Welsh trawlers at war

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When you think about the merchant navy during the Second World War, you tend to think of the lumbering merchantmen, ploughing steadily onwards in convoys across the Atlantic, and the deadly U-boats that waited for them in ambush. That's as it should be.

The men from those deep sea vessels deserve to be remembered. So many of them died in unprotected, defenceless oil tankers or tramp steamers that it is hard to quantify their bravery.

But one section of the merchant marine rarely gets a mention – the men of the trawler fleets who continued to operate throughout the war, keeping a hard-pressed Britain well stocked with fish.

As a food supply, fish became increasingly important as the war progressed and the German submarine blockade intensified, virtually cutting off imports of things like Argentinian and American beef.

Many men from the trawler fleets were called up for wartime service in the Royal Navy, leaving gaps in the fishing fleets to be filled by old men who had long retired and thought their days at sea were over or by young boys just out of school.

What that meant, of course, was that as trawlers were sunk by U-boats, mines or aircraft, many of the long-established fishing families of the country suffered grievous losses.

In all 136 fishing boats were lost during the Second World War, with over 900 trawlermen going to their deaths. And many of those men came from south Wales.

Two Cardiff trawlers were sunk during the war. These were the Naniwa, which was bombed by German aircraft on 16 February 1941, and the Oyama, lost on 12 January 1941.

In the case of the Oyama, there is no known cause for her sinking. She might well have hit a mine, a more than likely reason as she carried no radio and there was no enemy record of her demise. Twelve sailors died on the Oyama, five on the Naniwa.

Swansea also lost a fishing boat on 27 January 1941. The ship Caerphilly Castle was attacked by German bombers and duly sent to the bottom. Three crewmen died, the rest managing to escape and pass on the news.

Milford Haven was, of course, the largest fishing centre in Wales and, as might be expected, the port suffered particularly badly during the war. No fewer than nine Milford trawlers were sunk as well as a further 10 Milford boats that were then sailing out of other ports.

Most of the sinkings were from mines and invariably, with the vessels sailing independently, they resulted in trawlers being lost with all hands. The first to go was the Cresswell, sunk by gunfire from a surfaced submarine off Flannan Isle on 12 November 1939.

The last to be sunk was the Charmouth which hit a forgotten mine and sank off the Irish coast in November 1946, over 12 months after the war had ended.

The John Baptish was lost on 9 September 1940. Skippered by 56-year-old WJ McLean, she was returning to port with a large catch of herrings – being seen and waved to by the men sailing on other trawlers, in the opposite direction. After that the John Baptish simply disappeared and there is no record of how she met her end.

Captain McLean had been at sea for over 40 years, having spent the Great War in minesweepers and been mentioned in despatches several times. His crew of 12 were a mixture of Milford men and seamen who had come to the port from places such as Grimsby on the east coast. There were no survivors.

A number of trawlers were requisitioned by the Admiralty when war broke out. They were used as harbour patrol vessels, decoy ships and, occasionally, as minesweepers.

Most of these ships retained their pre-war crews but were given additional Royal Navy seamen for things like manning their guns.

Eleven of these requisitioned trawlers were sunk in the conflict. The Aracari achieved a particularly dramatic end. She was declared a total loss after she ran ashore on a small island off Sicily during the invasion of Italy by Allied forces in 1943.

The Manor was sunk by E-boats in the English Channel but more usually losses occurred after the trawlers had hit mines – British as often as not.

The trawler's war was unglamorous but decidedly dangerous. They needed to find and bring in the fish for a beleaguered British population and without their contribution to the war effort, the possibility of starvation would have edged considerably closer.

The dead of the British trawler fleets are now listed and remembered on the merchant navy Memorial at Tower Hill in London. Here in Wales, although the fishing industry has largely disappeared, they are remembered on the memorials of their home ports.

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