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“Trap Ships” of the Fishing Fleet

Of all the heroic adventures that occurred with mystery ships during the war of 1914-18, none were more exciting than the exploits of the North Sea fishing smacks which decoyed and sank enemy submarines


MYSTERY SHIP ADVENTURES - 4

THE LOWESTOFT FISHING SMACK TELESIA






THE LOWESTOFT FISHING SMACK TELESIA was one of the plucky little craft that went to their fishing grounds during the war of 1914-18, not only to trawl for fish but also to catch enemy submarines. Instead of towing the genuine trawl, the Telesia, renamed Hobbyhawk, towed 600 yards of special nets attached to mines that would explode as soon as the nets were fouled. This device caught many submarines for the sailing vessel appeared to be harmlessly towing her nets.










IF anyone in August 1914 had dared to suggest that sailing warships would in a few months’ time again be used to fight under the White Ensign, he would have been ridiculed as an irresponsible prophet After several generations of steam and steel how could the Royal Navy revert to vessels propelled by the wind?


In the chapter “Salute to a Hero” we saw that the U-boat campaign necessitated the introduction of disguised steamers, pretending to be innocent tramps or colliers yet well armed for destroying any German submarine that might fall into the trap. Small sailing craft, too, were able to perform excellent service as decoys even less suspected than the most disreputable looking steamship

There were many difficulties, however. For example, it was hard to find officers and men accustomed to canvas, for the almost universal reliance on machinery had driven most of our real sailors off the seas. Moreover, it seemed suicidal for any wooden ketch or schooner to entice deliberately such a mobile and evasive mechanical marvel as the submarine. With the fickleness of winds and the problem of tides how could the slow, old-fashioned surface type craft be a match for a smart U-boat?


But the answer will be found in this chapter. Some of the pluckiest duels were fought by the weakest little ships in the most unfavourable conditions. It is well that real life should afford scenes of gallantry more thrilling than any novelist would dare to present.


The sailing “trap-ships” began this new era quite simply. At the outbreak of hostilities there were at Brixham (Devon), Ramsgate (Kent) and Lowestoft (Suffolk) a number of fishing ketches which used to go out and trawl as their predecessors had done for generations. To-day the Ramsgate smacks have almost disappeared, and the Brixham fishing fleet is fast dying out. But Lowestoft men still come sailing in from the North Sea through the piers with their same splendid skill athwart the tide.


A popular ground for trawling was from twenty to sixty miles southeast of Lowestoft, and this the Germans soon discovered during the summer of 1915, when they began sending over from Flanders to the East Anglian coast that new class of submarines known as the UB type. These vessels were about 90 feet long, 10 feet beam and 9 ft. 9 in. draught, with a surface speed of 6½ knots and a submerged speed of 5 knots. They carried two torpedoes and eight mines, and a small gun was mounted close to the conning-tower They were followed by the early UC-boats, which were somewhat of an improvement.


The Lowestoft smack skipper has his own navigational methods His knowledge of the local depths and of the nature of the sea-bed is unique Having been accustomed all his life to trawling along the bottom, he has no anxiety as to his position when beyond sight of land. In thick weather he uses his sounding lead to such advantage that he seldom gets lost. Charts do not interest him. yet he can feel his way home, or out to his fishing grounds, with uncanny accuracy.


No finer or hardier type of sailorman is to be found anywhere. Rugged, direct of manner, they collectively illustrate the “brotherhood of the sea”. Often enough the smack’s crew will all be relatives — father, sons and sons-in-law. Many of these had volunteered for minesweeping at the outbreak of war, but the rest still sailed out of Lowestoft to the south-east and brought home their catches.


Then on June 3, 1915, began the first of many losses, when the smack E. & C. was captured by a German submarine forty miles from the land and sunk by a bomb. On the same day, but ten miles farther out, the Boy Horace was destroyed in a similar manner. A third smack, the Economy, was sunk on June 4. So the losses of Lowestoft ketches went on till the end of September, only to begin again the following January.


