Royal Engineers Corps of Submarine Miners

This discussion appeared on MARHST-L in October, 1999, and the posts are reproduced here courtesy of the authors. Some additional information on the "Royal Corps of Miners" may be found in:


The RE's submarine miners oversaw observation and electro-mechanical minefields. Soon after the Admiralty took over responsibility the decision was taken to abandon controlled minefields for port defence. The assets, of vessels and mine-cases were used variously by the RN. However, in the closing months of 1914, when enemy minelayers remained undetected, this decision was reversed. However, the organisation had been run down and the skills lost. So, past submarine-miners were re-employed - pensioners by this time. They laid the mine defences, initially on the east coast ports and estuaries, including Scapa Flow. Their early results were crude, since they had no clout and little to work with.

A very biased account of this can be found at the National Maritime Museum Greenwich: Captain Lockhart Leith C.M.G., D.S.O., R.N.: History of British Minefields 1914-1918 (undated naval staff monograph). There are also a fair number of original papers at the PRO, dealing with some of this.

The Submarine Mining Service was on the periphery of what I dealing with (a paper primarily on mine-sweeping comparing the pre-war trials and early wartime experience). So, I did not seek out information on individual small vessels and craft transferred from the RE to the RN. There are a great many references on these in the Admiralty indexes to their registry: General class ADM 12, Table of Head and Section 59-8 for appropriate years. I spent a solid three weeks taking these ADM 12 references and drawing the relevant boxes in ADM 1. A soul-destroying process, whilst some of the papers dealing with the major trials were to be found, the 'less-important' information was largely missing. However, some of this had been bound as 'cases' to be found in ADM 116. Another potential source, are the annual reports made by VERNON, to be found in the PRO within ADM 186 (I was concentrating on other aspects when using these particular records.)

However, some of the ADM 12 entries are detailed and give a fair amount of information in their own right. From what I gathered, the transferrence of craft was conducted on a local level. If the army had vessels based around Cornwall, Flag Officer Plymouth's staff dealt with these etc., etc. They also seem to have been 'named', often grandly, but reading through files these were of slight dimensions! All in all, there is a sizeable amount of this correspondence though, frequently with technical detail: as the RN wished to use these for other purposes. Therefore, there is enough information spread through these files to make a start, but I reckon it would be a time-consuming hard slog to make real headway.

Background info on the 1905 decision to abandon controlled mining can be found in Cabinet Office papers: primarily CAB 2... and CAB 3... from the 58th Meeting of the CID 22 NOV 1904 onwards. Reginald Bacon's highly-flawed paper on potential future uses of submarine-boats, which advocated using them in place of minefields for port defence is referenced ADM 1/7725. Getting off the subject, there is also lots of other slightly allied stuff, including Ottley's paper on the Automatic Submarine Mine etc., etc...

From Glen Robert-Grant Hodgins (grhicomm@SRI.LANKA.NET)

There is a three-page appendix (pp. 195-7) in Reg Cooley's The Unknown Fleet: The Army's Civilian Seaman in War and Peace (1993: RN Museum, Portsmouth), entitled "Notes of the Submarine Mining Service". It is sub-titled: Based upon "The History of Submarine Mining in the British Army", by Lt-Col W. Baker-Browne, RE,(1910). The thumbnail sketch presented in this appnedix starts in the 1850s and goes up to 1904. The last para states:

"At the last roll-call of the Submarine Mining Service, 1 April 1904, 5890 officers, NCOs, men and civilians were employed throughout the empire, of which over 2000 were Regulars. The vessels, excluding some launches retained for harbour duties, were valued at 250,000 sterling, 21 of which were transferred to the RN, and 27 to the War Dept Fleet, to meet their new target towing and other commitments. Included in this number was the Haslar, 175 tons, the largest vessel built for this service. She had only been commissioned the previous year, but went on to serve the in the War Dept Fleet for another 46 years, until sold out of service in 1951."

Graham E Watson ( posted the following on the "British Empire and Commonwealth Forces" list ( in December, 2000 - it appears here by permission.

Most engineer companies stationed overseas were termed FORTRESS COMPANIES which meant that they maintained and supported the RGA batteries, but some were termed SUBMARINE MINERS.

I have a list of regular RE companies in 1904, which included the following Submarine Mining Companies:

     4th  Gosport
    21st  Felixstowe
    22nd  Isle of Wight
    27th  Bermuda
    28th  Malta
    30th  Plymouth
    33rd  Cork
    34th  Gravesend
    35th  Pembroke Dock
    40th  Halifax, Nova Scotia
    48th  Victoria, British Columbia

plus The Coast Battalion which had companies at North Shields, Cardiff, Greenock, Paull, Middlesbrough, Broughty Ferry, North Queensferry, Liverpool, Falmouth and Weymouth.

Militia Submarine Miners were stationed at Portsmouth, Needles, Plymouth, Thames, Medway, Harwich, Milford Haven, Plymouth(Western), Humber and Falmouth.

Volunteer Submarine Miners were stationed at Greenock, Leith, Liverpool, Cardiff, Broughty Ferry, Middlesbrough and North Shields.

So it was quite an extensive aspect of RE activity at the beginning of the 20th century.

Andreas von Mach (a.vmach@VMACH.M.ISAR.DE) posted this on MARHST-L in July, 2001:

There is a very good list by the late J.J.Colledge on early miners of the UK Army:
Warships Supplement No.33 Feb 1974 which also lists Miner No.7 built by McLaren, Glasgow in 1878 and sold ca. 1897.

Still not answered is the No. 15 built 1879 and sold 1888.

Moreover he listed without the builder:
GENERAL LEEE of 1891 24
SIR W. HARNESS of 1897 144tons
GENERAL STOTHARD of 1901 220tons
HASLAR of 1903 175 tons

Last Updated: 18 August, 2007.

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