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COXSWAIN IN THE NORTHERN CONVOYS by S A Kerslake
Chapter One - THE BEGINNING, Young fisherman pre-war
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On 3rd September 1939 I was sitting on the edge of the table in the kitchen of my parents' home, in Campion Avenue, Kingston-upon-Hull; my father sat in his chair, and my mother busied herself on the preparation of the Sunday dinner. We were all waiting for the Prime Minister's speech, which was to be given on the radio, at 11 a. m. that morning, as were millions of ordinary people in their homes in Great Britain, and in the Commonwealth, in fact in every country of the world, in particular Germany I expect, where Adolf Hitler and his gang of thugs awaited the British response when no reply was received to their ultimatum.
At 11 a.m. precisely, the staid tones of Big Ben in London rang out the hour, and the announcer introduced the Prime Minister, Mr Neville Chamberlain. I do not remember his actual words, but it came down to the fact that Britain was now at war with Germany, and after Mr Chamberlain had been through his explanations, (many of which I myself did not understand at the time) the announcer gave out a list of directions for men of all service reserves to report immediately to their nearest depot or Mercantile Marine office.
HM Trawler Berkshire, typical of the fishing trawlers converted for Admiralty service in their hundreds (Navy Photos/Ron Brazier)
Being a Royal Naval Reservist, I had to report to the Mercantile Marine office in Hull.
After a mix-up over my call-up papers, I arrived at Lowestoft after a terribly tiring journey, made my way to the Sparrow's Nest, and reported in; I was given billets - mine was in a house on London Road South. I am certain there were about a hundred sailors already in digs there; if not there certainly appeared to be so. The liveliest things in the place were the other occupants of my bed. I was covered in flea bites when I woke up that first morning, and I resolved there and then that I would not stay in Lowestoft any longer than I had to. At the Nest that morning, I started asking how one got a draft to a ship, and what was the best way to go about getting one.
I was told in no uncertain terms that I must be mad to want to get a ship and out of a cosy place like the Nest, but I had made my mind up. I had been ashore for five or six weeks, the longest spell I had on terra-firma since I first became a 'Decky Learner', and 'Liver Boiler' some four and a half years before.
The drafting office was my main concern, I kept as close to it as possible; from there most messages went out over the tannoy to all parts of the grounds of the Nest, such messages as: one cook, two stokers, etc. wanted for such and such a draft. I haunted that office at every opportunity, and was sent away disappointed scores of times. But on 16th September, just three days after I had arrived there, a call came over the loudspeakers for four seamen, one cook, one leading seaman - in fact for a full crew. I was in one of the pavilions when I heard it, and I ran like the wind to the office and saw the drafting CPO. I said that I would like to go on this one, and he asked how long I had been at the Nest. I told him and my heart stopped when he answered, 'Sorry, lad, but there's hundreds of men before you yet to go. Anyway what's your hurry?' I told him and after a bit of bantering, he finally relented and said, 'Right, if you're so keen to go, get your name on this bit of paper, and here's your orders' etc.
I was over the moon, I was out of the Nest, and on 17th September 1939 I found myself on a train with the rest of the crew, bound for Barrow-in-Furness, to join His Majesty's Ship 194. It turned out to be the armed escort trawler, Northern Gem, which I had seen several times before the declaration of war, on the northern fishing grounds of Iceland, Bear Island, the Spitzbergen grounds, and the White Sea, which is in fact the Barents Sea, off the North Russian Coast, for the White Sea proper is inside the confines of the Russian coast-line.
Little did I know then that within the next four years I would be one of many fighting for survival in those self-same waters. I must say here and now that I have not many memories of any of the ports we visited on our travels on the Gem, as I was not one for going ashore too much, only at odd times such as celebrating the wetting of babies' heads, and on shipmates' birthdays, plus the odd dance here and there. So it was at Barrow. I remember that I went to a cinema once or twice and as we were then the only ship of war in the port, the local council and the residents gave the crew an open invitation, which meant in effect that we did not have to pay. We used to go ashore in dungarees with our Navy hats perched on the back of our heads, and we were accepted by the good people of Barrow.
