Very rarely, as we warm our hands by a coal fire or eat our fish supper, do we think about what it took to heat our rooms or fill our plates. We may feel grateful that the task was fortunately undertaken by others—that it is something we would not wish to do ourselves—but nothing more. The life of the fishermen of Northern waters is, and always has been, a perilous one, many brave sailors have drowned in pursuit of food for our nation. When war came the fishing fleet, aware of its duty, did not dry dock and hang its nets until peace returned. It still set out to fish, aware that the perils of its trade would be worsened by the presence of an enemy that knows that a hungry nation will be subdued more quickly. It would have been enough if that was all British fishermen had done, but they also gathered intelligence, cleared mines, fought actions from armed fishing vessels and many other incredible acts of courage and devotion. These were not men whose achievements were seen as glamorous, but they were nonetheless brave, unsung heroes in war as well as in peace. This book details the actions of British Fishermen in Northern waters during the First World War; it is, of course, an account so full of action and incident that it is essential reading for those interested in the study of maritime warfare.
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There was no help for it. The Jane Stewart was doomed, and it was not possible to tell what the ultimate fate of her crew might be. Their present case was bad enough, for they were ordered to go on board the submarine, and this they did, the task of reaching the upper part being difficult.<br>
The drifter’s crew were forced to crawl along the narrow ridge of the deck of the German vessel until they reached the platform amidships.<br>
Having done this the skipper was confronted with the truly piratical spectacle of four huge Germans on either side of the platform. This guard in itself would have been enough to awe any helpless and imprisoned crew in a craft so strange; but the Germans did not take risks, and accordingly each of the eight held a big revolver ready for use, and from each man’s belt hung a glittering axe.<br>
The captives were ordered to go to the after part of the submarine, and they obeyed, but not without difficulty as it was dark and they discovered that the crews of two other destroyed fishing vessels were on board, making a score of fishermen in all. The skipper crouched beneath a powerful gun which the submarine carried on her deck.<br>
An order was now given to cast off the lashings, but in the night there arose the cry, “Are you going to leave me behind?”<br>
It was soon found that this appeal came from Hastie, who, still hoping for the salvation of his clothing, had remained on board the drifter.<br>
Some spasm of humanity apparently possessed one of the Germans, who, like so many of his fellows operating in these submarines, understood English well, and he replied, “No, daddy!” There was something of a commotion, resulting in the sprawling of Hastie on the deck of the submarine and the bruising of his legs.<br>
The skipper did the good service of carefully examining all that he could see on board the submarine, noticing, amongst other details, the height and position of the conning-tower, the calibre of the gun and the apparent dimensions of the deck. He observed that the commander was in the conning-tower and that during the whole of the time the skipper was on board, about an hour and a quarter, he gave orders to the crew. Three men were beside him, with large glasses, with which they continuously swept the sea, obviously keenly watchful for any sign of a British war vessel.<br>
The submarine began to move off, gaining speed, and ultimately travelling at the rate of seventeen or eighteen knots an hour. In the meantime the officer who had boarded the drifter joined the skipper and closely questioned him concerning the other vessels. He asked whether any of the lights that were visible were from the coast, and was told that they were the lights of fishing-vessels.<br>
“Are there any trawlers amongst them?” asked the German.<br>
The skipper replied that there were none.<br>
“Did any of the fishing vessels carry a gun?” continued this inquisitive Teuton, doubtless with a somewhat quickened beating of his brave heart. His fear on that important point having been set at rest another question indicating trepidation was put—When had the skipper last seen a war vessel? Not since he left the Tyne, the skipper answered.<br>
These replies seemed to reassure the agitated German, who then, with more composure, shared in the acceptable task of giving close attention to another helpless vessel which they were approaching.<br>
The skipper of the Jane Stewart was now informed that he and his companions were to be put on board this vessel. That intention, however, was frustrated in an unexpected fashion, for the skipper of the fishing vessel, rightly distrusting such an enemy, put out his lights with the object of protecting himself as best he could. But the submarine got alongside and her commander demanded to know why the lights had been extinguished. All that could be indicated by way of answer was that the crew of the boat had no wish to draw the close attention of the enemy.<br>
The German law of “frightfulness” came into instant operation, and the little craft, which was to have been spared for the purpose of receiving men who could not be accommodated on board the submarine, was destroyed by bombs, her own crew being added to the crowd of fishermen already captives, raising the number to about thirty.<br>
These helpless fishers were now in a position of the gravest peril, and there was not a man amongst them who did not realise this fact, for the Germans were intensely apprehensive of the appearance of a British war vessel and the prisoners knew perfectly well what their fate would be in such an event—the submarine would seek her own safety and leave them to drown, or at least to take their precarious chance of salvation from one of the few boats which were left afloat.