Paravanes were developed 1914-1916 by Lieutenant Burney and Commander Usborne as a direct result of the First World War, due to the need to destroy oceanic mines. We have original coloured drawings of the devices, alongside illustrations showing how they were used and our exhibition on engineering and the War has more details about the role of engineering and defence.
The paravane would be strung out and streamed alongside a towing ship, normally from the bow. The wings of the paravane would tend to force the body away from the towing ship, placing a lateral tension on the towing wire. If the tow cable snagged the cable anchoring a mine then the anchoring cable would be cut, allowing the mine to float to the surface where it could be destroyed by gunfire. If the anchor cable would not part, the mine and the paravane would be brought together and the mine would explode harmlessly against the paravane. The cable could then be retrieved and a replacement paravane fitted. The method was still in use in the Second World War.
Burney developed explosive paravanes as an anti-submarine weapon or a ‘high-speed sweep’. It was a paravane, containing 80 pounds (36kg) of TNT towed by an armoured electric cable. The warhead was fired automatically as soon as the submarine touched the paravane or towing cable, or by hand from the ship’s bridge. It could be quickly deployed into the water, could be towed up to 25 knots (29mph), and recovery if unsuccessful was reasonably simple.
Mines were used extensively to defend coastlines, shipping, ports and naval bases across the world. The Germans laid mines in shipping lanes to sink merchant and naval vessels serving the Allies, this meant the destruction of vital supplies such as food as well as the lives of seamen. Indeed, psychologically they were powerful weapons, even if not present they raised the fear that they may be. Technically, mining was limited by treaty to areas within three miles of an enemy’s coastline, so as not to endanger neutral ships. However, both sides quickly came to ignore this agreement, and the North Sea became a place of immense danger. This also impacted the neutral countries of Norway and Sweden, which depended heavily on the North Sea for commerce, as the British North Sea coast and areas around ports in the Low Countries were particularly heavily mined. This meant that ships could not move freely. Methods for clearing were also vital to the Royal Navy whose freedom was being limited; mines severely restricted the free manoeuvring of forces. Paravanes were a new weapon in the battle to secure both military and civilian shipping, part of the reason why small vessels were normally used to drag them was because they were more manoeuvrable than larger boats. As one machine was pitted one against the other it was also a relatively safe way of clearing mines.
Mines were also used by the Allies for example; the Royal Navy and the United States Navy laid a huge minefield from the Orkneys to Norway to combat German submarines: from June to October 1918 almost 70,000 mines were laid spanning the North Sea’s northern exits; after the war it took 82 ships five months to clear them.