The British Mercantile Marine and Fishing Fleets WWI

Admiralty Drifters

Among the great deeds of the war there is one which, though hardly to be described in detail, ranks in truth among the greatest of all. It is a collective deed: the conduct of the whole British Mercantile Marine and the Fishing Fleet – Services not less worthy than the professional Navy and Army to represent the “decent and dauntless people” of these islands. It had been prophesied before the war that after three ships had been sunk by enemy submarines no merchantman would put to sea. The prophet, though himself a naval man, can have known little of the resourcefulness of his own Service, and still less of the temper of his fellow-countrymen.

During the four years of the war, British commerce was never held up by any unwillingness of our seamen to face gun-fire or torpedo: skippers, engineers, and deck hands who had had three, four, or five ships sunk under them were constantly asking to be employed again before their clothes were dry. Seventeen thousand of them died in the 9,000,000 tons of shipping that we lost; yet not a man among the survivors drew back. On the contrary, it must be recorded that the enemy owed much of his success to the habitual and imperturbable confidence of the British skipper in his own ship and his own judgment. The men of the Mercantile Marine and Fishing Fleets also took their full share in the work of defending our coasts and hunting down their lawless and cruel enemies; and in this work they showed every quality of a great Service. It was in no empty form of words that the King honoured the memory of “that great company of our men, who, though trained only to the peaceful traffic of the sea, yet in the hour of national danger gave themselves, with the ancient skill and endurance of their breed, to face new perils and new cruelties of war, and in a right cause served fearlessly to the end.” Of this skill, endurance, and fearlessness, recorded in a thousand terse and unpretentious logs, an example or two may be picked almost at random.

In 1915, when the U-boat war was still a new experience, a sharp little double action was fought by two armed smacks, the Boy Alfred and the I’ll Try, against two German submarines. The British boats were commanded by Skipper Walter S. Wharton and Skipper Thomas Crisp, and were out in the North Sea, when they sighted a pair of U-boats coming straight towards them on the surface. The first came within 300 yards of the Boy Alfred and stopped. Then followed an extraordinary piece of work, intelligible only to the German mind. The U-boat signalled with a flag to the Boy Alfred to come nearer, and at the same time opened fire upon her with rifles or a machine-gun, hitting her in many places, though by mere chance not a single casualty resulted.

Skipper Wharton’s time had not yet come; he was neither for submission nor for a duel at long range; he risked all for a close fight. He first threw out his small boat, and by this encouraged the U-boat to approach nearer. She submerged and immediately reappeared within a hundred yards. A man then came out of the conning-tower and hailed the Boy Alfred, giving the order to abandon ship, as he intended to torpedo. But Skipper Wharton had now the range he desired – the hundred yards hammer and tongs range so dear to Nelson’s gunners – and instead of “Abandon ship” he gave the order “Open fire.” His man at the 12-pounder did not fail him; the first round was just short, and the second just over, but having straddled his target, the gunner put his third shot into the submarine’s hull, just before the conning-tower, where it burst on contact. The fourth shot was better still: it pierced the conning-tower and burst inside. The U-boat, with her torpedo unfired, sank like a stone, and a significant wide-spreading patch of oil marked her grave.

In the meantime the second enemy had gone to the east of the I’ll Try, who was herself east of the Boy Alfred. He was still more cautious than his companion, and remained submerged for some time, cruising around the I’ll Try with only a periscope showing. Skipper Crisp, having a motor fitted to his smack, was too handy for the German, and kept altering course so as to bring the periscope ahead of him, whenever it was visible. The enemy disappeared entirely no less than six times, but at last summoned up courage to break surface. His hesitation was fatal to him – he had given the smack time to make every preparation with perfect order and coolness. When he appeared suddenly at last, his upper deck and conning-tower were no sooner clearly exposed than Skipper Crisp put his helm hard over, brought the enemy on to his broadside, and opened fire with his 13-pounder gun. At this moment a torpedo passed under the smack’s stern, missing only by 2 feet, then coming to the surface and running along past the Boy Alfred. It was the U-boat’s first and last effort; in the same instant, the I’ll Try fired her only shot. The shell struck the base of the conning-tower and exploded, blowing pieces of the submarine into the water on all sides.

The U-boat immediately took a list to starboard and plunged bows first; she disappeared so rapidly that the smack’s gunner had not even time for a second blow. The I’ll Try hurried to the spot, and there saw large bubbles of air coming up, and a wide and increasing patch of oil. She marked the position with a Dan buoy and stood by with the Boy Alfred for three-quarters of an hour. Finally, as the enemy gave no sign of life, the two smacks returned together to harbour. Their skippers were both rewarded for their excellent work ; Skipper Wharton, who had already killed two U-boats and had received the D.S.C. and the D.S.M. with a bar, was now given a bar to the D.S.C. Skipper Crisp already had the D.S.M., and now received the D.S.C.

