No.88 Lowestoft trawlers

Diary of the War No. 12

The focus of this month’s centenary commemoration is a group of eight fishing vessels, the Coriander, Fitzgerald, Achieve, Venture, Athena, Quest, Prospector and Strive, all captured, scuttled, and sunk on 30 July 1915 while out fishing in the North Sea.

Black and white photographs of several Lowestoft smacks under full sail.
Wooden sailing trawler Prospector, LT 554, 59 tons, (left foreground) one of the vessels stopped and sunk by a time bomb on 30 July 1915. By courtesy of Lowestoft Maritime Museum.

This was by no means the first attack on Lowestoft smacks, as all eight were, or any British fishing fleet. The situation had been escalating since the start of hostilities, but became very marked in July 1915 with the Lowestoft fleet coming under attack on several occasions.

In fact, the wartime toll on the fishing fleet was such that a separate section of the official 1919 HMSO publication Merchant Shipping (Losses) was devoted entirely to ‘Fishing Vessels Captured or Destroyed by the Enemy’, running to 25 pages. According to Table B in this publication, for July 1915 alone 36 British fishing vessels were sunk for 3,966 tons – and this table took no account of requisitioned trawlers and drifters, being solely concerned with fishing craft still in civilian employment.

View of Gloucester Docks with a series of tall ships, and an orange search and rescue vessel in foreground.
Gloucester Tall Ships, 23 May 2015. Keewaydin, a Lowestoft smack, whose dark mainmast is prominent in centre background with LT 1192 painted in white letters on her keel, was built in 1913 in Rye for the Lowestoft fishing fleet and continued fishing out of Lowestoft until the 1930s. She is therefore an exact contemporary of the lost vessels in this week’s post. © Andrew Wyngard

All eight vessels were sunk in the space of about five hours by UB-10, captained by Otto Steinbrinck, who, as one of the most prolific U-boat captains of the First World War, would go on to sink 197 more vessels throughout the war. In fact, he accounted for the greatest number of ships sunk (but not the greatest tonnage – for example, these eight ships were very small). (1)

‘The Lowestoft smacks suffered another heavy raid on the 30th. The morning was still and fine and they were lying becalmed and scattered widely over the fishing grounds round about Smith’s Knoll.’ (2) The Coriander was the first victim, being ‘accosted and eventually scuppered by a submarine which placed a bomb in her hold’.

These repeated attacks on the Lowestoft fishing fleet triggered an investigation into the best method of dealing with the threat, concluding that, since the attacking submarines were small and not armed with guns (only with bombs and torpedoes: the latter would not have been expended on small wooden vessels) always approaching their potential victims closely, self-defence would be adequate protection. Four smacks were issued with 3pdr guns to ‘cruise to seaward of and near to the fishing fleet’.

On a lighter note, the same report noted the downside of reporting submarine sightings where the new-fangled wireless telegraphy was unavailable: ‘The pigeon service is slow and unreliable.’

View of visitors aboard a sailing ship in harbour to give a sense of the small scale of the vessel.
View of Keewaydin at the Gloucester Tall Ships festival, 23 May 2015. At 62 tons, this smack, a member of the National Historic Fleet, is typical of her contemporaries sunk on 30 July 1915 and gives a sense of scale. © Andrew Wyngard

(1) uboat.net

(2) Naval Staff Monographs (Historical), Vol. XIV, Home Waters: Part V, July to October 1915. Admiralty, London, April 1926

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No.87 Layers of History

Inspired by my recent holiday in Croatia, I thought I’d turn this week to looking at wrecks in English waters from that part of the world. I’ve touched before on how changing national boundaries and ideas of nationhood affect the way we classify wrecks – the nationality recorded at the time of loss is often very different from the nationality now, and this is as true for Croatia as for the subjects of my previous articles on EstoniaFinland and Hungary.