Our first glance around the Gem gave us a picture of complete shambles. Everything seemed to be in pieces, with gear of all shapes and sizes lying about all over the place, decks were cluttered up as were the alleyways, the compartments and the engine room. I believe the only compartment that hadn't been turned out was the crews' quarters. On this type of trawler these were on a level with the deck and directly under the bridge structure, and were entered by a watertight storm door on both the port and starboard sides of the casing. It was quite roomy compared to my previous ships, in which the 'deckies and firemen' slept in bunks below the forecastle, right in the fore part of the ship, and under the whale-back, where in strong head winds you were literally lifted or heaved some 20 or 30 feet upwards with the violent motion of the vessel, owing to the effect of the huge seas passing forcefully under the forefoot. One moment you were being transported up to the 'gods'; then suddenly the deck, or the bed if you were lying in it, would drop and leave you suspended in the air for a fraction of time. Then you would come down with a thump and carry on down until the whole process was repeated again and again and again until the weather moderated, or the course of the vessel was altered.
The armaments on board consisted of one 4-inch quick firing gun of World War I vintage, set on a platform just above the after end of the whaleback, and behind the windlass which was used for hauling in the anchor, or in some cases hauling the ship alongside the quay by means of the head rope. Amidships, on either side of the Skipper's cabin, was a sort of half round platform on each of which there was situated a twin Lewis gun. Further aft and actually on top of the galley and in between both the port and starboard lifeboats there was another twin Lewis gun. Apart from the depth charge rails right in the stern, and the single depth charge thrower on the deck at each side of the galley, these were the only weapons with which we had to go off to war and take on all corners. Looking back, I suppose one could say that they were more than inadequate for the jobs we were eventually given to do during the course of the next four years.
On finishing a look around my new ship, I came to the conclusion that apart from the guns, an extra top bridge, and the depth charge-throwers and rails, nothing much had changed on the vessel since she had fished in the same seas in which she was now going to fight for her survival. The sea and its moods would be the same enemy that she had been up against then, but now there was the extra enemy, the Germans and all that they stood for against our way of life. This ship we were going to take out to sea to stand up to the enemy, was one of fifteen ships that had been built in Germany in 1935, in Bremerhaven, as a reparation against some debt or other that the Germans owed to this land of ours. They were marvellous ships, and as trawlers go, were somewhat larger than the ordinary run of British fishing vessels, being able to catch and bring home something like 4,000 10 stone kits of fish. Those that I had been going to sea on for the past five years were 'full up' with just 2,500 x 10 st. kits, and even then I've known us have to jump on the wooden hatch covers to get them into their proper place to enable us to batten them down properly, ready for the run home to catch the market.
The starting off point for our war, Barrow-in-Furness, is just across from Fleetwood where I now live with my wife, and my daughter, so for me the past but for a few miles has almost caught up with me. Three years ago I sailed back into Barrow for the first time since leaving it in September 1939. This time it was not on a trawler, but on a friend's yacht. The seas outside were still the same, but there were no mines or U-boats, nor were there any dive-bombers or spotting planes, those nose-to-sea blood-hounds that haunted the convoys to Russia, to pass on the position of their enemy to their base on the Norwegian Coast. But as I stood at the helm of the yacht I could still see and feel the Gem leaving Barrow, and the thoughts that flashed through my mind were overwhelmingly clear, and a sense of nostalgia came over me as I remembered those times and happenings all those years ago. Now I can put them down on paper.
From being a young boy at school, I had always had a yearning to go to sea; all the comings and goings of the uncles on my mother's side of the family, who followed this occupation of deep sea fishing had excited me in the past. My own father, though he never went to sea, was in the fish trade on the wholesale side, buying on the quayside the fish landed by the trawlers and sold by the salesmen of the different trawling companies. He also did the curing of the fish for his employer in Hull, eventually becoming the manager, and looking after the running of the small fish house, selling all of their products either fresh or cured. In the early thirties, he followed the herring shoals around the coast, going to each port in turn as the herring shoals and fleets moved around. It was to the port of North Shields that I used to go and join him with my mother, when the school's summer holidays started in Hull at the middle of July.
