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Caithness Archives

The Fishermans War 1914-1918

 

It was a fine May day. The North Sea, so wild and inhospitable for much of the year, basked in the afternoon sun as the skipper of the trawler Crimond took a check on his vessel's bearings. Sixty miles east of Wick and no sign of another boat. It had been this way since the previous November, when the British Government had declared the North Sea a war zone. Fish catches were well down. All the naval reserves among the extensive British fishing fleet had been called up; thousands more young fishermen had tumbled over themselves to join the armed services. Lord Kitchener's call had everywhere fallen on eager ears. And now there was another negative to consider - a week previously torpedoes from the German submarine U-20 had sentenced 1,200 passengers on the liner Lusitania to a premature sea burial. Things could hardly be worse. Damned bloody war!

Suddenly and without warning, a dark shape broke the surface of the placid sea. A submarine. Friend or foe? That question was soon answered in the form of a 4 pound shell which shot across the Crimond's bows. It was a warning loud and clear to the Crimond's skipper. His trawler lacking armaments of any kind, the poor mariner had little choice but to abandon his ship with all hands to a boarding party of German sailors, who lost no time in opening up the Crimond to the unfeeling waters of the North Sea. The trawler's end was swift and without ceremony. It's crew, minus their skipper who was taken a prisoner aboard the German submarine, started on a laborious row back to the Scottish mainland. The date was 19th May, 1915 - the naval war now embraced ships of every size, no matter how small.

A fortnight after the Crimond went to the bottom, a pair of U-boats had a field day in the waters around Far North coast. In the space of two days the trawlers Kathleen, Chrysoprasus, Strathbran, Cortes and Evening Star were all sunk by German gunfire off the east coast of Orkney. Next day the merchant ship Dunnet Head went down 35 miles from Duncansby, another victim of the deadly German submarines. Mercifully no-one was killed during this shipping holocaust, for in those days every naval commander tried to keep their depredations within the spirit of Article 112 of the Prize Regulations, an international agreement governing warlike conduct at sea. Those who surrendered were accorded safe conduct, which meant that U-boat commanders ensured that every fisherman had taken to the boats before a short, sharp salvo blasted his trawler to oblivion. No sane submariner ever thought of wasting valuable torpedoes on something as insignificant as a fishing vessel.

Why, then, did the Germans bother sinking trawlers? What could be gained by depriving the British public of a few tons of fish? Simply this - the unfortunate trawlers just happened to be in the same waters as the British warships and merchantmen, who were the prime targets of the German submariners during the First World War, a war in which both antagonists' strategy included blockades designed to deprive the civilian populations of food. But that was not all.

From the War's outset the Royal Navy were quick to press the country's fishing fleet into its service. Trawlers were commandeered to lay anti-submarine nets; they were also sent out on patrol to search for U-boats. Then came the Q-ships, a good idea with a short shelf-life. Essentially, a Q-ship was a wolf in sheep's dress. What appeared to be to all intents and purposes a defenceless trawler, was in fact nothing of the sort. Beneath a pacific exterior lurked a veritable arsenal of concealed guns and torpedoes. In the late summer of 1915 disguised trawlers had accounted for two German U-boats in the northern seas off Scotland.

Working hand-in-glove with the submarine C24 , His Majesty's Trawler Taranaki sank the U-40 in a clever ambush, which saw the trawler used as bait to decoy the unsuspecting U-40 within range of C24's torpedoes. A month later a similar fate befell U-23 when she fell into a trap set by HMT Princess Louise and the Royal Navy sub C27 . Once the Germans had rumbled these tactics, they never worked again. Worse, all British trawlers, innocent or otherwise, were treated as potential Q-ships by the German U-boat fleet, and treated accordingly. Between 1914 and 1918, 675 British trawlers were sunk by U-boat action with the loss of 434 fisherman's lives.

In reality, trawlers were easy meat. Gunfire sunk most of them. In 4 days in 1916, U-35 commanded by Germany's top U-boat ace, the grandoisely-named Lothar von Arnauld de la Periere, sank 54 vessels, many of them trawlers, with 900 rounds from its deck gun. During this halcyon killing time, only four torpedoes left U-35's tubes. This example could not fail to impress the rest of the German U-boat fleet, the commanders of which were engaged in a macabre contest to see who could sink the most British shipping. Trawlers were simple additions to a U-boat ace's scalp list.

