Paper given on 2 Feb 2016 to the Friends in Council Society Cheltenham (formed 1862).
By Michael Herman
I was brought up in Scarborough, with its long history as a North Sea fishing port, and I sailed from it with my father in in the summers of 1938 and 1939 and became interested in the harbour and its fishing boats. Then the so-called ‘phoney war’ of that wartime winter of 1939-40 included a brief Luftwaffe campaign against the North Sea trawlers, including the Scarborough ones. One of these attacks, and the fishermen’s defence with their Lewis guns of First World War vintage, is preserved in some photographs which appeared in War Illustrated – a weekly war magazine - on 8 March 1940, and had originally appeared in the Daily Mirror; they are reproduced here in the Appendix. These attacks on the local boats, and the fishermen’s self-defence against them, caught my imagination as a ten year old, and I drew on them at school in a way I will mention at the end of this paper. What I did not know at the time was that they were a small-scale repetition of the more frequent U-boat attacks on these local trawlers in the First War – perhaps the same trawlers. I wonder now why these two campaigns were launched against the fishermen, and what they achieved. There is not much about them in the standard histories, so here is my amateur attempt to set them in context. I concentrate on attacks off the Yorkshire coast, and particularly those against the Scarborough fleet. First however I outline the fishing industry’s local history
Fishing off this coast goes back to Roman times. By the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century it had developed from the coast’s three ports (Whitby, Scarborough and Bridlington), Staithes’ tidal creek, and the beaches along the coast. The foundation of the industry was inshore fishing by long lines from the local small cobles, whose characteristic Viking-style design was produced by the need to launch and recover them over beaches. But by 1800 there was also a well-established offshore industry, partly with some deep-sea fishing off the Faroes and Iceland but mainly with a substantial middle-range fishing fleets of three-masted luggers. These fished with lines for white fish off the Dogger Bank and elsewhere and each autumn they would move to East Anglia to catch herrings. These numerous North Sea fishing grounds – not just the Dogger Bank – are at the centre of this history.
In the early nineteenth century the market was still constrained by the perishable nature of the catch and slow transport inland. Herrings were indeed preserved - by salt pickling, smoking for up to three weeks, or drying in the wind - but only for the poor end of the market. Yet the population in the northern industrial towns continued to grow, and the industry reacted. Steam-powered packet vessels were introduced in the 1830s to deliver consignments of fish quickly from Scarborough and Whitby to Hull and thence up the Humber’s tributaries. The main break in the transport bottleneck came however in the 1840s and 1850s when the new railways made fish an article of national consumption. The number of middle-distance vessels at Scarborough, Whitby and Bridlington doubled; fishmongers listed in the national census trebled between 1841 and 1871; ice-houses were introduced to hold natural ice for catches’ preservation, and an industry of artificial ice-making grew later. Most important of all was the introduction of the beam trawl, the bag-shaped net that dragged along the bottom and was held open by a large wooden beam. This innovation of trawling replaced line fishing in all the offshore fleets, though drift nets were still used for herrings By the mid-1870s Scarborough had become the biggest port, with forty trawling smacks and at least fifty dual-purpose trawler-drifters. It was once reported to have a hundred boats using the harbour in summer, with up to 300 more anchored outside discharging their catches to small boats. Yorkshire’s inshore fishing was also at its peak, with line fishing and pots for crabs and lobsters.
All this used sail power, but this was slowly changing in the last quarter of the century. Steam-powered cutters were introduced to collect catches from the trawler fleets, which could now remain at sea for long periods. In 1877 a steam paddle tug was successfully converted to trawling, and other paddlers followed. The first screw-driven trawler was registered in Scarborough in 1881, and new vessels followed for the middle-distance and deep-sea grounds, thirty feet longer than the sailing smacks,. Trawling itself changed to otter trawls, which kept the nets open by large boards instead of the wooden beams, and increased catching capacity still further. Scarborough at one stage had twenty-seven of these new trawlers, but was then outdone by the growing competition from Hull and Grimsby, and by the 1890s Scarborough’s North Sea fleet was down to six screw vessels and nine converted paddlers.
After these rapid changes the first half of the twentieth century was technically more static. Trawlers became coal fired, steam powered, with characteristic silhouettes of low hulls, tall funnels and small mizzens, all developed for handling nets over the side in rough conditions: hence their nickname of the ‘sidewinders’. The older ones had the wheelhouse abaft the funnel, and the later ones had these positions reversed. By this time trawling was already having its effects on North Sea catches, and the trend after World War I was towards bigger vessels and more distant waters, not only Iceland but also the Barents Sea, Bear Island and Spitsbergen. Hull became a leading port in making the 1920s and 1930s the age of the fish-and-chip shop.
