An Article by Arthur Godfrey
This year has seen the seventieth anniversary of the darkest days that Yorkshire fishermen have ever known, for in the three years of World War 1 beginning with April 1915 they faced dangers hitherto undreamed of.
During the bombardment of December, 1914 German warships laid mines off Scarborough which were to claim a dozen or more cargo ship victims and a number of the minesweepers which were sent to clear the field. But those ships that had not been requisitioned carried on fishing much as before.
On April ? 1915, the new threat made itself known in Yorkshire waters for on that day the 21 year old Grimsby trawler Zarina was torpedoed and sunk by a German U-Boat with the loss of all nine crew, Zarina, GY 573 was fishing some 73 miles East by North of Spurn. So violent was the explosion that men on other ships said the Zarina was blown right out of the water. Amongst those killed was Royal Fleming, a Scarborough man.
Later in the month a second Grimsby trawler met the same fate, this time with the loss of two men, and on the third and fourth of May 1915 seven more trawlers were sunk by U-Boats 150 miles east-north-east of Spurn with no loss of life.
This terrible form of warfare came much closer home on 6th May, when the 147 ton Hull registered Merrie Islington came up against a U-Boat some six miles north-north-est of Whitby Rock Buoy. The trawler had been working from Scarborough and carried a local crew, all of whom were allowed to leave in their own boat before the Merrie Islington was sunk was sunk by a bomb in her engine room.
In fact this was to become a common practice with U-Boat skippers, they usually sank fishing boats by means of either bombs or shells from their bow guns. This was for reasons of finance, for torpedoes were very expensive, but it also meant that, more often than not, the trawler crew would survive the sinking.
Incidentally, the skipper of the Merrie Islington was Jimmy Walker, who died in the trawler Jack Johnson, blown up by a mine on 3 September 1920, with all ten crew.
During the rest of 1915 a further 12 trawlers were sunk by the U-Boats off the Yorkshire coast, one of them being the Scarborough registered J Leyman ,SH 192, Aberdeen built in 1909. She was sunk by gunfire whilst fishing east-by-north of Spurn on 9 June, but skipper Danny Crawford and his crew were allowed to leave safely , to be picked up by another ship later The other trawlers were Hull and Grimsby ships lost in Bridlington Bay during June and July.
If 1915 had been bad 1916 was to prove disastrous for Yorkshire fishing fleets and for Scarborough in particular. The enemy turned his attention to even the smallest vessels, sinking the 18 ton motor fishing vessel Osprey and the even smaller Mary Ann off Spurn on 18 May.
On 13 July Scarborough lost two more of its trawlers, the Florence, SH 144, and the Dalhousie, SH 72, fishing some ten miles off Whitby at the time skippered by H Eade. Florence was skippered by Danny Crawford, who had already survived the loss of the J Leyman. Both crews were able to row to Whitby in their own boats.
Strangely perhaps, the explosions that marked the end of these two ships were heard by another Scarborough trawler, the Lord Collingwood, were she was steaming north for the Aberdeen fishing grounds, were she was to fall victim to a U-Boat later.
Also sunk that day was the tiny Whitby vessel Success, which at six tons was only marginally bigger than the Mary Ann. These two were the smallest vessels to be sunk by a U-Boat. And one can only wonder why the U-Boat commander considered them to be fair targets.
The climax of this alarming period period in fishing history came on 24-25th September 1916, when 19 trawlers were sunk by a U-Boat in one go. Amongst them were eleven Scarborough ships, five from Grimsby, and one each from Hull,Hartlepool and Whitby. The Scarborough ships were
- Sunshine SH 241
- Fisher Prince SH 207
- Otter SH 70
- Harrier SH 39
- Marguerite SH 214
- Tarantula SH 184
- Gamecock SH 191
- Quebec SH 208
- Nil Desperandum SH 188
- Seal SH 126
- Otterhound, registered at Hull H 92 but fishing from Scarborough
All of these were fishing some twenty miles north-east of Scarborough when a U-Boat surfaced, forced the crews to abandon, and then sank them one by one. Official records say that all were sank by gunfire except for Nil Desperandum, which had a bomb placed in the engine room.
It is said that the U-Boat skipper kept the trawler skippers alongside in their small boats and then told them how each trawler would be sunk. Bow first or stern first, whatever, according to where he instructed his gunner to put the shells into the ships.
Loch Ness, of Hartlepool, Trinidad, of Hull and St Hilda, of Whitby were also sunk at the same time, whilst the five Grimsby trawlers were sent to the bottom in Bridlington Bay.
Of the Scarborough boats the most notable loss was that of the Otter, for she was the oldest of them, having been built at South Shields in 1888. She had come brand new to Scarborough, and skipper Normandale had used her early trials of the new Otter trawl net - the type that is still in use today.
