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The Great Fishermen of Britain - Feeding the Nation During WWII and Braving Mines and U-Boats

A retired pharmaceutical and industrial chemist, author and historian specialising in military events.

Kirkcaldy Drifter KY322 William Wilson - worked as a Hospital Drifter

Kirkcaldy Drifter KY322 William Wilson - worked as a Hospital Drifter

Closest to camera - Great Yarmouth trawler YH217 Frons Olivae.

Closest to camera - Great Yarmouth trawler YH217 Frons Olivae.

HMT Nubia

HMT Nubia

HMT Lady Lilianorway

HMT Lady Lilianorway

HMT Hammond sinking

HMT Hammond sinking

Fish market selling everything that was caught

Fish market selling everything that was caught

Handling fish - women acting as porters with the men away.

Handling fish - women acting as porters with the men away.

Fish monger - selling to the public, just about anything that was edible.

Fish monger - selling to the public, just about anything that was edible.

Queues for fish

Queues for fish

Local fish monger

Local fish monger

Fishing boats - Taking aboard soldiers at Dunkirk

Fishing boats - Taking aboard soldiers at Dunkirk

Sunken Fishing boats at the Dunkirk evacuation site

Sunken Fishing boats at the Dunkirk evacuation site

Fishermans memorial

Fishermans memorial

The wheezing steam winch took the strain of the trawl net as the venerable old fishing trawler started to bring the much needed catch of fish into its holds.

Skimming across the North Sea at almost wave height was a Focke Wulf 190 who had spotted the trawler and began its attack. The trawler was defenceless and the skipper could only cut loose his nets, ring for full ahead and weave to try to avoid the deadly cannon shells that were splintering the wooden hull and bridge.

His deadly attack over the FW190 continued with his patrol leaving the old trawler dead in the water and rapidly sinking with the surviving crew taking to a lifeboat that had miraculously survived the attack.

This was the fate of many of Britain’s fishing fleet, already depleted as most of the larger and more modern trawlers had been requisitioned, armed and used as minesweepers, patrol or escort vessels.

The food situation in Britain was becoming serious as the U-Boats were taking an increasing toll of our merchant ships on the North Atlantic run. Fish became an essential and was not rationed, but supplies were dependant on these creaking old boats, many ways past their best, which would venture out in any weather and into mine infested waters, subject to persistent air and submarine attack.

Fishing had always been acknowledged as one of the most dangerous occupations but add to this air, sea and mine attacks and it became almost suicidal. These were brave men indeed whose contribution to the war effort has long been overlooked.

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During the Great War the Government recognized that trawlers and fishermen had an essential part to play in the defence of Britain’s sea lanes and the Admiralty relied on them to get minesweeping operations underway and the same situation applied at the start of the Second World War.

Due to their excellent sea keeping qualities the Admiralty requisitioned many trawlers drifters and whalers throughout the war and altogether about 816 English and Welsh trawlers and in addition about 200 steam drifters were requisitioned into the naval service during the period of aggression. All that remained of the English and Welsh trawlers for actual fishing during the conflict was about quarter of pre-war levels, but in reality the catching power was considerably below that, as the Admiralty, by necessity, requisitioned the larger and more efficient modern vessels. Those that could venture out found their fishing grounds were very restricted. Much of the North Sea, except for a strip down the east coast which varied in width between fifteen and thirty miles, was heavily mined and consequently deadly to all shipping.

On the east coast trawlers still fished the North Sea during 1939-1944 but at drastically reduced levels: Scarborough had 7 trawlers fishing in July 1939 but this went down to 5 in December 1940, further reducing to 4 in December 1942, 3 in December 1943 and back up to 4 in December 1944. Hull had 191 working at the beginning of the war but this had dropped to just 66 in December 1939. It went down further to a miserable 1 in December 1940. Grimsby had 381 at the start of the war and never went below 66 (December 1942) but such was the importance of fish for the nation both Hull and Grimsby numbers increased in 1943 and 1944.

