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.