A number of neutral ships sunk by German mines close into the English shore marked the opening of another terrible chapter in the history of German frightfulness. But the repetition with whatever novel features of the horrors of 1917 clearly cannot fail to have the most disastrous consequences - for Germany.
Realizing that their submarine campaign against England was not going too well, Germany resorted to the indiscriminate laying of mines in the channels used by ships calling at British ports.
The first victim was the Dutch crack liner "Simon Bolivar," which struck a German mine in the North Sea on November 18th and rapidly sank with the loss of more than 80 lives. "This mining," said an official statement issued from the Admiralty, "is a further example of the utter disregard of international law and the dictates of humanity shown by the present German Government. The mines were laid without any notification in the channel followed by merchant shipping both British and neutral, and there is no doubt, that they were laid for the specific purpose of destroying such shipping."
In accordance with the Hague Convention of 1907, the British Government had publicly notified the position of minefields laid by the British Navy outside territorial waters (see chart below), and since the war began Germany had also given notification of the areas being strewn with German mines. The mines which caused the loss of the "Simon Bolivar" and the number of other victims which speedily followed were laid by German submarines off the British east coast without any notification and in reckless disregard of the consequences.
At first authoritative Nazi circles maintained that the Dutch liner had sunk at a point where no German minefields existed, and that it was impossible for any German mine to have drifted to the point in question. The suggestion was made indeed that it was a British mine that was responsible for the disaster. But not only have no British mines been laid in the particular area why should they be laid in a channel used continuously by British merchant ships and neutral vessels bringing goods to our ports? but any British mines which broke adrift from their moorings, as frequently happened in stormy weather, complied with a further requirement of the Hague Convention that they should thereby automatically be made harmless.
Unfortunately for the Nazi contention, a writer, said to be a naval expert, boasted on November 21st in Field Marshal Goering's, paper, the "Essener National Zeitung" that Germany was "now striking hard blows at shipping right under the English coast" an obvious reference to the sinking of the "Simon Bolivar" and her fellow victims. Moreover, on a German mine captured in the area where sinking’s of neutral vessels had taken place was the inscription in German: "Gott strafe Churchill. When this goes up, up goes Churchill."
In view of the recent Nazi hints concerning a "secret weapon," it seemed clear that the losses were due to a new mine of a magnetic type, i.e. which exploded not on contact, but on the approach of a ship which operated the magnetic installation (consisting in principle of a delicately-balanced magnetized needle) and fired the charge. Most of these mines would be laid by submarine minelayers, but an Admiralty report stated that German aircraft had laid mines at five different localities on the East Coast on the nights of Nov. 20 and Nov. 21.
One seaplane was seen to alight on the sea off the East Coast and remain there for some time as if it were sowing mines or working in conjunction with a U-boat, and people on the shore of the Thames estuary who watched the raiders on the night of November 22, declared that these were flying very low, and that they saw two or three objects fall from one of the machines and make a big splash.
It may be recalled that on the day that the "Simon Bolivar" sank, the captain of the Danish steamer "Canada," which was lost on November 4, was telling a Court of Inquiry in Copenhagen that his ship was sunk by a "magnetic mine." Magnetic mines of a primitive kind were tried out by the Germans in the last war, and it is reasonable to suppose that the Nazis had not forgotten those early experiments.
The resort to indiscriminate sinking’s, indeed, is proof positive of the desperate straits to which Nazi Germany already finds herself. Faced with a deadlock on land, and fearing to take the offensive in the air because of reprisals, only the sea offers a field for what a French writer called the luxury of ruthlessness.