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  • Writer's pictureShaun Lewis

Lest we forget

In my novel I have brought to the Public's attention the largely forgotten and highly successful submarine campaign in the Dardanelles where four submarine VCs were earned. It has prompted me to think of another arm of the navy in WW1 that deserves more recognition - the fishermen who manned the trawlers and drifters.

Before the days of ASDIC and sonar, once a submarine dived there was no way of detecting it except from the air, and before the invention of the depth charge, nor could it be attacked except at periscope depth or on the surface by shell fire or ramming. To protect the ships of the fleet, therefore, the Royal Navy relied on fishermen from the Trawler Division of the newly formed RNR to man drifters and trawlers and to provide a screen of nets at the entrance to harbours or a barrage across narrow water ways. Buoys were fitted to the nets and if a German U-boat became entrapped in the nets, mines could be lowered down in a hawser to explode alongside the trapped submarine. Many of these small boats, suited for coastal work, had to make the long and arduous journey to the Mediterranean to protect the ships of the Aegean and Dardanelles.

Others acted as a form of 'Q ship'. Britain was dependent on its fishing fleets for food and the Germans instituted a form of economic warfare by sending submarines to surface and sink fishermen by explosives or gunfire. Fitted with a gun, the armed trawlers would mingle with our fishing fleets and take on German submarines. In one such action, Thomas Crisp earned a posthumous VC. His story is well worth reading. Several fishermen served in minesweepers, too. As a midshipman I served in a minesweeper and it frightened me witless even with the modern protection we had then. I have nothing but admiration for those brave men who served in appalling weather, in tiny boats and should have deserved more recognition. Let us not forget them.

Naval drifter

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