The Scarborough fleet was completely devastated by these losses; the port was left only with three or four steam trawlers. The year was brought to a close with the loss of another three Grimsby trawlers, sunk by a U-Boat 15 miles off Spurn point during October of 1916
After the mass sinkings of September 1916, Yorkshire steam trawlers were banned from fishing in home waters and were sent north to fish off north east Scotland. Unfortunately, the U-Boats followed them as we shall see.
Fishing in our shores was carried on by smaller inshore motor vessels, but, as has already been mentioned, they were not safe from the submarine either.
On 5 May 1917 the Filey built and owned herring coble Edith Cavell SH 216, was captured by a German U-Boat whilst fishing off Robin Hoods Bay. The crew were taken aboard the submarine and Edith Cavell was sunk by a bomb, for no other reason than the U-Boat commander found her name offensive; Edith Cavell had been a nurse in Belgium and had helped British prisoners of war to escape.
The crew at the coble were taken north,unsure of their fate, and the U-Boat skipper asked the youngest of them where he would have been that day, a Sunday, had he not been at sea. The boy replied that he would have been at Sunday school, an answer that apparently, pleased the German, for he said that he would make sure that he attended the following week. When the U-Boat was near the Farne Islands, Northumberland, he sank a steamer, after forcing the crew to abandon the ship in their own boats. He then ordered the steamer crew to take the Filey men ashore, and they were able to return home safely, where half the population turned out to meet them at the railway station.
During their time on board the U-Boat the Filey men learned that the Germans were "out to get" another local vessel whose name - Victory - they disliked. So seriously did they take this threat that the Victory had her name changed, and she was moved elsewhere for the rest of the war.
One of the crew of the Edith Cavell was Jack Cammish who joined the Royal Navy after this episode. He was to be lost in the Scarborough Lifeboat disaster of 1954.
On 17th August the last sailing fishing vessel at Scarborough fell foul of a U-Boat whilst fishing 10 miles north east of the town. The yawl Susie, SH197, was a 61 foot line fishing vessel built at Yarmouth in 1898 and owned by Mark Scotter of Filey, who was also skipper. He was shot dead by the U-Boat crew before they sank the yawl.
The surviving crew members were picked up from their small boats by the steam drifter Lord Kitchener and landed at Scarborough, with the body of the skipper.
Another Scarborough MFV, the 17 ton Botha, SH 311, was sunk by bombs from a U-Boat three miles east of Whitby on 28th March 1918, and two Whitby vessels, Brotherly Love and Honora, were sunk with her. All three were crewed by Filey men, and all of them had been sailing vessels until they had motors installed in 1916.
Exactly two months later, The Coronation, SH 238, met the same fate 13 miles off Flamborough Head, to become the last Scarborough fishing vessel to fall victim to a U-Boat. Again she was crewed by Filey men.
The last fishing boats sunk off the Yorkshire coast in this way were the Grimsby MFV's Aby and Albion, sunk some 25 miles east by north of Spurn Point on 7th July 1918.
Meanwhile the Scarborough Steam trawlers which were sent north were having real problems with the U-Boats which seemed to have followed them. On 22nd February 1917 Lord Collingwood, SH 266 and the Frolic, GY 237(but Scarborough owned and crewed), came up against an enemy submarine whilst fishing off Aberdeen. Both crews were allowed to board their boats before the trawlers were sunk, but this was only the beginning of their ordeal, for they were almost 100 miles offshore, with little or no provision, and it was February.
To begin with, the boats were lashed together, but after a while they separated in hope of increasing the chance of being found. The crew of the Frolic were in fact found that same day.
It was 6 days and 11 hours before the Lord Collingwood crew were found. They were in a bad way, suffering from frostbite as well as hunger and thirst, and it was said that only a packet of Woodbines, picked up by crew member Micky Scales kept up the morale when they thought they were not going to be found. Eventually the Stork of Dundee, found them, and landed them at Aberdeen.
Skipper of the Lord Collingwood was Walter Hodds, and amongst the crew was "Punch" Eade, father of the ex lifeboat coxswain Ken Eade. The experience that February was so traumatic that "Punch" would not speak of it later. Though he spoke freely of other wartime stories. Skipper of the Frolic was Dick Wright, and amongst his crew was the late "Whisper" Cammish.
Seven other Scarborough trawlers met their fate at the hands of the U-Boats in northern waters during the course of the war, but space prevents a mention of each. Although World War I enemy U-Boats sank 578 fishing vessels in British waters, 75 of them off the Yorkshire coast. A total of 98 men died in these losses.
Not all U-Boat incidents were aggressive, there were several reports of U-Boats surfacing alongside fishing boats to ask for fish for their crews. There are no records of any fishermen refusing such a request!
One U-Boat skipper rowed ashore at Scarborough under cover of darkness and went to the cinema here - after the war he produced tickets to prove he had done it. Another U-Boat commander claims to have surfaced in the South Bay on a number of occasions in order to listen to bands playing in the Spa.
Such incidents serve to remind us that despite the terrible things they sometimes did, many of the U-Boat skippers were ordinary seamen, doing what they had to do.
Written by Arthur Godfrey.