The War Afloat - Hull's war at sea
World War One often conjures up images of soldiers in trenches going ‘over the top’. What is less remembered is the vital contribution from Britain’s Navy, Merchant Seamen and fishermen. Every day, in all weathers, these services patrolled the seas, engaged enemy submarines and swept the sea lanes of mines.
Through every day of the First World War, these sailors were on the front line supplying Britain with vital food and war materials, and restricting German supplies. At the beginning of the war, the Germans started laying mines in the North Sea to prevent food supplies reaching British ports. As the war progressed, a new danger came from German submarines. To combat this the Admiralty requestioned many of the Hull and Grimsby trawlers, for mine sweeping and anti-submarine patrols. They were used to control the seaward approaches to major harbours. No one knew these waters better than local fishermen, and the trawler was the ship these fishermen understood and could operate effectively without further instruction. The larger and newer trawlers and whalers were converted for anti submarine work and the older and smaller trawlers were converted to minesweepers. New trawler minesweepers were also built by Cook, Welton and Gemmel Ltd of Beverley, and in total, Hull and the Humber supplied 880 vessels and 9,000 men for this work.
Hull's War at Sea
Due to Hull's coastal location, many Hull men joined the Navy in all its forms. Hull men served throughout the world, in the Royal Navy, Royal Marines, Royal Naval Reserve, Merchant Service and the Hull Fishing Feet. 14,000 merchant seamen were to die in the war, 4,000 of these sailors died in just 3 months during 1917, when the German U Boat attacks peaked.
As a maritime City, with a long tradition of seafaring, Hull played an important role in Britain's sea war. It provided large numbers of ships and crews for all the Naval Services. The Humber area, including Hull, supplied over 880 vessels & 9,000 men from the fishing trade. These patrolled the North Sea, brought in vital food supplies and swept the sea lanes of enemy mines and other hazards to trade. They collected sophisticated German Seamines and hauled these back to port, so that British intelligence could learn improvements. They would also collect floating topedoes for scrap. Life at sea could be full of perils and dangers: submarines, mines, ice, storms, blizzards, hurricanes, ice-bergs, frost, fog, collisions, stranded ashore, wrecked on rocks, and, most of all, fatigue from the endless work of catching fish in dangerous conditions. Nearly, 1,200 Hull sailors were killed in the First World war.
Losses along the Humber
In total, 670 fishing vessels, were lost from the Humberside region, of which 214 were minesweepers. Hull lost 129, of these ships, including 61 mineweepers. 'Spurn' Point at the mouth of the Humber is surrounded by 370 wrecks lost in the First World war. Like the 'Pals' battalions at the front, the loss of a ship's crew could have a similar, sudden impact on the tight knit sea communities at home. On average half the crew of a minesweeper were lost when it was sunk. Sometimes the ship casualties were worse, including the loss of the entire crews, and included old men and grandfathers, who had vital experience of the sea, as well as younger spare hands and teenage cabin crew, who were required to carry out the exhaustive duties of running a ship. For example, the steam trawler 'Egret', which was sunk, while on patrol, without warning, on 1st June 1918, lost all eleven crew, including the Master. Ten were from the Hessle Road area, killed on the same day, while protecting the Humber. Their details are below:
CREW LOST ON EGRET (H21), enemy action 2 miles E. x N. Humber Lt Vl, 1st June, 1918.
- CROWE, E (41), 53 Glasgow street, Hull. Cook
- FISHER, George (54), 3 Laura-grove, Tyne street, Hull. 2nd/Hand
- FRANCIS, Septimus (23), 9 Granville-ave, West Dock street, Hull. Deckhand
- McFEE, William (54), 75 Ena street, Boulevard, Hull. Skipper
- MEARS, Alfred (22), 3 Fern-grove, Harrow street, Hull. 3rd/Hand
- RIDSDILL, William (27), 6 Cedar-grove, Eastbourne street, Hull. Chief Engineer
- ROBERTS, Clarence (21), 5 Louisa-ter, St. George's road, Hull. Trimmer
- SANDERSON, William (60), 8 Naburn street, Hull. 2nd/Engineer
- SMITH, William (43), 8 Langdale-crescent, Flinton street, Hull. Bosun
- TUTCHER, John (50), 2 Chiltern-villas, Division road, Hull. Sparehand
- Photo (left) is of William George Worrell, Skipper of the Steam Trawler 'TITANIA' lost at sea, 11th May 1915, aged 53. He left a wife and seven children, at 1 Belgrave Terrace, Eton Street, Hull.
