BIG READ: One tiny slip meant instant death for brave Portsmouth mine team

The mine our heroes gutted of its fiendish mechanisms is now displayed in HMS Belfast.
The mine our heroes gutted of its fiendish mechanisms is now displayed in HMS Belfast.
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In autumn 1939, Winston Churchill faced his first major crisis in what became known as the ‘phoney war’ when Hitler’s secret underwater weapon took a massive toll of Royal Navy and Merchant Navy ships. But for the conspicuous gallantry of a Fareham Royal Navy officer and his elite team, Churchill said the losses could have been the ‘compass of our ruin’. Former News defence correspondent TIM KING reports

The children called it the ‘Dwarfs’ House’, a perfect miniature brick-built cottage with cardboard cut-out figures of Snow White and the seven little men.

Commander John Ouvry DSO RN

Commander John Ouvry DSO RN

After nearly 80 years, it still stands in the award-winning garden of former Fareham solicitor Ian Gray and his wife, Ann, at Somerfields, Peak Drive. Scores of visitors admire it during the Grays’ annual charity open days.

Yet they are unaware that it shrouds a tale of cold-blooded Second World War heroism that earned the King’s personal tribute and led directly to the institution of the George Cross...

It was 03.03 hours on November 22, 1939, and loud thumping on the door by the local constable woke the Somerfields’ household.

He’d been sent to summon Lieutenant Commander John Ouvry to an emergency that hours later led to a windswept, muddy beach 127 miles away from the spacious home built for him and his wife, Lorna, by local builder JNO Croad the previous year.

King George VI went to HMS Vernon personally to congratulate and decorate Lt Cmdr Ouvry and his team for their heroism ' the first naval medals of the war

King George VI went to HMS Vernon personally to congratulate and decorate Lt Cmdr Ouvry and his team for their heroism ' the first naval medals of the war

Britain had been at war with Nazi Germany since September 3 and the enemy wasted no time laying mines along the east coast and Thames estuary, bringing mayhem to our inshore waters.

The Navy had already lost two destroyers, the cruiser HMS Belfast was put out of action for a year and at least 24 merchantmen bringing vital supplies had been sunk.

The situation was critical because it quickly became obvious that some sort of influence mine – acoustic or magnetic as opposed to the horned contact variety – had been developed.

The navy was desperate to get its hands on one and the opportunity came by chance when a machine-gun crew opened fire on a German seaplane on that rainswept night off Southend Pier.

Ann and Ian Gray with the restored Dwarfs' House that holds so many memories

Ann and Ian Gray with the restored Dwarfs' House that holds so many memories

The pilot, off course and probably fearful he would be hit, jettisoned the parachute mines he should have laid in deep water. Instead, they plummeted into the mud near Shoeburyness in Essex.

Hitler’s secret weapon was about to be exposed and Commander Ouvry (he was promoted in 1941) was making an appointment with destiny that was to save countless Allied lives and hundreds of thousands of tons of shipping.

Ouvry and his expert team from the torpedo and mining base at HMS Vernon in Portsmouth – where Gunwharf Quays now stands – made elaborate preparations to tackle the first of the menacing 7ft cylindrical objects protruding from the mud.

The team had split into pairs, with John Ouvry and Chief Petty Officer Charles Baldwin first to go into action, relaying every move back to the others, Lieutenant Commander Roger Lewis and Able Seaman Archie Vearncombe.

Damaged: Cruiser HMS Belfast

Damaged: Cruiser HMS Belfast

Their act of outstanding valour, played out over two heart-stopping hours with instant death the price of the minutest slip, makes spine-chilling reading.

Apart from removing everything metallic from their clothes and getting special non-magnetic tools made in Vernon, they went into it blind.

They had no idea how the mine was armed, but first had to risk turning it over to reach the hydrostatic valve.

Ouvry removed two primers each with its own detonator, then a delayed-action arming fuse and an electro-magnetic fuse designed to fire when a metal ship’s hull passed above it.

At 1600 that day their incredible ordeal was over and the mine – today appropriately displayed on board HMS Belfast in the Thames – was loaded on to a lorry and despatched to Vernon where Admiralty scientists quickly worked out counter measures.

Ships were fitted with electric cables to counteract the magnetism and minesweepers towed cables astern through which current was passed to detonate the magnetic mines from a safe distance.

Blown up: Minesweeper HMS Mastiff

Blown up: Minesweeper HMS Mastiff

The boost to morale and Britain’s war effort was instantly recognised at a Board of Admiralty meeting the same evening, with First Lord and soon-to-be wartime prime minister Winston Churchill unstinting in his admiration.

Two days later, Lt Cmdr Lewis, CPO Baldwin and AB Vearncombe returned to the beach and by 07.00 on November 26 they had rendered the second mine harmless.

But John Ouvry’s heroism came a few days too late for the crew of the minesweeper HMS Mastiff.

Jeremy Ouvry, of Sleepers Hill, Winchester, says: ‘My father, Lt-Cdr Arthur Ouvry, was John’s cousin and on November 18, 1939, was commanding the minesweeper HMS Mastiff which had been ordered to trawl in the Thames estuary in the hope of dredging up one of the secret weapons.

‘Six ships succumbed one after the other and Mastiff, working with Vernon Mine Recovery Flotilla, was blown up and my father hurled into the sea.’

