A Tale of Two Billyboys

The Swan and the York Merchant

It is my pleasure once more to welcome Jordan Havell for a third blog on his local heritage.

Here he focuses on two Humber billyboys which were lost on routine voyages which ended disastrously on the Lincolnshire coast. Jordan has been honing his research skills in going back to original newspapers on the British Newspaper Archive and trying to trace the history of the ships involved through the Guildhall Library, two of the most important sources of information for any shipwreck historian.

He has helped identify one vessel – the York Merchant – and discovered another – the Swan – and seems to have caught the research bug!  So I would like to thank Jordan very much for passing this information on to us. Potentially one or the other of these two vessels, or perhaps another one that we haven’t yet discovered more about, might tell us where fragments of wreckage recently washed up near Jordan could have come from.

Over to Jordan:

My blog this time relates to the Swan billyboy that was lost at Huttoft on 17th Oct 1869.

I had asked about another vessel – a billyboy that had been listed in Historic England records as a wreck 05.11.1858 carrying shingle. I have now, with the help of The Guildhall, London, been able to name that wreck as the York Merchant of Yarmouth. She was lost along with 3 crew and 3 passengers. The story is told in varying newspapers: the Stamford Mercury, 12 Nov 1858; Leeds Times, 13 Nov 1858; Morning Advertiser 16 Nov 1858, as well as the Dundee Courier Weds 17 Nov 1858 and The Bucks Herald Sat 20 Nov 1858.

There were similarities between the two vessels (the York Merchant and the Swan). Both the vessels had been classified as billyboys. Both had set sail for Gainsborough, Lincolnshire – one carrying wheat, and the other carrying shingle. Both had been hit by severe weather and had both been carrying the family of the masters aboard – sadly in the case of the York Merchant it is known there were fatalities.

I was finding pieces of stranded wood on my local beach over recent weeks. I got in touch with Serena Cant at Historic England as we had been in contact before. She, along with Andy Sherman of Museum of London Archaeology, looked at my photos etc. Andy said the some of the pieces may have come from a billyboy ship.

This, in turn, relit my interest in shipwreck history. We started visiting the library locally and the RNLI records to see if any of these vessels had been wrecked in this area. We found the Swan – a record from a book called Mablethorpe and North Lincolnshire Lifeboats. The vessel had been en route from Boston to Gainsborough, Lincolnshire, when she was caught in a violent gale. She was made of wood and was carrying a cargo of wheat believed to be about 200 quarters, of which only 14 was saved. We found reports in various newspapers in The British Newspaper Archive including the Lincolnshire Chronicle and Manchester Courier, as well as the Hull and Eastern Counties Herald that confirmed the story.

The Master is named as Mr John Would. The owners are named as Nicholson and Burkitt of Retford. The crew is listed as 2, and 3 passengers were aboard at the time. They were saved by the National Lifeboat called the Birmingham. A quote taken from the Mablethorpe and North East Lincolnshire Lifeboats reads: “The only other effective service by the Birmingham Number 1 came on Oct 17th 1869, when she rescued the master, his wife and 2 children plus a man and a boy from the billyboy Swan of Hull.”

The saved master and crew were taken to the Jolly Bacchus – which we now know as the Bacchus Hotel – owned at the time by Mr Simons, from one of the newspaper stories of the time. One of the newspaper quotes read ‘the boat (referring to the lifeboat) was happily the means of saving the shipwrecked persons’. An interesting point was that the cost of this lifeboat when built was £190, the funds having been raised in Birmingham, hence its name.

The Lloyd’s Agent was named as Mr Bradshaw.

I have been in contact with the Guildhall Library in London. They have tried to help me find a record for the Swan. The nearest they could find was Swan of Hull, official number 26882, 37 tons, owned by Henry Robinson, 21 Waverley Street, Hull. There were 3 other vessels called Swan, but all appear to be from Goole, so am I assuming that this one above may be the one.

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Jordan’s post brings out some interesting history. As his last paragraph shows, it can be very difficult to trace small ships in the registers: we can eliminate some, but we can’t always be sure that what is left is the ship we are after. Even experienced researchers like me – and I have been doing this for over 20 years – can come up against a brick wall, but that’s part of what makes it so fascinating.