After World War Two fishing benefitted from the application of wartime radar and asdic. The inshore and middle-water industry moved to small diesel-powered vessels, so-called keelboats. Oil-fired steam propulsion appeared in the deep-water vessels, but more dramatic moves began in the 1950s to diesel engines, increased size, stern trawling and on-board freezing. The culmination was modern factory fishing operating over wide areas.
After 1945 fishing was initially prosperous, and was sustained by the increasing British population, even though individually we came to came to eat less fish and more meat. But then came the combination of the more intensive methods and depleted stocks; the competition of the state-developed Soviet, East German and Polish fleets; the cod wars with Iceland; the Common Market fisheries agreement of 1970; and the new Law of the Sea’s extensions of states’ exclusive economic zones. The tipping point for the industry was the OPEC oil hike in 1973-74 and its effect on fuel and other costs. British fishing crashed in the same way as coal mining in the next decade, though with less publicity.
Fishermen in War
All this was peace, but what happened to fishermen in war? Historically they had helped to man wartime navies, often through press gangs. In 1914 this contribution was increased by the creation of the new Royal Naval Patrol Service for minesweeping and patrol duties, made up of 3,000 requisitioned steam trawlers and drifters and many of the crews. The Patrol Service appeared again in the Second War as a distinctive navy-within-a-navy, eventually with 66,000 men and 6,000 vessels. Losses in this war were heavier: 2,385 men aged from sixteen to over sixty. The Patrol Service deserves a history of its own; but its relevance to wartime fishing is that in both wars over half the best trawlers and drifters were requisitioned for it.
So I return to the civilian fishermen. Historically they and their catches – enemy and neutrals - had never had automatic exemption from the effects of war. But in practice they were often treated with tolerance, in centuries when fishermen were small fry, not worth men-of-wars’ attention, and by 1914 they had been given some status that had developed over the last half century in the international agreements that sought to restrict war to the activity of uniformed combatants, and to safeguard the positions of prisoners, wounded, non-combatants and neutrals. Non-combatant vessels – enemy or neutral - could still be seized or sunk in some circumstances but proper provision had to be made for the safety of their crews. Prize regulations for the seizure of vessels and cargoes were recognized as international law administered by national courts; and so was merchantmen’s right of self-defence.
But these maritime rules were not clear, and the application to fishermen remained even more opaque. Some continental ordinances going back to the seventeenth century had given them wartime immunity, and nineteenth century jurists had tried to distinguish between the wartime status of shallow-water and deep-water fishing. The international Declaration of London of 1909 had agreed that food (including fish) was only contraband if intended for soldiers, not civilians; though apparently the declaration was not ratified. In any case these nineteenth century rules were untested.
Then 1914 came, and most of these rules withered under the blasts of war. London pushed them to their limits in quickly declaring a blockade of Germany, with the whole North Sea specified as a war zone and foodstuffs listed as contraband. It quickly interned a German trawler and drifter which had innocently come into Aberdeen to sell their fish. But its stance was not manifestly illegal, and did not extend to any widespread seizure of German fishing boats. This may have been through lack of opportunity, since the Royal Navy’s blockade did not in practice regularly extend far into the North Sea. Nevertheless whether for practicality or legality German fishermen were not consistently targeted, and the same caution applied in the British attitude to neutrals. The German fish market depended on supplies from the Netherlands and Norway, and Britain’s blockade took the form of political and financial inducements for the neutrals to sell to the British market: though its large-scale but temporary seizure of Dutch fishing vessels in June 1916 was no doubt an encouragement to neutrals to fall into line and take the British money.
International law about fishermen had much less influence on the German side. Operations against British trawlers started when German torpedo boats sank 23 of them off the Yorkshire coast in the first month of the war. Trawler fleets were not targets of the German fleet’s bombardment of Scarborough in December 1914, but a German belief that trawlers were providing intelligence on naval movements was part of the original plan for the German battlecruisers’ foray in January 1915 and the Dogger Bank battle. German surface vessels sank another four trawlers in May that year, but none thereafter. Apart from skirmishes with Zeppelins and aircraft, the attacks on trawlers became the preserve of the German submarine force.