The family was in rooms in North Shields one year, in the house of a man who was a fisherman on a small herring drifter, and many times I went down to see him off, walking past the old wooden dolly as I did so, and waving to him from the edge of the jetty, as the drifter made its way out to sea between the long arms of the moles of the harbour entrance. Each time I returned to the house I pleaded with my father to ask this man to take me for a trip with him, but he always tried to put me off. However I was so adamant that one day my wish came true, and he took me down to the jetty and saw me onboard.
He waved me of on the drifter, and I in turn waved goodbye very excitedly as my long fought-for trip began. It was, I remember, a lovely day; the sun was shining, the sky was a deep blue and the sea from the inside of the harbour looked like a park boating lake. But I could smell the nets and the stench of the remnants of the last catch that hadn't been taken properly from the nets, and once the drifter got clear of the moles and into the open sea, my happy world turned into a nightmare of sea sickness, during which I became aware that I was lying on the floor of the very small wheel-house, on some wooden gratings which were covered by a layer of coconut matting. I was wedged up against the side of the wheel-house by wooden pound boards from the fish room, to stop me rolling about and hurting myself. I saw the sea once when I was coaxed to stand up and have a drink of tea from a mug almost as big as myself and almost as filthy, and a piece of jam sponge cake. This made me very ill again immediately, and I really wished that I were dead, or back home with Mum.
I never ventured to sea again until I was thirteen years old, and once again it was during my summer holidays. I asked an uncle of mine who was a skipper sailing for the Marr Steam Fishing Company to take me for a trip in his trawler the S.T. Maretta, a Fleetwood vessel sailing out of Hull. He agreed to take me, and off I went, not for a thirty-six hour trip into the North Sea fishing for herrings this time, but for a three weeks' voyage to Iceland looking to catch cod, haddocks, and plaice, two thousand kits or so of the stuff. Although I was sick once again, I was nowhere near as bad as I had been on that drifter, because the Maretta was three or four times bigger than the drifter, and did not throw herself about as much; she had a different motion.
On this trip, fishing off Langaness, a long promontory that sticks out like a sore thumb into the North Atlantic, inside the Arctic Circle, we had a bad storm, the first one of its severity that I had experienced, and it was then I suffered my first bad fright. I went to the toilet which was situated on the deck, right on the stern. It was a small steel cubicle perched on the port quarter, two steel half doors opened forward, instead of a full one. When you were in position with the top half of the door latched open you could see right along the deck, and on to what lay ahead of the ship. On this occasion I could not get the bottom half of the door to close properly. I was watching the seas coming at the ship from head on, and was fascinated by the way she lifted her head up and climbed over the top of them, but I was also having to try and concentrate on keeping myself on the seat as the stern of the ship dropped down over the top of the same wave, after it had swept under the full length of her. However I was more than fascinated when the Maretta failed to get her head up in time for one of the larger seas, and I sat firmly riveted to the toilet seat as I watched it come green over the whaleback, and race foaming along the deck at the speed of a train, and straight for where I was sitting.
Before I could do anything I was completely submerged in freezing, icy green water, and I was struggling to stay in the toilet to save myself from being dragged out of it, and over the stern by the terrific force of water that had pushed the door open. My trousers were down around my ankles, and I was a very very frightened boy. Eventually, I plucked up the courage, and my trousers, to make a dash for the galley and then on to the mess deck below, where I stripped off and dried myself down, and changed into some dry clothing. While I was doing this, I had to suffer quite a bit of joking from the men who were down there at the time, and I decided for the second time in my short life that once I got my feet on to dry land, that was my lot with the sea as far as making a living at it in the future.
However one unguarded moment on the part of my uncle when my father met us at the quayside at the end of the trip, made me change my mind. My father asked uncle, 'How has he been?' and the reply was, 'He'll never make a sailor as long as he has a hole in his bottom.' When I heard that, I was determined to prove them both wrong, and I did that just before my fifteenth birthday.