It was to counteract these attacks on the fishing fleet that in August 1915 four Lowestoft smacks were commissioned as decoys, each armed with a concealed three-pounder gun, and sent to work trawls as before. The original crews were strengthened with a few active service ratings, and the greatest enthusiasm prevailed. Here was a really sound idea, and with any luck they might catch the enemy napping. The ruse turned out so successfully that within a few days the smack G. & E. engaged one UB-boat, the Inverlyon sank UB-4, the Pet fought a third, and on September 7 the Inverlyon had a second engagement.


On March 23, 1916, the armed smack Telesia was about thirty-five miles south-east of Lowestoft trawling — but also in the hopes of a fight , for no fewer than six peaceable smacks had been captured and sunk by bombs during the first week of the month. Skipper W. S. Wharton, who commanded the Telesia, was the type of man that seafaring breeds — courageous, resourceful, and undismayed. About noon on this eventful clay, when three miles away, he sighted a submarine steering northeast. The enemy had reason to hate these smacks, not merely because their very presence openly defied hostile operations, and made light of threats, but also because such small sailing craft — they were of about 50 tons — were really a fine look-out. The early UB- and UC-boats could, when submerged, keep up a 5-knots speed for an hour only, after which they had to rise and charge their batteries. But, with so many craft about, so strong a North Sea tide and so many shoals, no submarine captain would be foolish enough to keep under water longer than necessary.


THE PANIC PARTY was one of the important factors contributing to the success of the larger Q-ships



THE PANIC PARTY was one of the most important factors contributing to the success of the larger Q-ship engagements. No effort was spared to give this operation every semblance of reality for the success of this ruse and the lives of the ship and of her crew depended on the submarine commander being deceived by the apparent haste of the men to pull away, by the studied details of a bird in its cage, the cook straight from his galley, the unkempt skipper and the miscellany of uniforms. The ruse was often completely successful.





Nothing further happened till 1.30 p.m., when the visitor approached the Telesia, made a careful preliminary scrutiny, satisfied herself that here was a ready victim and got within fifty yards of the smack’s starboard bow. She. then submerged, but kept her periscope just visible. Evidently the commanding officer was still undecided and nervous, for he presently went away, came back an hour later to have another look and disappeared once more. But at 4.30 p.m. he returned from the north-east with his mind made up. He appears to have been not merely exceptionally apprehensive, but also lacking in a sense of proportion.


If he feared the risk of going alongside, capturing and then destroying the Telesia with the usual bomb, at least he could have opened fire with his gun while on the surface. But the strange visitor preferred to remain almost invisible some 300 yards away and fire a torpedo. Such a missile costs hundreds of pounds, and to use this weapon against a 50-tons smack was akin to using a steam-hammer against a fly.


We can well imagine the feelings of the Telesia’s people as they saw this steel fish rushing towards their wooden hull. Skipper Wharton at once threw off all disguise, brought his three-pounder gun into action and fired fifteen rounds at an impossible target — the thin periscope being all that could be seen. The torpedo just missed the Telesia’s bows by about four feet. The enemy dipped, went off, and after half an hour came back to give the knock-out blow.


This time the German approached from the starboard quarter, and fired a second torpedo which seemed as if surely destined to hit. Luckily this also missed, passing forty feet astern. At a distance of only seventy-five yards the enemy had now risen to reveal most of her deck, so the smack fired a shell which either struck the conning-tower or fell quite close, followed by a second shot which fell between conning-tower and hatch.


These were enough for the German, for the third shot would have been fatal. Preferring to break off the engagement, the enemy made a crash dive — so hurriedly that the vessel went down steeply by the bows and revealed her propeller — and thought it wiser to make across the North Sea for Flanders.


