In August 1939 with the prospect of conflict in the offing, several trawler owners on both the East and West Coast recalled their vessels and delayed the sailing of others. Once War was declared, however, and with markets suffering from a lack of supplies, many trawlers returned to sea thinking that on the West Coast at least, the War might be slow to get under way.
They were not to know that many German U-boats were already moving into positions to the West of Ireland and outboard of the Western Isles – both areas favoured fishing grounds of the Fleetwood trawling fleet. On Tuesday 12 September 1939, the Mount Steam Fishing Co’s DAVARA (FD152) commanded by Skipper William Boyles and a crew of eleven, sailed from Fleetwood for the West of Scotland grounds.
In the early afternoon of Wednesday 13 September she was in a position some 21 miles NNW of Tory Island, County Donegal when she was closed by the U-boat, U.27 which with the deck gun manned, commenced shelling the DAVARA. Despite damage Skipper Boyles managed to get the boat into the water and with all the crew onboard the trawler was abandoned.
The shelling continued for about half an hour and thirty five rounds were counted, the DAVARA sinking at 14.55. The crew were in the boat for five hours constantly baling and rowing and were exhausted when picked up by by the West Hartlepool steamer WILLOWPOOL (4815grt/1925) and landed safely.
The DAVARA was the first British trawler to be sunk by enemy action in WWII. (Crew (all Fleetwood unless stated) – Sk. William Boyles; G. T. Pugh, Mate; W. Spall, Bosun; A Scott, Ch Eng, Thornton; J. Higgins, 2nd Eng, Burn Naze; E. Prentice, D. G. Gall, C. S. Hunter & H. R. Wright, deckhands; R. O. Welch & J. Gregger, firemen; C. W. Sharpe,
Only days later on 16 September in position 53.50N 11.10W the U.27 came upon The Sun Trawling Co’s RUDYARD KIPLING (FD33) under Skipper Charles Robinson with a crew of twelve and boarded the trawler. Ordering the crew to lower the boat and pull over to the submarine, supplies of food, including sugar, bread and fish and the vessels wireless equipment were transferred to the submarine before time delayed explosive charges were placed forward and aft; at 15.53 the trawler sank in three minutes. In complete contrast to the treatment of the DAVARA’s crew, during the eight hours that the U.27 towed the boat towards the Donegal coast the men were fed with hot soup and meat, given cigars and two rations of rum. In the early hours of the following morning when about five miles off the Donegal coast, they were ordered into the boat, but before being set adrift they were given greatcoats to wear. After an unpleasant journey they eventually landing safely at Killybegs. On 20 September the U.27 was detected by HM Ships, FORTUNE (P.No.H70) and FORESTER (P.No.H74) to the West of Scotland and forced to the surface by depth charges, she was sunk and all the crew captured.
Further U-boat victims soon followed though not all crews were released or lost. Fishing off the Faroe Islands the CALDEW (FD347), under Skipper T. J. Kane was stopped on 24 September by the U.33 and following the same pattern the crew was ordered into the boat before the trawler was sunk by gunfire. The boat was sighted by the neutral Swedish steamer KRONPRINSESSAN MARGARETA, (3765grt/1914) and the crew were rescued. Unfortunately the rescue was observed by an enemy seaplane which informed the German destroyer FRIEDRICH IHN (Z14) and torpedo boat, ILTIS, who intercepted the Swedish steamer and demanded that the survivors be handed over. On return to Germany the crew was declared prisoners of war and interned first in Stalag XB and later Milag Nord and with the exception of the Skipper, remained as prisoners for the rest of the War. Skipper Kane was exchanged on 21 June 1943 in Lisbon and repatriated.
By the end of 1939 and four months into the War, Fleetwood had lost a further eight fishing trawlers, WELLVALE (FD140), ARLITA (FD188), LORD MINTO (FD51), CRESSWELL (M129), DELPHINE (A126), SEA SWEEPER (FD171), SULBY (FD87) and WILLIAM HUMPHRIES (LO533) and with them the lives of over 50 fishermen. The incidents of Monday 18 September 1939 are particularly interesting. On the previous Monday, the ALVIS (H52) owned by Saint Andrew’s Steam Fishing Co, with Skipper Albert E. Thomason in command, left Fleetwood for the St. Kilda grounds. On the afternoon of the 18 September the Alvis was trawling about 29 miles NNW of St. Kilda in about 200 fathoms when around 1.20pm BST a submarine approached and fired a single round which fell short of the trawler. Skipper Thomason was ordered to stop the ship and put the crew in the punt and row over to the submarine, where he was taken onboard and questioned by the Captain. While alongside it was noted that the boat was leaking and the Captain asked “Is that the only boat you have got?” When Skipper Thomason replied in the affirmative, he said that the English should be ashamed of this, to send ships to sea with only one boat. The crew were ordered back onboard the ALVIS accompanied by an officer and three ratings from the submarine and the wireless transmitter and receiver were thrown overboard along with the trawl and all the gear out of the fore hold, all the time taking photographs; it was 4.40pm before they finished and were rowed back to the submarine. The Captain gave the Bosun a parcel, “Give this to your Captain with my compliments, and I hope he gets home quite safely”. It was a bottle of gin. The ALVIS having recovered the boat, steamed for St. Kilda with the submarine in company for about 11/4 hours before she submerged, and the trawler, her part catch still intact returned to Fleetwood accompanied down the Irish Sea by the HAYBURN WYKE (FD99).
The submarine was U.35 commanded by Kapitänleutenant Werner Lott, who on leaving the ALVIS proceeded back to the fishing grounds were he stopped the LORD MINTO (FD51) (Sk. C. Pennington), the ARLITA (FD188) (Sk. E. Christy) and the NANCY HAGUE (FD133) (Sk. R. King). The crews of the LORD MINTO and ARLITA were ordered to leave their ships and proceed to the NANCY HAGUE, whereupon the two abandoned trawlers were sunk by gunfire in position 58.09N 09.17W. The NANCY HAGUE which was the oldest trawler of the group, was allowed to return to Fleetwood with all the men. On 29 November 1939, off the West Coast of Scotland, the U.35 was detected and attacked by HM Ships ICARUS (P.No.D03), KINGSTON (P.No.F64) and KASHMIR (P.No.F12) and forced to the surface where she was scuttled by the crew who were then taken prisoner.