Given the strategic naval importance of the Far North, with the Grand Fleet base at Scapa Flow, and that great shipping lane, the Pentland Firth, it is surprising that so relatively few ships were lost through enemy action in these waters. The plain fact was that the strong-running, treacherous tides which surge through the Pentland Firth made it a poor environment for conventional submarine operations. But submarines could do things other than fire torpedoes and shells.

By the close of 1915, the British blockade of Germany was proving to be three times as effective as that imposed by Germany on its enemy. Every city, town and village throughout the Reich was starting to notice that a war was in progress. The unavailability of luxury items was succeeded by rationing of a few of life's essentials. Public unrest stirred. To counter this the German war tacticians decided to seed the waters around the British Isles with mines. At first converted surface ships were used as minelayers by the German Navy, but by 1916 a new class of submarines took to the water. Although these U-boats were armed with guns, their main weapon was the floating mine.

A minelayer named the Mowe left the Elbe on December 29th, 1915, with a cargo of 500 mines, and set sail for the Far North of Scotland. During a nine week cruise, the Mowe laid 252 mines off Wick, Orkney, Cape Wrath and in the waters of the Pentland Firth. Batches of 30 mines at a time were set loose to drift wherever the current took them, black, unseen, heralds of death unannounced. Results were swift. On 15th February, 1916, the Collier Wilson encountered one of the Mowe's mines 20 miles east of Wick. Bang! Down went the Wilson with 8 men. A week later HM Collier Duckbridge was 6 miles due north of Strathy point, on a wild, windy day when she happened to strike another mine laid by the Mowe . Another boat on the sea bottom, another 19 seamen dead, killed by means utterly remote, without human initiation. Every life lost this way is a tragedy, a personal blow, none more so to British morale than that of its most famous soldier, who himself fell victim to a mine.

On 23rd May, 1916, the German submarine U-75 sneaked quietly round the west coast of Orkney where it layed 22 mines, before setting off to rendezvous with its fellow U-boats U-43 and U-44 who were waiting at the eastern mouth of the Pentland Firth. These three submarines were part of a German master plan designed to ambush the British Grand Fleet as it sailed out of Scapa Flow. Due to a breakdown in communications, the German U-boats failed to receive the signal authorising them to begin attacking British ships. To complicate matters further, the Grand Fleet sailed later than planned, frustrating German intentions. When the Grand Fleet returned to Scapa, bloodied but undefeated by events of 30th/31st May at Jutland, the German submarine trio had already left the Pentland Firth. A deadly legacy remained, however.

By mid-1916 Lord Kitchener's usefulness to the Empire he had for so long served had almost run its course. In 1914 his famous rallying slogan had raised an army of volunteer soldiers so vast that insufficient resourses existed to train and equipt it. Had he confined his attentions to recruitment, Kitchener would probably have remained part of the British military establishment. But he was prone not only to interfere, but also to criticise the policy of the General Staff. Worse, a man of naturally gloomy disposition, Kitchener had expressed doubts as to whether Britain could win the war without appalling loss of life. In short, the great Field Marshal had become an embarrassment. A plan was thought up to send Kitchener to Russia to reform the army there. He was to carry secret papers intended for the Tsar's eyes only. His ship was laden with gold bullion. Or so it is alleged.

At noon on June 5th, 1916, Lord Kitchener arrived by train at Thurso station. He was immediately taken to Scrabster, where an honour guard selected from the Caithness Company of the 5th Seaforth Highlanders, was waiting on the pier to pay their respects to this most famous of soldiers. Arms presented, a quick salute, and Kitchener boarded a launch that took him to the destroyer on which he crossed the Pentland Firth to Scapa Flow. Next day he was fishfood - drowned in rough, gale-blown seas off Marwick Head on the west coast of Orkney. The cruiser which was carrying Kitchener to Russia had apparently struck one of the mines set adrift by U-75 .