This engagement was not without its lesson to the Lowestoft naval base. The fickle wind died away, and the Telesia’s sails flapped idly in the swell. She would have been immobile had the enemy returned. It was now decided that these decoy smacks should be fitted with internal combustion motors, to give them at least a sporting chance. But Skipper Wharton, with his crew of three fishermen and four active service men (a naval chief petty officer, a leading seaman, an A.B. and a marine) had done so well that Wharton was awarded a D.S.C. and two of his shipmates were given the D.S.M.


A month later, on April 23, the Telesia again had come out of Lowestoft decoying; but on this occasion she had changed her name to Hobbyhawk and was commanded by Lieut. H. W. Harvey, R.N.V.R. With her now operated a similar smack named the Cheero, commanded by Lieut. W. F. Scott, R.N.R. An ingenious idea was to be attempted. Instead of towing the genuine trawl, either vessel was to drag through the water 600 yards of special nets attached to mines that would explode as soon as the nets became fouled by an object. Experiments had proved that, even with this length astern, a smack could still make progress at 3 knots and she would appear exactly as if she were trawling.


Caught in the Nets


The scene off the East Anglian coast that afternoon was some ten miles north-east of a well-known spot marked by the Smith’s Knoll Pillar Buoy. At 5.45 p.m. the two smacks began their “fishing”, when the nets were shot overboard and electric batteries connected up.


For some months past clever scientific minds on the Firth of Forth had been making a series of trials, to evolve some instrument which could be lowered into the sea as a listening device. If the elusive submarine could not be seen, perhaps she might be located by sounds through a hydrophone. The screw revolutions of a submarine under electric or oil motor power make noises characteristically different from the “thump-thump” of a steamship. The day had now arrived when an early type of hydrophone could be tested, and each smack was thus provided.


The wind had again fallen light, and the Cheero was heading away to the south-east with little more than steerage way. One of her crew was listening-in, and about 7 p.m. his hydrophone indicated a rapid whirring noise that might be that of a submarine. Evidently the enemy was still some distance away, but the gradually increasing volume of loud resonance made hearts beat proportionately faster. The intruder must be getting nearer all the while. Three-quarters of an hour passed, and sunset would soon be due. All of a sudden the Cheero’s towing wire became bar-taut. Excitement yielded to discipline, but every member of the smack’s crew realized that the great moment, so coveted by hundreds of patrol craft round the coasts, had now arrived.


the Lowestoft smack Telesia



COMMISSIONED AS A DECOY in August 1915, the Lowestoft smack Telesia was armed with a concealed three-pounder gun, and her original crew was strengthened with a few active service ratings. On the afternoon of March 23, 1916, the Telesia under the command of Skipper W. S. Wharton, sighted an enemy submarine, which eventually fired a torpedo. The torpedo missed and the Telesia opened fire at the almost invisible submarine. After having fired another torpedo, which also went wide, the submarine was forced to retire.





They waited and watched, eyes fixed on the wire towing the nets. It was bearing a tremendous strain just now; then it eased up, as if relieved of heavy weight. Next it became suddenly tight again, followed by a terrific explosion in the nets, the water being thrown twenty feet into the air. A slight pause, and a second upheaval came out of the sea, followed by oil. Every man on board the Cheero remained at action stations, prepared for the next development, but it was obvious what had happened.


The hydrophone confirmed what eyes had witnessed, for the sound of this visitor’s motors had ceased, never to be heard again. Another brief interlude, and the hands were ordered to haul nets, but this was no easy operation. Ordinarily the job could be done by two men, but such was the dead weight this evening that it needed half-a-dozen to get in the first net, and the second was coming on board when all the nets dipped down at a sharp angle.


Fragments of steel were seen in the nets, and one piece was brought on board. The men went on pulling, but as the third net came along another surprise occurred. Heaviness vanished and all strain had gone. Everyone noticed a strong smell of oil. Further examination revealed that one of the net-mines had exploded.