During the First World War, 300 Hull ships were used as minesweepers and for searching submarines. 61 of these Hull ships were lost during the war. Fishermen were seen as the best people for the job, as their ships were ideal for this task, they knew the waters well and they could not continue fishing anyway. They swept an area one mile wide and a 540 miles in length from Dover to the Firth of Forth. This was known as the 'war channel' and all shipping and convoys moved through this channel, which was swept of mines daily. The most effective method for minesweeping was the use of a serrated wire towed by two ships. This would cut through the morring cable of submerged mines either expoding them or allowing the mine to rise to the surface, where it could be dealt with by rifle fire. During the war, the Germans laid 1,360 minefields, containing 25,000 mines in Britsh waters. These mines accounted for 46 Royal Navy warships, 269 merchant ships and 63 fishing vessels, which in total, amounted to over 1 million tonnes of allied shipping sunk.
Only 93 Hull trawlers were used for fishing during the war, and all fish & chips shops were closed in Hull throughout the war. The vessels which remained fishing, were usually old ships that had not been requisitioned by the Royal Navy. The were usually crewed by old men and young boys, unable to serve their country. Nevertheless, these men and boys took similar risks to the many warships. They sailed their unarmed vessels into a mine infested sea, knowing that at any time a U Boat could sink them. They were also prime targets for the German Airforce, or Zeppelins that headed to the North Sea fishing Grounds, for easy pray. As the losses to the fishing fleet increased, further restrictions on vessel movements, made fish scarcer and demand could not be met. The rising price of fish was due to this shortage in supply. Prices increased so dramatically, that vessels which averaged a profit of between £6,000 and £7,000 a year before 1914, were by 1917, averaging profits between £30,000 and £40,000. Many of these profits went to the ship owners, rather than the crews. It enabled the owners to build 40 new fishing vessels during the war, at the Earles shipyard in Hull. Other firms built another 35 fishing ships at a time when there was a shortage of skilled labour and materials.
Nine fishing trawlers from Hull were lost by mines, although others which were listed as missing may have met the same fate. The first Hull vessel sunk by a mine was the 'IMPERIALIST H250', on the 6th September 1914, 40 miles 'ENE' of Tynemouth.
The Auxiliary Patrol was a front line naval defence force, composed of numerous small craft, tasked with minesweeping and anti submarine patrols, initially around the British Isles, but later also in the Mediterranean. A wide variety of vessels were used, including requisitioned fishing vessels, yachts and motor boats. Like the Minesweepers, the Auxiliary patrol was manned by fishermen and included seaman from all over the world. Their tasks were numerous, the main ones being, patroling and protecting 565 miles of sea lanes to ensure safe passage. They carried little armanants, but escorted convoys on the outer flanks, with hydrophone listening equipment fitted. They would spot enemy aircraft and listen for any U Boat activity near the convoy and if detected drop depth charges. In may instances when a convey was attacked or torpedoed, vessels would steam off to limit losses. The Auxiliary Patrol would however remain on the scene to pick up survivors, often putting their own vessels is danger of attack. Hull's first Auxillary patrol vessel lost, was the HMT 'COLUMBIA'. She was attacked by E Boats off Forness, on the 1st May 1915, with only one survivor.
Submarine Warfare. A far greater threat than the mine, and the largest number of losses, were due to sinking by submarine gunfire. A German submarine would surface close to the fishing fleet and in most cases at the beginning of the war, would take the crews off several trawlers and place them aboard another vessel to take them back to port. The unmanned vessels would then be sunk by shell fire from the submarine or a bomb placed aboard. The first Hull vessel sunk by a German U-Boat was the 'MERCURY H518' on the 2nd May 1915. This was to change when armed escorts were sent with the fishing vessels and the vessels themselves carried guns, Hull ships then became a target like any other warship and were sunk without warning. In several cases the crews were taken prisoner and were interned in POW camps.
On 3rd May 1915, eight Hull Vessels were sunk by submarine while fishing in the same area of the North Sea. These were the, 'BOB WHITE H290', 'COQUET H831', 'HECTOR H896', 'HERO H886', 'IOLANTHE H328', 'MERRIE ISLINGTON H183', 'NORTHWARD HO H455', and 'PROGRESS H475'.
