(First published in the March 1991 (No 29) issue of Ton Talk, the magazine of the Ton Class Association, and subsequently in the May 2004 (Vol 92 No 2) issue of the Naval Review)





Swing that lamp, Buffer, grab your tot and pull up a bollard to listen to a tale from a time when ships were ships, men were men, and women were glad of it; a time when every sailor's fingers were marline spikes and the RN and RNR could muster several dozen Ton Class minesweepers and minehunters to take part in annual operations and exercises.


Many visitors to this site will have found themselves in Mine Countermeasures Vessels (MCMVs) during exercises with the wind threatening to blow the sweepdeck crew over the side and the waves hurling the ship to and fro like a matchbox. It is then that the newly calibrated port otter suddenly decides to run rogue. (Swing that lamp again, Buffer!).


Or perhaps you have been minehunting in defence watches for the best part of a fortnight and have only just arrived in a new search area and set up the system. Anyway, all of a sudden, a new tasking signal comes in from the Mine Countermeasures Tasking Authority (MCMTA) telling you to "Stop present task," flog somewhere else to look for mines and, of course, "....New task to follow."


Who were those wise guys back at base? What planet were they on and why didn't they let us get on with the job?


Having been one of those inconsiderate 'wise guys' on several occasions as the Squadron Operations Officer (SOO), I thought I would take a light-hearted look at the workings of the MCMTA during some major exercises and operations of yesteryear. This was back in the dim and distant past when we were able to deploy many MCMVs at once but we were bereft of the instant communications and computer gadgetry available today. Those of you who were intimately involved in such activities in the 'good' old days will, I hope, forgive me and perhaps recognise some of the aspects I describe. For others, it will be something new, though before their time if you see what I mean.




First of all, what is the MCMTA? Perhaps the question should be, "Who is the MCMTA?" because it is actually a person, normally an MCM Squadron Commander, who is given Tactical Command and/or Control of what should be a balanced force of MCM capable platforms, Clearance Divers (CDs) and support assets in order to achieve his given mission in a particular area. He is helped and advised by a staff of RN, and often RNR, personnel who try to keep the show on the road despite new directives from above, shifting priorities and sudden changes in the situation or the 'Big Picture' as it is known.




The MCMTA tries to locate his MCM Headquarters (MCMHQ) as close to the scene of action as possible. In the old days, this could have been in a Maritime Headquarters (MHQ) (such as MHQ Pitreavie near Rosyth in Scotland or MHQ Mount Wise at Devonport in the West Country) but it was more likely to be in a Portakabin or caravan on a draughty jetty in an isolated coastal port, or afloat in a Ship Taken Up From Trade (STUFT) or a hydrographic survey ship.


HMS ABDIEL, the Exercise Minelayer and MCM Command ship, provided such a platform. MCMVs lack the necessary facilities, communications and room to perform this function adequately. If possible, a Forward Support Unit (FSU) or Craft Support Unit (CSU) was co-located with the MCMTA so that Command, Control, Communications and Support could all be coordinated more efficiently. I was forever impressed by the overnight dockside transformation of tiny fishing ports into bustling naval bases with their own electrical power, transport, offices, maintenance facilities, naval stores, canteen, craneage, fuel and water.




Having seen all types of MCMHQ locations including HMS ABDIEL at anchor in windswept Scottish lochs, Portakabins and Command caravans on various jetties around the coast, most of the MHQs in the UK and Europe to more recently (in 1988 and 1991), the survey vessel HMS HERALD in the Gulf, I speak from experience** when I say the most important asset for the MCMTA is.... the coffee boat!


The coffee boat must be able to operate in all weathers and have good logistic support so as to maintain a steady stream of liquid refreshment. This is particularly important at 0300 when a new directive comes in from on high requiring a change of all tasking because a HVU (High Value Unit) is sailing unexpectedly at 1200 through an area that has not been checked within the previous 24 hours.


