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Trawlers, Drifters and Tugs: the small ships of WW2

Aside from Battleships, Aircraft Carriers and the like, a huge range of smaller ships also served in the Royal Navy in the Second World War. Perhaps not as glamorous as the big guns ships, never the less the Trawlers, Drifters, Tugs and other small ships gave sterling service in many theatres. Some were Navy ships, but most were requisitioned merchant vessels that served under Naval orders during the war.

Small vessels maintained boom defences around vital ports. In the Solent an anti-submarine boom stretched from Southsea Beach, across the Solent to the Isle of Wight. On 30 May 1940 HM Boom Defence Vessel Cambrian, 338 tons and built in 1924, hit a mine and sank in the middle of the Solent and 23 men were killed. Onboard was Riggers Mate Robert Lavender, 41 and from Buckland. He is remembered on the Portsmouth Naval Memorial. I recall fishing on the wreck of the Cambrian some years ago, and catching some nice Wrasse.

Meanwhile an armada of small ships were rescuing the British Army from Dunkirk. HM Tug St Fagan was sunk by aircraft on 1 June 1940. The St Fagan displaced 550 tons and was completed in 1919. Among the 17 crew members killed were Stoker Frederick Hatch, 22, Stoker Bernard McBride, 40 and from Hilsea, Leading Steward William Longley, 44, and Stoker William Clark, 22 and from Milton. They have no known grave and are remembered on the Portsmouth Naval Memorial. On the same day her sister ship HM Tug St Abbs was also sunk by German aircraft. Able Seaman William Cornford, 41 and from Cosham, was among the 20 crew members killed. He is also remembered on the Portsmouth Naval Memorial.

The Navy also used Trawlers to perform a number of tasks, including minesweeping and coastal patrols. A 344 ton ship launched in 1938, HM Trawler Recoil was lost on patrol presumed mined in the English Channel on 28 September 1940. 25 men were lost, One of them Ordinary Telegraphist Hubert Ewen, 22 and from Surrey. He is remembered on the Portsmouth Naval Memorial.

HM Drifter Harvest Gleaner (96 tons, 1918) was sunk by aircraft off the East coast of England on 28 October 1940 with the loss of four of her crew. Among those lost was Petty Officer Stoker Seymour Stephenson, 46 and from Eastney. He is remembered on the Lowestoft Naval Memorial.

Smaller ships also served in the Mediterranean and off North Africa. HM Trawler Ouse struck a mine off Tobruk, Libya on 20 February 1941, with the loss of 13 men. She weighed in at 462 tons, and was completed in 1917. Onboard when she sank was Petty Officer Stoker William Horsley, 40 and from Copnor. He is remembered on the Portsmouth Naval Memorial. HM Tug St Issey was sunk off Benghazi, Libya on 28 December 1942. 810 tons and completed in 1918, she was presumed to have been sunk by a U-Boat. Among the 36 men lost was Engine Room Artificer 4th Class Keith Hollis, from Southsea. He is remembered on the Portsmouth Naval Memorial.

HM Trawler Red Gauntlet (338 tons, 1930) met an unfortunate end in the North Sea on 5 August 1943. She was sunk by an E-Boat, the German equivalent of a Motor Torpedo Boat. 21 men were lost. Her Second Lieutenant was 32 year old James Childs, an officer of the Royal Naval Reserve. He was a former pupil of Portsmouth Grammar School, and from Southsea. He is remembered on the Lowestoft Naval Memorial.

During the D-Day campaign small ships played a vital part. Ships that were employed on minesweeping duties were particularly vulnerable. HM Trawler Lord Austin (473 tons, 1937) was sunk by a mine in the Seine Bay off Normandy on 24 June 1944, with the loss of 7 of her crew. Her Assistant Steward was 35 year old John Cotterell. He is remembered on the Lowestoft Naval Memorial.

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Filed under d-day, maritime history, Navy, portsmouth heroes, World War Two