Danish mariners spend Christmas marooned on Scroby Sands
- Credit: G W Stone
However much we enjoy Christmas, it does not always go to plan or come up to expectation. Sometimes it is memorable for all the wrong reasons: instead of being at home with family and friends, or in a hotel with no domestic chores to worry about, a “worst scenario” unfolds.
Sixty-plus years ago, a group which unwittingly found itself in the Great Yarmouth area over the Christmas and New Year period probably never forgot their experience for the rest of their lives.
Those sand and sea staples of the Norfolk coast were within touching distance of their accommodation, but they were not in the warmth and comfort of a hotel or guest house...but stranded on Scroby in their grounded vessel!
They had been there for three weeks when Christmas came and went, and were destined to remain on the notorious sandbank until mid-January. Their enforced stay, within sight of the lights of Yarmouth, lasted for 43 days. Sometimes she was high and dry, at others pounded by breakers.
The castaways were a dozen Danish sailors, living on board their stranded motor torpedo boat Havoernen awaiting suitable weather and tidal conditions for their 100ft craft to be hauled from the grip of the sands back into the sea. Throughout their stay, they proved a wintry tourist attraction in Yarmouth and Gorleston where sightseers peered through binoculars and telescopes for a glimpse of the battleship grey livery of the MTB, a former German E-boat.
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The Havoernen was speeding back to Copenhagen in thick fog after participation in NATO exercises with the Royal Navy in the North Sea. Her look-out spotted the sandbank perilously close but just in time for the engines to be shut down. “There was a little bump and that was all we knew,” said a Danish rating.
She radioed for immediate help, responses coming from the Gorleston and Caister lifeboats, a Royal Navy helicopter and the Yarmouth port tug Richard Lee Barber. Later the tug Lowestoft, Trinity House tender Warden and Admiralty salvage vessel Barglow arrived to support the efforts.
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“It was hopeless at first,” Gorleston lifeboatmen reported. Waves 10ft high were pounding Scroby. But when the tide ebbed, Havoernen was high and dry so nine Danes were able to walk to the Caister lifeboat Josie Neville. The helicopter air-lifted four Danes lifted to safety in dangerously gathering gloom, but not without difficulty.
Charles Reynolds, skipper of the tug Lowestoft, said: “What struck me was the remarkably cool work of the Caister lifeboatmen. It was just grand. They jumped on to the sands and then helped the Danes into the lifeboat. Meanwhile the helicopter was on the scene and hovering overhead.
“It was uncanny to see it at work. It came down to within a few feet, dropped a rope, picked up two of the men and then set off for Yarmouth. Then it returned, took off two more men, went to Yarmouth and returned a third time.”
The helicopter pilot explained that if he had winched up only one man at a time, it would have been dark long before the quartet could have been plucked to safety. So he could lift off two at a time, he reduced the petrol load to lighten the helicopter, finishing the day with only eight gallons left.
“We hovered 50ft above the sands and let down a rope with a strap on it, and we took up two men at a time. This is contrary to general practice, the normal procedure being to pick up only one man at a time. We flew them away and landed them on a football field at Yarmouth”, he said.
The third trip was to collect gear from the sands.
Initial efforts the next day to refloat the MTB were fruitless, as were others, resulting in the prolonged stay. Supplies ferried out to the Havoernen skeleton crew must have included fuel to ensure light, heat and catering. It also seems likely that the sailors originally rescued returned to the Havoernen to relieve their shipmates, a rota system repeated during her six weeks on Scroby.
The shipwrecked sailors were not forgotten at Christmas, Yarmouthians ferrying out welcome comforts and other items to them.
Today is the 81st birthday of a man who was in the salvage ship Barglow’s crew when the MTB’s ordeal finally ended, and I am obliged to him for reminding me of the Scroby epic, something he vividly remembers. He is Ray Field, a Kent resident who assures me that he is enjoying “an active and well-travelled retirement.”
Ray recalls that when the MTB ploughed on to Scroby on that Monday night in December 1952, “the Admiralty salvage vessel Barglow was moored in the River Yare en route to Grimsby, and on the Wednesday she was ordered to make preparations to tow the Havoernen off.
“Hawsers were put round the stricken vessel with the help of the Caister lifeboat and a helicopter and, on the next high tide, towing commenced. There was little progress for the first few days and they decided to strip everything portable from the vessel which included torpedoes.
“From then on, slowly but surely, on each high tide she started to move and at 6.15pm on Wednesday, January 14, she was floated. She should have been towed to Lowestoft but thick fog prevented that and Barglow towed her into the River Yare at Yarmouth with a triumphant hoot.
“The following Tuesday there was a big celebration in the Yare Hotel for all the crews involved which included Barglow’s, Havoernen and the tugs Aegir and Garm. We were also given the freedom of the town. I would like to take this opportunity to express my tremendous admiration the part Caister lifeboat played on that stormy night. As a 17-year-old boy, it was an experience I will never forget.”
Admiralty salvage officer Peter Flett, in charge of the operation, said: “We knew Havoernen could be refloated and she came off quite easily after she had been moved earlier in the day. I told the people in her to sit quietly while we pulled her and soon she was alongside us.”
Lieut-Comdr Helge Neilson, the MTB’s commanding officer, told the Mercury: “We are very grateful for what has been done for us. People ashore have been very kind and thoughtful.”
Barglow’s master was David Morrice,of Yarmouth, His crew said the Danes had told them they were ready to spent six months on the sandbank if necessary.