The second most important element in the MCMHQ is a secure stowage for all the Confidential Books, classified signals, secure-speech equipment and bulk stocks of coffee and biscuits. Make sure the combination to this stowage is written on a scrap of paper and pinned to the notice board in case anyone has carelessly locked the stowage when you need a cup of coffee at 0300 as a new directive comes in .... etc, etc. A small investment in the classified ads sections of the local paper to show this combination for the duration of the exercise will pay dividends by providing a daily reminder in case the scrap of paper goes astray.


The third most important item is the muster book for items held in the secure stowage. Unless the Duty Staff MCM Officer musters the contents religiously at the end of the watch, you will not know when to replenish stocks of coffee, milk and sugar and will have none to revive your brain at 0300 when a new directive comes in ....etc, etc.


The fourth most important item in the MCMHQ is the MCMV Activity Stateboard. This displays the progress of MCMVs on task and is meant to show MCMV Commanding Officers who are foolhardy enough to enter the MCMHQ that:

a. Things are not as bad as they seem.

b. Things could be worse than they are and probably will be.

c. Stand-off? Just who do you think you are?

d. If you think you've had it bad, just look at the other guys still out there!

The fifth most important item is the telephone/bleeper number of the SOO's digs written in chinagraph pencil on a scrap of paper pinned to the notice board alongside the safe combination. This will ensure that he can be called when a new directive comes in.... etc, etc.


The sixth most important item is the MCMV Stateboard which, when written up to date, will show 'that the closest ship to the new task area is minus the type of store/machinery part required to conduct the task and is two days overdue its standoff. Never mind because a helo can deliver the store anyway and it's a good opportunity for the ship to establish a new record of 36 days on task continuously as long as the weather holds out. Incidentally, has anyone seen the new cutters that were demanded just after STARTEX?


The seventh critical item is the General Operations Plot (GOP) that is used as a coffee table but has the secondary purpose of showing the dispositions of all forces, positions of mines found and the clearance state of routes within the MCMTA's Tasking Area before everything changed at 0300 when a new directive came in ....etc, etc.


Eighth comes the primitive computer (a plastic-screened Wang 2088 using 8" floppy disks) that was used for playing BATTLESHIPS and STAR TREK during quiet hours but was also used to plan MCM tasking and evaluate the results of MCM effort achieved. This was the beast on which the SOO and Staff CPO(MW) spent many hours crunching numbers gleaned from MCMSITREPS to make sense of tasks, many of which had been aborted midway because other tasks with higher priorities had suddenly arisen at 0300 when a new directive came in....etc, etc.


Perhaps at this point, I should mention the narrative in which the Duty MCM Staff Officer was meant to record significant factual events, signals and activities in chronological order showing the reasons why certain tactical decisions were made by the Command. We didn't worry about this too much because a much more interesting version could be created in the pub at ENDEX when people had more time to apply their minds to it; unlike 0300 when the world turns upside down and you are too busy trying to contact the SOO while wondering whether to sail the RNR Minesweeper (Fleet) (MSF) or the only available TON to go on task.




Luckily, a single page of a MCM Exercise Narrative from the 1970s survives in my archives.  It is reproduced below:







Watch change complete. Lt A B See RNR on watch as Duty MCM Staff Officer. 

Coffee boat mustered and correct.


Make first cup of coffee.

Milk and 2 sugars.


Telephone call from local police regarding person found in possession of pub sign while wandering in High Street. Person incoherent but states he is from 'A' TON. Local police at town of 'A' TON deny all knowledge of him. Could he be from one of our ships?

OOD (Officer of the Day) of HMS 'A'TON informed.


Secure-speech phone call from Sub Area HQ. Complaint received from two fishermen regarding minesweepers damaging nets. Do we have ships operating in the area?

Confirm that ships are tasked in area but point out that Notice to Mariners and Notice to Fishermen have been promulgated and local Sea Fishery Committee was consulted and briefed before exercise.


Priority OPDEF [Operational Defect] signal received from HMS 'B'TON. Off task for sweep winch repairs. ESDUR [Estimated Duration] 6 hours.