On reaching Lowestoft Harbour these nets were subjected to further examination, when more bits of steel — some of quite large size — fell out. These fragments were all that remained of UC-3. Lieut. Kreysern, her commanding officer, had brought his craft from Bruges with the usual cargo of mines, but on fouling the smack’s net one disaster had followed another. Thus tangled up, the submarine (which was about 111 feet long and of 9 feet draught) evidently moved her engines ahead and astern in her bid for freedom, only to become far more seriously trapped.


The first explosion was followed by UC-3’s own mines detonating. The sea must have poured into the breached hull, and she became a lifeless mass too ponderous for the fishermen till she slipped out of the nets to her last resting-place on the sandy bed. Having begun her service during the summer of 1915, she, with her sisters, UC-1, 2 and 11, had been regularly employed dumping her dangerous cargoes off the east and south-east English coasts. It was thus that the destroyer H.M.S. Lightning had been blown up near the Kentish Knock Lightship.


These boats from Flanders used to carry a dozen mines each trip, so that they always were a menace to themselves until the last black, horned “egg” had been deposited. But the contest between these submarines and fishing craft went on till the end, with alternate victories and losses. Two days after the Cheero incident the unarmed smack Alfred was captured and sunk twenty-seven miles E. by S. of Lowestoft, but on April 24 UB-13 came to a violent end in interesting circumstances.


H.M.S Lightning was destroyed by a mine in 1915




























AN EARLY DESTROYER of the “A” class, H.M.S Lightning was destroyed by a mine near the Kentish Knock Lightship, north of the Thames estuary, in 1915. She was a vessel of about 300 tons displacement with a speed of 27 knots Four UC-boats had been placing mines in this vicinity for some time, but UC-3 was herself destroyed by the fishing smack Cheero.




On that afternoon the steam drifter Gleaner of the Sea, which had been taken up by the Admiralty and commissioned, was lying at anchor off the Thornton Ridge, which is a shoal abreast of Zeebrugge. She and some other drifters had been placed there with their nets out to catch the Flanders submarines which used to come in and out of that harbour. The enemy's base at

Bruges was reached through the canal which is entered at the Zeebrugge lock. About 2 p.m. the watch on deck heard an unusual sound against the Gleaner of the Sea’s wire cable which led down to the anchor.


Having walked forward, the man was thrilled to see UB-13 foul of this wire, and summoned Skipper R. G. Hurren, who rushed up with a lance-bomb and hurled it against the enemy's fore deck, causing a great explosion. This evidently holed the submarine, which now sank on to the wire so heavily that the hawser snapped.


The Last of UB-13


A second bomb was dropped where the sea boiled, and the skipper signalled another drifter, which came up and threw more bombs. Then the Gleaner of the Sea fetched a destroyer, which fired additional explosives. Oil and air bubbles continued to reach the surface, and that was the end of UB-13. Skipper Hurren was awarded a D.S.C. and the sum of £389. The rest of his crew shared the balance of £1,000 and one man received the D.S.M.


For their patriotism, zeal and total disregard of danger, these fishermen crews were beyond all praise. It was my privilege to command one of the steam drifters during part of the war

and after having lived with such splendid men through all the seasons and every kind of weather, I could never forget their rugged outlook on life, their simple philosophy, their loyal affection, their promptness in emergency. They had come straight from their North Sea fishing into the midst of a great and terrible war.


Scarcely one of them had ever fired a gun in his life, yet these clear-eyed fellows could make extraordinarily good shooting with a three-pounder and think nothing of it. Above all, they had the genuine tenacious spirit to win, that sporting instinct which revels in a good tussle whether on the football field or on the sea of war.