I had made friends with a lad of my own age, called Tommy Nightingale whose eldest brother Bill was the skipper of the trawler St Gatien, she was owned by the Hamling Steam Trawling Company of Hull. It was not long before I found myself, along with my friend Tommy, bound for Bear Island up in the Arctic Circle, on what was termed for boys on these occasions as a pleasure trip. We had to sign articles before we left for the sake of insurance, and we were paid a nominal sum of one shilling per week, for which we worked very hard, in the hope that when the trip was over we might have a chance to sign on properly as one of the crew. We both did two trips as pleasurers', then on the third one, Tommy went as the 'Decky Learner', and I signed on as the Liver Boiler. I spent fourteen months in that capacity, and very hard-working but happy months they were. I think that I enjoyed my first working spell at sea in her as much as I did in any other ship that I sailed in, up to the outbreak of the war. She had a young crew, and as good a working crowd as you would find anywhere. They were full of fun, but in those days each one of us knew that you had to work damned hard to stay in a ship; if anyone did not pull his weight, then he was soon on the beach walking about, waiting for hand-outs from pals who were still in a ship. Yes, you quickly got turfed out in those days if you did not suit, or if your face did not fit.
On the way out to the fishing grounds, when the weather was suitable all the deck crew with the exception of the men who had just gone below off watch, turned to and got the trawl ready for shooting away for when we arrived at the fishing ground. Sometimes a full brand new trawl would be installed alongside and fixed to the big iron balls or bobbins that would become the bottom part of the mouth of the trawl; these would, along with round flat-sided wooden bobbins, roll along the bottom of the sea bed, over the top of any boulders or rocks that were in the way. The top of the mouth, or the upper lip as one might call it, was kept open by the fixing of aluminium or glass floats to the headline as it was called. During the installation of the trawl, Tom and myself had to keep all the men supplied with full needles of twine, either single or doubles, depending on which part of the net they were working on. This made our hands sore but soon hardened them off for the much harder work that was to come later on in the trip. Once this job was completed to the satisfaction of the mate or the skipper, the watches converted back to their normal work of steering the ship and keeping look out. Those off watch and the day-men if there was no work for them to do settled to a game of cards down in the forecastle, solo being the favourite. It continued from leaving dock until the ship reached the fishing grounds, or vice-versa on the way back, once they had got their sleep in and their bellies full once more.
Once the first haul of fish had been dropped on the deck and the trawl shot away again, the men started to gut the fish. As they were opened up, the livers were thrown into baskets, and then I would come into my own. I would have the steam on ready in the liver house, and once the baskets were full, a great shout would go up to call me to the fish pounds, where I would lift the full baskets over the pound boards and onto the deck alongside of the trawl winch, stick an 'S' shaped net hook into the handle of the basket, and drag them along the deck all the way aft. If there were any seas coming over the ship's rail, I was expected to look after the livers with my life, for they could be turned into oil, and the oil could be sold for money when the trip was over. This money was then shared out between the crew, and was used to pay for the cigarettes and tobacco etc. that we got out of the bonded stores once outside the three mile limit. On many trips if there was an abundance of fish being landed in the port of Hull, the liver money, as it was known, was the only cash that we picked up for all of our hard and dangerous work, so every liver, and each drop of oil had to be well looked after.
The weather of course is a natural hazard of seamen all the world over, and during one trip to the Bear Island fishing grounds in the St Gatien, there was a terrific gale blowing along the Norwegian Coast. The ship had reached a position somewhere abeam of the rocky area of Andalsnes when she took a very heavy sea. Before she could clear herself of this one, she took a heavier one, and lay right over to starboard and on her beam ends. We all thought that our last moments had arrived. Those of the crew who were down in the forecastle took their lives in their hands making the effort to get aft when the Skipper shouted for everyone to get down into the bunkers where the coal had shifted or been thrown over to the starboard side when she took the second sea.
By the time we had all got below, water was forcing its way under the closed galley door and dropping down into the engine room, and for what seemed like hours we shovelled the coal frantically back to the other side of the bunkers. It was a very frightening experience as we were expecting her to roll completely over and take us all down with her, at any second.
