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Naval Action - 15th August 1917 in the Great War - The Wartime Memories Project -

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Naval Action - 15th August 1917

15th Aug 1917 Naval Action  As part of the Imperial German Navy's U-boat campaign of unrestricted submarine warfare German U-boats had started to attack British trawlers. They had previously been protected by the 1907 Naval Convention in the North Sea. In response, fishermen had requested weapons for self-defence. Some trawlers had been equipped with deck guns and had gunners assigned to man them. These vessels were generally skippered by members of the Royal Navy Reserve and to act on their own initiative if attacked.

On 15th of August 1917, a number of Lowestoft trawlers were fishing in the North Sea, off the Jim Howe bank. Among them were the armed smacks Nelson and "Ethel & Millie". Nelson, skippered by Tom Crisp, was armed with a 3-pounder gun while Ethel & Millie, skippered by William “Johnsey” Manning, carried a 6-pounder. At around 1415, Nelson came under fire from a U-boat, which had surfaced some 3–4 miles north-west of her position. Crisp cast off his nets, leaving them buoyed on the surface, and turned towards the U-boat to close the range. Nelson was hit several times as she returned fire, but her shots fell short of their target. Crisp was also hit and mortally wounded. Nelson began to take on water and sink. At this point, Crisp ordered the crew to abandon ship, which they did, taking to a lifeboat. During this exchange, Ethel & Millie had closed up from the south-east and, passing Nelson and her lifeboat, moved in to engage the U-boat. Manning proposed to stop and take on the survivors, but they refused. The trawler continued to close but she too came under fire from the U-boat and, after several hits, she was also left sinking with her crew also abandoning ship. Nelson's crew observed the men being taken from their boat and lined up on the U-boat's deck, but were unable to see more as their view became obscured by the haze. Nelson's boat pulled away to the southwest and escaped into the approaching dusk.

Nelson's crew were at sea for the next two days being eventually rescued by HMS Dryad, a minesweeper assigned to fishery protection. Crisp’s actions were reported, and he was awarded the VC for the seamanlike and brave manner in which he had conducted himself. The Ethel & Millie's crew were not seen again. They were not reported as prisoners of war and none returned to Britain at the end of hostilities. The suspicion at the time and subsequently, is that they were disposed of by the U-boat crew, possibly being left to drown while the U-boat submerged. The U-boat which attacked the two boats has been identified as UC63 commanded by Karsten von Heydebreck.

John Doran

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Naval Action - 15th August 1917

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