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When the Reculver was an enemy target

PUBLISHED: 12:14 19 March 2009 | UPDATED: 13:22 03 July 2010

The Inner Dowsing light tower that replaced a lightship in 1971.

The Inner Dowsing light tower that replaced a lightship in 1971.

ANOTHER chapter in the long maritime history of Great Yarmouth closed in 2003 when Trinity House, the national lighthouse and pilotage authority, shut its South Quay depot after 160 years.

Victim: THe Trinity House tender Reculver, pictured in Yarmouth before she was damaged and sunk by enemy action.

ANOTHER chapter in the long maritime history of Great Yarmouth closed in 2003 when Trinity House, the national lighthouse and pilotage authority, shut its South Quay depot after 160 years. So we no longer see buoys, lightships, service and supply tenders, or the handsome flagship Patricia along our riverside.

Recent letters to the Mercury's editor have recalled the Reculver, the Trinity House tender that was a victim of enemy action; indeed, one reader suggested I might expound upon it. So, here goes.

The topic was raised in Through the Porthole over a decade ago when I reviewed a new book, No Port in a Storm, by Bob MacAlinden, about lightships worldwide. It included a passing mention of the Reculver, one of the vessels that serviced lightships operated by Trinity House.

He wrote that on January 9 1940 she was “bombed and sank after supplying stores to the Cockle lightship, some of whose crew were on board the Reculver and among the 50 injured in the attack”. That statement spurred me to question the accuracy of my own memory from boyhood when I believed I was taken to South Quay to see the badly damaged and bullet-riddled Reculver berth at the end of her ordeal.

Damaged: The Reculver's funnel, holed by bullets and shrapnel.

Correspondents wrote to me reporting that they too saw her entering our harbour, an unarmed victim of an attack that left her funnel looking like a colander through shrapnel or bullet holes. The shock of seeing her return through our twin piers in that sad state inspired one witness, Mr J R Whittley, of Pegasus Close, Caister, then 18, to enlist in the Royal Navy.

Another declared: “The attack...was the talk of Great Yarmouth for quite a time after she had been brought back into the port, and the notion that an unarmed vessel in a sitting-duck situation should be so attacked was very distressing to all who saw the resulting damage.”

For my 1998 column I turned to Trinity House to settle the problem, discovering that the luckless Reculver was the victim of not one but two attacks by the enemy in 1940. On January 9 she had just exchanged the Cockle lightship crew with their replacement when a German Dornier attacked the Reculver with bombs and machine guns. A bomb exploded on the boat deck where the off-duty lightship crew were standing, killing second officer George Purvis and wounding 55 men.

The Reculver was disabled by the attack but was towed into Yarmouth by the Patricia. That is when we witnessed her plight.

However, urgent repairs were made to render her seaworthy again, and she resumed her duties, only to strike a mine a mile from the Spurn Point lighthouse off the mouth of the Humber on October 14; five men were injured. Attempts were made to get her into the river to beach her, but she sank.

Her master, Captain J J Woolnough, was made an MBE, recognition that the Trinity Service was in the front line, and pleas were made by tender masters for adequate escorts.

Another correspondent claimed that “there was considerable loss of life” when the Reculver struck the mine, not just five wounded.

Our lightships - anchored, immobile and unarmed - made easy targets, always under threat of attack by the Luftwaffe. The Smith's Knoll, sited at a prime spot for the herring drifters in peacetime autumn fisheries, was the first in the war to be hit, but the ordeal suffered by the East Dudgeon, three weeks after the first Reculver episode, shocked the nation.

A Junkers 88 swooped on the 52-year-old wooden lightship, machine-gunning her and dropping nine bombs. Her master, Mr R George, and his seven shipmates clambered into their lifeboat and lay astern of the East Dudgeon, tethered to her by a rope, but the raider persisted in firing into the water close by. Mr George reckoned the pilot wanted him to abandon the lightship completely, so he cut the rope - and inadvertently prompted a savage test of endurance.

In the coldest winter for a century the master, a former trawler skipper, headed for the Wash 25 miles away, his 16ft open dinghy powered by a lugsail and four oars. The crew became numb, their endurance exhausted.

Seventeen hours later, with only two men rowing and the rest barely alive, they were nearing the shore...but struck a sandbar and capsized, tossing them all into the freezing pounding surf. Only one reached the beach alive, 30-year-old Yarmouthian Jack Sanders, who managed to drag himself to the shelter of a wooden hut where he found some old sacking to wrap around his perished body.

By dawn he had revived sufficiently to trek into Mablethorpe in Lincolnshire.

The one-sided assault by the Junkers on the East Dudgeon became the subject of a propaganda film made by the British Government that same year.

As for the stricken lightship, she was towed into Yarmouth where the Duke of Kent inspected her...shown round by Jack Sanders' lifelong friend, Wally Pulfer, himself a survivor of the air attack on the Reculver!

To prevent recurrences, some lightships were withdrawn from their stations by Trinity House, creating a navigational problem for shipping, but gradually they were reinstated, this time armed with an anti-aircraft gun a-piece.

Another wartime casualty was the Newarp, eight miles off our coast. Two lightships - unmanned to prevent more casualties in air attacks - and one light float were sunk during the war. In 1967 the lightship then on the Newarp station foundered after being rammed by a freighter.

Father Peggotty was briefly a lightshipman soon after the war but never took to the comparative inactivity for a month at a time after the rigours and hard labour of being a drifterman and trawlerman. My only Trinity House experience was flying out by helicopter from Yarmouth with long-serving Mercury photographer Les Gould in 1971 to cover the formal VIP commissioning of the first light tower off a British coast.

We were privileged to be the only journalists to witness Trinity House history in the making.

We alighted on the new Inner Dowsing, a former National Coal Board drilling rig then standing on the North Sea bed 14 miles off the Lincolnshire resort of Skegness, replacing a lightship that had guarded the spot for almost a century. The £200,000 light tower's warning lantern of 500,000 candlepower was 142ft above the waves.

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