How South Shields men played their part in this wartime tale

German U-Bpats heading out to sea.
German U-Bpats heading out to sea.

Fishing crews, here as elsewhere, have long been aware of the risks they face when leaving port.

This was particularly true during wartime (both the First and Second World Wars) when they not only faced the wrath of the sea, but also the deadly threat posed by German vessels – both above and below water.

In her latest work, historian Dorothy Ramser, recalls the plight of North East fishermen during the 1914-18 conflict.

At the end of December 1914, having shelled Hartlepool (with the loss of 122 civilian lives and 443 casualties), Scarborough (where 18 died) and Whitby (when seven people died), the German navy turned its attention to local trawlers, attacking and sinking them.

Dorothy tells how fishing crews up and down the North East coast suffered at the hands of the enemy’s U-Boats.

And part of her research uncovered a remarkable tale involving men from both South and North Shields.

At the time, trawler crews along the North East coast were being targeted by the enemy, as Dorothy explains.

“Three North Shields trawlers, the Jason, Gloxinia and the Nellie were all sunk by the German submarine U10 on April 2, 1915.

“They had been fishing peacefully 40 miles off South Shields harbour, when the submarine was seen by the Jason. The Germans made a series of signals to the trawler which the crew failed to understand. However, they did understand the vicious shots across the bows and realised they were its target.

“The U-Boat came alongside and the unarmed crew was ordered onto the enemy submarine after which the Germans placed a time bomb on the fishing boat which sank not long after.

“As the raider approached the Gloxinia the crew of the Jason were standing on the deck of U10 and watched in dismay as the crew and trawler met the same fate.

“The Nellie was then pursued by the submarine which was flying the British Ensign taken from the Jason or Gloxinia, and mercilessly attacked, with the crew being cast adrift in a small boat.

“Fortunately, they were picked up, although totally exhausted, later that night. The other fishermen were held by the enemy on board the U-Boat for an hour and a half.

“There was a German crew of 15, all of whom spoke English, who, the fishermen said later, appeared to considerably enjoy the helplessness of their defenceless victims.”

On April 15, the Shields Gazette reported that the crew of the South Shields fishing boat, the Grecian Prince, returned to port with “an exciting story of their experience with a zeppelin raided the North East coast”.

“The men had been fishing 35 miles north by east of the Tyne” said Dorothy, “when they saw a zeppelin coming slowly towards them.

“It was 400ft long and came as low as 150ft and astonishingly, they could make out some of the men on board and even three of them walking about on the platform.

“The zeppelin, the Z9, passed completely over the Grecian Prince and another South Shields trawler, the Rhodesia. The men of both trawlers were much relieved when they saw this huge machine fly away from them. Its course was west-south-west which took it to the Tyne.

“By 7pm the Z9 had reached the mouth of the Tyne and dropped its first bomb West Sleekburn, while 30 more followed.

“A woman and child in South Shields were found injured by one of its shells. From Shields, it flew to Blyth, dropping bombs indiscriminately.”

As the months went by, so the number of attacks increased. But, as mentioned earlier, one in particular was unusual in its outcome.

It involved the nine-man crew of the trawler St George which was reported missing, presumed lost, on April 28.

For two months nothing more was heard of her - until the wife of one of the crew, Joseph Laws, of Bowman Street, South Shields, received a postcard from him, postmarked Berlin.

Shortly afterwards, three more letters were delivered to crew members’ homes (including one from the captain, Mr William Hastie), stating that they were being held as prisoners of war.

“Mr Hastie asked his wife to send some biscuits, a pair of boots and a pair of socks, adding ‘Don’t forget a half a pound of pressed tobacco’.

“He wrote that the weather was very hot but he was alright and wanted his wife to write to him every week at Ruhleben civilian prisoners camp, not far from Berlin. “The day after, Mrs Roberts heard from her husband Henry, while the wife of John Sutherland, the Chief Engineer also heard from her husband.

“Following news of the crews whereabouts, a letter from L. Grace, Lady Superintendent of the Fishermen’s Institute, Union Quay, North Shields, appeared in the Shields Gazette on July 5.

“It read: ‘Sir, most of your readers will be aware of and rejoice in, the good news that the crew of the St George, whom we had given up for lost, are safe, though prisoners of war in Germany.

“‘The wives and families, deprived of their breadwinners, will have all they can do to make their way, not being in the position of those in Government employ, with pay still going in.

“If friends will supply the means, I will undertake to send each man a parcel regularly of food and clothing.

“They will need shirts, socks etc. now and later on. Warm underclothing, tea, biscuits, cocoa, tobacco etc. will be welcome and I shall be glad to acknowledge gifts of money.’”

Though the men were safe, the conditions in the POW camp were atrocious, with “seven cases of lunacy” being reported there in just one week.

l Tomorrow, Dorothy reveals more about the state of the camp and the fate of the fishermen being held there. She also tells how one trawler “accidentally” sank a U-Boat.