We can also see that similar ships shared a similar fate on the same stretch of coastline just a few years apart, so this is the type of wreck that could be said to be fairly characteristic of the east coast – you won’t find Humber billyboys on the west coast or Mersey flats on the east coast, because they were generally short-range coasting vessels (though some ships do turn up wrecked in odd places, having been sold out of their local area). The fact that one of the billyboys is called the York Merchant demonstrates that it was intended to serve Yorkshire and to be capable of travelling upriver as well as sailing coastwise.

Another similarity is that on board both vessels the master’s wife and family travelled with him, which shines a light on the role of women on board ships in Victorian Britain. We don’t often read much about this – it’s an under-represented area of history – so well done to Jordan for finding out more.

We also see the importance of community – the local community rallied round and put the shipwreck victims up at the nearby inn. Finally, it is interesting to see that people from the wider community, from inland Birmingham in fact, cared enough to raise money for a lifeboat at Sutton, following the terrible storms of a few years previously.

Here’s some interesting pictures of billyboys – one of 1875 from the Yorkshire Waterways Museum, Goole, showing wheat being unloaded from a billyboy whose voyage was more successful than the Swan, also laden with wheat. Here is another from Goole Museum, painted before 1910, of the Masterman

Just like Jordan, I’ve been following all sorts of clues. If Jordan hadn’t written this article, I wouldn’t have been looking for billyboy images to illustrate it with. When I found the Masterman, I realised that she, too, was a wreck which we hadn’t yet recorded. Like the Swan, she was wrecked with her master’s wife and children, who died, like those on board the York Merchant. So thank you again Jordan – because of you I too have found a new wreck for the records!

 

 

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Diary of the War: May 1917

The Gena

In the second instalment of our double bill covering 30 April and 1 May 1917 we take a look at the Gena, sunk on 1 May. On the face of it, Gena was fairly typical in both vessel type and location of loss, a collier sunk in the North Sea while steaming south with her cargo from Tyneside.

Yet there are two things which are very unusual about this particular wreck site. The first is that the position of loss is very precisely specified in relation to a relatively small and impermanent seamark.

She sank “¾ mile S by W ½W of ‘A’ War Channel Buoy, Southwold”. (1)

Unsurprisingly, with this level of detail, the wreck site has a secure history of recording that goes back to the date of loss. (2) It also gives some clue to the location of one of the buoys marking out the East Coast War Channels, or safe swept channels, that kept the shipping lanes open and (relatively) free of mines, swept largely by minesweeper-trawlers such as the Arfon whose loss on 30 April 1917 was commemorated in yesterday’s post.

These War Channels have been the subject of recent investigations on behalf of Historic England  (2014) by Antony Firth (Fjordr), illustrated with maps and charts showing the extent of the War Channels. One unofficial chart marking the buoys further north up the East Coast is known to have been used by an airman providing cover for North Sea shipping (Fig. 7 in report).

If aircraft could provide cover for shipping, tracking U-boats and indeed collaborating with patrol vessels to destroy enemy craft, it followed that ships were also vulnerable to attack from the air. The Gena was the first ship within English territorial waters to be sunk by aircraft, torpedoed from the air by two Hansa-Brandenburg GW seaplanes of Torpedostaffel II, operating out of Zeebrugge. This was not the first aerial attack on merchant shipping by aircraft, but it was one of the first to successfully sink a ship.

So unusual was it that Lloyd’s struggled to fit it into an appropriate category in their ‘ledger’ of war losses. In the “How Sunk” column, the standard abbreviations S (sunk by submarine) and M (mine) were clearly inappropriate, and even this distinction was outdated, since ships had been sunk by mines laid by U-boats since 1915, so arguably fitted both categories (see earlier post on minelaying submarines, introduced in 1915). The only other category available was C (cruiser or raider), which was still inadequate, but it seems that a new category was not considered necessary, and ‘raider’ was at least appropriate in intent, if not in ‘vessel type’ as such. A marginal annotation clarified matters: “German seaplane”. (3)

The Gena was an armed merchant, however, and her attackers did not have it all their own way. Sunk by the planes, her gunner nevertheless managed to down Hansa-Brandenburg 703, whose two crew were rescued to become prisoners of war. (4) An interesting photo gallery of the Hansa-Brandenburg GW can be found here, including stablemate 700, a view of the torpedo loading bay, and film stills of the aircraft landing on the water.

