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The Clock and Music-box Centre

Air Commodore John Chaplin's Grandfather clock

October 03, 2014 << Back

Air Commodore John Chaplin, who died aged 91 in 2002, was the first to undertake the perilous task of detecting and destroying powerful German magnetic sea mines in the Second World War.

When, in late 1939 and early 1940. magnetic mines began to present a new and unexpected menace to shipping in the Thames Estuary and Strait of Dover, Chaplin developed and led a specialised unit to counter the threat.

Winston Churchill, while First Lord of the Admiralty, had been alarmed by the mining of the main channels leading to the Port of London, and had urged Vickers to convert several Wellington bombers into flying minesweepers. As Chaplin awaited the first such aircraft, Dr Barnes Wallis (who later developed the bouncing bomb) helped to supervise the suspension of a massive "hoop", 24 ft in diameter, below the wings and fuselage; a generator, coupled to a Ford V8 car engine, supplied current to a magnetic coil in the hoop, creating a magnetic field which would explode any mines.

Recognising the dangers of blowing up a mine while flying as low as 35 ft above the sea, and sometimes even lower than that, Wallis assisted Chaplin in calculating the speed required to escape the effects of each explosion.

In the early stages of operations the crew nearly came to grief several times. On January 13th 1940, flying low over the North Goodwins, Chaplin was momentarily knocked out when a mine blew open a hatch under the Wellingtons nose, as well as another hatch under the cockpit and the dorsal exit cover.

From February 10, Chaplin led three Wellingtons from Manston on the Kent coast on sweeps in search of mines as further aircraft were ordered. For this vital work he received a congratulatory telegram from Churchill, and was awarded a DFC.

Following his minesweeping exploits, Chaplin was ordered to Egypt, amid fears that magnetic mines would menace the Suez Canal and the approaches to Alexandria. In June 1941 he was posted to command the RAF station in Gaza, in Palestine, where he was responsible for training some 2,000 Greek airmen. Desertion had been rife, but Chaplin restored morale and was awarded the Greek Air Force Cross by the King of the Hellenes.

Posted in October 1941 to command No 38, a Wellington bomber squadron in the desert at Shallufa, he masterminded the squadron's conversion for torpedo operations and led it in daring attacks on ships supplying the enemy in North Africa.

The following March Chaplin was shot down in flames over the Western Desert by a pair of Me 109 fighters. Although he was wounded and his second pilot killed, he made an emergency landing and managed to crawl from his burning aircraft.

In April 1942 he resumed command of No 38 squadron. On the night of June 3/4 he led a force of seven Wellington torpedo-bombers over the central Mediterranean to attack a 30,000 ton enemy merchant vessel escorted by three destroyers. In the face of an intense anti-aircraft barrage from the target ship and it's escort, Chaplin pressed home his attack at close range and sank the ship. He was awarded an immediate DSO.

After the war he joined the diplomatic service.

He finally retired in 1990, at the age of 79.

He married Simone Lorphevre in 1949; she died in 2000. They had two sons and three daughters.