So, in almost every kind of fishing craft the anti-submarine contest continued. On May 13, 1916, the Hobbyhawk (this time accompanied by a smack named Revenge) had a hot though indecisive encounter with another submarine in much the same spot where the Cheero had conquered. This sailing decoy idea began to spread, so that at Lowestoft more smacks were commissioned and armed. At the end of this month two Brixham smacks, which normally fished out of Milford Haven, were armed each with a twelve-pounder and sent to operate from that Pembrokeshire port. They were named respectively, Kermes and Strumbles. When the autumnal gales came on, however, it was realized that they heeled over too much, and that their freeboard at the waist — intentionally low for hauling the trawl and the ship’s boat —  was too low. Their gun would not bear satisfactorily, and the range of vision was normally too restricted. By November, therefore, they had been paid off.


So also on the Yorkshire coast two of the local craft known as cobles were commissioned. A coble is an unusual kind of boat peculiar to such places as Bridlington. Filey, Scarborough and Whitby. These two were the Thalia and the Blessing, and they were fitted with auxiliary motors. They received 300 yards of mine-nets measuring 30 feet deep, and began their pretence of fishing south-east of the Humber; but no submarine came along to be entrapped, so that after a few eventless months the cobles were returned to their owners.


Communication by Pigeon


Thus it was with ships as with human beings; some seem destined for adventure, others jog-trot calmly through life. Of the former we shall now consider a wonderful example. It is a story that belongs to the golden book of gallantry — one of those imperishable, yet pathetic, sea episodes which enrich our great national tradition. And, once more, the heroes were North Sea fishermen.


The Lowestoft smack G. & E., which had been in action with a UB-boat had (for reasons of concealment) to change her name. She received the appellation I’ll Try. Later on this was again altered to Nelson. Skipper T. Crisp, commanding this armed smack, had already won a D.S.C. in action against a submarine, and belonged exactly to the Nelson tradition. The great admiral would have recognized in this brother sailor someone of his own character.


On August 15, 1917, the two armed smacks Nelson and Ethel and Millie were fishing off the east coast. This was the year when the U-boat campaign all but succeeded. The smaller UBs and UCs had been replaced by bigger and more powerful submarines, with armament far superior to anything carried by a smack. The smacks realized, in their lonely situation, several hours out of sight from land (even with a smart breeze), and somewhat off the shipping lane, that the day might come when an enemy would be able to outrange them completely.


There was now no need to waste an expensive torpedo. A few shells would suffice: for the German submarines frequently attacked while on the surface, using a 4.1-in. gun, and reserving their eight or ten torpedoes for more valuable game such as a cruiser or (if extremely lucky) a battleship. For economy and to guard against surprise, a U-boat captain preferred dealing with steamers by remote attack on the surface. Sometimes the gunners were experts lent from the High Seas Fleet, and their shooting could not have been better.


The Treminster was formerly a Brixham vesselThus, with the advance of months, mystery smacks became a little old-fashioned as fighting units. A first-class idea had not been modernized and kept up to date. The method of communication, for example, was faulty. While any area was patrolled by more than one submarine, one of them could wireless a message —“Suspicious trawler working in square forty-eight” or report that the Harwich light cruisers were coming along. But such craft as the Nelson carried no wireless, and if they should need help it would have to be summoned by carrier pigeon — an interesting yet not wholly satisfactory procedure.





NOW A PLYMOUTH TRAWLER, the Treminster was formerly a Brixham, Devonshire, vessel. During the war of 1914-18, she emulated the exploits of the famous Lowestoft and North Sea “trap-ships” and had a fine record as a sailing Q-ship.





The attack this summer’s afternoon began about 2.45 without warning. Everything had seemed quite peaceful. The Nelson was under way sailing on the port tack, the trawl had been shot, and one hand remained on deck looking after the steering and cleaning fish for the next day’s breakfast. Skipper Crisp was below packing the fish, but he presently came on deck, took a glance round the horizon — as every mariner by time-honoured custom does immediately on coming up — and sighted some indefinite blur in the distance. He screwed up his eyes, scrutinized the object and sent for his binoculars. He was not mistaken. There a submarine arose.