Hull lost 68 fishing vessels during the WW1 period, from 1914 to 1920. These were vessels that were not on Admiralty service or in the Fishery Reserve. Seven of these vessels were lost due to collision or grounding and were not a consequence of war, 11 were listed as missing of which the cause was unknown, they may have been sunk by enemy action and unclaimed, or most likely contacted drifting mines or entered an unknown mined area. Of the remainder, 4 were sunk by Torpedo Boats. 19 ships where sunk by submarine gunfire and 13 had bombs placed aboard by submarine crew. There were also several other vessels sunk after this period due to mine contact. Another 5 vessels were lost while in the Fishery Reserve. (For the full list see the following link)
Hull lost 61 Minesweeping trawlers on Admiralty service during the war. On average half the crew of a minesweeper were lost with the ship. By the end of the War, only 91 Hull owned ships were afloat, 9 of which had been built during the war. Hull lost nearly 1,200 merchant crewmen, another 267 Royal Navy sailors and 38 Royal Marines.The majority of these died at sea and have no known grave.
To add to the tragedy, there was little compensation for a sailor's family. Sailors pay stopped when their ship sank, and usually only paid if they died with the ship. Sailors who left their ship in life boats were deemed to have discharged themselves from duty and often had their sea pay docked.
At the end of the First World War, Lord Jellico declared that the Royal Navy had saved the Empire, but it was the fishermen in their boats who had saved the Royal Navy. The Royal Naval Reserve of fishermen was "a Navy within the Navy". They swept mines, escorted convoys, hunted U-boats and carried out countless dangerous duties. While often overlooked by Admiralty officials, there contribution was at least recognized by Admiral Sir Reginald Bacon who said;
‘It is doubtful if we could have defeated the Germans, at any rate as quickly as we did defeat them, if it had not been for the assistance which the Royal Navy received from the fishing community.’
Hull ships and crews therefore played a major part in that victory. The ongoing peril of unexploded sea mines continued to take the lives of Hull fisherman, long after the war had ended. For example, the Hull Trawler ‘Gitano’ struck a mine and was sunk with all hands on the 23rd December 1918. The Hull Trawler ’Scotland’ struck a mine on the 13th March 1919, killing 7 Hull men. Two days later the steam ship ‘Durban’ exploded‘, killing another eight Hull sailors. The ‘Isle of Man’ (Hull) exploded on the 14th December 1919, killing a further seven Hull fishermen. The steam ship ‘Barbados’ exploded on the 5th November 1920, taking ten Hull men. These included the two Weaver brothers killed on the same day. Many of these seaman had survived the war, only to be its victims after.
Illustrations of life on board a trawler - "In the Wheelhouse, Mail Day, playing cards, cleaning guns, the Galley cook, the stoker, the radio officer, slipping the "kite" which controls the mine sweeping depth."
Dangerous work for fishing trawlers used as minesweepers
When the Royal Naval Reserve (RNR) was first created in 1859, it consisted of up to 30,000 merchant seamen and fisherman who the Navy could call on in times of crisis. Fishing trawlers were strong, sturdy ships, designed to withstand severe weather conditions out at sea, and in 1907 the Commander-in-Chief of the Home Fleet, Admiral Lord Beresford, recognised that trawlers could be used as minesweepers. His recommendation led to the formation of the Royal Naval Reserve (Trawler Section) in 1910, with approval to mobilise 100 trawlers during any crisis period and enrol 1,000 men to man them. It also introduced a new rank, that of 'Skipper' RNR, into the Navy List. By the end of 1911, 53 skippers had joined. In 1912 a further 25 enrolled and the Trawler Section of the Royal Naval Reserve, consisted of 142 trawlers manned by 1,279 personnel. 31 more skippers joined before the war started in August 1914, making a total of 109 skippers. Another 315 more volunteered by the end of the first week in October. By the end of 1915 the Minesweeping Service employed 7,888 officers and men.
The Royal Naval Reserve (Trawler Section):
The 'Paravane', a form of towed underwater "glider", was developed from 1914–16 by Commander Usborne and LieutenantC. Dennistoun Burney, funded by Sir George White, founder of the Bristol Aeroplane Company. Initially developed to destroy naval mines, the paravane would be strung out and streamed alongside the towing ship, normally from the bow.The wings of the paravane would tend to force the body away from the towing ship, placing a lateral tension on the towing wire. If the tow cable snagged the cable anchoring a mine then the anchoring cable would be cut, allowing the mine to float to the surface where it could be destroyed by gunfire. If the anchor cable would not part, the mine and the paravane would be brought together and the mine would explode harmlessly against the paravane. The cable could then be retrieved and a replacement paravane fitted. Burney explosive paravanes were deployed from torpedo boat destroyers in a configuration known as the 'High Speed Sweep' to counter submarines. However, most paravanes were non-explosive and were streamed by larger warships and merchant ships as self-defence measures to divert moored mines away from their hulls. They comprised a wire streamed to each side from the bows with a float secured to the end to divert it outwards