The course of the war at sea was changing: terror could strike from above as well as below, and aircraft though slow, unreliable, and terrifying to fly by modern standards, were proving to be amphibious and adaptable. Finally, the increasing presence of aircraft at sea meant that wrecks at sea were no longer necessarily ‘shipwrecks’, although, on this occasion, the aircraft was also picked up for examination: (see previous double bill on Zeppelin wrecks from February 1916 and March 1916).

The whole incident was recognised at the time as ‘a new phase of warfare’  and a ‘noteworthy development of aerial craft’ (5) so that, unusually for the time, the Admiralty released details of the ‘duel’, in part because there was some propaganda value in demonstrating that the Gena had not gone down without a fight.

(1) Lloyd’s War Losses: The First World War: Casualties to Shipping through Enemy Causes 1914-18, facsimile reprint, Lloyd’s of London Press, 1990, p127

(2) United Kingdom Hydrographic Office record no. 10320

(3) Lloyd’s War Losses: The First World War: Casualties to Shipping through Enemy Causes 1914-18, facsimile reprint, Lloyd’s of London Press, 1990, p127

(4) for example: http://1914-1918.invisionzone.com/forums/index.php?/topic/241938-naval-historynet-bvlas-errata/

(5) Yarmouth Independent, Saturday 5 May 1917, No.4,529, p1

Diary of the War: April 1917

A Mounting Toll: G42, G85, Ballarat, Medina, and HMT Arfon

In the first of this weekend’s double bill for 30 April and 1 May 1917 we look at the continuing attrition of British and foreign shipping. On 6 April 1917 the United States declared war on Germany, as unrestricted submarine warfare also began to take its toll on American ships. Within the extent of English territorial waters as currently defined, the figures demonstrate that 71 wrecks were recorded for this month, of which 32 represent sites, the majority positively identified.

At this point during the war, there were no U-boats reported sunk within English waters for the month of April 1917, appearing to underline the success of the continuing submarine campaign.

German warships were also active in the Channel, mounting a raid on the Dover Patrol on the night of 20-21 April and shelling Margate and Ramsgate on 27 April. In contrast to the lack of sinkings of U-boats, however, two German torpedo boats, G42 and G85, were sunk as the raid developed into the Battle of Dover Straits. G42 was rammed by HMS Broke, while HMS Swift despatched G85 with a torpedo, making these vessels the only two German warships sunk in English territorial waters during the war.

The closing week of April 1917 provides a cross-section of the war at sea:

On 25 April 1917 the Australian troopship Ballarat, was torpedoed, but fortunately without loss of life. Ironically, it was the war itself which was probably the major factor in saving the lives of all on board when she was torpedoed. On that day all were mustered at their stations for a deckside Anzac Day service, remembering their fallen compatriots at Gallipoli in 1915, which in turn allowed for an orderly evacuation.

On 28 April 1917 the P&O liner RMS Medina was sunk. Her history was intertwined with that of the contemporary British Empire and its liner routes which continued to ply during wartime. Her maiden voyage in 1911 was as a Royal Yacht taking King George V and Queen Mary to Delhi for the Durbar of 1911, after which she reverted to the commercial role for which she was built. On her final voyage she left India with passengers and cargo for Sydney, New South Wales, to take on Australian meat and thence for England via the Suez Canal. She was torpedoed off Start Point, the torpedo exploding in the starboard engine room, killing six men, five of them seamen from the Indian subcontinent, known as lascars, who had a long tradition of working aboard British ships, usually, as here, in the engine room. (See previous posts on the Mahratta I in 1909 and the Magdapur in 1939 for more on wrecks involving lascars.)

