The courage of those in the ‘forgotten’ war

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The bravery of the trawlermen who swept the North Sea for mines and battled against German U-boats is often overlooked. But they played a crucial role, as Chris Bond reports.

YOU could argue that Herbert Johnson had a lucky war.

The Hull-born trawlerman had the misfortune of being on two ships that were attacked by German U-boats during the First World War, but lived to tell the tale.

“He was sunk twice,” says maritime historian Dr Robb Robinson. “In May 1915, he was on the Hector which was sunk and he and his crew were left alone in the middle of the North Sea. They managed to reach the shore and two months later he was on the Cassio and that was sunk as well.”

Again Johnson survived, but for him and thousands of other British fishermen and trawlermen the war was a long, hard struggle against a stubborn enemy on a front line that could be just as deadly as the muddy fields of Flanders.

But as Dr Robinson, who is based at the Maritime Historical Studies Centre in Hull, points out, the story of the war in the North Sea is often overlooked. “In many respects it’s a forgotten story. When we hear about the Great War at sea, if we do hear about it, we tend to hear about the dreadnoughts and the Battle of Jutland. But there’s much more to it than that.”

By the time war broke out technology had changed dramatically since Britain’s last big naval battles. “By 1914 mines had been developed, the U-boat and torpedo had come along and these changed the dimensions of war,” Robinson explains.

Vast minefields were laid in the North Sea by the Germans who wanted to close our shipping lanes and cut off our trade routes. “The Admiralty knew the best way to deal with this was to sweep the mines from the sea, so trawlers and drifters, along with their crews, were called up in large numbers.”

As he points out, it was dangerous work. “It was incredibly treacherous, one minesweeper was lost every other week of the war and on average when a minesweeper sank half the crew went with it.”

Ships usually worked together to sweep an area for mines using a wire, the wire was then cut bringing the mine to the surface where it could be destroyed. “Lots of fishermen from Hull, Scarborough and Whitby joined these fleets and they really were on the maritime front line, day after day, week after week, month after month.”

But not only did they face the threat of mines, these requisitioned, often lightly armed vessels (it was only later that they were equipped with depth charges), had to try and evade the U-boats listening out for them in the icy depths below, in what became a deadly game of cat and mouse.

Dr Robinson’s own grandfather, George Francis Robinson, was among those who risked their lives. He was a Hull fisherman who spent much of the war as a mate on minesweepers and kept a diary of his time at sea.

“There’s one passage where he writes ‘I was having a pint with the skipper of a boat last night and this morning I hear it’s blown up with all hands lost,’” he says.

“You get this mixture of monotony and incredible tension because to clear the mines they had to enter the minefields. In one six month period he was 101 days at sea, mainly sweeping with 10 days leave, and during that time they destroyed 66 mines and any one of them could have blown up the ship.”

He reads another passage: “Started sweeping 4am. 9am near death as ever been, enemy mine afloat. Look-out failed to see it, just cleared the mine after an anxious few seconds. 10.30am, Queen of the North blew up, 19 survivors out of a crew of 43.”

It highlights the courage and stoicism of these men whose waking hours were constantly stalked by death. Another excerpt from the diary reads: “Left harbour at 6.30am, towed drifter, slipped to attack enemy submarine. Fired three shots but no luck, for he dived. Failed to drop depth charges for I stood by to drop a depth charge but no order came from the bridge – never get a chance like that again.”

While many boats were requisitioned others continued fishing because the beleaguered nation still needed food. But from early 1915, the Germans began targeting these even though they were unarmed. “Crews would be ordered to row across to the U-boat and the Germans would then set charges and blow the bottom out, and the crews were then left to head back to shore in their rowing boat.

“So there was this great war on working fisherman as well, it didn’t matter if you were minesweeping or fishing you were on the front line.”

The cost of this war of attrition is greater than many people realise and of the 1,657 trawlers registered in Britain in 1913, 503 were lost while fishing or on Admiralty service during the conflict.

“If you could drain the North Sea you’d actually see another battlefront. You have all the ships that were blown up and the trawlers and U-boats and their remains are still out there at the bottom of the sea.”

Yorkshire trawlermen weren’t just risking their lives off our own shores. “They worked as far afield as Gallipoli and there are Hull trawlers at the bottom of the sea off the Turkish coast. There were also drifters involved in what’s known as the Otranto blockade near Italy.”

Although this chapter of the Great War is less well known it hasn’t been completely forgotten. “We think of war graves as being in northern France and Belgium, but if you go around most graveyards along the coast of the British Isles you’ll find the graves of trawlermen from the war,” says Robinson.

Scant memorials, perhaps, but a lasting reminder at least of these men and their untold bravery and sacrifice.