With the North Sea effectively out of bounds Fleetwood became the premier British trawling port for a while. The principle grounds fished during the war were off Iceland, the Irish Sea and west coast of Scotland and the Hebrides, as well as north-west Ireland and around that country’s south-western coasts.

It was Scarborough’s fishing fleet that first felt the effects of the war as far as enemy action was concerned. Fishing was only allowed between the hours of sunrise and sunset. The first incident occurred on the night of 12th Jan, 1940 when two Scarborough trawlers were attacked whilst fishing off the coast. The German plane dived bombed and machined gunned them, but sheared off when they fired rockets, although the trawlers were severely damaged.

As mentioned fishing operations were seriously affected by enemy action; it was soon evident the Germans regarded even unarmed fishing boats as legitimate targets. In the early months of the conflict a number of trawlers, particularly those working off the north and northwest coast of Ireland were sunk by gunfire from U-boats, who wouldn’t waste a torpedo on them. Until the submarines switched their emphasis to the Atlantic the principal U-boat phase of the fisherman’s war lasted about three and a half months but towards the end of 1939 aircraft attacks took over and increased in regularity, deliberately targeting these defenceless fishing boats.

Throughout the entire war the black swaying mines remained the fisherman’s most deadly enemy. Sea mines sunk more fishing vessels than any other weapon. In an effort to protect this essential resource from Sept 1939 a programme of forming fishing fleets into flotillas of four to eight vessels of which two were armed with twelve-pound guns, was introduced. However, in May 1940, to meet a sudden and critical demand, those trawlers which had been fitted with guns were swiftly requisitioned and sent to help with the evacuation of Dunkirk and elsewhere along the Belgian and French coast.

With the loss of the twelve-pound armed trawlers, various armaments were fitted including Lewis guns and other types of semi-obsolete automatic weapons as well as kites, rockets and finally more modern Oerlikon guns as they became available.

It should be remembered that fishermen also saved a lot of lives at sea, rescuing crews from stricken ships as well as British and enemy aircraft. When the first Schedule of Reserved Occupations was drawn up all classes of fishermen were reserved from the age of eighteen years, except for service in the navy. Though quite a number joined the Merchant Navy or the Royal Navy of their own accord, the policies that pursued throughout much of the Second World War meant that most fishermen continued fishing until required for naval service. Those recruited were usually used on small craft-particularly those of the Patrol Service-where their particular skills and expertise could be best used.

Because it used elderly and poorly armed vessels, such as requisitioned trawlers and drifters crewed by ex-fishermen, the RNPS came to bear a number of unofficial titles that poked fun at it, such as "Harry Tate's Navy", "Churchill's pirates" and "Sparrows".

The name 'Harry Tate’s' dates back to the Great War and was used to describe anything clumsy and amateurish. It has its origins in an old music hall entertainer whose act was playing the inept comic who couldn't get to grips with various contraptions. His act included a car that gradually fell apart around him. By the start of World War II it had been adopted by the Royal Navy and used for the purpose of poking fun at the trawlers and drifters of the Royal Naval Patrol Service. In true RNPS style they took it in good part and the title of Harry Tate's Navy was proudly adopted. As the war went on it became known as a worthy password for courage.

Not unexpectedly the war had a significant effect on the British fish supply. The total sources, fresh or frozen, amounted to 1,138,875 tons in 1938 but by 1941 this had dropped drastically to 394,785 tons or thirty-five percent of the 1938 total. Thereafter there was a gradual improvement and by 1944 supplies were running at forty-eight percent of the pre-war total.

The balance was made up by increased imports of demersal (bottom feeding like flounders, dabs or gurnard) fish. These can be broadly split into direct landings by foreign fishing vessels and consignments arriving on cargo ships. Not surprisingly, given the shortfall in supplies and the rationing of many other food stuffs, fish, which remained un-rationed, rose very sharply in price through 1940 and continued to rise until price controls were introduced in mid-1941. By that time Scottish cod was four times its pre-war price and other fish previously held in low regard-was worth up to ten times its pre-war value. It became widespread practice to de-head the fish at sea and land only their bodies, which increased the quantity of edible flesh landed out of a given catch weight compared with years when whole fish were landed.