On 30 April 1917 HM trawler Arfon was mined while on minesweeping duty off the Dorset coast with the loss of ten lives. She lies virtually intact with her minesweeping equipment and deck gun in situ, a rare but representative example of an early 20th century steam trawler adapted for war purposes, and as such was designated under the 1973 Protection of Wrecks Act in 2016. A new interpretation board at St. Aldhelm’s Head commemorates the site, while an accessible fully-captioned video trail released for the centenary explores the site through 3D high-resolution images.

The last week of April was therefore a crucial week of a crucial month.

The statistics outlined in Lloyd’s War Losses for April 1917 make grim reading. Over the course of the month 220 British, 103 Allied and 135 neutral vessels had been sunk worldwide for 882,227 tons. (1) Statistics for recent shipping losses were published in the press, followed by a stark warning in Parliament which was widely reported.

‘One hears on many sides that people refuse to be rationed or to ration themselves, because they say the shortage is only newspaper talk.

‘The position is now plain, that if within the next six or eight weeks there is not a very substantial reduction “there will be no alternative but to apply compulsion.” (2) That meat aboard RMS Medina, for example, had not got through.

(1) Lloyd’s War Losses: The First World War: Casualties to Shipping through Enemy Causes 1914-18, facsimile reprint, Lloyd’s of London Press, 1990, p127

(2) Daily Telegraph, April 26 1917, No.19,356, p5

The Acorn

It is my pleasure to introduce my guest blogger for today’s piece, Jordan Havell, who wrote an article  on the Acorn back in December 2014. He takes up the story again with recent observations on changes in his local beach environment and the impact it has had on the Acorn.

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Since writing my last blog in December 2014 my interest in shipwreck archaeology has continued. Just recently I have found lots and lots of stranded wood being brought in on the tide from small pieces to much larger pieces. They may be pieces from a ‘billyboy’ called the Swan but that’s another story for later.

Fan shaped fragment of brown wood with holes in it, on a background of lighter-coloured brown sand with shells and pebbles
Example of one of the small fragments of wood and other debris recently washed up on the Lincolnshire coast following winter storms and high spring tides, photographed 19 February 2017 © Jordan Havell

Now here is where it gets more exciting . . . the Acorn . . .

The Acorn wreck was covered by literally tons of sand by the subsequent beach replenishment work over the last 3 years [since I last wrote]. Just recently however with high spring tides and Storms Doris and Ewan, the wreck has started to reappear.

I went to visit the beach like I normally do, but on the 16th of February 2017 I was very surprised to see that the sands had shifted heavily and the wreck was beginning to show again. Over the following days I visited this area nearly every day and each day more seemed to show.

Photograph of horizontal ship's timber against a backdrop of lighter-coloured sand.
Timber from the Acorn revealed 1 March 2017. © Jordan Havell
Detail photograph of brown fragment of ship's timber in the foreground, with lighter-coloured sand in the background.
Detail of a timber from the Acorn, photographed 1 March 2017. © Jordan Havell

I am looking forward to the illustrated talk and workshop in April with Andy Sherman from the Museum of London Archaeology CITiZAN Project in my village. I am really keen to hear about this work and how we can be even more involved.

I hope this gives you a snapshot of what is going on my locality. Thanks for reading!

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Thank you very much to Jordan for writing this piece and illustrating it with his own photographs – citizen science in action! As he hints, we will be hearing more from him, since his research has uncovered the interesting story of the Swan billyboy, which was also lost locally.

Diary of the War: March 1917

Mousse Le Moyec

This is the tale of two events across the Channel – one in French waters on this day a hundred years ago (29 March 1917) during the First World War, and a later wreck in English waters from the Second World War, linked by a name.

The latter was one of the very first wrecks I ever encountered on the database 20 years ago, with the unusual and evocative name of Mousse Le Moyec. The name has stuck with me ever since: mousse means ‘ship’s boy’ in French (“a young sailor under the age of 17”, according to Larousse) so I always wondered who he was and why he was commemorated by having a ship named after him.