“Clear for action!” shouted Crisp, and the men jumped to their thirteen-pounder gun, while the engineer leapt below to start up his motor. Scarcely had the Lowestoft man spoken than a German shell came rushing along. It fell a hundred yards away on the port bow. There was no time to haul in the net; so it was buoyed and let go. Meanwhile the submarine, with her 4.1-in. gun and her secure range, could afford to laugh at the thirteen-pounder. The duel was unequal from the first. Each shell seemed to be getting nearer the target, and the fourth went into the Nelson’s bow just below her water-line.


This was serious misfortune, but every man remained perfectly cool, and the skipper in an endeavour to keep her from sinking put his ship about on the other tack. Two more shells followed. Now came the devastating seventh, which struck the skipper, penetrated the ship’s deck and the ship’s side, and fell into the North Sea. In poured the salt water, and the Nelson began to sink. The smack’s gun-layer had been doing his best and firing quickly in an impossible task. He now went to the skipper’s assistance, only to see that the poor man lay mortally wounded. “It’s all right”, the skipper encouraged. “Do your best”. Then to the second-in-command, his son Tom Crisp, who had now taken charge of the tiller, he ordered: “Send a message off”. Still cheering up his crew, the old man dictated this communication: “Nelson being attacked by submarine. Skipper killed. Send assistance at once.” It was scribbled down on a bit of paper and attached to the carrier pigeon. Away the bird fluttered landwards.


Terribly anxious minutes ensued. Only five rounds of ammunition remained on board, the ship could not float much longer, and the enemy continued to outrange with his superior gun. In spite of his sufferings, this great-souled Skipper Crisp remembered he was still captain of his ship and crew, still responsible for certain confidential documents which must never be allowed to fall into enemy hands.


“Abandon Ship!”


His son went up to him and heard this next command: “Abandon ship. Throw the books overboard.” So the smack’s rowing boat was lowered, and they prepared to leave the foundering vessel.


That was the most painful situation of all. How could they go away and forsake the old man?

But the skipper was thinking of their lives, rather than of his own. “Tom,” he called to his son, “I’m done. Throw me overboard.”


That they certainly could not do, even in this awful crisis; yet the Nelson would not float many moments longer, and it seemed likely that her death would synchronize with that of her captain. Perceiving that he was too ill to be moved, they left him alone to his ship and his dying thoughts. Tom and the others got in the boat and rowed a few strokes. In less than a quarter of an hour Skipper Crisp and the Nelson sank simultaneously below the waves. The North Sea broke over them. Life had gone.


In bitter sorrow the survivors began an uncertain boat voyage. Their mates in the Ethel and Millie were a little better off. Robbed of their ship, they had been taken prisoner and were last seen on the submarine’s deck as she motored away. And now dark night covered the sea, as Tom Crisp’s party pulled wearily at their heavy oars. There would be little hope of seeing a ship before daylight. Towards morning the wind got up and blew them off their course, and it seemed they would be dead of starvation long before reaching Denmark or Norway.


To attract the attention of any passing ship — perhaps the Harwich cruisers might be coming home from a sweep into Heligoland Bight — a pair of trousers and a large piece of oilskin were secured to a pair of oars. Once a vessel was sighted, but she never saw the boat. Then a group of British minesweepers was seen, but they were too far away and passed by unsuspecting. So the long day faded into a second night, the weather improved, and the rowers pulled steadily on.


A CONCEALED GUN in the Q-ship Underwing

























A CONCEALED GUN in the Q-ship Underwing. This gun was a 4-in. breech-loading gun, larger than the type used in the Lowestoft fishing smacks. The Underwing was built at Dundee as the Goodwin, under which name she is still in the British coastal service. Of 1,570 tons gross she has a length of 270 ft. 3 in., a beam of 37 ft. 2 in. and a depth of 17 ft. 3 in.




