South Shields Local History Group

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North East Fishermen WW1

On the 23rd of February 1915 the North Shields trawler the Alex Hastie was attacked by a German submarine. The crew claimed that they had seen the U-Boat capsize and sink.

This incident happened at 3pm when the vessel was 105 miles east, north east of the Longstone Lighthouse, off the Northumberland coast. Most of the fishing crew were on deck and one of the deck hands saw the submarines periscope approaching as they were working on the recently loaded fish. All on board saw the U-Boat as it attempted to dive beneath the trawler and a violent shock reverberated through the boat as though the submarine had collided with the trawl equipment. Then the enemy submarine rose slowly to the surface but upside down on the other side of the fishing boat. About 150ft of white keel was visible. It remained motionless and sank after about twenty minutes and a large quantity of oil came up to the surface.

More and more encounters followed between local trawlers fishing legally in the limit and German submarines. It would seem the U-Boat Commanders had been given the order to sink everything on the sea, including unarmed trawlers because as one put it “It is war”, without considering it breached all ethical conventions.

Reports had appeared in the papers two months earlier on the 16th December 1914 that the seaside towns of Scarborough, Hartlepool and Whitby had been attacked by the German Navy. They fired 1150 shells into Hartlepool and 122 people were killed and 443 wounded and 18 people killed in Scarborough during the 30 minute attack including a 14 month baby boy. 7 people died in Whitby. It was believed they did this because they wanted to show the British people that they too could be attacked by the might of the Fatherland. There was major condemnation of Germany from around the world. The reaction of the northern menfolk was to flock to military recruiting stations which were packed to overflowing with men wanting to avenge this attack on the east coast.  During WW1 there were 5,611 civilian casualties from German air and naval raids on the British Mainland. In Europe the situation was similar – in Belgium in 1914 The Germans killed thousands of civilians and burned towns. They also carried out the first strategic bombing from the air on the city of Liege that year and dropped 50 bombs on Paris. The rules of war were being breached.

Three North Shields trawlers, the Jason, Gloxinia and the Nellie were sunk by German submarine U10 on 2nd April 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 which followed and realised they were its target. The U-Boat came alongside and the unarmed crew were ordered onto the enemy submarine and 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 pursued by the submarine which was flying the British Ensign taken from the Jason or Gloxinia, and then mercilessly attacked, with the crew being cast adrift in the 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 and the fishermen said they appeared to considerably enjoy the helplessness of their defenceless victims.

Not long after on the 15th April the Gazette reported that the crew of the South Shields fishing boat the Grecian Prince which had arrived in the Tyne that morning had “brought an exciting story of their experience last night with the Zeppelin which raided the North East coast” The men had been fishing 35 miles north by east of the Tyne at about twenty minutes to seven 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 men walking about on the platform. The Zeppelin, which was the Z9 passed completely over the Grecian Prince and another South Shields trawler the Rhodesia. The men of both trawlers were very relieved when they saw the huge machine fly away from them. Its course was west-south-west which would bring the Zeppelin to the Tyne. By 7pm the Zeppelin reached the mouth of the Tyne. Its first bomb dropped at West Sleekburn. Thirty followed. A woman and child were found injured by one of its shells in South Shields. From Shields it flew to Blyth dropping bombs indiscriminately. At Wallsend the Zeppelin spotted a train and dropped a bomb which exploded ten yards in front of the engine. The driver with cool determination slammed on his brakes and managed to avoid any injury to his passengers, many of whom were women who were understandably terrified. The WW1 Blitz had begun in January 1915 with the Germans mounting over 51 bombing raids by Zeppelin and 27 raids by aeroplane on the British Mainland resulting in 1,392 civilian deaths and 3,330 injured.

If that was not bad enough, newspapers carried reports that the German Army had used Chlorine Gas during the second Battle of Ypres on the 5th May 1915, on British frontline soldiers. Ninety men died from gas poisoning in the trenches, and of the 207 brought to the medical station, 46 died immediately and 12 after long suffering. The British public were outraged and no doubt terrified for their loved ones serving in the trenches.

Also at the beginning of that deadly month of May the trawler Sunray belonging to A.J.Freeth of Union Quay, North Shields was sunk by a German submarine. The fishermen were off the East coast in British waters when the enemy U-Boat made its appearance and fired shots across the bows of the defenceless trawler and made signs the crew should abandon ship. The skipper had no option but to obey and gave the order to launch their small boats. The enemy vessel immediately started firing on the trawler with three shots fired at the port side, then it moved position and commenced firing on the starboard side. It was not long before the fishing boat sank. The crew were picked up at 6:30pm by the trawler Prince of North Shields and landed at the Fish Quay the following morning.