'Sailing ship in a storm', Ivankovic, 1887, ex voto painting in the cloisters at Kuna Peljeska, Croatia. Note the small saint on a cloud towards top left, rendering divine assistance, typical of such scenes, while the ship wallows in the sea, having lost most of her sails. The  associated church contains many silver ex voto plaques, many with shipwreck scenes.
Sailing ship in a storm, Ivankovic, 1887, ex voto painting in the cloisters at Kuna Peljeska, Croatia. Note at top left the small saint on a cloud rendering divine assistance, typical of such scenes, while the ship wallows in a heavy sea, having lost most of her sails. The associated church also contains many silver ex voto plaques, several depicting shipwreck scenes. Image courtesy of Andrew Wyngard.

Croatia has a long and proud seafaring tradition with many rocky islands rising steeply out of the sea, affording little shelter to anyone unfortunate enough to be shipwrecked there. Indeed, Richard the Lionheart caused an ex voto church to be built at Lokrum in 1192. The islands are well marked with picturesque lighthouses and it is worth exploring this fantastic gallery here. Though there may be a number of earlier vessels in our records whose Croatian origins are masked by the lack of detail in contemporary sources, they first come to our attention in English waters during the 19th century, when Croatia was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire.

One such vessel was Barone Vranyczany, lost in 1881 off Suffolk, named after a local noble family who had Magyarised their surname from the Croatian Vranjican. Her home port had the Italian name of  Fiume (now Rijeka): the name of her master, Pietro Cumicich, reflects a dual Italian-Croat linguistic heritage. With the help of the Austrian consul at Lowestoft, acting as interpreter, a fellow master from Fiume identified Cumicich’s body through his wedding ring inscribed with his wife’s initials and the date 10-12-77.

Croatia’s Italian heritage is very strong, reflecting its Venetian past and its proximity to the Italian coast. (The island of Korcula is traditionally said to have been the birthplace of Marco Polo, although this is disputed.) The Croatian littoral passed out of Venetian control to become the Republic of Ragusa, centred on Ragusa itself, now Dubrovnik: the two names, Latin and Croat, existed side by side until 1918 when Dubrovnik alone was officially adopted.

This link is clearly seen in the ship Deveti Dubrovački of Ragusa. She was one of a fleet belonging to the Dubrovnik Maritime Company, whose ships had a very simple house naming scheme. She was ‘The Ninth of Dubrovnik’: all the fleet were likewise named in order from ‘The First of Dubrovnik’ onwards. (1) She met her end in 1887 through a collision with a British steamer off Beachy Head, another wreck that illustrated the bond between husband and wife. The captain tied a rope around his wife, from which she was hauled in her nightdress aboard the steamer, despite her ‘imploring him not to mind her’: alas, she had the misfortune to see her husband go down with his ship. (The fact that the steamer did not also sink in this collision was attributed to the cushioning effect of the wool tightly packed in her hold.) (2)

Several ships have Italian names, such as the Fratelli Fabris, whose remains (1892) are said to lie close to Tater-Du on the coast of Cornwall, and which is known locally as the ‘Gin Bottle Wreck’. Indeed, a 1927 wreck was recorded in contemporary sources as of Italian nationality: the Isabo was built as Iris in Lussinpiccolo (now Mali Losinj, Croatia), then Austro-Hungary, a part of Croatia which became Italian in 1918.

At the same time the Kingdom of Yugoslavia was created, to which the Slava, a war loss of 1940 off Porlock Bay, belonged. Only nine ships out of the country’s fleet survived the war. (3) After the Second World War Yugoslavia became a Socialist Federal Republic, of which Croatia was a constituent part. Our final wreck today is the Sabac, which belonged to that country’s nationalised fleet, and which was lost in 1961 in a collision off the South Goodwin light vessel.

Since 1991 Croatia has been an independent state, but one whose long maritime history endures, intertwined with that of many other nations, past and present. Its heritage is part of our own heritage too, from Lokrum to the wrecks around our coastline today.

(1) Anica Kisić, “Dubrovačko Pomorsko Društvo”, Atlant Bulletin, No.13, July 2004, pp22-4. URL: https://www.yumpu.com/hr/document/view/36424950/srpanj-2004-atlantska-plovidba-dd/23

(2) Edinburgh Evening News, 30 December 1887, No.4,530, p2

(3) http://www.atlant.hr/eng/atlantska_plovidba_povijest.php