Wednesday, January 16, 2019
HMT Swansea Castle

In WWI, Germany’s policy of wholesale mining of the North Sea and Atlantic was implemented from the day War was declared. Both during the confl ict and afterwards, fi shing vessels were crucial in combating this dire menace. Not only did they patrol and sweep the seas for the Royal Navy but they also saved many major vessels from mines by serving as the ultimate indicators of minefi elds through their own destruction.

As the weaker naval power and the nation least dependent on maritime trade, Germany saw the mine as a weapon that could inflict severe damage on its enemies. The North Sea, shallow, opaque and turbulent, was an ideal environment for mining, and a highway for both naval and civilian British shipping. Germany’s strategy was designed to maximize the potential of her minelaying capability from the outset, having large stocks of very efficient mines ready at the outbreak of war.

Mines caused far more losses to the Royal Navy during the war than either gunfire or torpedoes. This weapon, at which British admirals had been inclined to sneer and which the navy was ill prepared to use or to combat, became a decisive factor in the war at sea.

Historically, large warships had generally been immune to attack by smaller ones, but the advent of mines and torpedoes had inverted the established norms. Submarines, torpedo boats, innocent-looking trawlers, or a disguised railway ferry; all represented dire potential threat to the great Dreadnaught battleships.

Initially the Royal Navy regarded mines as nasty and sneaky devices, the main use of which was to protect a fleet anchorage from surprise attack. Main fleet harbours were also protected by defensive mines, installed by the Royal Engineers.

The ability to make use of lesser craft to support Britain’s capital ships goes back centuries but it was only in WWI that their role would become so vital. The menace of mine and submarine to all Allied vessels demanded employment of huge numbers of craft of all descriptions. Thankfully, they were available. Nonetheless, the Admiralty had the daunting task, when it came to trawlers and drifters, of balancing imperative defence with the essential role of the fishing industry in supplying an important element of the population’s diet.

At the declaration of War, hundreds of British steam trawlers were scattered either singly or in fleets across the North Sea grounds and far beyond. The summer herring fishery was in full swing as fleets of steam drifters worked the herring shoaling off the NE coast of England. Virtually every fishing port around the British Isles had vessels at sea. Admiralty instructions were immediately relayed to harbourmasters that no fishing boats were to sail for the North Sea grounds and all those currently at sea should be recalled: no easy matter as few possessed radios.

The trade ground to a halt and fish supplies dried up. Those involved seemed more immediately threatened by unemployment than war. It was a huge industry and the country stood to lose a food source equivalent to nearly half of the total quantity of meat consumed in the British Isles, the bulk of which was landed at east coast ports. Personnel numbers diminished as RNR men were called up. Also, throughout Britain, enrolment by fishermen to the various services was ‘nothing short of overwhelming’.

The joint aims of trying to maintain naval security whilst maximizing fish supplies were largely incompatible. Unregulated fishing vessels were hard to protect and they might provide a convenient disguise for the infiltration of enemy agents and saboteurs: hence the Admiralty’s initial thought of keeping all fishing vessels off the North Sea for the war’s duration. They were prevailed upon to modify this policy. Fishing vessels were soon back on the grounds, directed by a complex web of naval regulations. At sea, fishermen could play a useful scouting and reconnoitring role. They were encouraged to bring immediate reports of enemy movements to Admiralty notice, with a scale of financial rewards if it led to capture or destruction of an enemy vessel.

In late 1914, Germany heavily mined the fishing grounds of Smith’s Knoll. They caused considerable damage to the herring drifters in the area. The sinking of fishing vessels became official German policy in early 1915. The commander of the German submarine U9 recorded: ‘We captured and sank scores of smacks off Dogger Bank. This was far less glorious than gunning for armed men-of-war, and less exciting. But it supplied many unexpected thrills.’

By contrast, when the Royal Navy sank ten German trawlers off the Kattegat in 1918, all their crews were saved: ‘We are proud of and thankful for the noble spirit which scorns to wage war on helpless men. There is not a British fisherman who would have acted otherwise.’

