When the Admiralty ordered in December 1914 that there was to be no fishing between Cromer and Portland Bill many of Thanet’s fishermen relocated to Lowestoft, Hull and Brixham in Devon. Even here they were not safe, as in February 1915 the Ramsgate smack Rhodora, which was one of those working out of Brixham, was lost off the French coast along with the Erena, whose skipper was Mr Andrews from Belmont Street, Ramsgate. Many Ramsgate men were already experienced sailors, not forgetting the smack boys who stayed in the Smack Boys Home on the sea front when they were in port. It is not surprising, therefore, that many of the men joined the Royal Navy or the Mercantile Marine.
The Dover Patrol and the Dover Barrage
Thanet, in its unique position at the south-eastern tip of England, where the North Sea meets the English Channel, has always been of strategic importance in naval warfare. The threat from German submarines became apparent, when in October 1914 HMS Hermes was torpedoed in the Dover Straits. In November 1914 the gunboat HMS Niger was torpedoed by a German submarine within sight of Deal. All the crew of about eighty were saved and survivors were landed locally.
The Dover Patrol, under the command of Admiral Bacon, was formed as a joint Anglo-French venture to protect the vital supply lines from Britain to the Front. Trawler skippers from all down the east coast joined forces with the men of Kent to protect England. Based at Dover and Dunkirk, the Dover Patrol assembled all kinds of vessels from trawlers to paddle-minesweepers. The ships escorted merchantmen carrying troops, wounded soldiers, supplies and munitions across the Channel. Trawlers swept the sea floor with large bag-shaped nets to locate and remove mines laid by smaller German boats.
In February 1915 a vast minefield was laid between Dover and the Belgian coast and light steel indicator nets hung from buoys and fishing boats were anchored to the sea bed. In March 1915 a German U-boat was caught in the nets and scuttled under gunfire by the destroyers HMS Ghurka and HMS Maori. After this incident the German Navy was forbidden to use the English Channel while they reconsidered their tactics. In March 1916 U-boats were despatched from Zeebrugge and Ostend and bypassed the barrage by coasting along the surface of the Channel under cover of darkness. As a result the unarmed steamer Dolcoath was sunk and the captain and nineteen men were landed at Ramsgate. One man was never found.
A German submarine captured early in 1917 contained documents that proved that U-boats were still getting through so the British worked hard to improve the effectiveness of the barrage by shifting it further east between Folkestone and Cap Gris Nez.
The destroyer HMS Gipsy and three drifters destroyed a German submarine in November 1917 in full view of spectators on Ramsgate’s clifftop. The submarine had been laying mines and had become grounded on the Goodwin Sands. The crew abandoned ship and many of the German crew were shot in the water.
By 1917 German craft were sinking 400 Allied ships a month, causing rationing of food supplies in Britain. The British government feared that Britain could soon be starved out of the War. More effective mines, and night patrols with searchlights, improved the efficiency of the Dover Barrage which claimed a further dozen U-boats by August 1918. In January 1918 a mine exploded in Sandwich Bay killing six men who were trying to move it. One Ramsgate man was among the dead
Fishermen risked their lives daily manning the patrol boats and more than 2,000 of them died during the First World War. Men from HMS Marcella, HMS Marshal Ney, HM Tug Charm and HM Trawler Corona are buried at Ramsgate Cemetery.
East Kent’s secret port
East Kent was the vital transit area with troops going out through Folkestone, and with soldiers returning as casualties through Dover. More capacity was required for shifting troops, munitions and supplies across the Channel to Flanders so the Royal Engineers constructed a secret “Q” port near Sandwich. The mouth of the River Stour was dredged and a new port of embarkation was created.
Much of the equipment for the Ypres Salient was sent across from Richborough Port, using sea-going barges and the very first roll-on roll-off ferries. Barges returned loaded with salvaged items and empty shells. These ferries were invaluable for the transport of locomotives, rolling stock, heavy guns and tanks. Towards the end of the war up to seven hundred local women were employed in the camp sorting salvage.
Ramsgate’s brave fishermen
Throughout the war Ramsgate’s fishermen played a vital role as part of the Dover Patrol, sweeping mines or rescuing shipwrecked sailors from boats hit by mines or torpedoes. A section of the RNR had already been training men before the war and the Admiralty hired trawlers in wartime paying rates according to a vessel’s tonnage, age and horsepower.