But like us humans she fought for her life, and finally somehow she came back onto an even keel and a more stable attitude. We counted ourselves very fortunate indeed as several trawlers during the years preceding this had vanished from sight without trace, and one can only assume that a similar thing had happened to them and that they had been overwhelmed before the crew could do anything to save themselves. I don't think I can explain the feeling that one gets in a situation of that kind, and the thoughts that go through one's mind, except to say that one is very, very scared at the time, and when it is all over, there is a period of great relief and a tendency to religion in the fisherman's way, to say Thank God!
I spent thirteen months on the St Gatien; then I got the urge to see if I could get a job as spare hand, which was one step up the ladder, and would put my weekly wage up to two pounds seventeen and six pence per week, and would also give me a poundage of two pence in the pound back on the value of the catch - this was of course after the owner's and ship's expenses had been deducted. Bill Nightingale could not take me on as he had a full crew of good men who seldom left him, so I had to take a chance of leaving myself.
Berths were hard to come by, and I started walking around the dock going to each trawler office in turn, but having no luck, I was beginning to think that I would never get back to sea. Then one day one of my uncles who was mate of the Kingston Sapphire landed a catch of herring. The next day I went down to see him off, and found out to my surprise that I was still onboard when she got out into the river. I kept out of sight until she cleared Spurn Point, then I went up on to the bridge to see the skipper who wasn't at all put out to find me there.
As it turned out, I had done myself a bit of good, for no sooner had I signed off the Sapphire than George Watkins the runner offered me the chance to go as decky on the Kingston Cameo for one trip so that the chap whose place I was taking could have a trip off. Then on the day after I got home from that trip, I signed on the Kingston Chrysolite as spare hand bound for the White Sea; it was the first time that I had been off the North Russian coast, and it turned out to be a very hard trip, with every variation of weather it could throw at us, gales of wind, snow, ice, and the dreaded 'Black Frost' which came off the sea like a mist and when the ship passed through it everything froze up. I could watch the frost forming on the ship's rails and the rigging, I likened it to desiccated coconut from the way it looked, and the other men told me that once in that stuff it froze an inch a minute, and I could well believe it.
After that trip we had our usual day and a half in the dock then left once again for the same fishing grounds. The trip out across the North Sea was quiet, as was the run from Lodingen to Hammerfest once we had got into Vest Fiord. The bright lights of the towns and small villages, and of the odd farmhouses dotted here and there both on the shore line and up in the mountains, were a pretty sight, twinkling away in the dark frosty air of the night and reflected in the calm still waters of the fiords. The fishing went off pretty well; we got in a fairly quick catch and made our way back to Hammerfest, through the fiords and back to Lodingen. Alongside there was another ship of the same firm named the Amethyst; they were all named after precious stones or jewels.
I was on the mate's watch from midnight to four a. m., after we had gone below from our previous one at eight p.m. The sea was getting up and so was a terrific wind from the south-west. We had got a few miles ahead of the Amethyst by this time, and I think that we all knew that this was no ordinary gale that was brewing up, for the wind was reaching a great speed, and heavy seas were continually sweeping over the forecastle and along the full length of the ship. Those of us who were already aft stayed either in the galley, or in the mess room down below, as it was becoming more and more hazardous to try to venture forward to turn in to one's own bunk. At midnight when we relieved the watch, I took first spell on the wheel trying to keep her head to the wind and sea. The bridge windows were being hit by bullet-like spray from the seas coming over the whale-back. The skipper, the mate and the other man on watch were keeping a good look-out, or as good as they could in all the water that was being thrown about. The skipper had already eased the speed down considerably to stop her knocking herself to pieces. He later went to his cabin to get a bit of a rest, leaving orders that he was to be called at a certain time, or if there was an emergency of any kind, and as it happened this was not long arriving.