PRISONERS OF WAR
An Admiralty notice recalls the actions of a German squadron in ‘sinking 15 British fishing boats in the North Sea, and the crew of fishermen have been taken to Wilhelmshaven as Prisoners of War.’ A prisoner recalls an initiation: ‘…with German soldiers on each side of us, and the women, boys and girls shouting and pelting us, we were marched to a prison. The Germans stripped us of everything we had…they disfigured us by cutting one half of the hair of our heads off and one half of the moustache, making you as ugly as they could: we made the best of it, and laughed at one another.’

Large numbers of fishermen were captured early on. Their treatment in captivity, especially in the notorious camp of Sennelager, was an indictment of the regime. Many would return home broken men, after suffering years of inadequate accommodation, hard labour, severely restricted food rations, poor health care and, in some cases, brutality.

Early in the 20th century some efforts were being made in Britain into creating satisfactory means of sweeping enemy mines. A study of systems used by trawlers resulted in a proposal for a ‘kite’ that would maintain the sweep wire at a constant depth between a pair of towing vessels. It was anticipated that it might be necessary to sweep offensive mines laid close to British harbours or in shipping lanes. Admiral Lord Charles Beresford, Commander of the Home Fleet, visited the Humber in 1907 to pursue a suggestion that commercial fishermen might be capable of using their vessels to perform this function. He was impressed by their seamanship and skills in handling heavy gear at sea, and reported favourably. In 1910 a new branch of the RNR was formed for the specific purpose of minesweeping in war – the Trawler Section, RNR(T).

With the founding of the Royal Naval Minesweeping Reserve – RNMR – recruits received some training but were not under naval discipline and did not wear uniform. They were under the control of their regular skippers who normally went to sea wearing a bowler hat and a tweed suit, which was adorned with Navy-issue brass buttons. The deckhands were regular English and Scottish east coast fishermen. Under the White Ensign, and as ‘Fisher Jacks’, they applied their ancient lore to a new kind of catch.

Most of the sweeping was done by steam trawlers. Accustomed to fishing as far afield as the coasts of North Africa and the Arctic, they were fine sea boats. The form and build of their hulls made sweeping easy, and virtually no additional gear was needed. However, their deep draught made them vulnerable to the mines they were required to sweep. They were also too slow to reach newly laid minefields in emergencies.

A solution was devised when coastal passenger-carrying paddle steamers proved to be excellent sweepers. With shallow draught and small crew, these fast vessels soon assumed the bulk of clearing newly laid fields, working alongside the trawlers which kept the war channels open. These paddle steamers were so successful that the Admiralty ordered the design of a new naval paddle minesweeper – the Racecourse Class, of which thirtytwo were built.

As the war progressed, many of them were fitted with 6-pounder quick-firing guns to sink mines and to ward off U-boats. There were many instances of them proving extremely aggressive in service. One of the first U-boat sinkings of the war was achieved by the Dorothy Grey, which rammed a submarine which had attempted to enter Scapa Flow. Most of the U-boat’s crew were rescued before it sank.

British trawlers were joined as the war progressed by increasing numbers of captured German fishing boats, and by various Scandinavian and even Spanish trawlers purchased by the Admiralty and manned by naval and RNMR crews.

Read the rest of this article with additional pictures in Sea Breezes Magazine - May 2018 Issue
Click here to subscribe

Subscribe Graphic
Stad Amsterdam

Most Popular

  • 1
  • 2

Top Ten Books and DVDs of 2018

Latest Products

Maritime Log

  • New Teeside Port Handles Fertiliser +

    Teeside Port The contract for the design and build of the port handling facilities on Teesside for Sirius Minerals Plc, owners of Read More
  • RNLI Helps Family Pay Special Tribute to a Relative and Shipmates +