Update stateboards. Consider re-tasking HMS 'C'TON to assist with task tomorrow.


Lorry arrives from airport with vital spares. Can we supply help to offload?

Inform Duty FSU Rate.


Local policeman arrives with master of merchant ship who has information about possible mining activity.

Offer cup of coffee and debrief Master on intelligence gleaned. Area covered by present ops therefore no new tasking required.


Priority signal received from HMS 'D'TON stating she is off task owing to weather and is sheltering overnight. Estimated completion of task delayed at least 8 hours.

Update stateboards. Consider bringing her in early for stand-off but, as her area has priority, it is best she tries again in morning. Draft signal informing her of intentions.


Make another cup of coffee.

Only one sugar because stocks running low.


Start drafting Helo Delivery Service (HDS) signal for next day.

Hope ships will be at 5 mins notice for Flying Operations in accordance with Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) - unlike yesterday.


Routine signal received ref future visit of Area Flag Officer and two accompanying Captains.  Can they be taken around MCMVs working at sea and view shoreside facilities during the exercise? Secondary party of 15 NATO observers want same facilities on following day.  Please advise programme with details of accommodation and transport by 1200z.

Show to SOO in morning. Make his day!


Secure-speech phone call received from Sub Area HQ. Exercise mine has been found floating off oil refinery. Is it one of ours? Also, where is HMS 'B'TON because a member of her ship's company has been recommended for compassionate leave owing to a family bereavement?

Give necessary advice and alert CD Team and appropriate authorities.


LOGREQ [Logistics Requirements] signal received from HMS 'E'TON due alongside at 0700. She wants assorted fresh salads, 40 lbs of frozen marzipan, 2 jars of Gentlemens' Relish and 5 boxes of Christmas crackers waiting on the jetty on arrival.

Pass to Duty FSU Rating. This should test the POSA's resources, not to mention the only general store in town doesn't open until 0900 anyway...and it's a Sunday. What happened to the 48 hours notice stipulated for LOGREQ requirements?


Duty FSU Rating reported one of the site sentries saw suspicious movement by the portable generators. After giving a warning, he identified it as a prowling pussycat just as he was about to open fire.

Remember to tell galley staff in morning not to feed local moggies.


Telephone complaint received via Coastguard that HMS 'E'TON failed to acknowledge marks of respect paid by yacht dipping ensign in salute. Yacht passed 100 yards from her as she was minesweeping.

Make pacifying noises but point out that yacht should not have approached so close to vessel displaying 3 black balls at masthead indicating she was engaged in MCM Ops.


Immediate signal received from Sub Area Commander requiring lead-through for convoy arriving Point BRAVO at 1330z. Names of lead-through vessels and leadthrough details to be signalled to Operational Control Authority copied to the Convoy Commodore by 0730z.

Ring SOO with good news and put kettle on.


Unfortunately, this is the only page that survives in my archives but it gives a flavour of activity in the MCMHQ during a typical night watch in those days of yore.  And that's before any mines were found.  (Incidentally, what is a 'yore'?)




There have been many advances in MCM Command and Control in recent years with computers coming more to the fore and best use being made of available assets. The next stage will include the ability to provide on-line tasking and reporting for MCMVs where route survey Sonar and AIO information is provided directly to and from their weapons systems. This is already happening to some extent in the case of the SANDOWN Class of minehunters. Fast secure tactical communications and more precise navigation systems are also the norm nowadays.


The legacy of the TON Class ships that led MCM in their time has been passed on to the new generation of MCMVs and their Tasking Authorities.




* ETOTITL was a watchword for a particular Captain Mine Countermeasures (CMCM) and stood for 'Effective Time on Task in the Lap'. This particular CMCM's other favourite catchphrase was 'Happiness is an empty jetty'.


** Although the author served on the staff of Flag Officer Plymouth and as SOO to MCM3 a few years back, all references to ships and events are entirely fictitious and should not be held against him.


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