Fish and chips were not rationed, but availability varied according to fish landed but more often the shortage was due to a lack of both potatoes and cooking fat. The species of fish battered was variable and it was no good expecting cod which had become very expensive. A great many of the fish and chip shops were owned and run by Italians, the father often being an internee or POW (in latter years of the war) and the shop actually run by the wife.

As was said fish was not rationed but price increased considerably as the war progressed. The government initially allowed this, since it realised that fishermen would need to be able to collect a premium for their catch if they were at risk of enemy attack while at sea, but prices were controlled from 1941. Like other non-rationed items, fish was rarely freely available as supplies dropped to 30% of pre-war levels, and long queues built up at fishmongers and fish and chip shops. The quality of wartime chips was often felt to be below standard, because of the low-quality fat available and the indifferent or damaged potatoes used.

The years 1940 and 1941 were probably the worst of the war for British trawlers with working vessels suffering intense enemy attack. Indeed, nearly two thirds of the English and Welsh trawlers lost through enemy action whilst fishing over the six years of war went down during 1940 and 1941. Admiralty demands, in terms of requisitioning vessels and conscripting crews, however, stripped the trade to the bone. Fishing on the North Sea grounds was particularly restricted and Hull, of course, was particularly badly affected.

Most trawlers and trawler-men drawn into the forces were directed into the Royal Naval Patrol Service. Royal Naval Patrol Service vessels played a crucial role as minesweepers and losses to vessels and men throughout this activity remained high throughout the war.

Many vessels were fitted with asdic, which is an early form of sonar, and tasked with anti-submarine duties where they had the satisfaction of sending several U-boats to the bottom. Trawlers from the Patrol service saw action all over the world, sometimes working in very unfamiliar waters thousands of miles from their home port. With the return of peace it was evident that the Royal Naval Patrol Service had played a key role in the victory at sea but had paid a high price in consequence.

Although it is not possible to give an exact figure for how many fishermen died whilst serving with the Royal Navy it is known that some 2,385 officers and men of the Royal Naval Patrol Service, aged from sixteen to over sixty lost their lives. The Patrol Service lost nearly 500 vessels including more than 400 trawlers, drifters and whalers. These losses were far greater than any other branch of the Royal Navy.

The fish trade as a whole and working fisherman in particular had also paid a heavy human price. At least 1,243 British fishermen lost their lives whilst following their livelihood during the war. The effect can be gauged a little more accurately at certain ports: Hull boasted a fleet of 191 trawlers in July 1939 but by VE day 96, just over half had been lost. Grimsby lost over 600 fishermen whilst or on naval service during the same period,

When the Dunkirk evacuation occurred the Royal Navy needed as many craft as possible for the evacuation and the RNLI were no exception. Their small tough well designed boats were commandeered for the evacuation but the problem came when the navy crews manning them reported that the boats were impossible to handle. The reason was that RNLI boats have always been designed differently and were extra buoyant extra tough with shallow draughts for inshore work, all in all a law unto themselves to handle.

Some of the RNLI coxswains approached the Navy and offered their services to crew the boats to Dunkirk as they wanted to help in every way, however they stated that if any RNLI crew man was killed during the evacuation his family would receive a full naval pension. Initially the Navy flatly refused. After a bit of pressure the RN relented realising that the RNLI crews knew how to handle their boats effectively, they also realised that most of the volunteer crew were fishermen whose families were totally reliant on the man's income.

The Lifeboat men played a crucial part in wartime operations around Britain’s coast. The usual method of firing maroons was banned in April, 1940 and it was December, 1944 before the ban was lifted.

During WW2 there were inshore fisherman in the Wash, sailing out of Boston who would fish in the Boston Deeps and off Skegness for prawns during the spring/summer shell fish closed season. In the autumn and winter they would collect mussels and cockles from the sand banks which were exposed at low tide.

