Diary of the War: January 1917

Henry Blogg and the Fernebo

On the stormy winter morning of 9 January 1917, a distress signal brought out the lifeboatmen of Cromer in their lifeboat Louisa Heartwell, which launched into heavy seas to reach the Greek steamer Pyrin, drifting two miles out at sea. Since all men of fighting age were away at war, the lifeboat crew were all either middle-aged or elderly men, and were led by coxswain Henry Blogg, who had joined the crew in 1894, and a relative youngster at the age of 40. It took a party of 40 men, including soldiers, to launch the lifeboat, and over two hours for the crew to reach the wreck and successfully rescue and land 18 survivors.

henry-blogg-modified-photo-1
Henry Blogg. RNLI

In the middle of this force 9 gale, another ship got into difficulties. The Swedish Fernebo, en route from Gavle for London with timber, was in distress, lurching in the sea with one crew member injured – and was even further out to sea, between 3 and 4 miles offshore.

The very wildness of the weather meant that none of the other local lifeboats could put out to the rescue the crew of the Fernebo in the stead of the Cromer lifeboat. The Louisa Heartwell was the nearest and the only suitable craft, being larger and heavier than other local lifeboats, but several attempts to launch her failed, even with all the willing helpers from the town.

A party of men aboard Fernebo saw their chances of rescue slipping away and took matters into their own hands, launching one of the ship’s boats. Almost at the shoreline the vessel capsized and it took a party of onlookers, led by Private Stewart Holmes, one of the soldiers stationed locally, to rescue them by forming a human chain at the risk of their own lives. By this means all six men were rescued from their little boat, which had somehow made it all the way to shore despite the storm.

In the meantime further disaster had literally struck the Fernebo, in the form of a mine laid by UC-19, which had been caught and depth-charged off the Isles of Scilly in the previous month, leaving behind a deadly legacy of sown mines. The explosion split the steamer in two, but her timber cargo kept both halves afloat: fortunately all the crew were in one half, rather than drifting apart on two different wrecks.

The storm drove the stricken Fernebo closer inshore, where, around 5pm, both parts struck Cromer beach, but in different locations. The aft section of the Fernebo came ashore near the groyne at the Doctor’s Steps, Cromer. Once more it was clear that only the Cromer lifeboat and her crew stood between the Swedish sailors and death: with the help of army searchlights trained on the beach and the wreck, further attempts were made to launch. Once launched, several oars were wrenched from the lifeboatmen’s hands and others broken by the violence of the sea, so the crew had to put back then, then return with fresh oars.

At last – success! The crew managed to reach the survivors, safely bringing off eleven men, eleven people who would have died had it not been for the ‘great intrepidity, splendid tenacity, and endurance’ quoted in the citation for the RNLI’s gallantry award to the Louisa Heartwell‘s crew. (1)  This was the occasion on which Henry Blogg, the ‘greatest lifeboatman of them all’, received his first RNLI gold medal, but the entire crew also received awards, with another being made to Pte. Holmes, leader of the shore party which rescued the six men from the boat.

Black and white photograph of two rows of en, seated in front, standing at the back, in front of the open doorway through which the bows of a lifeboat can be seen.
The crew of the Cromer lifeboat, wearing the medals awarded for this rescue. RNLI

But for the courage of the Cromer lifeboatmen, the Fernebo‘s crew would all have shared in the fate of their injured colleague, who was killed when they struck the mine. This was certainly a rescue against all the odds, when human endurance overcame the power of nature and the violence of war.

Colour photograph of ribs of wreck, partly covered in seaweed, in the foreground of the image, on a beach, which stretches to the background of the image. The top sixth of the image is taken up by a flat band of blue sky and sea.
The wreck of the Fernebo as she now lies at Cromer. RNLI

Over 5,000 lives were saved by the RNLI during the First World War: their work is showcased in an RNLI travelling exhibition Hope in the Great War, which is touring the country for the duration of the centenary. It features the Fernebo, and another rescue we have already featured in the War Diary, the Rohilla. Do go and see it – check for a venue near you.

(1) Widely reported in a nationwide press release, for example in the Newcastle Journal,  13 February 1917, No.22,371, p3