Over eighty years have come and gone since Kitchener went down with the Hampshire ; yet still rumours persist that a cover-up conceals some dark, terrible conspiracy to make a premature end of the great soldier. Why, it is asked, did the Hampshire leave port in such a hurry, when imminent severe gales had been forecast? Why had she, contrary to her original orders, set off round the west Orkney coast into the teeth of a Force 8 nor' wester? And why, given the status of the Hampshire's illustrious passenger, had nothing been done to save his life? Kitchener was last reported seen pacing the deck, seemingly resigned to his fate. Old Orcadians to this day tell stories of armed soldiers posted on the cliffs around Birsay, keeping curious folk away at bayonet point. Will we ever know the truth about the Hampshire's end? Probably not.

The year 1917 was decisive for both Britain and its great enemy. In Germany people were starving. By the war's end 700,000 German civilians were to die as a result of starvation or hypothermia, most of which was caused by the iron-bound blockade imposed by the British. In response to this dire state of affairs the German government embarked on a reckless gamble - unrestricted submarine warfare. Inevitably this would hasten America's entry into the war on the British side, but if Britain could be starved to peace before American soldiers arrived in France . . . It was deemed a gamble worth taking.

The collier Excellent was the first to succumb to the new U-boat offensive. Surprised on January 9th, 1917, 40 miles off Noop Head, Orkney, her crew were given time to man the boats before a few shells sent the Excellent to the ocean floor. Her skipper was taken back to Germany as a prisoner of war, an indication of how highly-rated were the skills of these master mariners.

Trawlers were the next to suffer - Dale, Vulcana, Naamah, Nestor, Shamrock, St Bernard , all sunk by German U-boats in the grey seas around the Far North of Scotland during the first half of 1917. On April 13th HM Trawler Pitstruan struck a mine off Noss Head, killing Lybster men George MacLeod and William Miller. By mid-summer the German submarines were sinking ships at a greater rate than the British could build them, and the country was only weeks away from a major food crisis. Something had to be done. It was done.

In August 1917 the convoy system was introduced. This was followed by a concerted mine-laying campaign which saw the North Sea from Norway to the English Channel barriered off by two great curtains of floating mines. In Orkney a flying boat station had been built in 1916. A year later it became operational, the constant surveillance of its airborne vigilantes forcing the German U-boats to remain submerged throughout the daylight hours, surfacing only at night under cover of darkness. Within a couple of months the sea war tide had well and truly turned; everywhere the Germans were in retreat, their submarine construction programme failing to keep pace with the toll of U-boat casualties. By 1918 Britannia ruled the waves once more. For the fishermen of the Far North, the war was as good as over.

Caithness remembers with pride its many sons who fought and fell on 20th century battlefields all over the world. Military uniforms, colours, pipes and drums, drill and discipline - all these are potent totems of some indefinable quality that many of us are still willing to pay homage to. In contrast with military pomp a fisherman's dress is eminently practical, designed for the task in hand. To some it appears quaint. Nevertheless, those who continued to scrape up a precarious living from the sea in unarmed boats, while all around them lurked the deadly threat of enemy submarines and floating mines, these brave and hardy men deserve to be remembered too. Below is a list of Caithness fishermen killed during the First World War:

George Doull, 17 Vansittart Street, Wick. Lost at sea on HMT Bluebell , 6th Sept. 1917. Age 47.

Alexander Mackay, Shoreside, Dunbeath. Torpedoed on HMT Ascot , 10th November, 1918. Age 21.

William Mackay, 62 Argyle Square, Wick. Killed in action on HM Drifter Clachnacuddin, 24th April, 1916. Age 42.

George MacLeod, Achow, Lybster. Sunk with HMT Pitstruan, Noss Head, 13th April, 1917. Age 20.

William Miller, Skaill, Lybster. Sunk with HMT Pitstruan above. Age 19.

George Robertson, 28 Louisburgh Street, Wick. Killed on HMT Horatio , 12th April, 1915.

James Sinclair, 4 Whitehouse Lane, Wick. Killed in action, 26th April, 1915.

James Smith, Port Dunbar, Wick. Sunk with HM Collier Tynemouth , 31st January, 1915. Age 21.

Angus Swanson, born Thurso, lived Kinnard Street, Wick. Lost on HMT Theban, 11th Dec. 1918.

Hugh Thompson, Shore Street, Thurso. Sunk by U-boat on smack Ethel & Millie, 16th Aug. 1917.

James Webster, 18 Argyle Square, Wick. Lost at sea on HMT Towhee, 15th June, 1917.

We would like to thank Thurso Public Library for assistance with the above.

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Stephen Cashmore & David Bews 1998


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