We can imagine the feelings of these men; the mingled sense of sorrow, anger, hunger, thirst, physical and soul-weariness, with death doubtless awaiting them soon. Perhaps none of their friends and relatives in Lowestoft would ever hear what had happened, till the interminable war ended and the Ethel and Millie people returned home. Even these would know but half the story.


But it never does to lose hope. Some of history’s sea-escapes read as if they were miracles, and now just when the second long day had well advanced and the men were reaching the last stages of endurance, they sighted a buoy about 10.30 a.m. Here was luck indeed, for they were able to make fast and rest awhile. Had the incident of this fight occurred off certain other parts of the British Isles — as, for example, well away from the rocky coast of Cornwall — there would have been no such halting spot. But, apart altogether from those navigational buoys marking the outlying Norfolk and Suffolk sandbanks, there existed from early in the war a long line of buoys to indicate the swept channel for shipping. This lane, beginning at the North Foreland, continued right up the Yorkshire coast.


Thus at last secured along the shipping route Tom Crisp and his companions were sighted during the same afternoon, rescued and taken into port. But that was not quite the end, for His Majesty King George the Fifth awarded posthumously the Victoria Cross to Skipper Crisp, and the D.S.M. to the son, who went to Buckingham Palace to receive these well-deserved decorations. As for the Ethel and Millie, armed only with a six-pounder, it is now known that the crew fought till the last shell had been used up, and then took to their boat, whence the Germans made them prisoners.


But such is the fortune of war that within one week of Skipper Crisp’s death, the North Sea fishermen much farther up the coast were to be witnesses of a strange event which counterweighed the disaster. Three British mine-sweeping trawlers, the Jacinth (Lieut. F. W. Gray, R.N.R.), the Thomas Young (Lieut. C. S. Burgon, R.N.R.) and the Chikara (Skipper James Ballard) were off the mouth of the Tay shortly before 5 p.m. on August 21, when they experienced a violent explosion.


Swift Retaliation


Having been ordered to lay mines near Dundee and Aberdeen, UC-41 had crossed from Germany and had begun her duties in the Tay estuary when she heard the Jacinth and Thomas Young approaching. In her hurry to get clear, the submarine fouled one of her own mines. The Jacinth was only 300 yards away, and the two trawlers were connected by the steel wire for sweeping up mines.


Having altered course to the scene of this explosion, they soon found their wire entangled, and up came a German mine. While the Thomas Young destroyed this danger, the Jacinth dropped two depth charges over the right spot, and more mines within UC-41 detonated, oil and air coming up to the surface. Along steamed the Chikara, which let go four more depth charges. Some pieces of woodwork were picked up, hydrophones were put over, and for two hours the sounds of this submarine’s electric engine could still be heard, till they stopped suddenly.


Next day the armed trawler Sophron foundered on a mine at this spot, and yet another mine was discovered. The evidence thus pointed to the presence of some enemy submarine, though at this late stage of hostilities the Admiralty were not hurriedly convinced.


Prolonged salvage operations, however, were undertaken, and about one month after the initial explosion, a German twenty-two-pounder gun (such as the UC-class were known to carry) was brought up. That settled all doubt. Lieut. Gray, Lieut. Burgon and Skipper Ballard received the D.S.C. Months later — after the war — the sum of £145 was divided among the three ships as prize bounty.


THE QUICK-FIRING GUN in the British Q-ship Hyderabad
























THE QUICK-FIRING GUN in the British Q-ship Hyderabad was fitted on a special platform on the after deck. The platform disappeared below the level of the deck until a submarine appeared. Then the concealed gun would rise to the firing position, the White Ensign would be run up and the submarine would be attacked. Fishing vessels, however, had no room for such heavy armament nor for such elaborate disguises as in the larger Q-ships.




Late in September 1916, the Lowestoft armed smack Holkar, which had come out for the usual dual purpose of catching fish and submarines, was in the lower part of the North Sea. Her personnel consisted of Skipper Thompson (who had already won the D.S.C. for a previous episode), a mate, a petty officer lent by the Navy, a private of the Marines as gun-layer, an able seaman and four fishermen.