In 1914 many of the Smack Boys broke the terms of their indentures, contracts which were usually five years long, by going to enlist. Two of the boys ended up in court in Ramsgate because they had run off to join the 9th Batallion of the local East Kent Buffs Regiment. The court decided that the country needed more fighting men than fishermen and hoped the lads would become good soldiers. The Smack Boys Home closed in 1915 and was used by the Royal Engineers until 1918.
In October 1914, the Ramsgate fishing vessel Our Tom was blown up by a German mine killing all the crew. The fishing boat Boy Jack who witnessed the explosion were unable to save anybody. The Boy Jack was lost in July 1918. 3 lives were lost. The trawlers Industry and LSD were also lost in the early days of the war. In February 1915, the adapted fishing vessels based at Ramsgate were “Arcady”, “Lord Charles Beresford”, “Paramount”, “Loyal Star”, “Acceptable”, “Try Again”, “Campanula”, “Lord Cromer”, “Rooke”, “Majesty”, “Frons Olivae”, “Dewey”, “Joe Chamberlain”, “City of Glasgow”, “Buckler”, “Lord Claud Hamilton”, ” City of Liverpool”, “Reaper” and “City of Edinburgh”. In a photo of Joseph Benoit, the young Newfoundland sailor tragically killed by an accident in Ramsgate Harbour, he is wearing a Frons Olivae hat.In May 1915 the Cosmopolite lost both her anchors in a gale off Dungeness. The crew were helpless in their efforts to prevent their trawler driving towards the shore at Littlestone. The rescued men from Ramsgate, who included the Skipper Daniel Mynheer of Hertford Street, were looked after overnight at a local hospital for wounded soldiers. Sadly three local men were reported lost in this incident. In October 1915 the Frons Olivae was mined and sunk in the North Sea. All hands were lost.
In September 1915 Lord Selbourne paid tribute to Britain’s fishermen in a White paper issued by the Fisheries Board. The Thanet Advertiser told readers that:
In Ramsgate we have particular reason to realise the services rendered by our fishermen. Locally the industry has been practically paralysed but… the men who manned the fishing fleet are doing their duty in every part of the globe in the Royal Navy carrying out dangerous operations such as mine-sweeping, and rescuing sailors whose ships have been torpedoed or mined. Some trawlermen have relocated to Brixham, others have joined the army and others are manning transport vessels to ferry troops and supplies across the Channel.
In all forty-one of the 155 trawlers based at Ramsgate when war broke out were destroyed by the Germans. Many others were sold or based at other ports when the war ended, so there were only about a dozen fishing boats left in Ramsgate by the end of 1918. Fourteen Ramsgate fishermen died at the hands of German U-Boats.
On Saturday May 26th 1917 a terrific explosion shook the town of Ramsgate when No 4 torpedo boat blew up in the harbour. Thousands of windows were smashed and some tram wires were brought down. About four hundred houses were damaged and many townsfolk narrowly escaped being hit by flying pieces of metal. Sailors who had been engaged in cleaning the torpedo, were blown to pieces and the men below decks must have been burnt alive. Fourteen crew members were lost but miraculously three men, who had been standing on the raised gun platform, were uninjured. The men that were found are buried in Ramsgate Cemetery.
Salus Naufragis Salus Aegis
During the First World War Ramsgate looked after the many sailors and trawlermen who were shipwrecked in the Dover Straits or North Sea. Many of the ships were mined but some were lost in storms. The Ramsgate’s Sailor’s Home in Military Road catered for forty fourshipwrecked crews, numbering nearly 600 men. The first task was to help the men change into dry clothing and provide them with hot meals and drinks. They were also provided with necessary medical care then allowed to rest in a warm bed. They were dispatched free of charge to their various destinations by Mr Emett, the local agent of the Royal Benevolent Shipwrecked Fishermen and Mariners’ Society.
In December 1919 the East Kent Times reported the christening of His Majesty’s newest destroyer, HMS Thanet, in honour of Thanet’s association with the British Navy, and her part in defending the country during the war. A Pathé News film clip of the event survives.