    RNLI Seahouses On the afternoon of Nov 10 last year, a special ceremony took place off Sunderland to mark the sinking of Read More
  • End of Shipbuilding at Historic Appledore Yard +

    Appledore Yard The Appledore shipyard in Devon is to be closed in March by its owners, the UK-based engineering company Babcock International. Read More
  • Container Lines Unite to Develop Digital Co-Operation +

    Mayview Maersk Five of the world’s major container lines are planning to set up an association aimed at digitalisation, standardisation and interoperability Read More
  • On Course for Training +

    Eternity The latest vessel to join the fleet of model ships used for training at Southampton University’s Warsash School of Maritime, Read More
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3

North America

  • All Crew Rescued as Liftboat Takes on Water +

    RAM XV111 All fifteen people were rescued from a listing self-propelled self-elevating jackup platform, known in the US offshore industry as a Read More
  • Imports Up but Exports Fall in China Trade War +

    Port of Long Beach For the second year running, the Port of Long Beach, California, has broken its record for the volume of cargo Read More
  • $500m Drugs Seized By Eight Cutters +

    USCGC James Drugs with a street value of $500mn were unloaded at Port Everglades, Florida, on Nov 15 by the US Coast Read More
  • Crude Oil Exports Help Boost Tonnage +

    Corpus Christi The major US oil exporting port of Corpus Christi, in Texas, set a new tonnage record during the first nine Read More
  • Four LNG Tankers in One Day +

    Ribera del Duero Knutsen In a major first on Oct 1, four liquefied gas carriers transited the Panama Canal in one day through the Read More
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3

Asia-Pacific

  • Tabletop Drill Checks Staff's Response +

    MOL Emergency Control Headquarters A simulated collision - known as a tabletop drill - involving a LNG carrier and a fishing boat in Japanese waters has Read More
  • The Future of Ships to Come +

    NYK Ship The major Japanese shipping group Nippon Yusen Kaisha (NYK) has come up with a new concept of how a ship Read More
  • Port Urged to Review Opertations +

    CMA CGM Centaurus The UK registered container ship CMA CGM Centaurus, 131,322gt, crashed into the quay at the United Arab port of Jebel Read More
  • New Welsh Memorial to Japanese U-Boat Victims +

    Hirano Maru A special memorial has been unveiled in a churchyard in Wales to the almost 300 crew and passengers of a Read More
  • Waste Water Spilled Into Great Barrier Reef +

    Pacific Explorer The P&O Cruises Australia cruise ship Pacific Explorer, 77,499gt, was detailed by the Australian authorities after spilling waste water in Read More
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3

Naval Focus

  • Navy And NASA Complete Recovery Test +

    USS Anchorage American News In what might be seen as a return to the heady days of NASA’s Apollo moon program, the Read More
  • F-35s Touch Down on HMS Queen Elizabeth +

    HMS Queen Elizabeth British News Many people never thought they’d see it happen, but F-35B Lightning II Joint Strike Fighters have finally flown Read More
  • Sea Trials Recall for Zumwalt-Class Destroyer +

    USS Michael Monsoor American News The Zumult class destroyer USS Michael Monsoor was in dockyard hands at Bath in Maine for the removal Read More
  • HMS Albion Proves Big in Japan +

    HMS Albion British News The assault ship HMS Albion, at time of writing, had just completed a five day visit to Tokyo Read More
  • Royal Navy Commissions New Survey Ship +

    HMS Magpie British News The latest survey vessel to join the Royal Navy was commissioned into service at her homeport of Devonport Read More
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3

Ferry World

  • Appledore's Legacy +

    Clansman The impending closure of the Appledore Yard is another loss of merchant ship-building capacity even though its bread and butter, Read More
  • New Builds for Stena +

    E-Flexer RoPax The first three of the large ro-ros on order by Stena, from the Avic Co’s Weihai yard in China, are Read More
  • Tragedy in Tanzania +

    Nyerere A country well used to tragedy, saw another, on Lake Victoria in September. Read More
  • Seatruck Irish Sea Expansion +