That month saw many attacks on local trawlers and always by the same predatory, preliminary method, of firing three shots across the bows. The North Shields trawler the Lilydale was attacked off St. Abbs Head, Berwickshire. The terrified crew were taken on board the U-Boat after the German Commander had arrogantly pulled down their British ensign and seized the charts and papers. A bomb was then placed on board the fishing boat and five minutes later there was a thunderous explosion and the little trawler sank stern first. However help was at hand as a British Patrol Boat was seen approaching and the Germans realising this was no unarmed trawler, made the Shields fishermen board their small boats. A vigorous exchange of fire ensued and the enemy skeddadled swiftly by diving beneath the surface. The Patrol Boat landed the shaken fishermen at Granton, from where they made their way back to North Shields.

Again early in this month the Lusitania passenger ship was sunk on the 7th May 1915, 11 miles off the southern coast of Ireland by a German U-Boat killing 1,198 passengers including 100 children and crew.  It was apparent that the German threat at sea was enormous and it seemed they cared little whether the vessel was armed or unarmed, a military target or a civilian one, all was fair game. Fishing boats were very definitely in the frontline. It was exactly at this time that Anti-German riots carried out against German civilians living in Britain began on the 15th May 1915.  For months the people of Britain had been reading newspapers reports of German military aggression towards unarmed civilians on land and at sea and the use of gas on their loved ones fighting on the frontline, and it provoked a reaction of frustration and anger, although  misplaced, by hitting out at the property of German shopkeepers.

 On the 2nd July an article appeared in Tyneside newspapers about the fate of the nine year old, St. George trawler of North Shields. At that point it had been missing for two months and understandably it was believed that the vessel and her 9 man crew were lost. Some of the relatives had even advertised the supposed drowning of members of the crew. The owners of the ship, Messrs R. Hastie & Sons were most surprised the day before when they were shown a postcard by the wife of Joseph Laws of 55 Bowman St. South Shields, a deck hand of the St. George. He had written briefly that he was recovering from his wounds, but made no mention of the trawler, or the other crew members. The postcard was from Berlin. They had been missing since 28th April after setting off for the fishing grounds on the 26th. She had been sighted by the trawler Wolsey on the day she disappeared fishing off Aberdeen. Then 3 more letters were received from members of the missing crew – William Hastie, the Skipper, Robert Craig the Mate’s letter stated that there were 170 Grimsby fishermen interned at the camp and a letter from Charles Ormsby the Cook. All the letters stated that the fishermen 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 and he said “ Don’t forget 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 and the wife of John Sutherland the Chief Engineer also heard from her husband.

Following the news of the St George crew a letter to the Editor appeared in the Shields Gazette on the 5th July 1915 from L. Grace Lady Superintendent of the Fishermen’s Institute, Union Quay, North Shields:

“Sir, Most of your readers will be aware of and rejoice in, the good news which reached us on Friday, 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.”

At the end of 1915 a POW called Alec Barclay from Batley was liberated from Ruhleben and brought with him news of Captain Hastie and the crew of the St George who had been captured by the German U-Boat U41. Capt Hastie had assured him that their trawler was not outside the limit and definitely in British waters when captured. The Commander of the German submarine had alleged that the St George had tried to ram him, and according to Hastie made that the excuse for his abominable conduct towards them. Their trawler was sunk and Capt Hastie and crew taken aboard the U-Boat where, for 48hrs they were guarded by Germans with drawn revolvers who treated them very badly. The crew were first interned at Sennelager, a camp with rather a bad reputation, but were subsequently sent to Ruhleben. Hastie had told Barclay that there was another trawler near the St George but it cut its gear and cleared off before being attacked. Mr Barclay said the prisoners at Ruhleben were in quite good health, with no thanks to their German hosts, but to the lifesaving supplies of food and comforts sent to them from the British people.  Barclay also spoke of a youth of 17 years old who could not eat the soup served in the camp and in an imprudent outburst in front of the camp guards he declared “The Kaiser ought to be put into a pig sty and compelled to live on the swill served to the prisoners”. That was in May 1915 seven months ago and he had been immediately arrested and in a German Prison, in solitary confinement ever since.

The St Louis trawler had also witnessed the incident concerning the St George and described hearing a very loud explosion as if the vessel had been torpedoed. It was reported that in three cases, insurance money had been paid over to supposed widows and presumably had to be returned, which must have caused severe difficulties for those families.

U41 whose German Commander Claus Hansen had captured the crew of Hastie’s trawler was sunk by a British Q-Ship HMS Baralong on the 24th September 1915, when the enemy submarine was in the process of sinking SS Urbino off the Scilly Isles and surfaced near the Q-Ship which immediately opened fire and the U-Boat sank killing 35. There were two survivors of U41 and unfortunately, Hansen who had been born in Coln in 1883 was not one of them. In 1915 he had sunk 30 ships.