The attacks took the form of gunfire from surfaced U-Boats, or sometimes explosives placed by boarding parties: it was rarely thought worth using torpedoes. Submarine attacks off the Yorkshire coast began in April and early May 1915 when three Grimsby and Hull trawlers were sunk, followed by others later that month. In the rest of 1915 a further twelve were sunk, including one from Scarborough. On 13 July 1916 two Scarborough trawlers were sunk off Whitby, as were some smaller boats in that month. On 24-25 September a single U-Boat sank 19 trawlers, including eleven Scarborough ones, twenty miles north-east of the port: only four trawlers and one drifter of the local fleet remained. The Grimsby fleet suffered similarly in the same month, with eleven lost on one night. Most of the Yorkshire fleets then moved to Scotland for 1917, though some sinkings continued. In the whole war 75 civilian trawlers including sailing smacks were sunk off the Yorkshire coast, mainly in 1915 and 1916, out of the larger national total of 672 trawlers and drifters lost through enemy action.
The British press described all these attacks as piracy. But even after U-boats began torpedoing merchantmen on sight the submarine attacks on trawlers were still generally by gunfire and allowed provision to be made for the crews. The were some accusations of cruelty and murder but not many. On a lighter side, there are reports of submarines surfacing to ask trawlers for fish; and one commander claimed that he surfaced in Scarborough Bay occasionally to listen to the Spa band. But in September 1917 a U-boat fired 30 shells into the town: what on earth was he trying to achieve?
What indeed was the German aim in all these attacks? The fog of war may have sometimes played a part. Civilian trawlers may have been mistaken for their requisitioned naval fellows. Some of these were ‘Q-ships’ which kept their civilian guise to catch U-Boats napping with their concealed guns. In one operation a requisitioned trawler towed a submerged British submarine which torpedoed a surfaced German attacker. Some civilian trawlers were fitted with guns and there are accounts of armed sailing smacks sinking U-Boats. Two fishermen were awarded VCs: the deck hands on the armed smacks got an extra two shillings a day.
But even if there were errors, the attacks on trawlers were part – probably a little-considered part - of Germany’s strategic campaign against the British trade routes. The campaign began with a German declaration in February 1915 that the waters of Britain and Ireland were a war zone, probably issued as a response to the British blockade. This German blockade continued for the rest of the war, though it was muddled and intermittent in its first two years, with constant struggles between the German navy and the Berlin government over the submarines’ legal but dangerous obligation to surface and warn merchantmen before taking action Finally the Kaiser signed an order on 1 February 1917 for what was effectively universal sinking on sight. Fishing boats were not specifically mentioned at any stage, but the submarines’ action against them conformed roughly to the timing of the main submarine campaign. The actual record of success seems surprisingly uneven: U-boats could wreck havoc among unarmed fishing fleets caught with their nets down, but rarely did so. This may reflect German vacillations of policy, or the small number of submarines available, or the fishermen’s acquisition of defensive weapons. It is equally likely that reducing British fish supplies was a low priority in the blockade, and was left in practice to individual submarine commanders’ discretion. But without access to their orders we are only guessing.
In the Second War the conditions were different. Submarines were larger and faster, with longer ranges, but the measures against them were more effective, with improved depth charges and asdic. For a while U-boats operated off British and Irish coasts and sank merchant ships and trawlers by gunfire, but not for long. Both sides had announced initially that their attacks on merchant ships would be limited by legal constraints, but Germany soon stiffened its position and in mid-November 1939 it declared virtually unrestricted warfare as far as 15 degrees west. By the summer of 1940 sinking on sight had become almost unquestioned on both sides. Once the German submarines acquired bases in Norway and France in 1940 they had little incentive to operate in coastal waters, and Britain’s transport route off the East Coast was then threatened not by submarines but by aircraft, mines and E-boats. The Luftwaffe’s attacks on coastal traffic began in December 1939 and continued with varied intensity throughout the war, and attacks on trawlers began at the same time. Their losses were fewer in vessels than in 1914-18 - around 115 trawlers, mainly through mines - though heavier in civilians: about a thousand lost in all.
This then was the background to the local attacks on the Scarborough trawlers that interested me so many years ago. These trawlers were too small and old to be requisitioned: there were seven fishing in 1939 and four remained active in December 1944. At first they were not attacked: the Yorkshire writer Leo Walmsley described a trip with fishermen in October 1939 when they were buzzed by a German aircraft which peacefully took photographs of them. When the attacks started they took the form of machine-gunning supplemented by bombs. They began on 17 December at widely separated points off the English and Scottish coasts, and four trawlers were sunk. The first attack on Scarborough vessels was on the night of 12 January, when two were attacked but survived. Three small local cobles and a keel boat were next attacked on 9 February, along with two trawlers; and a Scarborough keelboat was attacked on the same day. One of the cobles reported that 30 bombs were dropped unsuccessfully. Four local trawlers were next targeted on 22 February, and there are press reports and photos of another seven trawlers attacked between the 19th and 21st. By then defensive armament was more widely available and a fifth trawler, the elderly, Filey-owned Acuba is reported to have defended the group. Attacks continued almost daily and one of the Scarborough trawlers was attacked again on the 24th. A coble was bombed at the beginning of March, and two trawlers machine-gunned. Attacks followed on two local keelboats on 2 March and a trawlers on 7 March, accompanied once again by Acuba. There were no reports that aircraft gave crews time to get clear.
