Diary of the War No. 12
The focus of this month’s centenary commemoration is a group of eight fishing vessels, the Coriander, Fitzgerald, Achieve, Venture, Athena, Quest, Prospector and Strive, all captured, scuttled, and sunk on 30 July 1915 while out fishing in the North Sea.
This was by no means the first attack on Lowestoft smacks, as all eight were, or any British fishing fleet. The situation had been escalating since the start of hostilities, but became very marked in July 1915 with the Lowestoft fleet coming under attack on several occasions.
In fact, the wartime toll on the fishing fleet was such that a separate section of the official 1919 HMSO publication Merchant Shipping (Losses) was devoted entirely to ‘Fishing Vessels Captured or Destroyed by the Enemy’, running to 25 pages. According to Table B in this publication, for July 1915 alone 36 British fishing vessels were sunk for 3,966 tons – and this table took no account of requisitioned trawlers and drifters, being solely concerned with fishing craft still in civilian employment.
All eight vessels were sunk in the space of about five hours by UB-10, captained by Otto Steinbrinck, who, as one of the most prolific U-boat captains of the First World War, would go on to sink 197 more vessels throughout the war. In fact, he accounted for the greatest number of ships sunk (but not the greatest tonnage – for example, these eight ships were very small). (1)
‘The Lowestoft smacks suffered another heavy raid on the 30th. The morning was still and fine and they were lying becalmed and scattered widely over the fishing grounds round about Smith’s Knoll.’ (2) The Coriander was the first victim, being ‘accosted and eventually scuppered by a submarine which placed a bomb in her hold’.
These repeated attacks on the Lowestoft fishing fleet triggered an investigation into the best method of dealing with the threat, concluding that, since the attacking submarines were small and not armed with guns (only with bombs and torpedoes: the latter would not have been expended on small wooden vessels) always approaching their potential victims closely, self-defence would be adequate protection. Four smacks were issued with 3pdr guns to ‘cruise to seaward of and near to the fishing fleet’.
On a lighter note, the same report noted the downside of reporting submarine sightings where the new-fangled wireless telegraphy was unavailable: ‘The pigeon service is slow and unreliable.’
(2) Naval Staff Monographs (Historical), Vol. XIV, Home Waters: Part V, July to October 1915. Admiralty, London, April 1926