It came shortly after one a.m. The wireless operator had been keeping a listening watch for anything coming over the air. We had listened to the BBC midnight news just a short time earlier, and my thoughts had strayed to those at home, tucked safely up in their nice warm beds snug and dry, and not being tossed about as we were on a sort of mad and demonic roller coaster. Suddenly our thoughts were interupted by a call of, 'Chrysolite, Chrysolite, come in please, Amethyst calling. Are you there please? Over'. The voice sounded urgent, and before we had a chance to call him, the skipper was up the ladder and into the wireless room, 'Amethyst ... Amethyst, Chrysolite here. Go ahead'. 'Sam, we are in trouble, the boiler has shifted and we've got a hell of a list, the lads are on the deck now trying to get a door over the side on a warp for a sea anchor to bring her back head. . .'Then there was silence except for the atmospherics in the background.
Both the skipper and the operator called repeatedly for what seemed like an eternity, but there was no reply. With the boiler shifting causing her engines to come to a stop, she would immediately come broadside on to the wind and sea, and at that rnoment her transmission stopped. She must have been overwhelmed, turned over completely and gone straight down taking with her the whole of her crew. With what was now a hurricane blowing over the North Sea, they would not have had the chance to get a trawl door over the side shackled onto a warp fed from the winch through the fore gallows, so as to lower the door well into the sea, which would have had the effect of an anchor, and brought her up head to wind. In this way she might have been able to ride out the worst of the storm until help of some kind or other could have got to her, but it was not to be. Whatever had happened to her, had done so with such rapidity that it cut of her skipper's call to us.
It was a black night with the wind shrieking through the rigging like a frenzied demon, accompanied by heavy rain and sleet squalls; the seas were mountainous. Anyone who has not been to sea in this type of weather cannot begin to conceive just what the world seems like on a vessel of this size in these conditions. To begin to describe them properly, one could be accused of stretching the old imagination out of all proportion, but, believe me, they would be doing no such thing.
The skipper gave orders to turn the ship round to go to their assistance, but as soon as the ship's head came off the wind she began to take green seas over the side and to lay over until there was a danger that we too would capsize. Then came the struggle when we were told to get her head back into the wind. The force of it was such that it was like a barrier holding the vessel back. However we made it, and the Skipper decided to wait until daylight came before attempting the manoeuvre again.
When daylight did come, it brought with it no respite from the hurricane; the winds were the same strength, but the seas looked much worse in that we could now see the great big waves breaking and coming at us with evil intent. At night in the dark you could only see the area in the small circle of light made by the deck lights aft side of the bridge, to enable the bridge watch to see what was happening in that area of the deck. No light at all was allowed to shine forward of the bridge because it was reflected back by the spray and this reduced the distance that the watch could see from the bridge. Several times that morning the order to turn the ship round to go back and look for the Amethyst was given by the skipper, but each time she filled herself up to the rails on the weather side, and another fight would develop to get her back into the wind. After I had eaten my breakfast, nothing would induce me to go below decks, and with one or two of the others of the crew I stood in the entrance to the engine room, or in the galley looking out through the porthole, watching the seas racing past us with the speed and roar of an express steam locomotive; they were frightening. The old cook who had been going to sea since he left school many years previously said that never before had he been through anything like that, and many of the other men agreed with him. Frightened I was and vowed again that once I got my feet on the shore, there would be no coming back - that was, of course, if we ever made it back to the shore again.
There was also now something else to worry the skipper. The chief engineer told him that he was getting very low on coal, and the decision was made that we could do no more towards helping the Amethyst. Other vessels were coming up from astern on their way home, which had a better chance than we had as they were going to pass through the area. I think that all of us knew that from the moment Amethyst's message was cut off so abruptly, we could have done nothing at all. So we slowly made our way towards the River Humber and home, but before we reached the safety of the river, we had to feed the furnaces with pound boards and anything else that would burn to keep steam up long enough to allow us to bring this sad voyage to an end.