Claus Hansen

The St George crew had been sent primarily to the notorious Sennelager Camp. An account by Skipper R.W. Kemp of the Grimsby trawler Lobelia was featured in a book by Walter Wood in 1918. When Kemp stepped ashore in Wilhelmshaven along with 200 recently captured fishermen, they were met by the jeers of the inhabitants lining the route who threw dirt and stones at them. They were marched into a prison with 4 men to each cell measuring 8ft by 5ft and there they stayed for 4 days, being allowed out for 1 hour per day. Then they were told like the St George crew they were going to Sennelager where they slept outside on the bare ground for 3 weeks with no blankets. They slept during the day when it was warm and kept on the move to keep warm during the night. Food was in very short supply with a main meal at lunchtime of thin cabbage soup. Then they were moved to tents which held 600 men, but they still slept on the ground. There were no means to wash their clothes. All prisoners were glad to leave this place where the guards were rough towards them and thought nothing of menacing them with dogs or rifle butt.

Conditions in Ruhleben camp which until September 1914 was a racetrack, were reported in newspapers via letters from the American Embassy in Berlin and painted a grim state of affairs for the captive fishermen. Letters from the camp were subjected to severe censorship and reports suggested that pressure was placed upon prisoners to describe conditions better than they were in reality. There was reason to believe that British prisoners were singled out for inhuman treatment. The Ambassador stated that rations had declined dramatically and the prisoners were at risk of starvation.  He described the barracks as overcrowded and it seemed intolerable that 6 people should be herded together in a horse’s stall. The light for reading was bad and he said reading was a necessity if the prisoners were to be held during another winter. Conditions in the haylofts above the stables were even worse as the rooves sloped and gave little headroom and beds were so close together they touched. 64 men lived in that confined space with light so faint that prisoners eyes, wrote the Ambassador “will be seriously injured, if the sight is not permanently lost, and this semi-darkness will undoubtedly cause depression and mental trouble”. He went on to report that the heating system should be improved and provision made for the drying of clothes by radiators or a drying room in each barrack. Apparently the prisoners were obliged to answer the roll call outside, often in the rain and had no way of drying their sodden attire. Articles such as soap were usually issued to prisoners, but had never been given to the inmates of Ruhleben. Isaac Cohen who wrote about his captivity there in 1917 said that on arrival they were given a military blanket, a towel and a pewter bowl all of which showed signs of extensive usage. Ablutions for 250 men were done via 20 basins filled at one cold water tap. Food was meagre and bad quality. Rain created a giant pool of water in the middle of the camp measuring 130ft by 25ft. The latrines were inadequate and in bad weather the men had to relieve themselves as best they could in the cramped barracks. Straw sack mattresses were often stuffed with wet and mouldy straw. Many of the horse stalls had manure still clinging to the whitewashed walls and cement floors.

Five Englishmen who were released from the camp in August of that year described it like a lunatic asylum. Seven cases of lunacy had been removed from the camp in one week and insanity was increasing. On Feb 8th 1915 a captive called Burton recorded in his diary “Man in barrack 4 cut his throat this morning, however he didn’t make a good job of it”.

Under pressure from the American Embassy, the Germans built 4 new barracks. Interned British Engineers put in drainage, latrines and washing facilities. The American YMCA donated and built a YMCA hut which provided the men with a comfortable place to congregate which had a large communal hall, classrooms and reference library stocked by the British Board of Education. The captives created a garden which provided the camp kitchen with fresh fruit and vegetables. They also produced the camp magazine easily in this facility. Permission was given to organise games of football, rugby and eventually cricket and tennis too once supplies were sent from Britain. With funds provided by the American Embassy the prisoners built a boiler house to provide hot water. Camp life improved dramatically and happened as a result of the benevolent Americans, parcels from home and the inmates themselves.

At the end of November 1918 the Shields men returned from Ruhleben camp in Germany. Robert Craig of the St George had been a prisoner for almost three years and he was met at the railway station by ecstatic members of his family and a large gathering of enthusiastic townsfolk. He said there were 15 other men from North Shields among the large batch of released prisoners who were landed at Hull. It must have felt so good to be back on Tyneside.

The crew of the St. George were : 1) Skipper William Hastie, 39 King St, North Shields  2) RH Craig, Mate, North King St, North Shields  3) JR Sutherland, Engineer, 11 Yeoman St, North Shields  4) JR Turnbull, Second Engineer, 36 Yudyard St, North Shields  5) Richard Wilson, Fireman, 4 Back St, Preston, North Shields  6 ) Joseph Laws, Deck Hand, 55 Bowman St, South Shields  7) HG Roberts, Deck Boy, 90 Alfred St, South Shields  8) Charles Brown, Third  Hand, 52 Reay St, South Shields  9) Charles Ormsby, Cook, 5 Stewart Buildings, North Shields

Written and researched by Dorothy Ramser

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