South Shields Local History Group

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Fishermen Fighting the Nazis

The part played by British fishermen during the Second World War has largely been overlooked in the collective memory. The price they paid to put fish on our plates at this perilous time in our history should be acknowledged by us all. Their job was, and still is in 2018, highly dangerous and that is without having to deal with the added danger of Nazi Germany hell bent on sinking their boats.  Our fishermen not only battled for fish to feed us, but also to save the lives of their fellow seamen and downed airmen. Larger better equipped fishing trawlers and crews were requisitioned and were used as minesweepers and also 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. 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 below illustrate their heroism.

In January 1940 the Clitheroe Advertiser ran a story about the British Fishing Fleet. “That we are dealing with maniacs becomes more and more evident as the war goes on.”  The article was commenting on how the Germans avenged the demise of the ship the Admiral Graf Spee, which was scuttled by its crew on the 18th Dec 1939 off Buenos Aires having been damaged during the Battle of the River Plate. The Germans retaliated viciously and attacked and sank a fleet of 15 unarmed British trawlers whilst they were fishing, by attacking the defenceless fishermen from submarine and aircraft. Nine bombs fell on the ‘Isabella Greig’ and totally destroyed her. In the chaos, the enemy bomber machine-gunned the vulnerable crew of 10 men and wounded two. They scrambled into the lifeboat with the wounded but they were submitted to sustained gunfire once more. Indeed the bullets were still hailing around them when they were picked up by another courageous little fishing trawler not prepared to abandon their comrades to their fate.

That same month the Liverpool Evening Express related what happened to the vulnerable fishing trawler ‘River Eain’ when she was attacked three times being machine gunned, bombed and then sank by enemy action. She had left her home port in mid-December 1939, bound for the fishing grounds in the North Sea. At 3am on the 18th December they sighted a distress flare and found three men clinging to a raft. They were Danes from the steamer ‘Bogo’ which had sunk after hitting a mine. The men were in a dreadful state, suffering from exposure after being in the icy water. A few hours later they sighted a single aircraft which was approaching them and flying ominously low. The fishermen could see the black Nazi cross insignia as it swooped into the attack and dropped a bomb, which fortunately missed them. At 9am next day a German flying boat appeared and 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. The crew at once prepared to abandon ship which was met with the Germans mercilessly machine gunning the deck. As the crew and Danish survivors got into the lifeboat the bombing continued and the stricken trawler sank. Fortunately against the odds, her crew survived to tell the tale.

The following month in 1940 the Coventry Evening Telegraph reported that a great blaze had been seen from the coast, which enveloped the stricken Newcastle Oil Tanker ‘Gretafield’ as she was sinking off the North East coast of Scotland after enemy action earlier that morning. Reacting to the distress signal of these fellow seamen, fishing trawlers sped to the rescue and managed to pick up 28 men. Thirteen of the crew were missing believed dead despite extensive searches by the fishermen.

The Middlesbrough North Eastern Gazette reported in March 1940 that Britain’s fishing trawlers which were now armed with defensive weapons 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 which was the first time a small vessel took 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.

In the middle of the month the Coventry Standard told its readers that in peace time, no matter the weather, 1,800 British Trawlers and 40,000 trawler men (12,000 in 2016) 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, 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 1 million tons of fish valued at that time at more than £15 million. Despite the attacks the fishermen initially got plentiful supplies of fish landed, but as the war progressed as well as the dangers, the catch dropped. However by 1944 with the progress in the war there was gradual improvement.

The Newcastle Journal of the 5th April 1940 had the headline Shields Trawler beats Dornier in Gun Duel! The day before, the fishing trawler the ‘St Lawrence’, skippered by Mr. Robert Balls of Tynemouth Road, North Shields had driven off a German Dornier bomber. He and 8 of his crew of 9 were not injured but the Ship’s Mate George Todd of Wallsend Road had received a flesh wound on his forearm. 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 Bomber 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 by Mr Todd. 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.

Two German bombers attacked four Aberdeen trawlers North East of Shetland and found out much to their cost that the Scottish crew of one of them, the Corennie, was so full of fight that they flew off without doing any damage after dropping two bombs, seven aerial torpedoes and raked the deck with bullets. The other vessels that were attacked were the Gorspen, the Delilah E. and a third which took the Gorspen crew on board when they abandoned ship. Before the crew left they sent out an SOS which brought an RAF fighter plane speeding to their aid which quickly beat back the Nazi raider. The Corennie’s skipper Mr. George Burnett said that before he had time to identify the aircraft they were under attack. They attacked his ship one after the other using machine gun and then bombs. They attacked four times. After the first one the crew sprang into action to defend their vessel. James Leiper Second Engineer, and Alexander Reid Second Fisherman manned the Lewis Gun, whilst George Findlay and William Greig, deckhands, fired at the bombers with rifles. 350 rounds were used against the enemy. Firing at a bomber with rifles not only demonstrates the desperation of the crew but also their tremendous courage.

The following month in May 1940, the Shields Daily News reported that the Nazis had chosen defenceless fishermen on which to try out their secret weapons, described as short steel darts and a new type of incendiary bomb. This was recounted by the crews of the fishing trawlers Russell and Eroican who 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.

The Barnoldswick & Earby Times described in its 28th June 1940 edition the attack on one of its local trawlers. A fisherman called George manned the Lewis Gun. His bullets ripped into the attacking aircraft and soon the plane was seriously crippled and began to lose height and drop towards the sea. 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 abandoned its attack.

Then in July The Cornishman reported on an attack on one of its Cornish trawlers which had happened around 6pm. Suddenly out of the sky came four Nazi planes bearing down on the fishing boat. There was no time to take cover 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 3 crew members tried to shelter as best they could whilst bullets ricocheted 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. 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 into the attack with machine gun and canon fire. Both of the little vessels fought back with their guns and managed to hit the plane which eventually drove it off. It was on fire and crashed into the sea some miles away.

The little known Britannia & Eve newspaper of London published a story called “The Price of Fish”. The reporter travelled to an East coast port and watched the fishing boat Lochallen come in. He said the trawler was more like an ice-berg than a neat fishing boat. 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 Twelve pounder Gun was also being cleared. The reporter spotted a neat pile of used cartridge cases near the Lewis Guns. Capt. Sayers told him that they were 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 ironically one of the crew 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.

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. 

Written and researched by Dorothy Ramser

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