At 8.15 a.m., on September 28, distant sounds of a submarine were heard on the Holkar’s hydrophone. One hour later the skipper and four others on deck were peering through the haze when they thought they saw a buoy.


Skipper Thompson, having satisfied himself that what he saw had definitely shaped itself into a submarine, kept his smack sailing about south by west, sending the motor-man and the others to their stations. But he remained a little uncertain, thinking the stranger might be British. All doubt vanished when she got within 600 yards, turned her starboard side towards the Holkar, stopped, and opened fire with her machine gun. We may picture the two-masted fishing vessel heeling a little, her sails full, the men waiting alongside their concealed gun, the deckhands armed with rifles and crouching unseen behind the bulwarks, the cook below ready to hand up ammunition. The fishing vessel was an old-time warship, in miniature.


Just as the enemy’s machine-gun fired, and the shots pierced the main-sail, the Holkar’s rifles and tbirteen-pounder came into action. This reply gave the German commanding officer the surprise of his life. Before the thirteen-pounder could be fired a second time, the submarine had disappeared. So the Holkar, now under sail and motor, made for the enemy’s last spot.


Here were noticed two interesting items — a kind of scum on the surface, with a strange smell as if from bilge water. It so chanced that the private of Marines in the Holkar had served in another of these mystery smacks at the time when a submarine, after having been shelled, had hurriedly disappeared. The man stated that both submarines left the same smell behind. Another of the smack’s crew confirmed that the “smell was horrible”.


Doubtless the Holkar’s visitor was another of the small UC class, but she was never seen by the smack again. Two pigeons were released to inform the Lowestoft Senior Naval Officer and later on the area of this engagement was swept and buoyed. It is true that an obstruction was discovered, but many wrecks abound here, so the story concludes without solution. The depth being over 120 feet, and the turbulent North Sea being thick with sand, no diver could be sent down, though nowadays modern appliances and up-to-date methods — such as were used in the Bay of Biscay for recovering gold from the Egypt — would probably succeed.


Curiously, this Holkar affair happens to be one of the few instances where the Admiralty made awards without complete evidence. Skipper Thompson was given a bar to his D.S.C., one rating received the D.S.M. and £1,000 was divided among the crew.


But what was the cause of the scum and “bilge water”? The latter rather strengthens the opinion that this boat dived voluntarily. Only after some while did the patrols learn this bit of bluff, and that (to deceive the hunters) an enemy submarine would after submergence release such things as oil and even pieces of wood. The practice became well established, and I have since received confirmation from the Master of a British steamer taken prisoner. During his captivity he noted that the submarine was forced on one occasion to use this deception with a view to feigning disaster.


Whether the Holkar did or did not destroy her rival, the submarine scarcely won a victory. This was one of the difficult instances which just failed to carry conviction. We needed only a little more proof, but the absence of confirmation left us wondering. In any event, no recompense could be too high for the smacksmen, who risked their ships and their lives every time they left port.


The biographies of these crews would make entertaining reading. I know of one smack in which the marine had already been through the Dardanelles campaign and thought this decoy work “an easy job”, and the cook had been torpedoed, shipwrecked, wounded by shrapnel and twice blown up by mines. Yet the work came as a relief after service in big ships and the uncertainty gave a spice of adventure.


The Telesia was at the Silver Jubilee Naval Review at Spithead in 1935






TWENTY YEARS AFTER her U-boat adventures the Telesia represented Lowestoft at the Silver Jubilee Naval Review at Spithead in 1935. Several U-boats were destroyed during the war of 1914-18 by Lowestoft fishing smacks, of a type similar to the Telesia which was of 46 tons.






You can read more on

“Gerbault and the Firecrest”,

“Great Voyages in Little Ships” and

“Supreme Feats of Navigation”

on this website.