When we got alongside St Andrew's Dock I saw my father step aboard. His first words to me were that if I went back to sea after this trip, I deserved a medal as big as a frying pan. On arriving home, my mother asked me if I was going back and I said 'No', so she decided not to wash my sea bag. She had received a bad shock on the day that the Amethyst was lost, the paper boy had pushed the evening paper through the letter box, and it had fallen in such a way that it was laid on the floor showing for her to read s she picked it up, 'Kingston Chrysolite lost with all hands'. When she had pulled herself together, and 'had summoned up the courage to open up the paper, she saw that the full headline was, 'Kingston Chrysolite searches for sister ship presumed lost with all hands'. She told me this with a full heart, and was glad, very glad that I was not going back again.
Well, the next morning, I went down the dock to see what I had to pick up after the trip had been sold. I do not remember what we received for our troubles, but it would not be much - it never was. However as I walked into the office, George Watkins, who was ship's husband at that time (the man who signs up the crews for the ships), asked me if I was going back in her, and without thinking, I said yes, and that was that. I didn't dare go back on that answer then, for I knew that I should be walking about for many months if I did so. I went home and told Mother who immediately got out my sea bag to wash without saying a word, and took her anger and dismay out on it, so that it would be ready for the next morning.
So it was back to the old routine once more - the frost - the hard work, and the lack of sleep, the things that we always grumbled the most about, but we still came back for more. To my surprise, I found that I was really beginning to like the life and the danger that went with it, and realised that regardless of what my Uncle George had said, I had made a sailor, and I had still got a hole in my bottom.
By and large, being a deep sea fisherman before the war was a hard life and not a very rewarding one. It was, on looking back, a kind of slave labour, but jobs onshore were hard to come by and once you got caught up in the life at sea, you found it very difficult to give up as I did. If you were a bad boy, or upset one of the office staff ashore, or as I have mentioned before if you did not pull your weight to the satisfaction of the skipper or mate, or even if it was just your face that didn't fit, you were sacked and kept walking about the dock until you had either learnt your lesson, or had served the sort of sentence that had been given to you. Even skippers and mates were not immune from this kind of thing. If a skipper landed a couple of small catches on the trot, he was 'rested' for as long as the gaffers thought necessary. Mates, as they said, were ten a penny, and if the fish they landed did not come up to the owner's satisfaction, then they too joined the skipper on the beach, unless they could get a berth as a bosun or third hand or even as a common decky, which is what the majority did. The dole money was a mere pittance; one just existed on it, and many men were reduced to waiting for hand-outs from their pals who were still lucky enough to be still in a ship. The cameraderie amongst fishermen was a great thing to behold, and was second to none. They deserved much more out of life than they ever received.
Many trawlers were lost in the period in which I was fishing prewar. Hull, Grimsby and Fleetwood seemed to take their turn each winter to lose one or several ships, either from running themselves aground, or from causes due to bad and indifferent weather. Some sailed and were not heard of again and no wreckage was found, but in the years to come between 1939 and 1946, the trawlers lost in the service of their country were to be many, many more. Many fishermen now in uniform were to be lost with these ships at sea in action against the enemy, or by the cause of enemy action such as the laying of mines around the coast of the British Isles and in other parts of the world, which these ex-fishing trawlers, were now having to sweep up to keep the channels and the sea lanes clear, to enable or allow more freedom of movement for the merchant ships, and the larger naval ships, to enter or leave the ports. All this to me in 1938 was a thing that I never thought could happen. I believe that the first impact it had on me was in the July or August of 1939 when the newspaper and radio reports became more concerned with a German called Hitler.
In 1938 I decided to have my first holiday with my parents since I started to go to sea some three and a half years previously; I had a trip off to enable me to accompany them to Skegness for a week at Butlin's holiday camp there. We set off from Hull by ferry across the River Humber to New Holland; there we got onto the old steam train which was to take us to Skegness. On the way we stopped at Grimsby to allow more passengers to board the train; into our carriage came a family of three, a girl of sixteen and her parents. During the journey, I got talking to Gladys as I found her name to be, and during the whole of the week's holiday, both of our families seemed to go everywhere together. As far as I can remember we had a great week together; eventually after a few partings, and at one stage losing track of each other, Gladys and I were married at St Nicholas Church in Gipsyville, Hull, but not until the war with Germany was over and the peace was becoming a reality once more.
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