This was effectively the end of these local attacks, though the Scarborough drifter Silver Line was in action on 3 April, when it helped a Spitfire to shoot a bomber down and then rescued the five German airmen. Walmsley’s wartime book gives graphic descriptions originally intended for American readers of trawlers’ defensive fire with Lewis guns and rifles. He also describes German attacks on a lightship, and on a Trinity House tender that was taking thirty routine reliefs to lighthouses.
This phoney war of the winter ended on 9 April with the German invasions of Norway and Demark, and Luftwaffe became too busy for the trawler attacks. Shortly afterwards the government banned all trawling and night fishing off Yorkshire, and many vessels moved to Scotland. There were no more attacks on the Scarborough fleet, or indeed any consistent air attacks on trawlers elsewhere. So these engagements in early 1940 remain a tiny episode, including eight recorded attacks on the Scarborough vessels. Amazingly none of these was lost, and there were no casualties. A local keelboat was blown up in October 1940 and the crew of four lost, but this was by a mine.
The attacks did not produce any significant interruption of fishing. The German crews seem to have been poor marksmen and bomb-aimers, and perhaps the bombs were wrongly fused for these targets. The fishermen were also untrained on their guns, but their stubborn resistance made them temporary national heroes in the front line.
So why then did the Luftwaffe get involved with the trawlers in this way, with so little effect? The Luftwaffe like the RAF was learning its wartime trade and wanted any operational experience it could get, but was limited by Hitler in the phoney war to naval and maritime targets. With the German moves in late 1939 towards unrestricted attacks on merchantmen, the inclusion of trawlers in the maritime target lists probably followed as targets of opportunity to be attacked if nothing else had been found. The Luftwaffe may have thought that it could terrorize the trawlermen as it had done with civilians in Spain and Poland; and no doubt its aircrew in their debriefings exaggerated what they were achieving. In any case there was little time to change tactics before the war moved to a different level in April 1940, and the Luftwaffe could abandon this minor sideshow, perhaps with some relief.
It is worth adding from the British side that fishing boats on their lawful occasions were not targeted in any of Coastal Command’s resolute attacks on German-controlled shipping, and indeed such attacks were specifically excluded, even though it meant that the whole of the Norwegian catch was earmarked for feeding Germany.
There are issues arising from these accounts of international law, humanity, and the place of civilians in total war: but I will not try to develop them here. I will end instead with a particular reason I have for remembering these attacks. In 1940 I was at the local grammar school, and the previous year I had taken the exam for what was to become the predecessor of the postwar Eleven Plus, and rather surprisingly failed. No one was fussed, and I took the exam again the following year, at the time of the trawler attacks. It included an essay paper in which I chose a subject, but found after a while that I had nothing interesting to say about it. I scratched my answer out and decided to write instead about one of the Scarborough trawlers’ recent battles with the Luftwaffe, on which I had just had a full blow-by-blow account from my father. So I wrote energetically in Boys Own Paper style, elaborating with names and every possible detail, and I was duly successful in the scholarship. It made no practical difference, but I was reminded of it when I walked round Scarborough harbour in autumn 2015, and decided to repeat the subject of my essay of seventy-six years ago: but without the threat on this occasion, I hope, of failing the eleven-plus.
 Photos reproduced at Appendix. The headings are – ‘ down swoops the Nazi plane, eager for murder, but turns away as the suicide gang open fire’ . The accompanying story explains that the photos were taken aboard the trawler ’Star of the Isles’ from Leith in Scotland, and there’s no reason to doubt the setting. But were they posed? Very possibly the gun-crew were, but there is an authenticity in places – the aircraft and the splashes of the bullets that missed the trawler; one fisherman ducking under cover; another just visible behind the Lewis gun team in the top right hand corner - that makes me think they may be genuine action photos.
 Leo Walmsley, Fishermen at War.
 A summary of attacks on Scarborough vessels is available as ‘Attacks on Trawlers in Scarborough in WW2’ (paper dated 2 July 2015 available in Scarborough Marine Heritage Centre).
 Information from Christina Goulter, author of J.M.Goulter, Forgotten Offensive, on the Coastal Command operations against German-controlled shipping.
Press photos of trawler under attack: from archive of Scarborough Marine Heritage Centre.