    Seatruck Power Seatruck Pace At this time, when all cross-border ferry operators ex UK must be extremely apprehensive as leaving the EU approaches, Seatruck Read More
  • Worse Things Happen at Sea +

    Ulysse and CSL Virginia I would have liked to have seen the face or hear the language of the OOW when he realised he Read More
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3

Sail Review/Coastal Comment

  • All Change at Sea-Change +

    Cambria Since she was rebuilt in 2011, the mulie barge Cambria has been based in Kent, but in September, after her Read More
  • Kaskelot Becomes Le Francais +

    Kaskelot At the end of the Southampton Boat Show in September, the barque Kaskelot, which had been on display, was sold Read More
  • Brexit Impact on Ports and Cars +

    CIty of Amsterdam I am amazed the port industry has not made more thorough and timely comments about the potentially negative impact of Read More
  • Barge Race Review +

    Edme Apart from the Whitstable Harbour Barge Race, all the other barge races have a yearly points system that counts up Read More
  • The Temps Fête Maritime Festival +

    La Recouvrance During World War II, most of France’s traditional sailing vessels were destroyed and after the war, the emphasis was on Read More
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3

From the Lookout

  • The Fjords Targets Oslo With New Zero Emission Vessel +

    Future of the Fjords The Fjords DA has announced it plans to add another all electric passenger vessel to its award winning fleet, with Read More
  • New Film Celebrates Public Access to River and Docks Archive +

    Elephants Public access to documents charting the history of the River Thames and London’s Docks over nearly 250 years has been Read More
  • Wreck of Argentine Submarine San Juan Discovered +

    San Juan In November 2017, I was greatly saddened by the disappearance and assumed loss of the Argentine submarine San Juan. Read More
  • M Squared and Imperial College Reveal Quantum Compass +

    Quantum Compass Prototype Over the years at Sea Breezes, we have highlighted the inherent weakness of some of our electronic navigation systems to Read More
  • Jobs Boost for the Clyde? +

    Old Kilpatrick John MacSween An ambitious plan to bring marine manufacturing and support industries back to the Upper Clyde, if fully realised, will result Read More
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3

Cruise News/Superyacht News

  • New Turquoise Yachts 77m Unveiled +

    Project Quantum Turquoise Yachts, the Turkish based shipyard under the same ownership as the Dutch Oceanco shipyard, has commissioned Ken Freivokh Design Read More
  • Steady as a Rock +

    Rock When Ali Sayakci, the Turkish businessman, set out to build his new yacht Rock, his primary concern was how to Read More
  • Le Ponant on the Move +

    Ponant Icebreaker Following the example of the Lindblad Cruise Line and National Graphic in the USA, Ponant, the French cruise line which Read More
  • The Bridge Story Updated +

    Queen Mary 2 Recent readers of these Cruise News pages will possibly be familiar with the coverage given to “Bridge 2017”, a transatlantic Read More
  • Dropping an Anchor in Glasgow +

    Anchor Line The history of former shipping lines are frequently well chronicled in various museums. Read More
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3

Ships, Ports and Places

Kelvinbank

First Voyage on the SS Kelvinbank

Readers may recall the account of life on the Liverpool-crewed Liberty ship, Maplebank, by Alan Rawlinson (Sea Breezes July 2017), Read More
Glenlee

The Last Voyage of the Islamount (Part 4)

As Islamount, the 1896 three-masted barque Glenlee completed four circumnavigations of the globe and rounded Cape Horn 15 times before Read More
  • 1
  • 2

Companies, Events and Other Features

Sinclair Petrolore

Centenary Feature - Disaster at Sea

The following article was originally published in the April, 1961 issue of Sea Breezes and will be the first of Read More
Bobato Ship Models

Mauritian Model Makers

Few would expect to find a flourishing ship modelling industry located in a far-flung corner of the southern Indian Ocean. Read More
  • 1
  • 2