The minesweeper 1918 - 1928

The minesweeper
1918 – 1928

Rather surprisingly for a town about as far from the open sea as any in England, two Royal Navy ships have borne the name Leamington.

The first ship to carry the name was a Royal Navy ‘Hunt’ class minesweeper (above) of 700 tons built by the Ardrossan Shipbuilding Co. in North Ayrshire and launched towards the end of the Great War on 26 August 1918.  The vessels in this group were originally named after coastal towns and fishing ports and she entered service as HMS Aldeburgh.  All the ships were soon renamed to prevent any confusion or the misunderstanding of ship-to-shore signals. The Leamington was classed as a minesweeping sloop designed by the Admiralty for clearing open water by cutting through the cables of moored mines.  Her complement was 73 men.  She was de-commmissioned and sold on in May 1928 but our archive holds a postcard of the ship’s football team which is reproduced here.

The football team of the original HMS Leamington photographed in 1923

The football team of the original HMS Leamington photographed in 1923

Miss Lillie Getchell launches USS Twiggs in 1918

Miss Lillie Getchell launches USS Twiggs in 1918

The second ship to carry the name Leamington was actually built at the same time as the first one and she too was launched with a different name and on the other side of the Atlantic. On 28 May 1918 Miss Lillie S Getchell, the grand daughter of a long-dead US Marine Major, Levi Twiggs, officiated at the launch of the USS Twiggs in Camden, New Jersey. The ship had a fairly uneventful life operating out of San Diego, California and was decommissioned several times and consigned to the reserve. The outbreak of the Second World War gave rise to more eventful times for the Twiggs.

By the spring of 1940 Britain was in a rather parlous state and German submarines were effectively crippling the ship-borne trade of goods and materials crossing the Atlantic from North America.Winston Churchill and US President Roosevelt came up with what they hoped would be a solution to the problem. The United States agreed to transfer fifty of their old destroyers to Britain and in return the Americans were to be given long-term access to strategic bases. The so-called ‘destroyers for bases’ agreement saw the Twiggs decommissioned for the last time on 23 October 1940. The twenty-two year old Twiggs was turned over to the Royal Navy and entered service as HMS Leamington, part of the 4th ‘Town’ Flotilla bound for Britain. It was initially agreed that all of the ships were to retain their American names as an act of courtesy.The decision to rename them after towns common to both nations was taken to ease American susceptibilities and it is not unlikely that Winston Churchill may have been the person who made that decisison. After refitting at Devonport the newly-named HMS Leamington joined the 2nd Escort Group, Western Approaches Command based at Londonderry for convoy escort missions in the North Atlantic.

HMS Leamington at sea, 1942

HMS Leamington at sea, 1942

She took part in the sinking of Two German submarines, U-209 off the coast of Greenland on 11 September 1941 and U-587 on 27 March 1942. She formed part of the Iceland – Archangel escort for the ill-fated convoy PQ-17 in May 1942 when the convoy was ordered to scatter when the German battleship Tirpitz was spotted in the vicinity.This instruction proved to be disastrous and of the 34 merchant ships in the convoy 23 were sunk, an event which Winston Churchill later described as ‘one of the most melancholy naval episodes in the entire war’.Towards the end of 1942 Leamington was transferred to the Royal Canadian Navy and operated on convoy escort duties in the North Atlantic through extremely bad weather in the winter of 1942/43.

North Atlantic. Winter 1943. The ice-laden HMS Leamington arrives at St Johns Newfoundland

North Atlantic. Winter 1943.
The ice-laden HMS Leamington arrives at St Johns Newfoundland

After one such escort in January 1943 the ship arrived back at Halifax, Nova Scotia encased in Arctic ice some of which was ten feet thick.

Her service with the Royal Navy came to an end in 1944 when she was one of seven ships loaned to the Russian Navy for its Northern Fleet and she was again renamed, this time the Zguchij (‘Firebrand’). She returned to Britain in 1950 and was subsequently broken up for scrap at Cashmore’s yard in Newport in 1951 but there was to be one last twist in the long history of the old ship before she went to the breaker’s yard. Prior to being broken up she was chartered from the breakers and refurbished to serve as a prop to play the leading role in a British film ’Gift Horse’ starring Trevor Howard and Richard Attenborough being shot in the English Channel. She was renamed for the fourth and last time and became ‘Gift Horse’ for the film which was based on the epic raid of March 1942 when HMS Campbeltown, sister ship of the Leamington rammed and blew up the lock gates at St Nazaire.

HMS Leamington was adopted by the town in 1942 and the ship’s badge now hangs in the council chamber of Leamington Town Hall.

The Ship's Badge, now in the Council Chamber at Leamington Town Hall

The Ship’s Badge, now in the Council Chamber at Leamington Town Hall

Alan Griffin July 2013