On many of the cockling expeditions young lads would accompany the fishermen with the intention of collecting winkles. The winkles would be taken home where they would be boiled and when cooled sold to the local children at one penny a bag, including a pin to extract the winkle from its shell. Winkles were very popular as sweets were in short supply and winkles made an acceptable, if somewhat bizarre substitute.

The fishermen would sometimes find crashed RAF aircraft lying on the sand banks. The surprising thing was that, like the Goodwin Sands off the Kent coast, about 4 weeks later everything would have sunk into the sand and completely disappeared.

Tragically when a crippled aircraft was returning from a bombing raid, with the pilot looking for an emergency landing spot he would see the sand bank and thinking it was a good place he would land. Unfortunately he would not realize that with the return of the tide the seawater would rise by 23ft to 33ft thus covering the sands with deep water. Many airmen who had escaped being killed over enemy territory were drowned whilst trying to walk to shore, unless they had the foresight to take their dingy or Mae West, if they had one. Their bodies would often be picked up by fishermen, who received a tragic bounty for the recovery of these unfortunate men.

Denmark had declared neutrality but was nevertheless invaded by Germany in 1940. At the time Nazi troops were pouring into their country much of the Danish fishing fleet was at sea. Rather than return to an occupied Denmark, many of the fishermen decided to sail to British ports and offer their abilities to the British war effort. Without losing their identity this, they believed was something they could do for the only nation standing up to the Nazis and to ensure Denmark would one day regain its freedom. The fleet was escorted to the Moray Firth by a destroyer, where it was then dispersed to Whitehaven and Fleetwood. Once there they were then provisioned, refuelled and fitted with a Lewis gun.

For the record the names of some the boats were, MA Kirk, C Riesager, Karen Marie, Fylla, Gerda, NV Lydia an.

The first such Danish fishing boat arrived at the West Cumbrian port of Whitehaven on 12th June 1940. Others initially made their way to the main east coast ports, notably Grimsby, Lincolnshire. However, many of the Danish fishing boats in the North Sea, like the British trawlers and drifters, found that they came under fierce attack from German aircraft or U-Boats.

As the Irish Sea was a much safer area for fishing, many of the free Danish fishing fleet, and other home vessels from Grimsby moved around the coast to Whitehaven in Cumbria or other Irish Sea fishing ports. Some of the fishing ports they used were on the Isle of Man, an small island in the middle of the Irish Sea which at the time was being used to intern many ‘aliens’ (i.e. not POWs but those who had been born in the Axis countries).

At the end of the war, many of the Danish vessels were enthusiastically able to sail back home to a newly-liberated Denmark. They had played their own important part in the war effort that had led to the liberation of their homeland. Some of the sailors took back British-born wives who were originally from Grimsby or Whitehaven. Others among the Danes who had married British girls during their exile decided to remain in Britain and raise their families in the land that had allowed them to remain free throughout the war.

In 2009/2010 the Mayor of Copeland (the council area for Whitehaven) was Councillor Henry Wormstrup. Councillor Wormstrup’s father had been one of the free Danish fishermen and his mother had originally moved to Whitehaven from Grimsby. Councillor Wormstrup had been born on the Isle of Man before the family had returned to Whitehaven.

In March 2010, at the invitation of Councillor Wormstrup, the Danish Ambassador to Britain, Mr Birger Riis Jørgensen, unveiled a commemorative plaque outside the former Danish consulate building next to Whitehaven Harbour. For the Danish fishermen who chose to remain free rather than return home and serve an Occupier it was one of the most significant and far-reaching moments of their lives.

A small metal plaque with the words of the first two verses of the Hymn ‘Eternal Father Strong to Save’ may not be the largest WWII memorial in the UK. But, it does represent an almost-forgotten episode of the war. By choosing freedom over occupation and oppression, these Danish fishermen helped feed Britain and her allies which ultimately helped to win the war.

