Trawlerman’s anguished and fateful decision revisited

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Almost 100 years ago, Pat Thompson’s great-grandfather was involved in one of the war’s most notorious incidents. Andrew Robinson reports.

IN the early hours of February 2 1916, the Grimsby trawler King Stephen encountered a downed Zeppelin airship while fishing in the North Sea.

Clinging to the partly-submerged Zeppelin L19 were 16 German crew under the command of Lieutenant-Captain Odo Loewe who, in English, asked to be taken aboard. The airship had been on its way home after a raid over England when its engines failed.

What happened next led to headlines around the world and turned the trawler’s skipper, William Martin, into a celebrity.

After discussing the crashed Zeppelin’s predicament with his trawler’s mate, George Denny, Martin decided it wasn’t safe to take the Germans on board, fearing they might overpower the crew.

Skipper Martin later wrote: “I knew what the Germans had done in the North Sea and, besides, Zeppelin crews dropping bombs on houses and killing women and children didn’t appeal to me.”

He decided to sail away. All the Germans on the airship drowned.

Denny later told journalists what happened. “We decided it was not safe to have them on board because they could easily have overpowered us and taken our ship into Germany. The skipper shouted to them that we could not take them off... they kept screeching out, ‘save us, save us.’”

He added: “As we left, some of the Germans, I am told, but personally did not hear it, shouted out ‘Gott strafe England (May God punish England) and they shook their fists at us.”

Before it sank, some of the men posted messages to their loved ones in bottles which washed up on shores weeks later.

There was great support for Martin’s actions at home but in Germany he was branded a war criminal. He received gifts and letters from well-wishers but also hate mail.

A century on and his great-grandson Pat Thompson, 67, has been learning more about the story. He was a child when he heard from family members about what happened.

“There were stories about him being sent poisoned cigarettes and wine and that he was on a (German) ‘most wanted’ list.”

He has discovered how his relative was tormented by his decision to leave the Germans to the mercy of the sea.

Mr Thompson, from Grimsby, has tried to put himself into his great grandfather’s shoes. “I would have been thinking, first and foremost, about the safety of the crew and the ship. To be a trawler skipper, you had to be a brainy chap. The decision he made came back to haunt him – that decision changed his life. He never went back to sea after that trip.”

When he died in 1917, aged 45, William Martin was said to be a broken man. His great-grandson believes he may have been mentally damaged by his decision not to help the German crew. “He was a broken man and he drank heavily. We would call it Post Traumatic Stress Disorder now. I think that’s what happened to him.”

Mr Thompson recently visited the grave of Heinrich Specht, from Alsace, a machinist on the crashed Zeppelin whose body was washed ashore in Denmark. He placed flowers on the grave and read letters posted in bottles by the doomed airmen. Afterwards he told a BBC Yorkshire film crew: “To read the letters is heart rending. If I could make amends I would. All I can do is send my sincere apologies.”

Yesterday, Mr Thompson told The Yorkshire Post: “I don’t want great- granddad portrayed as a villain. Whatever he did, I’m sure he had his reasons. The trawlermen were unarmed, they were just working men.”

The story of The Trawlermen will be on BBC1 at 7.30pm tonight as part of the World War One at Home season.

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