Sometimes the tragedy of a shipwreck can also reveal a hidden heritage which has all but slipped out of living memory – and the events that unfolded on that day of 19 February 1943 are all the more moving because of it.
After the fall of Belgium in May 1940 fishermen from Nieuwpoort, Ostend and Zeebrugge left for England either directly or via French ports. They, of course, had better means than many of making their escape in their fishing boats, and were able to take other refugees with them. The testimony of Pierre Logghe, who left Belgium as a boy with his family, recalled their boat, hosting three other refugee families, coming under bombardment at Calais and seeing a mine off Dieppe claiming another Belgian trawler, O.288 Normandie, and they were again bombed as they set out once more on the last leg for England. (See note 1 to read his story in full.)
As Pierre recalled, and as research by the Ministry of Information at the time demonstrated, (2) many of the fishermen remembered only too well the horrors of the First World War, something that in itself we often overlook: those born around 1900 would see war twice before they were 50.
Belgian drifters and trawlers were a familiar sight on the eastern and Channel coasts from the late 19th century onwards, encountered both as working vessels and as wrecks, as for example the Vierge Marie, which stranded west of Tater-Du, Cornwall, in heavy seas in January 1937.
Pierre’s father’s ship was the O.280 Pierre, registered at Ostend, was recognised in harbour as one of their own, having previously been Brixham smack BM 1, Superb, sold on in 1919. Nor were the Logghes the only Belgian refugees to come to Brixham, which soon hosted a community in exile of 2,000 Belgians (3) from fishing families who followed a similar tradition of trawling from sailing vessels as the Brixham fleet – for that very reason, it is unsurprising that at least one Brixham trawler had been sold on into Belgian service. (If you’d like to follow up the heritage of the Brixham sailing trawler, have a look at a past post on a former Brixham sailing trawler that went to war, HMS Brown Mouse.)
The Belgians became well-established in Brixham, settling into homes nearby, a Belgian school for children hosted in the Town Hall, and a sea school for boys established. A documentary short (Little Belgium / Klein België), following the lives of the fishermen, their families, and their community, was shown in cinemas: it was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature Film in 1942.
The film depicted the success of the community at work, school and play, but British gunners shown boarding the fleet setting out to sea to provide some defence against air attack showed the dangers they still had to face. Pierre Logghe recalled his father being strafed by aircraft on several occasions while out fishing, and also the fate of other Belgian trawlers fishing from Brixham: ‘two ships were lost through mines and the third by an explosion in their net.’ (4)
We can identify the Belgian trawler which sank after netting a mine as the Marie Robert, lost off Wolf Rock, between Land’s End and the Isles of Scilly, on 2 April 1942. We cannot confirm with certainty the identities of the other two ships lost to mines, as there are more than two candidates in the frame (including Ster der Zee and Irma Germaine, sunk off Berry Head in October 1942 and August 1943 respectively) but it is likely that one of those to which he referred was another Ostend ship in the fleet operating out of Brixham, O.260 Lindbergh, lost on 19 February 1943.
Our best source for the sequence of events comes from a Flemish-language fishermen’s newspaper, Het Nieuwe Visscherijblad, published after the war, with its attractive masthead of two trawlers, one sailing and one steam, heading into harbour amid strong breakers. (5) Commemorating the third anniversary of a loss that was still raw, under an English-language heading of ‘Remember . . .‘ the newspaper recounts a sequence of events that must have come down from the sole survivor, Arthur Vinck.
The Lindbergh was fishing off Brixham harbour in a position about 15 or 16 miles south of Berry Head together (6) with other Belgian trawlers of the Brixham fleet. Vinck was on deck at the bows, with the skipper Fransciscus Vanneuville in the wheelhouse. The moment of the explosion must have been frozen in his mind, as he recalled the exact position of everyone in the crew: the two Vandammes, father Lodewijk and son Marcel, were chatting behind him to Jozef Monteny, and the cook Jan Michel Duyck was in the galley. ‘Suddenly, there was a tremendous explosion and the stern flew up in the air. The vessel sank immediately.’ N.63 Sincerity of Nieuwpoort, also in the surrounding fleet, and based in Newlyn, (7) set course for the site and picked Arthur up after an hour in the sea, having been kept alive and afloat by a lifebelt. Out of the other five crew, nothing could be discovered other than the body of Marcel Vandamme, the ship’s boy.
The skipper who performed the rescue was awarded a medal for his efforts from the Belgian government-in-exile in London.
Prayer cards for the deceased survive in online Belgian collections. (8) They reveal that Marcel was not yet 16 when he died, much the same age as the boy shown taking his examination at the Belgian Fishing School in Brixham below.
An account of Marcel’s funeral in the local press revealed more about wartime censorship than details of the circumstances behind his death, for details of deaths to war causes were minimised (9) so as not to reveal to the enemy the success or otherwise of their operations:
A spacious public hall, kindly loaned by the public authority in a South-West town, was crowded last week by Belgian and Fighting French refugees at the Requiem Mass for Marcel Dandamme [sic], aged 15, whose mortal remains were brought into the hall by four stalwart compatriots . . . The funeral was attended by the chairman and members of the local authority and officials of the Belgian and Fighting French Mercantile Marine. (10)
Marcel’s body was repatriated after the war and now lies in his home town of Ostend. (11)
The wreck is a tangible memorial not only to the crew, but also to an uprooted culture and community which found a temporary home in a comparable community, but which could not wholly escape the spectre of war.
(1) Logghe, P 2012 The Story of Brixham’s Belgian Visitors: “Our Escape from Belgium” and “Life in Wartime England” Devon Heritage, published online; Logghe, P 2020 “Pierre’s Story”, Brixham Future, published online
(2) See, for example, a photograph with the biography of fisherman M Major and his family https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205202833
(3) Ministry of Information / Ministerie voor Voorlichting van België (Belgian Ministry of Information) 1942 Little Belgium / Klein België (film) (British Paramount News) See, for example, Brixham Heritage Museum’s YouTube Channel: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TDM2nj3eWyw (in Flemish, auto-captions in that language available)
(4) See note 1.
(5) Het Nieuwe Visscherijblad, 16 February 1946, No.12
(6) Lloyd’s War Losses for the Second World War, 3 September 1939-14 August 1945, Vol. 1, p625 (London: Lloyd’s of London Press)
(7) The Flemish newspaper article does not name the ship other than its fishing number, N.63, and the name of the skipper, but the fishing number can be traced. https://freepages.rootsweb.com/~treevecwll/family/belgianfv.htm
(8) The crew’s names vary slightly between the newspaper article and the prayer cards, partly because of different linguistic registers and naming conventions with which the English-language reader may not be familiar. The versions on the prayer cards have been preferred.
(9) For further reading on this topic Thompson, G 1947 Blue Pencil Admiral (London: Sampson Low, Marston & Co. Ltd.) is revealing. Rear Admiral George Pirie Thompson was Britain’s Chief Press Censor during the Second World War.
(10) Western Morning News, 2 March 1943, No.25,940, p2
(11) Entry for Marcel Vandamme: https://www.wardeadregister.be/fr/dead-person?idPersonne=71888