On 29 March 1917 a French sailing trawler, the Irma, took up her station 15 miles SSW of Cordouan, off the Gironde, France, with her crew of five. As she was preparing to shoot her nets, a U-boat commenced shelling the vessel, approaching closer with each shot. The ship’s boat was shot away and mousse Maurice Le Moyec, aged 14, was killed.

 

Enfant Moyec2
Commemorative plaque for mousse Maurice Le Moyec, stating his date of death as 29 March 1916 (in error for 1917). La Rochelle © and by kind permission of M Bruno Baverel

The master was seriously injured, but the other three members of the crew, the mate, aged 18, and two boys, aged 15, remained calm under fire, even though also injured, and got the little ship back to the Gironde under a jury rig. The survivors were decorated for gallantry.

After the war, a number of French colliers were built for the French Government to a standard design, each named in honour of one of those who had fallen for France. The vessel named after mousse Le Moyec was built for a company which had also lost a ship called Irma, in 1916, so it may be that there was some confusion over the ship on which young Le Moyec was lost.

This collier, commemorating a victim of the First World War, would play her part in the Second. In the 1920s and 1930s she regularly criss-crossed the Channel to pick up Welsh coal for France. After the fall of France in 1940, she was therefore a natural candidate to bring over a number of young Frenchmen to Britain, answering de Gaulle’s call for Free Frenchmen to join him in the fight against the Nazis. Their story can be read here (in French): one of those passengers was André Quelen, who is remembered here (in English).

As with so many other vessels which escaped to Britain from occupied Europe, she was then placed at the disposal of the British Government (my own father travelled on a Dutch trooper under the British flag, which had escaped the night Amsterdam fell). Mousse Le Moyec continued to ply her usual trade as a collier, but solely within English waters on the Bristol Channel – Plymouth run, until she was wrecked near Hartland Point in December 1940.

When I first encountered Mousse Le Moyec all those years ago, the internet was in its infancy and it was difficult to find out more. Thanks to the power of online resources, in particular the French pages14-18 forum, I have been able to discover the moving connection between a wreck in English waters in 1940 and the French counterpart of Jack Cornwell, of Jutland fame, who died 100 years ago today, a reminder of cross-Channel co-operation in time of war.

 

 

 

Diary of the War: February 1917

The Resumption of Unrestricted Submarine Warfare

On January 31, 1917,  the resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare by Germany was announced to the Reichstag, to come into effect the following day. It was a policy summarised by the Daily Telegraph as ‘sink on sight’. (1)

As on the previous occasion in 1915, the seas around Britain were declared a war zone by Germany, and vessels of any nationality, not just British, were liable to be attacked: in effect it was a submarine blockade of Britain. The lifeline of the seas was envisaged as a noose with which to strangle the British Isles, preventing food and other imports from coming in, exports sustaining the economy getting out, and disrupting vital supplies, such as coal, which were circulated domestically by sea. .

Sepia-toned poster with German text "Der Magische Gurtel" at the top in black overlying a map of Britain, with surrounding U-boat silhouettes forming the sea. Two larger U-boats in black occupy the lower third of the image, with white superimposed text, "Deutsche U-boote Wider England"
Advertising poster for a German film depicting U30. The title, “Der magische Gürtel” (The Enchanted Girdle) is illustrated by a surrounding sea composed of nothing but U-boats around the English coast. Hans Rudi Ernst, 1917, © IWM (Art.IWM PST 7268)

Wartime censorship has been a leitmotif throughout this War Diary strand, in contrast with the pre-war situation..It seems appropriate to discuss it further here in the context of unrestricted submarine warfare. Prior to the war shipping news was a major staple of the national and regional press, in which shipping movements appeared in their own dedicated columns. During the war these were no longer circulated, while reports of ships sunk were in the main were reduced to a few brief lines which gave away no detail as to the shipping routes involved. Even to state the cargoes suggested particular routes, so this, too was avoided.

The British public were therefore not exposed to the full impact of the existing submarine campaign and were ill-prepared for the onslaught that was to follow.

