Diary of the War: January 1940

The East Dudgeon Lightvessel

The everyday hazards of the sea never cease, even under wartime conditions. During the Second World War dangerous shoals still required marking, and ships safe guidance into harbour, perhaps even more so after undergoing convoy battles, lone dashes, trusting in speed alone, across the Atlantic, or picking their way through freshly-laid minefields.

By the same token those who saved others from the peril of the sea themselves faced greater peril than ever before, though in peace and war their mission remained the same. Today’s post allows us to revisit the story of lightvessels around the coast which we first covered in an earlier blog post.

Now largely removed in favour of other marks, the few lightvessels on station today are automated and unmanned, but perform the same function as lighthouses, albeit marking offshore hazards. In modern times it is difficult to appreciate their crews’ hard way of life, devoted to maintaining a light beaming a vital message out to sea from an inert and stationary hull: permanently moored with no motive power, either sail or engine, they ran the risk of drifting or being driven in storms onto the very hazards from which they warned others, nor had they any means of avoiding a collision should a ship bear down upon them.

Neither was it easy in wartime to escape drifting mines or, unarmed, to defend a lightvessel against enemy attack. Yet in 1940 men served aboard those lightvessels which had not been extinguished (1) and which continued to offer an ‘equal lamp at peril of the sea’ to passing ships. (2) 

The East Dudgeon station marked the Dudgeon, one of the shoals and sandbanks that stretch out long fingers along the east coast of England between the Humber to the north and the Norfolk coast to the south. Between these two points shipping routes largely stood, and to this day stand, out to sea rather than hugging the coast, to avoid some of these hazards, but others, such as the Dudgeon, lie a considerable distance offshore. This meant that the East Dudgeon, to the seaward of the eponymous shoal, was also by some distance one of the more remote lightvessels, which had a bearing on what happened next.

On the morning of 29 January 1940 (3) off the east coast a Heinkel He111 approached the East Dudgeon Lightvessel. The crew were not initially alarmed when they saw the enemy aircraft approaching as, ‘on previous occasions German pilots had waved to them and passed them by.’ (4) 

This time there was no friendly wave in passing. The lightvessel was machine-gunned and bombed, the last bomb striking the vessel. The ship began to heel over, but remained afloat,  (5) and a photograph depicting her light smashed to pieces surfaced in the press a couple of weeks later. (6)

The crew took to the boat , one man having been ill in his bunk but helped onto deck and into the boat by his comrades. Given the distance offshore they faced rowing for hours in winter conditions, continuing to row on as night fell and they became progressively colder and weaker, before making landfall at around 2.30am. (7)

Their boat capsized in the breakers rolling on the shore and, so close to land and safety, seven men out of the eight crew lost their lives: James Scott Bell, Master Mechanic; Bardolph Basil Boulton, Fog Signal Driver; Horatio Davis, Lamplighter; Roland Robert George, Senior Master; George William Jackson, Seaman. Richard Edward Norton, Seaman; and Herbert Rumsby, Lampman. (8)

The sole survivor was John Sanders, who managed to crawl ashore, somehow finding the strength to break into a house and divest himself of his clothes after coming upon some blankets to wrap himself up in. There he was discovered at 8am. (9) The bodies of the other crew were discovered that morning near their ‘wrecked small boat’. (10)

German radio claimed that same day that the British Naval Patrol Vessel East Dudgeon had been sunk, which elicited a statement from Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain in the House of Commons that it was: ‘a falsification intended to cover up from the world a deliberate and savage attack on a lightship. To seafaring folks of all nations the East Dudgeon is well known as a lightship, and its identity was unmistakable. She was, naturally, unarmed.’ (11) 

Historic black and white photograph looking towards a lightship at sea, identified by its mast and the name 'CALS. . . ' visible in large white letters to the right of the hull, and a small yacht to the left. A tidal wash is visible to right of the image, which is compromised by a broken right-hand corner and other damage across the upper sky visible in the original glass plate negative.
As this late 19th century view of the Calshot lightvessel off Southampton demonstrates, lightvessels were readily identified by the name of their station (taken from the hazard they demarcated) painted in large white letters, and the prominent light atop a mast. Henry Taunt CC39/00486 Source: Historic England Archive

As further aerial attacks on lightvessels followed (East Goodwin, sunk 18 July 1940; South Folkestone Gate, sunk 14 August 1940; South Goodwin, sunk 25 October 1940, and East Oaze, sunk 1 November 1940), the British struck back in the propaganda war. The Ministry of Information commissioned the Crown Film Unit in 1940 to produce Men of the Lightship, a dramatisation of life aboard the East Dudgeon, culminating in the attack and its tragic aftermath, which was released in the United States as Men of Lightship 61.

‘Lightship 61’ was laid up and returned to service in the postwar period but her story opened a grim chapter with the onslaught on lightvessels legible in a seabed heritage of those which have remained on the seabed for the last 80 years.

(1)  Trinity House website (nd), Were Trinity House lighthouses switched off during the Second World War?

(2) Rudyard Kipling, “The Coastwise Lights of England”, in The Song of the English, London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1909

(3) Midland Daily Telegraph, 30 January 1940, No.15,178, p1; Kim Saul, “Sole Survivor”, quoting an unattributed original source, said to be directly from survivor John J R Sanders, in Memories, Belton and District Historical Society website, published online, 2013. The same text is quoted in Anthony Lane, “Lightship Memories”, Portside, Winter 2017, pp3-5, published online, attributed to Illustrated, 24 February 1940.

(4) Midland Daily Telegraph, 30 January 1940, No.15,178, p1

(5) See note (3): Saul, “Sole Survivor” and Lane, “Lightship Memories”; Midland Daily Telegraph, 30 January 1940, No.15,178, p1

(6) Liverpool Daily Post, 15 February 1940, No.26,392, p5, and other regional press

(7) Midland Daily Telegraph, 30 January 1940, No.15,178, p1

(8) Commonwealth War Graves Commission

(9) Midland Daily Telegraph, 30 January 1940, No.15,178, p1

(10) Newcastle Evening Chronicle, 30 January 1940, No.19,894, p1

(11) House of Commons Debate, Hansard, 8 February 1940, Vol.357, cc.443-9