Due to its coastal location many men joined the Navy in its many forms. As a City with long standing maritime history, Hull men served throughout the world in the Royal Navy, Royal Marines, Naval Reserve, Merchant Service and the Hull Fishing Feet. 14,000 merchant seamen were to die in the war, over a thousand of these were from Hull. 4,000 of these sailors died in just three months during 1917, when the German U Boat attacks peaked.
To add to the tragedy, there was little compensation for a sailor’s family. Sailors pay stopped when their ship sank, and usually only paid if they died with the ship. Sailors who left their ship in life boats were deemed to have discharged themselves from duty and often had their sea pay docked.
At the end of the First World War, Lord Jellico declared that the Royal Navy had saved the Empire, but it was the fishermen in their boats who had saved the Royal Navy. The Royal Naval Reserve of fishermen was “a Navy within the Navy“. They swept mines, escorted convoys, hunted U-boats and carried out countless dangerous duties. While often overlooked by Admiralty officials, there contribution was at least recognized by Admiral Sir Reginald Bacon who said; ‘It is doubtful if we could have defeated the Germans, at any rate as quickly as we did defeat them, if it had not been for the assistance which the Royal Navy received from the fishing community.’
Hull ships and crews therefore played a major part in that victory. The ongoing peril of unexploded sea mines continued to take the lives of Hull fisherman, long after the war had ended. For example, the Hull Trawler ‘Gitano’ struck a mine and was sunk with all hands on the 23rd December 1918. The Hull Trawler ’Scotland’ struck a mine on the 13th March 1919, killing 7 Hull men. Two days later, the steam ship, ‘Durban’ exploded‘, killing another eight Hull sailors. The ‘Isle of Man’ (Hull) exploded on the 14th December 1919, killing a further seven Hull fishermen. The steam ship ‘Barbados’ exploded on the 5th November 1920, taking ten Hull men. These included the two Weaver brothers killed on the same day. Many of these seaman had survived the war, only to be its victims after.
Illustrations of life on board a trawler – “In the Wheelhouse, Mail Day, playing cards, cleaning guns, the Galley cook, the stoker, the radio officer,slipping the “kite” which controls the mine sweeping depth.”
Dangerous work for fishing trawlers used as minesweepers
When the Royal Naval Reserve (RNR) was first created in 1859, it consisted of up to 30,000 merchant seamen and fisherman who the Navy could call on in times of crisis. Fishing trawlers were strong, sturdy ships, designed to withstand severe weather conditions out at sea, and in 1907 the Commander-in-Chief of the Home Fleet, Admiral Lord Beresford, recognised that trawlers could be used as minesweepers. His recommendation led to the formation of the Royal Naval Reserve (Trawler Section) in 1910, with approval to mobilise 100 trawlers during any crisis period and enrol 1,000 men to man them. It also introduced a new rank, that of ‘Skipper’ RNR, into the Navy List. By the end of 1911, 53 skippers had joined. In 1912 a further 25 enrolled and the Trawler Section of the Royal Naval Reserve, consisted of 142 trawlers manned by 1,279 personnel. 31 more skippers joined before the war started in August 1914, making a total of 109 skippers. Another 315 more volunteered by the end of the first week in October. By the end of 1915 the Mine sweeping Service employed 7,888 officers and men.
The Royal Naval Reserve (Trawler Section):
Early mine sweeps simply comprised of chains towed over the seabed between two ships, or even by a single ship to drag mines and their moorings out of a channel. These were later replaced with serrated wire cables towed between two ships (Actaeon Sweep). Development of the Oropesa Sweep, with its divertors and depth-keeping kite, allowed sweeps to be towed by a single ship. Sweep wires were made from flexible, steel wire rope and streamed from each quarter of a minesweeper. The cables were laid right or left-handed according to the side streamed. This helped the wires achieve hydrodynamic lift and spread. A single strand in each wire was laid in the opposite direction to provide a serrated cutting effect.
The ‘Paravane’, a form of towed underwater “glider”, was developed from 1914–16 by Commander Usborne and LieutenantC. Dennistoun Burney, funded by Sir George White, founder of the Bristol Aeroplane Company. Initially developed to destroy naval mines, the paravane would be strung out and streamed alongside the towing ship, normally from the bow.The wings of the paravane would tend to force the body away from the towing ship, placing a lateral tension on the towing wire. If the tow cable snagged the cable anchoring a mine then the anchoring cable would be cut, allowing the mine to float to the surface where it could be destroyed by gunfire. If the anchor cable would not part, the mine and the paravane would be brought together and the mine would explode harmlessly against the paravane. The cable could then be retrieved and a replacement paravane fitted. Burney explosive paravanes were deployed from torpedo boat destroyers in a configuration known as the ‘High Speed Sweep’ to counter submarines. However, most paravanes were non-explosive and were streamed by larger warships and merchant ships as self-defence measures to divert moored mines away from their hulls. They comprised a wire streamed to each side from the bows with a float secured to the end to divert it outwards.