The ferry port with many war memories

PUBLISHED: 15:34 15 January 2009 | UPDATED: 12:47 03 July 2010

HERO: George

HERO: George "Raffy" Brown, skipper of the Fisher Boy, a member of a well-known Caister fishing family.

IN the summer of 2004, Mrs Peggotty and I opted for the Dover-Dunkirk car ferry route to cross the English Channel for a holiday in the south of France, a service operated by Norfolk Line that for two decades in the Seventies and Eighties had been a stalwart of the port of Great Yarmouth with its frequent roll-on/roll-off sailings to and from Holland.

IN the summer of 2004, Mrs Peggotty and I opted for the Dover-Dunkirk car ferry route to cross the English Channel for a holiday in the south of France, a service operated by Norfolk Line that for two decades in the Seventies and Eighties had been a stalwart of the port of Great Yarmouth with its frequent roll-on/roll-off sailings to and from Holland.

As we approached Dunkirk, I found it impossible to imagine the scene in 1940 when no fewer than 347,131 beleaguered Allied troops under enemy fire were safely evacuated from those French beaches, an epic story of heroism made possible by the make-shift fleet of small craft - most of them civilian - pressed into service to rescue them, regardless of risk.

Regular correspondent John Ball, of South Garden, Gorleston, a member of a former leading fishery family, raised the issue in a September column with details of the contribution to that armada made by some erstwhile Yarmouth and Lowestoft herring drifters and other vessels, and in November I recounted the Dunkirk recollections of one of its veterans, ex-soldier Harry McGee, who was twice mayor of our borough and is now retired after half a-century in local politics.

Mr Ball is anxious to make us aware of the contribution made by Yarmouth skipper George (“Raffy”) Brown, a member of the remarkable Caister family that produced no fewer than ten sons in one generation, seven of whom became skippers, one a driver (chief engineer), and two involved in other ways.

George Brown was promoted to chief skipper in the Royal Naval Reserve and, when in command of the former Lowestoft fishing boat Fisher Boy, was one of the first to reach Dunkirk. On that maiden voyage he was supposed to ferry 250 troops to one of the large transports waiting outside the harbour, but none was there. “In the distance he saw a silhouette and headed towards it...but promptly got stuck on a sandbank,” writes John Ball.

“Fortunately they were able to refloat as the tide rose, and it soon became apparent that the transport ships had been either sunk or abandoned. He immediately decided to take his passengers directly back to Ramsgate in Kent.

“After unloading and stocking up with stores, he returned straightaway to the beaches, in daylight rather than waiting for darkness. They took scaling ladders to help the troops climb down from the mole on to her deck.

“Despite heavy shelling from the German big guns, they loaded more troops until the decks were filled to capacity.

“The voyages back and forth continued, and on one occasion a German E-boat loomed out of the darkness and the Fisher Boy bravely engaged it with their main armament - one Lewis gun! To their relief, the E-boat disappeared but shortly afterwards there was a loud explosion: the German boat had turned its attention to the destroyer, HMS Wakeful, which was sunk by two torpedoes.

“The Fisher Boy and another drifter managed to pick up 25 survivors, including the captain. Unfortunately the Wakeful had a load of troops below decks when she was struck. She broke in halves and sank immediately, taking hundreds of sailors and soldiers with her.”

At Dunkirk chaos reigned, with German dive-bombers attacking the rescue craft and the lines of troops waiting on the shore.

As the Fisher Boy sailed from the French harbour, she came across the troopship Scotia, laying on her side and burning fiercely after being hit by enemy aircraft; around 2000 French soldiers were struggling in the sea, with others stranded on the stricken Scotia's side. Many suffered because lifejackets were too small to accommodate men wearing full army kit.

Skipper Brown launched the Fisher Boy's dinghy to drag exhausted soldiers from the sea, and lines were thrown to those able to cling on to be hauled to safety.

Of the 4085 troops rescued by a handful of local drifters, “Raffy” Brown's Fisher Boy carried about one-third of them - a total of 1350 in seven trips, an average of almost 200 a trip. “Their orders had been to take 100 troops at a time but the 'Nelson touch' (turning a blind eye) aided by a calm sea at the time certainly paid dividends,” says John Ball, emphasising that the 347,131 were rescued at the expense of nearly 300 boats and many of their crew members.

The skipper went on to serve in other places, including the Normandy landings, and in 1947 was awarded a well-deserved MBE (Military version) for his service.

Fisher Boy was to earn further honours as a mine recovery vessel. At Cherbourg, when a barge laden with mines sank in the harbour entrance, she anchored above it and recovered all the mines, enabling the port to re-open.

The Dunkirk service and other activities by these ex-fishing vessels are documented in Trawlers Go to War - The Story of Harry Tate's Navy, penned by Paul Lund and Harry Ludlam and published in 1971. A copy is in our public library, I believe, but cannot leave the premises.

My September column about Dunkirk also listed other wartime roles played by our local fishing boats and included a photograph of the Ocean Pioneer, the former Bloomfield drifter employed as a degaussing vessel. Its publication resulted in a phone call from a reader identifying four of the five men pictured standing on her bow.

According to Raymond Pillar, now of Colomb Road in Gorleston, one was him, while his shipmates in the picture were the mate, Joe Lown, of Winterton, plus a Mr Eke, and Charlie Varley. The skipper, not in the photograph, was Bob Johnson, of Gorleston.

The Ocean Pioneer sailed under the Merchant Navy flag but her crew were paid by the Admiralty. Her fish hold was full of half-ton batteries used in the degaussing process - removing unwanted magnetism, essential when dealing with magnetic mines sewn by the Germans during the war.

Mr Pillar, 81, said after leaving school he worked for Wrights, a baker in Broad Row in Yarmouth, but as a youth of 16 or 17 was eager to join the Merchant Navy and went to the War Department office in King Street where he was told that the training school was full up.

“The man asked me: 'Can you fry sausages?' When I replied that I could, he told me there was a ship waiting for a cook in Belfast, and off I went to join the Ocean Pioneer.”

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