How these heroic fishermen fought back against Nazis

Landing a precious cargo of fish.
Landing a precious cargo of fish.

Today historian Dorothy Ramser continues to pay tribute to the trawler crews who battled against the Germans to keep the nation fed during the Second World War.

By June 1940, the gallant fishermen still faced the deadly threat of attack from Nazis in the air, on the sea, and under it – yet they were no longer the easy targets they’d been earlier in the conflict.

A newspaper report of June 28 told how a fisherman, named only as George, was manning a Lewis Gun on a British trawler when it was attacked by a German plane.

“His bullets ripped into the attacking aircraft and soon the plane was seriously crippled and began to lose height and drop towards the sea,” explains Dorothy.

“Meanwhile, George, on seeing this, was dancing on top of the engine room shouting ‘I got him! I got him!’ A second plane wisely decided not to take on pugnacious George, whose blood was up and still itching for a fight and it abandoned its attack.”

A month later, The Cornishman reported an attack on one of its local trawlers.

The report told how suddenly out of the sky came four Nazi planes bearing down on the fishing boat.

“There was no time to take cover,” added Dorothy, “and nowhere to hide on such a little craft.

“Bombs rained down around them. The young captain went out on the bridge and with outstretched arms begged them to stop. The aircraft were only 30ft above, and showing no mercy machine gunned the captain to death.

“Struck with terror at this criminal act, the other three crew members tried to shelter as best they could whilst bullets ricochetted around them. Miraculously only one of them was injured, hit in the shoulder. The other two,one of which was a young lad, landed without a scratch.

“The owner of the boat, a Belgian who had taken refuge in Britain, set a tragic figure because only weeks before, at Dunkirk, he had lost several members of his family.”

During January 1941, the Liverpool Evening Express headlined an article “Trawlers V Bomber”.

The story told how two fishing trawlers, called the Charmouth and the Rattray, were peacefully dragging their nets when a large German aircraft circled above them and dropped its bombs.

Fortunately neither of the trawlers were hit but the enemy plane came swooping down to continue the attack with machine gun and canon fire.

“Both of the little vessels fought back with their guns and managed to hit the plane and eventually drove it off. It was on fire and crashed into the sea some miles away.”

As war raged overseas, one reporter took the time to travel to an unnamed East coast port to write a story called The Price of Fish.

“The reporter watched the fishing boat Lochallen come in.

“He said the trawler was more like an ice-berg than a neat fishing boat because she was smothered in ice. Steam was being used to melt the ice on her Lewis guns to keep them ready for immediate action.

“Their 12-pounder gun was also being cleared.”

The reporter spotted a neat pile of used cartridge cases near the Lewis guns. The captain, a chap called Sayers, explained that they were the remnants of action at sea when the vessel had been attacked by a German Junkers 88 aircraft.

“Capt Sayers told him he was “pretty sure they hit the enemy plane because an hour after dawn they’d seen the Junkers 88 heading seawards with smoke billowing from it.

“They were pleased because they’d caught 25 ton of fish, mostly cod. On their second day out fishing, they’d been attacked by a Focke Wulf when one of the crew members, called Fred, had hitched a rope around his middle and swam to a dingy to help two frozen German airmen.

“The enemy aircraft dropped its bomb and killed brave Fred and the two German airmen.

“Another day they hit a mine but it didn’t cause much damage and they were able to return to port with their precious cargo, but with sad news to give to Fred’s family.

Back in March, 1940, the Coventry Standard had told its readers that in peace time, no matter the weather, 1,800 British trawlers and 40,000 trawler men dragged the seas for fish.

“The nets were hauled in every four hours, and few of the men got more than three hours consecutive sleep in their bunks. The process went on day and night until the fish holds were full.

“The gutting, sorting and packing in ice went on when in winter the sea spray froze before it hit the deck, and the fish were frozen like boards as they were lifted from the sea.

“The seamen’s hands were cracked open with frost and cold as they wielded the knife gutting the fish. All this work was done during blinding snow storms and icy fog in an effort to bring fish to the fishmonger.

“During winter months hardly a week passed without a British trawler sinking without trace. In peacetime, before 1940, British fishing vessels landed one million tons of fish, valued at that time, at more than £15m.”

When the war began, fishermen managed to land plentiful supplies of fish, but as the conflict progressed, the catch dropped. However, by 1944, as the war swung in the Allied’s favour, there was gradual improvement.

As Dorothy said in the opening part of her article, published yesterday: “The part played by British fishermen during the Second World War has largely been overlooked in the collective memory. Fishermen risked their lives for every portion of our national dish of fish and chips served in the Second World War and many were killed or maimed in the process.

“The price they paid to put fish on our plates at this perilous time in our history should be acknowledged by us all.”