In another of these fishermen’s fights it was the trawl itself which actually brought on the battle at close quarters and made victory possible. One day in February 1915 the trawler Rosetta, Skipper G. A. Novo, had gone out to fish, but she had on deck a 6-pounder gun ingeniously concealed. She joined a small fleet of four smacks and two steam trawlers some 45 miles out, and fished with them all night. Before dawn a voice was heard shouting out of the twilight: it came from one of the steam trawlers. “Cut your gear away, there’s a submarine three-quarters of a mile away; he’s sunk a smack and I have the crew on board.” “ All right, thank you,” said Skipper Novo; but to get away from the enemy was precisely what he did not want to do. For some fifteen minutes he went on towing his trawl, in hope of being attacked; but as nothing happened, he thought he was too far away from the smacks, and began to haul up his trawl. He was bringing his boat round before the wind, and had all but the last twenty fathoms of the trawl in, when the winch suddenly refused to heave any more, and the warp ran out again about ten fathoms – a thing beyond all experience. “Hullo !” said the skipper, “there’s something funny.” He jumped down off the bridge and asked the mate what was the reason of the winch running back. “I don’t know, skipper; the stop-valve is opened out full.” The skipper tried it himself; then went to the engine-man and asked him if full steam was on. “The steam’s all right.” “Then reverse winch!” said the skipper, and went to give a hand himself, as was his custom in a difficulty; the hauling went on this time, all but to the end.

Suddenly the mate gripped him by the arm. “Skipper, a submarine on board us.” And there the enemy was, a bare hundred yards off on the starboard quarter. “Hard a-starboard, and a tick ahead!” shouted the skipper, and rushed for the gun, with the crew following. The gun was properly in charge of the mate, and he got to it first; but the brief dialogue which followed robbed him of his glory. “Right, skipper,” he said, meaning thereby “This is my job.” But in the same breath the skipper said, “All right, Jack, I got him! you run on bridge and keep him astern.” The Rosetta’s discipline was good; the mate went like a man, and the skipper laid the gun.

He was justified by his success. The enemy was very quickly put out of action, being apparently left altogether behind by the hurricane energy of Skipper Novo. From the moment of breaking surface less than sixty seconds had gone by when the Rosetta’s gun found the target. The U-boat was 250 feet long and only 300 feet away; every shot was a hit. The fourth caused an explosion, and flames shot up 4 or 5 feet above the submarine. Evidently she could no longer submerge, and she attempted to make off on the surface. But Skipper Novo was right in his estimate of his own chance – he had “got him.” His fifth, sixth, seventh, and eighth shots were all direct hits on the receding target, and at the eighth the enemy sank outright.

The Rosetta then spoke the smack Noel, which had been close to her during the action, and now confirmed all her observations. There was no doubt that the U-boat had been the obstruction which was tangled in the trawl. She had carried it all away, and in order to get clear had been obliged to come to the surface, without knowing where she might find herself, and there she had met her appropriate fate.

A third of these fights was a miniature fleet action, with an epic sound about it. In the Downs, and in the first twilight of a November morning, three of his Majesty’s armed drifters – the Present Help, the Paramount, and the Majesty were beginning their daily sweep for mines, when Skipper Thomas Lane of the Present Help, which was spare ship at the moment, sighted an object a mile distant to the eastward. As day was breaking, she was quickly marked for a German submarine – a huge one, with two big guns mounted on deck, one a 4-inch and one a 22-pounder. Nevertheless the Present Help, the Paramount, and the Majesty opened fire at once with their 6-pounders, not standing off, but closing their enemy, and continuing to close her under heavy fire, until they were hitting her with their own light guns. Even our history can hardly show a grander line of battle than those three tiny ships bearing down upon their great antagonist; and although U 48 did not fall to their fire, her surrender was due in the first instance to their determined onset. It was the Paramount who took and gave the first knocks; her searchlight was shot away, and in reply she succeeded in putting one of the enemy’s guns out of action. In the meantime, and none too soon, the Present Help had sent up the red rocket. It was seen by two other armed drifters, the Acceptable and the Feasible, who were less than 2 miles off, and by H.M.S. Gipsy, who was 4 miles away. Skipper Lee, of the Acceptable, immediately sang out “Action,” and both boats blazed away at 3,000 yards range, getting in at least one hit on the enemy’s conning-tower. At the same moment came the sound of the Gipsy’s I 2-pounder, as she rushed in at full speed.

The U-boat had started with an enormous and apparently overwhelming advantage of gun-power. She ought to have been a match, twice over, for all six of our little ships, but she was on dangerous ground, and the astounding resolution of the attack drove her off her course. In ten minutes the drifters had actually pushed her ashore on the Goodwin Sands – the Paramount had closed to 30 yards. Drake himself was hardly nearer to the Spanish galleons. Then came the Gipsy, equally determined. Her first two shots fell short, the third was doubtful, but after that she got on to the target, and the enemy’s bigger remaining gun was no match for her 12-pounder. After two hits with common pointed shell, she put on eight out of nine lyddite shells, smashed the German’s last gun and set him on fire forward. Thereupon the U-boat’s crew surrendered and jumped overboard.

It was now 7.20 and broad daylight. Lieutenant-Commander Frederick Robinson, of the Gipsy, gave the signal to cease fire, and the five drifters set to work to save their drowning enemies. The Paramount, who was nearest, got thirteen, the Feasible one, and the Acceptable two. The Gipsy’s whaler was got away, and her crew, under Lieutenant Gilbertson, R.N.R., tried for an hour to make headway against the sea, but could not go further than half a mile, the tide and weather being heavily against them. They brought back one dead man, and one prisoner in a very exhausted condition; afterwards they went off again and collected the prisoners from the other ships. Later came the procession hack to port – a quiet and unobtrusive return, but as glorious as any that the Goodwins have ever seen. Full rewards followed, and the due decorations for Skippers Thomas Lane, Edward Kemp, and Richard William Barker. But their greatest honour was already their own – they had commanded in victorious action his Majesty’s armed drifters the Present Help, the Paramount, and the Majesty.