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Respite for 'quiet heroes'

PUBLISHED: 14:38 23 April 2009 | UPDATED: 13:44 03 July 2010

Naval rating William Darnell had three lucky escapes from death

Naval rating William Darnell had three lucky escapes from death

FOR more than a century it has stood at the top of Gorleston High Street, an imposing building featuring an observation tower with a 360 degree view across the North Sea, river and hinterland.

FOR more than a century it has stood at the top of Gorleston High Street, an imposing building featuring an observation tower with a 360 degree view across the North Sea, river and hinterland. It has had various uses in the six decades since it closed, but the older generation still calls it “the fishermen's institute”, cognisant of the major role it once played.

It was built for £5,000 at the end of the 19th century by the Royal National Mission to Deep Sea Fishermen, recently founded by Ebenezer Mather to try to alleviate their hardships, eliminate dangerous work practices and offer moral guidance, among other aims.

Recently, I have been reading the bound 1915 compilation of the RNMDSF's monthly magazine, Toilers of the Deep, that illustrated how it adapted to wartime conditions. I am indebted to 75-year-old Malcolm Metcalf, of Magdalen Way, Gorleston, for lending it to me.

AD Snell, the mission ships' husband at Gorleston responsible for their victuals, supplies and coal, told readers: “We have distributed gifts passed on by friends to the North Sea fishermen who now comprise the crews of minesweepers, patrol boats and suchlike vessels that are constantly guarding our coasts. It is awful but heroic work they are called upon to do - sweeping and sweeping, watching and watching.

“Can you imagine the monotony of such work, only to be broken by the explosion of the death-dealing mine, perhaps under your own little trawler, without the slightest warning? The fishermen of Great Britain are quiet heroes, worthy of the response your readers have shown by their gifts of 3,000 woollen articles.”

Some boats were still fishing, vulnerable to mines and shelling by German ships.

Stated the magazine: “Loss of life among the fishermen of Yarmouth and Lowestoft while pursuing their peaceful calling is very large, about 40 apart from the men minesweeping, leaving 35 widows and 50 dependent children. “This is a heavy price to pay for fish, and the children's Daddy will miss him on Christmas Day”.

In another issue, Mr Snell reported: “Our Gorleston institute has proved of special value to the crews of destroyers who have been able to leave their ships and come ashore for a welcome bath and rest.

“Our large and splendid assembly hall is often crowded to excess, extensively used by men of the Navy because a large number of destroyers and other vessels have been coming in to and going out of Yarmouth.

“The institute is most conveniently situated for use by these men and it has enabled the full war crew of a destroyer to leave their ship and sling their hammocks in the assembly room and get a thorough change from the intense strain and discomfort of life in these cramped little ships.

“So many of the seamen have been themselves either associated with fishing or are the sons of fishermen. Destroyers are excessively uncomfortable craft for habitation and it needs no effort of the imagination to picture the discomfort of a crowded part of the little ship when a great number of men are packed in to it for sleeping purposes.

“Time after time, the destroyers are practically flooded and water streams on the men as they sleep or try to sleep, and this is entirely apart from the great discomfort caused by the motion of the ship and the constant peril of the sea in war time. By coming ashore and getting a thoroughly good night's rest, the men manage to keep their health much better than is possible when they are confined entirely to the ship.

“The institute coffee bar, too, has been of great service and quite a number of naval men have now got in to the habit of coming to the institute, and so avoiding the terrible temptations of the public houses.”

Hot baths were also available in a small shed that became very crowded; time had to be called after 80 or 90 had enjoyed a bath!

Port missionary William Collett reported on his work among the many minesweepers based in Yarmouth and Gorleston, most of their brave crews being peacetime deep-sea fishermen. Since being given an official pass, he had visited 89 trawlers and drifters being fitted out at Gorleston, besides nine destroyers, their crews totalling 1,180 men, and clothing sent by friends of the mission were given to them.

Also, 40 boats rigging out were given “a box of beautiful apples each”. Another benefactor sent more apples (distributed among six boats) and a huge box of Spanish onions (shared by seven).

Readers also learned of incidents of enemy action suffered by seamen.

Skipper Collett visited in hospital a former member of a mission ship's crew “unfortunate enough to have worked on three Lowestoft smacks, all of which were destroyed by German submarines. In the third one, the enemy fired on the crew as they were launching their small boat.

“The crew jumped into it as soon as they could and lay in the bottom, while one who tried to scull it to safety was shot in both legs.”

Mr Snell singled out one of the Gorleston institute's young men, 18-year-old Royal Navy rating William Darnell, a member of a local family of fisherfolk, who has had three escapes from death.

First, he was saved from HMS Hermes, torpedoed off Dunkirk. His next ship, HMS Formidable, was lying near HMS Bulwark when disaster befell that battleship. And for a third time, his life was spared when Formidable sank in the English Channel - on his birthday!

The Gorleston mission replenished his kitbag, as he had lost everything with his ship, and he took his new possessions when he left home after a few days' leave to join a new ship.

Mrs E Bammant, secretary of the Mariners' Refuge at Gorleston, wrote to the magazine to say that during the war it had been very useful as a home for the extra coastguards required for the signal station on the pier, but one day it was necessary to use it for its original purpose when the Lowestoft smack Compare's trawl rope fouled a mine on the Cross Sands.

The mine exploded, drenching smack and crew of five with icy seawater, and she grounded. The fishermen, miraculously unharmed, took to their small boat and rowed for five hours before being rescued by the Gorleston lifeboat Elizabeth Simpson, cold and soaked, whereupon refuge staff supplied them with hot food and dry clothing before they were driven home by car.

The mission steamer Queen Alexandra, which until then had worked on remote North Sea fishing banks to provide for the spiritual and bodily needs of the trawlermen, was taken over by a wealthy benefactor who paid for her to be upgraded to convey wounded soldiers home from the continent, under the control of the Admiralty, and while berthed alongside the quay below the Gorleston institute, underwent lengthy conversion to become a floating hospital.

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