The Royal Naval Patrol Service (RNPS), developed from the pre-war Royal Naval Reserve Trawler Section, reached its World War 2 peak comprising 1637 craft of various kinds including converted trawlers, corvettes, fuel carriers, motor launches and naval seaplane tenders. Of this total, from September 1939 through to May 1945, approximately 260 trawlers were lost in action, from the northern seas off Norway to the eastern seaboard of North America, the Far East, Africa and the Mediterranean. This material loss however pales into insignificance when compared to the 15,000 or so, RNPS personnel who were killed during WWII and the 2385 RNPS seaman who "have no known grave but the sea".

Because of the dangers and losses faced by the men of the Royal Naval Patrol service, they were honoured in a statement made by Churchill and by a unique silver badge, worn on the sleeve of the serviceman's uniform that was awarded to those who served six months or more in the RNPS.

The ultimate accolade went to Lieutenant Richard Stannard who won the Victoria Cross while in command of the Hull trawler “Arab” during the Namsos campaign. This was fought in Namsos, Norway, and its surrounding area and involved Anglo-French and Norwegian naval and military forces on the one hand, and German military, naval and air forces on the other in April and early May 1940. It was one of the first significant occasions during World War II when British and French land forces fought the German Army.

Message from the prime minister to the officers and men of the minesweeping flotillas

Now that Nazi Germany has been defeated I wish to send you all on behalf of His Majesty's Government a message of thanks and gratitude.

The work you do is hard and dangerous. You rarely get and never seek publicity; your only concern is to do your job, and you have done it nobly. You have sailed in many seas and all weathers. This work could not be done without loss, and we mourn all who have died and over 250 ships lost on duty.

No work has been more vital than yours; no work has been better done. The Ports were kept open and Britain breathed. The Nation is once again proud of you.

W S Churchill


The RNPS Memorial stands in an imposing position on the cliff top in Belle Vue Park, Lowestoft, overlooking the sea and Sparrow's Nest Gardens. It was erected and is maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

British sweet rationing

The London Blitz

© 2014 Peter Geekie


Peter Geekie (author) from Sittingbourne on February 05, 2017:

Dear Coffeequeeen,

Thanks for your comments. A very hazardous occupation in peace time, in fact my grandfather was one of 13 brothers and the only one to survive drowning.

kind regards Peter

Louise Powles from Norfolk, England on February 04, 2017:

I've always been interested in the fishing industry, and this was an insightful and interesting hub to read. Thank you. I've learned a great deal.

Peter Geekie (author) from Sittingbourne on June 27, 2014:

Dear teaches12345,

Even during peacetime I understand fishing is one of the most hazardous occupations. Imagine doing it in the face of shelling and bombing.

Thanks for the comments

kind regards Peter

Dianna Mendez on June 27, 2014:

This was interesting. I didn't realize how dangerous it was for trawlers on the sea at this time. They were brave and selfless.

Peter Geekie (author) from Sittingbourne on June 22, 2014:

Dear UnnamedHarald

Thanks for your comments, always nice to hear from you.

Fishing is a tough industry at the best of times but your life expectancy was even worse during the war. - Brave men.

kind regards Peter

David Hunt from Cedar Rapids, Iowa on June 21, 2014:

That's what I love about HubPages...stuff like this. What a great article about a facet of the war I knew nothing about. It's hard to imagine what life was like for those fishermen and their wives and families. Great job, Peter.

Peter Geekie (author) from Sittingbourne on June 21, 2014:

Dear alancaster149

Thanks for your comments.

The details are not freely available and it took a little digging.

The "Shetland Bus" I have tucked away for part of a future article.

kind regards Peter

Peter Geekie (author) from Sittingbourne on June 21, 2014:

Dear Blond Logic

Thank you for your comments.

It is an aspect of the war that was not discussed in detail as it didn't have the glamour of the "blood and thunder" commandos or pilots.

kind regards Peter

Alan R Lancaster from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire) on June 21, 2014:

Exhaustive. Research alone must have taken an age. Thumps up Peter, good job done. I had only heard of the 'Shetland Bus', but that's another story of fishing boats you might take up.

Mary Wickison from USA on June 21, 2014:

This is the first I have heard about it, even having lived in England for over 20 years. Of course they love to talk about the war, but never specifically about the roles played by the fishermen.

Very interesting.

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