An editorial for the Telegraph contrasted the state of knowledge in Britain and in Germany: ‘The Germans receive full reports from their submarine commanders of every vessel torpedoed, its name, tonnage, and cargo; they are informed of the date and longitude and latitude of attack. Month by month they issue for the encouragement of the civil population a very full summary. I have seen that for December – the latest. It occupies two columns of a German newspaper, and is very specific.’ (2)

From this source the Telegraph quotes 419,166 lost tons of British shipping. An official British source shows that 114,508 tons of British shipping were lost in December 1916 for 40 ships, while the overall total of mercantile shipping of all nationalities lost that month to all causes (mine, submarine torpedo, and surface ships) was 357,420 tons. (3). In fact, the 419,166 tons figure was probably misunderstood or used for dramatic effect: it is close to a modern tally that quotes 413,428 tons for ships of all nationalities worldwide December 1916, which included over 66,000 tons of ships damaged but not sunk. (4)

January 1917 saw a similar figure of 408,806 tons worldwide for 211 ships sunk and 11 damaged, but following the resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare in February, that total climbed to 651,995 tons for 301 ships sunk and 27 damaged, and the death toll also rose accordingly. (5)

The Telegraph could see this coming, and spelt out the consequences for its readers in stark terms:

‘It is peculiarly necessary that the facts should be known to the British people, because only thus can they understand that they must economise in everything. Why? Because they live on an island, and nearly all they need must come in ships, of which the number is declining. It may seem smart to dodge the Food Controller’s regulations, yet such an action is unpatriotic . . . ‘

Among those 651,995 tons of shipping sunk in February 1917 was the 539-ton Essonite, the first British victim of the new policy in English waters. She was torpedoed without warning on 1 February 1917, while bound from Caernarfon for Rochester with stone. Under the heading ‘German Piracy’, newspapers stated the bare facts: ‘Lloyd’s Agency reports the trawler Violet, the Briitish steamer Essonite, and the Spanish steamer Algorta have been sunk.’. (6)

Although Lloyd’s War Losses shows that the Essonite was sunk by submarine 3 miles NNW of Trevose Head, Cornwall it is to the official loss report that we must turn to find out more about what happened. The torpedo struck at 1.10pm and within 9 minutes the vessel had sunk. The himan impact is of torpedoing a vessel without warning is powerfully illustrated by what happened next: ‘The master got hold of a lifebuoy as the ship sank under him and was picked [up] about half an hour afterwards by the ship’s boat in which were two of the crew. The remainder of the crew were lost.’ (7)

On the SS Essonite of Glasgow ten men lost their lives that day. They were: Arthur Altoft, mate, 22; John Dempsey, fireman, 47; David Lynn Dunlop, 1st engineer, 36; John Kenneway, trimmer, 19; James Letson, 2nd engineer, 22; John MacArthur, steward, 64; Allan McFadyen, able seaman, 39; John McPhedran, ordinary seaman, 16; Nevin McVicar, boatswain, 54; and Harry Williams, fireman, 35. (8)

Black and white photo of a wrecked submarine, which bisects the photograph longitudinally. In the foreground dark rocks and an inlet, in which the white sail of a dinghy can be seen. The background grey, featureless sea and sky.
A wrecked U-boat: UB 112 was among the U-boats surrendered to Britain in November 1918 at Harwich. Here she is seen in on the rocks at Falmouth in 1921, one of six U-boats which broke tow in a gale en route to disposal as gunnery targets. A party of visitors have used the dinghy in the foreground to access and inspect the wreck, led by Captain Jack Casement RN, based at Falmouth. © Historic England/ Patrick Casement jxc01_01_011

 

(1) The Daily Telegraph, Thursday 25 January 1917, No.19,279, p7

(2) ibid.

(3) Lloyd’s War Losses: The First World War: Casualties to Shipping Through Enemy Causes 1914-1918, p80, facsimile reprint, Lloyd’s of London Press Ltd. 1980

(4) uboat.net statistics for December 1916

(5) uboat.net statistics for January 1917;  uboat.net statistics for February 1917

(6) e.g. Leeds Mercury, 3 February 1917, p3

(7) ADM 137/2961, The National Archives, Kew

(8) Commonwealth War Graves Commission

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