muriel j smith 120aCOLTS NECK – Naval Weapons Station Earle, formerly Earle Ammunition Depot, was named for a retired Admiral who was unique, formidable, and a hero of World War I when he served as Chief of the Bureau of Ordnance and earned a reputation as an expert on guns and explosives.

Vice Admiral Ralph W. Earle was born in Worcester Mass. In May 1874, and graduated from the Naval Academy in 1896, the year before America entered the Spanish American War.

He served in that war,  and served on several different ships including the USS Missouri, the second ship of its class named for the Show Me state, showing his heroic stance at the time of a tragic disaster aboard the battleship.

Earle was aboard the  USS Missouri at the time of a disastrous turret explosion in which his actions earned him commendations from the President of the United States Theodore Roosevelt;  later he would receive praise and support  from Assistant Secretary of the Navy who later became President Franklin Roosevelt, fifth cousin to Theodore.

The USS Missouri was commissioned in 1904 and during sea trials off Virginia the following year, had an accident made only less ruinous so by the quick action of Earle and others in the crew. During gunnery training, the port 12-inch gun in the rear turret flared backward at firing and igniting three charges in the turret, starting a fire which took the lives of 36 men. But action by other Sailors and officers presented the fire from spreading to the magazines and saved the ship. Several officers, including Earle, were honored for their quick-thinking actions.

But it was during his term as Chief of the Ordnance Bureau that Earle achieved his greatest accomplishment,  designing and promoting a plan that was rejected at first by all except Navy Assistant Secretary Franklin Roosevelt.  The great North Sea Mine Barrage challenged every other leader who said it was too dangerous and could never be  accomplished. Today, it is regarded as one of the Navy’s greatest achievements during the first World War.

vIce admiral earlePHOTO: Vice Admiral Ralph W. Earle

Earle’s plan was to blockade the route German U-boats took to reach areas they were patrolling in the North Atlantic. It called for laying a mine field in the North Sea with a new type of mine, the Mark VI, which he described in his letter to Chief of Naval Operations Admiral William Benson, as  “having been tested with excellent results.” His idea called for planting 72,000 mines filled with 22 million pounds of molten TNT to create 300 miles of barriers for the U-boats;  keeping another 100,000 for replacements if necessary, and another 25,000 for the US coast, all  at a cost of $40 million. The North Sea emplacement would cover a length of 230 miles  15 to 35 miles wide.   The mines would be built within three months, at 1,000 a day,  at St. Julien’s Creek depot in Virginia, and the entire matter had to be conducted in complete secrecy. . “advance information of such a mine would be of the greatest aid to the enemy in devising means to counteract it,.” Earle told Benson.   Earle also pointed out liners and merchantmen together with destroyers and light cruisers would be necessary to carry out the mission in the short time frame he projected and “the whole barrier should be laid as one operation...”

Its success would mean almost positive destruction of  the U-boats which at this point had sunk more than 800,000 tons of food and supplies  being shipped to England. The German naval leaders were predicting their U-boats’ success was leading to a victory over England since it made it possible for the enemy to sink British vessels faster than they could be replaced.

The Royal Navy was opposed to the Barrage plan, thinking it was impracticable to carry out and could not be effective; Vice Admiral William S. Sims  was also skeptical. Even Navy Secretary Josephus Daniels called the plan, “A stupendous undertaking — perhaps not impossible but to my mind of doubtful practicability.  The North Sea is too rough and will necessitate withdrawing all our ships from other work …”

But Roosevelt, who knew of Earle’s actions during the Missouri incident, was enthusiastic about its success,  and with his support, the plan was finally approved by the Allied Naval Conference in September 1917,. The following month, the mine laying began, and continued for a year in 13 different excursions.

There is no official record of the number of U-Boats that were blown up in the Barrage, what was evident was the large decrease in number of attacks on allied shipping vessels.   The impact on the morale of U-Boat crews was startling however;   many crews simply refused to leave their bases and patrol the North Sea. One US Admiral wrote the mine field created panic among enemy crews in submarine flotillas.  One captured U-boat commander called the mines the “most dreaded” of all Allied anti-submarine measures. 

Although first opposed and doubtful of the success of the mission, in the end,. British Rear Admiral Lewis Clinton-Baker, who  commanded the British force during the operation, described it as “the  biggest mine planting stunt in the world's history."

Earle retired from the Navy in 1925 after more than 30 years in the service. He then served as president of Worcester Polytechnic Institute for 14 years, gaining  a reputation and love of the institute’s students for implementing a five-year plan that led to a swimming pool, a new hall, and other campus improvements, He died following a stroke on Feb. 13, 1939. Two years later, the USS Earle was launched by Boston Navy Yard, and two years later the Colts Neck ammunition base was opened and named for his  association with many ordnance projects and ideas.

Admiral Earle is buried at the Quaker cemetery in Leicester, Mass.  His oldest son,  Ralph, Jr., also graduated from the Naval Academy and also retired as a Vice Admiral. He is buried at the Naval Academy Cemetery in Annapolis, Maryland.