Six of Mastiff’s company were killed, nine wounded.

Back home in Fareham, Lorna stoically resigned herself to the fearful waiting that accompanied every mission that would last for most of the next five-and-a-half years.

Elder sons Robin and Philip – two more boys David and Geoffrey arrived after the war – were blissfully unaware of their father’s duties and were more excited collecting pieces of shrapnel.

Robin died last year aged 86, but Philip, 82, who lives in France and followed his father into the Royal Navy, recalls: ‘As a nine-year-old boy in 1944 I was out in the garden early one morning when our elderly gardener and I were machine-gunned by a Messerschmitt 109.

‘The gardener disappeared rapidly down the dug-out shelter, but I excitedly rushed off to tell my mother before trying to dig out the bullets from the pathway. Was I frightened? No!

‘During the war when dad came home in the evening my main concern was if he could come out and bowl to me on our improvised cricket pitch.’

He believed two other incidents may have been caused by V1 ‘Doodlebugs’.

‘In late 1944 or early 1945, I remember going to Stubbington post office; two days later there was nothing but a heap of dust where the post office used to be.

‘On another occasion an elderly couple having dinner in their home at Triangle Lane, near Titchfield, heard a loud bang. When they opened the door they discovered one side of the house, including the kitchen, had disappeared.

‘The Dwarfs’ House at the end of the orchard, charming as it was from the outside, was essentially a play room with a table tennis table, though a bit cramped. There was a small fireplace but the fire was rarely lit. There was no electricity so it was cold in winter.’

The Ouvry family moved from Somerfields to Milford-on-Sea in 1958 and the brothers never revisited Somerfields as a group, but in August 2015, Ian and Ann Gray invited Philip and his daughter, Christine.

Philip says: ‘Although the vegetable garden and orchard had disappeared, the Grays had preserved the atmosphere of our old home and I felt that we could move back there hardly noticing any change. And they had moved the Dwarfs’ House.’

It survived the Great Storm in 1987 when a tree fell on it, smashing the roof.

Ian Gray says: ‘The insurers couldn’t believe it when we claimed for a Wendy House (as they called it), but they eventually paid up and the settlement enabled us to add a small extension.’

When they decided to sell the orchard to a builder, there was no way the historic Dwarfs’ House was going to be demolished, so they got workmen to dismantle it, carry it across the garden and rebuild it.

The floor that had been trampled by Henry, one of the Grays’ pet donkeys, was relaid; it now has electricity and is still a venue for children’s and grown-up parties.

The Grays met Commander Ouvry, who had stayed an honorary member of Fareham Rotary Club after moving away.

Ian says: ‘He came back to the house for tea. What a lovely, very unassuming man. He didn’t talk about what he did in the war.’

Commander Ouvry did not qualify for the Victoria Cross because his bravery had not been directly in the face of the enemy, but within months of pinning the Distinguished Service Order on his uniform at HMS Vernon on December 21, the King instituted the George Cross.

Ten George Cross medals were subsequently awarded to officers who served in Vernon’s Mining Department during the war.

Commander Ouvry was urged to exchange his DSO for a GC, but he wouldn’t hear of it.

Ian Gray adds: ‘He said he was sorry he couldn’t accept it as he didn’t think it was appropriate.’

Such modesty sums up John Ouvry’s self-deprecating assessment that he was ‘not pretty, intelligent or brave, just blessed with steady nerves and strong hands’.

A JUTLAND VETERAN

John Garnault Delahaize Ouvry was born in Lymington in 1896 and entered the Royal Navy as a cadet aged 12.

He served in HMS Tiger at the Battles of Dogger Bank and Jutland in 1916 and was the youngest mining officer in the fleet.

Appointed to HMS Vernon in 1932, he spent the rest of his career there, retiring in 1946.

From 1946–52 his main preoccupation was the restoration of St Columba’s Church at Catisfield.

He was recalled to the Royal Navy from 1952-54 for bookwriting purposes, then he was selected to be a Fareham magistrate.

He still cycled aged 95, surviving a collision with a car near his home at Sway in the New Forest where he died in February 1993.

•Imperial War Museum recorded an interview with Commander Ouvry whose factual, unpretentious yet riveting accounts of Jutland and the dismantling of the magnetic mine can be heard by going to: iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/80009050.

PROJECT VERNON MONUMENT FUND IS ON COURSE TO REACH £325,000 TARGET

A Royal Navy clearance diver places an explosive charge on a moored contact mine which is fouled on a wreck on the seabed...

It’s an artist’s impression of what the Vernon Mine Warfare and Diving Monument will look like when it’s mounted in the pool at Gunwharf Quays, where HMS Vernon once stood.

The 14-ton stone, bronze and steel structure, created by renowned sculptor Les Johnson, is designed as a tribute to Vernon’s heritage and all personnel who served there, and those who will carry it on.

The target to build and mount the monument is £325,000 and, thanks to a boost from Prince Harry (Commodore-in-Chief Small Ships and Diving) who attended a fund-rasing reception at Trinity House in July, it has now reached £260,000.

It is a registered charity.

To contribute go to: vernon-monument.org

Workers start dismantling the Dwarfs' House

Workers start dismantling the Dwarfs' House

Artist's impression of the  Vernon Mine Warfare and Diving Monument

Artist's impression of the Vernon Mine Warfare and Diving Monument