The ‘overlooked’ role of wartime trawler crews

Trawlers in dock just before the Second World War.
Trawlers in dock just before the Second World War.

“The part played by British fishermen during the Second World War has largely been overlooked,” says historian and regular Time Of Our Lives contributor Dorothy Ramser.

So today, Dorothy salutes their bravery by reminding us of “the price they paid to put fish on our plates at this perilous time in our history”.

She says, not only did they battle to feed us, they also saved the lives of their fellow seamen and downed airmen.

Indeed, larger better equipped fishing trawlers and crews were even requisitioned and used as minesweepers and to guard convoys against submarines.

“As the U-Boats were sinking so many of our merchant ships on the North Atlantic run, fish was the natural resource we could rely on here in the UK,” Dorothy explains.

“However for fishermen sailing out to the fishing grounds it became an almost suicidal venture as they were under attack from the air and the sea, with mines sinking more fishing boats than any other weapon.

“1940 and 1941 were the worst years endured by our fishermen for enemy attacks. No precise figures are available for the number of fishermen killed by enemy action but the stories I’ve included here illustrate their heroism.”

In January 1940, the Germans were swift to take revenge for the loss of the ship Admiral Graf Spee, which was scuttled by its crew off Buenos Aires.

A newspaper at the time reported how the Germans retaliated viciously and attacked and sank a fleet of 15 unarmed British trawlers whilst they were fishing.

That same month, the Liverpool Evening Express told of attacks on the River Eain fishing boat which was attacked three times, being machine gunned, bombed and then sunk by the enemy in the North Sea.

Dorothy told how the trawler’s crew had rescued three Danes, clinging to life-raft after the steamer Bogo sunk after hitting a mine, shortly before a single aircraft, bearing the black Nazi cross, dropped a bomb, which fortunately missed them.

“At 9am the next day, a German flying boat also attacked them with a bomb, followed by two more enemy planes that were flying so low they were at mast height.

“The shell hit the boat right forward and as the crew prepared to abandon ship, the Germans mercilessly machine gunned the deck.

“As the crew and Danish survivors got into the lifeboat, the bombing continued. Fortunately, against the odds, they survived to tell the tale.”

The following month, trawlers went to the aid of the stricken Newcastle oil tanker Gretafield as she was sinking off the North East coast of Scotland after enemy action earlier that morning.

Although 13 of the crew were missing believed dead (despite extensive searches by the fishermen) they managed to rescue 28 men from the clutches of the sea.

By March 1940, Britain’s fishing trawlers were now armed with defensive weapons and, according to another newspaper, could go to the fishing grounds with the confidence that they could “stand up to enemy attacks”.

“One such boat did just that when under attack from a U-Boat – the first time such a small vessel had taken on such a formidable opponent.

“After that, the enemy was a little more wary approaching these craft and the fishermen no longer felt completely at the mercy of the Germans.”

Just days later, on April 5, Tynesiders were reading the headline “Shields trawler beats Dornier in gun duel!” which told the story of the fishing trawler, St Lawrence, skippered by Mr Robert Balls of Tynemouth Road, North Shields.

It told how he and his eight-man crew had driven off an attack by a German bomber.

“Mr Balls said the attack took place shortly after 1pm when the trawler was returning from the fishing grounds with a good catch. As soon as the plane was overhead it bombed the trawler.

“After the first run at the ship, the German pilot banked heavily, turned back and came diving at them again with his guns blazing. Mr Balls said ‘the mate was able to give back as good as he got’.

“He was certain the rear gun was put out of action. The plane then flew into the attack for the third time and it flew so low that the skipper was able to clearly see two of its crew. The ship’s mate, who was out in the open on the guns, never flinched as the huge machine bore down on him and continued firing directly at the enemy for all he was worth.

“He was rewarded when the Dornier turned and flew away.

“Mr Balls’ little boy was the very proud owner of a handful of machine gun bullet casings although his trawler was peppered in bullet holes.”

In May 1940, the Shields Daily News reported that the Nazis had chosen defenceless fishermen on which to try out their new secret weapon, described as short steel darts and a type of incendiary bomb.

The crews of the fishing trawlers Russell and Eroican found themselves facing this deadly threat when they were attacked by the Germans in the North Sea.

“The Russell was fishing peacefully when the little ship was raked by machine gun fire and then bombed.

“The plucky crew managed to evacuate their ship which had been badly damaged.

“In addition to the incendiaries, the crews had been showered with these deadly steel darts which were about three inches long.

“The Eroican was raked with withering gunfire and most of the crew scrambled to take cover in the galley. The Germans then directed concentrated fire on that part of the ship.

“This was followed by incendiaries which rained down on the little boat and the fishermen dashed out to douse them or throw them overboard before they were once more under machine gun fire.

“They were forced to leave 20 incendiaries burning on their deck. At long last the attack stopped and the Germans flew away and the crew survived another day of fishing under fire in the North Sea.”

Tomorrow: The trawler crews give the Nazis “what for”.