet out into the North Sea and ultimately force a general fleet engagement.[6]

Because it was vital that the barrage be kept as complete as possible, the American plan called for a 24-hour patrol by surface vessels capable of deterring German minesweeping efforts.

British Vice Admiral Sir David Beatty preferred that the barrage be constructed in such a way that U-boats would be forced into narrow unmined lanes that would be patrolled by surface vessels. Because the majority of the barrage would not be patrolled, this strategy called for far fewer surface vessels than the American plan. [7] Eventually, Admiral Beatty’s view prevailed and multiple 10-mile gaps were left in the barrage. This caused Admiral Earle to write to the Chief of Naval Operations, “[the barrage’s] entire character has changed, and because of this, the original faith placed in its effectiveness by the Department is no longer justified.”[8] These and other disagreements between the two allies caused delays throughout the summer and early fall. Because of these delays, the barrage was not complete when World War I ended in November. Perhaps if the two navies had more extensive discussions during the original planning stages in 1917 and come to a formal agreement that unified their efforts, the barrage would have been completed sooner and been more effective.

—Chris Martin, Historian, Naval History and Heritage Command 

[1] Department of the Navy. The Northern Barrage and Other Mining Activities. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1920, 125.

[2] Still, William N. Crisis at Sea: The United States Navy in European Waters in World War I. Gainesville, FL: University of Florida Press, 2006, 443.

[3] Tasker Bliss. “The Evolution of the Unified Command.” Foreign Affairs Vol. 1 No. 2, 15 December 1922, p. 1-2.

[4] Crisis at Sea, 427.

[5] Crisis at Sea, 410.

[6] Department of the Navy. The Northern Barrage and Other Mining Activities, 27.

[7] Crisis at Sea, 432.

[8] Crisis at Sea, 434. 

Published: Thu Aug 31 10:43:17 EDT 2017