No.90 The fishing fleets strike back

Diary of the War No.13

Following on from last month’s War Diary post about a group of Lowestoft fishing smacks captured and sunk by scuttling charges, this month I look at an occasion when the tables were turned. As previously mentioned, one of the outcomes of the attacks on fishing vessels was the arming of selected smacks to patrol and protect their number when out at sea.

On 11 August 1915 UB-6 sank the fishing smack Leader 20 miles NE of Lowestoft, before being warned away by gunfire from the armed smack G & E. It was thought that G & E had sunk the submarine, but it was later ascertained that this was not the case, and UB-6 had limped home to give intelligence that fishing smacks were standing up for themselves.

Four days later, on 15 August, UB-4 approached to try her luck with another fleet of smacks off the Smith’s Knoll Spar Buoy, in the fishing grounds off Norfolk. The Inverlyon was also fishing when UB-4 began to approach at about 8.15 pm, closing within 30 yards. ‘It was dusk and no better target could be expected’. (1)

However, UB-4 was not prepared for what happened next. Inverlyon was not just out to catch fish. She had also assumed a new role just under a fortnight earlier. Gunner Ernest M Jehan of HMS Dryad was in command, and hoisted the White Ensign, firing a revolver at the officer steering the submarine. This was not so much to hit his opponent personally, as to signal to his crew to open fire with their 3pdr gun.

Nine rounds of fire disabled UB-4. According to Gunner Jehan’s report: ‘1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th shorts striking conning tower, 5 and 7 over, 6, 8 and 9 hitting hull.’ (2) She sank ‘head down, at an angle of 80°’. (1) Jehan continued: ‘3 bodies appearing, one shouting. Skipper Philips undressed and swam with lifebuoy but could not reach man before he sank. . . .We are lying by trawl which is foul of submarine.’

According to British naval intelligence, UB-4 had set out from her Flanders base before the return of UB-6 ‘taught by the G & E that some smacks were to be respected’, and thus was unaware of this new British anti-submarine tactic. It was a rare success in modern warfare for a small sailing vessel of 59 tons to sink a submarine, even a submarine as small as a UB-I class vessel of 127 tons surface displacement.

And Inverlyon? Like so many Lowestoft smacks before her, she too would eventually be captured and scuttled, but this would not happen until 1 February 1917.

(1) Naval Staff Monographs (Historical), Vol. XIV, Home Waters: Part V: July to October 1915, Admiralty, London, 1926

(2) His handwritten note, repr. in Taffrail, (Taprell Dorling), Swept Channels, Hodder and Stoughton, London, 1935


No.88 Lowestoft trawlers

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.

Black and white photographs of several Lowestoft smacks under full sail.
Wooden sailing trawler Prospector, LT 554, 59 tons, (left foreground) one of the vessels stopped and sunk by a time bomb on 30 July 1915. By courtesy of Lowestoft Maritime Museum.

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.

View of Gloucester Docks with a series of tall ships, and an orange search and rescue vessel in foreground.
Gloucester Tall Ships, 23 May 2015. Keewaydin, a Lowestoft smack, whose dark mainmast is prominent in centre background with LT 1192 painted in white letters on her keel, was built in 1913 in Rye for the Lowestoft fishing fleet and continued fishing out of Lowestoft until the 1930s. She is therefore an exact contemporary of the lost vessels in this week’s post. © Andrew Wyngard

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.’

View of visitors aboard a sailing ship in harbour to give a sense of the small scale of the vessel.
View of Keewaydin at the Gloucester Tall Ships festival, 23 May 2015. At 62 tons, this smack, a member of the National Historic Fleet, is typical of her contemporaries sunk on 30 July 1915 and gives a sense of scale. © Andrew Wyngard


(2) Naval Staff Monographs (Historical), Vol. XIV, Home Waters: Part V, July to October 1915. Admiralty, London, April 1926